If any group of lawmen in history is worthy of the moniker “gunfighters,” it’s the legendary Texas Rangers. Doug Dukes is a native Texan, and retired career Austin police officer turned full-time historian. He spent years analyzing thousands of historical records held at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas. Not to mention interviewing scores of former and present Rangers. This resulted in a detailed picture of how this force was armed from its start to the present day.
History of the Texas Rangers and Their Firepower
In 2020, the product of all this research came together in Dukes’s book Firearms of the Texas Rangers: From the Frontier Era to the Modern Age. It was published in 2020 by the University of North Texas Press.
What Dukes accomplished with this book goes beyond just a factually documented and enlightening look at how a famous force armed itself. In the process, he also created an excellent overview of the subject of firearms in the Old West in general.
It’s presented in a manner that assumes the reader is not a firearms specialist. But is still full of juicy and informative historical detail for the advanced student of arms and gunfighting tactics.
If you know very little, or nothing, about firearms in 19th century America, you can get very smart, very quickly, within his chapters.
Dukes begins his story in the 1820s. In it, he sets the theme of how firearms technology dictated the tactics employed by combatants in Texas before and after it became the 28th state admitted to the Union.
Any military historian would agree that weapons ultimately, if sometimes belatedly, influence tactics. Dukes examines this truism in the context of the specifics of documented narratives of actual gun battles. They were typically rarely bigger than small skirmishes.
This itself illustrates something of the character of conflict in the American West. It was not defined by a few big battles but by many, many small fights. Had it been the other way around, the area’s Anglo and Mexican settlers of the 1820s, armed with flintlock muzzleloaders, could have been easily exterminated by an army of bow- and spear-wielding Indians as soon as a rainstorm rendered the settlers’ flintlocks useless.
His study is focused on Texas and the Rangers and the history of the force. However, it is broadly applicable to America’s untamed Western frontier as a whole.
Dukes ties the weapons and tactics of the varied Texas Ranger units firmly to specific times, places, and missions. They began as cavalrymen fighting marauding Indians, then the Mexican Army, then Indians again. And finally, they transformed into a mobile law enforcement agency of remarkable effectiveness.
Throughout the period we think of as the Wild West, the Texas Ranger relied primarily on his long gun. Although he also had his handgun as a backup. Rangers were supposed to provide their own arms, as well as a horse and saddle, which was generally the case.
However, guns were very expensive, and many a Ranger entered state service unarmed. These men were issued weapons (sometimes from the state arsenals and sometimes purchased for them through selected commercial sources), and the cost was deducted from the pay they earned on the job.
They were also furnished with ammunition, for which they were not charged. In the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame Museum archives, Dukes discovered records documenting these arms and ammunition requests and issuances. Through them, he was able to get a reasonably clear picture of what the various Ranger units were armed with. Likewise, how much shooting they were doing.
Spoiler alert! They were doing a lot of shooting. That is not to say they shot vast numbers of Indians and outlaws (though they did shoot a great many). But they did a lot of shooting at them.
There was an apparent contradiction in the Rangers’ choice of handguns and long arms that emerged as firearms technology advanced in the 20th century. The Rangers appear to have carried the Colt Single Action Army as their preferred handgun. Even long after more advanced models appeared.
Likewise, they also seemed to be early adopters of the most advanced long guns suited to their violent work. This weighted firepower over range and knockdown power.
The Long Arm
It’s not surprising they wanted the Winchester 1866 lever-action repeater and then the 1873 model. They then complimented the 1873 with the slightly sleeker 1892 model. All these Winchesters fired handgun cartridges. But they fired them fast, held ten or more cartridges, and allowed accurate fire out to just over 100 yards.
Few Rangers seemed to use heavy-caliber military and sporting rifles. Sometimes .45-70 government trapdoor Springfields and big .38-55 WCF 1886 Winchesters were seen in service, but they weren’t the norm. Perhaps it was that they were simply too big and heavy to be worth the extended range and greater knockdown power they offered.
At the end of the 19th century, when the Rangers did finally begin to retire their pistol-caliber lever-action repeaters, and widely embraced rifles with extended range and hitting power, they chose the trim Winchester 1894 and 1895 rifles.
These guns were designed around new, flatter-shooting, bottleneck .30-caliber, high-velocity cartridges loaded with smokeless powder and firing full-metal-jacket bullets. With the introduction of smokeless .30-30 WCF and .30-40 Army (Krag) ammunition, a rifle no longer needed to be big and long to shoot far and hit hard.
Those calibers would soon be joined by the even more powerful military .30-03 Army and finally the .30-06.
Introduction of Semi-Automatic Rifles
Remington and Winchester then introduced their first reliable semi-automatic rifles. Specifically, the Model 8 Remington and its contemporary, the Model 1907 Winchester. These compact, powerful, and fast-shooting guns quickly found their way into many Ranger companies. But at this point, we are drifting beyond the scope of this magazine.
What Dukes has uncovered for us is fascinating reading and offers insight into the firearms and ammunition preferences of men who did life-or-death work with their guns. For example, today, we take it for granted that smokeless powder loads are superior to blackpowder loads.
That was not the opinion held by the Rangers. They specifically requested the old blackpowder loading for their .45 Colts because it was significantly more powerful.
Tradition clearly influenced the Rangers’ unusually long use of the Colt Single Action Army. The last of them disappeared from the hips of Rangers in the 1950s. This wasn’t because they couldn’t be shot fast and straight. But because Rangers couldn’t reload them fast enough to qualify with them under new Texas Department of Public Safety standards.
Firearms of the Texas Rangers covers a lot of ground. However, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum’s archival holdings have much more to reveal to inquiring historians.
Although it isn’t explored in this book, it seems that the data is there to chart and correlate ammunition usage by Ranger companies over time. This includes officer shootings documented in official reports for the purpose of creating a benchmark of just how wild the Wild West in Texas really was. (Any grad students out there looking for a thesis subject?)
For his next project, Dukes is looking into a detailed study of the Texas Rangers of the Frontier Forces formed after the Civil War to deal with Indian depredations. Armed with state-of-the-art 1866 Winchesters, these men might be viewed as the SWAT teams of their times. I’m looking forward to it.
For more information, please visit TexasRanger.org.
This article was originally published in the Guns of the Old West Winter 2022 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.