A look at the U.S.-Mexico border, the historical firearms that helped shape America and the men who carried them.
Firearms have been carried out of necessity along our southwest border with Old Mexico long before the Rio Grande River and the (once imaginary) surveyed line that runs west from it, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, even existed. In 1519, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca waltzed into Texas, armor clanging, near present day Presidio, so the first records of gun bearers to the region dawn with expeditions by the Spanish Conquistadores who armed themselves with early muskets, lances and swords in the 1500s and 1600s. It stands to reason that the existence of firearms grew as European colonization increased over time.
Many years ago, an old mountain lion hunter I know was running his hounds along the rugged Sierra Vieja Rim southwest of Valentine, Texas, when he saw what he thought was an old piece of metal pipe sticking out of some rocks. This got his curiosity up, so he dug around and eventually found it was actually the remnants of a 1700s French Trade Gun, along with the remains of its owner, buried under a rock overhang. The rifle barrel was badly bent, and the assumption is that the man’s comrades buried him with his belongings and made the rifle inoperable so anyone finding it couldn’t use it.
Fast-forwarding to the 1800s, when “The River” (as West Texans refer to the Rio Grande) became an international boundary, the region saw the continued and growing need for guns as tools for survival. Early settlers needed their weaponry not only to provide wild meat for their family’s hungry bellies, but for protection from Mexican bandits and marauding, and hostile natives—who were a constant threat to the livelihood and safety of those pioneers who dared to venture into the great Southwestern United States.
The first folks to cross the briny Pecos River and forge a living in the harsh Trans-Pecos region and Big Bend country of far West Texas had to be stout, or they wouldn’t last long. The remote, arid region breeds tough, resolute people. These determined souls, many whose relatives still live and ranch here, brought with them whatever firearms they had at the time, and bought or traded for the best as soon as they could.
Old blackpowder muzzleloaders were replaced by cartridge-firing rifles, preferably Winchester repeaters. Cap-and-ball six-shooters were stowed in grandma’s cedar chest, replaced by Colt’s Single Action Army, Remington’s 1875 and the Smith & Wesson revolvers. Old photographs show an array of Winchester lever actions representing popular long arms of the times. The Colt SAA wasn’t the only sixgun carried by any means, but it was the most prolific.
Native peoples have lived in this region for thousands of years. To the trained eye, their ancient cooking middens are found at cave mouths and along canyon rims and dry arroyos that obviously once ran with cool, life-giving water. The more “modern” tribes, whose names we recognize as Apache and Comanche, came along long after these prehistoric groups. As soon as the Spaniards brought steel into the scene, the natives began using it for the tips of their arrows.
It’s a safe assumption that they incorporated the firearm with equal enthusiasm, beginning with the front-stuffers and continuing into the cartridge-firing weapons as soon as they became available. As time progressed, the native tribes accumulated, by various means, the same guns as the settlers, ofttimes adding unique design in the form of stock carvings, brass tacks and other unique decorations.
The Mexicans, the Revolutionaries and the Bandits
The hard-fought Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920 saw the use of any gun that could be gleaned by the determined fighters. Everything from muzzleloaders to machine guns were used in those bloody battles. Period photos depict a wide representation of rifles, such as Remington rolling blocks, Mauser bolt actions, lever guns from Savage and Winchester, and anything else the fighters could get their hands on. Handguns followed the same unscripted assortment from Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson.
Smuggling on the Border
There’s a certain type of criminal who capitalizes on our border with Mexico to practice their evil trade: the smuggler. What’s outlawed or restricted in one country is trafficked into the other. History shows this has been everything from merchandise and candelilla wax, to livestock, liquor, weapons, illegal drugs and humanity. While conducting their smuggling business, these contrabandistas run back and forth to the assumed, even though unfounded, security of the country from which they reside.
When the United States enacted the 18th Amendment—prohibiting alcohol manufacturing, distribution and sales in 1919—the Southern region saw continued violence along the border. Many of the Mexican liquor smugglers (tequileros) were former soldiers of the Mexican Revolution. They were a salty lot that didn’t hesitate to fill the air with hot lead when confronted by our equally dangerous U.S. lawmen.
My grandpa knew Tom Heard, a Texas Ranger who worked the South Texas brush country during that era. When Ranger Heard periodically visited the ranch where my granddad and his father cowboyed, he would tell him tales of gunfights along the river. An old photograph shows Ranger Heard with a Winchester Model 94 Trapper Carbine in his hands and a Colt SAA on his hip.
The mounted cavalry troops stationed along the border to keep the bandits at bay in that era were armed with the Springfield 1903 bolt-action in 30-06. The Colt 1911 .45 ACP was the sidearm carried by many of those who wore handguns, although I’ve also seen photographs of soldiers wearing revolvers, including one of Captain Leonard Matlack with what appears to be a Colt SAA in his gun belt.
Cowboys and Lawmen: Colts, Winchesters, a Whitney and a Few Stories
I am intrigued by historical firearms with stories. There’s just something different about holding a blue-worn, wood-chipped rifle, or an old single-action with stocks worn slick from constant use in your hand and knowing where it came from, who owned it … and the history that goes with it. Some of these tales are written—some are not—but they’re all special in their own way.
Winchester’s first lever-action rifle, the Model 1866, was tremendously popular. Firing the .44 Henry Rimfire, called the “Yellow Boy” because of the brass receiver, was even ordered by foreign governments to arm their soldiers. The one I examined came out of Mexico long ago. Too bad historical firearms can’t talk.
Winchester Model 1894
The Model 94 in .30 WCF (.30-30 Winchester) is a classic lever-action. This is another rifle favored by lawmen, outlaws, cowboys and hunters. It’s still a viable candidate for hunting and personal defense.
Texas Ranger James B. Gillette’s M73 carbine was carried by him during his time in the Texas Rangers. He purchased it in 1875, and it’s estimated that he traveled 10,000 miles on horseback during his six years as a Ranger (1875 to 1881). He used the carbine to kill a train-load of game for sustenance on patrol, and in every engagement with Native Americans and “desperados.”
After Gillette’s successful law enforcement career, he turned to raising cattle in the high-desert country west of Marfa, Texas. At some point, he acquired a Winchester 1876 King Improvement model in .45-60 Winchester with a 28-inch barrel. From the looks of it, this rifle was well used.
Texas Ranger James Putman closed the Murder Steer Case in the Glass Mountains north of Marathon, Texas, with his Winchester ’86 in .45-70 when he head-shot Fine Gilliland after a rancher had been killed and a deputy sheriff wounded by Gilliland.
The M92 is probably one of the most recognizable to the general public, due to its use in Western movies. A Model ’92 carbine is still one of the slickest long guns around and a great defensive weapon. I have mildly customized Browning 1892 designated as my go-to defense rifle.
Winchester’s solid ’95 was very popular during the Bandit Wars along the border. Chambered in .30-06, these rifles were favorites among the old-time Texas Rangers. The one I examined in .30-03 Government was developed to replace the .30-40 Krag and was the predecessor of the .30-06.
Savage Model’s 1895 and 1899
The Savage M95 and M99 were also popular rifles of the day. One of the rarer lever-actions I was able to photograph was the Whitney Arms Model 1886 in .44 caliber. Its history is unknown, only that it found its way to West Texas and into the museum on the Sul Ross campus.
Colt Single-Action Army
Colt’s SAA is a perfect handgun in my eye, and old photographs show I’m not alone in that assessment. The SAA was a popular sidearm along the border by those who violated and those who enforced the law, as well as cowboys and ranchers.
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson owns a unique old Colt SAA 45 with a 4¾-inch barrel that was shipped to Del Rio, Texas, around 1918. It was purchased by a rancher south of Dryden who bought it for protection against bandits … and to protect his livestock from the thieves as well as predators. The Colt was his sole firearm, and the honest wear shows he carried it often.
Modern-Day Guns of the Mexican Border
These days, the revolver and lever-action have mostly been abandoned by law enforcement—but not entirely. Jeff Davis County Sheriff Bill Kitts keeps a stainless Marlin 1895SBL in .45-70 handy in his work truck and wears a SIG P220 Elite in 10mm on his hip.
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson usually wears a Kimber 1911 in .45 ACP and keeps a couple Winchester Model 94s, in .30-30 Winchester and .357 Magnum handy for long gun situations.
Today, the battle-proven 1911 can still be found holstered in leather on the gun belts of deputy sheriffs and Texas Rangers who work tirelessly along the border.
It hasn’t been all that long ago that gun writer Jim Wilson used a slick, short-barreled Browning 1892 in .44 Remington Magnum as his long arm during his tenure as a West Texas Sheriff, all the while with an engraved Colt .45 Government Model stuffed in the waistband of his starched Wranglers.
Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson carried his handy, brushed-chrome-finish Model ’94 Winchester in .30-30 most of his long career, usually accompanied by a Colt Light Weight Commander in .45 ACP with engraved silver and gold grips, or a good Smith & Wesson revolver. Jackson also wore a Colt SAA at times as well.
Another old border patrol inspector I once knew patrolled The River below Sanderson, Texas, decades ago with his custom Winchester ’92 in .357 Magnum. I don’t know if he ever used it on bandits, but I’m confident a decent amount of javelina fell to the little carbine.
The U.S. Border Patrol recently transitioned to Glock’s Models 47 and 19 for uniformed carry. Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Wardens have been wearing Glocks for many years and now issue the Model 17. Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers are issued the SIG Sauer P320. All of these pistols are chambered in 9mm. Various AR platform rifles are very popular and are carried by most law enforcement and chambered in 223 Remington.
Even though some of the guns found along the southwest border have changed dramatically in design and composition in recent decades, one basic fact remains the same: You still need one!
Author’s Note: A special thanks to Museum of the Big Bend’s Curator of Collections, Matt Walter, for his assistance in gathering information on guns from the museum archives and for allowing me to photograph them. And to the Archives of the Big Bend, located in the Bryan Wildenthal Memorial Library at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, for allowing me to copy a few photographs from their treasure trove of history. And to my amigo, Colby Brandon, who not only makes top-shelf 1911s, but who owns some of the neatest old lever-actions in Big Bend country.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 USA special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
More Historical Firearms:
- Going the Distance with the Sharps Rifle
- Colt Single-Action Army: Owning The Enduring Legend
- Classic Guns: Winchester Model 1897 Pump-Action Shotgun
- 10 Guns From The Old West You’ve Got To Know
Subscribe to the Gun Digest email newsletter and we'll send your print-at-home target pack right away. Just enter your email address below.