Lessons From a Gunfighting
Texas Ranger

132

Situation: Early in your life, you find yourself set against the most dangerous and vicious criminals of your place and time.

Lesson: You will be proud of stopping murderous violence. You will regret not being present when you might have been able to do so. And you’ll find ways to do things differently and, sometimes, better.

The year 2023 is the 200th anniversary year of the Texas Rangers. James Gillett (1856-1937) wrote his autobiographical Six Years With the Texas Rangers in 1921. He is one of the few gunfighters of the Old West who left an account of his adventures in his own words. Remembered by firearms historians as the proponent of an unusual method for carrying a six-gun, his legacy includes more lessons than that.

Early Start With Firearms

Gillett wrote that at the age of 12, he bought an Enfield percussion musket for $3.50. “It was almost as long as a fence rail, and at my age, I could not begin to hold it out and shoot it off-hand, so I had to use a rest … I could cock my gun with both hands, but if I failed to get a shot, I was not strong enough to let the hammer down without letting it get away, so I had to carry it cocked. To keep from losing the (percussion) cap, I would take it off the tube and put it in my pocket until I had a chance for another shot,” he wrote. Gillett added that a year later, “I bought a double-barrel shotgun for $12. With it, I killed quail, ducks, and other small game, all of which I sold on the streets of Austin. By the fall of 1870, I was 14 years old and could handle a gun rather well for one of my age.”

Gillett became a working cowboy at about age 16, and it wasn’t long after that he joined the Texas Rangers. It was 1875, and he would have been about 19. He was not the only teen to join that storied band. The youngest Texas Ranger killed in the line of duty, as historian Tom Clavin reports in his book Follow Me To Hell: McNelly’s Texas Rangers and the Rise of Frontier Justice, was L.B. “Sonny” Smith, shot and killed at age 17 by rustlers in a pitched gun battle in June of 1875. Other Rangers avenged the death, shooting the young man’s killers “to doll rags” in the parlance of the time.

First Blood

One element of a Texas Ranger’s job description in that time and place was “Indian Fighter.” It was a couple of months after young Smith’s death that Jim Gillett got into his first shootout, a battle between a company of Rangers and a group of well-armed Indians. Wrote Gillett, “The captain with a smile turned to us and said, ‘Boys, they are going to fight us. See how beautifully the old chief forms his line of battle.’ From a little boy, I had longed to be a Ranger and fight the Indians. At last, I was up against the real thing, and with not so much as an umbrella behind which to hide, I was nervous. I was awfully nervous.”

Gillett continued, “In a minute, we had killed two horses and one Indian was seen to be badly wounded.” The situation devolved into the Rangers pursuing their foe, both on horseback. Gillett related, “The redskin riding behind would point his gun back and fire at me, holding it in one hand. I retaliated by firing at him every time I could get a cartridge in my old Sharps carbine. I looked back and saw Ed Seiker coming to my aid as fast as (his horse) would run. He waved encouragement to me. Finally, the old brave ceased shooting, and as I drew a little closer, he held out his gun at arm’s length and let it drop, probably thinking I would stop to get it. I gave it but a passing glance as I galloped by …

I drew up within 20 steps of the brave, jumped from my mount, and made a sort of random shot at the horse, Indian and all. The big .50 caliber bullet struck the Indian pony just where its head coupled on its neck, passed through the head, and came out over the left eye. It killed the horse at once, which fell forward 20 feet.”

Then, wrote Gillette, “By this time Ed Seiker had arrived and was dismounting. The fugitive warrior now peeped from behind a tree, and I got a fine shot at his face but overshot him 6″, cutting off a limb just over his head. He broke to run again, and as he came into view, Ed placed a bullet between his shoulders. He was dead in a minute … Seiker scalped him. We took his bow, shield, and a fine pair of moccasins.”

Fleeing Felon

In December of 1877, the Rangers were after a murder suspect named Dick Dublin. When they caught up with him, Gillett wrote, “We were so close upon Dublin that he had no time to mount his horse or get his gun, so he made a run for the brush. I was within 25 yards of him when he came from behind the wagon, running as fast as a big man could. I ordered him to halt and surrender, but he had heard that call too many times and kept going. Holding my Winchester carbine in my right hand, I fired a shot directly at him as I ran. In a moment, he was out of sight.”

Gillett continued, “I hurried to the place where he was last seen and spied him running up a little ravine. I stopped, drew a bead on him, and again ordered him to halt. As he ran, Dublin threw his hand back under his coat as though he were attempting to draw a pistol. I fired. My bullet struck the fugitive in the small of the back just over the right hip bone and passed out near his left collar bone. It killed him instantly. He was bending over as he ran, and this caused the unusual course of my ball …We found him unarmed, but he had a belt of cartridges around his waist.”

Near Misses

There were times when Gillett was on the scene of famous gun battles but wasn’t the man who pulled the trigger on the outlaw in question. Gillett was among the party that took down infamous outlaw Sam Bass. He wrote, however, “Bass’ death wound was given him by Dick Ware, who used a .45 caliber Colt’s long-barreled six-shooter. The ball from Ware’s pistol struck Bass’ belt, cutting two cartridges in pieces and entering his back just above the right hip bone. The bullet mushroomed badly and made a fearful wound that tore the victim’s right kidney all to pieces. From the moment he was shot until his death three days later, Bass suffered untold agonies.”

Gillett was among the many who pursued the great Apache war chief Victorio, and reading between the lines of the Ranger’s autobiography, it’s clear he wanted to be in on the kill of an enemy he considered responsible for the murder of many innocent settlers. Many whites in the West bitterly believed “the only good Indian was a dead Indian,” and Gillett’s chapter on the Apache chief was, in fact, titled “Victorio Becomes a Good Indian.” The chief had been killed in a battle with Mexican forces. Gillett bore a grudging respect for Victorio and declared him a brilliant strategist. Such was the hatred — and occasional atrocity — that manifested on both sides of the Indian Wars on the 19th Century American frontier.

Kidnap Or ... ?

At the end of 1881, two Mexican brothers murdered a New Mexico newspaper publisher in Socorro and fled across the border. The brothers were spotted in El Paso, Texas, where their uncle was a judge. Gillett arrested one brother (and, mistakenly, another innocent man) and angrily refused the judge’s bribe of $1,000 to let his nephew go. A month later, acting on a tip, Gillett and fellow Ranger George Lloyd crossed into Mexico, seized the other killer brother, and brought him back across the border. The suspect was snatched from Gillett by a lynch mob and promptly strung up.

“Expedited extradition” or kidnap? Gillett answered that question himself. He wrote, “… I thought I might as well ’fess up.’ I told (Texas Ranger Captain Baylor) I had arrested Baca at Saragosa and kidnapped him out of Mexico. Captain Baylor’s eyes at once bulged to twice their natural size.”

Though Gillett was not criminally charged for his action, it brought his six-year career with the Texas Rangers to an end.

In Old El Paso

Gillett wrote, “Immediately on leaving the Rangers, I had accepted a position as a captain of guards on the Santa Fe Railroad under my friend, Captain Thatcher. I did not remain long in the railroad’s employ, however, resigning after a few months to become assistant city marshal under Mr. (Dallas) Stoudenmire (in El Paso). On his resignation as marshal, I was appointed to succeed him.” Stoudenmire was unfortunately on an alcoholic downward spiral and soon got into a brawl with an ex-deputy named Page at the Acme Saloon. The local newspaper reported, “Stoudenmire drew his pistol and fired at Page; the latter, however, knocked the weapon upward, and the ball went into the ceiling. Page then wrenched the pistol from Stoudenmire and the latter drew a second pistol and the two combatants were about to perforate each other when Marshal Gillett appeared on the premises with a double-barrel shotgun and corralled both of them.” Stoudenmire would later die in another booze-fueled saloon shoot-out.

In the spring of 1885, Jim Gillett resigned from El Paso to go into ranching. He died peacefully at age 80 in 1937 at his ranch in Marfa, Texas.

When Jim Met John

We old gun guys consider the book Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters by Eugene Cunningham (1896–1957) to be a classic “must read” in the field. Younger gun guys and gals should consider it likewise. It was first published in 1941. Its author knew some of the last surviving Old West gunfighters. He dedicated the book to a pair of straight-shooting Texas Rangers who had personally mentored him. One was the legendary John Hughes. The other was … Jim Gillett.

Cunningham wrote, “During (John Wesley Hardin’s) transfer from one jail to another in the custody of Ranger Lieutenant N.O. Reynolds, the Ranger guards were very curious, as men of arms, to see what this wizard of the sixes could do. With Lieutenant Reynolds’ grudging consent, they handed Hardin empty pistols and told him to show his stunts. Jim Gillett says nothing he had ever dreamed of compared with Hardin’s speed and skill. The quick draw, the spin, the rolls, pinwheeling, border shift — he did them all with magical precision.”

Though he was known to carry guns in many holsters or even stuffed inside his shirt, Hardin was famous for having designed and often worn a leather vest with holsters built in, butt forward, riding in a similar fashion to shoulder holsters. Gillett was clearly aware of this.

Added Cunningham, “When James B. Gillett succeeded Dallas Stoudenmire as chief of police of old El Paso … (his admirers) presented him with a beautiful pair of white-handled double-action six-shooters, holstered in a John Wesley Hardin vest. Captain Gillett relates with much enthusiasm his pride in the outfit. He went back to his office and exhibited the vest and pistols to his deputies. They were impressed by the elegance of the rigout. They asked for a demonstration of Wes Hardin’s cross-arm draw. Gillett says he lifted his hands to shoulder level, then snapped them down, crossing each other to the butts of the new weapons. His hands interfered with each other. The pistols, coming out, clashed together. He tried it again and again, with little more success. Deputy Marshal Scotten said gravely, ‘Jim, that’s a tony rig-out … We’ll bury you, later in the week, in that vest.’ ‘And I was having the same idea,’ Captain Gillett told me.”

Which leads us to …

Gillett’s Quick Draw Rig

Cunningham quotes Gillett as having told him, “I had always worn a pistol in a belt holster, and I was used to drawing fast from that position. This was no time for me to be changing my style of drawing! I got out of that vest, and later it was raffled off. A little later, I put on a belt which carried two Colts without holsters. I like that belt better than anything I’ve ever used on the ground.”

Per Cunningham’s description, “On the belt is riveted a plate slotted to receive the hand-made pin-headed screw which replaces the regular hammer-screw of the single-action Colt. To carry the pistol, the pin is entered in the slot, and the pistol pushed back until the pin drops into the slight depression at the rear end of the slot. It hangs there, swinging easily.”

Cunningham continues, “‘I used to have to watch the gambling games,’ Captain Gillett says. ‘So I’d sit on the edge of a table or on the bar in a saloon. I could swing the gun muzzles up or down, and they were out of the way and, at the same time, ready for instant use. I could shoot the pistols — though I never had to — without drawing them, just as one shoots out of an open-toed swivel holster.’”

Gillett was an innovative soul to the end of his days. The Texas History Blog notes, “(Gillett) had an active mind, and in 1936, he was issued a patent for a safe bathtub. It came equipped with a stout rope to be attached to the ceiling. If a user started to slip, he could grab the rope, steady himself and ‘utter a prayer of thanksgiving to Mr. Gillett’s patent,’ a newspaper account stated.”

Lessons

Regarding Gillett’s killing of Dick Dublin, we have to remember in that time and place, gunfire was considered an acceptable method to stop the flight of felony suspects. Dublin was wanted for the murder of two men and, until that day, had proven exceptionally elusive.

Remember, too, Gillett’s account of Dublin reaching as if for a concealed handgun when the Ranger shot him. This is known in our time as a “furtive movement shooting.” This movement is reasonably consistent with reaching for a gun and not reasonably consistent with anything else when considering the totality of the circumstances. The rule has always been, “You don’t have to be right; you have to be reasonable.” Sadly, today there are prosecutors who charge “good guys” who shoot “bad guys” under these circumstances, notwithstanding having graduated from three years of law school and passing a bar exam. Perhaps such things were better understood in the 19th Century.

Today, the anti-gun movement wants to ban young adults aged 18 to 20 from purchasing even rifles or shotguns. They advance the theory the human brain is not fully formed and capable of responsible decision-making until age 25 or so. Gillett’s experience long ago gives the lie to this. He became a Texas Ranger in his late teens, was quickly promoted to sergeant, and was appointed the chief law enforcement officer of the city of El Paso at the age of 25. His skill at arms learned very early stood him in good stead when he had to fight for his life and to protect the innocent.

The racial hatred of the Indian Wars, and the atrocities known to be perpetrated by both sides, is apparent in Gillett’s book. Dehumanizing the opponent is a characteristic of war. Gillett’s attitude is a classic example.

Even in the 1880s, Gillett was miraculously lucky to escape charges for the kidnapping in Mexico. Sometimes justice and law are two different things. Gillett was lucky this breach of the latter cost him only his career with the Texas Rangers.

Oh, and the gun stud on the belt slot? That didn’t catch on. One can picture the revolver flopping constantly, and not being where the hand reached for it if the draw was preceded by dynamic movement. A photo of Gillett during his Ranger years shows him wearing his 7.5″-barrel Colt single action .45 in a relatively high-riding leather scabbard on his right hip. Shooting from the hip, one rationale for Gillett’s belt contraption has never been a sure thing. We note that when he shot the murder suspect Dublin, Gillett himself said he “drew a bead” first.

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Bibliography: Six Years With The Texas Rangers: 1975 to 1881 by James B. Gillett, ©1921, published 1925 by Yale University Press; Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters by Eugene Cunningham, University of Oklahoma Press, 1941; Follow Me to Hell: McNelly’s Texas Rangers and the Rise of Frontier Justice by Tom Clavin, St. Martin’s Press, 2023; The Texas History Blog, “James Buchanan Gillett, Texas Ranger” https://texoso66.com/2016/09/15/james-buchanan-gillett-texas-ranger/

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