Charlie Miller: A Unique Ranger
September 23, 2010
I like to search the history of the American West for real characters. And nowhere can more of those characters be found than in the rosters of the Texas Rangers. For most of its history the Texas Ranger Service has attracted individuals, talented shootists, and pure-bred characters like no other law enforcement outfit. And among the files of the Rangers none of them stands out like Charles Edward Miller.
Miller is supposed to have been born in Frio County, Texas, in June 1898. However, some authorities think that he may have been born much earlier than this, possibly as early as 1880. You see, in later years, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of the Texas Rangers, Miller came up with a corrected birth certificate that made him a little younger, and they kept him on for a few more years. Some of the older Rangers swear that Miller pulled this stunt on two different occasions and was actually closer to 80 years old when he finally was retired from the Ranger Service.
We do know that Miller enlisted in the Texas Rangers for the first time in December 1919, going to work for Captain Davis at Del Rio. Prior to that he had been a deputy sheriff at San Antonio. And in about 1921 he was sent out to Presidio to replace Lee Trimble when Lee got shot from ambush and needed time to recuperate. Except for some 11 months, Miller would serve as a Texas Ranger for over 50 years. That 11-month lapse in his service was the time when he decided to chase a better paycheck and quit the Rangers in favor of the U. S. Prohibition Service. Along with Lone Wolf Gonzaullas and other ex-Rangers, Charlie spent his time chasing bootleggers and liquor smugglers and closing down speakeasies. However, Charlie was an outdoorsman and he got tired of running around the big cities playing cocktail cop; he soon turned in his federal badge and went back to the Rangers.
By 1923 Miller was a Ranger in Headquarters Company, commanded by the famous Captain Frank Hamer. In those days Captain Hamer used the men of Headquarters Company as sort of troubleshooters. These Rangers were the cream of the crop and were sent out on special detail and assignments wherever their extra talents were needed. Rangers Dan Westbrook and Lee Trimble, who knew Miller back in those days, told me that Miller fit right in with Hamer's idea of what a good officer ought to be.
WHAT A GOOD OFFICER SHOULD BE
In 1932 Miriam A. Ferguson was elected governor of Texas. Her husband had already been impeached and removed from the governor's office, so he ran his wife for the job. Caught in the grips of the Great Depression, the people of Texas elected her. In retrospect, Mrs. Ferguson turned out to be one of the best governors that money could buy. In no time at all, she fired every one of the good Rangers and replaced them with political appointees,ex-bartenders, and other sorry trash. However, packing a Ranger badge was not over for Miller. The Schreiner family at Kerrville, Texas, hired Charlie as a Special Texas Ranger to be in charge of security on their various ranching operations, which included the famed YO Ranch. For nearly 20 years Miller worked security for the Schreiner family and protected their property and interests. During that time he encountered a pair of game poachers and trespassers who thought they could come and go on the ranch with immunity. They even got so bold as to try to ambush a game warden. The next time they laid a trap for the game warden, they caught Miller in it instead. At least one of the game violators died in the short, hot little gunfight that followed.
Miller's Colt M1911
In 1951 Miller reinstated back into the regular Ranger force and went to work for Captain A. Y. Allee down in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. In later years I was with Captain Allee when they put one of Miller's pistols into the Texas Ranger Museum at Waco. Allee always spoke very highly of Miller, and I remember him telling me that he suspected that Miller had probably killed seven or eight men during his career and, according to Allee, had been well justified in every case. However, when our friend Ben Choate said he wished that Miller's old 1911 could talk, Allee turned a little pale, shook his head, and said, "Oh no, boys, oh no!"
One time, probably back in the '50s, Miller and a bunch of other Rangers got called into the main DPS headquarters for some firearms training. Now you can imagine Miller walking around in his white shirt and khaki britches with his rather pronounced belly sticking out over the grip of his 1911 on halfcock with the safety tied down and all. One of the young firearms instructors finally just couldn't stand it any longer and walked up to Miller and asked, "Mr. Miller, isn't that thing dangerous?" Charlie just glanced up at the boy, the way your banker does when you're trying to borrow money and said, "Son, if the damned old thing wasn't dangerous, I wouldn't be wearing it!"
Another time Ranger Miller entered a cafe near the banks of the Rio Grande and asked for a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, the family that owned the cafe had gotten out of sorts with the Rangers so none of them would wait on Miller. Charlie asked again for service, as nicely as he knew how, and was again ignored. Well, Miller could see that they were undoubtedly busy, as well as being a bit ill-mannered, so he just helped himself. He produced his old 1911 and shot a hole in the metal coffee urn that sat on the bar behind the lunch counter. Getting a cup and saucer, Charlie got his coffee and enjoyed its refreshment. They say that cafe pretty well emptied out as folks suddenly remembered the various pieces of pressing business they had. They say that the head of the Texas Rangers, when he stopped laughing, gave Ranger Miller a few days of disciplinary leave.
My last Charlie Miller tale is one that if it isn't true, it ought to be. And it involves a gunfight right down on the banks of the Rio Grande. Charlie was after an outlaw and caught up with him in the vega of the river, in Val Verde County just south of the area where I used to serve as sheriff. In a flurry of action the Ranger and the outlaw wounded each other. As he lay in the brush, Miller called over to his assailant and told him that he knew they were both wounded. Miller suggested that they stand up and finish this fight like men so that one of them could get to a doctor. In later years Miller would just shake his head and state, "And you know what? That damned fool actually stood up!"
The wheels of bureaucracy and the various birth certificates caught up with Miller in 1968, and he was retired from the Texas Rangers at a fancy party on the Schreiner's YO Ranch. My friend Bob Favor replaced Miller in Brady, Texas, and Charlie retired to a life of looking after his few good horses. The old warrior passed away in 1971.
According to those who knew him, Miller represented the best of the entire Texas Ranger force. Dan Westbrook, Lee Trimble, A. Y. Allee, and Bob Favor all remember him as a great Ranger who was a great officer and toug
her than the toughest outlaws ever thought about being. He was instrumental in getting the Texas Rangers to consider the Colt 1911 pistol as a serious law enforcement firearm, and the pistol was standard carry for most Rangers long before it became so popular among the action-shooting crowd.
Butch Purvis, whose father and grandfather were Rangers, remembers Miller coming to their home and putting on shooting demonstrations with his 1911 and his .357 Magnum revolver. More especially, Butch remembers how kind Charlie was to every child and how friendly he was to the good citizens of Texas. There was no SWAT-team mentality in Miller's makeup. He was just proud to be a Texas Ranger and was able to cover the ground that he stood on.
THE GUNS OF THIS SPECIAL RANGER
Miller was one of the first Texas Rangers to start carrying a Colt 1911 .45 semiautomatic pistol and may have begun to do so as early as 1920. His first .45s were the 1911 Commercial Models that were made from 1911 to 1925. The Colt 1911 differed from the later 1911A1 in that it had a flat mainspring housing, a long trigger, and no relief cut on the frame behind the trigger. Throughout his career Miller's everyday working pistol was a standard, blued gun with plain walnut grips. However, Charlie also owned at least one Colt 1911 that had been gussied up with engraving and a silver overlay that was quite attractive. It was what the Rangers called their "barbeque gun," a fancy pistol for wearing to parties, parades, and other festive occasions.
And Charlie's carry technique was just as unique as the man himself. He would chamber a round of .45 hardball, lower the hammer to the halfcock notch, and shove the pistol into the front of his pants in a sort of appendix carry without bothering with a holster. To make matters worse, Miller had once been attacked from behind by a knife-wielding felon and could not get the grip safety depressed to shoot him off of his back so from then on Charlie always wrapped a piece of rawhide around the pistol's grip safety to deactivate it completely. As you might imagine, neither I nor the editors of Shooting Times recommend such a carry technique for obvious safety reasons.