In 1966 a western film called The Professionals was introduced. It starred Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster as two turn-of-the-century soldiers of fortune who traveled into Mexico to rescue a kidnapped woman. Unlike most western movies, Marvin wore brogan shoes, a campaign hat, and packed a DA Colt revolver, a Colt 1911, and a Winchester Model 97 military riot gun. Lancaster, while dressed in the more traditional western garb including a Colt single action, was armed with a Springfield Model 1903 bolt-action rifle in .30-06.
I don’t know that the author of this exciting story had any real persons in mind when he penned his adventure, but he started me on a study of the Mexican Revolution that continues to this day. And, as a result of that study, I have found two men, Sam Dreben and Tracy Richardson, who were very much like the film characters. Dreben and Richardson were two of the most interesting characters that ever graced our border country, and they saw more real adventures than any dozen motion pictures have ever portrayed.
DREBEN And RICHARDSON: AN UNLIKELY DUO
Dreben was a Russian Jew who was born in 1878. As a young man he immigrated to America and joined the U.S. Army. A stark existence in Russia made this young man appreciate the life of an American soldier, and he soon found that he just naturally enjoyed being in the thick of action. While a soldier, he participated in the Philippine Insurrection and, after his U. S. hitch was up, in the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Guatemalan Revolution.
Described by his colleagues as being short and stocky, Dreben was said to have a good, active sense of humor and was impulsive and quick to act. He was also somewhat of a lady’s man–a fact that often caused him a bit of trouble with his superior officers. I’ve worked with men like this in law enforcement, and, while they might be a bit difficult to supervise when things were quiet, they were always handy to have around when things started getting rough.
Richardson was born in Nebraska in 1889. And as a young man, he knocked around the country with various jobs until on a whim he joined some friends enroute to enlist in the Nicaraguan revolution. Richardson was described as a tall, slender man, broad-shouldered and tough, who was quiet and deliberate in his movements and action.
The two men were opposites in looks and demeanor. They met each other while serving under the famous General Lee Christmas in the Nicaraguan campaign. If it is true that opposites attract, then these two hit it off about like a Roman candle.
ADVENTURES IN OLD MEXICO
In 1912 Dreben and Richardson were ensconced in New Orleans, trying to figure out what to do with a shipment of guns and ammo that they had planned to sell to a Central American revolutionary leader. This particular hero had managed to lose the revolution before he could pay for the equipment that Dreben and Richardson had bought for him. Short on cash and long on guns, the two men were pleased to visit with Mexican General Pasqual Orozco. He not only wanted to buy their guns, but he also wanted the two fighters to come to Mexico and join in the revolution that had just gotten into full swing.
President Diaz, a longtime leader of Mexico, had just been overthrown, and Francisco Madero had taken over the presidential palace. Orozco and other military leaders were not happy with this turn of events and had started an open revolt against Madero. Our boys were excited about the prospects and immediately signed up.
In El Paso they found that the Mexican Revolution was a hodgepodge of soldiers, politicians, cowboys, and bandits. Old and new ways clashed with a finality, and Mexican leaders wanted someone who could teach their men to fight in the new scientific method. Richardson and Dreben immediately became commanders of machinegun squads and began to train their crews in the proper use of the Colt and Hotchkiss guns.
They quickly taught their crews to set up a triangulation of fire that would criss-cross advancing troops and quickly turn an attack into utter chaos. They also used the quick mind of Dreben to come up with instant battlefield solutions. At the Battle of Rellano, for example, federal troops were advancing with the use of an armored train. Dreben and Richardson quickly got a train engine of their own, stacked 800 pounds of dynamite on the front, and set it to ram the attackers. After the monumental explosion, the revolutionary cavalry quickly cleaned up the survivors.
During the Battle of Parral, Dreben snapped upon the idea of placing his machinegun crews in the bell towers of several churches. Richardson thought it was a grand idea, and their shotgun on Rodolfo Fierro, Villa’s bodyguard and probably the most dangerous man in Mexico, and Richardson approached Villa. As the old-timers would say, Richardson got in Villa’s face and read to him from the Book! It is said that Tracy told Villa to publicly drop the reward or he would hunt him down and kill him. It is said that Villa looked into Richardson’s eyes and got the message. He bought drinks all around to seal the deal and cancel the hit.
LIFE AFTER MEXICO
As the last days of the Mexican Revolution began to unfold, Richardson began to lose interest in the whole affair. By 1914 World War I was on, and Richardson went to Quebec and enlisted in a Canadian Light Infantry Regiment. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Richardson was allowed to join the American forces and did so as a captain.
When World War II began, Richardson, now 52, again joined up for a fight and was commissioned as an intelligence officer. He was honorably discharged in 1946 as Lt. Colonel Tracy Richardson. This old war-horse died in Springfield, Missouri, in 1949, in bed and with his boots off. He was not quite 60 years old.
Dreben, on the other hand, served on the border as a scout and intelligence man for Pershing’s Punitive Expedition. Following that, he enlisted in the Army and served in France, where he was awarded the U. S. Distinguished Service Cross and the French Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre.
In 1925, with a new wife and young daughter, he moved to Los Angeles and entered the real estate business. He died there in 1925, not from a revolutionary bullet, a firing squad, or a gunfight but from an improperly prepared medical injection when he was being treated for a heart condition. He was just shy of his 50th birthday.
The Mexican Revolution was an interesting era. It was fought with sixguns and carbines of the Old West. It was fought with machineguns and modern artillery. It saw the last mounted saber charge by an American cavalry
unit and the first use of airplanes as a military tool. And Sam Dreben and Tracy Richardson went through it all. They may not have been the model for the western movie, but they were truly “The Professionals.”
GUNS OF THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION
The days of the Mexican Revolution were truly a time of change in the Southwest. A large number of the participants relied on old trusty firearms like the Winchester Model 1873 in .44-40 and the Winchester Model 94 in .30-30. In fact, .30-30 carbines were almost the unofficial gun of the revolutionaries. Thousands of Marlin and Winchester carbines were shipped to El Paso and smuggled across the border to the Mexican fighters.
At the same time, the federal troops relied heavily on the Model 98 Mauser in 7mm Mauser–one of the finest rifles of the day. The same can be said of the Springfield Model 1903 in .30-06. Both the Mauser and the Springfield were about the most modern fighting rifles that a man could find. But many soldiers on both sides simply armed themselves with whatever rifle they could get their hands on. The whole question of ammunition supply must have been a quartermaster’s nightmare.
A large number of the Mexican fighters were armed with big-bore frontier single actions. There were probably more Colt single actions than anything else; however, the Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 in .44 Russian, .44 American, and .44-40 was always popular in Mexico and saw lots of action. The German Luger, first manufactured in 1900, also saw plenty of action on the plains of Mexico. And another popular European autoloader was the Model 1896 Broomhandled Mauser Pistol in 7.63mm; many found their way to this continent. And, of course, we can’t overlook our own Colt Model 1911 in .45 ACP, which was just coming into its own and was a desired pistol along the border.
Many of these guns actually got their baptism of fire during the Mexican Revolution, even though they went on to see much more use in the European war that became World War I. These were all great, reliable guns, and there were plenty of men who knew how to use them in those early years of the 1900s.