One of the popular misconceptions about the old-time gunfighters is that they traveled around the country somehow surviving on their skills with a handgun. Many of the old-timers served as lawmen while others invested in various business interests to help pay the bills and buy groceries. Wyatt Earp, in addition to his law-enforcement jobs, also owned real estate, mining claims, gambling concessions, and saloons. Bat Masterson was another shootist who actually spent the majority of his life as a professional gambler, a prizefight promoter, and a sports writer for newspapers. Cut from the same cloth was a fellow named John Barclay Armstrong.
Armstrong was born in McMinnville, Tennessee, in January 1850. As a young man he left home and wandered throughout the South, before winding up in Austin, Texas, in 1871. In 1875 he enlisted in the Texas Rangers and joined the company commanded by famed Capt. Leander McNelly. Armstrong followed Capt. McNelly into several hot border fights that resulted in at least two shootouts in Mexico.
In those early days of the Texas Rangers a man was required to furnish his own rifle, handgun, and saddle horse. Like most of the other Rangers, Armstrong apparently acquired a Winchester Model 1873 carbine in .44-40 and a 7 1/2-inch Colt Peacemaker in .45 Colt. In terms of popularity, the 7 1/2-inch .45 Colt was the equivalent of today's Model 1911 .45 ACP. It was the gun that most fighting men carried. The long barrel allowed the cartridge's blackpowder to fully ignite and would drive a 255-grain lead bullet at some 950 fps. Like many of the early Rangers, Armstrong's Colt was to see lots of use.
In October 1876, Armstrong, by then a sergeant, was detailed to the vicinity of Carrizo Springs, Texas, to round up King Fisher's gang of outlaws. Armstrong and his band of Rangers jumped the gang at Espinoza Lake, where the outlaws had made camp for the night. Armstrong spread his men out in a skirmish line and strolled into the camp with their Winchesters ready. In the hot fight that followed, the Rangers killed three outlaws and wounded a fourth. Although King Fisher got away, his power as a bandit chieftain was broken.
In December 1876, Armstrong and Ranger Leroy Deggs went to Wilson County, Texas, to arrest John Mayfield on murder charges. They found Mayfield working around the pens on his ranch and called on him to surrender. Mayfield must have been feeling especially lucky because he chose to reach for his gun. He fell in a blaze of bullets from the Rangers' guns.
"Texas, By God!"
However, it was in 1877 that Armstrong made his most famous arrest. By this time, several warrants had been issued for the Texas gunfighter John Wesley Hardin. Hardin, a product of the Reconstruction, later would boast that he had killed 40 men in gunfights. While most historians question this high number, we do agree that Hardin held human life in small regard, and he surely had killed a lot of men. In 1877 the state of Texas determined it was too many and insisted that Hardin be brought to the bar of justice. Trouble was, no one could find him.
Old-time lawmen, such as Texas Ranger John Armstrong, preferred the 7 1/2-inch-barreled Colt Peacemaker for a fighting gun.
With the assistance of an undercover operative, Armstrong was able to determine that Hardin had fled the state and was spending his time in Alabama and northern Florida. The Ranger immediately headed for Florida. Armstrong soon located Hardin and began to learn his habits and plan an arrest. To this end, because he had no authority outside the state of Texas, Armstrong was also able to gain the assistance of local lawmen.
The opportunity came when it was learned that Hardin and some cronies had been on an excursion and would be returning to Pensacola by train. Armstrong's plan was a simple one, one that I've often used myself in making arrests. They would locate Hardin on the train and then simply stroll in to that particular car, as if they were businessmen traveling to their next appointment. If they could get close to the suspect, they would simply jump him and force him to the floor.
Ranger Armstrong and the local officers sauntered into the railroad car and spotted Hardin almost immediately. As he got close, Armstrong pulled his sixgun and closed to make the arrest. Legend has it that Hardin took one look at that big 7 1/2-inch Colt and hollered, "Texas, by God!"
Hardin and Jim Mann, his associate, both went for their guns. Unfortunately, it just wasn't their day. The hammer of Hardin's sixgun hung in his suspenders, which gave Ranger Armstrong the time he needed to conk Hardin over the head with the barrel of his Colt. This, of course, was another reason that the old-time lawmen liked the long barrel on the Colt .45. "Combing his hair" is how they called it back in those days.
Mann got his gun out and working, but unfortunately for him, his shot went too high. It blew Armstrong's hat off, while Armstrong's return shot was a center hit. Young Jim Mann jumped out of the railcar window and died on the platform below.
Armstrong returned Hardin to Texas, where the outlaw was sentenced to life in prison. In the 1890s, Hardin was paroled from prison and, almost immediately, was admitted to the bar so that he could become a lawyer. That simple fact may tell us more about Texas lawyers than it does about Texas prisons. Regardless, Hardin was later shot to death by El Paso constable John Selman.
Armstrong, in the meantime, used the reward money he had received to buy a ranch in South Texas. Although he later served as a United States Marshal, Armstrong spent the balance of his life as a successful and prominent rancher. In addition, he was a civic leader and faithful family man.
Even so, I'll just bet that most folks didn't take too many liberties with the old gentleman.
Today his family still operates the Armstrong Ranch in South Texas, adjacent to the fabled King Ranch. John B. Armstrong, rancher, businessman, and premier fighting man, died on his ranch in 1913.
I just wish I knew what happened to that old long-barreled Colt.