Thursday, January 23, 2014

Beware The Man With One Gun: The Guns Of Legendary Texas Ranger Jack Bryant

Article and photos by Frank Jardim
Ranger Jack Bryant’s 1873 Winchester Saddle-Ring Carbine
Its serial number is 236032B, suggesting 1888 manufacture. This firearm was the “assault rifle” of its day. The steel-framed 1873 lever action was Winchester’s strongest and fastest action to date, and was commonly chambered in the powerful .44-40 WCF. The tapered case of the Winchester Center Fire (WCF) cartridge resisted sticking in the chamber, as black powder fouling and heat increased in fast firing. The 200-grain .44 bullet, actually closer to .427”, was propelled by 40 grains of black powder close to 1,200 fps. These handy repeaters held 10 rounds in the magazine, giving the user a tremendous amount of firepower. Bryant was already a ranger for a few years when he obtained this carbine. Rangers didn’t get paid much. and one wonders if it took him a while to get up the money to buy it, or what rifle he used before he got this one. In his violent line of work on the open frontier, the rifle, not the pistol, was the primary weapon

There is an old adage whose origin is lost to history that goes, “Beware the man with one gun for he likely shoots it very well.” I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the excellent Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Ky., whose magnificent arms and armor collection and interpretive programs are world renowned. The adage came to mind as I studied the well-worn 1873 Colt Single Action Army and 1873 Winchester carbine of Texas Ranger Robert Edward Bryant. 
The son of a U.S. Army Colonel and Spanish mother, he was born in 1866 on the lawless frontier of west Texas near Ysleta.  He would spend his entire adult life, over half a century, bringing law and order to the region of his birth.  Nicknamed Jack, he became a Texas Ranger in 1883 at the age of seventeen.  He moved in and out of ranger service with the Frontier Battalions until 1898. When he wasn’t riding with the Texas Rangers, he was a Constable for Precinct 2 in Ysleta, an El Paso County Deputy Sheriff, and a Deputy U.S. Marshall.  He spoke both English and Spanish fluently. Near the end of his career in the 1930s, he acted mostly as an interpreter for the department.  He died in 1940 at age 74, twelve days after he retired.
In the 21st century, it’s rare for any law enforcement officer to fire their weapon in the line of duty. When they do, it can be the end of their careers as they are subjected to investigations and reviews to determine if their actions were justified.
Ranger Jack Bryant’s 1873 Colt Single Action Army Pistol
In 4¾-inch barrel length, this version was the fastest handling of Colt’s famous “Peacemakers.”  This .44-40 WCF caliber pistol is serial number 111323 and was made in 1884, the year Bryant began his 57-year law enforcement career. Colt marketed the pistol in .44-40 WCF caliber so their civilian buyers could have a pistol and long arm in the same caliber, simplifying ammunition requirements on the frontier.  

By comparison, in the late 1800s when Jack Bryant was a lawman, it was impossible not to fire his weapons in the line of duty.  The Texas Ranger Frontier Battalions of which he was a part were often the only significant law enforcement entities preventing criminals from acting with impunity outside the few established towns. The criminal element did not fear the courts, the laws, or attorneys, or being sued. They feared being shot and killed by men like Jack Bryant. 
To put it in perspective, in El Paso in 1893, a year that Jack Bryant happened to be a deputy sheriff there, an arrest was made about every 15 minutes. The historical record shows El Paso at this time was a den of saloons and vice that attracted an unsavory element as well as outright criminals. The Frazier Museum staff let me inspect some of the arrest warrants Bryant executed.  Most of the sample I reviewed were for the arrest of suspects accused of illegally carrying firearms in El Paso.  That’s dangerous work anytime, but apparently Bryant was the man for the job. 
Bryant managed to survive to die of old age, which is pretty remarkable in his line of work. He was involved with at least one major gun battle, and I’m sure there were many more that weren’t recorded. His daughters, who donated his weapons to posterity, indicated that they were the only ones he owned in his career and there was other evidence to support this in the museum’s files.  They show wear from long use in the field. I speculate that Bryant must have been very good to do what he did for as long as he did. 

Texas Rangers of Company D in Camp, 1893, near Ysleta, Texas
Jack Bryant is on the far right of the photograph. The carbine he’s holding appears to be  the same make and model as the piece on display at Frazier Museum.

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