“(Francisco) Villa had the reputation of being one of Mexico’s greatest gunfighters. ‘For Villa, the gun was more important than eating or sleeping,’ a subordinate wrote about him. ‘It was a part of his person indispensable to him wherever he was, even at social occasions, and one can say that it was only very rarely that he did not have a gun ready to be drawn or placed in his gunbelt.’”
— Friedrich Katz, “The Life and Times of Pancho Villa”
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 has tripped my trigger ever since I read enraptured Clifford Irving’s wonderful novel “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa.” That’s a long time now. For reasons that I’ll reveal when the time is right, the Mex Rev and particularly the career of Pancho Villa have been pushed to the forefront in the land of the Frontier Partisans lately.
Dark as this history is, I revel in it. You want a “game of thrones”? You’ll never find one more deadly than the Mexican Revolution. Ol’ George RR Martin couldn’t be any crueler to his characters than the real-deal Revolution was to its principals. Every one of the major leaders of the Revolution died violently, mostly shot to pieces in ambush or assassination.
Every. Damn. One.
And for me there is just no more fascinating period than that time right around the Great War, when the old frontier still existed, yet was rolling like a runaway train right into the modern era. The material culture just pleases me — I love the weapons and equipment, the clothing people wore, the planes, trains and automobiles. The music — from border corridos to Ragtime, early jazz and the beginnings of the blues.
So much was happening. PJ Pretorius was poaching back the value of his confiscated African farm from the Germans at the same time Pancho Villa was crossing the Rio Grande to overthrow the Usurper Victoriano Huerta. And China was convulsing in revolution, too.
You get the idea, so I’ll get to the point of this post: Pancho Villa’s guns.
Villa’s primary sidearm — the one that was “part of his person” — was a Bisley Colt. The Bisley was a target variant of the famous Colt Peacemaker, named for the Bisley shooting sports complex in England. Back in those great days, shooting championships were major sporting events. Sigh.
Anyway, The Bisley was introduced in 1894. Villa’s revolver was manufactured in 1912, in caliber .44-40. The handle dropped straight down as befits a target-shooting piece, unlike the plough handle of the Peacemaker, and it had a low-slung and broad hammer. The pistol came with hard rubber grips. Villa’s revolver was customized with fancy mother-of-pearl grips. It rests in the unbelievable Autry collection, which is worth seeing if you can get to the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. When I lived in SoCal, I haunted that place.
Villa seems to have carried several different rifles during his career. The famous shot with his sombrero’d and bandolier-festooned crew from early in the Revolution shows him with what is most likely a 1910 Mauser carbine. These carbines were ubiquitous in the Revolution and were short enough to be handy from horseback, a definite asset for Villa’s cavalry strike force.
Other early shots show a lever-action rifle in Villa’s saddle scabbard. It’s impossible to tell what model it is. I’m inclined to think it was a Winchester 1894 in .30-30 caliber, which was kind of the AK-47 of the revolution. It was so widely used that a corrido was written about it: “Carabina .30-30.” (Watch Los Lobos perform it on Austin City Limits).
In a group shot with his Dorados (Golden Ones — Pancho’s personal guard and elite cavalry shock force) Villa seems to be holding a half-stock rifle, probably some kind of sporting Mauser.
Bear in mind that the Villistas, at the height of the Division del Norte’s powers, traveled by train. Villa had his own car, so he could have packed along any number of rifles. I’ve never seen or heard of any evidence that he ever used a shotgun.
Villa was known to be highly skilled with his firearms and he practiced regularly. Even during his three peaceful years of retirement at a hacienda in Durango, he was never without a pistol holstered on his hip and a rifle in his hand or on his saddle. Pancho lived by the gun, and on July 20, 1923, he died by the gun, rubbed out in a hail of bullets in what was almost certainly a politically motivated hit. His last act as he drove his Dodge motorcar into an ambush and the bullets from multiple rifles tore into him was to reach for his constant companion — that 1912 Bisley Colt.