When you’re talking about badass police organizations that take hardened career criminals and make them look like Larry, Moe, and Curly being beaten over the head with gigantic sledgehammers and band saws, you could do a Hell of a lot worse than the Texas Rangers. The Rangers were the S.W.A.T. Team before the invention of the H&K MP5A4, the SAS before Bear Grylls , and the Justice League of America without all that crazy-colored spandex and latent homoerotic undertones. Back in the late 19th century, the Rangers roamed the lawless prairies of the Old West looking for wandering outlaw bandit gangs that needed their asses kicked, never resting or relenting until they found the most deadly criminals in America and either dragged them away in handcuffs or filled their balls full of piping-hot forty-five caliber ammunition. The Texas Rangers were tough-ass motherfuckers who were absolutely not to be messed with for any reason ever, and among the most famous and decorated of the Rangers was a dude named John Barclay Armstrong.
Armstrong was born in Tennessee in 1850, and moved to Texas in 1871 for the explicit purposes of cracking jerks in the face with a tire iron. He served a short time as a local lawman before joining up with a new unit called the “Special Force” under the command of Captain Leander H. McNelly. The Special Force was the original gangsta of Special Forces units like GSG and Seal Team Five, something you can tell by the fact that the word “force” is singular (nowadays Special Forces detachments are a fucking dime a dozen). They were the badass paramilitary arm of the Texas Rangers, responsible for seeking out bandits with bandandas covering their faces, gunslingers who shoot people in the chest when they think they're being cheated at poker, yeller-bellied cattle rustlers, and other Old West stereotype motherfuckers and beating the holy living bejeezus out of them with their fists, rifle butts, and really large tree branches. And they were good at their job. A small, elite, well-trained outfit, kind of like Rainbow Six with Colt .45s and awesome moustaches, they were definitely not to be messed around with – McNelly himself only brought on men who were born out-of-state because he was worried that some native Texans might show a moment of hesitation when it came to shooting their fellow countrymen in the face.
One of the Special Force’s first objectives was to ensure order on a particularly lawless part of Texas known as the Nueces Strip. The Rangers protected witnesses in important homicide trials, resolved decades-old family blood feuds (probably by killing or arresting everyone associated with either family), recovered cattle stolen from Texas ranches, and battled Mexican guerillas who launched raids across the border against American townships. The hardcore Special Force put down several high-profile gangs like a rancid meatball and even arrested the notorious outlaw King Fisher and his group of ruffians, besting them in a badass bare-knuckled boxing fistfight in the middle of the night that probably went down like an old 1960’s Batman episode complete with giant “BIFF!” word bubbles.
Now when I say these guys are hardcore as all fucking hell and do whatever it takes to get the job done, what I’m saying is that “police brutality” wasn’t a part of the Wild West vernacular. These guys did not fuck around, and if it took some, er, "creative thinking" to get their man, the Rangers weren’t opposed to bending the rules a little bit. Once they found the gang they were searching for, there was generally a lot less “reading them their Miranda rights” and a lot more “firing indiscriminately at anyone who wasn’t wearing a Sherriff’s badge”. John Barclay Armstrong was right at home in this rough-and-tumble group, and before long he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant, serving as McNelly’s second-in-command. He nickname among friend and foe alike was “McNelly’s Bulldog”, probably because if anybody fucked with him he’d flip out and bite them in the jugular.
You don't want these guys hunting you down.
One time, the Special Force ran into a group of cattle rustlers under the command of ex-Mexican Army General Juan Cortina. Cortina and his men were all former soldiers who were still really super pissed off about that whole Mexican-American War thing, so they had been launching raids into Texas border towns, robbing banks, stealing cattle, and punching shopkeepers’ wives right in the face for no reason at all. The Rangers caught up with Cortina’s men near Palo Alto, where a platoon of his hand-picked elite troopers were driving a herd of stolen cattle like a Cattle-ac Escalade (oh my god I’m so fucking hilarious). The rustlers saw McNelly’s men on the horizon and laid an ambush in a boggy salt marsh, but in the ensuing gunfight the Rangers killed sixteen outlaws while only losing one of their own. Another time, the Special Force was pursuing a group of 250 stolen cattle that were smuggled across the border into Mexico. Despite having absolutely no jurisdiction to do so, McNelly and Armstrong put sixteen Rangers in rowboats, crossed the Rio Grande in the middle of the night, beat the shit out of the cow thieves, and ended up bringing back 400 cattle that had been taken from Texas ranches. Where the hell those other 150 cows came from is anybody's guess.
After McNelly’s retirement in 1876, John B. Armstrong was promoted to Lieutenant, and the Special Force was absorbed into the Texas Rangers Frontier Battalion. Armstrong was involved in several gunfights while trying to restore order to the lawless areas of Eagle Pass and Laredo, and at one point he tracked down and killed convicted murderer John Mayfield, probably by pulling his arm off during an arm-wrestling match and then beating Mayfield to death with his own fist. The biggest case of his career however came in 1877, when he was given the task of taking down one of the deadliest gunfighters in the Old West – John Wesley Hardin.
In terms of sheer body count, John Wesley Hardin was one of the most insane gunmen in American History. During his career as a gambler, gunfighter, and outlaw, Hardin notched 44 confirmed kills, taking down everything from card sharps and thieves to Sherriffs and Marshals, and anybody in-between. Basically, this wasn’t a guy you wanted to look at cross-eyed, because he’d end up putting a bullet in your brain. In 1877 however, Hardin crossed the line when he shot a couple of Texas Rangers to death. Now Rangers really hate it when you kill their buddies, so they took the mission personally and were determined to succeed where hundreds of posses and lawmen had failed. John Barclay Armstrong volunteered for the job as soon as it was posted, even though at the time he was recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg and had to walk with a cane. Since he had such an outstanding record as an asskicker, his superiors assigned him to the job.
Armstrong first went to Alabama, where Hardin was last seen robbing railroad cars. He set up shop there for a while, gathering clues, and eventually was able to intercept a letter that indicated Hardin would be traveling from Alabama to Florida under an assumed name. John Barclay Armstrong caught up to the dangerous outlaw on a train in Pensacola on 23 July. He walked into Hardin’s train car and came face-to-face with Hardin and three other members of his gang. Armstrong ordered their surrender, and upon recognizing what was taking place, Hardin exclaimed, “Texas, by God!”, which only makes me think of a local truck dealership commercial where a crazy dude in a cowboy costume sticks his face right into the camera and screams, "MY GAWD, THAT'S TOO CHEAP!!"
Hardin and his men all reached for their pistols. One of Hardin’s men drew and fired a shot the put a hole through Armstrong’s hat. Armstrong got really pissed off about getting a gunshot hole right through is favorite hat, so switched his cane over from his right hand to his left, quick-drew his pistol and fired a shot right into the man’s chest, killing him instantly. He then leapt over and grabbed Hardin’s pistol right as he drew it from its holster. Hardin kicked Armstrong off him, but Armstrong quickly rebounded and brained Hardin in the fucking head with the butt of his Colt .45 Peacemaker hard enough to knock him unconscious for two hours. The other two members of the gang dropped their weapons, probably because they were in complete shock that this one dude had just Kung Fu-ed the butt out of their fearless leader.
Unfortunately, even though he had Hardin in custody, Armstrong didn’t have the proper warrants ready so he was unable to transport the prisoner. Several of Hardin’s associates telegrammed Armstrong threatening to bust Hardin out of jail by any means necessary, but Armstrong cooly responded by saying that if anyone tried to fuck with him he'd just shoot Hardin right in the fucking face. That shut those dickheads up pretty quickly. Before long, the warrants arrived, and Hardin was extradited to Texas to stand trial for his crimes.
|“Arrested John Wesley Hardin, Pensacola Florida this P.M. He had four men with him.
Had some lively shooting. One of their number killed. All rest captured.
Hardin fought desperately. Closed in and took him by main strength.
We are waiting for a train to get away on.
This is Hardin’s home and his friends are trying to rally men to release him.
Have some good citizens with, and will make it interesting.”
- John B. Armstrong, telegram to Rangers HQ
Armstrong was also part of the Texas Rangers detachment sent to capture the notorious bank and train robber Sam Bass, a colorful dude who used to sign his name, “Signed by Sam Bass, Kiss My Ass” (seriously). Local authorities had managed to learn that the Bass Gang was going to hit a bank in Round Rock, Texas on 18 July 1878, and when the job went down Armstrong and his Rangers were there like pre-teen girls at a Justin Timberlake concert. Bass’ men suddenly became retarded and opened fire on the officers, and the fierce battle that ensued resulted in the death and/or capture of Sam Bass and his entire gang.
Armstrong resigned in 1881 and spent a brief stint as a U.S. Marshal before living out the rest of his days on a large ranch in rural Texas with his wife and seven kids (he apparently was rocking the Viagra or something). Interestingly enough, Armstrong’s ranch is the same place where Dick Cheney shot a dude in the face a couple years ago. Apparently, Armstrong’s enduring spirit and desire to indiscriminately blast people in the face and chest with firearms continues to prevail even into modern times.
John Barclay Armstrong was a principal badass in an organization well-known for its badassery. He had a sweet ‘stache, he captured hundreds of wanted men, and he set the tone for all the badass Texas Rangers that would come after him.
Texas Ranger Hall of Fame
The Handbook of Texas Online