Pancho Villa: Merchant Of Death

by Skeeter Skelton


Shooting Times Magazine

December 1971



On March 4, 1916, an ivory-stocked, silver-plated Model P action bearing serial No. 332088 was carefully packed for shipping at the Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut, and left that quiet community on the first of many long trips it would make. Its first journey ended at the  Shelton Payne Arms Co. in El Paso, Texas. Payne Arms had work to do on the 4 3/4-inch .45 Colt sixgun before delivery could be made to a discriminating, and sometimes irascible, second lieutenant of cavalry named George S. Patton, Jr.


The best sources hold that this, the famous Patton gun of World War II, is the sidearm he carried when he left El Paso later that month to serve as a special aide to General John "Black Jack" Pershing.


By the time Patton and his new single action arrived in Mexico two months later, the showy sixshooter had acquired a tasteful robe of engraving, the initials GSP intertwined on the smooth right grip to complement the raised American eagle on the left and a lanyard swivel.


If things moved quickly with Patton and his Colt, the frenzied events that made a setting for them crackled at a pace that astounded 20th century Americans.


After six years of revolution, Mexico was in a hell of a shape. Four distinct armies, with individual and separate goals, fought battles in remote places, the names of which were unpronounceable to most U.S. citizens. A half-dozen dictators and presidents had ruled in as many years. Heavily armed bands of guerrilla cavalry, serving first one army then another, and sucking the blood of their own people between formal affiliations, casually raided isolated ranches on both sides of the boundary when the mood, or need, for extra horses, guns, and ammunition arose.


While these depredations generated enough alarm to effect beefing up of regular U.S. Army units along the border, not much real concern was felt. The peacetime life went on around army posts, with the young officers occupying their thoughts as much with polo and poker as they did with the sometimes ludicrous maneuverings of the self-proclaimed "Centaur of the North", Pancho Villa.


If Latin America ever produced a cavalry general who rivalled Villa in sheer color and audacity, he is lost to us for want of a capable reporter.


In victory, Villa anticipated the scrutiny of history and included scribes, photographers, and even early moviemakers in his retinue as he swept across the barrens of northern Mexico. Always aware of the public eye, he dispensed stolen money and merchandise to a few of his unlettered admirers and disappropriation and death to those detractors unfortunate enough to fall into his grasp.


This was not a time of victory for Pancho. As the young American officer's new sidearm wended its way to the Texas border, a sullen Villa, smarting from defeats in Agua Prieta and Hermosillo in the border state of Sonora, rode east with the battered, hungry remnants of what had been a glorious army. the 500 followers that trailed him desperately needed food, clothing, and ammunition. the inhospitable desert they traveled offered them nothing - no stores, no prospering ranches that could be levied upon, even for horse feed and a tortilla or two to soothe a growling gut.


Patrols were sent out. One, under Colonel Nicolás Hernández, called on a scrabbly ranch near Colónia Hernádez. Finding nothing to steal, they abducted the gringo rancher, E. J. Wright, his wife Maud, and another U.S. citizen named Hayden, abandoning the Wrights' child and taking the captives to Villa, who was holed up at Cave Valle. Wright and Hayden were speedily executed.


Maud Wright, at the whim of the mustachioed Villa, rode north in the company of his scabby crew. Starved and exhausted, she clung to her saddle as the enigmatic Pancho led a column of horsemen, crossing the U.S. border three miles west of the Mexican town of Palomas and trotting quietly over the few minutes' travel to the sleeping village of Columbus, New Mexico, three miles away. The attack started at about four in the morning of March 9, 1916.


Troops of the 13th Cavalry Regiment were quartered among the 300 souls in Columbus, and they were its salvation. As the screaming Villistas tore through the sun-hardened streets of the tiny settlement, soldiers in their billets were jolted awake and grabbed for 1911 .45 Colt automatics and '03 Springfields. Fires broke out as the raiders torched the few stores and hotels, giving form to the attackers as they ranged from one building to another in search of loot and targets for their mottley assortment of pistols and rifles.


When the machinegun troop came alive and set up its guns, the attack wavered. Although they had a deserved reputation for jamming, the French Benét-Mercié guns, fed by 30-round stick clips, performed well that morning, firing more than 20,000 rounds through the bandit infested little town.


Sixty-seven Villistas were killed in Columbus that morning before the raiders fled. These 400 worthies, mostly carrying 7mm Mausers and M94 Winchesters in .30-30, were hotly pursued by a 48-year-old Major Frank Tompkins and 56 horse soldiers from F and H Troops.


Drawing his Colt .45 auto, Tompkins led a mounted pistol charge that smeared the Mexicans' rear guard. His men then slid to the ground and began firing with their '03 Springfields.


Alternately charging and dismounting to direct rifle fire, Tompkins drove the Villa gang 15 miles into Mexico, killing almost 100 before the 13th's reluctant return to base when ammunition ran low. No serious casualties were suffered by his troops.


As news of the outrage spread, a clamor rang across the nation demanding Villa's punishment. An expeditionary force was mounted under the command of "Black Jack" Pershing, then a brigadier general commanding Fort Bliss at El Paso.


On March 15, 1916, ignoring threats from the Mexican government that their entry would be considered a violation of that nation's sovereignty, the Punitive Expedition drove south in two columns from Columbus and Culberson's Ranch, heading for a rendezvous 75 miles deep in the forbidding state of Chihuahua. This desert land could hardly have been more hostile. It offered neither food nor good water for the men, and no forage for the big cavalry horses accustomed to generous rations of hay and grain. Constant swirls of dust sparkled in the hot sun and tortured the eyes of both men and mounts. Even the tough, little Apache scouts assigned to the force, much to the disgust of their romantic white lieutenant, requisitioned goggles and boric acid solution to comfort their eyes.


But the real hostility came from the people of Mexico. No gringo had been particularly loved in the land of manana, and this armed force of soldiery met hatred and contempt from every Mexican it encountered. Even those Americans who operated mines and ranches in Mexico didn't want Villa caught by Pershing's force, for then Black Jack would withdraw to the States and leave the gringo residents at the mercer of other, even worse bandits - some of them members of the Carrancista, or Federal, army.


To understand the confused mishmash of armies, bandits, gunrunners, and politicians that swarmed over Mexico in those days, it is necessary to take a short history lesson.


To end the tyrannical, 30-year reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz, an unlikely revolutionist had sprung up in the autumn of 1910. Francisco Madero, a five-foot, three-inch vegetarian and a wealthy idealist, decided the time was ripe to topple the Diaz regime that had left the wealth of Mexico in the hands of four percent of its inhabitants. Supported by guerrilla generals, Francisco Villa in the north, Emiliano Zapata in the south, and Alvaro Obregón in the west, Madero's revolutionary movement prevailed, and the tine dreamer was installed as president of a new, provisional government on May 25, 1911.


After months of insurrection by his own forces, Madero fell victim to one of his generals, Victoriano Huerta, an alcoholic Indian who had been a saloon-keeper before trying the general business. Huerta plotted the arrest of Madero and his vice president, Pino Suarez, and forced them to resign on February 19, 1913. They were shot to death while "trying to escape" three days later. Huerta ensconsced himself in the presidential chair and promptly set up a police state that would rival the Cuba of today.


Huerta's government was deplored by Woodrow Wilson, who welcomed, at least at first, a new contender for the Mexican presidency: Venustiano Carranza, the arrogant, white-bearded governor of Coahuila, who had decided to apply for the job.


Forming a large army, which he dubbed the "Constitutionalist" forces, Carranza enlisted the aid of old revolutionaries, Zapata and Obregó. Not without some misgivings, he also asked for the services of that flamboyant little fat man, Pancho Villa, who was then hiding out in El Paso, far from the deadly grasp of Huerta.


Pancho Villa's true name was Doroteo Arango. Born on June 5, 1878, he did little that would distinguish himself until, at age 17, he joined the band of Ignacio Parra, a cattle thief operating in Durango and Chihuahua. He was a successful poacher and enjoyed the vigorous outdoor life of the cattle rustler until 1909, when he married and opened a butcher shop in Chihuahua City. When the revolution broke out a year later, men who knew guns and horses were suddenly held in great esteem, and Pancho was persuaded to join the Madero movement by Abrán Gonzales, a wealthy Madero follower.


In the Pancho Villa Museum in Columbus, New Mexico, there now reposes an ornate Colt SA purported to have been presented to Villa by Gonzales in 1911. A robustly handsome piece, the .45 Colt has a 5 1/2-inch barrel and is well covered with rather coarse but quite attractive engraving. It is nickel-and gold-plated and carries mother of pearl stocks which do not appear to be original. The serial number is 148441, was shipped to its San Francisco office on October 31, 1892. The caliber was .45, barrel length 7 1/2 inches, and the finish blue. No information was available on the stocks. Five guns were in this shipment, and no record exists of their disposition by the San Francisco office.


No one can say whether Villa had this gun when he was arrested and almost executed by Huerta in 1912. After his escape and flight to Texas, he learned of Madero's murder and began arrangements for smuggling sizeable quantities of rifles and ammunition - the preponderance in caliber .30-30, which had long been a favorite in Mexico. Then he quietly slipped across the river and began recruiting thousands of infantrymen and cavalrymen to bolster the small cadre still loyal to him from the pre-Huerta days.


On November 15, 1913, Villa's hordes overran the border city of Juarez. Less than a month later, he stormed into Chihuahua City, the state's capitol, proclaiming himself governor. By the spring of 1914, Constitutionalist gernerals, Villa, Zapata, and Obregón, held three-fourths of Mexico.


Wilson advisors prevailed on him to lift the arms embargo that had kept the flow of munitions into Mexico a gunrunner's dream since early 1912. Wilson wanted Carranza to win, and tens of thousands of new .30-30 and .30-40 Winchesters, along with millians of cartridges, sped through the open ports along the border to bolster the victory-hungry Carrancistas.


Germany, hoping to keep the U.S. occupied in Mexico, supplied Mausers, ammo, and advice to the Huerta government. On April 21, 1914, U.S. sailors and marines took the seaport of Veracruz and prevented the landing of a shipload of German munitions. The city was occupied for seven months, and a growing resentment against U.S. interference was demonstrated by the angry Mexican populace.


Victoriano Huerta was deposed and exiled to Spain in July after the hot-blooded Pancho and his bodyguard of Dorados (or Golden Ones) led dashing cavalry charges that reduced Saltillo, then Zacatecas.


Alvaro Obregón's capture of Guadalajara set up the route to the capitol city of Mexico, and Carranza, angry at Villa's headstrong insubordination and jealous of his popularity, withheld supplies Villa needed for the march to Mexico City, choosing instead to reprovision Obregón and invest him with the honor of taking the capitol and ending the war. The job was finished in August. There followed a bitter, vicious struggle between Villa and Obregón, which ended with the destruction of Villa's famed cavalry and his ignominious raid on Columbus.


Obregón taunted Villa into attacking his positions at Celaya. Counseled by Germans fresh from trench warfare in Europe, the Sonora general laid a nasty trap composed of zigzag trenches laid out behind immense spans of barbed wire. This horse-killing contrivance was completely covered by interlocking machineguns, set up and sandbagged to cover every entrance into the small city.


Obregón's cavalry was held in reserve but it wasn't needed.


In his dashing, hell-bent-for-leather style, Villa led a saber-rattling charge straight into the cull-de-sac. Horses screamed and fell into the entangling wire, their defiant riders leaping up only to be obliterated by the pre-sighted, water-cooled Maxim machineguns. Hundreds died, and a bloodied Pancho fled for cover.


Unable to believe that the 19th-century tactics which had served him so well could fail, villa hit the Celaya defenses again on April 13. It was a slaughter. The Villista cavalry was wiped out, including the ragged remnants of the once-proud Dorados. Villa's infantry dropped their rifles and ran.


Obregón notified Carranza that 4000 Villistas had been killed and 8000 captured.


Furious, Villa recruited every peon who could swing a machete and hit Obregón again in June, in the vicinity of Leon, Guanajuato. Thousands died, and a crushed and surly Pancho led his decimated band into hiding in the mountains of his native Chihuahua.


Late 1914 and early 1915 found Pancho engaging in fruitless skirmishes with the Carranza forces strung out along the border. A long fight for Naco, Sonora, which was held by Constitutionalists, let many Villa bullets stray into the twin city of Naco, Arizona, killing and wounding Americans.


Protests from our government accomplished little, and Villa, in desperate need of funds and equipment, began preying on American mining companies and ranches in northern Mexico, robbing payrolls and demanding tribute. With no protection from the Carranza government, the Americans either paid up or were killed.


In October 1915, Wilson recognized Carranza as president of Mexico and again slapped on an arms embargo, this time aimed at depriving Villa of needed weaponry.


Villa's last-ditch attempt to run Carranza's troops from the border area failed at Agua Prieta, across from Douglas, Arizona. In an unprecedented move, the Wilson administration permitted Mexican federal troops to enter the U.S. in Texas and be transported by American railroads to Douglas, where they marched unhindered to reinforce the beleagured garrison and to put the finishing touches on Villa when he bullheadedly again led his horsemen into barbed wire and machinegun emplacements.


His armies gon, Villa was again a bandit - and more dangerous than ever. In January 1916, two months before the Columbus raid, a large gang of Villista cavalry, under Colonel Pablo López, was ordered by Villa to rob the train that carried American miners from Chihuahua to the mining town Cusihuiriachic. At the isolated station of Santa Isabél, a mining engineer, Charles Watson, and 16 U.S. citizens were forced from the train, stripped, and shot.


Gringos living on remote ranches, like the Wrights, were repeatedly molested, robbed, or summarily exicuted by Villa's foragers.


The resulting reinforcement of border towns by U.S. troops led to Pancho's much-deserved trouncing at Columbus and Pershing's relentless pursuit.


Although much derisive criticism has been leveled at Pershing and his sally into Mexico, his men were thumpingly victorious in every encounter-at-arms with the scattering Villistas.


Dashing south from the Columbus fiasco, Villla struck the mountain village of Namiquipa on March 18, and theere defeated the Carrancista garrison of 200 men.


Turning to attack Guerrero 10 days later, the chubby "centaur" was felled from behind during the fight by a bullet from a .44 Remington rolling block fired by one of his impressed "volunteers". The bullet shattered his shinbone, and he was hurriedly evacuated from Guerrero just hours before it was attacked by 370 troppers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry.


Led by 63-year-old Colonel George F. Dodd, the 7th charged Guerrero on horses that were completely jaded after a 55-mile march from Bachiniva over the difficult terrain of the Sierra Madre. Villistas poured wildly out of the town in the face of American pistol and rifle fire. Fifty-six guerrillas were killed, 35 wounded. The 7th reported none killed, five wounded.


On April 22, at Tomochic, Colonel Dodd again engaged the villa stragglers with a charge, mounted on exhausted, underfed horses. In this fray two Americans died and an estimated 30 Villistas were killed.


In a spectacular fight at a ranch known as Ojos Azules, Major Robert Howze led his 11th Cavalry, supplemented by a machinegun troop and a contingent of Apache scouts, in a pistol charge. the small mules carrying the machineguns and ammunition could not keep up, falling too far behind the charge to allow the guns to be brought into effective range. Despite barbed wire entanglements that prevented maneuvering of his troops, Howze charged directly at the ranch buildings.


Sixty-one bandits were slain, with not one U.S. casualty.


What has often been called the "prettiest" fight of the expedition was carried off by 2nd Lieutenant George Patton, in a style that was to characterize his actions for the rest of his carrer.


As aide to the gruff Pershing, the young wardog was eight years out of West Point and spoiling for action. Weary of dividing his time between acrounging corn for the expedition's starving horses and carrying dispatches relating Carranza's latest activities, Patton was delighted when the general detailed him to look into reports that one of Villa's most trusted confederates, Colonel Júlio Cárdenas, occasionally visited his wife at a ranch called San Miguelito.


After several days of detective work, during which Patton studied the layout of San Miguelito through binoculars, he became convinced on May 14 that Cárdenas had slipped onto the premises.


With about 15 men, including civilian guide E.L. Holmdahl, the fiesty young shavetail approached the fortress-like ranch complex in the lead of three open-topped Dodge touring cars. Then he executed the maneuver that was to characterize his actions for the remainder of his career.


He attacked!


Waving his ivory-stocked Peacemaker, Lieutenant Patton roared into position near the main gate of the ranch and leaped from his car.


Three horsemen clattered from the ranch at breakneck speed. Patton shouted for them to halt. The three armed riders wheeled and charged him, the leader yanking a rifle from his saddle scabbard, opening fire. At 60 feet, Patton calmly held and squeezed five rounds from his .45. His arms flapping from a hit, the leading bandit fell from his saddle, recovered, and ran through a doorway as Patton reloaded.


The second horseman, desperate to escape, spurred his horse toward freedom, passing in front of the officer's sixshooter. Patton later said that he then recalled the advice of a salty old Texas Ranger - the best way to stop a horseman is to stop his horse, which he did with one shot. When the rider arose, firing rapidly, Patton joined the other troopers in bring him down. The third rider was felled by rifle fire.


At this point Cárdenas broke from his cover, shooting, and was killed by one shot through the head from Holmdahl's revolver.


The dead Villistas were later identified as Colonel Cárdenas, Private Juan Garza, and Captain Isadór Lopez. the body of the bandit colonel bore five wounds, and his bandoliers held 35 empty cartridge loops.


George Patton was promoted to 1st lieutenant as a result of this action, and it remained one of his favorite reminiscences. The tow notches on the left ivory grip of the Patton Peacemaker are believed to have been placed there by him to represent the killings of Cárdenas and Garza.


Patton's Colt .45 is not one a matched pair, as many of his admirers believe. The ivory-handled revolver he frequently wore during World War II along with the Colt is a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum with a 3 1/2-inch barrel. It bears serial number 47022 and was shipped directly to Patton in Hawaii by the S&W factory on October 18, 1935. Patton later had the ivory, magna-type stocks fitted to the revolver.


During the days of Patton's fight and the other actions of our cavalry, President Wilson was constantly being assured by the Carranza government that Villa was dead, and that there was therefore no reason continued presence of U.S. troops in Mexico. Several clashes involving Mexican Federalists and U.S. cavalry occurred.


In September, the indefatigable Pancho, his wound healed, surfaced and attacked Satevó and Santa Isabél, killing hundreds of Carrancistas. Gathering followers, he looted Chihuahua on September 16 and "persuaded" 1000 Carrancistas to enlist in his army. Rapid successes at Parral, Correón, and Camargo followed. On Thanksgiving day, Villa reoccupied Chihuahua and picked up 2000 more Constitutionalist converts.


Pershing, enraged at the inactivity forced on him by Wilson's orders to avoid conflict with the Carrancista demands that he penetrate no further into Mexico, pleaded to be allowed to take Chihuahua and put Villa out of commission once and for all.


Anxious to avoid a war with Carranza's government that would entangle his army in Mexico and leave the U.S. prey to smouldering plots of Germany, Wilson sat on the indignant Pershing.


In January 1917, the problem resolved itself when Villa received his final trouncing by Federalists near Torreón.


After an emphatic whipping, the semiliterate cow stealer swapped out with his government. In return for the disbanding of his remaining forces, Pancho received a 25,000- acre ranch near Parral, Chihuahua, a paid-up bodyguard of 50 of his faithfuls, and total amnesty. He lived the good life, enjoying cockfighting and womanizing until a July day in 1923, when he was blasted into legend by an assassin's rifle fire as he drove to call on a paramour. It is said that his killer's subsequent release from prison was brought about by Villa's old nemesis, Alvaro Obregón.


Villa's army of irregulars scattered throughout the Republic, which has been more or less free of revolution since those bloody days. Even 50 years later, it's not too hard to find a grizzled old fighter in almost any Mexican village who will sip tequila with you and tell about riding with Villa when he outwitted the gringos.


Pershing's men were not outwitted. They found, engaged, and defeated their enemy under the most arduous of field conditions. Their primary task was not to capture Villa personally, but to destroy and scatter his band. This they accomplished within the limits set on them, and while so doing they seasoned and hardened the cadre of the American Expeditoinary force which was to become the salvation of the free world in 1917-1918.







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