The early years of the 20th century were a time of transition in the Southwest. This was especially true for law enforcement. Men who had started their careers riding horseback in pursuit of rustlers and bandits soon were called upon to deal with fast cars, Tommy guns and gangsters. Some of the lawmen couldn’t make the change while others who did became legends. One of those was Texas Ranger Capt. Frank Hamer.
Hamer was born on March 17, 1884, in Wilson County, Texas, down below San Antonio. While still a child, his family moved to San Saba County, in the Texas hill country, where his father ran a blacksmith shop. Hamer grew up helping his father in the shop, but the lure of the cowboy life soon took hold of him. Fully grown, Frank Hamer stood 6-feet, 3-inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds.
By the early 1900s Hamer was working on ranches along the Pecos River in far western Texas. On several occasions he was instrumental in catching some of the rustlers who plagued the area. He was so successful that one of the western Texas sheriffs sponsored him for a place in the Texas Rangers. Frank Hamer enlisted in the Ranger service on April 21, 1906, joining Company C, commanded by the cool and professional Capt. John H. Rogers.
As a private in Co. C, Hamer worked the country along the Rio Grande from horseback. In those days, a Ranger company traveled around its assigned area, usually hundreds of square miles, just as they had done in the 1800s. They investigated reports of cattle rustling, smuggling from south of the border, and were continually on the lookout for wanted outlaws. It was still very much a frontier undertaking.
Back in those days, being a Texas Ranger was not the glorious job to which it has come to be regarded. Rangers generally camped out, could be sent anywhere in the state, were discouraged from being married and having a family, and they did it all for $30 to $50 per month, assuming the state treasury wasn’t broke. Enlistments were generally for two-year periods, and Rangers often decided not to re-enlist due to better job offers in other branches of law enforcement.
Although Hamer carried a Texas Ranger commission from 1906 until 1933, there are a number of periods during which he had resigned for better pay. During those times, he served as the city marshal of Navasota, Texas, as a special officer for the city of Houston, Texas, and as a federal Prohibition officer. Another factor in this job skipping was that Rangers served under the direct control of the state governor. And, especially during the early 1900s, governors used Ranger commissions as political plums. In certain administrations, corruption was rampant. In fact, Hamer and the entire Ranger force resigned in 1933 when Miriam “Ma” Ferguson took office.
In spite of these breaks in service, Hamer was a Ranger captain by the early 1920s. He had been involved in more than 50 gun battles and had been wounded a number of times. Throughout his lifetime, he was a private man. He would not discuss his gunfights and adamantly refused to say how many men he had killed. Legend takes over when a man like Hamer won’t talk, and the claim was often made that he had killed more than 40 men and one woman. I once told his son, Frank Hamer, Jr., that I thought the actual number was probably less than a dozen, and he told me I was right.
For a man to have survived this much gun smoke, he had to be good with a firearm, and Hamer was certainly that. In a time when most men shot well, he was known as an expert. He practiced long-range handgunning because he said a man didn’t know when he might have to shoot at a distance and not have a rifle handy. He was an avid hunter and known for his ability with a rifle. In fact, given a choice, Hamer preferred to do his fighting with a rifle.
Throughout his lengthy career, his favorite handgun was a single-action Colt .45 that he called “Old Lucky.” It’s unknown when he first acquired the gun, but it is described as a C-engraved, 4 3/4-inch-barreled, blued revolver. Like many lawmen of his era, Hamer adorned Old Lucky with carved pearl stocks, Gen. Patton’s injudicious remark notwithstanding. Hamer once told an interviewer that he rarely shot from the hip, preferring instead to bring the gun to eye level and use the sights. He didn’t think much of any officer who sprayed the countryside with lead when one good shot would do the trick.
But Hamer was also a believer in carrying a backup gun when the situation warranted it. One handgun that was a favorite of his was the Smith & Wesson 1st Model Hand Ejector (mfg. 1908-1915), which has come to be called the Triple Lock, in .44 Spl. Being a southpaw, Hamer carried Old Lucky on his left hip and often strapped the Triple Lock on his right hip, or in a shoulder holster.
Another favorite backup gun, as will be seen, was the Colt Government Model in .38 Super (introduced in 1929). Like many of his contemporaries, Hamer didn’t completely trust autoloading pistols. But he chose the .38 Super because of its ability to penetrate car bodies and the early “bulletproof” vests that some gangsters used.
Early photos of Capt. Hamer show him armed with a Winchester Model 1894 carbine, probably in .30-30 Win., and also a Savage Model 1899. Hamer likely was experimenting with various rifles to try to find the one that best suited him.
In about 1920, he found that gun in the Remington Model 8 autoloading rifle, manufactured from 1906 to 1936. The Remington Model 8 was chambered for the .25 Rem., .30 Rem., .32 Rem., and .35 Rem. cartridges. A John Browning design, the recoil-operated rifle featured a full-length steel sleeve that covered the entire barrel.
Hamer’s first Model 8 was in .25 Rem., and he used it during most of his Ranger career. The Ranger’s prowess with the rifle, however, soon came to the attention of Remington, and it presented him with a factory-engraved Model 8 in .30 Rem., which he prized. Of one gunfight down on the Rio Grande, a fellow officer once said that, when Hamer got his Model 8 into action, it sounded like a machine gun going off.
One of the best examples of Hamer’s ability to deal with a deadly encounter was a gunfight that occurred Oct. 1, 1916, in the western Texas town of Sweetwater. Although the fight was not connected to law enforcement, it is a good example of the man’s coolness under fire.
For some time, western Texas had been in the throes of a feud between the Johnson and Sims families. Hamer, who had recently married W.A. Johnson’s daughter, Gladys, was serving as a bodyguard for Johnson during a series of trials relating to some killings. Another former Ranger, Gee McMeans, was a son-in-law on the Sims side of the dispute.
When court proceedings were continued in Baird, Texas, Hamer started the drive back to his home in Snyder. In the car with him were his wife, Gladys, brother Harrison Hamer, and Gladys’ brother, Emmett Johnson. The quartet drove into Sweetwater and stopped at a garage on the town square to have a flat tire fixed. Gladys stayed in the car, Harrison and Emmett went off to find a restroom, and Frank went in to the garage office.
While this was going on, H.E. Phillips was sneaking up on Hamer with a shotgun in his hands. Seeing this, Gladys Hamer began shooting at Phillips with her Colt Pocket Auto. When Mrs. Hamer ran out of ammunition, Phillips closed for the kill. However, his shotgun blast, fired at close range, missed Hamer entirely. It merely tore off most of Hamer’s hat brim. And Hamer, stunned, went to the ground.
McMeans and Phillips, seeing that their plan hadn’t worked quite like it was supposed to, beat a hasty retreat back to their car. About this time, Hamer jerked his .44 Triple Lock and went after them. Seeing McMeans pull another shotgun from the car, with one shot Hamer hit him in the chest and killed him. Phillips, shotgun in hand, took off down the sidewalk, looking for a climate that had a little less lead in it.