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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Hardin's Shotgun

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
When Dave George took over as manager of San Antonio’s historic Buckhorn Saloon in 2000, he found a beat up old side-by-side shotgun in his office.

“It was sitting in the corner,” he recalls. “The double barrels were separated and covered in rust. An old piece of paper was glued to the stock.”

The muzzle-loading, percussion cap 12-gauge was manufactured in Birmingham, England by the W & C Scott and Son firearms factory. (The venerable brand is now owned by London’s Holland and Holland.)

Despite the weapon’s shoddy appearance, an acquaintance told George he needed to look into its provenance.

“There’s some history about that gun,” he said. Unfortunately, no one then connected with the Buckhorn knew just what that history was.
Buckhorn Curio Store in San Antonio TX
Buckhorn Curio Store in San Antonio
Postcard courtesy rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

The history of the Buckhorn, however, is easier to trace. Founded in 1881 by Albert Friedrich, it became a San Antonio institution largely on the basis of its innovative business model: Anyone brining in a set of deer antlers could trade them for a shot of whiskey or a cold beer. Later, Friedrich began to take other items in trade, including firearms.

His saloon prospered. By the time prohibition came along, the place had become as much a museum and curio shop as saloon, so he survived the dry days as well as the Great Depression.

In 1956, Lone Star Beer bought the saloon and moved the horns and other relics to its brewery. Lone Star operated the Buckhorn until Stroh’s Beer acquired the company in 1998. To keep the collection in San Antonio, Friedrich’s granddaughter and her husband bought it and reopened the Buckhorn at 318 E. Houston St. only a few blocks from it original location.

One of the items reacquired by the Friedrich family was the shotgun George discovered when hired to run the Buckhorn.

The faded piece of paper attached to the old scattergun did offer a major clue, but it did not tell the whole story. It read:

“This gun belonged to John Wesley Hardin and was used by him to kill the Sheriff of DeWitt County.

“He later gave the gun to Sheriff J.C. Jones of Gonzales County who killed several men with it in the interest of law and order.”

O.D. Mangum of Victoria somehow came into possession of the shotgun and in 1937 conveyed it to the Buckhorn.

The label writer, probably Friedrich, did not think it necessary to note that Hardin reigned as Texas’ most prolific 19th century outlaw, killing 44 or so men before being sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1878. Pardoned in 1894, Hardin made it only 17 months before constable John Selman gunned him down in an El Paso saloon on Aug. 19, 1895.

Though Hardin had owned the shotgun, as George explained, “the surprise was finding out that the sheriff of DeWitt County was Jack Helm, the most notorious of the men who had served in the State Police of the early 1870s. I realized this as I was sitting in my office reading Hardin's autobiography.”

In that book, published not long after his violent demise, Hardin gave his version of his career, including the killing of Helm. The book also features an artist’s drawing of Hardin shooting the 12-gauge at the sheriff. Hardin seems to have been born mean, but when he picked a wife, he borrowed more trouble by marrying into Texas’ bloodiest feud, the Sutton-Taylor vendetta. Jane Bowen Hardin belonged to the Taylor family while Helm – appointed DeWitt County sheriff after the abolition of the State Police in April 1873 -- played a prominent role on the Sutton side.

To give a killer his due, Hardin desired to stay out of the feud. But he was a wanted man living in the jurisdiction of Helm. Not long after becoming sheriff, Helm ran into Hardin and offered him a deal: Side with the Suttons and he would look the other way on the criminal charge pending against him.

Helm gave Hardin a while to think it over, but before that time elapsed, he and a posse of pro-Sutton riders surrounded Hardin’s house one day while he was away and demanded to know his whereabouts. Hardin’s terrified wife refused to say.

When Hardin returned to find his pregnant wife upset, rather than make the choice demanded by Helm he came up with his own plan.

Armed with the double barrel, Hardin confronted Helm outside a blacksmith shop in the small Wilson County town of Albuquerque. For backup he brought along fellow feudist Jim Taylor, who toted a six-shooter. Though accounts of what happened vary, the result is not disputed.

Helm “fell,” as Hardin later wrote, “with 12 buckshot in his breast and several six-shooter balls in his head.” The sheriff had the honor being Hardin’s 31st victim.

When some of Helms’ allies threatened Hardin and Taylor, Hardin trained the shotgun on them. The men backed off and Hardin and Taylor vamoosed.

“The news soon spread that I had killed Jack Helms,” Hardin wrote. “I received many letters of thanks from the widows of men whom he had cruelly put to death. Many of the best citizens of Gonzales and DeWitt counties patted me on the back and told me that was the best act of my life.”

Alas, good deeds seldom go unpunished. When Hardin gunned down a deputy sheriff and former Texas Ranger in Comanche County in 1874, he left Texas. Sometime before going on the lam he gave the shotgun to Jones, later (Nov. 2, 1880) elected sheriff of Gonzales County. Three years later a ranger caught up with Hardin in Florida and soon he languished in jail pending trial.

More than a century-and-a-quarter later, George sent the Hardin shotgun off for restoration. Now, spiffed up and lethal looking, it’s on display behind glass at the Buckhorn.

But there’s one more mystery. No one knows exactly when Hardin used the shotgun to kill Helm. Hardin remembered the date as May 17, 1873, but contemporary newspapers, while not being precise, indicate the shooting occurred in the third week of July that year.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
August 27, 2008 column
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