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Old Colt SAA Revolver & the U.S. Border Patrol: A Legacy

Old Colt SAA Revolver & the U.S. Border Patrol: A Legacy

Congress passed the Labor Appropriations Act in 1924, which created the United States Border Patrol to curb the smuggling of contraband and people alike. Early requirements to be considered for employment included recruits providing their own horse and saddle. The early ranks of the Border Patrol, simply referred to as “The Patrol” by its members, were filled by lawmen, cowboys and some other government employees. One of the original men who joined up for some excitement patrolling the border was Myles Scannell. Scannell was already a seasoned lawman when he joined the Border Patrol. He had served as an Army Scout, a Texas Ranger and had hired on with the U.S. Immigration Service as a Mounted Watchmen, the predecessor to the Border Patrol.

It was on the ninth of September, 1929 that the 33-year-old Patrol Inspector (PI) found himself near a place called El Polvo, the Spanish word for dust, near present-day Redford, Texas. Working alone, PI Scannell arrested some men on the banks of the Rio Grande who had illegally entered into the United States. We do not know if the group consisted of workers crossing illegally into this country for labor, or smugglers. Whatever the case was, they did not want to be taken into custody. Reports state that while walking with the arrestees, Scannell was shot from ambush. When his partner later found him, he was dead. PI Scannell had received gunshot wounds, been stabbed over a dozen times, and was badly beaten. It is unknown who he had in custody, who murdered the young lawman, or if they were ever brought to justice.

Passing on a Lawman’s Gun

Scannell’s partner, Earl Fallis, another old-time Border Patrolman, fell heir to Scannell's Colt Single Action Army revolver. The revolver left the Colt factory in 1898 and was shipped to Austin, Texas. It is chambered in 38-40 WCF, has a 4¾-inch barrel, wears one-piece ivory stocks that have yellowed deeply with the passing of time, and has a small golden badge with a star etched in it inlayed in the right side of the grip. The small badge could be an old Texas Ranger badge, but the bluing and color-case hardening of the old Colt have long since worn away from heavy use, so nobody is sure.

Like Scannell, Fallis was one of the first men to hire on with the Border Patrol. Fallis, no stranger to adventure and excitement, served under General Blackjack Pershing’s 10th Cavalry during the Punitive Expedition—pursuing Pancho Villa through the wilds of Mexico. Fallis joined the Patrol in 1925 and retired in 1950; he passed away in 1977 at age 83.

Late in his life, Fallis sold the gun to Scott Smith, another well-known Border Patrolman in Alpine, Texas who kept the old sixgun for many years and cherished it for its historical connections. Scott Smith worked in the Big Bend country from 1967 until retiring in 1988, when he became caretaker of an area ranch. Upon his death in 2000, Smith’s family passed the Colt to his life-long friend, the legendary signcutter Charlie Pirtle.

Charlie Pirtle and Scott Smith grew up together in deep south Texas around San Benito. They shot, hunted, fished, rodeoed, and had a grand time with one another until each went their separate ways and joined the Border Patrol at different times in their early adult lives. Smith was stationed in Marfa and Alpine, while Pirtle landed his job in Las Cruces, New Mexico, were he worked his entire career from 1961-1985.

Charlie Pirtle was well known on both sides of the border for his ability to read foot sign and track people.  He was equally famous for his skill with a handgun. 

After Charlie’s death in 2008 at age 74, the Scannell Colt was passed on to his son, Carl, who is a Supervisory Border Patrol Agent in Arizona. Carl is a “chip off the old block” and has enjoyed a great career in the Border Patrol. His intentions are to later pass the Colt on to Dustin Smith, Scott Smith’s grandson, who is also a Supervisory Border Patrol Agent along the Texas-Mexico border.

One old Colt Single Action Army revolver, whose original owner gave the ultimate sacrifice to uphold the laws of the United States, and six generations of Border Patrol Agents, all connected by history, nostalgia and great pride in serving their country. The history of these men and the old Colt span from a time when a man had to supply his own horse to patrol the Rio Grande and the desert mountains, to a time when space-age technology is deployed to secure the borders of the United States. While many things have changed since PI Scannell’s murder, others have remained the same. The Colt SAA and the service and dedication from our Border Patrol Agents, as demonstrated and lived by these agents named here, are as relevant today as they were in 1924. May it forever be so…

(Special thanks to Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Carl Pirtle for his assistance and photograph for this story)

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