everybody knows that Sheriff Pat Garrett of Lincoln County, New Mexico
Territory, shot and killed a 21-year-old bandit named Henry McCarty,
who usually went by Billy the Kid, in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom at Fort
Sumner in July, 1881. What most people don’t know is that Pat Garrett
was himself murdered in Doña Ana County, New Mexico 27 years later.
The murder of Pat Garrett is one of the many unsolved mysteries of
Garrett had been sheriff of several New Mexico counties, including
Lincoln and Doña Ana. He also operated a ‘private detective’ company
which traced and recovered stolen cattle, ‘taking care of’ the thieves,’
usually by leaving them full of holes. At one point he worked as a
detective for Southern Pacific Railroad. While he was working for
SP he was stationed for a time in Seguin,
Texas. His youngest son, Jarvis, was born in Seguin.
No matter what he did, Garrett never really made much of a success
at life. In 1908 he was running sheep on rented land in Doña Ana County.
That he’d made a number of enemies there was no doubt—anyone who works
in law enforcement makes enemies. It goes with the job. However, Pat
was not a likeable fellow—even a lot of other lawmen didn’t like him—and
he apparently made enemies in just about everything he did.
Garrett and two other men were in a wagon at a particularly desolate
spot in Doña Ana County, either on the way to look over some sheep
or on the way back from looking over some sheep Garrett was trying
to buy. The stories differ. The wagon stopped and Garrett got down
to relieve himself by the back wheel. As he stood, someone fired a
single rifle shot. It struck Pat Garrett in the back of his head,
just at the base of his skull. He was dead when he hit the ground.
Wayne Brazeal, who was along on the journey but was no friend of Garrett’s,
rolled the dead man over and fired a single round from his pistol
into Garrett’s chest. He then mounted a horse, rode into Las Cruces,
confessed to murdering Garrett, and was arrested. However, he was
acquitted of the crime since the third man testified that Brazeal
shot a corpse—Garrett was already dead from the rifle shot to his
head when Brazeal shot him.
fired the shot that killed Pat Garrett? There’s never been a positive
answer to that. In my discussions with Leon C. Metz, one of Garrett’s
many biographers—though probably the most thorough of them—the name
Jim Miller kept cropping up. Jim—known as ‘Deacon Jim’ because, given
an hour or so to prepare, he could deliver a half-hour Hellfire-and-brimstone
Methodist sermon on any subject in the Bible; and as ‘Killer Miller’
because he would kill anyone for $50—is known to have been in the
Las Cruces area about the time Pat was killed.
Jim Miller, though, preferred to use a shotgun. Specifically, he used
one he could conceal beneath his long frock coat. Garrett was armed
that day, both with the .44 caliber Colt he’d used to shoot Billy
the Kid and with a long-barreled 10-ga shotgun. Jim would have had
to get in close to use his favorite weapon—entirely too close. Garrett
probably knew Jim by sight—most West
Texas and New Mexico lawmen did—and if he’d seen Jim Miller coming
he would have used his own shotgun. He had a definite range advantage
with the longer barrel.
That left Jim, if indeed he was the shooter, no choice but a rifle.
But what kind of rifle?
A man’s head is an uncertain target, particularly at considerable
range. People move their heads. They nod, look around, tilt them—all
of which makes a head a bad target. Besides, at 150 to 200 yards,
a man’s head is not a big target. It appears about the size of a small
English pea. In these days of high-velocity rifles with telescopic
sights, it would be fairly easy to target a man’s head. In the days
of open sights, the front sight would completely obscure a human head.
Considering the landscape in that particular part of Doña Ana County,
an assassin would need to be anywhere from 150 to 200 yards from where
the wagon stopped to be concealed. At that sort of range the actual
target would be ‘where the suspenders cross’—just about between the
shoulderblades. It would be a one-shot kill, because the bullet would
penetrate the heart.
The most common caliber of rifle all across the West at the time was
the .44 Winchester Central Fire or .44-40. Winchester produced the
M1873 and M1892 in that caliber, Marlin likewise produced a rifle
and carbine in that caliber, and there were several imports in that
caliber. While a .44-40 carbine or rifle was a very good weapon at
close range—out to 100 yards or so—beyond that range velocity dropped
dramatically and the bullet did too. A .44-40 carbine, sighted in
for 100 yards, would hit nearly a foot below point of aim at 200.
Therefore, the base of the skull would be the proper aiming point
in order to hit a man Garrett’s size ‘where the suspenders cross.’
However, there were a couple of new kids on the block by 1908. A new
weapon made its debut in the West 14 years earlier—the Winchester
M1894. By 1908 its most popular caliber was .30 WCF—the famous .30-30.
A year after the ’94 came out, Winchester produced the M1895, chambered
for, among other calibers, the .30 US cartridge, also known as the
.30-40 Krag. Compared to the trajectory of the .44-40—or even its
slightly more effective brother, the .38-40— either of the new cartridges
was a wonder. The Krag was originally a black powder cartridge, pushing
a 200 grain bullet with only 40 grains of powder, but the bullet was
much more ballistically efficient than the fat, flat-nosed slug of
the .44-40. When the loading went to smokeless powder things improved
a lot. With a muzzle velocity of in excess of 2000 fps, the Krag round
was extremely flat-shooting. The .30-30 was designed originally as
a smokeless-powder round. It had a selection of slugs, anywhere from
about 140 grains to 180. With any round, it had a muzzle velocity
of 2000+ feet per second. This meant, in both cases, that bullet drop
at 200 yards would be inches, not a foot or so—and not many inches
The assassin chose to use one of the new rifles chambered for a smokeless
powder round to avoid giving away his position after he fired. He
was used to the old reliable .44-40, sighted for 100 yards. He was
aware of how far the .44-40’s slug would drop at 200 yards. He compensated
for the drop by aiming at the top of Garrett’s head. However, he was
using either a.30-30 or a .30-40, also sighted for 100 yards. Either
through force of habit or because he had never fired the weapon at
200 yards and did not know how little the bullet would drop at that
range, he drew the same bead he would have drawn with his .44-40.
By some chance Garrett did not move his head. The bullet struck him
at the base of the skull, killing him instantly.
Of course, Miller was never tried and convicted of Garrett’s murder.
In fact, it would have been difficult to find a jury that would have
convicted anyone of Garrett’s murder. He’d made so many enemies in
New Mexico that most of the citizens breathed a sigh of relief at
hearing he’d been killed.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
9, 2008 column
Related Topics: People
| Columns | Texas
by C. F. Eckhardt
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