Guns of Mexico’s Freedom Fighters

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Mexican Revolutionists’ rifles ran the entire gamut of small arms of the era. This period image shows a squad of freedom fighters taking aim with a variety of lever‑action Winchesters, Mauser bolt-actions and a single-shot Remington Rolling Block rifle. – All Images Courtesy Phil Spangenberger Collection Unless Otherwise Noted –

Whether they served with Pancho Villa in the north, Emiliano Zapata in the south, or any number of guerilla bands, the men, women and children who fought against oppression in Mexico’s 1910 Revolution armed themselves with almost any firearm they could lay their hands on. The citizen freedom fighters—vaqueros, farmers, city workers and rural peones—fought the Mexican Federal Army and the United States Army during the Punitive Expedition of 1916. As guerilla leader Emiliano Zapata told an elderly volunteer in 1913, who was armed with only a crude, homemade shotgun, “If it shoots, it’s welcome in the Revolution.”

Backed by Diaz’s corrupt government, the Mexican Federal Army was well equipped by Germany, which showed great interest in Mexico at the time, and armed them mostly with 7mm Model 1895 Mauser, bolt-action rifles. Various Mexican regimes purchased Model 1902 and 1912 Mausers and some Japanese 7mm Arisaka rifles. The Federales also imported a number of semi-auto, 7x57mm Mondragón rifles, designed in Mexico, but mostly manufactured in Switzerland (later, in 1908 Mexico). Many of these federal arms eventually made their way to the Revolucionarios, who relied almost entirely on captured or privately purchased arms.

Ammunition for handguns ranged from the smallest .22 rimfires, .32 S&W and .38 Short, to the beefy American frontier-era rifle/revolver loads like .38-40, .44-40 and .45 Colt, loaded in such six-guns as 1873 Colt single actions and their later double actions. Colt Bisleys (said to be a personal favorite of Pancho Villa), Remingtons, S&Ws, Merwin Hulberts and others were also heavily used. For shoulder arms, besides captured Mausers, the most popular arms of the mounted rebel vaqueros were the slab-sided, lightweight and saddle-friendly 1873 and 1892 Winchesters, along with various models of like-chambered Marlins. These arms would preferably carry the .38-40 and .44-40 rounds. Later models, like Winchester’s 1894 models, were especially favored in the .30 WCF. That company’s 1895 model would likely be stoked with .30-40 Krag, and .30-06 Springfield. Any arm produced up through the time of the revolt could have been used.

vaquero firarms guns true west magazine
This vaquero was fortunate to acquire a 7x57mm, 1895 Mauser carbine, which was lighter and easier to use on horseback than the long infantry rifle. In the typical fashion of the freedom fighters from south of the border, he’s carrying two bandoleers of cartridges for his carabina. Many of Villa’s and Zapata’s troops carried as many as four or more bandoleros of ammunition.

Bolt-action rifles carried high-powered military smokeless rifle ammunition, including the 7x57mm Mauser, .30-06 Springfield and .30-40 Krag. Even hunting rifle rounds that were scrounged up saw use, including the popular .38-56 Winchester, designed for the 1886 Winchester lever action and employed in the 1895 Marlin lever gun, as well as the various .40, .45 and .50 caliber loads produced for such sporting arms. Other old, but still deadly calibers, including the all-but-obsolete black powder .45-70 Government load, which could be used in 1881 Marlins and 1886 Winchesters, surplus 1873 Springfield “trapdoors” and the like would not be turned away. Except for the .30-30 round, which the revolutionists usually seemed to be able to get lots of, obtaining quantities of other types of sporting ammo was difficult.

Another breed of firearm used in the Revolucion, including Villa’s 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, was the single-shot Remington Rolling Block rifle. Mexico’s government Rurales mounted police carried M-1897 Remington Rolling Block carbines in 7.92mm Mauser chambering, and a number of these carabinas, were “repatriated” by the rebels.

Machine guns ran the gamut from old Colt M-1895, 7mm “Potato diggers,” a few Gatling guns, a handful of Lewis guns (likely stolen from American forces), a few 1896 Hotchkiss 7mm machine guns, Model 1911 Madsens and some German Maxims.

The Revolucionarios rose from a small band of ill-equipped vaqueros, working class townspeople and rural peasants, to become a formidable and victorious fighting force that lived off the land, gathered what weapons they could and eluded their enemies with regularity, while waging war to the cries of Viva Villa!, Viva Zapata and Viva la Revolucion!

mexican vaquero guns true west magazine
One of the most popular arms with the Revolucionarios was Winchester’s Model 1894 lever gun in .30-30 caliber, as seen in this photo of a simply dressed, but well-armed and beautifully tacked out vaquero. Although the popular Mexican folk song, “Carabina Treinta Treinta” (.30-30 Carbine) is thought to be a song from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, it was actually from the 1949 Mexican movie ¡Arriba el Norte!. Nevertheless, the song reflects Mexico’s fight for freedom from oppression.
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Zapatista commander Refugio Sanchez and some of his men posed for this 1914 portrait of Mexico’s freedom fighters. Interestingly, Sanchez carries a Colt “Lightning” pump rifle, while his compadre to the right sports a Model 1899 Savage, in either .303 Savage, or most likely the easier to acquire .30-30 Winchester round.
mexican women freedom fighters true west magazine
Zapata’s army was unique in that he allowed women, known as soldaderas, to join the ranks and serve as combatants (a few even became officers), while other revolutionary forces allowed the women to follow the men but not to fight. In this photo, Mujeres Patriotas brandish their sabers, revolvers and bandoleers of ammunition for Mexican photographer Flores Perez.
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In this seldom seen photograph, Pancho Villa holds a 7mm Hotchkiss machine gun, and is accompanied by his friend, Karl von Hoffman (wearing light cardigan sweater), an adventurer, soldier, author, explorer and the cinematographer of the 1914 D.W. Griffith movie, The Life of General Villa, featuring the general himself. Hoffman’s knowledge of machine guns was of great value to Villa.
women army mexico true west magazine
Women and children followed both the federal and the revolutionist armies, sometimes fighting alongside them. This little rebel girl is typical of the soldaderas, or “Adelitas,” as the women camp followers and combatants were often called. She’s loaded down with a Winchester lever gun and what appears to be an Iver Johnson revolver in her holster, along with two bandoleers of rifle ammo and a waist belt full of cartuchos.
– True West Archives –

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