by Byron A. Johnson, Director
"Never, never buy first and research later."
Collecting is the new "Wild West"
Enthusiasts and collectors would naturally like to own a piece of the Texas Ranger legend. EBay usually has more than a hundred "Texas Ranger" badges, patches and related items listed for sale at any time. The vast majority are replicas, fantasy items that never were, or outright fakes. Forgery and misrepresentation have become sophisticated, worth the effort because authentic 19th and early 20th century Texas Ranger artifacts command high prices. Every year we receive many calls about Colt Walker revolvers and early Ranger badges miraculously found at country antique auctions or on web sites. So far not one has been authentic or verifiable.
If you want to swim with the sharks, it is important to assure authenticity and verify its alleged Texas Ranger ownership and history. This page is a 'short course' and checklist intended to help.
Every year we receive dozens of questions about alleged Texas Ranger artifacts offered at auctions, gun shows and through the internet. The sad fact is that novice collectors spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on fake Texas Ranger badges and firearms with false or unverifiable Ranger provenance (ownership). Unscrupulous sellers rely on the same principals they have for thousands of years—buying in haste and failing to do research. They entice buyers with
- deceptively worded or vague statements
- questionable affidavits and worthless letters of authenticity
- opinions from unqualified or unnamed "experts"
- ticking online auction clocks
After the sale they hide behind "small print" sales and auction disclaimers, internet pseudonyms, email addresses, and PO Boxes.
Unfortunately the problem is rampant in the world of collecting. Federal prosecutors estimate that 60% to 90% of all sports memorabilia and autographs on the market are fraudulent. Sorry, Babe Ruth never saw that bat, and Michael Jordan never signed that basketball.
Determining the Authenticity of Texas Ranger Artifacts
Authenticating Texas Ranger artifacts is a complex process and must be grounded in proof—not hope or feelings that an item is "right." The two elements are:
(a) detailed information about the physical artifact, and
(b) proof of "provenance" — its verifiable history and chain-of-possession from the Texas Ranger to the present.
The Truth About Historic Texas Ranger Equipment
Texas Rangers themselves provided most of their firearms and equipment from 1823 to 1935. Their personal possessions and gear were not inventoried by the State. The scarcity of State records and standard equipment throughout most of Texas Ranger history has been a bonanza for fraudsters.
Firearms: Records of State-issued firearms are exceedingly rare. They have never been compiled and only rarely contain specific information—such as serial numbers— and the names of Rangers to whom they were issued. Fanciful histories of ownership have been attached to firearms along with bogus inscriptions, property tags and even altered serial numbers.
Badges: The first use of badges can be traced to the 1870s and 1880s. Until 1935 (when the Texas Department of Public Safety was created) most Texas Rangers did NOT wear badges. The few that had them received them as gifts for service or ordered them from jewelers, gunsmiths, or police supply companies. This lack of standardization is an open door for persons perpetuating fraud.
Fake badges have been made and sold since the 1940s, some with the names of famous Rangers inscribed on them. They were of many designs and sizes and could be made of any metal.
So how do museums approach authentication? 'Hard' evidence and common sense are the primary components.
Criteria for Authentication
#1 Integrity of the artifact:
- Is the item a known fake, replica, or fantasy item? Is it "made up" from parts or otherwise altered?
This can often be determined by personal research, a qualified specialist appraiser, or review by a museum professional with established credentials in the type of item.
Appraisers: Simply being a "general" appraiser is not a valid credential. Art and antiques appraisers are increasingly specialized in specific areas (Colt firearms as opposed to "guns") and charge fees for research and written opinions. Collectors organizations can be consulted for references to the the leading appraisers in various fields. Ask to see copies of their written reports if you consider commissioning them.
Museum Personnel: If time permits, museum curators and collections staff members are often willing to examine items. They will share their experienced observations and knowledge and suggest other sources and authorities. They will also be glad to explain their credentials. This is to help you make your own informed decision.
Reputable museums and museum staff will not authenticate, appraise or advise you on purchases for reasons of liability. Staff members are generally forbidden to collect, buy or sell the same material their museum collects, nor are they allowed to serve as consultants for collectors. They do not promote or advise on sales or authenticity at auctions and gun shows, especially in conjunction with dealers or collectors.
- Is the item appropriate for the time? Does it match the align with the history?of the Ranger?
Research the serial numbers on firearms to determine dates of manufacture. Dates of manufacture and dates of alleged use by a Texas Rangers often do not match up. A pistol made in 1895 and could not have been used in 1877. At Texas Ranger reunions in the 1920s through the 1940s some elderly Rangers wore replica badges and bought or borrowed pistols to wear. These "props" have sometimes been assumed to be the badges or pistols they wore in service.
Some serial numbers for Colt and Winchester firearms are available over the internet. Some factory manufacturing and shipping records are available for fees from Colt's Manufacturing Company or the Winchester Collection at the Cody Firearms Museum. The Smith and Wesson Collectors Association has a similar service. Research fees are normally charged by those institutions.
Dating hand-crafted items such as saddles, tack and clothing is approximate and more difficult. In most cases they have no exact markers.
- Is the general type or model of artifact known to have been used by the Texas Rangers—or a specific Texas Ranger—at the time claimed?
The common firearms and equipment used by Texas Rangers during specific periods are known. Biographies of specific Rangers and company histories may include information about what types of firearms and gear they used. While this is not proof of use, it can help rule out some items.
Unusual items are known to have been carried and have been verified; Capt. Dan Roberts is known to have carried a model 1900 Luger pistol. A Ranger who served in WWII brought back a German Schmeisser sub-machine gun and carried it as a backup weapon for years.
Beware of any of markings, inscriptions and presentation tags stating "Texas Rangers" or the names of Rangers. Some can be verified, but many are fraudulent. Beware of old paper or metal "museum tags" accompanying items or varnished to them. Fakes are common; an old "museum tag" is NOT an assurance of authenticity.
- In the case of modern Ranger-owned firearms, is the item a primary or "carry" weapon?
Primary Sidearms: The most historically significant of Texas Ranger firearms are their primary sidearms and rifles. Their survival may depend upon the arms they carry on a daily basis and they often form an attachment. Frank Hamer called his single-action Colt pistol "Old Lucky" using it long after it was obsolete.
Some of these are sold or given away, but many remain with the families as treasured heirlooms. Some Rangers have had more than one commonly carried sidearm. Some of these have been given as gifts to others or donated to charity.
"Barbecue Guns": Next in historical importance are "Barbecue guns" worn on special occasions that are finely engraved, inlaid and plated. They are are highly personal, providing insight into the tastes and interests of the Ranger.
Presentation Firearms: For more than a century firearms have been presented to Texas Rangers as gifts and mementos of service. Today the majority are proudly displayed and rarely fired. Some of these find their way onto the market after the death of the Ranger, or go through multiple hands when they are, in-turn, given as gifts to others or donated to charity.
"Charity Carry" Firearms: Some modern Texas Rangers have briefly carried pistols to aid charities; they are then auctioned off to raise funds for worthwhile causes. Often they have been carried briefly, but never fired by, a Texas Ranger. They do not have the personal or historical significance of primary sidearms or barbecue guns.
#2 Ranger Service:
- Was the individual in question actually a Texas Ranger? Do his known movements match the alleged history of the item?
The Armstrong Texas Ranger Research Center has a mail service that, for a small fee, will determine whether records are known proving Texas Ranger service. Please see the Tobin and Anne Armstrong Texas Ranger Research Center section of this site for details.
- Is there specific, verifiable proof of ownership by a specific Texas Ranger ?
First-hand Affidavits: An affidavit is a statement attesting to use or ownership signed and dated by the Texas Ranger or a reputable contemporary (first-hand) witness. They are often notarized or witnessed. These are NOT the same as a Letter of Authenticity from a collector or dealer.
Affidavits should contain an original signature, date and a detailed description of the item and its serial number if the item is a firearm.
Fake affidavits do exist, some allegedly signed by Rangers after their deaths. Dead men don't sign affidavits. Signatures can sometimes be compared with those in archives such as the Armstrong Texas Ranger Research Center. If an affidavit was notarized,the authenticity of the notary can be researched.
Living Texas Rangers who provide affidavits can sometimes be contacted to verify their use or ownership.
Second-hand affidavits: These are statements provided by relatives, descendants, or alleged associates and friends of the Texas Ranger. These should be viewed with skepticism, especially if the person the person is distant in time (e.g. a grandchild or great-grandchild) or blood relationship from the Texas Ranger. Affidavits from friends and associates, unless they are other Texas Rangers, should be viewed with extreme skepticism.
Letters of Authenticity: "Letters of Authenticity" from collectors or dealers are a staple in the field of collecting. They are misunderstood and generally worthless documents unless they are accompanied by detailed documentation and research.
Letters of Authenticity are frequently used in place of a warranties, affidavits and documentation. They usually contain no detailed documentation, guarantees or protection. Worse yet, they often contain disclaimers.
The following example is as an example used with sports memorabilia:
The item that accompanies this letter has been analyzed and documented by [company name]. Based on their findings, it has been verified that this was the ______ that _______used to __________.
This letter is to accompany this item wherever it goes, and is to be included on any sale of this item to future owners.
NOTE* This letter has been written in good faith by the ________. We are not responsible for any financial damage this letter may cause.
This is not an authenticated affidavit; it does not specifically cite supportive research and it is not a warranty. It is a disclaimer and waiver of liability protecting the seller!
In place of a letter of authenticity, require specific documentation and a warranty of sale specifying right-of-return.
A seller may quote or present the written opinion of an "expert." Opinions should not be considered only after determining (a) the credentials and qualifications of the person providing the opinion; and (b) should explicitly state the verifiable facts on which the opinion is based.
#3 Chain of Possession:
- Is there an unbroken chain of possession from the Ranger to the present?
If an item can be documented as having been in the family of a known Ranger for 150 years, and aligns with the Ranger's service, it is a major point in favor of authentication.
If an item "disappears" for decades with whereabouts unknown, or is suddenly discovered, it may be impossible to conclusively prove its ownership or use by a Texas Ranger.
Rules to Collect By . . .
- Learn: Your best defense against fraud is to educate yourself and never spend hard cash in haste: learn about the type of antique (firearm, badge, knife, etc.) and thoroughly research any Ranger purportedly associated with it before buying. Visit museums, talk with staff, look at historic photos, read books and become a scholar.
- Carefully examine and research all documentation before buying: Reputable auctioneers or dealers will back up statements of ownership, identification, condition and degree of originality with verifiable documentation. Statements like "attributed to," "experts believe," or "it is believed" are worthless without hard, supporting documentation. If there is none, walk away.
- Obtain a Written Guarantee and Right of Return: Insist that the seller provide a written and signed description of the item and a guarantee of authenticity with a right of return–at the buyer's discretion–for a reasonable period of time. If they balk, walk away.
- Verify the seller's contact information: Does the seller have a physical address and not just a PO Box, mail drop? Is their phone number a working number? This is frequently an issue with purchases made at gun shows and in online sales. Unscrupulous dealers/sellers hide behind anonymous user names, mail boxes, email accounts and questionable phone numbers.
- Always escrow payments for any collectibles you buy online to assure you receive them: Reputable dealers and auction houses work with third party escrow services to assure they receive their funds and you receive your purchases.
- "Affidavits" and Letters of Authenticity: As described above, thoroughly research all affidavits to assure they are genuine. Walk away from photocopied or unsigned/undated affidavits when an original does not exist. Third-party affidavits are generally of little value; statements that "my grandmother told me that Ranger Smith wore this badge" are unverifiable and therefore worthless.
- Review the credentials of "experts" presented by the seller or auctioneer. If they are "conveniently" available at auctions and gun shows, or have a relationship with the seller, their opinions and credentials should be questioned in proportion to the price of the item. Expert opinion is of no value unless backed by evidence and documentation. "Feelings" that the item is "right" are worthless.
- Wise collecting requires patience, time and effort. Two ancient rules are (1) if it seems too good to be true, it usually is; and (2) act in haste repent at leisure. Dishonest sellers depend on buyer infatuation with their wares, haste, and fear of losing "the big one."