American Handgunner, Nov-Dec, 1999 by Massad Ayoob
Situation: A controversial modern legend, Askins killed 27 men during his heyday.
Lesson: No hesitation to kill kept the Colonel alive, but also led to questionable shootings.
The death of Col. Charles Askins, Jr. last year closed a hell-for-leather life that lasted nine decades. He was a national pistol champion, one of the first winners of the Outstanding American Handgunner of the Year Award and a big game hunter with an impressive collection of trophies from all over the world. He aggressively sought out maximum action in his careers, first as a lawman and then as a soldier.
He was also a stone cold killer. For those of us who knew him, there was just no gentler way to put it.
Charlie’s contemporary, Bill Jordan, once said that killing your first man is the hardest and after that it gets easier, but for a certain kind of man, it can get too easy. Some thought old Bill was talking about Charlie. Not without reason did Askins title his autobiography Unrepentant Sinner.
Any future history of 20th century gunfighters will have to devote a substantial chapter to Cal. Askins. The son of a prominent hunter and gunwriter, Junior followed in Senior’s footprints and left some marks deeper than his dad.
Charles Askins, Jr. killed dozens of men, both in war and on the streets. When asked for an official body count, the Colonel replied, “Twenty-seven, not counting [blacks] and Mexicans.”
Askins was bright, thoughtful and without fear, but he had a darker side. The man’s prejudices spoke for themselves. Charlie once confessed to a friend that he thought he was a psychopathic killer, and that he hunted animals so avidly because he wasn’t allowed to hunt men anymore.
He was sometimes too willing to kill. A reading of Unrepentant Sinner shows confessions to murder and manslaughter. Yet among the many Askins gunfights, there were also acts of heroism, shootouts against the odds that he won with his coolness under fire and his deadly marksmanship.
He spent a lot of his life teaching assorted Good Guys to win firefights, and when the Final Ledger is tallied, one hopes that is taken into account on the credit side.
Let’s examine some of the life-saving lessons Askins left behind.
Askins learned early that a rifle or shotgun always beats a sidearm when trouble is in the offing. His favorites included the lever action Savage Model 99 in caliber .250/3000. For close work, he was partial to the Remington Model 11, a clone of the Browning 12 gauge Automatic-5, with an extended magazine. Night sights not yet being available, he tied a white bandage around the muzzle to index the weapon in the dark.
Askins put the speed of fire to good use. He wrote of one shootout in east El Paso, where he employed a Winchester .351 semiautomatic carbine:
“One night at the foot of Piedras Street, which runs slapbang into Cordoba Island, a team of Patrol officers watched a gang of smugglers scramble out of the willows in the river bottom and pile their load of liquor into an old Hudson sedan.
“Then the cargadores turned and raced nimbly for the protection of the Mex side of the line. Three cholos piled into the old car and commenced to drive away. The BP vehicle pulled up beside the runner’s vehicle and with guns drawn, we motioned the driver to halt.
“The Hudson came to a stop just as I set foot on the ground. The officer who was in the rear seat also alighted. The driver of the gov’t vehicle threw the door open on the left side and hit the ground. He stepped down just as a gunman sitting beside the driver of the old Hudson swung a Model 94 carbine behind the driver’s head and let go at the Patrol officer in front.
“He was struck in the head by the .38/55 bullet and fell dead. The bullet broke up in his skull and a major fragment exited and by a strange coincidence struck the patrolman alighting from the back seat in the head. It did not kill him, but knocked him unconscious.
“Thus in the space of two heartbeats and with only a single round, the contrabandista had knocked out two patrolmen and had only myself to contend with.
“I ran round behind the smuggler’s car and opened fire. I shot the gunman through the eye, the bullet exiting through his temple. I kept right on firing and shot the driver through the kidneys. He later died. A third smuggler in the back seat cautiously poked a sixshooter up over the back seat and got shot through the hand for his pains.
“By this time I was busy reloading. The gunman, despite the fact that he had a bullet through his right eye which had passed out through his temple, managed to pull the driver from beneath the wheel and with him out of the way, got in the driver’s seat and drove the old sedan for a couple of blocks down the street where he crashed it into a tree.
“The Border Patrol in those days, as I have said, had no radio communication. I cranked up the old patrol car, after loading the dead and wounded, and got to a telephone and called Patrol headquarters. Before the night was done the trio, the dead and wounded, were all rounded up. It had been a big evening. I did not feel much regrets over the loss of the patrolman. I had never liked him much anyway. The second lad, who had picked up a jacket fragment, was not seriously hurt.” 
On another night, Askins used the Remington autoloading shotgun, loaded with the 00 buckshot he called “blue whistlers.” He recounted:
“They came out of the shadows and, as it was brightest moonlight, I could see every manjack had a long gun in his hands. We let them get up to within nine paces of us and I fired the first shot.
“I had the old Remington with its 9shot magazine and I knocked down the first two rannies in as many shots. I then switched my attention to the other three who did not like the heat. They ran back into Mexico, a distance of about 60 yards and opened fire.
“An interesting facet of this little exchange was that the lobo in the lead had an old Smith & Wesson .44 Russian. Despite the fact that he had a load of my 00 buckshot through his middle and one of the boys had hit him spang on the breastbone with a .351 slug, he dropped to his knees behind a cottonwood sapling and kept right on shooting.
“The .44 Russian is a single-action and this bravo had to thumb the hammer back for each shot. He got off three rounds before a second charge of my buckshot ended his career,
“Quite as interesting, really, was the second gunman who had a Westley Richards 10 gauge loaded with Winchester High Speed #5 shot. We had killed him before he could touch off either barrel. A most happy circumstance since the distance between both parties was only nine steps. I have the Westley Richards today, a memento of lively times long past.” 
Today, Johnnie Cochran would be hired by the families of the deceased to sue Charlie and the whole Border Patrol for opening fire on the heavily armed gang without warning. Yet doing as they did undoubtedly saved multiple Patrolmen from being killed or maimed. As the saying goes, “Things were different then.”
Weapon retention is the art and science of retaining control of your firearm when a criminal tries to disarm you and turn your firearm against you. Plan A is to execute a technique and peel the offender off the gun. If that can’t be achieved, Plan B is to shoot him.
There wasn’t much in the way of gun retention techniques in Charlie’s time, and Plan B was his Plan A. He made it work more than once. He recounted the following in our American Handgunner Annual in 1988:
“I got to my feet and made a run at this coyote and just as I reached him, I tripped and fell down. This bastardo, as quick as a cat , grabbed my gun, which I had drawn, and standing over me commenced to tussle enthusiastically to get it away.
“I had no illusions as to what he’d do if he succeeded. He had thoughtfully wrapped his hands around the cylinder and while I had my finger on the trigger I could not fire the weapon because he would not permit the cylinder to turn.
“Very energetically I rolled up on my shoulders and kicked this sonofabitch in the belly. It broke him loose from my pistol. He wasted no time. He ran for the river which was only 30 steps away. I saw him very clearly against all the lights of Juarez and I let him run until he was in the Old Rio Grande up to his knees.
“I held the gold bead front sight in the white-outlined rear notch and put the gold right in his back just at the belt line. On the shot he pitched forward as though spanked with a baseball bat.
“Three days later the BP Chief told me, ‘They dragged a dead Mex out of the river of the Socorro Headgates yesterday. The U.S. Consul in Juarez told me.’ I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t any too proud of the fact that I had stumbled and the wetback had almost killed me with my own gun. (A customized Colt New Service .44-40.)”
The colonel continued, in the same issue of the magazine:
“One chill evening, it was January 1931, we jumped out a big gang of smugglers in the Standpipes district. We halted them on the levee and I ran up to the bunch and some bravo reached out and caught the old Remington by the muzzle and gave it a hell of a jerk. He aimed to catch me by surprise and get my gun, which you may be sure he’d have reversed in a twinkling and given me a dose of those big 00 pellets.
“He jerked on the muzzle and I jerked on the forestock and the pistol grip. As I gave the gun a hell of a tug, I pulled the trigger. The charge of buckshot got this coyote right through the left eye. The force lifted him completely off his feet and pitched him some four to five feet off the levee. The back of his head was quite a mess.
“I reckon I was just too impetuous in those days, for it wasn’t three months later until we ran up on another gang of freebooters, this time near the Nichols Packing Plant. I got too close to the leader and he grabbed my gun muzzle and tried to whip it out of my hands. He jerked in his direction and I jerked in mine– and I pulled the trigger.
“The nine big slugs took him right above the knee. The City-County Hospital took his leg off the next morning. The worthless scoundrel had syphilis and the last I heard the amputation would not heal. I reckon it sorta put an end to his river hopping.” 
Charlie’s actions in the two shotgun grabs would almost certainly be ruled justifiable even today. The shooting of the fleeing man who had grabbed his Colt revolver unsuccessfully, however, would probably be seen as excessive force in light of the Supreme Court’s mid-’80s Garner decision.
Askins had no patience with suspects who grabbed police guns. One of his partners was pistol-whipped almost to death by a hobo who had disarmed him of his Colt 1917 .45 revolver. The patrolman had already sustained multiple skull fractures and brain damage from the clubbed revolver when Askins stopped the assault.
At a distance of 10 paces, he killed the assailant with three shots in the chest, double-action, from his pet .4440 New Service 4″ with D.W. King sights, the weapon the previously mentioned suspect tried to take from him near Juarez.
When he was actively in the field, Askins seems to have almost always fired the sidearm one-handed. In his later years he would enthusiastically recommend two-handed positions for defense, but he was not an early advocate of the concept.
It would appear that in most of his shootings, Askins aimed rather than pointed. He practiced a good deal, drawing and firing from the point-shooter’s crouch position, but practiced more with a sight picture at arm’s length for the matches.
He wrote that during one 10 year period, he logged 334,000 practice shots. Though in some articles late in his career he had good things to say about point-shooting, I can find mention of only two such incidents in his personal reminiscences of gunfights.
One was a mistaken identity shooting in which he exchanged shots in an alley with a rifle-armed U.S. Customs agent. The distance was 10 yards. The man with the rifle fired twice and missed both times. Askins also fired twice; one shot missed, and one struck the other man’s rifle stock.
He point-fired because he had to: his gun that night was a Colt New Service .45 sixgun, its barrel chopped to two inches with no front sight.
He would write later, “To say that I took a ribbing was an understatement compared to the comments over firing two shots at another feller at 30 feet, down a narrow alley, and missing him. It was a disgrace which took a long time to live down!” 
Charlie later mentioned that he had point-shot without a specific sight picture when he shot the man who was pistol-whipping his brother officer. Reading Askins’ own account, he seems mildly surprised that he hit him shooting like that.
He wrote, “Each time one of the big flat-nosed 240 grain slugs hit him, it brought forth a little puff of dust. This ‘bo had been riding the freight for several days and his clothing was full of dust. I cannot begin to tell you how happy it made me to see those bullets raise that dust! I knew I had him. It made my day, believe me!” 
A southpaw, Askins liked ambidextrous autoloaders and lever actions for long guns– the Savage Model 99, the .351 Winchester and the 12 ga. Remington. The latter, he said, was cut to 22 barrel length for him by J. D. Buchanan, who also affixed a full length extended magazine that held eight shells, bringing total capacity to nine rounds.
For a time when it first came out, Askins carried a 4″ Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum in a Berns-Martin breakfront holster, although I can find no mention in his work of him ever using it in a gun-fight. Virtually all his shootings with handguns found him using one or another Colt; not until the very end of his man-killing days would he shoot a human with a Smith & Wesson.
Askins began his law-enforcement career as a forest ranger, using a stock GI 1911 .45 auto swapped from his lifelong best friend George Parker. “It was stamped ‘U.S. Property’ and had been purloined from the ordnance stores at Fort Huachucha,” Charlie later admitted. He wore it in a Sam Myres holster. This was also his first sidearm when he joined the Border Patrol, but he quickly switched to a Colt New Service .44-40 with 4″ barrel.
The large-frame Colt double-action was always an Askins favorite. The sawed-off snubnose version he had acquired for plainclothes wear quickly fell out of his favor when, sans sights, he fortunately missed the two shots he fired in the mistaken identity incident.
The same big gun in its long-barreled .38 Special target format, the Shooting Master, was Askins’ choice in the centerfire class of bullseye pistol, the discipline in which he captured 534 medals, 117 trophies and the National Championship of the United States. When he became chief firearms instructor for the Border Patrol, he again showed his preference, though his choice of caliber was surprising. He wrote:
“As the Great Depression eased some-what, the Border Patrol at my insistence purchased new revolvers for the entire service. I had small love for the Smith & Wesson, a dislike which I share to this day, and so I elected the Colt New Service in .38 Spl. caliber. The revolver had a 4” barrel, fixed sight and a square butt.
“There were 642 revolvers purchased, at a cost to the U.S. Gov’t of $19 each. I had the entire shipment sent to me in El Paso. I shot each revolver and sighted it in. The sights were all the fixed type, the front sight was a great upstanding chunk of metal and the rear sight was a rectangular notch cut into the top strap. I made a tool to bend the front sight either right or left to bring the gun to zero, I filed down the front sight if the gun shot low and filled (sic) the rear notch if it shot high.” 
In the .22 events, Askins shot a Colt Woodsman auto with a lead weight under the barrel. In the .45 category, his choice was a Colt Government tuned by the same “Buck” Buchanan who had tuned his shotgun and was now working for the legendary Frank Pachmayr.
In the national individual championship, an externally-stocked GI .45 was required, and Askins used one that Buchanan and Pachmayr had internally accurized and fitted with a 4 lb. trigger.
This was one of the guns he took with him to the European Theater in World War II. He swapped between it and his personal New Service .38, that one fitted with a King sight rib and a cutaway trigger guard. He shot men with both guns.
He used 230 gr. ball in the .45 and Winchester’s slow 200 gr. Super Police roundnose lead in the .38. Askins believed that an accurate handgun with a smooth action, sighted to point-of-aim, point-of-impact, made the most sense as a defensive sidearm.
Last Dead Man
Based on his autobiography, the last man he killed was in 1957. Charlie was a U.S. military advisor in Vietnam. While hunting in the jungle one day, he ran across a Viet Minh soldier. Askins was carrying a Savage .358 lever action rifle (with which he had blown away a couple of other Viet Minh who interrupted his hunting on another occasion) but chose to draw his new Smith & Wesson Model 29 and fire it left hand only.
“I let the ambusher have the first 240 gr. slug right through the ribs on the left side. It was probably the first man ever killed with the .44 because it was quite new in those days,” Askins observed casually. He finished the man with a second shot to the throat. 
In his later life- I got to know him in the early 1970s–he told me he generally carried one or another single-action .45 auto. At one time Charlie was quite partial to the small, lightweight Star PD.
I knew Charlie Askins as a man who was fun to drink with, but a man you wouldn’t want to get drunk with. He was an adoring husband and father, a lover of horses and a sucker for stray dogs. When his many fans wrote him, he answered them promptly and (usually) politely. Perhaps it was a natural compensation for the part of him that went beyond survival euphoria in the pleasure he took after killing a man.
I’ve heard people comment, “Whatever else you say about Askins, he sure didn’t suffer from that ‘post shooting trauma stuff.” I beg to differ.
One of the virtually inescapable things in the aftermath of killing is what Dr. Walter Gorski defined as “Mark of Cain” syndrome. This is the sense that having killed people has changed the way that others look at you, and the way you look at yourself.
There is no doubt that this was true of Charles Askins. The men he had killed, and the gunfights he survived, defined him in a very real way. Not just to others, but to himself. You didn’t have to know him and talk to him to see it. It was inescapably visible in the body of his written work.
There were facets of Charlie that I wouldn’t want in a cop. There was racism. There was a killer instinct, too strong, strong enough to sometimes slip its leash. Some of his shootings, if they’d been adjudicated, could have earned him “life without parole.”
Yet Charlie was also the man who first organized firearms training in the Border Patrol, laying a foundation that sees that agency today as one of the world’s leaders in law enforcement gunfight survival.
His tenacity, his courage, his coolness and above all his skill at arms are qualities we can all strive to emulate, though few of us will manifest them to the degree that he did.
Let that be the legacy of Col. Charles Askins, Jr. May he rest in peace.
(1.) Charles Askins, Unrepentant Sinner (San Antonio: Tejano Publications, 1985) 58-59.
(2.) Ibid. 59-60.
(3.) Charles Askins, “Ride the River With Colonel Askins,” American Handgunner Annual 1988: 52-55.
(4.) Askins, Unrepentant 81.
(5.) Askins, “Ride the River” 51.
(6.) Unrepentant 75-76.
(7.) Unrepentant 245.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Publishers’ Development Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group