To the town of Aqua Fria, rode a stranger one fine day.Aqua Fria is a town in New Mexico, an historical village (now part of the Santa Fe SMSA) and really the only place that can be considered the setting for the song. There have been other Aqua Fria's, but not towns. The lyrics plainly state it was a town, so the song is set in Aqua Fria, New Mexico. The town is older than the US, so that doesn't help us to set the time period of the song. We have to go to the lyrics again.
Was an Arizona Ranger, wouldn't be too long in town.The Arizona Rangers were an interesting bunch, and they were in existence for three time periods. (Yes, there are Arizona Rangers today, but we're talking about the Old West version.) Generally, the accepted times are:
April 1860 to Summer 1861. The Rangers disbanded to join the Confederate Army
March 8 - May 20, 1882. Under 90 days, they were short-lived as an organization, but certainly around long enough to round up one outlaw.
March 21, 1901 - March 25, 1909. The early years of the 20th Century, certainly not was we consider the gunfighter era, but there was certainly an opportunity for gunplay in the Southwest during that period.
I think that we can discard the earlier, pre - Civil War period, and focus on the later, 1882 period. Certainly there were horse-mounted Rangers during the early part of the 20th century, but the flavor of the song leads me to believe it was set in the 1880s. I might be wrong, I frequently am. So, with those time periods in mind, we can start to establish which handguns were in common use during the time period.
That was an interesting time for firearms design, and lots of manufacturers made handguns, including Remington, Smith and Wesson, and others that have fallen by the wayside. Some were small and light, others were big and heavy. However, Marty specifies "big iron" which limits our search to the larger revolvers. Several possibilities exist.
Colt's Dragoon, a cap and ball, percussion pistol was a natural variant of the Walker revolver. Both were heavy, large pistols, weighing something over four pounds. Designed as pommel revolvers, they were originally carried on the saddle, but were certainly adapted for belt carry.
Colt Single Action Army, the Peacemaker, or Model P, is also a contender. Certainly it was in wide use after 1873. However, at 2.2 lbs, it was much lighter and trimmer than the Walker and Dragoon. Compared to the big revolvers, the new Colt was much lighter, almost svelte.
One other example raises it's head, and this one seems as likely as any other. It seems that there was a one-off revolver that Robbins saw in a North Hollywood gun shop. The Wiki page explains.
The Ranger's "Big Iron" actually existed. It was a one-off custom handgun chambered in .45 Colt and featured a Great Western copy of the Colt Single Action Army frame, Colt 1860 Army backstrap, grip frame and grips and a cut down 9 1/2" Marlin rifle barrel. Marty Robbins saw it in Andy Anderson's famed North Hollywood gun shop in the late 1950s and wrote the song around it. Its current whereabouts are unknown.That may be definitive, if Marty actually saw the custom revolver. Regardless, this takes nothing away from the song. It's truly a romantic ballad that speaks to all of us.
But, if I had to vote, I'd vote that the heroic Ranger was probably carrying a Colt's Dragoon. But that's just me.