Chasing Pancho Villa on the Border in Tricked-Out Harley-Davidsons — ca. 1916

by Paula Bosse

At the request of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Harley-Davidson sent motorcycles to the U.S.-Mexico border for Pershing’s men to use in dealing with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. This was to augment the handful of vehicles already attached to the First Air Squadron which had been assigned to aid Pershing’s expeditionary forces. This was the first time in American history that both airplanes and motorcycles had been used in a military operation. This photo (seen larger here) shows one of the bikes with a sidecar and portable machine-gun nest, probably taken at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas around 1916. …Not much protection for the driver.

According to the article below (click clippings to see larger images), the motorcycles of the First Machine Gun Corps were impressively adaptable to the rough terrain of the Chihuahuan desert:

The machine gun company which [Gen. Pershing] reviewed is the first of its kind in America but from the activity displayed by the War Department it is practical certainty that motorcycle machine gun companies will be attached to every regiment.

The gun cars and their motorcycle tender carry a total of 4,320 rounds of ammunition in eighteen compact boxes – 240 rounds of ammunition in their flexible belts in each box. [Just] one gunner and driver are required for each gun and in addition the squad carries entrenching tools, wire cutter and complete semaphore signal outfit.

harley-davidson_machine-guns_daily-capital-journal_salem-OR_040116Daily Capital Journal (Salem, OR), April 11, 1916

One of the biggest problems with the motorcycle unit (as well as the “aero” squadron) was that there were too few trained men to operate them. Walter Davidson, president of Harley-Davidson, worked closely with the War Department in supplying vehicles and in training men to drive them, but he implored them to consider recruiting men who already had motorcycle experience.

“I am firmly of the belief that the best way is for Congress to authorize the army to recruit civilians with special training and obtain them quickly through the attraction of a short enlistment with promise of immediate service in the work of dispersing Villa’s bandits in Mexico.” (Walter Davidson, wire service report, April, 1916)

harley-davidson_pershing_wichita-KS-beacon_041516Wichita (Kansas) Beacon, April 15, 1916

Pancho Villa rode a motorcycle himself. No Harley for him, though. He was an INDIAN man.


Here are a few very fuzzy news photos of Pershing’s men, several manning the Colt machine guns, in Roswell, New Mexico.

pershing_motorcycles_new-mexico_harrisburg-PA-telegraph_042216Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph, April 22, 1916

Back to Fort Bliss: here’s a photo of the rugged border outpost and Pershing’s HQ, around the time Black Jack was attempting to secure the U.S.-Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution and chasing Villa (on both sides of the border).


And, lastly, a Harley-Davidson ad soliciting a whole different customer for its cute little sidecars.

harley-davidson_sidecars_wichita-KS-beacon_032316Wichita Beacon, March 23, 1916

harley-davidson_ad_det_1916Ad detail, 1916


Sources & Notes

Top photo — “Machine Gun Motorcycle — U.S.A.” — from the George W. Cook Dallas/Texas Image Collection, DeGolyer Library, Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University; more information on this photo is on the SMU website, here. (See it larger here.)

Photo of Pancho Villa with Indian motorcycle found in the article “Pancho Villa, The OG Motorcycle Outlaw,” here.

“Fort Bliss, Tex.” photo also from the George W. Cook Collection at SMU; more info on this photo here.

Related articles, well worth reading:

  • “What Role Did the Motorcycle and Harley-Davidson Play in Wartime?” here
  • “The Harley-Davidson Sidecar Used to Chase Revolutionary Leader Pancho Villa,” here
  • “The United States Armed Forces and the Mexican Punitive Expedition” (an article in Prologue magazine, affiliated with the National Archives), here.

Images larger when clicked.


Copyright © 2017 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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