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Guns of the Plains Indians

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By Mike “Duke” Venturino, GUNS Magazine

Battlefield archaeology has given modern historians exact proof of the sort of weapons used by both sides during the Plains Indian Wars of 1860 through 1890. The most famous of these archaeology digs happened in the 1980s at the Little Bighorn Battlefield (formerly Custer Battlefield). However a smaller dig was done at the Big Hole Battlefield in 1991 and I was fortunate to have participated in it.

As might be expected there were few surprises as to what sort of weapons were used by the US Army. By the time of these two fights they were armed with US Model 1873 .45-caliber rifles and carbines (trapdoors) and cavalrymen were also issued .45-caliber Colt revolvers. Conversely the Indians (Sioux and Cheyenne at the Little Bighorn and Nez Perce at the Big Hole) used a hodge-podge of firearms. Some of them, however, were surprising. For example Winchester only started shipping Model 1873 .44 WCFs (.44-40s) in quantity in 1874. But just 2 years later enough had filtered “out West” and into Indian warriors’ hands that archaeologists have been able to determine at least eight were used in the Little Bighorn Battle of June 1876. Four were fired in the much smaller fight with Nez Perce in August 1877.

How can they say with authority how many of a certain rifle type were fired? Their proof is the recovered cartridge cases which were tested forensically in police labs. The results of firing pin and extractor inspections show the cases came from eight different Winchester ’73s in one case and four in another. How can they say the Indians fired the Winchesters instead of the soldiers? One reason is there is no historical record of any soldier packing a personally owned Winchester at either fight. A second reason is that the ’73’s recovered cartridge cases were metal detected from known Indian firing positions on the battlefields.

This Plains Indian warrior is shown photographed with his
Winchester Model 1866. Photo courtesy Herb Peck Jr. collection.

But Winchester ’73s were a mere drop in the bucket compared to the number of Winchester ’66s and Henry repeating rifles used by Indians in the Little Bighorn fight. Literally thousands of .44 Henry Rimfire cases have been recovered from the Little Bighorn Battlefield and related Reno-Benteen Siege site. (And also from privately owned land in the surrounding vicinity.) Archaeologists posit that the number of Henry and Winchester ’66s at those connected fights numbered well over 200. Ten of those two .44 rimfire rifles were identified with the Nez Perce battle.

(Interestingly, two civilians attached to Major Reno’s command at the Little Bighorn Battle also carried Henry .44 Rimfire rifles. They were Charley Reynolds, a white scout and Isaiah Dorman a Negro hired as an interpreter. Both were killed there.)

At both battle sites only a few Spencer repeating carbines were represented. That is interesting because until the US Army adopted Model 1873 .45-70s for their cavalry regiments, they mostly carried Spencers—mostly .56-50 in caliber. You might think that Sioux and Cheyenne would have captured more between the mid-1860s and the great 1876 battle. Since the Nez Perce never fought the US Government prior to 1877 theirs perhaps came by routine trade.

Two favorite firearms of Indian warriors in the 1860s and 1870s were .44 rimfire Henry
rifles (top) and Winchester Model 1866s. The latter one is the saddle ring carbine version.

That brings us to another factor. Just how did Indians acquire their firearms? Some were given to them by the US Government, many of which were cartridge-firing conversions of Sharps percussion carbines. These were chambered as .50-70 and given to reservation residents for “hunting” purposes. They ended up being pointed at US soldiers either by being traded to non-reservation “hostiles” or by their owners jumping the reservations. At least 3-dozen of these .50-70s were used at the Little Bighorn Battle and perhaps one at the Big Hole. (A .50-70 case recovered was definitely from a Sharps but exact model could not be determined.)
Another method by which Indians acquired US-marked firearms was by capturing them. For instance in the earliest confrontation with troops in the Nez Perce campaign the Indians killed at least 36 members of the US 1st Cavalry Regiment at White Bird Canyon in Idaho. All their weapons and ammunition fell into Nez Perce hands and some were definitely fired from their positions at soldiers at the Big Hole site.

Next, Little Bighorn

At the Little Bighorn the captured US weapons were turned on the 7th Cavalrymen much quicker. The archaeologists have been able to plot on maps places were specific carbines were being fired from early cavalry positions and then their fired cartridges showed up in positions known to have been later held by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. On the second day of the Little Bighorn Battle when surviving elements of the 7th Cavalry were besieged on a ridge high above the river, cartridge cases have been found that forensics identified as coming from Model 1873 carbines used the previous day on the site where Custer and his 200-plus men met their deaths.

Many Indians were armed with weapons captured from the US Army. This Model 1873
“trapdoor” carbine was purchased in modern times on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.

Here’s an interesting bit of ammunition information. By the time of these two battles the US Army had determined that the ammunition issued for their Model 1873 infantry rifles give objectionable recoil in the lighter cavalry carbines. The infantry loads contained 70 grains of black powder (hence the famous .45-70 name) under 405-grain bullets. For cavalry use the charge was reduced to 55 grains with the same bullet. In order to take up space left by the lighter-powder charge spacers (wads) were placed between bullet and powder or cylindrical tubes of cardboard were inserted inside the cases with the powder going inside them. Of course the wads were blown out upon firing but occasionally tubes remained in place. At both battlefields .45-caliber cases were recovered still containing cardboard tubes.

For more information about this fascinating subject of Plains Indian Wars weaponry I refer readers to A Sharp Little Affair by Douglas Scott and Archaeological Insights Into The Custer Battle by Scott, Fox and Harmon.

Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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