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March 22, 2006

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The Truth About Little Big Horn

If you’ve never been to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, you should drop whatever you’re doing and go there right this minute. Among its many wonders is the Cody Firearms Museum, which was founded in 1976. In the early 1980s, the Museum received a Maynard carbine (used by the Confederacy in the Civil War) from a Nebraskan, who claimed that a Native-American ancestor of his had used it at the Little Big Horn.

Half the old guns in the West were allegedly used at Little Big Horn, so the curators put the Maynard aside and more or less forgot about it. Then, in 1983  a range fire burned the Little Bighorn battlefield right down to the dirt, and for the first time, a team of forensic archaeologists was able to explore the battlefield and, in the process, dug up thousands of expended cartridge cases, including Maynard shells, and other artifacts.

The cases went to the Cody Firearms Museum, and then to the FBI lab for examination. Then someone remembered the Maynard carbine, and sent it along for testing. And sure enough, some of the shells found on the battlefield came from the old gun. One of them might even have done in Lt. Col. Custer.

The forensic examination showed something else. One of the enduring myths of the Custer battle was that his troopers were massacred because their copper-cased Springfield .45/70 cartridges jammed in their carbines. Over 1,700 .45/70 cases were recovered, and just over .3 percent showed signs of being pried from a carbine chamber. The jammed-carbine legend was one of many that started because Americans at the time couldn’t tolerate the idea of a major military hero being whipped by “savages.”

The truth was best spoken by Sitting Bull. Speaking of Custer years after the battle, he said:

“He was a fool and he rode to his death. He made that fight, not I.”


Rob Carome

I read a reprinted interview with Chief Rain-In-The-Face by H. Kent Thomas, from 1903. Chief R said that his people were better armed than the cavalry. That they had repeating rifles, and that the cavalry guns jammed. An authors note in the article says that Chief R was correct, that many carbines with were found with the shells still stuck inside after the battle.
As far as how to reconcile the recent archeological evidence with a first-person account. It would only take one stuck cartridge for each carbine to take them out of the fight. Once the gun jammed it was likely abandoned (depending on how closely pressed the trooper was). When the battlefield was policed up, I expect most of the Springfields were taken (by one side or the other), and the spent shells for our archeologists.

ranger nick

good column dave. Those "savages" where pretty smart. Imagine with no education sytem like the white man, they could figure out that repeating rifles was a critical element to their survival at this fight.

Winchesters, spencers, and a host of other repeaters were most prize weapons the "savages" wanted and traded for.

I like the trapdoor springfield, but in that fight i would have wanted a repeater. Time was important. the quick and the dead!

It's a beautiful piece of ground the Bighorn battlefield, for so many people red and white to die there is a travesty. Custer's dead made him immortal. I wonder if he wanted it that way?


I've often wondered just how different that battle would have been if Custer would of had something as simple and basic (as we consider) as a Ruger 10/22 witha 30 round clip.

To Rob Carome: Interesting point. Some historians say that no Indian account of the battle given shortly thereafter is to be fully believed, because the Indians were frightened of reprisals if they said anything that made Custer look bad. (And, considering Wounded Knee, they had reason to be scared.)

To Ranger Nick: Probably he died happy. If he couldn't be President, at least he would be famous forever.

To Bobby: Probably not. Custer had just about everything going against him. Exhausted troopers and horses, the mistrust of just about all his officers, inferior guns, and no means of command and control.


Nice comments on a good story. For those of us stuck in the Midwest I strongly suggest that you visit the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. It seems that they were the depository for all arms captured during the Western Indian Wars. They have more than a few rifles that have been documented as Little Big Horn weapons.

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