Custer and Indians and Guns and Technology

28Jun08

The late Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer is in the news again, for June 25 was the anniversary of 1876’s Last Stand. We know what his soldiers were carrying (apart from a variety of pistols, .45-caliber, single-shot Springfield rifles), but what is less certain is the Indians’ armament.

At the time it was suspected that the Indians were all carrying modern repeater rifles (like Winchesters) and that Custer’s men had been simply overwhemed by firepower. They were hampered, too, by their allegedly inferior Springfields. Politically, this was potent stuff, and was certainly exploited by armsmakers (Winchester wanted an army contract to replace the Springfields with their own products), some annoyed officers (who accused Washington of appeasing Indian hostiles by giving them brand-new weaponry while their boys in blue made do with older rifles), and Democrats (keen to attack, in an election year, President Grant as a “Custer-killer” and peace-policy fanatic). 

Let’s first take the issue of the Springfields — a very fine firearm, let it be said. One of the deadliest charges against them was that during the furious fighting of the Last Stand, unburned gunpowder residue had badly fouled their breeches and that, consequently, empty casings had been jammed inside. The only way of extracting them was to insert a hunting knife and force them out. Indian prisoners testified that they had seen Custer’s doomed soldiers desperately trying to clear their Springfields, and military investigators recorded broken knife-blades scattered around the battlefield.

Not so, ordnance experts countered, blaming poor maintenance and dirty cartridges instead for the jamming. The gun itself, they stoutly declared, was not to blame. In truth, neither side was completely right. Later ballistic and archaeological research has found that five percent of Custer’s Springfields suffered from extraction failure. It was a high rate — more than double that recorded during the gun’s experimental trials (held under ideal conditions) — but faulty loading on the part of terrified, panicked soldiers doubtlessly contributed to the figure.

Moving on to the argument that the Indians outgunned Custer’s force, Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Charles Windolph of Captain Benteen’s Troop H remembered that at least half the enemy brought bows, arrows, and lances (as well as clubs, axes, and knives), and about a quarter used “odds and ends of old muzzle-loaders and single-shot rifles of various vintages.”  Thus, “not more than 25 or 30 per cent of the warriors carried modern repeating rifles.” 

Assuming 1,500 Indian warriors fought, then there were between 375 and 495 repeating rifles at the battle, the lower number being the most probable (according to statistical projections based on artifacts found at the battlefield). Whatever the exact number, Custer’s 220 men, armed with their single-shot Springfields, were outmatched by just the repeater-armed Indians, let alone those carrying old muskets and single-shots. But both these numbers are on an absolute basis; there were simply far more Indians present than soldiers, so they had more firearms.

I would love to know what the percentage of U.S. fatalities were for repeaters and muzzle-loaders/single-shots. Repeater ammunition at the time was pretty hard to get in any reasonable quantity, so it’s possible that those Indians carrying repeaters may only have had four or five cartridges whereas their comrades using powder and lead or standard .45s could have brought along hundreds. In that instance, repeaters would have been a hindrance rather than a help. 

The most striking aspect of Windolph’s recollection, nonetheless, is not how relatively few Indians carried repeaters, but how many were still using old technology (bows, clubs, etc.) in the modern era.

During the Fetterman Massacre in 1866, for instance, just under 80 soldiers were ambushed and annihilated by a force of between 1,500 and 2,000 Lakota Sioux, Northern Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne. 

The local commander, Colonel Carrington, summarized the grisly scene for his superiors in Washington: “Eyes torn out and laid on the rocks; noses cut off; ears cut off; chins hewn off; teeth chopped out; joints of fingers; brains taken out and placed on rocks with other members of the body; entrails taken out and exposed; hands cut off; feet cut off; arms taken out of sockets; private parts severed and indecently placed on the persons; eyes, ears, mouth, and arms penetrated with spearheads, sticks, and arrows; ribs slashed to separation with knives; skulls severed in every form, from chin to crown; muscles of calves, thighs, stomach, breast, back, arms, and cheek taken out.”

Terrible stuff, but note the focus in the colonel’s description on the damage wrought by spearheads, sticks, arrows, and knives. Skulls are severed, not exploded by metal projectiles; ribs are slashed, not broken by the force of a bullet’s impact; hands and feet are cut off, not holed by lead. Though some of the wealthier or more accomplished warriors were armed with both bladed and ballistic weapons, very few of the Indians at the Fetterman fight bore firearms and the vast majority of those who did carried ancient muzzleloaders. (A flintlock musket engraved, “London, 1777” was later found at the site.) The fort’s assistant surgeon, who examined the corpses, believed just six men had died exclusively of  bullet wounds.  

Both Fetterman and Custer were done in not by firepower or high-tech weaponry but by the enemy’s huge numbers. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com



One Response to “Custer and Indians and Guns and Technology”


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