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A Myth Concerning Custer and The Little Big Horn

As a kid I was enthralled by a movie titled Winchester 73. Apparently, my father was too because later in life he began to collect Winchesters including two Model 73s that are worth some money today.

(Model 73 refers to the year 1873 and the model’s first year of production.)

 

Trailer for Winchester 73

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In the movie starring Jimmy Stewart there is a scene in which Rock Hudson (as the Indian Young  Bull) confronts a gun trader by demanding the kind of guns that Crazy Horse used to wipe out Custer. The trader is surprised that Young Bull knows of Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn but he doesn’t have any Winchesters other than the 1 in a 1000 Model 73 that he himself owns (and Young Bull gets).

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Rock Hudson as Young Bull with the 1 in a 1000 Winchester 73’s

Scene where Young Bull knows about Custer and gets the Winchester

A bit later in the movie the same Indians under Young Bull are about to charge some cavalry. Stewart and his companion discuss the situation with a cavalry sergeant and Stewart remarks that the Sioux knew all about the army’s single shot carbine (Springfield Model 73) while the Indians all had repeaters including Winchesters.

Therefore the reason Custer lost is because the Indians had Winchesters and the army only single shot carbines. In the movie Stewart and his pal both have Model 73 Winchesters and the Indian charge is easily broken by their rapid fire, thus making the point.

It is complete and utter nonsense and a myth that the Indians all had repeating rifles. Custer lost because he didn’t bother with a decent reconnaissance, divided his command in the face of superior numbers and because he was reckless and impulsive by nature.

Yet, the myth persists to this day despite that as early as 1959 Guns and Ammo Magazine (reprinted in True West, Feb., 1961) did research that proves that on the balance Custer’s force was better armed with their Model 73 Springfield  breech-loading carbines and Model 73 Colt Revolvers than the Indians who triumphed at the Little Big Horn (Battle of the Greasy Grass to the Lakota).

The myth that the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors were armed with repeaters (Winchesters in particular) probably started with the US Army’s Court of Inquiry which questioned Major Reno who proposed the Indians were universally equipped with Winchesters. Here’s the questions and answers Reno gave to the court as reported in the True West article Indian Guns Against Custer.

Reno: The Indians had Winchester rifles and the column made a large target for them and they were pumping bullets into it.

Question: The Indians, as far as you observed were armed with Winchester rifles?

Reno: Yes, sir.

Question: Do you know they had any other arms?

Reno: No, sir.

Reno’s statements were substantiated by Lt’s Varnum and De Rudio officers under Reno’s command.

But why would Reno and his officers lie? (I don’t believe it is possible that any experienced frontier officer would not know that repeating rifles were rare among the tribes.)

The answer to the question is not complicated. Reno’s Battalion of the 7th Cavalry was supposed to help Custer surround the Lakota\Cheyenne encampment. Initially, they charged the edge of the first encampment but were quickly dissuaded by the number of warriors that emerged to defend it.

Reno ordered his battalion halt, dismount and form a skirmish line to hold back the numerous warriors attacking them. For a time the dismounted cavalrymen held back the warriors but things suddenly changed.

At one point in the battle the Arikara Indian scout (Bloody Knife) for Custer who was attached to Reno that day took a bullet to the head and his brains were splattered all over Reno. It is reported that Reno panicked and ordered a retreat to a slight ridge and tree line to make a stand. Some of his soldiers heard the order while a great many did not and as many as 40 were killed in a pell mell retreat. Eyewitnesses would claim that Reno was drunk as a skunk during the debacle.

Shortly after the rout, the soldiers gained a reprieve as most of the warriors went after Custer’s column and as we know wiped it out to a man. Reno’s survivors on the ridge were reinforced by Benteen’s battalion and between the two battalions they held on to the tree line until Terry’s column relieved them and discovered the extent of the disaster.

Reno himself would become a scape goat for Custer’s recklessness,  an issue still argued about to this day. Whatever one thinks about that it is clear that Reno was looking for a way out of what happened to his command by claiming the Indians were better armed than his troopers. In fact Reno actually said he charged the tree line rather than admit to the panicked rout. Reno was not very credible.

So what’s the probable truth about what the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors were armed with?

The article in True West assumes 2,000 warriors (some sources go as high as 4,000) were present at the Little Big Horn. Of these, no more than 40-50 Winchester Model 66s (nicked named the Yellow Boy because the receivers were brass) were present and most in the hands of chiefs and notable warriors. In addition to the Winchesters a few Henry’s would have been present (cartridge casings found at the Little Big Horn confirm this), a few Spencers ( a Civil War 7 shot repeater) and quite a few single shot trade muskets, some single shot rifled percussion models and some smoothbore as well as pistols of various types.

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Cover of True West, Feb., 1961. A Buffalo (Bison) hunter would never attempt to bring down a Bison on horseback. The standard method was to stand off down wind discounted and bring them down at long range with a powerful rifle like a big bore Sharps. The buffalo hunters did more to confine the Indians to reservations than the army ever did since they nearly wiped out the 30 million Bison that once roamed the Great Plains.

The fact is repeater ammunition would be hard to come by because the Indians could not manufacture the rounds. This was not the case with the muskets since they could mold and manufacture balls and get powder easily enough.

The vast majority of the Indians (50% or more) would be armed with nothing more than bow and arrows, lances or war clubs and not have any firearms at all!

Norman B. Wiltsey is the author of the True West article that was reprinted from Guns and Ammo. Wiltsey states that in 1939 he interviewed an old Ogala Sioux named Charging Bear who fought at the Little Big Horn and asked him whether or not the Indians were armed with Winchesters.

Charging Bear told Wiltsey that is was a big lie and that 2\3 of the Indians at the Little Big Horn had only bows and arrows and war clubs. He further stated that he himself did not have a firearm until he picked up a carbine from a soldier he killed with his bow.

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Cover page of the article showing the Model 66 Winchester some of the Indians had at the Little Big Horn. Far more common was the trade musket showed above, a single shot muzzle loader far inferior to the soldier’s Model 73 breech-loading Springfield carbine.

I’ve always enjoyed Westerns like Winchester 73 but as an amateur historian I’ve become quite picky when it comes to details. Some say I’m no fun to watch a movie that has history in it because I’m always correcting it. Oh well.

 

 

4 comments on “A Myth Concerning Custer and The Little Big Horn

  1. Loved that movie portraying the importance of a top rifle…

  2. Great write up. From my own studies, I get the sense that there’s a lot of myths floating around about Custer that need a closer look!

  3. Refreshing to see history and facts used together. Not always the case.

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