American Myths: Did Custer’s Troops Use the Wrong Guns?

05/3/11 6:00 PM | by

The Battle of the Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand as it used to be called, has generated so much speculation and mythology over the years that new myths keep cropping up, for example, Custer was the first to die, not the last.

Another myth is that his troops used the wrong, newly-issued gun.

One history book flat out states that if Custer’s men had used the 7-shot Spencer carbines they had  been issued earlier, instead of the new Springfield rifles they actually carried at Little Big Horn, the lives of the troops “may have been saved.”

Wrong all across the board.

“Before Little Big Horn, Custer’s troops carried a single-shot Sharps .50-70 caliber carbine,” explained Jerry Jasmer, U.S. ranger at the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument. “At the time of the battle, Custer’s troops carried the Springfield .45 caliber carbine.

The theory was that the Spencer with its 7-shot capability would have given Custer’s men an edge over the single-shot Springfield, which tended to jam because of defective ammunition that had to be pried out with a knife. Jammed weapons supposedly helped create catastrophe for Custer.

“The Spencer can fire seven times, but it didn’t have the range to make it very effective,” Jasmer said.

The Spencer was a manually cocked, lever-action rifle designed in 1860 with a 22-inch barrel that fired a .52 caliber rim-fire cartridge. A tube-shaped magazine in the butt of the rifle carried seven rounds. The weapon was popular during the Civil War and some members of Custer’s Michigan Brigade reportedly carried it, but the Spencer Co. went out of business in 1869 after production of approximately 200,000 weapons.

The Springfield Trapdoor Model 1873
rifle carried by Custer’s men at Little Big Horn could, according to a manual written in 1876, the year of the battle, fire 13 rounds a minute in a caliber of .45-70.

Jasmer said the real rate of fire is more like seven rounds a minute.

The rifle had a 32-inch long barrel and a top-loading hinged breech and was originally fed a copper cartridge that had a tendency to expand when fired, causing the weapon to jam. A jam required the shooter to manually remove the bullet by use of a knife or sharp object, because the rifle had no ramrod designed for the purpose. Failure to clear the weapon of a jam meant that it could only be used as a club (brass cases were later substituted for copper with better results).

However, the myth that Custer suffered debacle because of jammed rifles is just that.      

Jasmer said recent studies of spent cartridges found and collected on the Little Big Horn Battlefield do not indicate that large numbers of the Springfield rifles carried by Custer’s men jammed because of defective ammunition.

“We’ve looked at the cartridge cases and less than 2 percent were jams,” he said. ‘We have thousands of shells collected. You also have to remember that half of Custer’s regiment survived Little Big Horn.”

Jasmer said it’s more likely Custer’s men suffered because many of them were inexperienced. Marksmanship was not made a standard feature of U.S. Army training until later. They also came to grief from the fatal overconfidence of their commander, who assumed from past experience that the Sioux and Cheyenne would try to scatter and run away. The tribesmen standing and fighting as they did must have come as a real shock.

“The battle took place over a six-mile field and Custer’s units were scattered on different portions of it,” Jasmer said. “The battle was not over as quickly as we previously thought back in the 1980s. It took about an hour-and-a-half. Custer had divided his force, so the tribesmen were able to defeat the four separate parts of the regiment piecemeal.”

Jasmer also disputed the notion that Custer’s men were wiped out because as a fast-moving cavalry strike arm they were instead forced to fight a defensive battle for which they were ill-suited.

“Actually, they were acting in the role of mounted infantry,” he said. “They didn’t take their sabers into the battle, they had left them behind, and they were armed with cavalry carbines.”

Speculation that Custer was among the first to fall attempting to ford the Little Big Horn River instead of the last to die as he has been portrayed in Hollywood movies is also exaggeration.

“It’s not likely,” Jasmer said. “One warrior said he thought he shot Custer, but the Indians didn’t know who Custer was. He had only been in three battles, two against Lakotas and one in Oklahoma.”

Major archeological digs using metal detectors took place in 1984 and 1985, but none are currently planned. Jasmer said searching the Little Big Horn River with a dive mask for artifacts has never been tried, but would likely turn up no new evidence.

“The river floods and scours everything away,” he said.

For more information on Custer’s Last Stand or Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, you can visit here.

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