Chasing Custer

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Ballistic Relics Of The Little Bighorn
Make For A Lifetime Of Research

Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino

An impulsive decision can lead to life altering-events. One did for me. In August 1968, my summer job ended with nearly a month left before beginning my first semester attending Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Already an avid student of the “Custer Battle” I bounced an idea off a high school buddy. It was, “Do you want to go with me to Montana so I can see the Custer Battlefield?” (Now politically corrected to Little Bighorn Battlefield.)

My friend didn’t know Custer from the Pope and neither of us had been west of the Ohio River but to my surprise he said yes. A few days later we were off in my sister’s Volkswagen packed with camping gear. The trip exposed me not only to the state of Montana but to Yellowstone National Park where I worked the next 13 seasons. Since graduating from Marshall, my permanent home has been in Montana, coincidentally only about 150 miles from the famous battlefield.

Now nearly 50 years later I’ve been asked by a film crew to do a live fire demonstration of some guns known to have been used at the Little Bighorn those hot June days of 1876. Of course I jumped at the chance. I’ll leave the day after this is written. The shooting will be near but not on the battlefield itself.

On June 25, 1876, when the 12 companies of the US 7th Cavalry regiment rode into the valley of the Little Bighorn River every enlisted man had been issued a .45 Colt single action revolver which has gained worldwide prominence as the Colt Single Action Army. One and all they were also carrying .45 caliber Model 1873 carbines, commonly referred to nowadays as “trapdoors” due to their hinged breechblocks. Although both .45 caliber, the revolver used a cartridge of 1.285 inches with a 250-grain bullet over 30 grains of black powder. (Not 40 grains as commonly but mistakenly written.) The carbine load consisted of 55 grains of black powder (not the 70 grains commonly but mistakenly written) in a case 2.10 inches long and topped with a 405-grain bullet.

Actually the Model 1873 carbine had originally been issued ammunition with a 70-grain powder charge but complaints from troops about excessive recoil in the 7-1/2-pound weapon resulted in the reduced carbine loading. From its 22-inch barrel, “trapdoor” carbines delivered about 1,150 fps velocity. From Colt revolver’s 7-1/2-inch barrels Government Issue .45 loads hit perhaps 800 fps.

Arickaree Indian scouts accompanying the 7th had “3-band” .50-70 rifles issued to them for the expedition, according to interviews with surviving ’Ree scouts by researcher Walter Camp. If those .50’s were indeed “3-band” they would have been Model 1866’s. There was one civilian .50-70 along. It belonged to Lt. Col. George A. Custer himself, commanding the 7th that day. It was a Remington Rolling Block Sporting Rifle, but history does not record his ammunition details. And finally, at least one white scout, Charley Reynolds and Negro interpreter Isaiah Dorman were recorded as having Henry .44 rimfire rifles.

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This Custer era Model 1873 “trapdoor” carbine belongs to one of Duke’s friends.
It was purchased a few years ago from a resident of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.

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A Remington Rolling Block .50-70 Sporting Rifle possibly similar to this one was
carried to the Little Bighorn Battle by Custer himself. It was never recovered.

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Three .45’s, including two Colts (left and center) and a US Firearms, are near
perfect replicas of the ones carried by each trooper of the 7th Cavalry to the
Little Bighorn Battle.

When firing ceased on June 27 the 7th Cavalry’s dead, collectively including soldiers and accompanying personnel amounted to approximately 260 men. Of those about 210 were with the five companies (C, E, F, I, L) wiped out to a man with Custer. The remaining seven companies (A, B, D, G, H, K, M) under Major Reno and Capt. Benteen survived on a high bluff three miles from the main battlefield. Their dead numbered about 50 with another 50 or so wounded. (Many sources differ on exact casualty figures.)

In areas controlled by the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians every weapon dropped by deceased troopers and Indian or civilian auxiliaries went with them. Those belonging to troops killed on the bluff tops were destroyed: carbines burned, revolvers dismantled and the parts scattered. In later fights some of the captured carbines and revolvers were recovered by the army. Most are still missing.

Beginning in the 1980’s extensive archaeology was done to both Little Bighorn and Reno/Benteen Battlefields. Later forensic testing was done on a multitude of recovered cartridge cases so the scientists were able to pinpoint exactly where some firearms—both military and Indian—were fired. In 1991 I participated on a National Park Service dig on the Big Hole Battlefield in Western Montana supervised by some of the archaeologists who also were involved in the Little Bighorn digs. They showed me on a computer generated topographical map where cartridge cases from individual firearms were located.

For a limited time the outfit doing forensic testing for the National Park Service would test cartridge cases from ordinary collectors if their firearms were of the battle era. (This is no longer an option so I’m not mentioning the testing agency.) I personally know one person whose dilapidated Model 1873 carbine was positively used in the fight. Others I’ve read about were Henry and Model 1866 .44 rimfire rifles which were positively identified. Naturally such provenance increases the value of such guns to astounding levels.

Imagine what the value of Custer’s own Remington .50-70 would be if recovered and verified!

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