Old West Miracle Shots

True stories? Maybe, but luck likely
played as important a role as skill.

By Mike “Duke” Venturino

Two shots fired during fights with Plains Indians in 1874 have reached mythical proportions. The first to occur is the least known. It happened at the conclusion of the Battle of Lodge Grass Creek in southern Montana during April. The shooter was a professional hunter named Jack Bean, and he was said to have used a .44-caliber Sharps rifle. The more well known shot was again by a professional hunter. His name was Billy Dixon and it happened at the conclusion of the Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle in June. His rifle was supposedly a Sharps .50 caliber.

In both instances, Indians rode on horseback to the edge of a prominence to look over an encampment or settlement recently attacked by warriors. In the earliest one, the Indian was of the Sioux tribe. The second one was Comanche. According to myth, both were felled from their horses by Bean and Dixon with one round each. What made these shots so famous was in one the shooter claimed the target was over 1,700 yards away and in the second one, it was supposedly over 1,500 yards.

Did these two stories really happen? That is an impossible question for me to answer. Were hits on such distant targets with the ammunition and shooting technology of the era even possible? Especially considering the rifles were equipped with open or at best peep-type rear sights?

Possible yes, I can say for sure, because in 1992 I participated in a test held at the Yuma Proving Grounds, which did prove such rifles could actually heave a bullet to 4,000 yards. Could a man on a horse be aimed at and hit at that distance? Again, from first-hand experience, I can say it’s possible, but I must also say doing it with the first shot is just a tiny pinch short of a miracle. Two types of luck would have to coincide there: extremely good luck for the marksman and the worst sort of bad luck for the target.

In June 2015 I was invited to try duplicating Jack Bean’s hit on the Sioux warrior by writer and historian French Maclean. In the process of researching his soon to be published book about the “1874 Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition,” Maclean pinpointed the exact site of the expedition’s fight on Lodge Grass Creek, in what is now the Crow Indian Reservation.

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This photo (above), taken at 100 yards, is of the target used in this experiment.
The same target (below) at the measured distance of 1,510 yards is quite small.

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Duke after firing a shot (a miss) at the 1,510-yard target with his
original Sharps .45-70. Note the extra tall rear sight and how high
it had to be to be on at 1,500 yards.

The expedition was a civilian one backed by private enterprises from the Bozeman area. It consisted of about 150 men and perhaps as many as 300 horses, mules and oxen. Its avowed purpose was to look for gold in eastern Montana, as so much of it had been discovered in western Montana.

Through mutual friends, MacLean, a retired US Army Colonel and West Point graduate, first contacted me because the expedition’s final staging area was partly on my Montana acreage. After our first meeting, he said he envisioned trying to duplicate Jack Bean’s shot, and would I help? Who wouldn’t?! To make a long story fit into this space, let me say Maclean did all the necessary leg work to try to pin down Bean’s location, the Sioux warrior’s location and then obtain permission to do shooting there. He succeeded in all three, and the event came about.

The target was a 4×8 sheet of plywood painted white to approximate the horse, with another piece sticking up at mid-point representing the rider. It was placed on the edge of a bluff high above the creek. MacLean’s research indicated this was the likely spot. Our shooting bench was located across the valley floor and slightly up a rise to where the expedition’s camp was likely situated. Measured by laser, at a 1,510 yards, lay our target.

I have an original Sharps Model 1874 chambered in .44-2-1/4-inch (now called .44-77). However, its barrel is rough to the point long-range precision is not possible. Therefore, I took along an original .45-70 Sharps and a C. Sharps Model 1874 .45-70. My loads contained 530- and 540-grain bullets over 70 grains of Swiss 1-1/2 Fg and 3 Fg black powder. Montana Vintage Arms, the manufacturer of fine quality peep sights for BPCRs, loaned me one of their VLR (Very Long Range) peep sights. It is tall enough to reach a mile and was needed!

About a dozen shooters, including two ladies showed up, and I believe a total of seven Shiloh Sharps Model 1874’s were included. Most were .45-70’s but one was a .45-90. All shooters fired black powder for propellant with cast bullets. Shooting conditions were not ideal but far from terrible. Temperature in the morning when we started was 72 degrees, which climbed to 80 degrees in the afternoon. Winds were only about 6 mph in the valley, but a spotter located in a safe “hide” up on the bluff said they were constantly switching direction where he was.

Altogether we (13 shooters) fired a total of 151 rounds. Periodically we ceased fire and had our spotter inspect the target area. There were grooves in the soft ground on the other side of the plywood and in front and behind it. Finally, in the afternoon, a local 13-year old named Connor Wald lofted a bullet that landed just in front of the target then penetrated on its bounce. He was firing my C. Sharps .45-70. Later, Bozeman resident, Rich Morris, firing his own Shiloh .45-70, got a solid hit that, surprisingly, bounced off the plywood.

So, did Billy Dixon and Jack Bean actually hit Indians at over 1,500 yards? Maybe. But I couldn’t!

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