This has to be one of the Holy Grails of collecting… or at least a matching saucer. The well-preserved 1873 .45-70 cavalry carbine is not just a representative example of the guns the 7th Cavalry carried into the jaws of a far superior Sioux and
Comanche Cheyenne force — it’s one of the very guns. Very few guns with provenance are known to exist — Custer’s element’s guns were all taken by the Indians, except for three revolvers left behind, and Reno’s and Benteen’s detachments’ guns were still working combat weapons for years to come. So as you can imagine, with that historical imprimatur, it’s a little pricier than your average trapdoor.
You might ask, how can auctioneers James D. Julia and company be so sure about it? We’ll get to that in a minute, but first we’d like to show you some more of their photography (and yes, kind of like the force Custer faced, they get bigger — in this case, just click, and you can keep your scalp). Here’s the other side:
She’s looking pretty good after 139 years since manufacture, and 137 years since participating in one of the greatest defeats in the history of American arms. (Since then, we’ve been lucky enough to have the Indians on our side). Custer tried to surround 10,000 Indians (mostly noncombatants, but there were at least 2,00 warriors) with 700 men, and got his ass handed to him — his own section of the command was wiped out to the last man, 200-odd of them, and about 50 other troopers fell in several other desperate fights. OK, how about a close-up of her lock? Done:
So how do we know this particular carbine was there? Well, they couch it fairly cautiously, but here’s the meat of their argument:
The SN of this carbine indicates that it was manufactured in the Apr-Jun period of 1874 & is in the prime serial range of known Custer battle carbines.
This is where the speculation regarding Custer battlefield use of this carbine ends. In 1981 US Government archeologists found 18 cartridge casings on the Little Bighorn Battlefield on the west flank of Sharpshooter Hill, between the hill and a low knoll and in the vicinity of the knoll which is located about half the distance between the Reno/Benteen defensive perimeter and Sharpshooter Hill, all of which were forensically matched to the firing pin & extractor impressions of this carbine.
Most of these 18 cartridge casings were picked up in 2 separate locations, one group on the flank of Sharpshooter Hill and another near the north boundary fence. In 2004, additional excavations were conducted during road work on the battlefield and an additional 18 cartridge cases forensically matched to this carbine were found in the Reno/Benteen defensive line.
He goes on to make some further plausible deduction about the shooter’s actions in the battle, and some informed and reasonable speculation about what unit he was with. The very long description has an excellent technical run-down on the carbine and its history, and we recommend it.
We’ve been interested in this weapon since Ian at ForgottenWeapons.com recommended the book Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn last month. His recommendations are always good, so when we don’t have the book (and it’s not a crazy expensive out-of-print airplane payment or something) we ususlly buy it. It was not a straight-read-through for us like it was for Ian, but we’re really savoring it.
(Here’s a Smithsonian timeline map of the battle which might clarify the location of this carbine in the fight a tad. It draws on Indian legends as well as cavalry memoirs so it might suffer from recovered-memory-itis, but it’s a reasonable timeline).
Along with that, we’ve been watching, in fits and starts also, a movie set in a slightly earlier period, Sam Peckinpah’s “vandalized masterpiece” Major Dundee. That may never show up as a Saturday Matinee (or it might be today’s), but it had us thinking about Indian fighting, the US Army’s original and most successful COIN campaign. It was a campaign of savagery on both sides, not the one-sided chivalry customarily shown in 20th Century saddle flicks. And you know what? If insurgents go to the savagery place against a modern nation, they can’t win. They can only hang in and help the moderns quit. White settlers were not going to quit coming west. (The whole reason the Sioux were displaced in 1876 in the first place, Aracheological Perspectives explains, is that whites found gold on their reservation and uprooted them again). The Indians were going to lose: that was evident in the correlation of forces. The sensible thing would have been to seek terms, and the sensible thing would have been to grant generous ones. But blood was up, emotions were high, and no one was being sensible that spring of ’76.
An awful lot of war decisions are fundamentally emotional, and only rationalized ex post facto. That’s true at every level from heads of state to infantryman. You’re lucky if you hang onto your scalp, then and now.
And you’d better be prepared to part with your scalp if you want this historic, museum-ready Trapdoor: Julia estimates it will sell for $100,000 to $150,000, and like most auctioneers, his estimates tend to run low vis-a-vis realized prices (to encourage bidders, perhaps?) There are more pictures at the site. Enjoy.