Authenticated Little Bighorn Carbine at Auction

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.

Julia-auction-Trapdoor_BigHorn_14This 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.

Julia-auction-Trapdoor_BigHorn_15Most 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.

Stereo image of the Custer battlefield, taken in 1879. The remains visible appear to be equine.

Stereo image of the Custer battlefield, taken in 1879. The remains visible appear to be equine.

We’ve been interested in this weapon since Ian at 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.

8 thoughts on “Authenticated Little Bighorn Carbine at Auction

  1. Pingback: Authenticated Little Bighorn Carbine at Auction | The Gun Feed

  2. Aesop

    And this is why I love this bar.
    Great story, and fantastic provenance. Damn shame not to have a spare $200K around to get ahold of this. But being me, I’d want to take it out and shoot it.

    So I suppose nice Italian replica is a better choice all around, one of these days.

    Then to work on getting Uberti to produce a nice Rourke’s Drift Martini-Henry in .45-70.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Harrington and Richardson used to make a nice series of Springfield replicas some 30-40 years ago. Their Officer’s Model Carbine was very nice, with figured wood, case-hardening, a tang sight, and so forth — doubt one ever left Springfield Armory like that. The trapdoor is really a pretty ingenious mechanism.

      ETA: Bingo. It’s already in the People’s Republic, even: no bribing the border guards.

  3. Matt

    Been to the site twice, once as a kid and once for a much longer visit three years ago. Amazing place; you can see the hill from I90, and walk most of the paths around Last Stand Hill, down to the Deep Ravine, and along the ridge, then drive five miles or so to the Reno-Benteen site. Markers throughout, describing the action and timeline. Probably my favorite military site, just ahead of Shiloh.

    I also bought the archaeological book after seeing it recommended. Got mine for less than ten bucks used from a Goodwill in Iowa City. Interesting read, adds to ones appreciation of the site and battle. I plan to go back again.

    St Paul

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yeah. Whoever gets this carbine has an incredible piece of American history. Most of the known LBH guns come via Indian provenance, I’m told.

      There is no substitute for walking the terrain. If you can get a staff walk that’s great (an old Group CO of mine used to do these at Gettysburg and he’s supposed to be awesome at it) but even a good guidebook works. My favorite sites are the Lexington-Concord area (multiple sites, the Concord battlefield is the big one, unfortunately they’re all degraded by development) and Normandy, especially Omaha and the location of Pegasus Bridge (there’s a new bridge there now, but the original bridge is in a field as part of a museum maybe a half-mile away). I prefer to visit sites at times close to the battle but not so close as to be hip-deep in reenactments and memorials. I want to feel the weather as the participants did (which assumes the cooperation of the weather).

      I am fortunate enough to live on an unfortunately-developed battlefield, from a colonial-era skirmish. My quaint seaside town has its own “Massacre Marsh” where the Indians caught settlers unaware. The colonial militia took pikes and matchlocks in hand and found the Indians having breakfast and dividing up their captives as slaves on a sunny hill a couple miles away — massacre returned, captives rescued. I tell people I live on the site of the original hostage rescue mission.

  4. Cannoneer No. 4

    Captain Keough’s horse was probably the only Comanche at the Little Big Horn.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Uh, crap. Cheyenne. Knew the supporting tribe was one of those helicopters that didn’t get built (there were actually a bunch of tribes, but it was mostly Sioux and Cheyenne). My apologies to the misidentified tribes! Thanks. Will fix.

Comments are closed.