Discussion Did Civil War arms help tame the Wild West?

R. Porter

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Oct 6, 2020
If nothing else I have read that at Little Big Horn the Sioux were armed with repeating rifles while Custer's men were still using one shot muzzle loaders. I would think that this was not an uncommon occurence throughout the West.
There were some repeating rifles at the Little Bighorn in Indian hands, but the majority were muzzle-loading flintlock and caplock guns. There were bows and arrows too. The tactic the Indians seemed to follow was to get as many warriors as close as possible to the particular cavalry position they were attacking through stealth, by crawling through ravines and tall grass. Like the example above, they would pop up and take a shot and crouch back down. When they got close enough they could use their bows to great effect. Custer had about 250 men or less with him spread out in several positions. The Indians started at the first of these and concentrated their warriors until they just overwhelmed the troopers. Those troopers who could, moved to the next position along their line of defense. The Indians gained what firearms and ammunition was left, adding to their firepower against the next objective. The troopers became demoralized and put up less resistance. At least I believe that's how it went; it's been a while since I read about it. The Springfield model 1866 was a trapdoor rifle and by the time of the Little Bighorn campaign all of the infantry units would have had trapdoor rifles. The cavalry units had been switching out their Spencer and Sharps carbines for the Springfield model 1873 carbine. The Indians also would have had a few years to learn about trapdoor rifles and how to use them. It seems like the major tactical error was to allow too many of the enemy to approach too closely so that the disadvantages of firearms with a shorter effective range and weaker stopping power were greatly reduced and the advantage of volume of fire was enhanced (think: get there first with the most men.) I gather that Custer was willing to attacking a superior Native American force because boldness and mobility on the part of the cavalry had always had always allowed them to concentrate overwhelming firepower to their own advantage. The one major difference between the Little Bighorn conflict and previous engagements was the size of the Indian fighting force which placed the advantage back with the Indians. Custer probably thought his boldness along with extra ammunition would carry the day right up until the dominoes began to fall and then it was over very quickly.
 

Story

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If nothing else I have read that at Little Big Horn the Sioux were armed with repeating rifles while Custer's men were still using one shot muzzle loaders. I would think that this was not an uncommon occurence throughout the West.

Lots of factors going on with Little Big Horn
The Battle of the Little Bighorn Gunshot Trauma Analysis: Suicide Prevalence Among the Soldiers of the 7th Cavalry
https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=12198&context=etd

The case for possibly contaminated evidence
http://custer.over-blog.com/article-10729683.html

In referring to Custer's Battalion, Red Horse stated, "The troops used very few of their cartridges. I took a gun and a couple of belts off two dead men. Out of one belt two cartridges were gone; out of the other, five. It was with the captured ammunition and arms that we fought the other body of troops [ on Reno Hill]." "These different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt two cartridges were gone, out of the other five. The Sioux took the guns and cartridges off the dead soldiers and went to the hill [Reno Hill] on which the soldiers were, surrounded and fought them with the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers. "
https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2948&context=facpub

Native stigmata on weapons captured from Custer's column
https://www.forgottenweapons.com/book-review-documenting-the-weapons-used-at-the-little-bighorn/
 
Joined
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Lots of factors going on with Little Big Horn
The Battle of the Little Bighorn Gunshot Trauma Analysis: Suicide Prevalence Among the Soldiers of the 7th Cavalry
https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=12198&context=etd

The case for possibly contaminated evidence
http://custer.over-blog.com/article-10729683.html

In referring to Custer's Battalion, Red Horse stated, "The troops used very few of their cartridges. I took a gun and a couple of belts off two dead men. Out of one belt two cartridges were gone; out of the other, five. It was with the captured ammunition and arms that we fought the other body of troops [ on Reno Hill]." "These different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt two cartridges were gone, out of the other five. The Sioux took the guns and cartridges off the dead soldiers and went to the hill [Reno Hill] on which the soldiers were, surrounded and fought them with the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers. "
https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2948&context=facpub

Native stigmata on weapons captured from Custer's column
https://www.forgottenweapons.com/book-review-documenting-the-weapons-used-at-the-little-bighorn/
All well and good. But the salient question remains. Were Custer's men armed with single shot carbines or repeating rifles. If the former Custer with 200 men is facing multiple thousands of Souix, if the latter it is essentially 1500 men facing the same number. Given the former every single casualty of Custer is a significant reduction in his force. Also if the Indians are indeed equipped with repeating rifles their kill ratios also increase exponentially.
 

Story

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All well and good. But the salient question remains. Were Custer's men armed with single shot carbines or repeating rifles. If the former Custer with 200 men is facing multiple thousands of Souix, if the latter it is essentially 1500 men facing the same number. Given the former every single casualty of Custer is a significant reduction in his force. Also if the Indians are indeed equipped with repeating rifles their kill ratios also increase exponentially.

That's the problem with getting tunnel-vision on technology.

Even if Custer's men had Winchester 73s, they'd still have been poor marksmen (since the Army's target practice policy at the time was dictated by paucity) and the conditions that created the column's broken morale with mass suicides hadn't changed, so the debacle would have lasted a bit longer.
 

Polloco

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Location
South Texas
I read something about Custer's men having difficulty ejecting empty shells from their single shot guns.It took a pocket knife to dig out the spent shells before reloading.A slow and hectic procedure when being shot at.Is there any truth to that "story"?
 

Rhea Cole

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Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Custer's men had ammunition belts made of rawhide. As a result, the cartridges were contaminated by a ring of gunk. We all know what that means. The trapdoor was plagued with jams under ideal conditions, the addition of a ring of green crud was a deadly combination. British soldiers in the Zulu War suffered from a similar jam under combat conditions.
 

johan_steele

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In short Custer didn’t last long at his Waterloo. As to the OP of did ACW guns tame the west I would say no. It was men with conviction. The Indian nations had some tribes of fighting men par excellence. But they were grossly outnumbered facing not only an opposing army with a logistical train but a civilian opposition that was willing to walk across a continent for the hope of a better life.

no one factor but a myriad of them caused the “taming of the west” and the utter destruction of the Native Cultures that dared oppose it.

the irony is that the Indian fought far longer against dramatically higher odds that the CS ever imagined.
 

Rhea Cole

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Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The Big Horn gets all the bandwidth, but Crook's column was forced to retreat. It is not as if an isolated skirmish between a few hundred cavalry & thousands of Lakota was really all that important militarily.
 

R. Porter

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Oct 6, 2020
It seems to me that in my readings about the archaeology of the Little Bighorn the idea of cartridges jamming was a known issue. Rifles came with cleaning rods that were still called ramrods which could be used to insert down the barrel and push the stuck cartridge out. Apparently one rifle per a given number of troopers was issued to the cavalry. The issue was examined by the Army and by archaeologists. It was decided that although there were jams and the ramrod was used to help clear them, only a small percentage of cartridge casings got stuck. Cartridge casings for the Springfield trapdoor were made of copper and because of copper’s excellent conducting capabilities it underwent thermal expansion when loaded in a firearm that had been in use. This was why the Army switched to ammunition in brass cartridge casings. The key to Custer’s defeat was supposedly the ability of the Indians to direct overwhelming firepower against the troopers. They were able to do this because the Indians were able to overcome any tribal rivalries to assemble the largest concentration of Indians the Army and perhaps the northern plains had ever seen and because Custer broke up his command into clumps. The Indians were then able to use suppressive fire to allow their men to approach a cavalry defensive position undetected. The Indians were then able to spook the cavalry horses and reduce the troopers’ mobility and then overwhelm the defensive position using firearms and arrows. The trooper defensive positions seemed to be exposed rises that offered no real protection. When a position was overrun the troopers who were still mounted or who could still run left their comrades to their fate and headed to the next defensive position when the same thing happened all over again. If the troopers had stayed on horseback and maintained their distance they would have had the advantage of firearms with superior range and accuracy if they could hit anything. The Indians were not all expert shots either. While there were Indian snipers taking their toll on Reno’s troops, there is also the anecdote about a trooper with the group that was riding to Custer’s aid when all of the shooting stopped around Custer’s positon and a group of mounted Indians galloped toward Reno’s position. The trooper became unhorsed during the mad dash back to the hilltop position of Reno. The Indians were fast approaching, firing their weapons as they closed in. At the last minute another trooper or officer approached to save him and found him laughing. He swung the trooper up on his horse and they both escaped. After they got back to relative safety, the trooper’s savior asked him what he was laughing at and he said it was because the Indians were such awful shots. So the Indians weren’t all experts themselves. Often their guns did not have their original sights; they typically shortened the barrels of the rifles they obtained to make them easier to load and shoot on horseback. When you are hunting buffalo from horseback ten feet away, careful aim is difficult but fortunately not that important. Indian guns that were turned-in or captured during battle have been studied. The major collection being the one at the Rock Island Arsenal. Guns of the Western Indian War by R. Stephen Dorsey examines these guns in detail including photographs and tables of data. Apparently, many of the classic lever action rifles obtained from Indians have a date of manufacture in the 1880’s.
 

Story

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If the troopers had stayed on horseback and maintained their distance they would have had the advantage of firearms with superior range and accuracy if they could hit anything.

Huh?
1) Civil War period tactics started the practice of dismounting by fours, one trooper holding the horses while the other three formed a firing line. They did this because firing while mounted was wildly inaccurate, limiting hits to very close range.

main-qimg-fa438305057c1bc321f332bda8c4641d.jpg

2) To understand *why* Little Bighorn resonated at the time, this from the suicide article I posted above:

The Battle of the Little Bighorn cost the U.S. army 268 men, who included the entirety of General Custer’s men and just over 1% of the men enlisted in the army at that time.

Anyone familiar with the story of Task Force Smith (1950)?

Right now, the US Army combined-component strength (Regular, National Guard and Army Reserve) is @ 1,005,725 soldiers. The Regular Army is @ 480,893 soldiers.

Imagine a battle tomorrow, during which 4,800 American soldiers are wiped out during the course of a few hours.

Think that'd have a significant social impact?
 
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Joined
Jun 27, 2017
That's the problem with getting tunnel-vision on technology.

Even if Custer's men had Winchester 73s, they'd still have been poor marksmen (since the Army's target practice policy at the time was dictated by paucity) and the conditions that created the column's broken morale with mass suicides hadn't changed, so the debacle would have lasted a bit longer.
On the other hand of course the Indians spent 27 hours a day practicing their marksmanship??!!

Since gunpowder weapons were invented, soldiers have had to expend 100's of shots to incur one casualty. However someone firing 2-3 shots a minute with a muzzleloader is at a tremendous dis advantage to someone firing up to 15-20 shots a minute with a breechloader.
 

Story

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Since gunpowder weapons were invented, soldiers have had to expend 100's of shots to incur one casualty.

The number of rounds required to produce a single casualty decreased from the Napoleonic era (150 per) to the Crimea and Civil Wars (60/per) with the mass-issue of rifled arms.

From the link above
Marksmanship training in the frontier Army prior to the 1880s was almost nil. An Army officer recalled the 1870s with nostalgia. ‘Those were the good old days,’ he said. ‘Target practice was practically unknown.’ A penurious government allowed only about 20 rounds per year for training–a situation altered only because of the Custer disaster. And the 20 rounds of ammunition often were expended in firing at passing game rather than in sharpshooting. The 7th Cavalry was not hampered by new recruits, for only about 12 percent of the force could be considered raw. What handicapped the entire regiment, however, was inadequate training in marksmanship and fire discipline.
https://www.historynet.com/battle-of-little-bighorn-were-the-weapons-the-deciding-factor.htm

At times the availability of ammunition was so limited in the immediate postwar era that the men could not participate in target practice. Marksmanship received much emphasis in the 1880s, a time when there were few military demands on the troops at Fort Union.
Fort Union, NM Chapter 4 http://npshistory.com/publications/foun/hrs/chap8.htm
 

R. Porter

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Oct 6, 2020
In his book Guns of the Western Indian War, R. Stephen Dorsey presents a summary table based on information from the book Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It has been acknowledged that relic hunters have visited the site ever since the battle ended and carried away artifacts. There have also been those who hunted on the battlefield or came to memorialize the battle who may have added to the artifacts found in the area. More recently, artifacts such as shell casings have been recovered and studied as law enforcement would study evidence at a crime scene. It has been possible to identify the marks of individual firearms on shell casings and determine a minimum number of individual firearm models that were present during the battle. It is assumed that this number was probably higher but evidence for this has been removed. Among the firearms present were at least 108 .44 Henry rifles and 8 Winchester model 1873 rifles. Most of these probably did not belong to the cavalry. The list is on p.207 – p.208.
 

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