Chasing Custer: ballistic relics of the little bighorn make for a lifetime of research.

Author:Venturino, Mike 'Duke'


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...

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