IN THE NEOLITHIC AGE, American bison (Bison bison) stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Canadian prairies to Northern Mexico. As much as 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, the Folsom people were hunting an ancient form of bison (Bison antiquus) in what is now northeastern New Mexico. So the buffalo had been an important item to the Native American peoples for a very long time.
In the early 1800s, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase and the exploration of Lewis and Clark, white (and some black) Americans began to cross the Great Plains to hunt and trap in the Rocky Mountains. They soon found that the small bore Kentucky and Pennsylvania long rifles that had served them so well for the black bears and deer in the East, were ineffective against the buffaloes and grizzly bears of the western plains and mountains. This brought about the big bore plains rifles made famous by such gun makers as the Hawken brothers in St. Louis.
These weapons served the mountain men and settlers well. Then came the Civil War. While the Civil War was fought mostly with rifled, muzzle-loading muskets such as the Springfield, it also saw the introduction of the breech-loading Sharps rifle, firing a paper cartridge, which gave rise to the term sharpshooter, and some cartridge-fed repeaters such as the Henry and Spencer, “That damned Yankee gun that you load on Sunday and shoot all week.”
Although white traders had long been trading with the Indians for buffalo hides, this was mostly for fine robe hides, soft and downy as tanned by Indian women. After the Civil War, large caliber, cartridge fed, single-shot, breech loaders such as the Remington Rolling Block and the Sharps 1874 falling block were introduced in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Soon the British Army found that pliable buffalo hide made better leather for the gear their soldiers carried, and the industrial world found that buffalo hide was superior to cow hide for the belts of their machinery
With railroads to transport the hides, suddenly hunting buffalo became a highly profitable business, and the Big Hunt was on.
No one knows for certain how many buffalo there were in America prior to the coming of the white man. Guesses run from 35 million to a hundred million. What is fact is that there were, literally, millions of buffalo on the Great Plains, and that at the end of the Big Hunt, which lasted from about 1867 to 1884, there was little left but memories and bones.
At first, the majority of the hunters used .40 and .44 caliber rifles, or old military .50-70s. However, some found they were short on power for buffalo bulls that weighed a ton or more.
To better serve the buffalo hunters, Sharps brought out the .50-90 Sharps. This new cartridge was almost universally referred to as the “Big Fifty,” but Indians called it “the rifle that shoots today and kills tomorrow.”
This was Billy Dixon’s favorite cartridge, the one he used for his miracle shot at Adobe Walls. It was not the most common chambering on the buffalo range—that title probably goes to the .45-70 because of cheap or free military ammo— but it was the most revered.
At first, a lot of old military rifles were used. But by 1876, most of the professional hunters appear to have used a Big Fifty in the 1874 Model Sharps, although some preferred a Sharps or Remington in .44 caliber.
Renowned buffalo runner, Frank H. Mayer, in the book The Buffalo Harvest, says, “…I listened intently to the arguments that went on over the campfires about the respective merits of the Remington and the Sharps. Both had fierce partisans and often during the arguments it would seem these runners would start proving the superiority of their choice by using them on other runners…” (Professional buffalo hunters called themselves “buffalo runners.”)
In early 1876, the Sharps Company dropped all their other calibers in favor of a series of .45 calibers. These were .45-70 (the Army cartridge since 1873), called by Sharps the .45-75 Sharps Straight, .45-90, .45-100. 45-110, and later the .45-120.
It was generally conceded—even by the .50-90 lovers—that the largest of these, the .45-110 and.45-120, were better at longer ranges, with their big, long, 500- to 550-grain bullets. John R. Cook, buffalo hunter and author of The Border and The Buffalo, started out with a .44 caliber Sharps, but bought a .45 caliber Sharps Creedmoor in 1876, and said that most of the professional hunters working the Texas or “Southern Herd” were going to that caliber. It was probably a .45-110, as the .45-120 did not appear until 1878 or ‘79.
Sharps eventually brought out a monstrous .50-140, but by then the buffalo were all but gone and only a few of these cannons were produced, probably only by special order or by rechambering a .50-90.
To list all the various black powder, large bore cartridges of this era would take more room than we have here, but there were other manufacturers of guns and ammunition that were found on the buffalo ranges. Among them were such names as Ballard, Winchester, Peabody, and Maynard. You can read about these and more in Cartridges of the World.
The great slaughter of the buffalo on the southern plains lasted from its beginning in Kansas to its finish in Texas, from about 1867 to 1878. This ended the Indian wars and forced the Indians onto reservations.
The northern herd, around the Yellowstone and other northern rivers, lasted longer. It was hunted after the southern herd was exterminated. With the brutal Montana winter temperatures of 30 below and more, it too was gone by 1885.
In the end only about 600 buffaloes survived to propagate the species. Looking back, we see this as a sad period in American history, but at the time it was considered necessary, to pacify the plains Indians and to further the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny.”
I grew up on the rolling plains of northwest Texas on the banks of the Salt Fork of the Brazos River, the heart of the Texas buffalo range. It was still possible to see some of the old buffalo wallows in places that had not been plowed. We would occasionally find an old cartridge or a bullet from a buffalo rifle.
A friend of mine once found a buffalo skeleton in the side of a creek bank. Among the bones of the buffalo was a .50 caliber lead bullet. I knew many of the locations that were mentioned in the books and journals of the buffalo hunters. Places such as Kiowa Peak and the Double Mountain, so the lure of the buffalo hunt speaks strongly to me.
Some of us think of the buffalo hunters as a romantic part of the Old West, but the truth is that hunting buffalo was a hard, brutal, dirty, stinking, dangerous job. Still, I sometimes think I would like to have been a part of it. To see a buffalo herd covering thousands and thousands of acres, a solid mass from horizon to horizon, must have been a sight to behold.
Email Steve LaMascus at [email protected]