MY PHONE RANG. It was Rodney Doersam, an old buddy who now runs the gun shop at Oasis Outback, the big sporting goods store, gun shop, and restaurant in Uvalde, www.oasisoutback.com, 830-278-4000.
“Steve! Drop whatever you have in line for tomorrow and be here at Outback between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.”
“I can’t Rodney, I have a doctor’s appointment in San Antonio tomorrow.”
“If you aren’t here you will regret it for the rest of your life. I know you’re interested in this stuff, and a man is going to have a collection of guns on display that were actually documented to have been used at the Little Big Horn, including one of Custer’s revolvers.”
I canceled my doctor’s appointment and was at Oasis Outback at the appointed time. Rodney was right, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I had missed it. It was, literally, awe inspiring.
Lying on a table were more than a dozen—I didn’t count them, I was too busy drooling— rifles, carbines and revolvers. Before me were 1873 and 1866 Winchesters. Henrys, Spencers, Colts, Smith & Wessons, and one nickel plated Webley .455. On the metal plate on the bottom of the Webley’s grip was engraved, G.A. Custer.
Few over the age of ten have not heard of the battle of the Little Big Horn—or Greasy Grass, as it was called by the Sioux and Cheyenne. On June 25, 1876, the Centennial Year, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (brevet major general) and the 7th Cavalry attacked the largest concentration of Native American warriors ever assembled—between 1,200 and 1,800 warriors from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.
Not all of the 7th Cavalry was wiped out that day, as is often thought. Custer had split his force of approximately 700, including Indian scouts, into three battle groups. He led the largest, and Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen led the other two.
Reno’s and Benteen’s forces survived, though with grievous casualties; Custer’s was wiped out to a man—or was it? There is evidence that two soldiers escaped and never rejoined the army, but you’ll have to follow that rabbit hole yourself.
The battle has been retold many times in movies and books, but most of them have portrayed Custer as a great hero and the last man standing. All of them have taken great literary license with the facts.
I have been a student of the battle for more than 30 years, reading everything I could get my hands on. Because almost everything I read were second-hand accounts of surviving cavalrymen, I never thought I would know the actual specifics of the battle.
These stories disregarded testimonies of the Native Americans who were in the battle. That has now been rectified—but back to the guns.
These guns are in the custody of Mr. Wendell Grangaard. Grangaard’s story is itself an epic, but we will leave most of that for another time. Or better yet, you can read it yourself in his book, Documenting the Weapons Used at the Little Big Horn, from which much of this information was taken.
Grangaard spent many years in construction in North and South Dakota and Wyoming, where he became acquainted with many of the descendants of warriors who fought at Little Big Horn. He became interested in collecting the guns and, more important, the oral histories related to the Battle of The Little Big Horn.
The guns were at that time (early October) being shown in Texas because they were for sale. Uvalde is being considered as the home of a new museum featuring the guns.
The Sioux Nation wants to sell the guns and use the money, I understand, for projects for the betterment of the tribe.
I walked around the table. Many of the old guns were in remarkable condition, some were pretty badly rusted and pitted, but all of them told a story of fantastic violence and desperation.
Most people believe Custer carried a 7 1/2-inch .45 Colt Single Action Army, like you see in the movies. Not true. He carried a pair of nickel plated, .455 caliber, British Webley Bulldog revolvers.
The one on display had ivory grips, which looked to me like walrus ivory rather than elephant. Elephant ivory becomes yellow with age and use, but the grip on this gun was still white. The nickel was worn, but the gun was still in very good condition.
Lieutenant Colonel Custer, in addition to his two Webley revolvers, probably had with him his favorite Remington rolling block rifle in .50-70 caliber. He was so fond of this rifle that he had written to Remington extolling its virtues. It is unknown whether he used it in the battle, but it is probable.
Crazy Horse, arguably the most famous of the war chiefs, carried an 1873 Winchester that day, but he also had a Sharps carbine and, possibly, a Spencer. The Winchester was found by soldiers when they searched his lodge during his surrender. Crazy Horse surrendered the Sharps, but it was returned to him when he enlisted as a scout.
When he was arrested and killed, the Sharps was given to Sitting Elk, another Oglala scout. Crazy Horse took another Sharps, serial number 16632 from a soldier in Reno’s Company A, which was hidden by his family. It was later recovered and sold.
Captain Tom Custer, George’s brother, used a sporting model Spencer repeating rifle. Tom was killed close to his brother by Cheyenne war chief Little Horse, who took the rifle, serial number 61391. It was recovered from Little Horse’s lodge on November 25, 1876, at the Dull Knife battle.
Little Big Man, Crazy Horse’s cousin and one of his chief lieutenants, and who was, strangely enough, instrumental in Crazy Horse’s death, carried Sharps carbine number 34275 in the battle.
He had taken the carbine from a Crow scout at the Battle of the Rosebud. He also used the carbine at the battles of Slim Buttes and Wolf Mountain.
Some of the guns used by the Native Americans at the battle were taken as booty at the battle of the Rosebud on June 17, when the warriors fought General Crook’s detachment to a standstill and made Crook retreat.
In fact, the warriors probably were better armed than the troopers of the 7th Cavalry. Some of the troopers were killed with bows, lances and war clubs, especially at the very end. However, the majority of the Native American warriors did not use bows and arrows. They were armed with repeating rifles. Among them were Winchester ’66s and ’73s, Spencers, Henrys, and Springfields, Sharps carbines and buffalo guns.
The troopers were primarily armed with single-shot, trap door Springfields, Sharps carbines and revolvers. Because of the copper (not brass) cases of the military ammunition, the trooper’s Springfields were prone to freeze up when they got too hot, which they undoubtedly did that fateful day in June 1876.
Another fact left out of the movies is that George Custer was wounded at the beginning of the engagement. He was shot high through the shoulder when trying to cross the Little Big Horn into the Native American camp at Medicine Tail Coulee ford. He was knocked off his horse, but was assisted into the saddle. He then called a retreat.
He was shot by a young Oglala brave named White Cow Bull, with a Sharps buffalo rifle. A Cheyenne war chief named Two Moon claimed to have killed Custer later. After taking Custer’s handgun away from him in desperate hand-to-hand combat, he shot Custer in the head with Custer’s own revolver.
That is the story of just a few of the weapons known to have been used at the Little Big Horn. The complete collection numbers more than 150 weapons and artifacts. The collection names the warriors who owned them, and in some cases where the weapons were obtained and from whom.
This subject could be the study of volumes, not just a short piece in a magazine. The Native Americans were very good, and very truthful, in passing down oral histories of the battle —and the weapons used there and taken as booty.
The facts contained herein are not completely indisputable, but if I did not believe them to be true, I would not have included them. You study the subject and reach your own conclusions, but first find a copy Wendell Grangaard’s book, Documenting the Weapons Used at the Little Big Horn, by Mariah Press. In it you can read of Black Elk, Kills Two, Crow King, Rain in the Face, Gall, and others.
Anpétu wăsté (Lakota greeting, “good day”).
Animation sequences from the documentary Contested Ground. Get the book and full documentary at https://backtrackwest1876.com.
—story by STEVE LaMASCUS