“One big disadvantage for Custer was that the Indians had better rifles than the troopers.” [laplata, post 4]
“Very good point that is often lost among non-gun people.
The Indians were in large part armed with Winchester repeating rifles, while Custer’s troops were armed with single shot Trapdoor Springfields.” [Yo-Yo, post 8]
“...Ive never heard an explanation as to why Custer wasnt issued repeating rifles....” [laplata, post 14]
“...Custer wasn’t issued repeating rifles because the U.S. Government never bought any repeating rifles. It was the Army’s opinion that the lever action rifles of the time, that used the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, were inferior to the Trapdoor Springfield firing the .45-70 rifle cartridge.” [Yo-Yo, post 21]
“Ive heard that some people in the Army command were resisting switching to more modern rifles, because they thought that soldiers would just waste ammunition firing willy nilly, instead of carefully aiming their shots. I believe it wasnt until the Spanish-American War that that line of thinking was completely uprooted.” [Boogieman, post 36]
“Repeaters were expensive and somewhat unreliable. A number of units were issued repeaters and they were given bad reviews by soldiers as well as officers. The subject was dropped and they continued to use the Springfield Trapdoor...One of the problems was the repeaters used much lighter rounds than the 45-70 and were less effective at longer ranges.
The investigation after the battle led the Ordinance Dept to replace all copper jacketed 45-70 with brass jacket. The copper jacket had expanded in the rifle as heat increased to the point that the fired round could not be ejected. Brass expands less.” [buffaloguy, post 51]
“...the .45-70 easily beat out the .44...one of the deciding factors when they chose the new rifle - 1873...they should have at least had Spencers....” [Roman_War_Criminal, post 71]
“...The cartridges were made of copper and it was a known problem...Many broken knife points of Army knives were found on the battlefield hence the decision to change the cartridge to brass.
I have read the supposed debunking of that reasoning and it was unconvincing. My own 45-70 is competitive when the barrel runs at about 140 degrees.” [buffaloguy, post 78]
“Most of the Indian’s repeaters were 32-40s a very light round suitable for hunting...” [buffaloguy, post 101]
The US Army’s use of 45-70 wasn’t a whim, it was official government policy. Land forces doctrine was that individual aimed fire at long ranges was preferred: remained true until after 1945. The supposition was that long-range aimed fire from trained, disciplined troops would take out any adversary firing weapons of shorter range.
BGen Stephen Vincent Benet assumed the post of Chief of Ordnance of the US Army in 1874; he stated that Ordnance would stop accepting critiques and suggestions from the rest of the Army, because field forces were unable to understand the technical aspects of the new weaponry then being developed.
Cartridge case material was copper until years after June 1876. Brass wasn’t used until the British invented deep-draw forming techniques, and improved heat-treating of brass, in the late 1870s. Smith & Wesson’s first revolver - the No 1 in 22 Short rimfire - had to fire copper-cased rounds. They ballooned and stuck so badly that the design was modified to include a flat disk between the standing breech and the chambers, which rotated with the cylinder.
Though the 45-70 was centerfire, it is important to recall that outside priming had not yet been perfected. Cases were still thin, to permit the firing pin to indent the back of the head far enough to ignite the primer (which was crimped inside the head). Bulging and ruptures were an unavoidable problem.
As several forum members have pointed out, the repeaters of 1876 fired cartridges of lower power. And there weren’t very many; Christopher Spencer’s rifle was obsolescent, as was the Henry. Winchester’s M1866 was being made, but their M1873 had been introduced only a couple years before June 1876. The first repeaters that could handle the 45-70 did not appear until 1879; Marlin introduced the first lever action in that chambering in 1881.
The War Dept remained convinced that repeaters were too complex, costly, and unreliable to issue to troops. And most modern gun enthusiasts don’t realize how heavy such rifles were: single shots were weighty, but a full-size repeating rifle stuffed full of 45-70 rounds was that much heavier. Officers argued that troops would balk at carrying all the weight.
“They’ll shoot up all their ammunition” was unprovable, but it was taken very seriously in the War Dept. The warning was invoked against breechloaders, manual repeaters, semi-auto rifles, and full-auto personal issue arms: long after 1898. Fears that the supply system would collapse under battle demands were frequently voiced.
Also, recall that after ACW ended in 1865, the organized military existed only at the sufferance of a parsimonious Congress and an indifferent public. Army officials worried more about selling off huge quantities of obsolete muzzle-loaders, or converting guns to fire cartridges - at the lowest cost.
32-40 Ballard & Winchester was a highly accurate target round and is still in demand. But it wasn’t introduced until 1884, eight years after Little Big Horn. Not sure when repeaters for it first came out; when Winchester’s M1894 was first sold, it chambered 32-40.
Thank you very much, schurmann. Your knowledge is impressive and appreciated.
A few bits of info:
The replacement rounds were brass, not sure how they were manufactured, probably bored.
It appears that the cavalry was issued carbines which shot 45-55s rather than the normal 45-70 cartridges. The sticking cartridges were handled with a ramrod which was underneath the barrel.You simply popped the stuck cartridges out when they jammed.
The copper cartridges also frequently corroded and the resulting jams were described as much like gluing the cartridge in the breech.
THE CARBINES ISSUED DID NOT HAVE RAMRODS. They used their knives as previously stated.
The Army specified that the an enemy would be engaged at long distance which continued until after 1945. Hence the move to 1500 yard sites a bit later.
Fire rate for inexperienced soldiers was 8 rounds per minute, for experienced personnel, 18 rounds per minute. I can speak with authority when I say that their breeches were smoking hot, probably over 200 degrees.
The need to pry a cartridge out frequently would probably cost 4 to 5 rounds per minute, serious decrease in fire power.