Historical What-If

I happened to catch a show on the History Channel the other day about a group of archaeologists doing a forensic reconstruction of Custer’s annihilation at the Little Bighorn. One of the things they determined (no surprise, really) is that the Indian forces were armed with a variety of weapons, including Spencer and Henry repeaters. The 7th Cavalry, of course, had Trapdoor Springfield carbines – just about the worst weapon I can imagine for a fast-moving cavalry unit.

Now, I will acknowledge right up front that I’m not nearly as well-educated on the American West as I should be…so if I get something wrong please let me know in the comments. I expect the choice of Springfield carbines for the cavalry was largely because the Army wanted them to have a weapon with enough stopping power to drop a horse (and because the Springfield was the standard infantry rifle and thus logistically convenient). There is some validity to that choice, but (IMO) not much. The problem is, how is a moving horseman supposed to actually make use of the range and power of that primary weapon? It’s only possible when he is dismounted, and effectively acting as infantry.

It seems to me that the technology, terrain, and conditions were ideal for the emergence of the medium (or short) range, highly mobile tactics that didn’t really become widely practiced until WWI trench raiding. In fact, I think it’s pretty likely that some groups of Indian warriors did in fact develp these tactics, while the US Army was administratively unable to. Basically, take a mounted fighter and equip him with a moderate-range, high-volume firearm like a Spencer or Henry and you give him the same advantage that a German with an StG44 had over a Russian with a Mosin-Nagant.

In fact, it gets more interesting the closer you look…consider that the Spencer and Henry both used short rimfire cases. Bigger than pistol rounds, but significantly smaller than the .45-70 standard rifle cartridge. One might call them “intermediate” size. Hmm. I wonder what might have changed if the Army had been flexible enough to recognize the potential of trading long-range stopping power for volume of fire?

Spencer and Henry rifles
What if the US Cavalry had adopted the assault rifle concept 80 years ahead of the Sturmgewehr?




  1. The problem there, of course, is that while the assault rifle limits you to shots within 400 yards – decently far to be thinking about shooting at – .44 Henry Rimfire is weak at 100 yards and you’re not hitting jack at 200, well within reasonable shooting distances, especially on the prairie. Not to say that .45-70-405 has a great arc, but it’s better than what is essentially .45 ACP. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s a weak bullet.

  2. >I wonder what might have changed if the Army had been flexible enough to recognize the potential of trading long-range stopping power for volume of fire?

    IIRC it has been done during the Civil War, with Henry and Spencer repeaters. However, you cannot underestimate the stubbornness of Army top brass (every army, every century), which are always preparing for the latest war that just have ended.

    Same thing happened during WW1 (with Winchester 1907 SLR rifles used by French), but guess what? After the war everyone god obsessed with full-power, semi-auto rifles. There were many valid reasons for that, of cause, but we know better, with the benefit of the hindsight.

    • The Winchester 1907 SLR (cal. 351) and model 1910 (cal .401) are more PDW (or survival Carbine). French MOD order it (around 800 or 1000) for Amry Avaition Corps ( Pilot, air crew & Truc Driver). In plus, France Order 2500 Winchester model 1894 in 30.30 For second line trops (Officer, trucker, telegraphist …..)

      • From what I’ve read, several thousands of Mod 1907 Winchesters were ordered by French in 1917 with extended mags, bayonet lugs and select-fire capability to be used as trench assault weapons.

        • I suppose that’s not true, simply because the wincester 1907 SLR could be buy & own with hunting licence in France. The Law of 1995 (make by French conservative party) impose to have licence “sport & defense” (renew 3 years & could revock at any time) for any rifle look like an Military Full automatic (issued by any Regular Amry in the earth). Do not Laugh, but they have put in this classifaction some airsoft & paintball toys. That’s sad to tell, but before the end of coldwar you could buy an AR15 or AK in sport version in any supermarket in France with your id card.

  3. If you want to go full-on alt-hist on this, there’s a book called Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, where the premise is that a time machine is used to furnish the Confederacy with AKs.

  4. I agree with Mr. Barnum, for the most part. Your comment on the .44 rimfire’s power is a little off. While it was first seen in the Henry rifle, it was basically an underpowered pistol cartrige. However, as we have seen in the last 75 years, volume of fire might be more important when facing superior numbers, that sheer power. As has happened many times in the past, our military leaders were fighting this war with the last war’s tactics. Also, the fact that penny pinching logistics people couldn’t stand the thought of all the ammo that would be wasted by soldiers under the stress of combat armed with a repeater.

  5. I thought the Spencer would have made a good cavalry carbine for the reasons mentioned in the original post.

    Long range shooting is one of negatives usually listed, but isn’t cavalry more of an up close fighting unit?

    Perhaps the ‘wasting ammo’ thoughts of the establishment vetoes the idea. As late as 1903 the military thought a ‘cut off’ on the Springfield was a great idea.

    The Spencer had seen plenty of action. Did it have serious problems that would have ruled it out?

  6. As far as Army top being stubborn, McArthur orded that the new M1 Garand be chamered for the .30-06 instead of the .276 Pedesen since the US had millions of rounds of .30-06 stored away. Or was it just because McArthur loved the ’06?
    I’ve never seen a balistics comparison of the .276 Pedesen and the .30-06, but I would think that there had to a some kind of good reason for Garand to design the M1 for the Pedersen. Just my 2¢.

    • Given the isolationist bent of Congress and the financial crunch of the Great Depression, it was stretch to get a semi-auto rifle funded, much less a full caliber conversion. You had folks like Senator Gerald Nye going on their “Merchant of Death” witchhunts.

    • .276 Pedersen caliber M1 Garand rifle was lighter and used a ten-round en bloc magazine.

      After the redesign to .30-06 [All the U.S. machine guns and the BAR and so on…], the M-1 rifle became a big, heavy rifle with an eight-round en bloc magazine…

      Fast forward to the Blitzkrieg and U.S. contemplating entry into WWII, and the .45 pistol had too little combat capability, but the infantry rifle was too big and unwieldy… So the M-1 carbine [proto-PDW?] resulted.

      • IIRC the M-1 Carbine was invented to give second line troops a weapon. More than a sidearm, but not quite a full battle rifle.

  7. Cavalry of the time typically fired one or two shots max before they engaged in close combat fighting. The problem of the US Cavalry was that they were not used a cavalry but as mounted infantry. Their tactics required dismounted fighting, for which the trapdoor wasn’t actually too bad for the time. There was a strong equipment problem with Custer that might have been decisive to his demise – he ordered the soldier’s sabres to be left behind as “not needed and too heave to carry around”. So he couldn’t mount a charge to get his troops out of the trap, and as cavalry rifles didn’t have bayonets, his soldiers lacked the close combat ability of the contemporary infantry to slug it out when they were overrun.

  8. The stg44 was ideal for its time because the longer distances were dominated by crew served weapons. In other words bringing a rifle/cartridge to the battlefield that is optimized for 800 yards is less effective because the unit already has MGs, mortars, and can call for artillery bombardment. These are all more effective than moderately trained rifleman at those distances.
    The artillery of 1876 was no where near as dominant at these ranges as these future weapons. In any case, it along with the gatling gun was difficult to move around on the broken plains, and probably unsuited for a fast moving strike that little bighorn was intended to be.
    So if the cavalry was usually armed with shorter range rapid fire weapons we’d expect the Indian forces to learn to stay just outside that range and take potshots at them with the longer range weapons.
    In general I’d expect that tactics would be able to better compensate for the shortcomings of the rifle as compared to the shortcomings of the semi-automatic carbine.

  9. Major Reno’s forces withstood an equally intense attack from the same Lakota and Cheyenne forces which overwhelmed Custer, using the same Springfield carbines. Archeologists have found that Custer’s forces dispersed in small groups [based upon finding .45-70 cartridge cases with metal detectors!], making the Lakota tactics and weapons effective. Major Reno’s forces dug in, making the longer range capability of the .45-70 cartridge dominant. Military forces have to use the tactics which take best advantage of their equipment.

    It is interesting to note that a very similar engagement occurred three years later in the Anglo-Zulu war. At Isandlwana, the British forces broke ranks and were severely defeated by the Zulus. Hours later, a much smaller British force defeated the same Zulus at Rourke’s Drift by digging in and using the long range fire of their Snider (and Martini-Henry?) rifles.

    • At Rourke’s Drift, the British troops had Martinis. Many of the Zulus had firearms as well but didn’t train properly with them, so their marksmanship was of a very low standard.

    • It’s also important to remember that the Zulus had effectively run from Isandlwana to Rorke’s drift. They arrived exhausted and in smaller numbers than the previous battle. British forces managed to hold off at Isandlwana, even in much smaller groups until their ammunition had been expended.

    • The Zulus traditionally attacked in “buffalo head” formation. First a horn from one side, then a horn from the other direction, then the main force as the buffalo’s head, coming from a third direction into the middle of the confusion caused by the horns.

      There are varying stories that Rourke’s drift may have been one of the horns, alone, and accidentally finding the group of Brits,

      or, it may have been a bunch of youngsters, looking for favour from the king, as, in the twisted Zulu culture of the time, men were only allowed to take a wife, when the king was satisfied that the man had done enough fighting for him.

      Either way, it seems that Rourke’s Drift didn’t get an attack from the main force.

      I got to visit Isandlwhana, but ran short of daylight before I got to Rourke’s drift (I had to drive back through some dodgy areas, and wanted to do it in daylight).

      I didn’t see any brass, but in some areas the soil was full of bone fragments, and I picked up half of a pottery ink bottle from a gully and handed it to the curator of the museum.

    • Apparently, while the Cheyenne and Lakota greatly outnumbered the 7th Cavalry, they also enjoyed a *two-to-one* superiority in *firearms* if I am correctly remembering the same archaeological survey that you describe.

  10. In fact, that’s more the soviet who were equip for modern warfare than the nazi, with all frontliner with PSS43 or PPSH41 and DRM With Mosin Nagant /SVT40

    The german are with K98K and MP40 (or MAB38/MP38/MP35/MP28) in small quanties (just one man to 20) …. For the MP44 its arrives aganist T34 in same quanties.

    BTW, the MP44 is just marginaly tacticaly more accurate than M1/M2 Carbine, French SMG MAS38 or PPSH41. The MP44 replace lack weapon of this class in german armories than true innovation.

    • Archeologists found that the Pickets at Islandwana were out a lot further than they should have been and that as they were too separated they could not provide proper mutual support.

      They also found piles of cases which showed signs of significant distortion due to fouling which would ultimately led to jams and extraction problems.

  11. there is an excellent comparison from a few years before where fifty volenteer cavlery where surrounded by thousands of indians and successfully held them off for many days ! “battle of beacher island ” the numbers where less (indians and soldiers but perportianatly same)the differance was the soldiers had not yet turned in there spencers.

  12. i own two spencers and hunt with both the rifle and the carbine and they are both very good to a couple hundred yards and probably further ( i just have not pushed em)
    and if i can find it , i used to have a report from 1870s about testing 45-70 to two miles .
    they where putting wagons out there with wooden back drops and the bulllets where coiming in at like 80 degrees?

  13. Oddly enough the 7th had been using Spencer Carbines and had just traded them in for the Trapdoor carbines. I doubt the troopers had enough experience with the new rifles to use them to their full effect. Would it have made a difference? Maybe some. The Gatling guns they left behind because they slowed the advance would have been even more useful. Custer obeying orders would have helped too.

  14. As I understand it 19th century Cavalry tactics did not tend to emphasize shooting rifles from horseback. Horses got troops where they needed to be quickly and once they got to where they needed to be the troops would dismount and form a skirmish line to engage enemy targets with their long barreled weapons. When charging an enemy of course the sabre or the pistol would be the weapon of choice as they can be properly operated with one hand. Accurately firing a rifle or carbine from horseback would require a high level of training that most 19th century armed forces would not be willing to invest in.

    For another well known period example of Cavalry operations look at Day 1 of Gettysburg where opposing Cavalry forces, many equipped with breech loading carbines, dismounted and formed skirmish lines.

    Anyway the real Historical What-If is if those three extra troopers had remembered to bring the tank with then.

  15. Didn’t some of the Quantrill-type raiders in the civil war do a lot of damage by having 2 or more loaded pistols available to use instead of cavalry sabres?

  16. I’m not sure what American doctrine was, but in the rest of the world there were two lines of thought about cavalry in those days. One was that the development of the rifle (whether breach loading or not) meant that the days of the cavalry charge were over. “Modern” cavalry were really “dragoons”, which were mounted infantry. They were meant to be mobile light infantry which could travel quickly, but were intended to fight as infantry. So in that case you needed “proper” rifle, which was the origin of the short cavalry carbine versions of standard infantry rifles.

    The other train of thought was that the day of fighting on horseback wasn’t over quite yet, but that cavalry needed a weapon that had a bit more range than a sword or pistol. Attempting to actually hit anything from a moving horse is difficult enough at short range, shooting at anything at long range was a waste of time. In that case rapid fire was more important than range.

    So, what the proper rifle should have been would depend on what your tactical doctrine was. When looking at what the standard American cavalry rifle was, you also need to keep in mind that the army as a whole would have been equipped and trained to deal with opponents who fought along the lines of other modern powers. Military resources are finite, and your main effort needs to be behind preparing for the worst case scenario (a war with a major modern power). In the action in question here, the American army was facing what was effectively a domestic insurgency. Whether that required different tactics and weapons from the main effort is a good question, but there is no reason for the lessons of it to be seen as applying more widely.

    People like to point to the famous cavalry charge that Winston Churchill took part in in Sudan. However glorious it may have been, the British would never have charged had they known the true size of the Mahdist forces hidden in the ravine. Their tactics were supposed to involve shooting down the dervishes from outside of the effective range of their opponent’s fire.

    As for comparing the Henry carbine to an assault rifle, I think the analogy is a bit off. As others have pointed out, it fires what is basically a pistol cartridge. Also, there were no stripper clips in those days, so the tube magazine was slow to reload. While you might get a faster rate of fire for a short period of time (as in a quick cavalry melee), the sustained rate of fire would have probably been no better than with a single shot rifle since you would have to handle each cartridge individually anyway. For an effective assault rifle, you needed changeable box magazines.

  17. The Springfield Carbine did not use the same ammunition as the infantry rifle. It used the same cartridge case with the same 405 grain .45 caliber bullet as the rifle round, but was loaded with a 55 grain charge for reduction of recoil in the lighter carbine. Besides reducing recoil, the reduced charge also had the effect of lowering the muzzle velocity from 1,394 feet-per-second in the rifle to 1,100 feet-per-second in the carbine, also resulting in a reduced effective range compared to the rifle.

  18. Confederate Calvary did prefer using revolvers and doing traditional charges, but typically also had a carbine or rifle along for when they had to fight dismounted. Their biggest problem was in getting the revolvers, the Confederates never had enough of anything to fully equip their troops.
    The biggest problem with the Trapdoor Springfield at the time of Custer’s defeat were the copper cartridge cases – they simply weren’t strong enough. You had four to five shots before the fouling built up in the chambers to cause the cases to seize after firing, then the extractor would rip through the rim and the rifle became a club. This was a continuing problem until the army switched to brass cases in the 1880’s; and was why the trapdoors retained the ramrod which could be used to drive the case out of the chamber.

  19. Just a few points of thought on your idea:

    1. I have visited the Battlefield at Little Big Horn and it is not flat land but a series of ravines, and flat scrub hills. The actual ranges are relatively short, in the area of 20to 150 yards. The idea of a small band of troopers holding off over 1000 Indians is ridiculous. In the terrain which is conducive to the flanking attacks that the Indians tactics the troopers of the 7th Cavalry were doomed from the start of the engagement. Custer was a brash commander who failed the primary precepts of command and split his forces into multiple small units. The only portions of his unit which survived under Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen had the only defensible terrain features to stop the attacks. They owe their survival to a river and bluffs where they dug rifle pits (FOXHOLES) and commanded the high ground. (See WIKIPEDIA for details.) 2. The choice of weapons that the Troopers were armed with did not make that much of a difference as the early Repeating rifles were not suitable for long marches on horseback with the dusty conditions causing jams and the two guns you think were ideal for the Calvary were not easily maintaned in the field where the troops of the 7th were traveling 40 plus miles per day on horseback. In particular I would point ont that thew HENRY rifle had a slot running the length of the magazine tube and it was a potential for jamming with cartridges that had external lubricant. The Spencer rifle was also difficult to reload and was a inferior cartridge.

    Considering these points what would have happened if LTC Custer had taken with him the Gatling guns hat were left behind. He wold not have been able to do 40* miles a day and his unit would not have been at the Little Big Horn until the planned link up with the rest of General Miles forces. Here was a man who was craving glory and the potential nomination as President of the USA. Instead he was the cause of the massacre.

    The only reason that this man is so proclaimed as a hero is that his wife, the daughter of a US Senator, wrote 3 books declaring him a hero, and the “HEATHEN INDIANS” as butchers. The racist 1880’s were still unwilling to admit the stupidity of the Commander of the 7th Calvary.

  20. Custer will always be a hero in the eyes of some, the American indian at that time even today will always be a savage to some. History now tells us different but for some history is hogwash.

    When I was a kid at school they told us all about Custer and his last stand they never told us what kind of a man he was,(a glory boy)I grew up, some never do…

    • Another take on that battle is “Tonka,” a 1958 Disney movie. Radical then, “racist” now (because the Lakota people were played by “white guys”)–but told from the POV of a horse and his boy.

  21. Remember also that the troopers were armed w/Colt or S&W Revolvers in addition to their carbines.The revolvers were used for close range rapid fire and the carbines for longer range shooting.

  22. The Battle of Little Big Horn was an oddity. The normal problem in the Indian Wars of the time was that when they found the Indians, the Indians rapidly left before any fighting took place. Except for the Army shooting at them from a long distance. I’d have to say that is at least part of the reason that the Army replaced the Spencer with the Springfield.

    That is the main reason the what happened, happened. The Army was worried that the Indians would get away. And gave no thought to getting surrounded.

    If I remember right, several 45/70 cases have been found there that indicate there being stuck in the chamber. They weren’t made of brass, but made of copper. I’ve got a VHS of a lecture by an archaeologist, but haven’t watched it in years. Not ever sure I have a VHS play now.

  23. The ottoman forces used a combination of martini rifles for long range and Winchgester lever actions (not sure what calibre) for shorter range, from trenches during the seige of Plevna in 1877.

    While not a use of rapid repeaters by a mobile attacking force, it was taken as a decisive proof of the military usefulness of rapid firing individual weapons.

    That said, Both British and the US bureaucracies still called for magazine cut offs and single loading, right up to the prototypes for the British Lee enfield No4 in the 1930s

    I’m always amused by the idea of single loading the .455 Webly auto pistols – such are the actions of state bureaucrats.

  24. I’ve always heard that the problem at Little Big Horn was the the chambers fouled and combined with copper cartridge cases the rims were torn off rather than the cases ejected. The Springfield trapdoor has always received its share of undeserved scorn. Having owned and shot one for over 25 years I think I can say that in many ways it’s a better gun than many of its contemporaries. It has a better extractor and ejector than either the Remington rolling block or the Martini Henry and works flawlessly with brass cases. Its traditional lock isolates the lock work from both water and dirt. They are generally accurate and have better sights than any of the other rifles available at the time. They served American soldiers for over 25 years and generally performed well in the field, their last combat service was during the Philippine insurrection.

  25. I understand that the British Army trialed Winchester lever actions in the 1870’s, but turned them down because they lacked range and power. I have often wondered what difference it would have made at Isandlewana had the British been armed with 76s or even 73s. The British didn’t open fire on the Zulus until they were relatively close, so the long range benefits of the .45 Martini Henry didn’t apply. A .44 from a Winchester at 100 yards would have done the trick. Unlike Custer’s 7th the British troops didn’t even have an effective side arm for close quarter use. The .455 break top Webley DA in the hands of every trooper would have made a huge difference, and in all probability altered the outcome in favour of the British.

  26. Hi Mike B. You made me laugh ot loud! I dont think many of readers will remember that great episode of the Twilight Zone. The twist of focusing on the last 3 names on the Little Big Horn monument and realizing they were whe Stewert M 3’s crew was a Rod Sterling masterpiece. Mike thanks for reminding me of it.

  27. Alexander Rose, _American Rifle: A Biography_ (Delacorte, 2008), pp.180, and Chapter 6: The Army of Marksmen and the Soldier’s Faith, pp. 189-228.

    Little Bighorn: Custer’s command expended 38,030 cartridges, and an additional 2,954 pistol cartridges to kill approximately sixty Indian warriors and wound some “hundred more.”

    The historical irony: In the American revolution, firepower advocates aped the smooth-bore musket of the British infantry (Brown Bess) regiment capable of firing three rounds in a minute, while accuracy supporters favored “Indian style” sniping at longer ranges with slow, cumbersome to load rifles. This “hybrid” Indian-fighting and European discipline underlay the “American Way of War.”

    fast forward: “Indian fighting”: the repeater at close range vs. the accurate single-shot rifle intended for war with a European or European-style army!

    From the Spencer [late Civil War] to the Sharps [early post-Civil War Indian Wars] to the Springfield [later Indian Wars].

  28. the british needed and used the long range of the martini in the african svelt
    the british soldiers at isandlwana(1200 strong) kept zulu (25,000 strong) at bay and gone to ground for a significant period of time and where only taken when out flanked
    do to over stretched lines . they where not just steamed rolled as believed by many and prortrayed in a awful movie. the battle lasted hours despite being severly out numbered and out manouvered.
    best book ever is “Snook’s book, how can man die better”
    units held off zulu even though completly surrounded for hours until ammo was expended.
    officer Younghusband being the last pocket of about twenty men having retreated up the side of of isandlwana looking at 20,000 gave the order to charge …

  29. Single shot rifle conversions were cheap, easy to maintain, and the army believed effective enough. The Fetterman(sp?) Massacre was a group of Spencer armed Cavalry led from a fort by an officer who believed he “could ride thru the entire Indian nation. The trouble with the Spencer and the Henry/Winchester trials was reloading the magazines reduced the rate of fire to about the same as single shot rifles. You will note one of the advantages of the Kaiser over the Krag was stripper clips.
    From descriptions Custer tried to escape rather than perhaps form a square.
    Buffalo hunters in a famous fight from a buffalo wallow used marksmanship and falling block single shot rifles to fight off a large number of Indians.
    From descriptions of the batter field ” analysis” Clusters men tried to run then after separating into scattered small groups tried to fight on the ground. Apparently there were scattered groups of cartridge cases. Against small groups without cover yes magazine rifles would be devastating.
    I do not know if it was Custer’s arrogance (he split his forces into small groups) or the inexperience of his troops. They were recent recruits I believe.
    The military at the time did not “waste” A lot of ammunition on marksman training.
    I think the Little Big Horn played to weakness of Custer’s small force and the terrible tactics involved against a superior force armed better for the battle as it occurred. I do not think rapid fire weapons of the period would have made much difference.
    Kit Carson led a Cavalry force against the winter camps of the Cheyenne with two mountain howitzers and had no trouble fighting off Indians using Cavalry as mounted infantry. Admittedly the circumstances and number of Indians was very different.

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