Vintage Saturday: Policeman with a Rifle

Dakota tribal policeman with a Remington-Keene rifle
Dakota tribal policeman with a Remington-Keene rifle (source: Denver Public Library)

The Remington-Keene was one of the many repeating rifles manufactured with hopes of US military contracts, which failed to get any. In total about 5,000 were made and sold commercially. It is a tube-magazine, bolt action rifle in .45-70 caliber. This photo was taken at some point in the 1880s.


    • The revolver looks very much like another Remington product, the Model 1891 single-action revolver in either .44-40 or .45 LC. If so, this photo was probably taken five or ten years later than the DPL assumes.

      1891 Remingtons were in fact issued to tribal police on the reservations by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Those made for the BIA contract were all 5″ barreled, nickel-plated, and had lanyard rings at the base of the butt, all of which appears to fit the one shown here.

      BTW, the Remington-Keene rifles in .45-70 were also issued to the U.S. Department of the Interior. They were mostly used by the then-new Forest Service, and thus are often found marked either “USDI”, “USFS”, or sometimes both. I believe the one used in the Tom Selleck TV movie “Crossfire Trail” was one such. (The Winchester 1876 “Centennial” carbine in .45-75 he used was ex-RNWMP/RCMP.)

      Hope you feel better soon, Ian.



  1. The uniform looks too ‘rich’ for a tribal policeman of the 1880’s…The holster has the ball & hole closure like that used in WW I…Pistol is a revolver, my WAG is an 1873 Colt Army…I would think early 1900’s, maybe about Prohibition timeframe…

    Did the Dakotas have ‘tribal policemen’ in the 1880’s??? I would think that was a position created after the Dakotas were ‘reservationized’…

    • It looks to me that everything he’s wearing is Army issue/surplus – that’s a M1881 holster, probably an M1183 Campaign Hat and cavalry pants (the yellow stripe photographed as black due to the process used in that era). I thinks it’s interesting that he’s left-handed.

    • I have lived in South Dakota for decades and I’m a little bit of a history buff. The towns I have worked and lived in on the East River side were all incorporated in the 1870’s and the East River reservations were established immediately after the Civil War. The West River reservations were solidified in the immediate aftermath of 1876 war when Custer was educated in the ways of high plains warfare. Chief Sitting Bull was killed by Tribal Police during the Ghost Dance movement in 1890. So I can’t speak to the authenticity of this picture in particular. But there was definitely a well established Tribal Police force that was acting in the interested of the federal government during the 1880’s.

      • As I’ve mentioned here before, my great-grandfather was killed at Little Big Horn. Parked his RV at a campground next to the battlefield, and the silly bastard walked over to tell the Indians to keep the noise down……

    • You can pretty much get the whole scoop in the Annual Reports of the Commission of Indian Affairs as each report from each agency has a section on the police. I noted a report on Indian police in the Dakotas dated 1884. They caught some horse thieves and turned them over to the sheriff and escorting the Sheriff all was good, but when they left, the Sheriff was disarmed by the thieves who then fled to Canada.

  2. I realize my observations are entirely subjective here but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to declare this guy a badass. He has that expression, one with which I was quite familiar receiving from my Drill Sergeant during my time as an Infantry School trainee when I neglected to lock my M16A1’s bolt carrier to the rear while executing Inspection Arms. Bad. Very bad.

    • I wouldn’t mess with this guy, even if the rifle’s firing rate is lowered by the half-cock design of the “hammer bolt.” This is a policeman whose town you cannot terrorize, even if you were one of the most feared outlaws of the west.

  3. The account of the death of Sitting Bull shows how tough and determined these Indian Police really were. As soon as the warriors started shooting the police shot down SB who was in their custody. According to Red Tomahawk they had told Sitting Bull not agitate the crowd or they would kill him. Six police died and I think seven Warriors. There is an account that the families of the six policemen beat the corpse of SB almost beyond recognition…kind of a Sitting Bulls last stand, eh? As always there is controversy as to who killed Sitting Bull. Red Tomahawk who was definitely behind Sitting Bull and holding his arm said he shot sitting bull in the side and then in the back of the neck when he was down. However other accounts say that the lead officer Lt. Bull Head was shot and then turned and shot SB in the side and or in the head. One account says that Red Tomahawks pistol was a small one of SB taken inside of the residence.
    The badge appears to be of the United States Indian Police which served all over apparently directly under the Indian Agent in charge. They were created in 1880 in the Indian Territory to police the 5 civilized tribes initially. Got that from wiki. My gggrandpa was an adult “half breed” Choctaw in the 1860’s. Last name was Bull but as his father was white it was an “english” surname.
    In 1893 the Fort Peck Montana Indian Agent, a temporary agent, a captain in the 8th Cavalry, complained that his 20 man Indian police’s armament “a farce…. a few old obsolete Remington revolvers whose cylinders would not turn”. (I had it all cited but lost everything when the browser crashed I think it was a captain or a lt.). It was in the 1893 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in google books. Apparently it took some time to get the Indian police the new Remingtons.

    • Hm. I’m wondering if those “old Remingtons” were 1875 .45s or metallic-cartridge conversions of 1860 Army percussions firing the “.46” rimfire. The latter were used by the Army for some time after the Civil War, before the Model 1873 Colt was standardized (in late 1872, actually!). After that,the converted Remingtons might then have gone to the BIA and reservation police.



      • Indeed. And the wear an tear on the guns had to be significant. Indians had no training in terms of maintenance nor were they logistically supported.
        I often marvel at the incredible wear that many of the old West handguns have seen. I mean they are not only slightly worn out but COMPLETELY worn out and burnished to the point that there isn’t an angle left on them. These were “outdoor” guns, something that we don’t see anymore.
        Conversely, I have a French 1874 Revolver that looks darn near new.

        • And it doesn’t take very long for a outdoors revolver to start showing wear.

          I wore a Blackhawk for a few months for the work I was doing for a while and one wouldn’t have considered it to be under dusty conditions. In less than an hour the entire gun would have a very fine dust everywhere including on the cartridge cases.

          In a few weeks the gun looked like it had been carried for years. I think I only fired it once, so there was little or no wear on the moving parts.

          If I ever had to do it again, I’d keep the gun in plastic bag of some type.

          • Well, much more so than today, the guns of the old west were tools and wear and tear were the norm. We have all seen revolvers that were used as hammers. I even had a 1911 in which the left side of the slide was used to perhaps nail up notices, which would be indicative of hammering with the right hand. My grandpa once showed me how to use block of wood as a hammer, and it worked well and guns were better.
            Especially for revolvers you mention dust. I suppose a lot of the internal wear might be due to dust and oil creating issues over years of not being taken apart and cleaned? Some of course might be due to uneven quality of metal used in the day and poorly designed actions wearing out after only a few hundred rounds.

  4. What did you expect? Back in those days, most gunsmiths didn’t have access to high-quality steel stock. And there was no way to tell how a machined revolver cylinder would behave in the field. If the revolver didn’t explode after 12 rounds were fired through the barrel, it was probably in good enough condition to be sold. I could be wrong.

    Nowadays, metals used in engines must go through chemistry analysis just to approve the use of the basic ingot for creating test samples (which are not going to be actual parts). After that, the test samples must go through another chemistry test and if that passes, the best of the lot must go through mechanical tests. If the samples pass all the tests (dictated by customer specifications), the ingot can be used to create actual customer parts but some of those parts will probably need to be sacrificed for mechanical property testing again (duh). And if everything’s good, your income is definitely secure, so long as nobody throws rusty scrap metals or pig iron into the ingot bin. Anyone think this generalized procedure doesn’t work for firearm components? And if I’m wrong, SAY SOMETHING!!!!!

    • As you say, back then the only “QC” consisted of “well, it didn’t blow up”, because scientific metallurgy was in its infancy. Artisans and engineers knew that certain alloys, etc., worked, without necessarily knowing why or how they did it.

      One reason bronze was preferred as a material for field guns like the 12 pounder Napoleon over even wrought iron was that any of them could have a “sand crack” or other hidden flaw in the casting, but with bronze the usual failure profile was first it would crack and distort. This allowed the gun to be taken out of action before any problems arose.

      Wrought iron and cast iron guns just burst. As in “blew up in the gun crew’s faces with no advance warning.”

      The usual procedure for converting a percussion revolver to metallic cartridge back then was either a new cylinder (the usual factory method), or cutting off the back end of the existing cylinder and welding a “ring” in its place with holes through it to match the existing chambers (the most common field method used by frontier gunsmiths).

      It was understood that welding, etc., caused changes in the metal that required drawing and tempering (without breaking the weld), but the methods were rule of thumb at best; temperature was judged by color, which is fine as long as your color vision is right on.

      Hence the custom of test-firing with above-normal loads still used today (“blue pills”). And hopefully the test rounds wouldn’t cause a hidden flaw to be weakened and result in a failure later on.

      It must be said that converted revolvers, like converted rifles, did very good service, often for decades. Contrary to Hollywood, converted percussion revolvers probably outnumbered new-built metallic-cartridge Colts, S&Ws, and etc. on the frontier until at least the latter half of the 1880s.

      But there were always going to be some lemons in the basket, so to speak.



      • “It must be said that converted revolvers, like converted rifles, did very good service, often for decades. Contrary to Hollywood, converted percussion revolvers probably outnumbered new-built metallic-cartridge Colts, S&Ws, and etc. on the frontier until at least the latter half of the 1880s.”
        Do you have any data about price of converted and brand new revolvers?

        • Also, IIRC some people stay with cap and ball after invention of metallic cartridge, because of limited availability of cartridges in less civilized locations.

        • About 1875, a new Colt Peacemaker in either .45 Colt or .44 Henry rimfire (.44-40 WCF, etc., didn’t come along until around 1880 or so in the Model P) cost $17 FOB Hartford. (They did a lot of business by railway express back then.) The Smith & Wesson top-breaks in .44 or .45 S&W (not the same thing as .45 Colt; shorter case due to S&W’s shorter cylinder) were about $22 the same way.

          By comparison, Colt or Remington would convert your existing percussion .44 to .44 centerfire, or your existing percussion .36 to .38 centerfire, for $5. And ship it back to you with the original percussion cylinder in case you were somewhere you couldn’t obtain the new metallic cartridges.

          Remington continued to make their various revolvers of the “1860” type (in frame sizes from Pocket to Army, and calibers from .31/.32 to .44) into the early 1880s, right alongside the big 1875 Army centerfire (which was and is a good bit sturdier than either the Colt of S&W single-actions).

          And right to the end of their production, the older style guns could be purchased in either metallic-cartridge or percussion persuasion, the latter always costing $2-$3 less than the metallic cartridge version.

          Remingtons were also available in your choice of single or double-action, and some even had swing-out cylinders and simultaneous hand ejection as we are familiar with today. (William Mason patented both setups while working at Remington in 1866.)

          You might find this book interesting;

          It covers the history of both the original conversions and modern-day re-creations of them. The latter being very popular in Cowboy Action Shooting today, because they are actually historically correct for the period.

          They also allow the fun of shooting a certified “old-time” type of sixgun without a lot of the aggravation of cap-and-ball work.

          (Like having to worry about multiple discharge gangfires.)



  5. Both of my maternal grandparents, and obviously my mother as well, were “half-breed” Cherokee. The look on this man’s face is typical of older photos of our people as is shown in the few pictures Jim allowed to be taken of him and his extended family. Also. being left-hand dominant is very common: Jim and three of his six brothers, two of his sons and seven of his 13 grandchildren, including my sister, were likewise left handed. As for any attempt to assume a “bad-assed look,” that was entirely unnecessary for him or any of his extended family and probably never crossed his mind. It would have been considered pretentious. They were required by tradition to be sharing and charitable to everyone no matter race or social station. As for any pretense of manhood, when I was 13 years old I was visiting for the summer in Mena, Arkansas, their hometown, when we ere accosted on the street just outside the drugstore by a neighbor who had a problem with Jim. The neighbor pulled a knife and made one slash at his midsection. Jim immediately took his knife away from him and killed the attacker with his own knife. He then asked a druggist to call the police while he sat on the curb and waited. He calmly told his account, waited until the others who had been witnesses related their version and then told the deputy he would be home if they needed to talk to him. He also told the deputy that if they had to arrest him to call his neighbor and he would come to the police station … no need to waste gas coming out to get him. I have found this character trait to be common in the older generations as I have associated with my own people, attended the Natchez (Mississippi) Inter-Tribal Annual Pow Wow for over four decades, worked on the Kiowa Reservation in Oklahoma under the authority of the Tribal Council plugging abandoned oilwells and among the Lakota Sioux quite often. I am also a member of the Warrior Society of the Bear Clan of the Western Cherokee Nation, am recognized by the Louisiana Archaeological Society and a student of Indian Culture including pre-historic trade and the cultural/economic effected of the trans-migration of Maize in the pre-Columbian Americas. I am also a follower of the traditions of Crazy Horse (Tȟašúŋke Witkó) who never took one scalp, never sang a victory song at any Council or accepted any accolades for any of his deeds. Yes, he to was also murdered and no, there are no authentic pictures of him.

  6. Years back ,read the book ” The Indian Police” in which it mentioned that the uniforms of the guards of the Centennial Exposition were issuded to some of the Indian Police after the Expositioin closed . The color of these uniforms were grey and this caused some hard feelins as the police knew that the color grey was that worn the enmies of T”the great white father”

  7. There are apparently meaningless scribbles on that photo, which look like some kind of shorthand to me. Can anyone tell us what it is and, if it is writing, what it says?

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