The First Firearm Forensically Proven to have been used at Custer’s Last Stand
In 1883, seven years after the resounding defeat of Custer and his 7th Cavalry near the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, a rancher by the name of Willis Spear collected a number of artifacts while passing through the battlefield site with his family; a visit he recorded in his diary. This Sharps rifle, serial number C54586, was among the items he removed. It would remain in the Spear family for over a century.
In August 1983, more than 100 years after what is among the most famous battles fought on American soil, a grassfire raged across the plains of the Custer Battlefield National Monument. This fire, having denuded the land of its thick grassy vegetation, paved the way for an archaeological study that would exponentially further our knowledge of that fateful battle.
In the Spring of 1984, with funding from the Custer Battlefield Museum and Historical Association, and support from the National Park Service, an intensive archaeological survey and excavation was conducted, in which thousands of artifacts were recovered and recorded, over 2,000 of which were battle-related ammunition artifacts such as cartridges, casings and the like. Using modern day archaeological, forensic and ballistic techniques, the investigators were able to determine hundreds of individual weapons of differing makes and models used at the battle, the locations of their use, and even track the movement of individual weapons across the battlefield.
The ability to use forensics and ballistics to identify cartridges and casings was so compelling, the next logical step was to see if the casings themselves could be specifically matched to any of the “known” Custer Battlefield firearms. Harmon and Scott write in their 1988 “Man at Arms” article, “The comparison process was very slow since it literally required us to look at hundreds of cases, and compare each against the evidence case. Incredible as it may seem, we did find a match between a .50-70 evidence case and an archaeological specimen .50-70 case.”
The article goes on to state, “The archaeological specimen was found southeast of Lt. James Calhoun’s position… There is no doubt this location is an Indian position… The archaeological specimen also matched another archaeological specimen found on Greasy Grass Ridge, southwest of the Calhoun position… This archaeological evidence indicates this particular .50-70 firearm was used in two different Indian positions during the fighting around Calhoun Hill.”
The .50-70 in question is Sharps serial number C54586, the Spear family’s rifle. Shipped new from the Sharps factory in 1875, it still exists today as a genuine, Indian-used artifact from the most infamous battle of the American West.
Lot 269, Brian Lebel's Mesa Auction - January 21, 2017
S/N C54586, .50-70 caliber, 1874 military model Sharps, 30 inch round barrel, full military style stock and forearm, standard Lawrence barrel sight, manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut in 1874.
Condition: Consistent with a rifle that was exposed to the dry, arid weather of the Montana prairie. Some legible markings, wood is dry with a few cracks, tang is cracked at top screw, metal shows surface oxidation overall but no deep pitting, action still operates.
“Sharps Rifles at the Little Big Horn: Part Two” by Dave Thorn, pp. 18-20, pictured p. 20, in “The Sharps Collector Report” Volume 18, Number 2.
“Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle: An assessment of the 1984 Field Season” by Douglas D. Scott and Richard A. Fox, Jr., 1987, page 62.
“A Sharps Rifle From the Battle of The Little Bighorn”, by Dick Harmon and Douglas D. Scott, pp. 12-15, pictured p. 13, in “Guns at the Little Bighorn: The Weapons of Custer’s Last Stand”, Man at Arms, 1988.
“The Peacemakers: Arms and Adventure in the American West”, by R. L. Wilson, 1992, page 24, pictured pp. 24-25.
“G.A. Custer: His Life and Times” by Glenwood Swanson, 2004, page 295, pictured pp. 294-295.
The following items are all included in the lot:
Binder: Includes: computer CDs and DVDs of scans, photos and images of the forensic evidence collected on the Battlefield, including scans from the National Park Archives and the Nebraska Highway Patrol Forensics Lab; a rare Martin primed shell in .50-70 caliber for illustrative purposes; Letter to Glen Swanson from Douglas Scott and Dick Harmon; Affidavit from Torrey Johnson, descendant of the Spear family, attesting to the chain of ownership through the family; Sharps Rifle Company gun letter; and other related ephemera.
Book: “Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle: An assessment of the 1984 Field Season” by Douglas D. Scott and Richard A. Fox, Jr., 1987. Complete with pull-out, double-sided, 31” x 42” survey map of the archeological identification points of artifacts.
Book: “The Peacemakers: Arms and Adventure in the American West”, by R. L. Wilson, 1992.
Book: “G.A. Custer: His Life and Times” by Glenwood Swanson, 2004. Signed by the author.
Original Publication: “The Sharps Collector Report”, Volume 18, Number 2.
Original Publication: “Guns at the Little Bighorn: The Weapons of Custer’s Last Stand”, Man at Arms, 1988.