Custer's Colts at the Little Big Horn
Did your Single Action Army ride with the gallant 7th Cavalry?
By E. Dixon Larson
Several decades ago, based on information then available, writers advanced the hypothesis that to be a "Custer Colt of the 7th Cavalry", the serial number must be under 15,000, gradually lowering it to 10,500 in the 1970s. This axiom was of course based on the year of production prior to the Black Hills expedition (1874). The field test to determining the merits of the Smith and Wesson Schofield and the Colt Single Action Army Model was completed June 30, 1874. At this time, the Colt was passed, even though it required 60 seconds to eject and reload, whereas the Schofield required only 26 seconds. This was the only point ruled as an advantage of the Schofield design. The Colt was accepted as a stronger mechanism, simpler, fewer parts, and easier to disassemble; thus the Colt became recognized at that time as "King of the Pistols" in all parts of the world -- naturally, an arm Custer would want for the 7th Cavalry and the Black Hills Expedition. As interest in U.S. Cavalry Colts began to increase, likewise research techniques, communications, and dedication has accelerated on an exponential scale. Persons such as John Kopec, Ron Graham, Wiley Sword and others, have made a tremendous contribution to this specialized field of research.
Recently several requests have been received, seeking an opinion as to whether or not their U.S. Colt Single Action Army Cavalry Model could be a "Custer Colt." This question has become commonplace, perhaps due to the fact that in the past three years the value has accelerated in U.S. Colt Cavalry models more rapidly than any other Colt model, or increasing over 50% yearly during this period of time.
In view of the interest and frequency of this question, a review of all the research seems appropriate. It is known that 8000 Colt Single Action Army revolvers were purchased under the Army contract of July 23, 1872, all of which were shipped to the Springfield Armory between November 25, 1872 and March 18, 1874. One thousand of these were shipped to the Rock Island Arsenal earmarked for the 7th Cavalry. Prior to the Black Hills expedition, some 755 of these were issued to the 7th Cavalry. All companies except D and I were equipped with the new arms. Companies D and I were on special duty at Fort Tatten, Dakota territory guarding the northern boundary under Major Marcus Reno. Company K was stationed at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. Company K was required to turn in their issued Colt Single Actions which were replaced with .44 caliber Remingtons. At the end of 1874, Companies D and I were armed with the Colts from the Rock Island Arsenal. From detailed statements, Custer's Companies, C, E, F, I, and L, all of which were involved in the June 25, 1876 confrontation with the Indians at the Little Big Horn, were all armed with Colt Single Actions issued from the Springfield Armory prior to mid-February 1874, except Company I, which was armed after July 1872 from the Rock Island Arsenal inventory. Most researchers agree the revolvers were from the first five lots with serial numbers under 5600. Specific breakdown of lots is as follows:
Lot 1 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 200-1222 received Springfield Armory November 28, 1873.
Lot 2 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 1223-2336 received at Springfield Armory December 19, 1873.
Lot 3 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 2337-3437, received at Springfield Armory January 3, 1874.
Lot 4 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 3438-4515 received at Springfield Armory January 24, 1874.
Lot 5 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 4516-5521, received at Springfield Armory January 31, 1874. (From this lot 755 revolvers were issued in late June, prior to the Black Hills campaign to the 7th Cavalry.)
Lot 6 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 5522-6530, received at the Springfield Armory February 17, 1874. (Although shipping records are incomplete, it is almost conclusive, some guns from this range were issued to the 7th Cavalry for Companies D and I, which included turn-ins from Company K.
Lot 7 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 6531-7540, received at Springfield Armory, March 5, 1874.
Lot 8 -- 1000 revolvers, estimated serial numbers 7540-8610, received at the Springfield Armory, March 18, 1874.
Interesting, and worthy of note is that few Artillery Models have surfaced from the Lot 5 or serial range 4516-5521, indicating the possibility of arms lost at the Little Big Horn, and therefore not made available for the Artillery conversion.
The fact that arms were returned to the arsenals for repair, possibly mixing shipments and lots, prohibits a firm conclusion. For example, in Scout Charley Reynold's diary listed as abandoned after the battle is colt 2499, completely out of sequence. General Terry's Colt Number 4507 is listed in his diary in the Library of Congress, which is from the fourth lot, Numbers 4947, 5058, and 6033, although in the 7th Cavalry range, were in the possession of the 17th Infantry at Fort Bridger, Wyoming in 1889. These were probably repaired 7th Cavalry arms and reissued by the Rock Island Arsenal. The only documented Colt from the Little Big Horn conflict is number 5128. (Gun Report, September 1977, page 17.) Pistols 5743, 5773 and 6559 are listed on pages 88 and 92 of Custer Battle Guns as having been rendered unserviceable at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and turned in by Capt. F. W. Benteen, 7th Cavalry during 1877. This, however, is not completely viable with documentation. In order to encompass the Colt Single Actions that were returned unserviceable, interchange of other Cavalry, and mixed shipments, and not to overlook enlistment replacements, some researchers are satisfied and comfortable to simply hover at serial numbers below 10,500 based on this being the highest factory production number that had been reached at the departure of the Black Hills Expedition in late June, 1874.
Now, as to a conclusion, it would be virtually impossible to specifically identify an individual U.S. Cavalry Colt as a witness to the Custer incident. However, in examining the "law of probability" with the aid of the computer, and using the basics of Custer's Cavalry consisting of 28 officers, 747 men (7th Cavalry only) and 45 scouts, or a total of 920 and lost 5 showing issuing of some 1005 Colt Single Actions between the serial numbers of 4516 and 5521, the probability of almost 1:1 can be established if the Ordnance records are correct in stating that Lot 5 was to be issued to the 7th Cavalry. As to the battle of the Little Big Horn, June 25, 1876, where 260 men died, the probability of being at the scene would be almost 1:3. Therefore, a final conclusion rests with the eye of the beholder, but the desirability of a U.S. Cavalry Colt in the serial range of 4516 to 5521 is obvious, or even under serial number 10,500 for that matter. As for every bit of research there invariably seems to be an exception.
Article originally appeared in Guns September 1982. Back to home page
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