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Military Mystery: What was George Custer’s Last Gun?

by Garry James   |  October 3rd, 2011 44

For a good number of years there has been much speculation about what was Lt. Col George Armstrong Custer‘s last gun. As he and most of his command  were killed during the Battle of Little Big Horn, everything has to be put together from spotty evidence, innuendo and guesswork. Here’s my take on the matter.

There is extant, a revealing 1870s-vintage photograph (below) of Custer and his wife, Libby, sitting in their library at Ft. Abraham Lincoln on the Missouri River, Dakota Territory. In the far right corner is the Lt. Colonel’s gun rack. Four handguns can be seen—two Smith & Wesson No. 2s that had been presented to him by Major General J.B. Sutherland, a percussion revolver which is most likely either a Colt 1861 Navy or Remington New Model Army that was given to him by Remington, and what strongly appears to be a Webley Royal Irish Constabulary revolver (pictured above).

One tradition persists that British sportsman Lord Berkeley Paget presented George Custer with a solid-frame Webley First Model Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) revolver on a buffalo hunt in 1869. The British revolver in Custer’s gun rack follows the lines of the RIC much more closely than those of the Galand, which has a rather involved under-barrel extraction mechanism and slightly different grip than the Webley. Over the years, for reasons we will mention later, it has been supposed Custer had a pair of nickel-plated RICs with ivory grips–but there is no question the gun in the Ft. Lincoln photograph has walnut grips and a darker, blued finish. Also, there is only one such gun showing, leading me to surmise that Custer, in fact, only had one RIC.

As both Smith & Wessons are displayed and there appear to be empty slots in the rack this supposition would appear to be confirmed. It was very unusual to see double-cased British cartridge revolvers at this period. Of course there is always another explanation; that being the whole Berkeley Paget thing was something of a red herring and Custer either purchased the Webley himself, or it was given to him by someone else. Just because a gun was made in England, doesn’t necessarily mean it had to come from an Englishman. British firearms of all types had been actively marketed in the States for decades prior to the 1870s.

Custer and Libby at Ft. Lincoln. Gun rack mentioned at the far right of the picture.

The Royal Irish Constabulary revolver, built by Birmingham, England gunmaker Philip Webley, took its name from the force that adopted it in 1868. This solid-frame double-action at one time or another was chambered in such calibers as .430, .442, .450, .476 and .44-40, among others. While the military version of the gun had a four-inch barrel, over its long career the gun was also made in short barreled “Bulldog” versions. “Bulldog” by the way is a British term going back at least to the latter part of the 18th century and along with “barker” and “snapper” was slang for a short-barreled, large caliber pistol.

Due to the date of presentation and/or the Ft. Lincoln photograph, there can be little doubt that Custer’s RIC would have been a First Model, recognizable by forward locking notches on the cylinder. The caliber would unquestionably have been .442, for even though the British military had adopted the .450 round in 1868, this chambering was not offered in the RIC at the time of the surmised Berkeley Paget gifting.

After the battle Lt. Edward Godfrey, of K Company, 7th Cavalry, noted that during the expedition Custer was carrying “two Bulldog self-cocking, English white handled pistols with a ring in the butt for a lanyard.” As we have determined, Custer’s RIC was blued with walnut grips and no lanyard ring, so it’s possible that Godfrey might have confused the Webley with the Smith & Wessons which were plated and had pearl grips, though they didn’t have lanyard rings either, and to be fair he did describe Custer’s other gear pretty accurately.

Too, the fact all of the guns seen in the gun rack are currently accounted, for with the exception of the Webley, adds more strong evidence to the assumption the RIC was the gun Custer probably had with him at Greasy Grass.

To date, no .442 cartridge cases have been found on the battlefield, but as things were getting pretty hot and heavy as the Indians approached the troopers at handgun range there’s a good chance that Custer might not have had time to fire off more than a cylinder-full of bullets. This means that the empty cases could have still been in the gun when it was taken from the commander’s dead body by one of Sitting Bull’s best. Of course, there is also the very real possibility that he never even drew his revolver and used only his .50-70 Remington rifle. There is also the excellent chance he simply had a Colt SAA.

In any event, it is a mystery that will never be completely solved. The chances of the gun turning up with decent provenance after all these years are virtually nil. Unearthing of spent .442 cases on the battlefield would certainly lend more veracity to Godfrey’s claims but as the round, while uncommon, was not unknown in the West at the time there is no way of conclusively proving they came from a revolver actually fired by Custer.

What do you think?

 

 

  • Bob Owen

    If a .442 case was found on the battlefield, that would seal the deal for me. I would find it near to next impossible for another person would have and fire and drop this case on the battlefield site. I do believe that if he did fire the revolver, he only fired one cylinder full and didn't extract any of the cases.

  • Brian Wells

    There is much testimony that Custer`s right arm was outstretched and his right hand appeared positioned as if he had been holding a pistol(that was taken out of his hand).Several Indians mentioned a soldier in the tiny group on the ridge that was on his knees clutching a pistol with one hand and holding his side with the other as blood gushed from his mouth.(Custer?).I saw a picture of a gun that is supposed to be the same type as Myles Keough used at the battle and I believe it was a RIC!There must be a picture of Keough`s actual gun somewhere because it was accounted for some years ago by a collector.Because of Godfrey`s apparent(rare) confusion muddying the waters,no historian I know of has ever mentioned that Custer and Keough might have been using the same type of gun and with the same handle color.

    • Garry James

      Very interesting. Was not aware of the Keough connection, so I'll start working on that lead as well. Brit revolvers were surprisingly popular in the early West, as they generally had much better double-action mechanisms than the American products.

      • Brian Wells

        It is a RIC pictured after all.It is at the website http://www.wildgeesetoday.com "Custer`s Last Irishmen".Keough was a wonderful soldier.I`ve discovered that he was anything but a loud,hard drinking lout.There was some testimony by several Indians residing in different Reservations that concur on the fact that a certain large officer refused to give up his life cheaply.He dropped six warriors with his gun(RIC?)as his final act on this earth.Myth?Odd that different warriors(separated by hundreds of miles)would tell the same story.Enjoyed your article very much!

  • Brian Wells

    In the book Son Of The Morning Star,the author states that Keough`s"custom-made English pistol" turned up in Canada about a year after the battle.The brave who was in possession of the gun refused to sell it.Apparently it was several OTHER items(including Keough`s watch) that have since been recovered,not the gun.So is that other source incorrect about the gun having been a RIC?Do that brave`s ancestors have the gun?Mysteries,mysteries!

  • Steve McCarty

    About fifteen years ago Butterfield and Butterfield held an auction of Custer memorabilia. Among the items sold was Tom Custer's bulldog pistol in its original box with shells. It is a pretty sure bet that his brother George carried a similar or identical pistol. Tom obviously carried a different sidearm.

    • Garry James

      That was a Galand and Sommerville .442 self-extracting revolver, supposedly presented by Lord Berkley Paget during the buffalo hunt. The lid of its case is inset with a brass escutcheon bearing Tom Custer’s initials, “TWC” and its leather traveling case embossed “T.W.C.” It is also surmised by some he gave one to Custer as well, but there is no solid evidence to back this up. As well, if one checks out the British patent date (1868) of the Galand it would appear dubious that revolvers could have been manufactured and personalized cases made in time for Paget to bring them along with him in time for his excursion.

  • http://gordonhutchinson.com Gordon Hutchinson

    Fascinating! Excellent article, and I am impressed with the historical knowledge of the folks commenting. Please keep up the good work, tracking these guns and others through historical connections always brings up books and articles I want to read.

    • Garry James

      Thank you very much. it's an area I've always had considerable interest in. In fact, just picked up a nice, unaltered "Custer serial number range" Model 1873 Carbine that I'm working up into a story for "G&A" next year.

  • Robert Hensler

    Speaking of books and articles, this past year I read Jim Donovan's " A Terrible Glory, Custer and the Little Big Horn, the Last Great Battle of the American West." I was impressed with author's research and the hundred plus pages of endnotes.

    • Garry James

      I loved "A Terrible Glory." One of the best books out there on the subject. On the other hand, I was less impressed with Nathaniel Philbrick's "The Last Stand." Thought it lacked much of the objectivity of "Glory."

  • Robert W Blanchard U

    Hard to believe that a real soldier,like Custor would bring a pistol that was far inferior to the issued Colt 45 with 71/2 inch bbl.Thats like taking a ww 2 Webley to a match with the colt 45ACP.1911.The rounds are not even competive.Give Custor a break,he had to know better than to take a wall hanger to a fight. Ps I have an NRA master pistol rating.And 70 yrs experience.[Custor needed me in that shoot out.}

    • Gary

      grow up

    • Garry James

      Agree with you completely. Would much rather have had a SAA than an RIC, as still .442's muzzle energy was about half that of the .45 Colt. Still, the RIC was far from a wall hanger in 1876–it was a state-of-the-art double-action and highly regarded by those that used it. Am sure you would have been an asset at The Little Big Horn, but, honestly, I don't think the presence of Annie Oakley, Ad Topperwein, Doc Carver, Walter Winans, Adam Bogardus (and his sons) and Buffalo Bill all together could have changed the outcome once the ball commenced.

  • Graham Gibbs

    I think that Myles Keough in fact has a Manx (Isle of Man) as two of Custer's troopers have surnames from the Island.

    Sometimes Manx folk would say they were from 'The Island' meaning Manx not Irish.

    (The Manx tongue is closer to Scottish Gaelic rather than Irish.)

    Is is certainly a very interesting subject regarding Custer whom I see as a great leader for his time.

    We can all be Politicaly Correct in hindsight.

    • Garry James

      Captain Miles Walter Keogh was born at Orchard House, County Carlow, Ireland, May 25, 1840. Whether or not he had any Manx forebears, I do not know. Will have to check that one out. Custer was highly thought of by many of his superior officers during the Civil War.

  • JB

    Great article! A couple of questions though. Concerning the Ft. Lincoln picture, I am a little confused. Were there empty slots in the rack? The way I read that part of the article left some doubt as to your intended meaning. Empty slots in the rack rule out a cased pair? Would a pair of cased revolvers been put on a rack, or left in a lined case? Also,was his Remington rifle retrieved from the battle field? Are there any other guns attributed to Custer other than the ones pictured and mentioned in the article? Thanks again Garry for another interesting history lesson.

    • Garry James

      No, his Remington was never recovered. As I mentined in the write-up, it is unusual (in fact I've never seen a set) for British cartridge revolvers to be cased in pairs, which leads me to believe he only had the one seen in the photo. The others revolvers appear to be his Smith & Wessons and Remington. Custer did have a sporterized Model 1866 Springfield which is still extant, and in "Boots & Saddles" his wife, Libby, describes the gun rack: "A stand for arms in one corner held a collection of pistols, hunting knives, Winchester and Springfield rifles, shotguns and carbines and even an old flintlt-lock musket."

  • Bill Johnson

    It would seem as the Cheyenne & Lakota warriors and women folk scavanged the battlefield for as many weapons as could be found, Custers' weapons were taken. As the Indians moved away from the area within a day, taking with them all they could carry, all the weapons went with them. The indians scattered in several different directions, the Hunkpapa going as far as Canada. It can be assumed that if one of the warriors had found a Webley RIC he would have a hell of a time finding ammo to fit the revolver anywhere in the US or Canada. A revolver without ammo was useless and was probably traded for anything that would have been valuable to a plains indian at the time. One can only guess where the piece went ,as a cottage industry probably had sprung up for years after the battle, selling unathenticated relics supposedly looted from the battlefield by the indians. Still it is possible the revolver ended up in some wealthy collectors private collection, or just as likely was dropped in a creek or thrown away. It is one of lifes mysteries still ongoing. Great subject matter for historical and gun buffs. Keep it up!

  • DRZ

    The double action British revolvers were better than the Colt .45 "gasp" in that they were faster to fire and to reload. I could easily see a man of action like Custer using one if he was about to go into battle.

    • Garry James

      Well, actually the RIC was probably slower to load and eject than the SAA as it had a rather flimsy ejector rod that had to be withdrawn from the gun's cylinder pin and rotated into position to push out spent cases. Still, it was highly regarded in its time and many thousands were made in different configurations and chamberings–many of them much more powerful than the rather anemic .442 or .450.

  • GEORGE AMLOTT Sr.

    I would have expected Custer to have a saber and a brace of pistols, all holstered and ready to go, As he was a person who liked to be dramatic, I would expect a pair of nickle plated revolvers with pearl or ivory grips. Just my opinion.

  • Robert A McMahon Jr

    Great article! In hindsight, the actors in this slice of History were not documenting it for us, they were living/making it. We can expect as little provenance at this late date, as we could now expect provenance concerning a Russian Archduke's visit to New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season in the 1870s.

  • Dennis roberts

    Custer made many mistakes that day, and one of them may have been taking a non issue pistol with him . He was known for his flair so maby he did take it .

    • Garry James

      We know for sure his longarm (a .50-70 No. 1 Remington Rolling Sporting Rifle) was not standard issue, so your point is well taken. Quien sabe?

  • Stephen A. Hopkins

    Twenty-six years ago I took a five-day class at the Custer Battlefield taught by Dr. Ricci who had been the chief historian there for 30 years. He identified the single revolver Custer carried as the exact revolver you described. He further stated that he knew the Indian family at Crow Agency that still possessed Custer's gun as a treasured and very secret family heirloom, and that he had no intention of pressing them to make its existence public or of telling the Park Service about it.

    He was a very eccentric professor who had often had serious disagreements with his government employers. The class was very firearms-centered and we were even allowed to handle actual pieces recovered from the battlefield.

    The doctor was very old at the time, and this many years later, I don't feel guilty about relating what he told me–for what it's worth!

  • Denny Andrews

    Can anyone tell me about the 1861 Model Colt revolvers that Custer had? And what might have happened to them?

    • Garry James

      The ‘61s are extant, but because the plaques have been removed from the ivory grips, some question their Custer association. On another quite interesting matter, I just talked to my friend Glen Swanson, author of the excellent “G.A. Custer, His Life and Times,” who tells me he has recently found a letter written in the 1920s from Reno’s first sergeant, John Ryan, to Colonel W.A. Graham, stating that Custer actually carried two handguns, a “French” revolver and Colt Single Action Army. Glen and I are both pretty sure Ryan mistakenly identified the Webley as “French” but the addition of the SAA is something quite new and makes a lot of sense. Glen is going to go over the material again and let me know if there are any further details.

  • Anishinabi

    An interesting bit of historical fiction/narrative is a book by Michael Blake, the author of Dances with Wolves. He wrote with George Armstrong Custer in first person memoires of what Custer's interpretation of his life might be. The book is called, appropriately enough, "The Road to Valhalla," and it probably is kind of how Custer might have interpreted his own life and actions. I highly suggest it, because once I picked it up I could not put it down until I had read every page.

  • Garry James

    I mentioned this new bit of info in the reply to Denny Andrews, but I thought I 'd also go ahead and post it at large for all to see. It's quite intriguing.
    I just talked to my friend Glen Swanson, author of the excellent “G.A. Custer, His Life and Times,” who tells me he has recently found a letter written in the 1920s from Reno’s first sergeant, John Ryan, to Colonel W.A. Graham, stating that Custer actually carried two handguns, a “French” revolver and Colt Single Action Army. Glen and I are both pretty sure Ryan mistakenly identified the Webley as “French” but the addition of the SAA is something quite new and makes a lot of sense. Glen is going to go over the material again and let me know if there are any further details.

  • Robert Doyle

    Nice article, James. There are plenty of theories around as to which pistols both Keogh and Custer carried with them but I think you have summed it up nicely.

    As someone who has researched and written about Keogh for years (www.myleskeogh.org), the only evidence I have that Myles Keogh carried a RIC pistol is from Evan S. Connell's book, "Son of the Morning Star" which frustratingly, doesn't have references to follow any information proposed. The "custom-made English pistol" thatbturned up at a Canadian trading post had pearl handles and the initials "MWK" (Myles Walter Keogh). Here's a suggestion: what if it was Keogh who gave the gift of RIC pistol(s) to his commander? Keogh inherited his wealthy aunt's estate in 1874 but deeded it on to his unmarried sister. He had to return to Ireland that April to sign papers and could have brought the weapons, a set for himself and Custer, back from Dublin to America with him. Keogh and Custer had a complex, love/hate type of relationship, despite having known each other since the American Civil War. Nonetheless, maybe the pistols were a gift of thanks to Custer for approving Keogh's leave of absence to Ireland at short notice.

    One thing is for sure is that Keogh's favoured weapon was his Spencer Hunting rifle. He had written glowingly about the Spencers since 1863 so it is likely that he was using the rifle just before an Indian bullet passed through his knee and into the shoulder of his loyal mount, Comanche, downing both horse and rider. Keogh's body was found surrounded by the man and NCOs of his Company I who probably rallied to their stricken captain.

    By the way, Keogh had no connection to the Isle of Man and I appreciate the compliemnt above on the article I wrote for http://www.thewildgeese.com website on Custer's Last Irishmen!

    • Myles

      Apologies for the typos… #men and NCOs

      Robert

    • garry james

      Excellent article and a thoughtful idea concerning the Custer revolver. Many thanks for your input.

  • Robert

    Link to Custer's Last Irishmen – http://www.thewildgeese.com/pages/7thcav.html

  • George

    I read this article with great interest, as a long time friend and former West Point graduate had told me a story of his buddy, also a West Pointer, who traveled to the battlefield in the 1960's to do a little digging when it was supposedly still legal to do so. He dug up a few rifle cartridges, buttons, indian beads and buckles, but also a pistol cartridge "like no other on the field". My buddy told me that it was "the only chambering that matched the Webley Custer probably took into the battle". I've done some research and found contradictory comments on the chambering of the RIC pistols…then found your article.

    I have the display box with the artifacts in my possession, and took some high res photos. Want to see some pics? I have letters of provenance from two West Point Lieutenants that this unfired bullet came from the battlefield. That's far from an authenticated Custer bullet, and even West Pointers may be confused on guns, chamberings, and military history, but I absolutely believe that this bullet was dug up from the battlefield.

    • garry james

      Would LOVE to see the photos and letters!

  • George

    http://s1109.photobucket.com/albums/h433/gstama/

    Mr James –

    Here is a link to some of my pics. There are things I know about Custer's guns, things I think I know, and things I clearly don't know…so instead of going through all of that I'll just let you look at the pics and tell me what you think. There are military buttons and then several angles of three different cartridges. One is an unfired rifle cartridge, one a spent rifle cartridge alongside a bullet, and then the tantalizing unfired 44 S&W. These were poorly mounted in a display back in the late 1960's.

    My imagination has the rifle cartridges bent while jammed in overheated Springfields or stepped on by panicked horses, and the 44 being dropped while Custer is hastily loading his Webley? Galand & Summerville? While I am aware of a $2.2 million Little Big Horn Guidon being sold at auction, it is the thrill of holding what may be Custer's bullet that fascinates me. Probably never to be authenicated, but I don't really care. Having a few experts saying "maybe" is the best I hope for.

    Thanks in advance.

    George

  • Delta Snipe

    I would say, in my humble opinion, that it really doesnt matter what kind of sidearm that arrogant, self centered, egomaniac was carrying, in as much as my ancestors opened up a total can of whoopass on him and gave him what he so totally deserved.

  • Jim

    How does that help in the discussion that was taking place? I think your ancestors got what they deserved at Wounded Knee, but since it doesn't help the discussion, I won't mention it. :-)

  • Old Iron Mike

    Yikes Guys. Too much bloodshed for all involved.

  • James Meredith

    I believe Garry James was "right on" about the .442 Webley RIC with wooden grips! I also believe the reason Custer carried a single RIC on his hip is because he also carried a .442 BRITISH BULLDOG concealed in his pocket. The little five shot BULLDOG was designed similar to the RIC, but only wieghed one pound. It was long thought that the BULLDOG was not produced until after 1876, but recently it has been discovered that it was first produced in 1872. I base my assumption on a rusty relic BULLDOG I saw in Montana several years ago. It's owner claims to have (illegally) dug-up and removed it from the battlefield in about 1948 when he was a young teenager. He never knew it was a BULLDOG! Unfortunately there is no proof to his story, so the priceless relic is basically worthless.

    • James Meredith

      I also believe the reason that Custer's Webley RIC has never been found is because it was lost in the LBH River at Medicine Tail Coulee. There is a theory based on several Indian testimonies which state that Custer was shot early in the battle as he led the charge across the river. He was picked up from the water and the entire command retreated to the hills. With Custer mortally wounded, his troops panicked and the rest is history.

      • CaptCourageous

        I like that theory. I have many Indian friends and it is very rare for an Indian to lie about anything. They are honest to a fault. If any of Crazy Horse’s warriors said Custer was shot at the river and carry away to finally die on the hill of the last stand, then that’s what happened, in my opinion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/f.rob.robles F. Rob Robles

    I have a gun in my possession for several years, exactly the gun pictured above, except mine is nickled and has original ivory grips. The story I got with it is that it was collected from an Indian family in or near the state of Minnesota years ago. An antique dealer in the area got a hold of it and then he passed away. His son also shortly passed and the gun was taken to an auction by the family, where it was sold for a song. It comes in the well worn original case, with a Remington Oil bottle in the case. The lanyard ring has been removed and replaced with a screw. I am not a babe in Arms about this, I made my entire income from buying and selling antique arms for the last 15 years. It is inscribed, G.A. Custer on butt of grip. (If anything that turned me off at first blush.)

    I would love this to be original and several things lead me strongly to believe it is.

    a. The dealer who put this stuff in auction lived in Minnesota.

    b. This gun in original nickel is INCREDIBLY RARE. I have not seen another for as long as I have been dealing antique firearms. Just the blued one is uncommon enough. To find one of these in original nickel, with original ivory grips would be nearly impossible.

    c. The box and gun all show consistant years of use, and no sign that anyone has fiddled with them. The lanyard ring being removed is correct for an Indian gun, they always removed lanyard rings and saddle rings, because those things rattled when being carried. How could the box come with the gun. It would have been in a saddle bag on on a wagon. It has the mold, screwdriver and other tools, not available in the tools for the rest of the soldiers, he would need some place to carry such.

    d. The inscription is troublesome. It is block style, they kind I have seen on my post civil war guns used in the West. But not the flowery ornate inscriptions so often seen by officers during the Civil War and even after the Civil War. But such a person may not have been available, so the inscription could have been less ornate and done by someone available. The inscription is OLD, it does not have a sharp feel, and there is corrosion inside the groves. The inscription is definitely 50 years old, but is it 120 years old?

    e. The gun has the dealer marking, Liddle and Keading, of San Francisco on it. If the gun had been purchased in America, it would have shipped from England through San Francisco. The East Coast was awash in surplus firearms from the Civil War. All the guns England was selling in the US were being sold in the West and shipped to Central America, across Panama and to San Francisco.

    In spite of all of this, there is STRONG, but NOT conclusive proof. The only way to conclusively prove this was one of Custers guns would be from a cartridge found on the battlefield. This gun is still fireable and I have one intact cartridge for it inside the box.

    If any of you can help, I would be appreciative of it.

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