October 03, 2011
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.
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?
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