BUFFALO RIFLES OF THE FRONTIER.
Surely one of the most controversial topics in the settling of the American West is the demise of the"mobile commissary" of the American Indian, the bison. From the beginnings of European influence in North America, the death knell had been sounded for these unique animals. The Spanish horses, which, through trade, loss, war and theft, fell into the hands of the Indians, changed the standards, status, lifestyle and hunting techniques of the natives forever.
In addition, the "buffalo runners," or hide hunters also contributed significantly to the demise of the large bison herds. Their reason was simple: money. Right or wrong, they made a living killing bison for their hides in a land that was covered in what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply, and their tool was the state-of-the-art cartridge-firing rifle.
Three different centerfire rifles were used prominently by these professional hunters, and in their hands were responsible for bringing down tens of thousands of the animals. This resulted in so much meat and so many hides that railroad boxcars were required to carry them to the production facilities on the East Coast.
These three rifles are still well-known and respected today. Many myths and legends have sprung up around these guns, most concerning their effectiveness and the number of buffalo they were responsible for killing. In truth, these three guns played a significant role in the opening of the West and the demise of the great buffalo herds that once covered the American plains.
The Trapdoor Springfield
Although designed as a rifle for military use, the Springfield came in many forms and types of conversions. For example, an early model called the "Allin conversion" was chambered in a .58 caliber rimfire cartridge. The most common models of this gun were chambered for the .50-70, and later on for the .45-70.
The breech-loading Springfield was nicknamed the "needle gun" because of its rather long, slender firing pin. Lifting the protruding lever upward causes the bolt, or breech, to rise in a trapdoor-type movement, opening the action. This action design is not the strongest, but is more than adequate for the .50-70 and .45-70 cartridges it was created to fire.
The .50-70 was effective on bison and was used by such notables as William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. The rifle which Cody used, nicknamed "Lucrezia Borgia," is now housed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center as part of the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyo.
These guns were widely distributed by the military to railroad employees and civilians traveling over the plains to the West. Oddly enough, they were also given to "friendly Indians" to assist in the gathering of bison, as well as, undoubtedly, for use against other hostile tribes. Sort of the "IranContra" of the 1870s.
After the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn, there arose a notable con over the effectiveness of the Springfield as a battle rifle. Stuck cases and functional failures haunted ordnance officials causing them to take a serious look at replacing the gun.
The Remington Rolling Block
The Remington Rolling Block was probably responsible for killing more bison than any other gun save the famous Sharps. After several design modifications, the Rolling Block as we came to know it was introduced in the mid-1860s. The rifle was made in several frame sizes and calibers, the most notable of which were the .44-77, .44-90, the .50-70 and later the .45-70. The long, heavy barrel of the Remington was a favorite of George A. Custer, and some people believe he had one of these guns with him at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
The operation of the Remington was one of "relative ease," to quote an original 1878 manual. This manual goes on to say, "The operation of the arm is especially simple. To load the piece the hammer is first brought to full cock, and the breech-piece swung back by pressing the thumb-piece with the thumb of the right hand. The backward motion of the breechblock withdraws the discharged shell from the chamber. The fresh cartridge is then inserted, and the breech closed in one continuous motion; the arm is then ready to fire."
At the time, Remington claimed that, "All of our single barrel breech-loading guns, whether rifle, or shot, are made upon this system, the same which has been used in the construction of over 900,000 Military Rifles for various governments."
Considering that the statement was made in 1878, the claim of 900,000 rifles and shotguns is a remarkable one. Current literature does, in fact, list many of the foreign rifle-sales records of that era. There may not have been 900,000 Remingtons on the American scene, but there were 20,000 sent to Denmark, 10,000 to Sweden and Norway, 100,000 to Egypt, 130,000 to Spain, 12,000 to Chile, and 100,000 to Mexico in the time between the late 1860s to the l880s. Frankly, no one knows exactly how many of each model of Remington rifle were manufactured, but there is no question that a great quantity were made and distributed worldwide.
The Sharps Model 1874 -- which was actually introduced to the public in 1871 -- is the rifle most identified with bison hunting in the American West. Compared with the Remington, the number of Sharps rifles made is relatively small. Only 6,001 Model 1874 Sharps Sporting rifles were manufactured. Other model variations were made in smaller numbers at both the Hartford and Bridgeport facilities.
Even with its smaller numbers, the Sharps is identified with many of the notable incidents of the buffalo-hunting era, which indicates its popularity among soldiers and expert shooters of the day. For example, the famous buffalo runner Billy Dixon used an 1874 Sharps .50-90 to fire an aimed shot which struck one of a group of Indian warriors 1,500 yards away on the second day of the Adobe Walls fight in June of 1874.
In September of the same year, Dixon and five other scouts were engaged by about 100 Indian warriors between Gageby Creek and the Washita River in Hempihill County, Texas. In the following Buffalo Wallow Fight, Dixon and one of the others, both armed with Sharps rifles, were largely responsible for keeping the Indians at a distance with the gun's long-range capability. This may seem like a minor skirmish, but it is the only incident in American history where all six combatants (including two civilian scouts) received the Medal of Honor.
Historical accounts indicate that when Indian warriors killed a buffalo hunter in the field, they would routinely destroy his Sharps rifle. Carrying the heavy gun wasn't practical for the Indians, and ammunition was hard to come by, but the Indians had enough respect for the capability of the Sharps to know that they didn't want to let the gun get back into the hands of their enemies.
The Sharps was known as the rifle that "fires today and hits tomorrow." It was truly held in awe, both by those who shot it and those who were on the receiving end of that gunfire.
Of course, there were other guns used for hunting bison -- such as the Ballard, Maynard and Spencer rifles, to name but a few. Although these rifles were regularly carried and used by the settlers coming west, they never achieved the romance or legend of the guns from Sharps, Remington and Springfield.
For anyone who desires the feel of these vintage rifles without the price tag of an authentic gun, there are modern replicas available. The design and construction of these modem replicas would surely make their original designers proud. Taking one of these rifles to the range is a wonderful way to keep the legends of the Old West alive today.