Little Bighorn Artifacts

Today is the 133rd anniversary of the beginning of the two-day Indian War fight popularly known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Here are three artifacts, two fired 45-55 carbine cases and one fired 405 grain bullet, found by me on a small ridge more than 1000 yards north of Major Reno’s entrenchment positions. Finding them was by pure luck and very unexpected because they were so far away from any known trooper position and on the exposed slope of the ridge - a location not normally known to yield such items.

Knowing that they probably told an interesting story I kept them seperate from my other Little Bighorn artifacts and placed them in their own little box with a written description.

Several years later, again by chance, I happened to be looking at them, reflecting on the story they could tell if only they could talk. It was then that I noticed that the rifleing marks on the bullet were not those of a U.S. issue rifle or carbine, something that I had not noticed before.

Suddenly, I recalled Sergeant John Ryan’s account of his experiences on Reno Hill where he fired at several Indians who had been shooting at the soldiers, but were beyond the range of the trooper’s carbines. Ryan was using a custom made Sharps rifle with a telescopic sight, chambered for the 45-55 cartridge, and he spoke of making the Indians scamper to safety once he had their range.

Now the puzzle of the three artifacts became clear. The empty 45-55 cases were from ammunition taken from one of General Custer’s dead troopers and turned against Majpr Reno’s entrenched soldiers. The 45 bullet was one fired by Sergeant Ryan from his Sharps rifle exactly as he recalled it nearly 50 years later. The Indian firing at the troopers from his exposed position on the ridge must have felt safe at the long distance - until that 45 caliber bullet struck alarmingly close, no doubt sending him running to safety.

Good shooting for such a long distance.


Nice items Ray, and to be able to link that one bullet to one man is impressive.


Very facinating items and subject in general. Please share some more ammuniton and related artifacts you might have to commemorate this anniversary of one of the most storied modern historical events.


I trust these were removed from privately owned land.

The jackbooted thugs recently swooped down in full SWAT raid mode on a bunch of old geezers in southern Utah who had been picking up old Indian artifacts- some on private land and some illegally removed from public land.

I guess they needed to enforce the law, but 5-10 masked guys with submachine guns in flak vests hauling out grandparents in handcuffs seemed a bit over enthusiastic for charges of pilfering artifacts.

People need to be careful where they collect things.

I no longer have my Little Bighorn artifacts at home but I’ll search thru my photos to see if I can find something to share. In the meantime I’d like to show you two photos that I am quite proud of.

In order to find artifacts you have to look in places where they are most likely to be. Easier said than done because memories fade, places get mixed, distances distorted. So, one part of researching the Battle was first finding where to look.

One feature of the Little Bighorn country that is often mentioned in writings of the period is a place called the “Crow’s Nest”. It is the spot where General Custer and his Scouts went early in the morning hours of June 25th to see if they could spot the Indian village along the river, nearly 15 miles away. From this vantage point you could see down into the LBH valley to the west and also the Rosebud Creek valley to the east. For years there was a debate as to where the Crow’s Nest actually was. There are many small peaks and high points in the area but none of them quite fit the description. Then in 1966, my friend Hank Weibert said that he had found the site. Instead of a peak it was actually a semi-hidden spot on a long ridge. Many scoffed at Hank and refused to believe he had found the location.

In the 1970s I found a 1919 letter that Gen. Hugh Scott had written to his friend, Gen. Luther Hare, one of the survivors of the battle. Scott described a trip that he had taken to the Crow’s Nest, guided by the old Indian scouts. While there a photo was taken. In it were Gen. Hugh Scott, Col. Tim McCoy, the Crow scout White Man Runs Him, and a Mr. Plimpton of the Indian Bureau. I took a copy of that photo with me up on the ridge and began walking, looking for the spot where the photo had been taken. When I thought I was close I took photos from several locations and angles. At home I developed the film and then started manipulating the negatives until I found an exact match. Proof of where the Crows Nest was. Hank was finally vindicated, as I always knew he would be. These two photos have been published at least 3 times that I know of.

On June 25, 1980 Hank and I spent the night at the Crow’s nest so that we could be there when the sun came up and see what Custer must have seen 104 years earlier.


Yes, all of the artifacts were from private land with permission of the owners.

It’s interesting that the Park Service had no interest in artifacts outside their little green fence even though much of the battle took place there. They even went so far as to question whether or not the artifacts were real since we were just greedy amateur relic collectors and what did we know about such things.

The dirty little secret is that many of the better artifacts were stolen from the Museum storage areas by Park Service personnel in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them showed up for sale on the Antique Show circuit and were traced back to the thieves but no one was ever prosecuted.

I had a handful of friends who searched for artifacts at many battle sites in Montana and Wyoming. We did it to find the truth of what actually happened. Not a single artifact was ever sold, to the best of my knowledge. We even offered to catalog and incorporate them into museum collections but were rebuffed, at times very unpolitely.



Wow! Fantastic bit of detective work! It’s a shame that the museum wouldn’t take in anything that could be documented as you have offered for the sake of posterity. An ego thing on their part, perhaps? This would no doubt promote the less than historical dispersement of such important items never to be assembled in one place again. My respect for you for not seeking profit from these artifacts.

It must have been a very exciting thing to have documented the location of that site and to then envision daybreak on the landscape that has changed so little since those famous days.

Added: If it’s not easy to post more artifact pics, perhaps you could rattle off some of the ammunition types found over the years? I always liked the .45-55’s (or -70?) fired out of .50-70’s I remember reading about as a kid. I doubt any of the Indians were bench rest shooters…


  • @ Ray Meketa: I read that cartridges with shell cases made of copper had expanded in the breech when firing the weapon and this could jam the the rifle or the carbine. Is it possible that this type of jamming did happen to some of the weapons used by the Army at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 ??? Could this be a reason of General George Armstrong Custer’s defeat ??? Liviu 06/25/09


There is artifact evidence that at least 20 different firearms types were used at the battle. Most all of them by the Indians, of course. Examining fired (and unfired) cartridges indicates that Sharps, Smith & Wessons, Evans, Henrys, Winchesters, Remingtons, Ballards, Maynards, Starrs, Spencers, Enfields and Forehand & Wadworths, as well as Colts and Springfields of other calibers were all used. The preponderance of cartridges were the 45-55-405 Carbine of the Cavalry and the 44 Henry of the Indians.


Being an avid martial arms collector years ago I was more interested in the firearms than the cartridges. I did a lot of research on the question of failed 45 Caliber Springfield Carbines. I wrote a couple of magazine articles and even gave a couple of lectures at meetings of the Little Bighorn Associates. My conclusion was that failure of the Carbines played no role in the results of the battle. Likewise, an often stated myth that the Indians far outgunned the troopers, both in numbers and effectiveness of weapons is just that, a myth. Another researcher wrote a very good article for one of the “Western” magazines a few years ago and he drew the same conclusions.


I was a member of the Little Bighorn Associates for many years and went to all of their annual meetings, seminars, and field trips. It was an interesting time for me because few of the members cared about the artifacts, guns, ammunition, Cavalry equipment, and stuff like the location of the Crow’s Nest. Most of my lectures went over like a lead balloon. I could show them a Carbine that very likely was at the battle and the response was, “Oh, how ordinary”. The next guy would get up and give a presentation on the type of jock-strap that the boy general wore and the audience went wild. I always thought that Prez Clinton had a similar mind-set following.



Great history lesson!!! I love this kind of stuff!


Very interesting Ray; do you know if Ryan’s rifle has survived to this day, or was it part of the spoils of war?

Good question. I don’t know the answer. Every so often an old Sharps rifle will turn up and the owner claims it belonged to Ryan but they can never offer any positive proof. There was one particular really beat up relic that showed up several years ago that many thought was authentic but the last I heard it had not been verified. Most think it was actually an Indian gun. I’ve been out of touch for quite a few years so can’t say if anything new has developed. If anyone here subscribes to Man At Arms maybe they can tell us if there have been any reports in the magazine. I know that genuine Custer firearms demand fantastic prices and people will go to any length to fake them.

I have tried an italian replica of the Ryan’s rifle made by Pedersoli and chambered for the 45/70 . Also the telescopic sight was reproduced and it was almost identical to that pictured in the first post.Very accurate rifle

Anyone interested can read most of the Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn on this Google site. Sgt Ryan and my bullet is discussed on page 116. … t&resnum=4

Goodness, but I love Google books.

The discussion regarding brass cases and Custer’s guns that starts just after the part about the Ryan bullet is interesting. I can attest to the fact that brass cased .50-70 cartridges were available well before the battle, as I have a December 28, 1873 UMC wood shipping crate that had several of the original sealed boxes of cartridges with it when I received it. The cases are the commonly encountered UMC unheadstamped brass Berdan primed style with the folded raised ring head.


Those brass cased 50-70 cartridges have created almost as much of a ruckus as Custer himself. When the first one was found, 50 or more years ago, it started a discussion, and cussin, that hasn’t stopped yet. Every time a different type was found the arguements took off on a different tack with no one agreeing on anything. I found one, in the 1970s as I remember, and thought it to be just another fired 50-70. But, I did keep it seperate from the others, just in case. ;) ;)

I have seen grown men take one of them and rub it and croon like an idiot believing they were holding one of the General’s very own personal cartridges. As I said, the Custer nuts are really just that, nuts. Well, some of them anyway.


What distinguishes the rifling in Ryan’s rifle from the military rifling? I know the rifling was 1 turn in 42" right twist with wide lands in about every 50 cal rifle and carbine the military used in the 1860s to 1870s, including the Springfields, Sharps conversions, and Remington rolling blocks. What were the characteristics of the rifling in the standard commercial Sharps rifle, or was there a standard? Is this information published anywhere? I haven’t managed to get into the Google book yet; does it cover such things.

Guy: I’m sure there are more answers to your question than I can manage, but briefly the Springfield .45 and .50 had three lands and grooves of equal or near-equal width whereas the typical (assuming there is such) sporting Sharps had multi-groove (six, maybe?) rifling in which the lands were much narrower than the grooves. Sharps grooves tended to be shallower than Springfield and other makers. JG


The 45 Cal Springfield had a 3-groove 22" twist barrel, the lands and grooves being equal in width. The “Ryan” bullet has 3-grooves but the grooves are very narrow, with wide lands.

I offered the bullet to Doug Scott to be sacrificed for forensic tests to determine the rifleing twist and for comparison with other Sharps bullets but he decided there was not much to be gained since we had nothing to compare it with. The Ryan rifle was custom made so the characteristics of the barrel were unknown. Plus, the Park Service declined to have any of their samples sacrificed for testing and/or comparison.

A typical Sharps barrel had rifleing to accomodate paper-patched bullets (multiple lands and grooves) but since Ryans rifle was built for the government cartridge it may have been rifled accordingly.

The wording in the report is Doug’s, not mine. I was reluctant to state positively that my bullet was fired in a Sharps Sporting rifle, particularly Ryan’s rifle, but he evidently was confident enough to include it.

Since the Indians that Ryan was shooting at were in an area that is outside the Federal property it’s likely that other “Ryan” bullets have been found and probably not recognized.

That reminds me of one of my favorite “Custer” jokes:

[i]A tourist asks why the fallen Troopers were all congregated in one little fenced-in spot on top of the hill.

Ans. : They probably felt safe behind the fence.[/i]