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    Follow the Stories | Billings, Montana (2011)

    By the Numbers: The “Custer Range”


    Posted: 4.11.2011

    Colt 1873 revolver

    A Colt 1873 revolver; another prominent weapon among the cavalry at Little Bighorn.

    Colt 1873 revolver

    This revolver's serial number — 5,629 — puts the weapon in the heart of the "Custer Range."

    The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most famous military engagements in US history, despite having ended in a rout of American troops. It marked the end of the career of George Armstrong Custer, a publicity-seeking Army officer, who, along with all of the men under his command, was killed in June of 1876 by a superior force of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne. Little Bighorn has been a continual source of debate among historians for 150 years, and excites a similar interest among firearms collectors, for whom the very possibility of a weapon’s having been used during the battle can bring a hefty bump in its value.

    While bearing a number in the Custer range can dramatically increase a firearm’s value, it by no means proves the weapon was present at Little Bighorn.

    A term of the trade, the “Custer range”, refers to the range of serial numbers borne by firearms whose dates of manufacture make it possible that they were issued to Custer and his men, and therefore used during Little Bighorn. There were two official firearms issued to soldiers during the period, each with a different Custer range: the Springfield “trap-door” carbine or rifle, whose range runs from 00001 to about 50,000; and the Colt 1873 revolver, whose range runs from 0001 to about 7,000.

    While bearing a number in the Custer range does tend to dramatically increase a firearm’s value, it by no means proves the weapon was present at Little Bighorn. A quick look at the numbers shows why: there were around 210 men in Custer’s unit, but there are somewhere around 57,000 firearms in the Custer range. When you then consider that all the soldiers under Custer’s command died and that most of their weapons were carried off by the victorious Native Americans, who most likely used them until they were destroyed, the odds of finding a firearm with legitimate Little Bighorn provenance begin to seem dismally low.

    And so they are. But if provenance can be established, you can expect a $6,500 to $7,500 Custer-range firearm’s value to rocket up an order of magnitude, to the neighborhood of $70,000.

    Ben Phelan is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been a contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 2007.