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    Follow the Stories | Billings, Montana (2011)

    The "Custer Range" Explained


    Posted: 4.11.2011

    Chris Mitchell with Springfield carbine

    Springfield "trap-door" carbines were one type of weapon used by the 7th Cavalry in the Battle of Little Bighorn. The exact provenance of this particular weapon is unknown, but its serial number, in the 19,000s, places it within the "Custer Range."

    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. During a recent Antiques Roadshow field segment taped at the Montana battleground, appraiser J. Christopher Mitchell, of J.C. Americana in Point Clear, Ala., explained that a carbine from the period in reasonably good condition might fetch around $1,500 at auction. “But if it’s in the Custer range,” he said, “that makes it a $6,500 to $7,500 gun.”

    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.

    But what is the “Custer range”? As Mitchell explains, it’s a term of the trade that 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.

    Mitchell is quick to point out, however, that 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.

    See the Billings, Montana (2011) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Arms & Militaria category:
    So, Whose Pistol Is It? (Honolulu, 2007)
    Armed With a Colt Letter ... (Mobile, 2007)
    "American Indian" or "Native American"? (Bismarck, 2006)
    Translation, Please ... (Tampa, 2006)
    Armed With a Colt Letter ... (Mobile, 2007)
    What's the Deal with Confederate Flags? (Salt Lake City, 2007)

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

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