Lessons from the fighting at Little Bighorn
As I noted in earlier posts, it can be very difficult to find tactical actions that would apply to a setting where the action does not involve the heavier supporting weapons (machine guns, mortars, rockets) that come from pitched infantry duels. Cowboy actions usually do not have enough participants.
The imputes for this post came from an interview on the Diane Rehm show of Thomas Power’s who recently wrote The Killing of Crazy Horse. I have this book, but my sourcing for this post is from an article he wrote at the Smithsonian entitled How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won.
Park Service Map of Little Big Horn Battle Progression: the green box on left is very close to a mile wide.
Custer’s troops had single action break open breach loaders. But the speed difference is not particularly that important: particularly when you have troops who are fighting in formation and will cover each other as they reload. Many of the Indians were armed with lever action carbines that can often fire faster and with a larger magazine than the latter bolt action rifles. They come very close to being the equivalent to today’s store-bought semi-automatic carbine.
I am not going to give a blow-by-blow description of the battle because the link to the Smithsonian article provides that. Instead I am going to give a “lessons learned” and some general comments. I also had a previous post that touched on Plains Indian tactics: here.
- Movement under cover: The cavalry often took off their hats, and the Indians would wear their feathers flat so as to lower their profile and allow them to keep better cover.
- In a world without heavy infantry support weapons, the cavalry’s doctrine was to dismount and maintain a skirmish line with the men five yards apart. Using today's semi-automatics, this distance could probably be opened a little bit (7 yards?), but without support weapons to break up attacks from a distance, you would be very much at risk of getting overwhelmed.
- The Indians who were not engaged would work to seek there way around their enemies flank. Eventually the troops would fall back onto defensible, unflankable terrain. Without heavy weapons, unless the defenders ammunition ran out, the Indians generally had a hard time completely reducing these little knots of firepower.
- The Indians common tactic was to hold their enemy in place, and wait for an opportunity to charge into close combat with their enemy. In today’s terms they would wait until they saw that many of their enemy were reloading their magazines.
- It is very hard to hit a quickly moving object. There is nothing wrong with the accuracy of the Sharps carbine, but the Indians regularly would taunt and distract the enemy by riding very quickly across their front: probably at around 100 yards distance.
- Based on the battle details, todays automatic fire weapons would only have been useful when the Indians made their final rush to close combat. However, this would also have been the time that the defenders where likely to be getting low on ammunition.
- The combat had a very typical pattern throughout. The engagement would never completely fall off, but would sputter at times. There would be rapid movement to engagement, then a close creeping into range, a rapid rush to close combat (where most of the death and injury occurred), and then a settling down as both sides would regroup, the cycle then starting over.
- The other reason combat would slow up was because the Indians would stop to loot. In a battle against forces with limited means this may cause some disruption, and very possibly may give time for a surprised or outnumbered defender to regroup and counter attack.
- The battle was decided when Crazy Horse got within relatively close range by going (probably walking the horses) up a ravine that went toward the middle of the cavalry’s line. He stopped, took a few choice shots, and then charged in with his small group before the cavalry skirmish line could recover. The distraction by Crazy Horse allowed the other Indians to close to the deadly hand-to-hand range.
- I have said many times before, the casualties, by melee weapon or by firearm, come at close range. Very few people are good shots in the heat of battle when they are under fire themselves.
Obviously there were no internal combustion engines, or even bicycles at Bighorn. But the some of the usage lessons are the similar.
· Transport vehicles and horses tend to draw a lot of fire, and they do not offer particularly good cover. I have seen online stories where people used the back of a dump truck. It will not work against the .308 Winchester of 30-06 rounds. Only the most heavily armored armored-vans are proof against rifle fire. The engine block is generally the only bullet stopping part of a vehicle. Too many rounds into the engine block and you have yourself a fancy painted rock.
· Horses and vehicles get you to the battle quicker, but other than as a shock tactic, with a relatively short approach, you are probably going to need to dismount before engagement. As an aside, I recall the online comments of someone who took a course that included firing from a moving vehicle: the lesson learned: don’t expect to hit anything.
· If you dismount, you will either have to leave people (1/4 in the case of the cavalry) behind to defend them, or risk their loss.
· If you lose your vehicles, you will lose whatever spare ammunition, or weapons that are carried in them. In the case of the cavalry they lost their extra 50 rounds of ammunition.
· If your mount or vehicle is blasted, you will have your tactical mobility greatly reduced, and your means of escape may be greatly reduced. The Barrett rifles that so many people treat as the modern equivalent to Zeus’ lightning bolts, will likely be the most useful in knocking out enemy vehicles with the minimum expenditure of time.
If you gave the cavalry modern 5.56 (.228) fully selective fire firearms, would they have won?: Probably not. Since we are not talking sniper rigs here, the 5.56 may even be slightly less accurate at range. The ability to carry more ammunition is negated by the heaver usage. The round fired by the sharps is more deadly than most modern rounds. The biggest difference, and possibly a deciding factor, is the spray and pray factor at very close ranges. It is possible that the Indians tactic of closing to close combat would have been stopped by such a high output of rounds at close range.
But there were an awful lot of Indians.