Rifle linked to Little Bighorn Battle sells for $258,000

Somebody paid more than a quarter million for this Sharps rifle, thought to have been fired by an Indian warrior at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. (Brian Lebel’s Old West Events)

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Thanks to the never-ending fascination with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a rifle linked to the battle recently sold at auction for a quarter million dollars.

The Sharps rifle was billed by the company, Brian Lebel’s Old West Events, as “the first firearm forensically proven to have been used at Custer’s Last Stand,” using the old name for the famous battle.

True West magazine reported that the auction, in Mesa, Ariz., on Jan. 27, featured other Old West artifacts, including Western actor Tom Mix’s batwing chaps, which went for $17,000. In all, collectors earned more than $1.25 million for their goods.

But the biggie was the Sharps rifle, which fetched $258,750 and was thought to have been used at the battle by an Indian warrior.

Its pedigree was established as the result of a range fire at the battlefield in 1983, leading to an extensive survey of the site in 1984.

As the True West article explained, “archaeologists recovered empty .50-70 caliber cartridge cases, among cases from other firearms, on known Indian warrior positions. The ballistic comparisons of two Martin-primed cartridge cases provided near-certain proof that the 1874 Sharps sold at the auction was fired on Custer’s battlefield.”

It can’t be proven that the rifle was fired on the battlefield during the fight, and the article notes a couple of reasons for having some doubts on the matter, but the new owner of the rifle obviously found the evidence convincing enough to drop a quarter million.

One more cool fact: the rifle was found in 1883, seven years after the battle, by a rancher named Willis Spear. The auction house said he “collected a number of artifacts while passing through the battlefield site with his family; a visit he recorded in his diary.”

The Sharps rifle, serial number C54586, was among those items and it remained in the Spear family for more than a century.

 Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.