Is the US Army repeating a Battle of The Little Big Horn Error? Will history repeat itself?


Army’s stubbornness over replacement for M4 proves it hasn’t learned from past mistakes

By Jason Gillis


In 1876, when Custer led the 7th Calvary in the Big Horn Valley, his men were armed with the Trapdoor Springfield Rifle. The Trapdoor Springfield was a single-shot breech loader and the standard-issue service weapon. The carbine version was given to cavalry troops. At the time, the Army was aware that the casings for the .45-caliber rifle cartridge expanded in the chamber, and when paired with fouling, jammed the Springfield Ejector in a few shots. Despite this knowledge, the 7th Cavalry continued with its mission.

The 7th Cavalry rode into battle with quite a bit of intel. They knew that the Native American warriors they would face were armed mostly with repeating rifles like the Henry and the Winchester. The Cav trooper’s single-shot Springfield, when it did not require immediate or remedial action due to the ammo issue, could not compare to the rate of fire of the Native American weaponry. They were outclassed.

In the decade preceding, the Army had learned many lessons in the development of small arms. Commercial vendors stepped up to the plate, and the lever-action repeating carbine had proved its rate of fire was a significant advantage in engagements with soldiers armed with single-shot weapons. The troopers of Buford’s Brigades at Gettysburg held the high ground despite being vastly outnumbered by the converging Confederate Army during the first day at Gettysburg at least inpart because of the high rate of fire of their Spencer repeating carbines.

After the war, during the Fetterman Massacre, a small band of U.S. Cavalry troopers were surrounded and slaughtered by a numerically overwhelming force of Native Americans. By the testimony of the arriving units and Native American testimony, two troopers in an enclave of rocks held out until they were out of ammunition. What was the difference between them and the others? Spencer repeating carbines.

So as Custer rode into battle that day in 1876, the other 265 men of the 7th Cavalry must have questioned in their minds why they were forced to carry the Trapdoor Springfield. Some knew, despite their best maintenance efforts (the 7th was known for their maintenance proficiency), their Springfields would fail due to poor ammo. Others knew that even if their rifle worked well, the enemy would fire five shots for every one of theirs, man for man.

Imagine this as you envision their companies rallied together in a skirmish line in the open, surrounded by hostiles. Imagine that if the Army had just given them those blasted commercially available repeaters that could offset this onslaught. Imagine if Army ordnance had not forced the Springfield rifle. Imagine if the asymmetric enemy they were fighting did not have a superior weapon. Imagine if someone who had the power had insisted that the combat-proven repeaters had been issued and that incrementally better arms were kept in the hands of the troops.

There were tactical blunders, too. But imagine a 7th Cavalry with three to five times the firepower it displayed that day. It was plausible, but did not happen. What would history say to us today? What would the outcome be? We do not know, but speculation suggests things may have been different.

Today, we are going down that same road. Incrementally better solutions to the small-arms issue are available now: the H&K 416, the FN SCAR, etc. Again, the end user knows it, but his word is not heeded. Again, the combat data shows it, but that data is twisted, misused and unheeded.

Whether maintenance is an issue, whether the age of the gun is an issue or whether the operator is the issue, today’s commercially available guns have outclassed our main weapon system, the M16/M4. The real question is this: How many times must history repeat itself? How many Little Big Horns are required?

The soldier deserves the best available, not “good enough.” Until the end user is directly and powerfully involved in aspects of small-arms procurement, the status quo will not change. I feel for the troops who have learned this the hard way. I hope all who follow this topic do the same.

Demand accountability and something will change. Every piece of gear a soldier has except the basic operating system of the small arms has been incrementally replaced. Get rid of the behemoth small-arms procurement process. Streamline for the better. Spend money that isn’t wasted on bizarre science fiction-like ideas that fail to come to fruition due to their conceptual absurdity. Give our troops what they need. Justice demands it. Integrity demands it. My conscience demands it.

That is the issue.




The staff sergeant left active duty in May 2007 after six years as an infantry paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. His most recent duties included battalion master gunner for 2-325th Airborne Infantry Regiment and squad designated marksman instructor for the 82nd Airborne Division Marksmanship Training Unit. He is now employed in northern Virginia.


Trapdoor Springfield Rifle





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