The weapons used by both Texans and Indians in the Battle of Packsaddle Mountain on August 5, 1873 represented the revolution in small-arms technology wrought by the American Civil War. Both sides employed shoulder arms that were patented on the eve of that great conflict and took advantage of the recent perfection of design and manufacture techniques for the self-contained metallic cartridge. For the first time, breechloading repeating firearms were a truly practical proposition.
All but one of the pursuing stockmen in southern Llano County, Texas, were armed with Spencer carbines in their confrontation with the raiders (most likely Mescalero Apaches, though some sources say Comanches). Designed by Christopher Spencer, a talented New England inventor, the Spencer was a lever-action repeater that used .50-caliber rimfire metallic cartridges fed into the weapon’s chamber from a tubular magazine carried in its wooden buttstock. The first truly successful mass-produced repeating rifle, the Spencer held seven rounds, which could be fired in about 10 seconds even though the hammer had to be manually cocked for each shot. Its massive firepower had made it the preferred arm of Union cavalrymen during the Civil War.
The U.S. government had purchased approximately 100,000 of the handy repeaters by the close of the conflict in 1865. The Spencer remained a popular weapon on the postwar Western frontier, arming Regular U.S. Army cavalry regiments and civilian frontiersmen alike. Although the Spencer company went out of business in 1868, the weapon remained in widespread use among troops in the West through 1873 and continued to be used to some degree in 1874. Civilians used Spencer repeaters throughout the post-Civil War westward expansion. Its stubby rimfire cartridges were commercially produced until 1920 to meet a lingering demand.
Contemporary accounts state that the Indian force at Packsaddle Mountain was equipped with Henry and Winchester repeaters. Designed by gunsmith Tyler Henry, who also perfected the metallic rimfire cartridge, the Henry was a brass-framed, lever-action rifle that carried 16 .44-caliber rimfire cartridges in a tubular magazine mounted beneath its barrel. The Henry had a higher rate of fire than the rival Spencer, but its fragile, thin-walled, spring-slotted magazine tube was subject to clogging by dirt or dust in the field, and if it became dented the weapon was crippled. Also, the .44 rimfire rounds carried a light powder charge of 28 grains behind a bullet weighing 200 grains, to generate only moderate hitting power, while the Spencer’s heftier, 450-grain .50-caliber slug was backed by 40 grains of gunpowder.
The Henry was replaced in production by the Model 1866 Winchester. A refinement of Tyler Henry’s original design, it was named after corporate head Oliver Winchester, whose money financed the business enterprise. Unlike the Henry, it loaded ammunition through a side gate built into the right face of its brass receiver, while its magazine tube was completely enclosed and featured thicker, sturdier sides. It still chambered the anemic .44 rimfire cartridge in its 17- round magazine, however. Adequate for man or deer-sized game, it was not the cartridge of choice for use against such quarry as the buffalo or grizzly bear.
The Spencer, Henry and Model 1866 Winchester were all in common use on the frontier in 1873, with each rifle boasting its adherents, although the cheaper, war-surplus Spencer enjoyed a sales advantage among the less affluent buyers in buckskin and breechclout alike. In 1868 a southwestern frontiersman noted of the Apaches: “At the present writing they have a considerable number of Henry’s, Spencer’s and Sharp’s rifles, with some of the fixed ammunition required by the first two mentioned. Every cartridge they get hold of is preserved with solicitude until it can be expended with decided advantage.”
The handguns employed at Packsaddle Mountain are less clearly documented. William Moss, the brother of posse-organizer James R. Moss, was reportedly in the act of reloading a “Colt Ranger” revolver at the time he was wounded. Only trouble with that report is that the Colt company never produced a “Ranger” model revolver. Furthermore, none of the celebrated Model 1873 Colt Single Action Army (also known as the “Peacemaker”) .45-caliber revolvers had yet reached the Texas market in August of that year. The younger Moss was probably carrying one of the factory-fabricated Richards-Mason conversions of the Model 1860 Colt Army percussion revolver, which permitted the modified arms to chamber .44 centerfire metallic cartridges.
Leader James Moss carried a brand new Smith & Wesson Second Model “Russian” revolver chambered in .44 Russian. In 1868 the company had filled a large order from the Imperial Russian Army for a variant of the Smith & Wesson “American” revolver, chambered for the standard .44-caliber centerfire Russian service cartridge. Noted for being an accurate load, the Russian round was retained when the company put the revolver on the American market, and it quickly became popular. The second model of the Russian featured a crescent-shaped spur that projected from the bottom of the trigger guard as a finger rest. Featuring a barrel and cylinder assembly that was mated to a hinge-pin on the weapon’s frame, the Smith & Wessons “broke” for loading. A spring-loaded pin capped with a star-shaped extractor then ejected all six expended cartridge cases from the cylinder at one time, thereby speeding and simplifying the reloading process.
The makes of the other revolvers carried by Moss’ comrades and their warrior opponents are not recorded, but they must have been a mixture of Colt and Remington percussion and cartridge conversions along with the more sophisticated Smith & Wessons. The Indians were also equipped with handguns, for contemporary accounts refer to 16 pistols in use among the braves during the fight. In 1873 percussion (or cap-and-ball) weapons were preferred by many of the tribesmen because loose powder, caps and bullets were easier and cheaper to obtain than the new metallic cartridges.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.