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He carried more than a message at the Little Bighorn.

Italian immigrant Giovanni Crisostomo Martino (or Martini) is best known as John Martin, the 7thU.S. Cavalry bugler at the Battle of the Little Bighorn who delivered Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s famous last message(scrawled down by regimental adjutant 1st Lieutenant William Cooke): BENTEEN, COME ON. BIG VILLAGE.BE QUICK.BRINGPACKS.W.W. COOKE. P.S. BRING PACS [sic]. Custer, who wanted the packs of ammunition for his imminent attack on the Indian village, did not survive what followed on the battlefield. Martin, who remained with Captain Frederick Benteen, did survive. So, too, did his carbine.

Most members of the 7th Cavalry who rode toward the Little Bighorn in MontanaTerritoryinJune1876carriedModel 1873Springfield“Trapdoor”carbinesand 100roundsof.45-70ammunitionintheir belts and saddlebags. The Model 1873 was a breech loader with a hinged breechblock that opened like a trapdoor. The infantry rifle model had a 325⁄8-inch barrel; the cavalry carbine a 22-inch barrel. Even though the 7th was one of the better-armed U.S. Army units at the time, historical and archeological studies have demonstrated that the Indians—many with Henry and Winchester repeaters— had the cavalry outgunned at the Little Bighorn.

More than a century after the June 25–26 battle, sculptor and frontier militaria collector Glen Swanson bought the carbine that had been issued to John Martin. This Springfield, Serial No. 19573, may be the most historically significant weapon traced to the West’s most famous Indian wars engagement.

The main evidence linking the carbine to John Martin are the name J. MARTIN crudely carved into the left side of the fore end and a letter “H” (for H Company) carved into the stock. Indeed John Martin was with that company. A Corporal James Martin was also present at the Little Bighorn, but he was in G Company and was killed during Major Marcus Reno’s retreat from the valley fight.

Skeptics may quote from the U.S. Army regulations of 1861, which state in part, “All arms in the hands of the troops, whether browned or bright, will be kept in the state in which they are issued by the Ordnance Department.” This regulation seems to forbid engraving or otherwise defacing a weapon. But Army book rules were not always the rule on the frontier. In frontier Texas, Sergeant John B. Charlton—subject of Captain Robert G. Carter’s 1926 book The Old Sergeant’s Story—noted a missing man who had left his horse behind, adding, “We discovered his name scratched on his carbine: OSWALD, of I troop.” That inscription is like the J. MARTIN on this carbine.

As part of the Custer Battlefield Firearms Identification Project (which ran from 1984 until completed in 1996), archeologist Douglas Scott and firearms expert Dick Harmon documented more than 150 firearms with good provenance and potential ties to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In the wake of an August 1983 range fire that burned off some 700 acres of ground cover at the battlefield, a search with metal detectors turned up more than 2,000 cartridge cases and bullets. Scott and Harmon certified that a cartridge case found within 10 feet of the monument on Custer Hill (aka Last Stand Hill) was a 90 percent match to Martin’s carbine, even though Martin was not at that location himself (having earlier delivered the message to Benteen and remained at the Reno-Benteen defensive position).

During their service, firing pins wear to a unique shape, and guns leave distinctive extractor marks on the cartridge case head. Similar to fingerprints, these markings can match the case to an individual weapon. Only 17 Little Bighorn weapons have been so certified. For further information about the firearms identification analysis, see Chapter 6 (written by Scott and Harmon) of Swanson’s 2004 book G.A.Custer: His Life and Times. The sling ring is missing from the Martin carbine. Indians often removed these rings because they rattled too much, but the carbine shows no other signs—brass tack decorations, rawhide or wire repairs—that Indians might have used it. Still, an Indian or some other soldier besides Martin probably fired this weapon during the fight on Custer Hill.

Benteen pointed out that Martin’s horse was twice hit by gunfire on his ride to deliver Custer’s message. One of the bullets might have hit the sling ring, breaking it and causing the carbine to become detached. It’s also possible that before his hard ride Martin discarded the carbine to avoid it banging against him and his horse, perhaps handing it to a fellow trooper who was having trouble with his own carbine. During the fierce fight several carbines failed when heat-swollen copper cartridge cases jammed the breeches and had to be dug out with pocketknives.

One can speculate on several scenarios involving this particular carbine (as is the case with Custer’s movements after Martin rode off to deliver the message). Strong evidence suggests the gun had been issued to Martin, and that at some point in the battle he and it parted company. But someone else almost certainly fired the carbine at the Last Stand.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.