“With your rifle I killed far more game than any other single party [on the Yellowstone Expedition]…while the shots made from your rifle were at longer range and more difficult shots than were those made by any other rifle in the command….I am more than ever impressed with the many superior qualities possessed by the system of arms manufactured by your firm, and I believe I am safe in asserting that to a great extent, this opinion is largely shared.” Those were some of the comments made by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer in an October 5, 1873, letter to E. Remington & Sons of Ilion, New York, about the virtues of—and his satisfaction with— his special-order Remington single-shot rolling-block sporting rifle in .50-70 caliber.
Manufactured from 1866 to 1917, the Remington rolling-block cartridge rifle was so popular that more than half the world’s armies adopted it or purchased quantities for police or martial purposes. During the American Civil War, gunsmith Leonard M. Geiger designed the basic action, in which the shooter “rolled” the breechblock backward with the thumb and inserted a cartridge in the breech, before the block “rolled” forward and the interlocking hammer cocked in one fluid motion. E. Remington & Sons, America’s oldest firearms manufacturer, took over Geiger’s patent and assigned one of its chief engineers, Joseph Rider, to make the necessary refinements. Rider brought the new action along, and with his 1864 and 1865 patents, put it in its nearly perfect final form.
In the last year of the Civil War, the U.S. government placed an order for what became known as Remington “split-breech” carbines, just before Rider’s final improvement—strengthening the breechblock by machining it out of a solid billet of steel. The early “split-breech” action allowed the hammer to sit between the weaker, split-wall breechblock configuration that took only low-pressure, rimfire ammunition such as the .56-56 Spencer or .44 Henry cartridges. Once Rider’s mid- 1866 patent was issued, the simple but virtually indestructible rolling-block action became Remington’s new ace in the hole in countering the post–Civil War glut of surplus arms that was putting many gun companies out of business. Remington had something radically new to offer, and the new gun temporarily saved the company from bankruptcy. (See more on the Remington company in the February 2006 “Guns of the West” department.)
An expert rifleman, Remington claimed, could fire 17 shots a minute with the rolling-block rifle. But initially, only the U.S. Navy showed enough interest to place a few small sporadic orders. In late spring 1866, Samuel Remington crossed the Atlantic to demonstrate the rifle in Europe. Its superior design was quickly recognized, and many nations, including Denmark, Egypt and Mexico, began to place orders. During the 1867 Paris Exposition, the High Commission on Firearms called the Remington rolling block “the finest rifle in the world” and awarded it the silver medal (highest award) for mechanical excellence.
Meanwhile, back in the States, civilians were taking to the new Remington long arms. By the fall of 1866, cases of Remington rolling-block rifles in various calibers had found their way to Kansas, Texas, Colorado Territory and elsewhere in the West. The rifles were regularly stocked items for such Western dealers as Denver’s Carlos Gove and E.C. Meacham of St. Louis, and they were also in demand at gun shops in more out-of-the-way places. The courageous cattle drive by Nelson Story from Texas to Montana Territory in 1866 had been a great “domestic” boost for the Remington rolling block—an adventure that the Remington factory quickly capitalized on in its advertising literature.
After making money in the gold mines around Virginia City, Montana Territory, Story hired some 30 men, mostly Confederate veterans, to help him herd 3,000 Longhorns from Texas to the grasslands of Montana Territory. The cowboys nearly all had muzzleloading rifles and cap-and-ball revolvers that all took a long time to load— a drawback that could prove deadly when traveling on the Bozeman Trail through hostile Indian country. Upon reaching Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and hearing warnings that the Lakota leader Red Cloud was on the warpath, Story decided to buy a fresh shipment of Remington rifles and large quantities of ammunition. It is uncertain whether these arms were the old Remington split-breech carbines in .56-50 Spencer rimfire caliber or the newly introduced Remington rolling blocks in either .50-70 centerfire caliber or .58 Berdan rimfire caliber. Most authorities believe that the 30 long arms purchased by Story were early versions of the Remington rolling-block carbine. In any case, the cowboys used the Remingtons effectively in fighting off an Indian attack near Fort Reno (in what would become Wyoming). After leaving two wounded cowboys at the fort, Story’s party of 28 pushed on, and in late October 1866, north of Fort Kearny, they faced even greater odds—an estimated 500 Sioux warriors readying for an attack. For several hours, the cowboys kept up a steady stream of fire from the rapid firing rolling blocks and forced the Sioux to retreat. Two other Sioux attacks were also thwarted, and the cowboys completed their incredible drive with the loss of just one man. Later, the Indians suggested that the white men were protected by some “new medicine.”
Capitalizing on Story’s amazing story and other positive reports from Europe and elsewhere, the Remington company sold more than 1.5 million rolling-block rifles by the 1880s. Most were sold on the international market; however, thousands of the guns in various calibers—from .32 to the more powerful .44-77 and .50-90— were sold and put to use in the American West. Hunters, lawmen, adventurers, homesteaders and many others appreciated the strong, accurate and well-made Remington rolling block. Between 1866 and 1896, repeating rifles made great strides in the West, but many individuals still chose the powerful, reliable single-shot rolling block. In the early 1870s, Remington boasted in an advertisement that its sporting rifle was “the preferred arm for hunting purposes on the Plains; its simplicity and durability especially commending it for frontier use.” Among buffalo hunters, Remington’s heavy-barreled sporting rifle was the second most popular killing machine, behind only the Sharps.
From the 1870s until the late 1910s, the biggest fans of the Remington rolling block seemed to be in Mexico. The early Remington rolling blocks (and all other commercial American firearms) used black powder as the basic propellant for all ammunition until the smokeless, nitrocellulose-based powders became available to the U.S. civilian market in the mid-1890s. The U.S. Army had switched over to smokeless powder in 1892. While many of its single-shot, post–Civil War peers had long since been discontinued, the Remington rolling block, with its modern heat-treated steels, made the transition into the future. The first Remington rolling block introduced in the smokeless period was the Remington Model 1897. In 1899-1900, Mexico bought 14,712 of these military-style rifles and carbines for issue to its second-line army troops, as well as to federal and rural police. All were sold in the smokeless powder German 7.92mm Mauser chambering, since Mexico and most other Latin American countries had been using that cartridge since 1893.
When Pancho Villa raided Columbus, N.M., in 1916, many of his band carried the Model 1897 Remington rolling-block rifles or carbines in the contemporary 7.92mm Mauser cartridge, most of them probably stolen from the many rurales (rural police) armories in northern Mexico. As late as 1918, bandidos armed with rolling blocks were still raiding border settlements, but they found themselves outgunned by U.S. lawmen and state militiamen. Large-caliber repeating rifles had been serious competitors to all single-shot rifles as early as 1881 (with the single shots’ biggest advantage being their lower price), but now came the era of semi-automatic weapons and machine guns. In fact, as early as 1908, the Remington company had come out with a semi-automatic rifle, the Model 8. By the end of World War I, rolling blocks had been left in the dust; yet during the Depression years, hunters and miners still used them.
Back in June 1876, less than three years after the Remington company received his letter of kudos, George Armstrong Custer took his cherished rolling-block sporting rifle with octagonal barrel on what would be his last campaign. On June 25 at the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory, Colonel Custer and his immediate command were wiped out, and his Remington rolling block—probably the most famous one of all time—was lost forever from the pages of history.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.