Subject: buffalo hunter, army scout
Culture: frontier American
Setting: buffalo trade, Great Plains 1868-1889
Context (Event Photos, Period Sources, Secondary Sources)
* Laycock 1996 p33
"As beaver trapping died out, the occasional trapper turned to selling buffalo robes. By the hundreds of thousands, the shaggy, black hides were baled to wait beside the railroads. In the 1880s, the herds were so nearly gone that the hide business was history. Bleaching bones remained the only physical evidence that these plains once held buffalo numbering in the millions. Then, a market opened up for the bones as well and destitute homesteaders, along with their wives and children, scoured the grasslands, collecting cartloads of buffalo bones. Box cars moved the bones to eastern factories where they were converted to fetilizer, glue, and charcoal, or the boneblack used them in refining sugar."
* Hunt 2005 p7
"Few activities in the history of America had a more rapid or lasting effect on the future of the nation than the slaughter of the American buffalo. Between 1868 and 1881 large-scale commercial buffalo hunting killed between twenty and thirty-one million creatures and by the end of the 1880s there were fewer than six hundred buffalo left in existence. Throughout this period, the Great Plains of the North America [SIC] became a major destination for those seeking their fortunes. The destruction of the buffalo allowed great cattle herds to take their place. It also meant that the fate of the Plains Indians, now relegated to reservations, was confirmed.
"The men, young and bold, gave little thought to these epic changes. They came to the Great Plains seeking to secure their future and gave little thought of the consequences of their actions beyond the hope for cash in their pockets and a stake in life. They risked much, but for many the rewards were great."
* Selcer 1991 p35
"[B]uffalo hunters who came in off the West Texas plains ... were just as tough, independent-minded, and uncivilized as the cowboys, if not more so. Only in terms of sheer numbers and in the popular fancy do the buffalo hunters take a back seat to the cowboys."
* Boddington ed. 1981 p68 (Jim Earle, "Billy Dixon and the mile long shot" p66-75)
"The veteran buffalo hunters were a hardy breed, skilled in the ways of the plains and especially skilled in the use of their buffalo guns. The real heyday of the buffalo hunter lasted less than 15 years, from the first big Kansas season early in the 1870's to the destruction of the Montana herd in 1884. Even so, buffalo hunting was big business for that brief period, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 hunters in the field at one time.
"In the beginning muzzle-loading rifles were used with good effect, and, with the advent of cartridge arms and the availability of military rifles, Springfield trap-door rifles in .50-70 caliber were very popular. However, the increasing numbers of buffalo hunters demanded the best rifles they could buy, and the specialized rifle known as the 'buffalo gun' came into being. Such a rifle was long-barreled and heavy, often weighing 15 pounds or more. The weight aided steady shooting, and the heavy barrel enabled long shooting sessions without overheating. The buffalo hunter demanded the utmost in accuracy and power to cleanly drop a big bull bison at several hundred yards.
"Remingtons, Winchesters, Spencers, and numerous other rifles saw use on the plains, but the gun that is known to this day as the buffalo gun was the single-shot Sharps rifle. As a breechloading rifle or carbine using conical bullets and paper or linen cartridges, the Sharps had gained fame during the Civil War and was the choice of the elite Berdan's Sharpshooters. The basic design, with a falling breechblock operated by a triggerguard/finger lever and a massive external hammer, was easily modified to self-contained brass cartridges. In the early 1870's the Sharps Rifle Company offered a number of strong, well-made cartridge rifles, some designed specifically for the buffalo trade. Calibers included .45-70, .45-100, .50-70, and .50-90. The former set of digits is the caliber designation, in hundredths of an inch; the second figure is the powder charge in grains. The hunters gradually demanded more and more power as the herds became more difficult to approach, and towards the end of the massive .45-120 and .50-140 cartridges saw some use. But the legendary 'Big Fifty' Sharps was the .50-90 cartridge, using a 21/2-inch case, 90 grains of black powder, and hand molded bullets weighing up to 550 grains.
"Though the slaughter of the American bison is a black chapter in American history, the deadly skill of the buffalo hunter with his Sharps rifle is still the stuff legends are made of."
* Chapel 1961 p272
"His indispensable aid and companion was his gun, and he often developed such an affection for it that he gave it pet names -- "Old Leadslinger" or "Pizen-thrower." It had to be a powerful, long-range rifle capable of great shock power and penetration; it was usually a single-shot breech-loader, which was more accurate, easier to maintain, and less subject to mechanical failure than a repeater. A good rifleman could deliver two shots a minute. He used cartridge ammunition; sparing of shells, he would save them and reload them with ball and powder."
* Laycock 1996 p32-33
"Among the favorite guns used by these hunters were the Remington 40/90, the 'Buffalo' Sharps 40/120/550, which loaded with 120 grains of powder gave the 550-gram projectile a muzzle energy of around twenty-three hundred pounds, and the 50 caliber Sharps made especially for killing buffalo."