Old Army Ordnance Inventory: Fort Laramie (1877)

The one persistent theme of our articles is that paperwork and the 19th century U.S. Army went hand-in-hand.  Previous topics explored many types of records kept during that period, including orders, boards of survey, and lists of countersigns and paroles.  Lists provide a brief glimpse into the who, what, and where of the Old Army.  Army ordnance, for example, consistently made lists. 

Historic 1876 Fort Laramie plan view showing location of the army ordnance magazine, in red, taken from "Outline Descriptions of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri, 1876". oldarmyrecords.com
This plan view, dated 1876, shows how the size and extent of the Fort Laramie. Army ordnance of all ages was stored in the magazine located along officer’s row.

In the summer of 1877, the Department of the Platte inspector general (IG) submitted a report of military posts located in what is today Wyoming.  An IG scrutinized and reported upon a wide array of subjects pertaining to the efficiency of the army.  Significant topics coming under the purview of inspectors included the condition and serviceability of supplies, arms, and equipment.

In addition to providing brief discussions on the proficiency of the garrisons, the report included lists of ordnance and ordnance stores he deemed no longer of value and “should be transferred or sold.”  The IG report for Fort Laramie revealed a list of ordnance-related items. Magazines, buildings dedicated to the storage of arms and munitions, often became attics for various types of ordnance and ordnance stores.

Post on the North Platte

Established in 1849 in a run-down fur trade post, Fort Laramie became the center piece of army presence on the northern plains.  Over its 41-year history mounted riflemen, dragoons, cavalry, and infantry, passed through the fort.  Ordnance stored in the post magazine in 1877 was as diverse  as the fort’s history. 

Historic photo, 1942, of Fort Laramie magazine courtesy of Library of Congress. oldarmyrecords.com
View of the Fort Laramie magazine in 1942 years after the post was abandoned. Interestingly, the structure appears to have modified for use as a livestock shed. HABS WYO,8-FOLA,3I–1, Library of Congress.
Captured Army Ordnance

In October 1876, the army seized several firearms and related equipment from inhabitants at Red Cloud Agency.  At the time the agency, located 78 miles east of Fort Laramie, included 5,000 to 6,000 Sioux, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne Indians.  The list of confiscated weapons included the following, which were likely stored at Fort Laramie for safety concerns:

  • 1 old style horse pistol
  • 1 Harpers Ferry Rifle
  • 11 squirrel rifles (brass mounted, some barrels cut-down)
  • 1 English musket (cut-down)
  • 1 Sharps Carbine, caliber .50 (worn with a broken stock)
  • 4 Remington pistols
  • 7 Colt pistols (navy and army)
  • 8 Spencer Carbines (1 with a broken stock)

Some, if not all, of the weapons undoubtedly saw use by warriors in clashes with the army earlier in 1876.  Battles included Powder River, Rosebud, Little Big Horn, and Slim Buttes as well as numerous skirmishes.  However, the “squirrel rifles” probably represented small-animal hunting muzzle- loading firearms.  Many guns with that designation fired small caliber, roughly the size of a pellet, lead balls.

Other items taken from Indians included three bullet molds, three holsters, four field belts with cartridges, and about 100 rounds of caliber .44 ammunition for the Henry Rifle.  Unfortunately, the list does not elaborate on whether the Indians took the field belts and holsters from soldiers. 

Antiquated Arms 

The U.S. Army entered the Civil War woefully deficient in material, including firearms, to supply its soldiers.  As a result, the army purchased and issued guns of all different calibers and ammunition types.  Following the War, the ordnance department standardized the caliber of small arms.  As a result, the army adopted caliber .45 for its revolvers, rifles, and carbines.  Twelve years after the end the Civil War, the Fort Laramie magazine still contained antiquated ordnance of no use to the Regular Army. 

  • 19 Enflield Rifles
  • 14 American and English rifles
  • 5 Spencer Carbines
  • 11 Starr Carbines
  • 12 Smith Carbines
  • 1 Sharps Carbine
  • 2 Maynard Carbines
  • 1 Joslyn Carbine
  • 2 Springfield percussion carbines
  • 2 American-contract carbines

Significantly, the IG noted that the above property was “[a]ll broken, utterly unserviceable, and mostly fit for scrap.” 

Photo of Smith carbine, saw extensive service during the Civil War and at Fort Laramie and often showed up on army ordnance inventories.
The Smith Carbine, caliber .50, saw extensive service during the Civil War and at Fort Laramie.  By 1877, however, the Regular Army no longer needed the carbine and its foil-type cartridge.  Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
Outdated Ammunition

The Fort Laramie magazine also contained outdated ammunition, representing various calibers and ignition systems.  This included, for example, over 10,000 rounds of caliber .44 linen and/or paper cartridges for cap and ball revolvers and the Colt revolving rifle.  The inventory also included over 9,300 percussion caps.  In addition, 1,000 rounds of caliber .52 Sharps ammunition and 3,000 rounds of Poultney’s brass foil cartridges (with a patent date of December 13, 1863) for the Smith Carbine made the inventory.  

Perhaps the most interesting type on ammunition on the list are 5,890 rounds of caliber .58 ball cartridges for the percussion carbine.  This ammunition likely fit the two Springfield percussion carbines listed above.  The carbines were actually pistols with an attachable shoulder stock better known as the Model 1855 Percussion Pistol-Carbine.

Photo of M1855 Springfield percussion horse-pistol often showed up on army ordnance inventories.
Interestingly, in 1877, the Fort Laramie still had M1855 Springfield pistol-carbines and associated ammunition. However, the condition of the weapons were poor compared to this example at the National Museum of American History and photographed by Ralph G. Packard.
Other Agencies Storage Facility

Fort Laramie was strategically located on main travel routes.  As a result, numerous government expeditions, military and otherwise, passed through the post.  Sometimes, those expeditions simply left government property there.  In 1877, the army ordnance list included; 22 firearms (8 Spencer Carbines and 9 Springfield muskets, caliber .50) and 7 infantry cartridge boxes, “reported belonging to [the] Interior Dept.”  The condition of the weapons used by the Interior Department is revealing.  The IG noted that the condition of the Spencers, for instance, as “worn, rusty or [with] locks out of order.”  The rifles also showed signs of heavy use, or misuse.  Many, for instance, featured broken ejectors; with at least one broken stock.  I wonder if the condition of the guns would have been as bad if the Interior Department retained ownership and responsibility for them.

A Simple, yet Revealing View of the Old Army

Lists offer a simple, albeit brief, view into what the 19th century army considered important.  Inventories provide an overview of the types and number of arms, equipment, and rations on hand or used by soldiers.  Likewise, rosters indicate duty assignments or casualties.  Lists are one of the dozens of types of documents that Old Army Records is actively digitizing and indexing.  Want to know more about the 1877 Fort Laramie ordnance inventory?  Contact us.

Sources

Army Regulations
Department of the Platte, Office of the Inspector, Letters Sent
Fort Laramie, D.T., Letters Sent

Government Publication
Outline Description of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri (1876)