Sunday, November 29, 2015



Black powder artillery is definitely a subject I know very little about, but I’ve developed an interest in this field piece. It is known simply as the Big Horn Gun and is on display at the Gallatin History Museum in Bozeman, MT. Various authors have identified it as a “6-pounder”, a “12-pounder”, a “Napoleon” and “Napoleonic” but from what little I could learn from researching it I’m inclined to say it’s “None of the above.”
The barrel, muzzle and trunnions are all completely devoid of any kind of identifying military, inspection or maker’s marks. The smoothbore barrel is cast iron and listed as weighing 650 pounds. I put dial calipers to the bore at the muzzle and came up with a measurement of 3.286-inches. The bore has no powder chamber and measures 43-1/2 inches long while the overall barrel length with the cascabel is 51-1/4 inches. The carriage is a reproduction built in 1994.
Walter Cooper was the Bozeman gun dealer and gunsmith who twice refurbished the cannon in 1874 and again in 1881, and he believed the barrel had been cast in 1770.
The media is up to its usual accuracy standards (sub-Red Ryder MOA) when it comes to the history of this piece. A 1954 newspaper article about the cannon claimed only, “…it is believed to have been used in the Mexican War.” The same newspaper, in 1973, stated, “One fact that has been established is that the Big Horn Gun was used in the Mexican War of 1846-48!” By 1994, the latest article proudly proclaimed, “General Zachary Taylor used the cannon in 1848 while fighting in the war with Mexico.”
From the bore diameter, I would think the gun a 4-pounder; during its history there were plenty of occasions for bore erosion. Call my a cynic, but I have my doubts that Old Rough & Ready Zach Taylor actually ran around Mexico using this as his personal shootin' iron. Assuming it actually was used in some capacity in the Mexican-American War, I would imagine it more likely to have been captured from the Mexican Army. They used both iron and bronze 4-pounders, while the US Army's smallest field piece was the Model 1841 bronze 6-pounder. From what little I could find out about Mexican artillery of the era, their heaviest siege artillery was of English make but the field artillery was almost entirely Spanish in origin and dated from the 1770’s.
Just for fun, here’s a brief synopsis of the gun’s known, documented history. All sources mention the Mexican-American War; most speculate the gun made its way north over the Chihuahua and Santa Fe Trails after the war. One or two articles say it may have been used to protect construction crews on the Union Pacific Railroad in 1866-69.

 In 1870 it was in Cheyenne, WY and was taken along by a private enterprise group of gold prospectors calling themselves the Big Horn Expedition. They were originally bound for the Black Hills by way of the Big Horn Mountains, but the US Army stopped them and ordered them not to proceed to the Black Hills as that area was still ceded to the Sioux by treaty. (Army commands in the Dakota Territory were nowhere near as zealous in keeping prospectors out of the Black Hills.) Half of the expedition returned to Cheyenne while the remainder turned west and prospected down the Big Horn and up the Yellowstone Rivers until they reached Bozeman and disbanded. Now universally called the Big Horn Gun, the cannon was purchased by a group of Bozeman businessmen for use in defending the town in case of a hostile Indian attack. Since no such attack ever occurred, it was mostly used for parades, political rallies and celebrating the 4th of July.
In February of 1874 another private venture calling itself the Yellowstone Wagon Road & Prospecting Expedition left Bozeman bound for what is now eastern Montana with the stated goals of blazing a wagon route to the head of navigation on the Yellowstone River and, of course, trying to find new gold strikes. Some believed their real purpose was to stir up a full-blown war with the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne so that the US government would be forced to bring in the military to “pacify” the tribes, thus opening eastern Montana up to white settlement and development.
All told, the company consisted of 149 men all armed with breech-loading or repeating rifles, 22 wagons, 28 yoke of oxen, over 200 horses and mules, and two pieces of artillery. The first was a Model 1841 12-pounder bronze mountain howitzer that Montana Territorial Governor B.F. Potts had badgered the US Army garrison at Fort Ellis into “loaning” to the expedition. The other was the Big Horn Gun. Bozeman attorney William D. Cameron, a Union artillery officer during the Civil War (possibly with the 10th New York Heavy Artillery), was appointed chief gunner. The wagons carried four months’ worth of supplies, 40,000 rounds of extra small arms ammunition, and 150 rounds for the two artillery pieces.
Standard Army-issue explosive shells and spherical case shot were obtained for the 12-pounder. Varying by source, there was either no ammunition whatsoever to be found for the Big Horn Gun or a handful of “shells” were found in Virginia City and transported to Bozeman.
William Cameron happened to be perusing the shelves in the general mercantile store in Bozeman and came across a stock of canned oysters whose tins were about eight inches long and of a perfect diameter to fit the bore of the Big Horn Gun. Cameron thought he could create some effective home-made canister rounds with the cans. The store’s majority owner, Lester S. Willson, was a former Union brevet brigadier general from New York, and he gladly donated the entire stock of oysters to the expedition.
“The boys”, as the members of the Yellowstone Wagon Road & Prospecting Expedition had come to be known, greatly enjoyed emptying the cans since oysters were a luxury item few of them could have afforded on their own. The empty tins were refilled with improvised shrapnel in the form of blacksmith scraps, nails, bolts, and even old horseshoes, chain links and broken tools cut up into small pieces, packed in sawdust. The open ends of the oyster cans had been carefully cut in a zig-zag pattern to form V-shaped tabs. The original can lids were replaced and crimped down with these tabs. Cameron also scrounged up a bolt of flue flannel cloth which he had sewn up into cylindrical bags sized to fit the Big Horn Gun’s bore and filled with pre-measured powder charges.
When test-fired, Cameron’s roll-your-own shrapnel, with its irregularly shaped bits and pieces, reportedly made strange whistling and warbling sounds as it hurtled through the air. Expedition member John “Jack” Bean later wrote, “Whenever this gun was fired every piece taken a direction of its own hollering, ‘Where is yee—where is yee—where is yee.’”
The expedition traveled approximately 600 miles along the Yellowstone, Rosebud and Little Bighorn drainages over a period of three months from February to May of 1874. In early April, the Sioux discovered the interlopers and from that point on the boys fought numerous small skirmishes and three full-blown battles with the Lakota and some Northern Cheyenne. Excellent rifle marksmanship, the two artillery pieces, and a great deal of pure dumb luck allowed the expedition to return to Bozeman having suffered only three casualties, two wounded and one dead.
Beginning during the night of April 3rd and continuing through the morning of the 4th, the boys fended off an attack by an estimated 600 Sioux warriors. One warrior rolled a sizeable cottonwood log up to an abandoned rifle pit on the edge of camp, dug a small firing port underneath it, and began slowly but accurately picking off the expedition’s horses and mules in the central corral one by one with a muzzle-loading rifle. Protected by the log and the foxhole, the boys were unable to silence this sniper with their own rifle fire.
An account published in 1883 said: “…Cameron was called on to take a shot at him with the big gun. He cut the fuse short on a shell and depressing the piece, fired. The Indian had put a large piece of dry wood in front of him, from which cover he had been firing in fancied security, and when the shell struck this it exploded and the Indian must have been torn into fragments, for no more bullets came from that place during the fight.”
Shortly afterwards: “When morning broke the heaviest firing came from an ash grove about one hundred and twenty-five yards distant. Cameron gave it two quick doses of canister and no more shots were fired from there.”
Jack Bean recalled, “As we examined the timber next morning we found it bullet holes from the top to the bottom.”
The expedition returned to Bozeman in early May of 1874 and the Big Horn Gun reverted to its role as Fourth of July noise-maker. The following June, however, yet another private expedition of Bozeman adventurers set out with four home-made wooden flat boats down the Yellowstone River and they too brought along the Big Horn Gun. Swollen by snow melt from the mountains, the river was roaring along with a 12 mph current, and the unwieldy boat carrying the cannon capsized in a set of rapids. A shore party of about two dozen mounted men had accompanied the boats. One of them was none other than Walter Cooper, who led the efforts that managed to recover the gun from the bottom of the river.
          Near the mouth of the Big Horn River, the men built a stockaded trading post they grandly called Fort Pease, mounting the Big Horn Gun atop one wall. A bit of a stalemate ensued. While the Sioux lacked the firepower to destroy the fort outright, the white men could hardly step outside of the stockade without being attacked. The area was still ceded to the tribes by treaty, so a column of US Army troops from Fort Ellis was ordered to evacuate the white men whether they wanted to go or not. The Big Horn Gun had to be left behind; the Sioux wasted no time burning the abandoned fort to the ground.
          Six years later, in 1881, Walter Cooper returned to the site and while poking through the ruins of the old fort he found the Big Horn Gun’s barrel intact, rusting in the weeds. He managed to get the gun freighted back to Bozeman where he again restored it at his store, the Armory & Gun Shop. The cannon was then placed on display near the front door with a placard that read:
“The ‘frontdoor’ is open
I have come home to rest
My voice will be heard again
When the iron horse approaches.”
Indeed, when the first passenger train of the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Bozeman on March 21, 1883, the Big Horn Gun was dusted off and fired several times in celebration from a bald hill on the east edge of town.
Cooper kept the Big Horn Gun for the rest of his life. His daughter Virginia Bunker Barnett inherited it and eventually presented it to Gallatin County in 1926. In 1936, it was placed on a concrete stand in front of the newly-completed Gallatin County Courthouse. There it resided peacefully for many years and everyone assumed the Big Horn Gun had long since fired its last shot.
On the morning of March 20, 1957, however, an explosion awoke residents, including the sheriff, on the west side of Bozeman at 12:38 AM. Upon investigation, it was found that vandals had loaded the old cannon with black powder and a tin full of rocks and scrap metal and touched it off. Shrapnel broke windows across the street in the high school and concussion cracked or broke several windows behind it in the courthouse. Shortly thereafter, the barrel of the Big Horn Gun was poured full of concrete to prevent any recurrence of the dangerous prank.
In 1994, several interested local individuals took it upon themselves to restore the Big Horn Gun to its former glory. The concrete was carefully drilled out of the bore, but bits of it still remained stuck to the metal. Hydrochloric acid was tried in an attempt to dissolve the remaining concrete, but it boiled over, scarring the top of the barrel, which had to be sanded and polished and re-browned. Western historian and author Don Weibert and his father Henry used old hand tools originally belonging to Don’s grandfather and took the better part of an entire winter to build a new carriage for the cannon. It features hand-worked iron fittings, a blond laminated cottonwood stock and tow arm and spoked, iron-rimmed white oak wagon wheels.
 Restored to its former glory and bearing a plaque in memory of the Weiberts, the Big Hole Gun now resides in the Gallatin History Museum located at 317 West Main in Bozeman, Montana.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


So, when I went into town the other day and discovered the cafe was closed because they were shipping cattle, that struck me as a perfect candidate for Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck" shtick. It got me to thinking, always a painful experience these days, about a list of similiar wisecracks that might fit under the heading of, "You might be a rural Montanan if..."

1.     The restaurant in town is closed for cattle shipping day.
2.     You tell guests coming to visit, “If we’ve had any recent rain, better put ‘er in four-wheel-drive at the bottom of the hill.”
3.     You’ve ever had an elk lick all the seed out of your bird feeder.
4.     You’ve ever swept goat poop off the porch.
5.     You know the ballistics for a 180-grain .30-06 all the way to 600 yards but can’t remember your anniversary.
6.     The subject of the ballistics for a 180-grain .30-06 actually comes up in routine, everyday conversations.
7.     Rubbing elbows with celebrities means one of the Ringling Five changed the oil in your truck.
8.     Until age 45, you always changed your own oil.
9.     You’ve ever attended a high school football game where they had to remove elk or bison dung from off the field.
10.            You laugh uproariously almost to the first commercial break before you realize the nature documentary on wolf reintroduction you're watching is not actually a brilliant satire.
11.             “Waving to the neighbors” means raising one finger of the hand on the steering wheel.
12.             You’ve ever used a clump of switch grass in lieu of toilet paper.
13.             You’ve ever removed a window screen so that you could shoot a gopher.
14.             You know that only two things can spook a horse; things that move and things that don’t.
15.             You know what burning hair smells like.
16.             You refer to the cows you see by breed.
17.             You didn’t realize you had a mirror on the passenger door of your truck until your dog died.
18.             Changing attire for a social event includes switching from an open carry .44 Magnum to a concealed carry .45 ACP.
19.             You’ve ever used duct tape to mend clothing or footwear.
20.            You’re secretly really glad cell phone coverage in your area sucks so that you never had to actually get one of those damn things.
21.             You think “Skype” is just a sound you make when you kneel on a prickly pear.
22.            You think being a vegetarian means eating only grass-fed beef.