Geronimo is an enigmatic and ambiguous character. Though he is celebrated today as a patriot, the last Apache holdout (not quite), the militant Chiricahua Apache shaman and war-band leader (never a chief) was widely reviled in his own day by his own people. He was truculent, dishonest, and a dangerous drunk.
But whatever else he may or may not have been, Geronimo was a badass fighter, tough and resilient. And he was a hell of a rifleman.
In the last desperate days of his final breakout in 1886, Geronimo and his tiny band of warriors accompanied by women and children were under pursuit from all directions. U.S. troops put pressure on them from the north, and Sonoran paramilitary bands pursued them into their Sierra Madre hideouts. The world was closing in.
On June 17, 1886, a hacendado named Patricio Valenzuela led a party of paramilitaries in pursuit of the raiding Geronimo. He surprised Geronimo in camp. One of Geronimo’s wives emptied a revolver at the attackers and they cut her down in a hail of bullets. The attackers rescued a captive Mexican woman.
Geronimo escaped on foot.
Let ace Apache Wars scholar, Edwin R. Sweeney, take up the tale:
Valenzuela faced a difficult choice. Geronimo had taken cover in the rocks of a box canyon. Perhaps slightly wounded, he had crawled into a cave with his 1873 (actually probably the 1879 modification) Springfield Rifle. Valenzuela admitted that he could not see him, even with his spyglass. He deployed his soldiers along “the two ridges encircling the canyon.” He had cautioned his men not to “expose themselves to plain sight,” but Francisco Valenzuela y Munguia got careless. Geronimo, known for his marksmanship, “brought him down with one shot and he rolled down the cliff.” The lone marksman killed two more men and wounded a third as the Mexicans attempted to approach his concealed position. At dusk, Valenzuela called off the flanking movement. The three slain men had bullet holes in their heads, testimony to the remarkable sharpshooting of Geronimo.
— Edwin R. Sweeney, “From Cochise to Geronimo” (sourced from Mexican records)
The shooting is also testimony to the quality of the 1873 Springfield Rifle, known as the Trapdoor for its hinged loading port at the breech. Geronimo preferred the full-length army rifle to the handier but less powerful and accurate carbine.
The single-shot breechloading rifle was 51.875 inches in length, with a 32.625-inch barrel. That’s very long by modern standards, but an average length for the rifles of the day, about the same as an average Hawken. The long barrel offered two advantages — full use of the ballistic capabilities of the cartridge and a long sighting plane, which is valuable when using iron sights.
The cartridge was .45-70 — a hefty 405-grain bullet pushed by 70 grains of black powder at about 1,350 feet per second. By modern standards, the ballistics are crap, throwing a heavy, flat-nosed bullet in a rainbow trajectory. But in 1886, it was a good long-range cartridge with tremendous knockdown power. The fact that it’s still in use today (though considered a short-range cartridge) is testimony enough to its viability.
Personally, I love to shoot it. One of my many regrets is selling a Marlin 1895 octagon-barrel lever gun chambered in .45-70. What was I thinking?
Back to 1886… Geronimo had access to the handier Springfield carbine and to Winchester rifles with a high rate of fire. Yet he chose to stick with the long, single-shot rifle. Given his performance in that box canyon in Sonora, he knew what he was doing.
For the desperate renegade of the Sierra Madre, choice of rifle was all about one shot-one kill.
Paul McNamee says
Heh-heh – photo caption needs 100 years taken off 😉
Interesting data, thanks.
Thanks Paul. I’ll fire the proofreader. But wait…
John Cornelius says
Few will deny it, in almost all cases, longer is better.
Lane Batot says
I had never read of this incident–very interesting! No telling how many unrecorded incidents went on that we’ll never know about! Another interesting aspect about these “renegade” Apaches and their gun collecting(for those of you who might not have read about it already)–in interviewing Apaches in later days, it was found out that they rarely bothered unarmed people when lying in ambush–not because of any particular compassion, but because they wanted and needed GUNS, so would wait for an armed person to come by and kill them to appropriate their weapons! So the people that DIDN’T carry guns to protect themselves often stood a better chance of surviving ambush!……And for John Cornelius–people often DO deny it, but they are just RONG!
Sweeney is so valuable because he is such a hard-core researcher. Lots of action went down in Mexico that previous researchers have just ignored.
John Maddox Roberts says
That stick Geronimo is holding – did he use it as a rest to steady that long-barrelled piece? Using a staff of some sort to stedy a musket or rifle was more common than most realize. Merriweather Lewis used a spontoon.
The cleaning rod under the barrel is missing. The stick doesn’t look issue, but I’m thinking it was a field-expediet replacement.
Nice article but most of your information is incorrect. His autobiography is a good read and you probably take any Mexican research with a grain of salt.Geronimo was not a drunk, in fact he stated he never had a drop of alcohol in his life. How else could he have lived to be around his 90’s in a time where the average lifespan was 40. While he is seen in this picture with the trapdoor, he also used the 1876 Winchester lever action rifle. His actual rifle is on display at w. est point along with other items of his
I trust Sweeney’s research completely. His work is exhaustive. As for Geronimo’s drinking, that is well documented and was the cause of his final outbreak when he bolted while coming in from Mexico. Like a great many of his fellow Frontier Partisans of all races Geronimo appears to have been a binge drinker. Tiswin drunks were a significant part of his culture. Refer to Geronimo biographer and eminent Western historian Robert M. Utley in True West Magazine: http://www.truewestmagazine.com/jcontent/history/history/history-features/4597-was-geronimo-a-drunk.
It’s not clear where and when Geronimo picked up the 1876 Winchester he surrendered in 1886, or whether it replaced the Trapdoor Springfield in his armament. The tagline of the above piece should probably note that choice of rifle was mostly based on access to ammunition. That was a constant tactical consideration for the fugitive Apache. Ulzana’s Raidwas conducted in part to secure supplies of ammo. One reasopn the .45-70 Springfield was popular was that it was readily found or captured. In any case, the Winchester 1876 was an excellent rifle (ask Al Sieber) firing potent cartridges and it’s entirely possible that Geronimo upgraded for extra firepower, if he had a supply of cartridges.
I thought that his rifle was the 1870 Springfield Trapdoor in 50-70 govt not an 1873 in 45-70govt ???
That’s the one he surrendered to Clum in 1877, I believe.
A man of many rifles…
Hillsboro History says
You might find this story on Geronimo of interest:
Andy limber says
I’m not sure about geronimos rifle and other items at West Point . But I did see a guarded display of his knife, belt, and if my memory serves me correctly his/ a pistol was for public viewing at his old cell block on fort sill, Oklahoma. 24 hour security cameras and secure glass insure they might remain there for some time.
Hey Andy, thanks for stopping by.
J Passmore says
Geronimo probably used several rifles in his lifetime; when he finally surrendered in 1886 he was armed with a Winchester 1876 lever action, a Colt Single Action Army, and a bowie knife. All of these are on display in museums at Fort Sill and the Military museum.
True West Magazine had a piece (maybe this month?) on a Geronimo Winchester 66 Yellow Boy, too. He was a warrior and a gun guy. I’d love to see those arms….
Thanks for stopping by the campfire.
L.F. Nirenberg says
Number 1, The Springfield rifle carried by Geronimo in the photograph taken at the surrender talks with General Crook in March 1886 is in fact an altered Model 1879. This is the only Springfield Trapdoor he was known to carry. There are 2 other photos taken at different locations of him with this same Springfield Model 1879 (Not a 1873 model). As far as the Winchester 1876 surrendered by him and sent to General Miles after Geronimo’s capture, you must research the events leading up to his surrender and the Winchester General Miles ordered be sent to him. It was never actually given by Geronimo to Miles, but was confiscated by an Army Officer and sent to General Miles. Miles was politically afraid to actually meet with Geronimo until he was in “Chains”. Miles was concerned that Geronimo might escape him as he did General Crook.
Excellent information. Appreciated.