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.