Tag Archives: featured

The Innovation that Wasn’t: U.S. Cavalry, Their Weapons, and Their Training on the Great Plains

Written for Innovation Week by Major Andrew J. Forney, US ARMY

During the winter of 1879, Army officers reported to Chicago to decide whom to blame for the disaster at the Little Bighorn. Ostensibly meeting to clear the name of Major Marcus Reno, the commander of the southern wing of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry during the battle, some of the attendees surely hoped that the Court of Inquiry would prove cathartic and help explain the battle’s tragic outcome. Custer’s defeat during the summer of 1876 had shocked a nation celebrating the centennial of its founding and espousing notions of progress and growth. How could Custer, one of the Army’s ablest tacticians, and his vaunted Seventh Cavalry have been decimated by a coalition of Plains Tribes Indians over the course of one afternoon?

By the Inquiry’s conclusion, the presiding officers had half-heartedly cleared Reno of any wrong-doing during the battle, but did place blame on two others: the dead Custer and the very-much still in use 1872 .45 caliber Springfield carbine. While one could explain away the designs of a purportedly narcissistic and egomaniacal commanding officers, the reported combat malfunctions and slow rate of fire of the Springfield carbine wreaked of bureaucratic inefficiency and government malfeasance. Not only did Custer’s troopers find themselves outnumbered by Sioux warriors, they also claimed to have been outgunned, as several survivors of the battle recounted the prevalence of Winchester repeating rifles among the Sioux. Reading the minutes of the Inquiry, many contemporary observes roundly criticized the United States government and the army for not only allowing soldiers to fight at a technological mismatch, but for also missing the opportunity to revolutionize the mounted force by arming them with faster-firing repeating rifles.

The Springfield carbine/Winchester repeating rifle debate, particularly in the wake of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, provides a very interesting case study in military innovation. Many present-day scholars still insist that the 1872 board of officers ordered by then-General of the Army William T. Sherman to choose a single small arm for use by the U.S. army missed the mark. The board chose the 1872 Springfield rifle for use in the Army, selecting it over many other experimental and retooled designs then on the market. For the cavalry branch, the board decided upon the same design, just in carbine form, the shortened stock and barrel allowing for easier management on horseback. Interestingly enough, the board had ominous connections with the disaster still four years in the future. General Alfred Terry, later commander of the Department of the Dakotas and overall in charge of the 1876 Centennial Campaign, served as chair of the board; Major Marcus Reno, later besmirched survivor of the Little Bighorn battlefield, represented the cavalry branch.

What many critics of the Springfield carbine and the board overlook is how innovative the board and its selection actually were. New technology aside, the board operated under some guiding notions. First, the War Department wanted to use a single round for all of its weapons, as opposed to the myriad of round sizes and grain weights currently in service. They also hoped to conserve ammunition. Most officers believed that soldiers fired wildly and inaccurately during combat, leading to an inefficient exhaustion of ammunition stores. Enlistment data, presented to the board, showed that uneducated industrial workers and partially-literate foreign immigrants composed the majority of the post-Civil War force. Commanders could not assume that new recruits possessed any experience with firearms. Finally, the transition to conflict on the western frontier necessitated a lengthy supply line. Moving large amounts of specialized parts over long distances in inhospitable terrain and weather to maintain the small arms of a widely scattered force daunted many on the board. The Springfield rifle, and its carbine variant, brought simplicity and durability to the army; as a single-shot breechloader, it addressed the board’s concern with ammunition expenditure, while the .45/70 metallic center fire round provided high muzzle velocity and added range. Granted, the carbine used a smaller .45/55 round, but its internal parts and design mirrored the larger model. By deciding on the Springfield, the War Department modernized and standardized the force, increasing efficiency in arming soldiers, repairing weapons, and supplying units. While not necessarily the “sexy” choice, the selection of the Springfield signaled the genesis of bureaucratic innovation in the U.S. army. The Springfield would remain as the army’s primary small arm until the eve of the Spanish-American War and the adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen Rifle.

Later small arms studies and archaeological evidence also seemed to, if not invalidate, at least weaken the pro-Winchester argument. The United States Military Academy (USMA) commissioned a series of short films during the 1990s that examined small arms throughout military history, eventually devoting an entire forty-five minute film to discuss the debate over the Springfield carbine and the Winchester repeater at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The narrator points out that the Winchester repeater models of the early 1870s suffered from a poor design, the weapon’s internal mechanisms preventing the adoption of a long and powerful round. The Winchester could reach out accurately to 120 yards at best, with little force behind the round after approximately 80 – 100 yards. The Springfield carbine could maintain a steady rate of fire and deliver well placed and effective rounds past 200 yards. The USMA analysis built off of archaeological evidence found during the 1980s and 1990s at the Little Bighorn. Surveys of the battlefield helped to discount the idea that every Sioux warrior fired a Winchester repeater during the battle. Searchers found evidence of forty-three other types of small arms used at the battle, running the gamut from old muzzle-loading muskets to the historically much-ballyhooed Winchesters. They and others advanced the proposition that about a third of all warriors possessed firearms of any kind, further evidence and first person Indian accounts showing that the majority of the Sioux, particularly early in the battle, fought with bows and arrows instead of rifles. Historians also point out the lack of range the Winchesters possessed, as well as the lack of a regimented Indian marksmanship program. Custer’s troopers would have most felt the impact of the repeaters at close range, the short distance limiting the impact of their carbines’ rate of fire and accuracy.

If one cannot fully blame the Springfield carbine for the disaster, can we thus disregard the Battle of the Little Bighorn as a learning point in terms of innovation? No, for it does illustrate a key component of technological innovation that well-meaning theorists and intellectuals often over-look: TRAINING. As stated above, the 1872 small arms selection board used as one of its guiding assumptions that the new recruit would most likely be semi-literate or a non-native English-speaker who would have little to no experience with firearms. This in mind, the board never recommended and the army never explored the idea of an institutionalized recruit training program. The army instead banked on the hope that the gaining regiment or troop would familiarize the recruit with tactical and technical information. This rarely played out in terms favorable for the new trooper. The USMA small arms analysis placed a significant portion of the blame for the Little Bighorn on a perceived lack of discipline and preparedness within Custer’s command. Several Indian accounts from the battle noted that many of the cavalry’s shots travelled over their head, even though the majority of the troopers fired from stationary positions, indicative of poor marksmanship training. At the same time, ammunition expenditure during the battle appears to have been quite high, with numerous officers voicing their concerns about the scarcity of ammunition. Strikingly, most troopers chose to fight dismounted, foregoing mobility over a sense of grounded security. More than likely, this also stemmed from a lack of training, as troopers untaught in how to fight from horseback went to ground in the hopes of placing a semblance of well-aimed fire against their foes. More often than not, this practice eventually led to the routing of dismounted forces by their more mobile and horse-bound Sioux enemy.

My recent participation in a symposium discussing the future of small arms made me realize that the problem of linking training with innovation still exists in some quarters. As we debated what the future force would carry into battle, other scholars and experts repeatedly instructed me to “not worry about training” and to instead focus on capabilities. These maxims stayed with me, particularly as I considered the half-way or deadened innovation of the early 1870s. While the War Department correctly pursued innovations in procurement and sustainment, the lack of other institutional changes prevented them from realizing the fullest potential of their technological advance. A hard look at structures, doctrine, and training prior to Custer entering the valley of the Little Bighorn might have precluded the need to lay blame during the cold Chicago winter of 1879.

MAJ Andrew J. Forney is an Army strategist serving as the American Division Counselor and teaching in the History Department of the United States Military Academy, West Point.  The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

The Foundations of Innovation (Part 1 of 5) – A Model of Innovative Change

How should we scope and understand the dynamic processes behind innovation, in order to better set ourselves up for success? Stealing from John Boyd’s formulation of “people, ideas, and hardware”, let’s add some more nuance, and consider a simple and universal model of change in social systems. We’ll start by artificially separating the world into three basic categories: groups (bureaucracy, incentives, processes, etc), ideas (doctrine, concepts, narratives, etc) and tools (tech, infrastructure, etc), and simulate them evolving and interacting with each other on a left to right timeline.


Figure 1. A General Model of Change and Innovation

Successful Innovation springs from the mutual evolution of ideas, groups, and tools, with each influencing the adaptation of the others in no particular order or precedence, but rather by building upon each other iteratively and simultaneously. Let’s look at each component in detail:

IDEAS – Ideas are both the reason groups are formed, and are the genesis of our tools. If the nature of warfare is constant, as most modern strategists advocate, it is because the basic ideas inherent to human nature (including many tacit ones) have stayed constant over the millennia. Ideas set the context for what we do with our tools, and drives the formation and modification of our groups.

TOOLS – Even as the nature of war stays constant, its character is constantly changing mostly due to advances in these. Tools are born from ideas, but they also make new ideas and group social structures possible.

GROUPS – Groups define how we blend both ideas and tools in order to cooperate and adapt to the environment collectively. The way groups are structured through norms, rules, and bureaucracy determines how easily some ideas and tools develop and flourish, and can alternately decide which ones attenuate or disappear. Groups effectively act as the “throttles” of human societal evolution through the predictability and synergy that they make possible by focusing the efforts of many individuals towards common purposes. They also provoke conflict when the identities and aspirations of separate groups come in conflict with one another in ways that cannot be reconciled through compromise or toleration.

Engineering Innovation – How Strategic Agility is Created

We create strategic agility when we actively invest in improvements in all three of the areas mentioned above, and look for new possibilities in each specific area that will help us to release the full potential of the others. We also achieve agility by exploring multiple alternatives in each area, creating the adaptive variety needed to respond to emerging challenges that we won’t be able to fully anticipate. Then when the future presents itself, we have invested in the ideas, groups, and tools we need to cope. To innovate successfully, you have to innovate in all three areas, not just the most familiar or tangible ones.

But there’s a catch…

smooth adaptation

What we imagine happens – We like to think that there’s a smooth interchange between innovations in the three areas, that Moore’s law will grant us continuous returns in speed and power, that progress will continue upwards on a steady slope, and that the exchange between the three areas will keep pace with each other.


realistic adaptation


What really happens – In truth, we often see advances in one area without a commensurate advance in the others, creating imbalances that often lead to unpredictable and undesirable results. In many ways we’ve designed “Tools 3.0”, but are still stuck with the old ways of thinking, and the old bureaucratic structures.







We will talk about how and why this happens this week on DEF and the Bridge, and what we can do to maintain a healthy balance between innovations in all three areas.


Innovation is optional, but change is not. As Williamson Murray admonishes us in Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change):

It is clear that we live in an era of increasingly rapid technological change. The historical lesson is equally clear: US military forces are going to have to place increasing emphasis on realistic innovation in peacetime and swift adaptation in combat. This will require leaders who understand war and its reality as well as the implications of technological change. Imagination and intellectual qualities will be as important as the specific technical and tactical details of war making. The great challenge here is how to inculcate those qualities widely in the officer corps.

We’ll use our examination of the three components of the innovation model to help determine what those qualities are, and how we can promote them within our own organizations, even as junior members in the corporate process.

Bottom line: Those who fail to innovate will be left in the dust kicked up by those who do. It’s our duty to be successful innovators – and advocates for the constructs and concepts that lead to successful innovation in groups – lest we forfeit the legacy of freedom and self-determination that those who came before us fought, bled, and died for. You can’t just choose your favorite part of the model and expect that your problems will be solved – if you’re not innovating in all three areas simultaneously, you’re setting yourself up for even more unpredictability, unanticipated systemic consequences and vulnerabilities, expensive projects with little return on investment, and an increased possibility of a catastrophic failure in some situations.

Next in the series: We’ll continue with a deep dive into each component of the model, starting with Ideas.

Innovation Week Kickoff

To mark the success of the first annual Defense Entrepreneurs Forum last year, and to set the stage for DEF 2.0 happening this week in Chicago, The Bridge and CIMSEC have come together to offer a second joint series of posts, this time on the topic of innovation. And this discussion couldn’t come at a more timely moment for many of our followers, given that…

  • Our era of protracted conflict shows no sign of abating, and the very same time that traditional great power rivalries continue to play themselves out.
  • Our current plans for force structure and employment are unsustainable given our internal fiscal situation, and may not be relevant given our anticipated threats even if we can resource them
  • Changes in technology are driving changes in the way we socialize, and are also disrupting traditional balances of power in ways that we cannot yet grasp or adequately anticipate

Why Innovation?

But putting all that aside, why do we innovate, and why do so many of us seem to actually embrace the process of seeking change, even if not all of us do so eagerly?

Because it is literally in our nature to do so.

The story of our ascendance on the planet earth, and our explorations beyond it, despite our otherwise low position on the natural food chain, springs from our ability to innovate new and creative ways to cope with our external environment. Our brains are wired to find satisfaction in making new connections, and seeing existing things in new ways, which has led to our ability to survive in even the most hostile environments throughout history, even with relatively simple technologies.

Because innovation is the key to adaptation in hostile and competitive environments if you want to have a say in your own destiny.

Successful survival in any sense comes from the ability to adapt – to adequately match your response to the challenges that the environment presents, challenges you can never perfectly predict in advance, or sense in the present. The best way to hedge against this uncertainty is to have a variety of potential responses ready, or to design in the capability to rapidly develop adequate ones when a possible threat becomes an actual one. In an organizational sense, we can characterize this organizational ability to adapt as having strategic agility. But agility does not simply mean having many different types of technology available to you – it means being adaptive along the entire process of change within social systems.

Because we have no choice.

The world is constantly changing around us, and we must be adaptive even just to keep the things we already have. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that our current plans and methods are not keeping pace with the rates of change either internally or externally, and our only way out of our current death spirals will be successful innovation.

What are our challenges to successful innovation?

In his book Military Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change), Williamson Murray summarizes the primary challenges that make successful adaptation and innovation difficult:

The greatest difficulty clearly has to do with the fundamental nature of war itself. Second, human nature – especially when the egos of leaders at the highest levels become involved – places considerable difficulties in the path of understanding the tactical and operational issues military organizations confront. Without that understanding, adaptation to the actual conditions of conflict simply cannot take place, or even worse, will follow the wrong path.

Making change more difficult is the harsh fact that incompetence, rather than competence, lies at the heart of man’s character. Inevitably, a few individuals possess the clarity of vision, the self-discipline, the imagination, and the toughness of mind to understand the daunting problems that war creates. Moreover, effective performance at one level of war rarely guarantees success at the next level…That is why there have been so few great captains in military history…The few competent can see the forest and the wider landscape of war; most, however, see only the details and the irrelevant.

Exacerbating the difficulties that military institutions face is the fact that, more often than not, they reach decisions by corporate agreement. And there are few institutions in human life more dysfunctional in reaching clear, distinct, purposeful direction than committees.

Finally, and perhaps most daunting, is the fact that war inevitably involves issues at the political, strategic, operational, and tactical levels. That spread of perspective invariably presents contradictory choices to military leaders. Moreover, the qualities that provide for excellence at one level may prevent adaptation at the other levels. “

If Murray is correct, it’s clear that the challenge of innovation goes far beyond investments in the right tools and technology – it requires deliberate engagement along the entire process of change within military societies, to include how the groups that use the technology are formed, and how they think.

How We’ll Talk About Innovation in this Series

  • We’ll provide a five part series, “The Foundations of Innovation”, to introduce and discuss a three part model of innovation and change based around the mutual evolutions of “Ideas, Groups, and Tools”,
  • We’ll provide examples of innovative ways to look at some the challenges discussed in the “Foundations” series
  • We’ll provide some practical advice from those actively pushing for innovation
  • Practicing what we preach, we’ll leave open space in the format for creative additions before, during, and after DEF

Recommended Reading

The essays in this series will provide evidence from three noteworthy case studies on military innovation, and one brilliant gem written by a self-described “corporate fool”.

The first is Elting Elmore Morison’s Men, Machines, and Modern Times, complied in 1966.


Morison was an author of non-fiction books, an essayist, a United States historian of technology, a military biographer, an MIT professor emeritus, and was notably the conceiver and founder of MIT’s interdisciplinary program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), through which MIT faculty and students focus on the ways in which scientific, technological and social factors interact. During World War II he served in the Naval Reserve.


The Second is Williamson Murray’s 2011 book Military Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change).


Murray has taught at the United States Air War College, the United States Military Academy, and the Naval War College. According to the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, he “also served as a Secretary of the Navy Fellow at the Navy War College, the Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, the Matthew C. Horner Professor of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University, the Charles Lindbergh Chair at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, and the Harold K. Johnson Professor of Military History at the Army War College”. He previously served in the US Air Force, including a tour in SE Asia with the 314th Tactical Air Wing (C-130s).


The third is Stephen Peter Rosen’s 1994 book, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military.


Stephen Peter Rosen is Harvard College Professor and Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University, was a professor in the strategy department at Naval War College, and was director of political-military affairs at the National Security Council in the Reagan Administration.

The fourth is Steven Johnson’s 2011 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

good ideas

Steven Johnson is a contributing editor to Wired, he writes regularly for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and many other periodicals. He will also be the host of the upcoming BBC and PBS series,


Johnson is also the host of the television series How We Got To Now, a documentary on the history of innovation currently airing on BBC and PBS.


And finally, Gordon MacKenzie’s 1998 book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.


Gordon MacKenzie was an artist and card designer for Hallmark Corporation who established Hallmark’s Humor Workshop, and eventually created his own position as a “self styled corporate holy man” and “loyal subversive” for Hallmark with the self-created job title of “Creative Paradox”, who served as the the “liaison between the chaos of creativity and the discipline of business”.


Enjoy the series, and we hope to see you at DEF 2.0!



Sea Control 57 – Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China

seacontrol2Discussing the Hong Kong protests and Taiwan’s recent statements in regard to them and China with Dean Cheng… and some India thrown in at the end.


DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 57- Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China

Considering leaving a comment and five-star rating on Itunes, Stitcher Stream Radio, etc… Remember to subscribe and recommend us to your friends!

Note: Thanks to Sam LaGrone for the kickin’ new tunes.