Spencer's Repeaters in the Civil War

by A.M.Beck

Getting Them Built

The Spencer repeater was one of the two most advanced firearms to see service in the War for Southern Independence, the other being the Henry.  In spite of the fact that the mechanism was patented just before the war, the first general issue of these weapons was not until January 1863.  The new company had many hurdles to clear before production could begin.  The repeaters were favorably tested by both the Army and Navy ordinance departments in 1861 and '62.  However, by the time the prototype Spencers were being circulated within the military, the War Department already had outstanding orders for 15 or 20 different patterns of breech loading arms.  Many of them had been equally favorably tested, and most of the companies that presented them had little or nothing in the way of production facilities.  Certainly not what was required to fulfill a large government contract.  In addition, there were many partisans for various patent weapons within both federal and state ordinance departments.  Some officers were actually paid under the table by companies, others sincerely believed in the guns they championed.  The people at the War Department had an awful time trying to figure out which weapons were indeed fit for service, and who was in a position to deliver on a very big order for high precision, interchangeable parts guns.

Faced with such a daunting task, the War Department pretty much threw up its collective hands and declared that no new patent weapons would be ordered.  In such a climate, it is not very hard to understand why Spencer met so much resistance to the purchase of his new repeaters.  This is especially true when one realizes that the people in the War Department were essentially bean counters.  They had never seen such a weapon and didn't have a clue as to its tactical implications. They did however understand that it was very heavy, over 10 pounds loaded, and it used special ammunition not available through regular ordinance channels.  What was worse was the price.  When first quality muskets could be had from any one of a dozen contractors for $18, the price for Spencer's repeaters was $40, $43 for the Navy version with saber bayonet.

The Spencer company's first federal contract made an end run around this problem.  It was directly from the Navy Department.  This was obtained not so much because of the obvious superiority of the Spencer system, but rather the fact that one of the directors of the new company, Charles Cheney, was the Boston neighbor and friend of Gideon Wells, the Secretary of the Navy1.  Received in June of 1861, this contract was for only 700 rifles.

When this order was received, the company existed mainly on paper.  The guns that were being circulated through the military were hand-made tool room specials, constructed by Christopher Spencer and his gunsmith friend, Luke Wheelock.  Their armory was the machine shop of the Cheney brother's silk mill, in Boston.2

Now that they had an order, the company desperately needed an armory.  Seven hundred guns was not enough to start such a business, but it was decided to go ahead anyway.  The enterprise was turning into a very big risk.  Hoping for more and bigger orders, the second floor of the Chickering Pianoforte building was rented in Boston.  Then it was discovered that equipment and machinery could not be procured, not to mention skilled machinists.  With the war in full swing, it was impossible to obtain speedy delivery on any sort of device that could be used to make war material. Everyone that was at all politically connected, especially the cronies of Simon Cameron, Lincoln's less than honest first Secretary of War, quickly obtained government contracts and desperately needed the equipment to fulfill them.  The penalties for default on these contracts were severe.

In December of 1861, The first big order came in.  Based on tests ordered by General George McClellen that November, the army ordered 10,000 Spencer rifles.  The first delivery of 500 was to be in three months, an impossibly short time.3

Meanwhile, one potentially large sale was lost.  Spencer well understood that certain officers held great influence in Washington.  One officer that he wanted particularly to impress was Hiram Berdan, of the First and Second Sharpshooters.  As the Army order was being placed in December, Berdan received a sample rifle, quite possibly the same one just tested by McClellen's committee. Things started off well, but while Berdan was firing the repeater, a cartridge rim burst, blowing hot gas in the famous marksman's face.  Luckily, no permanent damage was done, but Berdan ordered Sharps rifles instead.4

Less than a month after receipt of the Army order, the contract situation got even worse.  Due to the sorry state of affairs at the War Department, Lincoln replaced Cameron with a no-nonsense lawyer, Edwin Stanton.  One of the new secretary's first moves was to call for all outstanding contracts, with the idea of cleaning house.5  The state of the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was not good.  There was no denying that the first deliveries would be several months late.  The way the Army contract was written, the War Department could cancel the whole lot.  The newly formed Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was facing the very real threat of default.

The Spencer situation was examined in May of 1862.  Since the company was at that point 2500 rifles behind, the total deliveries for March, April and May, the quantity was reduced to 7500 and the Army order allowed to stand.  This was about the best that could be hoped for.  Shortly afterward, this contract was renegotiated to reflect the reduced number.  The initial delivery date was moved back to even further, to July.6  Luckily, the Navy contract was not affected by the upheaval at the War Department.  It was however, just as late.

Christopher Spencer excused himself from the business problems.  He held no financial interest in the company that bore his name and did not take an active part in its day-to-day operation.  In fact, he sold his patent rights to the company for a royalty of $1.00 per gun sold.7  This is not to say that he did not work hard to make the enterprise a success.  There were plenty of technical considerations to keep him busy at the new armory.  He designed most of the specialized machinery to make his guns, and then had the machinery built.

Things proceeded slowly in the Chickering building on Tremont street.  The machinery began to arrive and skilled workmen were hired.  By late summer gun parts were being produced.  The Navy rifles were first to be built.  Some key equipment had still not been delivered so Spencer called on his friend, R. S. Lawrence, of the Sharps company, for help.  Sharps barrels and lock parts sped-up production. Christopher Spencer had used Sharps parts in his prototypes and they again appeared in the early Navy rifles.8

The Navy's repeaters were submitted for inspection on December 4th of 1862 and the first 600 were received at the Charlestown (Boston) Navy Yard in February of 1863.9  In the meantime, the first 500 Army rifles were delivered on the last day of 1862, six months late.10  These Army rifles were actually the first to be issued, The 5th Michigan Cavalry issued 500 about January 5th, 1863. 11

By March of 1863, things were under control in Boston.  With deliveries catching up and no new orders, Spencer set off to tour the Mississippi flotilla and the federal armies in the west to demonstrate his repeater and drum up some business.  This trip made a very favorable impression within the armies, but its direct result was only one order.  That came from Col. John T. Wilder's brigade of mounted infantry, for 1400 rifles.  This order presented a serious problem.  It did not come through the Ordinance Department.  The men of the brigade pledged their government pay and Wilder, a very successful businessman himself, cosigned the note.  This meant that the guns would not be paid for on delivery but rather as the men received their pay.  Given the state of the paymasters department at the time, this presented a formidable risk.  Spencer crossed his fingers and took the order.12  This order was later transferred to the Ordinance Department and Wilder got his guns through the regular issue.

About the same time, the State of Massachusetts was having trouble with federal supply of its State Troops.  They decided to solve this problem themselves and convened a board to select arms for the State Militia.  This board found the Spencer repeater the best of the 25 arms submitted.  It didn't hurt that the company was located in Boston.  In May of 1863, the state ordered 2000 rifles.13

Undoubtedly the most famous sales call made by Christopher Spencer was the one to President Lincoln in August of 1863.  Mr. Lincoln had previously tried two different Spencer rifles supplied by the Navy.  The first probably had a rusty magazine tube and could not be loaded.  In firing the second, the president experienced a double feed, which locked up the gun and required several minutes to clear.  This sort of failure is easy to get with the Spencer action, if the lever is not operated smoothly.  Due to this experience, the President personally had stopped the issue of Spencer rifles to some units.  It was this turn of events that inspired Mr. Spencer's visit.  The meeting apparently went well.  Spencer was able to explain the problems and their solutions satisfactorily.  Then they adjourned, meeting the next evening near the Washington monument, where an hour was spent firing the rifle Spencer had brought.  The President seemed quite pleased with the gun.  He never again stopped its issue, although he also did not personally intervene to increase orders.14

Up to July of 1863, only rifles had been built.  Most of these had been issued to cavalry and mounted infantry.  As popular as they were, there was an almost immediate call for carbines.  The rifles were too heavy and cumbersome for mounted service.  Also, not being equipped with a sling ring, there was a very great danger of loosing the weapon if it was dropped, leaving the unfortunate trooper unarmed.

Spencer had originally built rifles because the Army refused to raise state cavalry regiments early in the war.  The belief in Washington was that the conflict would be over in less than the two years required to properly train a cavalry regiment.  Now that Federal volunteer cavalry was becoming effective (strangely enough, two years into the war), the need for first class carbines was great.

In June of 1863, as the last of the Army's 7500 rifles were being delivered, the Spencer company approached the War Department with a proposal to deliver carbines.  This was quickly accepted and led to a contract for 11,000 of the short guns.  Initial delivery was to begin in August and be complete before the end of the year.  The price was set at $25.

As usual, deliveries were late, but much less than before.  The first carbines were accepted on October 3rd, 1863.  Seven thousand were turned over to the Army by year's end.  This time the order was not reduced for late deliveries.  The worth of the repeaters was finally being appreciated.  Before the contract was completed, the quantity was increased to 34,500.15

The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was finally beginning to thrive.  There would be more problems, but the repeating weapon for the average trooper was finally beginning to be appreciated. The American Civil War was making the transition from the wars of the past to the wars of the future.  In part this was due to the efforts of a single Yankee mechanical genius.

In all, during the War for Southern Independence, the Spencer company delivered 12,472 rifles, including 1003 for the Navy as well as Wilder's and the Massachusetts guns, both of which were diverted to the Federal Ordinance Department.  The number of M1860 carbines made by Spencer eventually totaled 45,785.  An additional 30,502 M1865 carbines were made by the Burnside company, but deliveries started just at the end of the war, so none were actually in service before the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered.  There were a few thousand civilian sales in addition to government deliveries.  Many troops took advantage of a government offer and purchased their Spencers when they mustered out at the close of the war.

After the war, the company could not compete with its own surplus, at the time being sold off by the government.  They introduced improved models, but the improvements were subtle.  Small civilian, state and foreign orders would not sustain the company, neither would refinishing and spare parts work.  Finally, in 1869, the armory closed and was bought by the Fogerty Rifle Company, who in turn were purchased by Winchester, in a move to lessen competition.16

Christopher Spencer went on to patent the first automatic screw manufacturing machine.  This made possible the production of millions of identical threaded fasteners, which made modern standardized hardware practical.  He helped start several companies, the most successful being the Billings and Spencer Company, which pioneered safe boiler designs.  He eventually acquired 42 patents.  Before his death in 1922, and at the advanced age of 89, he even took flying lessons.


  1. Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAuley, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, P.P. 93-9

  2. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 16,253.

  3. Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAuley, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, Pg. 97

  4. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 52

  5. Civil War Guns, William Edwards, The Stackpole Co. 1962, P.P. 147,148

  6. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 37,38

  7. Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAuley, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, P. 97

  8. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 42,43

  9. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 50

  10. Civil War Guns, William Edwards, The Stackpole Co. 1962, Pg. 149

  11. Man at Arms, Vol. 19 No. 5, Sept/Oct. '97 "Those Damned Michigan Spencers", Wiley Sword, P.P. 23, 37

  12. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 25,45

  13. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 52

  14. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 56-58

  15. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 66,67

  16. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 155


In the Field

Part One presented the rather considerable obstacles faced by the Spencer Rifle Company in getting orders and starting production.  This is only part of the story.  The new repeater's field service deserves a look as well.  There were other repeaters in use by mid 1863, notably Colt's revolving rifle and Henry's magazine rifle.  The latter began the long line of lever action Winchesters that continues to this day.  However, Spencer's weapons were the first repeaters to see action in significant numbers.  They were specifically designed to meet the needs of the military.  The Henry rifle was a sporting arm.  It fired an under powered 44 caliber round and was really too delicate for use in the field.  The Colt was designed as a military rifle, but it was excessively difficult to load, especially in battle.  Spencer's design solved the problems of these other repeaters.  When the Boston repeaters were issued, troops lucky enough to get them were unreserved in their praise.  Of the few complaints only one was well justified.  It was that they were heavy, especially the rifles.  After the first battle, however, this comment was seldom heard again.

The first recorded use of a Spencer repeater in combat is by Sergeant Francis Lombard of the 1st Mass. Cavalry.  The occasion was a skirmish near Cumberland, Maryland on October 16th of 1862, just after the great battle at Sharpsburg, Md.  He was carrying a prototype given to him by Christopher Spencer, although the record is sketchy on the exact type.  Unfortunately, Lombard was killed at New Hope Church, outside of Richmond Va., in November of 1863.  The details of his repeater and its use are now lost to history. (1)

It is safe to assume that Lombard's was not the only pre-production Spencer to have seen combat.  It definitely was not the only one in the field.  Colonel T. E. Chickering, of the 41st Mass. and almost certainly of the family that owned Spencer's armory, wrote the company on January 13, 1863, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  He claimed that his Spencer carbine had out shot the unit's pickets in an impromptu target match.  Supposedly, the guards were armed with muskets.(2)  Production Spencer carbines were not to be delivered for another ten months.

It is difficult to pinpoint just when the first government purchased Spencers arrived in the field. Ordinance Department records show that the initial delivery on the Army contract took place on the last day of December, 1862.  This preceded the Navy's initial delivery on February 3rd, 1863, even though the Navy order was earlier by several months.  Both of these dates are almost certainly later than the actual deliveries.  The services did not consider an item delivered until the certificates of inspection and acceptance were processed through the Ordinance Department in Washington.  This took an unknown, but rather long time.  Dated unit returns exist showing Spencer serial numbers in the field that are considerably higher than the quantity supposedly on hand at that time. (3)

Army units began to receive their Spencer rifles in January of 1863.  The 5th and 6th Michigan cavalry were probably the first units in the Federal Army to get repeaters.  The 5th, 6th and 7th Independent Ohio Sharpshooters in the Army of the Cumberland were also early recipients.  The Navy issued their first deliveries to ships in the Mississippi flotilla and the east coast blockading fleet at about the same time.  Colonel John Wilder's Lightning Brigade, a mounted infantry unit in the Army of the Cumberland was another early recipient of Spencer rifles.  Interestingly, about a third of the army's rearmed units were cavalry.  In a tacit admission of the increasing use of cavalry as mounted infantry, several mounted companies turned in handy single shot carbines for awkward (at least on horseback) repeating rifles. (4)

The first use of issued Spencers is also hard to determine with certainty.  Among the first operations to include them were naval landings along the Carolina coast in early 1863.  These were not strongly opposed and no major battles developed.  The Mississippi flotilla used their Spencers early against the numerous bushwhackers who had taken to hiding in the dense cover along rivers and sniping at passing Federal boats.  Again, these were nothing like pitched battles.

Colonel John Wilder was certainly among the first field commanders to use repeaters effectively on the battlefield.  Wilder's Lightning Brigade probably saved the battle of Hoovers Gap, Tennessee, on June 24th '63.  They filled and held the center of a thin and under supported Federal line and held against a vastly superior Confederate force.  Braxton Bragg's Confederates believed that a fresh corps was coming up, so great was the volume of fire put out by the Lightning Brigade.  The southerners fell back to reinforce and reorganize.  Bragg's troops then counter-attacked but could not carry the field.  When the Confederates finally yielded, the Federals had shot away almost their entire ammunition supply of 142 rounds per man.  This was the first major battle for the new repeaters.  It was also the first of many instances where the fire power of Spencers in the hands of cool veteran troops staved off defeat.(5)  Interestingly, the Confederate losses were not unusually high, 19 killed and 126 wounded out of an entire brigade.

With the introduction of substantial numbers of repeaters to front line units, a change in the style of command, and the types of commanders rapidly took place.  Officers with unusually large amounts of bravado (and possibly disregard for the welfare of their troops) began to succeed using tactics that heretofore would have been near suicidal.  This change did not find its way up the chain of command, though.  Overall battle tactics remained pretty much as they had been at the outbreak of the war.  It is interesting to note that Spencer armed companies, with a few notable exceptions, were not singled out as skirmishers or reserves to be thrown forward at critical points.

Possibly the best example of a commander whose career was made by Christopher Spencer's guns is George A. Custer.  At the battle of Brandy Station, in June of 1863, Colonel Custer participated in one of his first charges.  It passed over a mile up Fleetwood hill.  Beyond support and mounted on fast tiring horses, the operation quickly degenerated into a stampede with great loss.  A week later at the battle of Aldie, he again participated in one of the grand charges that would become his trademark. The Confederate center was the point of attack.  Although this operation covered less distance, it still lacked support and his troops took a terrible pounding. (6)

There had been no Spencer armed troops in either battle.  However, after Aldie, the Spencer armed 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry were taken from picket duty in the defenses of Washington and assigned to Custer's brigade.

On July 3rd, 1863, Irvin Gregg's Cavalry Corps once again met Jeb Stuart's Confederate troopers. The venue was just east of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The Confederates were attempting to flank the Federal army in support of Pickett's ill fated charge.  This time the ambitious Michigan commander put together a grand cavalry spectacle.  The difference was that the Michigan troopers were dismounted as skirmishers in support of Custer's mounted attack.  The southern cavalry was finally stopped by a bold federal charge.  That evening, Lieutenant Farnsworth, who was every bit as bold as Custer, was killed in a similar charge against the south end of the Confederate line.  None of his troops had Spencers, and none were dismounted in support.  These sorts of tactics relied heavily on the firepower of repeaters for any hope of success.(7)  In fact, Custer remarked in a letter to the Spencer company that, once his entire command had been armed with repeaters, he would not hesitate to engage the enemy when outnumbered almost two to one. (8)

As one can readily imagine, word of such spectacular results against great odds spread like wildfire through the army.  Every commander tried to requisition the new rifles for his troops.  Custer pulled every political string he could find to have his entire brigade armed with Spencers.  The brass in Washington however, remained cool to the idea of equipping the whole army with $40 repeaters, especially when they already had over a million $18 muskets on order.  The limited supply of rifles was doled out to units with especially good records of front line service.  The prized repeaters were even issued as rewards to individual soldiers for conspicuous valor.

By the summer of 1863, the Spencer company was finishing up the Army' s 7500 rifle order with no more federal contracts on the way.  In spite of the clumsiness of rifles when used on horseback, the Spencer lever action had obvious advantages for mounted troopers.  To keep the company going, the Ordinance Department was offered a deal for 22 inch barrel carbines.  The short guns were much easier to make, so the price could be cut to less than that of the most accepted carbine in the army, the Sharps.  Sharps' single shot carbine was being purchased at $28.50 when Spencer offered repeaters for $25.00.(9)  Washington was finally beginning to grasp the advantage of repeaters, especially at $25.00.  They quickly accepted the deal.  The first repeating carbine was not delivered until October of 1863.

When the short guns appeared, they were an immediate success. (Although the 2nd Ohio did complain that the new Spencers were excessively heavy and wanted their Burnsides back. (10))  The first units to get the new carbines were those with outstanding service records.  Many of these turned in Spencer rifles.

Front line units in the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac were at t he top of the priority list for repeating carbines, but commands in the west also received them.  By the time General Wilson undertook his famous raid through the deep south, there were enough repeaters in the Army of the Tennessee that he could equip the entire party with them.  He did this by calling in all Spencers from units not participating and issuing single shot weapons to them.  This raid was immortalized by John Wayne in the movie--The Horse Soldiers--but without the Spencers Wilson had found indispensable.

As with all other Federal weapons, Spencers were soon captured by the South and put to use against their former owners.  The new guns were a great success, especially along the boarder, where Spencer rimfire ammunition was fairly easy to come by.  Federal supply lines proved a ready source. These were more or less constantly raided by Confederate cavalry right up to the end of the war.  The first reported Confederate use of a Spencer was by Sergeant W.O. Johnson, Co. C of the 49th Va. Infantry on July 3rd, 1863.  He used one of the repeaters in fighting around Culps Hill at the battle of Gettysburg.(12)  How an infantry sergeant managed to capture a Spencer so quickly, and with an apparently adequate supply of ammunition, is a mystery.  In the east they had been issued only to the 5th and 6th Michigan cavalry.  Up to that date, there had been no major engagements between northern cavalry and southern infantry in the Gettysburg campaign.  Unfortunately for the Confederates, copper was in such short supply by 1863 that the south was never able to provide domestically manufactured cartridges.  Once captured ammunition was exhausted, the guns were sent to the nearest depot for storage.  It was always hoped that a supply of cartridges could be obtained by some unknown means, then repeaters would be issued again to the Confederate mounted service.  Thousands of the best weapons to be used in the conflict waited out the war as mechanical POWs.(11)  Several cavalry units in the Confederate army were at least partially equipped with Spencer repeaters.  The 43rd Va. Cavalry had an unusually good supply of the best federal arms.  The unit operated on the boarder and their commander, John Mosby, specialized in appropriating Yankee goods for Southern service.  Beginning in 1864, there were always several troopers armed with Spencers in the ranks, even thought Mosby himself preferred revolving pistols for raiding operations. Returns of the 43rd for November of 1864 show 167 Spencer rifles and carbines on hand.(13)  Terry's Texas Rangers also appear to have been fairly well equipped with them by late 1864.

Probably the greatest tribute to Christopher Spencer's repeaters was given by the men that had carried them.  At the end of the war, many used their final pay to purchase the very guns they had carried.  General Edwards of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry wrote to the Ordinance Department in June 1865:

"Our regiment was armed with the Spencer rifle on the 14th day of July, 1864, and we first had the opportunity of testing them in an engagement at Summit Point (Wes t) Virginia."......" At whatever position we have ever been placed, we have always found them to be our best and truest friend.  At Sailors Creek, Virginia, April 6th 1865, we came off victorious over Custis Lee's brigade, that had enveloped us so closely on three sides that the bayonet was freely used." "The rifles now mostly are property of the men, and show the marks of hard service and exposure to all kinds of weather, but are still in as good serviceable condition as ever."(14)

  1. Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAulay, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, PP 101 & 108, ISBN 0-917218-29-9. There are several other accounts of Lombard with widely varying details. The original is a brief mention in the company history of the 1st Mass. Cavalry. McAuley's is one of the latest, and his research is generally quite good. An interesting point is that Lombard has not turned up in the Spencer company records.

  2. Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards, The Stackpole Company, 1962, Pg. 149.

  3. Returns from the 5th Company of Independent Ohio Vol. Sharpshooters show Spencer Rifle number 10273 in the company on Aug. 16, 1863. Up to that date, Ordinance Department records show that only 8205 had been delivered, including both the Army and Navy orders. It is known that Spencer M-1863 serial numbers start with 1 on the Navy contract. So, it is unlikely that there are some 2000 unaccounted numbers. This contradiction appears with several other patent firearms. Springfield Research Service Serial Numbers of U.S. Martial Arms, Volume 3, Nov. 1990, Pg.117, ISBN 0-9603306-4-X Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAulay, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, PP 98& 108, ISBN 0-917218-29-9

  4. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Northwood Heritage Press, 1983

  5. Civil War Firearms, Joe Bilby, Combined Books, 1996, PP 198-200, ISBN 0-938289-79-9

  6. The Cavalry at Gettysburg, Edward G. Longacre, University of Nebraska Press, 1986/'93, PP 76-81 & 104-109 ISBN 0-8032-7941-8 Ibid. PP 237-244

  7. Spencer Company Catalog, 1865

  8. Carbines of the Civil War, John D. McAuley, Pioneer Press, 1981, PP 11 & 23, ISBN 0-913159-45-2 Op. Cit., Joe Bilby, pg XXX

  9. Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards, The Stackpole Company, 1962, PP. 155-156
  10. Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAulay, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, PP 105, ISBN 0-917218-29-9 Ibid., PP 105
  11. Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Northwood Heritage Press, 1983, P 87, ISBN 0-9611494

Spencer's Repeaters

In 1863, two guns that literally changed the course of firearms history were first delivered to the U.S. government.  These are the Henry and Spencer repeaters.  These arms were among the first to use rimfire cartridges.  The Henry was not actually designed as a military weapon.  Some were purchased by the Army due to the emergency of the war.  The Spencer, however, was specifically intended for military service.  Almost 100,000 rifles and carbines were delivered on federal contracts before the end of the Civil War, not to mention state purchases.  The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company went on to produce improved models after 1865.  Unfortunately, they never got the really big government or foreign contracts needed to stay in business after the war.  The company closed and was sold to the Fogerty Rifle Company in 1869, who in turn were bought by Winchester.

It is no coincidence that Spencer carbines and rifles are quite similar to the corresponding Sharps models.  Christopher Spencer was very familiar with the durability problems patent arms had experienced in service trials.  He incorporated the best features of the most successful breechloader in his design.  In fact, Spencer purchased complete barrels from the Sharps company for his first Navy rifles.  Internal lock components are identical to the corresponding Sharps parts, except the sear, which must be ground a little to clear the Spencer magazine tube.  Since the lock was one of the most vulnerable parts of a weapon, this interchangeability became a strong selling point.  Spencers could be repaired with Sharps parts already on hand.

The military Spencers of 1863 were all chambered for the 56-56 cartridge, which was developed by Crittenden and Tibbles about 1861.  This firm supplied Smith and Wesson with the first cartridges made under the latter's rimfire patents of 1854.  In an attempt to make militarily useful ammunition, the 56-56 features the largest case that was practical to form at the time.  When fired in a rifle, this round would approach the performance of the 58 caliber musket then in use.

During the War Between the States, the relatively low power of the 56-56 was not a great handicap. Most battles were fought at much less than 400 yards.  Here, the cartridge was more than adequate. It also had the distinct advantage of light recoil.  This was especially true for the rifle, which weighs almost ten pounds. In May of 1863, Spencer rifles became the first of the repeaters to be issued. They had an immediate and profound effect on tactics.  Shortly after receiving the new guns, Wilder's Lightning Brigade defeated a Confederate force several times their own number at Hoover's Gap, Tennessee.  In July, Irvin Gregg's cavalry division, including George Custer's brigade, stopped Jeb Stuart's southern troopers at Gettysburg.  The Confederate cavalry was attempting to flank the Army of the Potomac in support of Pickett's ill fated charge.  The Southerners had fought these same Federal troopers to a standstill at Brandy Station, only three weeks before.  The Confederate horsemen then held the Yankee cavalry in check a week later at the battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville.  No Spencer equipped units had taken a major part in these battles.  At Gettysburg, the 5th and 6th Michigan cavalry held the center of the Federal line that succeeded in stopping the southern cavalry.  These units had been rearmed in May with Spencer's repeaters but were not posted to front line service until the end of June.  Before then, their main duty had been riding picket in the Washington D.C. area.  A good case can be made that, had Stuart's flanking movement been successful, reinforcements would not have been so readily available to the besieged Federal line. Then, Pickett's charge may well have carried the day.  Not only was the Federal mounted service coming of age, so were their weapons.

The M-1865 is the Spencer of the Indian Wars era.  The only major changes are a reduction in caliber to .50" and 20 inch barrels for the carbines, down from the M-1863's 22 inches.  Rifles remained at 30 inches.  This, and all later military Spencers, are chambered for the 56-50 cartridge.  The round was actually developed by the US Ordinance Department during the Civil War.  Its introduction in March of 1865 was just barely too late for service in that conflict.

The limiting factor in the Spencer design is overall cartridge length.  Cases longer than about 1.7 inches will not feed through the action.  By using a lighter bullet and slightly larger powder charge, the 56-50 improved on the ballistic performance of the 56-56 about as much as was possible.

The 50 caliber Spencer went on to develop an enviable reputation on the frontier.  This in spite of the fact that the round was under powered for the wide open west, even when it was first introduced. Spencers were the standard issue weapon of mounted troops for a decade after 1865, with few exceptions.  Their firepower saved the day in many actions.  When it came to a close fight, such as Beecher's Island in eastern Colorado, the repeaters were hard to beat.  In a cost cutting move, they were finally superseded by the single shot Model 1873 Springfield carbine.  The changeover started late in 1874, five years after the Spencer company went out of business.  Some units were equipped with Spencers well into 1876.  They continued to be issued to teamsters and settlers well after their departure from front line service.  Westerners prized them as a handy saddle gun.  Many were in use as late as the turn of the century.  Their cartridges were loaded commercially at least through 1919.

The greatest difference between the various Spencer models is the cartridge extraction system. Model 1863 and 1865 Spencers use a long blade on the left of the breech block carrier.  In the M-1865, this blade is held forward with a helper spring to make single loading easier.  M-1867 guns use the Lane patent extractor, a spring loaded tooth mounted on the centerline of the breech block carrier.  The models of 1868 use a short blade relocated to the left of the breech block carrier.

On the Line

There are some wide spread prejudices against Spencers that have made their appearance on the line an all too rare occasion.  The first is the inescapable fact that they won't shoot quite as fast as a Henry.  In the time it takes a typical Henry shooter to get off 8 or 9 rounds, a Spencer will send 6 or 7 down range.  This is a disadvantage, but not as much as shooting a muzzle loader in carbine matches. With practice, one can get very close to Henry speed, unless you are a lefty.  The problem is mostly caused by the fact that the hammer must be cocked between shots.

Another complaint is the seven round magazine.  This can be a serious disadvantage on the pigeon board.  By starting with a cartridge in the chamber, eight shots are available before reloading.  That means 100% hits are required in this event, while the Henry shooters can miss a few before having to reload.  A helpful trick is to hold a couple of spare rounds between the knuckles of your off hand. Then, when the magazine is empty and only one or two targets are left, the gun can be single loaded very quickly.  This option is not nearly as convenient for the unlucky Henry shooter.  If reloading becomes necessary, the Spencer's magazine can be refilled far more rapidly than a Henry.  If everyone is missing and both the Henry and Spencer must be reloaded, the Spencer armed skirmisher can overtake a Henry shooter. For hanging targets, eight rounds are usually more than sufficient.  A positive advantage of the Spencer design is that the magazine is safer to reload, since the muzzle is always pointed down range.

A common misconception is that Spencers are more difficult to operate and prone to jamming.  With the wrong ammunition, or a weak magazine spring, this is true.  However, a properly prepared Spencer is as smooth and reliable as any Henry on the line.

The best advantage of a Spencer is the outstanding accuracy of these arms.  The author's M-1868 carbine has produced 1 1/4 " groups at 100 yards. One particular M-1865 rifle shot a 2 1/4 " group the first time it was fired this century, and using the magazine, which tends to dent the bullet noses.

Like almost all Civil War carbines, Spencer's short guns shoot really high, 12" to 18" at 50 yards with original sights. Rifles are much better. They generally print about 8" high at 50 and 4" at 100 yards.

Once the shooting is over, Spencers are probably the easiest Civil War weapons there are to clean. Just open the action, turn the gun upside down and wash and oil the bore.  If the mechanism needs attention, which isn't too often, remove the lever pivot screw and the whole assembly will fall out in your hand.

So, if you enjoy shooting something different, like me, bring a Spencer to the line.  They have a certain unrefined mechanical charm that few repeaters can match. It won't take long to understand why they became so popular so quickly during the war.


M-1863 Rifle

M-1865 Rifle

N.M. Carbine


.52 cal., 30" bbl

.52 cal., 30" bbl

.50 cal., 20" bbl.

35 gr. GOEX FF


931 FPS

873 FPS

40 gr. GOEX FF


1016 FPS

965 FPS

35 gr. GOEX CTG

957 FPS

939 FPS*

883 FPS*

40 gr. GOEX CTG

1017 FPS*

1033 FPS

996 FPS

* This load gave the lowest standard deviation.


All loads used the following components.

Cut down 50-70 cases.

50 Cal. bullet shortened Lyman 515141, 50/50 soft lead/wheelweight, 375gr.

52 Cal. bullet Rapine 535370, 50/50 soft lead/wheelweight, 380gr.

Bullet lube 50/50 Bore Butter/Bee's Wax.

Winchester Large Rifle Magnum Primers.

35 gr. loads used Ox Yoke 50 cal. "Wonder Wads" over powder.

Chrony chronograph located 15 feet from muzzle.

No wind, temp 82F.

Cartridge Confusion

There is a lot of confusion with regard to Spencer cartridges. This is due in no small part to their peculiar designations. Much has been printed about Spencer calibers and cartridges, a large portion of it is not correct. At the time of their introduction, it hadn't occurred to anyone to name cartridges by the caliber of the barrel for which they were intended. Therefore the first metallic ammunition was designated simply by its body diameter. Thus the cartridge that fits the Model 1863 rifle and carbine was called the "Number 56 Cartridge", since the weapon for which it is intended had a chamber of about .56". The actual barrel caliber is .52". When a 50 caliber round was first investigated, it became obvious that the chamber diameter designation was not going to work. The new round would also be .56" in body diameter. At that point, another designation was introduced. This method uses the diameter at the head and mouth of the cartridge. Thus the No. 56 became the 56-56 and the new 50 cal. round became the 56-52.

To add even more confusion, Springfield was also developing a 50 cal. round for the reduced bore M-1865 Spencer and, supposedly, all future carbines. This one was a great improvement over the commercial ammunition then being produced. It featured a cartridge case that covers and protects the bullet's grease grooves. In a foreshadowing of future designations based on barrel caliber, this became the 56-50. It was also known as the 50 U.S. Carbine and, in spite of its government roots, the 50 Spencer.

There was considerable debate during development of the 56-52 and 56-50 between Christopher Spencer and Steven V. Benet of Frankford (incidentally, father of the poet of the same name).  Benet held that the bullet was better protected by a longer cartridge case.  Spencer maintained that the heavy crimp used would damage the bullet's nose or even cause it to strip, thus ruining accuracy.  The result was that there were two cartridges available for 50 caliber Spencers.  The two rounds are different but interchangeable.  The 56-50 is the first generally issued inside lubricated rimfire cartridge.  The bullet's grease grooves are covered by the cartridge case. In the 56-52, The bullet's grease grooves are exposed.  The Army almost exclusively issued the Springfield designed 56-50 ammunition, even if it was commercially made.

Civil War contract arms were all originally made in 52 caliber with 6 groove rifling.  Over 11,000 of these were refinished and converted at Springfield to 50 caliber.  Most also had Stabler's patent magazine cutoff added to allow use as a single shot.  This work was done from late 1865 through the early 1870's.  The conversions can easily be distinguished by their three groove rifled barrel liners. All other military models are 50 caliber. While these are the two common calibers of Spencer firearms, other chamberings exist. A few very rare and valuable sporting rifles were produced just after the Civil War, mostly from condemned parts.  The greater number of these used a bottlenecked 44 caliber cartridge based on the 56-52 case.  There are also a very few early prototypes in various small caliber chamberings, particularly 38 and 46 straight.

(c) 1998 by A. M. Beck



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