The Spencer, Then

by Joe Bilby

Christopher Miner Spencer, inventor, manufacturer and salesman extraordinaire, was aptly described by John Hay, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary, as a "splendid little Yankee." Spencer, a Connecticut native, embodied all the best aspects of 19th century entrepreneurial capitalism.

Born in 1833, Spencer, who had little formal education, began working in a silk mill at the age of fourteen, where he demonstrated a particular genius for designing machinery.  His lifelong interest in firearms led to employment with Colt Firearms and then Robbins and Lawrence, contractor for the famed Sharps.  Spencer also worked on his own ideas and, on March 6, 1860, was awarded a patent on a new type of breech loading repeating rifle.

The introduction of the self contained metallic cartridge in the 1850s made the Spencer Model 1860 technically possible.  The Spencer, with its tubular butt stock magazine, was a simpler and sturdier design than the competing Henry.  Although the gun's seven round capacity was less than half that of the Henry, the Spencer's .56-.56 rimfire cartridge packed a much heavier wallop than the .44 rimfire. A lever action gun like its competitor, the Spencer's lever actuated a rolling block that fed cartridges from the magazine into the chamber.  Unlike the Henry, however, the Spencer's hammer had to be manually cocked for each shot.

The advent of Civil War promised a big market to Spencer as well as a legion of other firearms inventors.  In the summer of 1861, the inventor secured manufacturing space in the Chickering Piano Factory in Boston, and pressed the government to test his prototypes.

Like almost all "patent arms" purveyors, Spencer used any influence available to promote his repeater.  Fortunately for him, a former neighbor who was a personal friend of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles secured a trial for the new gun.  Although the Henry was also tested and both weapons received favorable reports, the Navy ordered 700 Spencer rifles with 30 inch barrels and sword bayonets.

The Army also tested the Spencer and preferred it to the Henry.  Ordnance people liked the Spencer's sturdiness, heavy caliber and relative ease of manufacture and placed an order for 10,000 (later reduced to 7,500) rifles.  Although the army wanted arms in the standard .58 caliber bore diameter, Spencer delivered his guns in .56-.56, which was nominally .52 caliber.  Actually, there is a great deal of variation in .56-.56 bore diameters, many of which are actually .54 caliber.  In black powder days, bore tolerances were not considered as critical as today.  The charcoal based propellant "boosted" undersized bullets up to bore diameter, atoning for a multitude of machining sins.

Deliveries of Spencer rifles began in December of 1862 and continued through June of 1863.  The state of Massachusetts also ordered 2,000 rifles, although other contracts delayed delivery of the Bay State guns until 1864.  A total of 11,471 Spencer rifles were manufactured, and it is safe to say most made their way to the battle front during the war.

More numerous were the carbines, with orders beginning in the summer of 1863.  Spencer's salesmanship was fully equal to his skills as an inventor and manufacturer, and he toured battlefronts and visited the White House promoting his rifle.  After a personal test by President Lincoln, the Spencer's future was secure.

Carbine deliveries began in October of 1863, and a total of 64,685 were delivered through January 1866.  In addition the government purchased 30,496 of the slightly different pattern .56-.50 caliber Model 1865 Spencer carbines, made by the Burnside Rifle Company of Providence, Rhode Island.

Some writers have incorrectly assumed that all these guns saw service in the Civil War, which gives a skewed view of the Spencer's influence.  Including deliveries of 2,007 carbines on April 3 and April 12, 1865, as hostilities came to a close, 46,185 carbines were delivered by April 12, 1865.  Adding the 11,471 rifles gives a total of 57,656 Spencers which possibly saw combat.  All of the Burnside guns were delivered after the close of hostilities.

The first Spencer was fired at Confederates in a skirmish near Cumberland, Maryland on October 16, 1863.  The prototype gun was in the hands of Sergeant Francis O. Lombard, a gunsmith friend of the inventor serving in Company F, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.  It was a while before others would follow Lombard's example.  Most, if not all of the rifles purchased by the Navy were issued to the Mississippi Marine Brigade.  In January of 1863, the army issued its first Spencers to the 5th, 6th 7th and 8th Independent Companies of Ohio Sharpshooters.

Spencers gained their greatest fame in the hands of men who didn't wait for the army to issue them. Colonel John T. Wilder's Mounted Infantry Brigade bought their own repeaters.  Wilder originally wanted Henrys for his men, but slow production severely limited the availability of that arm. Eventually Wilder's regiments, including the 17th, 72nd, 92nd Indiana, and 98th Illinois (the 92nd Illinois joined the brigade later) were armed with a mixture of Spencer rifles and carbines along with Burnside single shot breech loading carbines.

On June 24, 1863, Wilder's men cleared Hoover's Gap, Tennessee of Confederates and then held it successfully against a counterattack.  Although often cited as a prime example of the efficacy of the Spencer's firepower, the fight at Hoover's Gap is as much a tribute to Wilder's speed of movement and tactical abilities as his men's armament.  His brigade overran the single Rebel regiment in the gap and then, supported by an artillery battery, stood off a counterattack by a weak brigade of Confederates.  Caught in flank and front by Spencer fire and canister, 650 Grayback attackers lost 19 killed and 126 wounded, a fairly heavy percentage, but hardly a massacre.  Chickamauga provided a better test of the effects of rapid fire. There is no doubt that Wilder's fast firing Spencers caused General Longstreet to believe he was confronting a whole army corps, and helped to save the defeated Union Army.

Spencer Rifles were first carried into battle by the 5th Michigan Cavalry at Hanover Station and were later used at Gettysburg in the drawn cavalry battle behind the Union lines on July 3, 1863.  General Custer credited the Spencers of the dismounted 5th with enabling the regiment to hold a crucial fence-line against the Rebels. In fact, the 5th was never directly attacked, although its rapid flanking fire wrecked one of several Rebel charges.  Mounted saber charges by other Union horsemen, the superior accuracy and ammunition supply of the Federal horse artillery and the fact that some of Stuart's men had to withdraw when they ran out of ammunition were also factors in the fight, however.

One historian credits the handful of Spencers issued to Colonel William Gamble's cavalry brigade for the stand taken by the Federal cavalry on Gettysburg's first day.  This seems doubtful, however. Despite the claims of participants, the Yankee cavalry does not seem to have been heavily engaged with Confederate infantry on McPherson's Ridge.  With 1,600 troopers engaged, Gamble only lost 13 men killed and 58 wounded.

It was, however, clear that Custer's assessment of the Spencer as "the most effective firearm our cavalry can adopt," was correct. Over the winter of 1863-1864, Spencers began to flow into the field on a regular basis and were issued to a number of units, primarily cavalry outfits.  Several infantry regiments were issued Spencer rifles as well.  One was the 46th Ohio Veteran Volunteers. In a recent monograph on the Spencer, Mr. John C. McQueen has reprinted in its entirety his original copy of a Spencer manual written by the 46th's Colonel Charles C. Walcutt.  Mr. McQueen's book, a must for the Spencer scholar and shooter, is available from the author. (1900 Amherst Rd. NE, Massillon, OH 44646-4010; $15 postpaid)

Colonel Walcutt's work details a new manual of arms for the Spencer, but offers no tactical suggestions.  If followed to the letter, Walcutt's drill, in which soldiers return to the "ready" before levering another round into the chamber, negates to a degree the Spencer's prime virtue, rapid fire. Considering the situation the 37th Massachusetts found itself in at Winchester, however, the fears of officers that men armed with repeaters might blaze away all their ammunition to little effect doesn't seem so far off the mark.  One Confederate commander recalled that his men didn't mind fighting Spencer armed Yankees for precisely that reason.

Some commanders may have exercised considerable fire discipline, however.  The number of relatively heavy Spencer rounds a man could carry (especially an infantryman) was necessarily limited.  In Major General James Wilson's massive cavalry raid in the final weeks of the war, troopers were issued 100 rounds each with another 85 per man in reserve.  Considering that a Spencer can (conservatively) be emptied in under ten seconds and reloaded in well under a minute, Wilson's horsemen could have, in theory, expended their whole ammunition supply in half an hour.  Yet this supply was considered enough for a whole campaign, and proved sufficient through several battles.

Traces of specific Spencer tactics can be found in Wilson's raid, as well as at the Battle of Nashville in December, 1864.  Had the war lasted another year, a tactical doctrine might well have evolved. Doctrine or no, the growing number of Spencers in the hands of Federal troops would probably have played a decisive role in the Union victory.

Massachusetts infantry regiments began receiving their state purchased Spencer rifles in the summer of 1864. The sharpshooter company of the 57th Massachusetts received their guns, promised them at their January enlistment, in July.  The men of the 37th Massachusetts regiment were issued Spencer rifles on their way to the Shenandoah Valley the same month.  Other units received Spencers during the Valley campaign, including the sharpshooter detachment of the 1st New Jersey Brigade. Some soldiers issued Spencers to themselves.  When Adjutant Edmund Halsey of the 15th New Jersey took an inventory of his unit's weapons on August 19, 1864, he found one of his infantrymen armed with a Spencer carbine.

Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island, a featured character in the recent PBS series on the Civil War, was a Spencer fan.  On July 18, 1864, Rhodes borrowed forty Spencers from the 37th Massachusetts to surprise some Rebel pickets who were picking off his men.  On September 19, at the battle of Winchester, the men of Rhodes's regiment filled their pockets with .56-.56 rounds and ran to the support of the 37th, which had shot away all its ammunition and was lying helpless under fire.  Re-supplied, the Bay State men rejoined the attack, which was ultimately successful. Rhodes, a gun buff who was president of the Officer's Rifle Association of Rhode Island in the 1890s, was impressed enough with the Spencer to carry one as his personal weapon in the closing months of the war.

According to Earl J. Coates and Dean S. Thomas in An Introduction to Civil War Small Arms (Thomas Publications, 1990), 36 Infantry and 15 Cavalry outfits in the Union army were armed in whole or in part with Spencers during the "1863-1864 time period."  By 1865 many more regiments, primarily cavalry, were equipped with the repeaters.  Spencers were effective weapons and, perhaps as important, were great morale boosters.  They were not, however, war winners or even battle winners.  Spencers in the hands of the 7th Connecticut repulsed a Rebel assault at Olustee, Florida in February of 1864, but did not save the battle for the Union.

By 1864, some Confederates, including the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry, the 8th Texas and General Joseph Wheeler's escort guard were carrying "galvanized" Spencers.  Nathan Bedford Forest was one of several cavalry raiders whose men captured a number of Spencers which were, no doubt, used with great effect on their former owners as long as captured ammunition held out.

Although some authors have contended that repeating rifles caused a revolution in tactics, there is no solid evidence to buttress the allegation.  Civil War "tactics" manuals were largely drill manuals whose combat application revolved around getting men massed to deliver maximum amount of fire for Muzzle loaders.

The repeater was a definitive asset in the defense, and a welcome addition to the lonely skirmisher.  If vollies were used, then volumes of fire were never lived up to!  A soldier's basic load of ammo for repeaters would have been expended in a matter of minutes; they surely used a rate of fire much slower than we have been to believe.

The impressive results of Wilson's Cavalry in the final months of the war on the Elma Raid probably had as much to do with the fact that the Confederacy was, by that time, a hollow shell than that the federal troops were armed with Spencers.

This is not to say that the Spencer (and Henry as well) could not have made a significant difference if a tactical doctrine had evolved.  There was more than a gem of truth in the assertions made that breechloaders and then repeating rifles (and in the years to follow, semi and selective fire shoulder arms) would encourage soldiers to waste ammo or at least fire off their basic load of cartridges. Witness the 37th Massachusetts’s at Winchester.

Tactical situation on parts of battlefields no doubt altered expressly in short time period, by a blizzard of bullets from repeaters.  If a regiment quickly shot away its ammo supply or if, as happened, soldiers discarded weight of ammo on the march and got caught short, their repeaters were as good as sticks against men armed with a rifle musket.  Although ad hoc local tactics were developed for Spencer armed soldiers, they depended on the creativity of small unit leaders, and were never committed to doctrine.

© 1992 by Joe Bilby



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