7-Shot Wonder: The Spencer Repeating Rifle
October 14, 2015
Christopher Miner Spencer was one of those 19th century Edisonian inventors who could successfully turn his hand at just about whatever caught his fancy at the time. For instance, as early as 1861 he was tooling back and forth from Manchester to Hartford, CT, in a steam buggy of his own design — until the locals decided that the thing just made too much noise and he was ordered to remove it from the public thoroughfare.
During his lifetime, Spencer was responsible for a plethora of patents, including such diverse contrivances as a textile spool labeling machine, an automatic lathe turret and an early pump shotgun.
But it was the Spencer repeating rifle that really established his name in the pantheon of American inventors. His seminal design was simply nothing short of revolutionary and the best firearm of its type to be fielded for a good number of years afterward.
Born in 1833, after serving his initial apprenticeship as a mechanic at the Cheney Brothers silk manufacturing company, Spencer moved on to other venues, including a short stint at Colt, where he was employed designing revolver-fabricating machinery.
Lured back to Cheney Brothers with the offer of a job as superintendent, in between his silk ribbon-manufacturing chores he turned his attentions to designing a repeating firearm. Cheney Brothers generously allowed him to use its workshop during his off hours.
On March 6, 1860, Spencer received a patent on a lever-action repeater with a rotating block, which fed rimfire cartridges into the chamber via a tubular magazine bored through the buttstock.
Working the Spencer repeating rifle was simple and reliable. One dropped a number of cartridges, nose-first, into the magazine. A spring-loaded follower tube was then pressed into the tube and locked in place. Next, the shooter put the hammer on halfcock and lowered the lever to allow a cartridge to be pushed into position by the follower. Raising the lever chambered the round. Now all one had to do was cock the hammer, aim and fire.
Following discharge, the hammer was again placed on halfcock (necessary from a safety standpoint, as the firing pin was a single piece of metal sliding through the right side of the breechblock, and if the action were closed quickly, it would be possible to accidentally discharge a round), and the lever was lowered. This action pulled the case from the chamber by means of a thin, finger-like extractor and then popped it free of the gun by sliding it across a narrow ramp that dropped down into a groove on the top of the block. Raising the lever chambered the next round and so on, until all the ammunition was expended.
A manufactory was soon established at Cheney's, and Spencer's arms company was in operation. Early models involved smallbore sporting rifles of .36 and .44 caliber, as well as prototype .44 military arms.
With the start of the Civil War, Spencer quickly moved into gear, attempting to interest military authorities in his repeating rifle. Remember, at this time the principal U.S. infantry arm was a then state-of-the-art .58-caliber Springfield muzzleloading Minie rifle musket, with many regulars and state troops armed with more archaic firearms. Cavalry units carried a conglomeration of muzzleloading and breechloading single-shots.
Ordnance authorities had already expended much time, expense and labor in testing, developing and buying these arms, so at the onset of the war (which was only supposed to last about six months) many officials were loath to get too involved in looking at new guns.
Still, by mid-1861 Spencer had demonstrated his rifle to a trials board at the Washington Navy Yard, after which the Navy Department put in an order for 700 Spencer rifles (and bayonets), a figure that for production-cost purposes Spencer himself upped by another 300.
Word got out, and soon infantry and cavalry officers were asking to look at the revolutionary new Spencer repeating rifle.
In no time, orders were forthcoming from commanders wishing to equip their units with it. Many officers were also privately purchasing Spencers and then showing them to brother officers — who rushed out and bought the guns themselves.
The chosen caliber, and the one that would remain constant throughout the war, was .56-56, a round that fired a 350-grain .540- to .555-diameter (depending on the manufacturer) bullet backed by some 45 grains of black powder to give a muzzle velocity of some 1,200 fps and a muzzle energy of 1,125 ft-lbs.
For comparison's sake, the standard .58-caliber Springfield, firing a 500-grain bullet backed by 60 grains of powder, produced a muzzle velocity of 950 fps and a muzzle energy of 1,000 ft-lbs. Breechloading carbines such as the .52 Sharps performed similarly. The Sharps 462-grain bullet moved out at about 1,000 fps, for an ME of 1,100 ft-lbs.
Though ballistics were similar, the Spencer had one great advantage — it could be loaded and fired in a fraction of the time that was necessary for either of the other two guns.
Glowing reports came in from the field. The preponderance of early Spencer repeaters appear to have been rifles; many of the rifles were initially issued to mounted troops, actually, and were often used alongside the carbines carried by their comrades.
There is even a good case to be made for the Spencer repeating rifle being responsible, in some part, for General George Gordon Meade's victory over Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, where, according to a period account, "The daring and dashing feats of the 5th and 7th Michigan cavalry [armed with Spencers], under the lead of the intrepid [Custer], have become historic. In the great battle of Gettysburg those regiments achieved the most enduring renown by the success with which they foiled all the efforts of Stuart with his boasted Virginia cavalry to get into the ammunition and supply trains. And in the pursuit of Lee, until he escaped across the Potomac, those regiments were constantly upon his heels'¦"
Testimonial upon testimonial arrived at the Spencer works, which by 1863 had relocated to the Chickering Piano-Forte Building in Boston, MA. Few can be more to the point, or poignant, than one sent by Colonel John T. Wilder describing the use of the Spencer at the Battle of Chickamauga.
"At this point it absolutely seems a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps, and I actually had it in my heart to order the firing to cease in order to end the awful sight. But the merciless Spencer seven-shooter would not cease."
Though Spencer's repeating rifle was now being seen on the battlefield in some numbers, the large government contract that he had sought was still elusive. Deciding to go to the top, on August 18, 1863, he made an appointment with President Abraham Lincoln, taking one of his rifles and some ammunition to the Executive Mansion for a personal demonstration — according to Spencer's own reminiscence.
Apparently, Lincoln was impressed right from the get-go, asking Spencer to explain the workings of the piece and disassemble it in order to "see the inwardness of the thing," which Spencer did. After Spencer put the gun back together, Lincoln asked him if he had any engagements the following day, to which the inventor replied that he did not. The president responded, "Come over tomorrow at 2 o'clock, and we'll see the thing shoot."
Spencer duly arrived at 2:00, upon which the party, consisting of himself, President Lincoln and Lincoln's son Robert, went over to the open field that would eventually be the site of the Washington Monument. After waiting for invitee Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton — who was ultimately a no-show, saying he was to busy to attend ("They do pretty much as they have a mind to over there," quipped Lincoln) — they put the Spencer repeating rifle through its paces.
The gun performed flawlessly and Lincoln was sold, though Spencer confessed, "Being in almost daily practice, I naturally beat the president a little. 'Well,' he said, 'you are younger than I am, have a better eye and a steadier nerve.'"
Lincoln kept the rifle, and the next day he took his secretary, John Hay, out for another shooting session, during which Hay described the Spencer as "a wonderful gun, loading with absolutely contemptible simplicity and ease with seven balls and firing the whole readily and deliberately in less than half a minute."
The results of Spencer's chutzpah paid off handsomely. The War Department was directed to order the Spencer repeating rifle, and by war's end some 230,000 had been produced, initially by Spencer and later by the Burnside Rifle Company in Providence, RI. It was the second most widely used carbine in the war, bested only by the Sharps.
These guns were such hot items that virtually all delivered before the cessation of hostilities saw use, so today it is unusual to find a wartime Spencer in pristine condition.
Also, special quick-loading cartridge boxes containing six, 10 or 13 tin tubes holding seven rounds each were devised by inventor Erastus Blakeslee. To load the carbine, the user only had to remove the follower, pull a charged tube from his Blakeslee box and dump the rounds into the magazine. It speeded up loading time a good degree, but soldiers complained of the boxes being somewhat cumbersome. The 13-tube model, when fully loaded, weighed over nine pounds — more than the carbine itself. (As an aside, excellent reproductions of the three models of Blakeslee boxes are offered by L. Romano Rifle Co.)
After the war, Spencers continued to be issued to cavalry troopers, eventually being replaced by Springfield Trapdoors. The caliber was reduced, and many Civil War Spencers were taken to Springfield Armory, where they were refurbished and converted to handle the new .56-52 and .56-50 rimfire rounds (which were virtually interchangeable).
They were fitted with the Stabler Cutoff, a small lever in front of the trigger that, when moved rearward, prevented the lever from lowering completely. This effectively turned the carbine into a single-shot, the other seven cartridges being kept in the magazine in reserve — a device to warm the cockles of any penurious ordnance officer's heart.
A Model 1865 Spencer repeating rifle was manufactured by Burnside for the U.S. government, though some were also made for Canada. Some 3,000 Model 1867 and 2,500 New Models (1868) were also produced, featuring a Spencer patented cutoff on top of the receiver.
Spencers also found use in other lands, including Mexico and by the French during the Franco-Prussian War (1871), where many thousands of surplus rifles and carbines saw service. Some were even manufactured under contract in Belgium. Spencers are still popular in France and often taken afield by some of my friends in l'Arquebusiers de France.
As well as military arms, Spencer also made a wide variety of sporting rifles in varying calibers and with different styles and degrees of decoration. Today these are some of the most valuable and sought-after of his products.
The Spencer repeating rifle lives on, its popularity spurred considerably by the gun's appearance in Clint Eastwood's film The Unforgiven and its use by Civil War reenactors and Cowboy Action shooters. Spencers have become so en vogue, in fact, that reproductions of them are offered by a number of companies, chambered for such things as .56-50, .45 Colt and .44-40.
Being the Luddite that I am, while I appreciate the quality, availability and lower prices of reproduction arms, I do like to shoot my period pieces now and then to get a feel for the real article. Recently, I picked up an original Springfield .56-52 refurbished carbine in quite good condition (the bore is perfect). As we know, rimfire ammo for these arms is no longer available, but centerfire conversion blocks are available from Dixie Gun Works and S&S Firearms.
Shooters have told me they can be dropped in easily, though it has been my experience that some handwork is required. My gun was easily fitted with its new block following a couple of hours of judicious filing (on the block, not the gun), after which it functioned perfectly.
The new assembly in no way affects the originality of the piece, and the original parts can be reinstalled at any time. Also, the centerfire block has a floating firing pin, so it is not necessary to halfcock the gun when operating it — though I do it anyway out of tradition. A special replacement follower with a recessed center is available, so there is absolutely no chance of accidental discharge of the centerfire round. Installing one of these is a must if you are going to convert your Spencer.
Loaded .56-50 ammunition is available from Ten-X Ammunition. Available charged with either Hodgdon Triple Seven or black powder and a 350-grain lead bullet, it's really great stuff and functions perfectly in my carbine.
Components can also be had from a number of sources, and when I'm not using Ten-X fodder, I do rely on my own black-powder reloads, which, with their .546 375 handcast bullets from Rapine Bullet Mold Co. and 34-grain FFg powder charge, actually work pretty well themselves, though not as well as the Ten-X.
I've run several hundred rounds though my Spencer repeating rifle, and the gun functions extremely well, with few hang-ups or failures to eject. I must admit that there is a sort of rhythm to operating the gun properly. Once that is mastered, however, it's a real gem. With standard battle sights, the carbine fires extremely high (I can adjust this by fiddling around with the rear ladder slide), but groups are phenomenal: 100-yarders regularly come in at three inches or less, and that's about as good as I can shoot with any Civil War-vintage arm. Recoil is very light, and the overall experience is wonderful.
Whether you choose a modern repro or decide to shoot your original, I can heartily recommend the Spencer repeating rifle for a fun day at the range. You can certainly see why it was the most sought-after firearm of the Civil War and why it was so popular with troopers in the West. If it was good enough for Old Abe, it certainly should be good enough for us.