Mention longarms of the Civil War and we tend to think of the 1861 Springfield and other single-shot muzzleloaders. But there were also a few repeating rifles firing metallic cartridges used in the Great Rebellion. They range from the Henry Repeating Rifle—forerunner of the Winchester lever action—to obscurities such as the Triplett & Scott by the Meriden Manufacturing Company.
But somewhere in between, the Spencer Repeating Carbine emerges, a brilliant design fanned by the flames of the War Between the States and just as quickly extinguished by the calming waters of peace.
At 14 years of age, Christopher “Crit” Miner Spencer’s first attempt at gun design took place when he sawed off the barrel of his grandfather’s Revolutionary War musket to make it easier to carry. Following that auspicious beginning, the entrepreneur went on to devise a machine for labeling spools of thread and built a steam-powered horseless carriage far ahead of its time and, consequently, successful only in spooking real horses.
But it is for Spencer’s concept of a repeating rifle that he is remembered today. His idea for a lever-activated, rotating-block, seven-shot repeater loaded via a spring-powered magazine tube in the buttstock was granted a patent on March 6, 1860, the eve of the Civil War. For Spencer, the timing could not have been better. His father, Ogden Spencer, agreed to finance his son’s gunmaking venture and employed the talents of a gunmaker appropriately named Luke Wheelock.
Initial rifles were .35 and .44 caliber, but with the outbreak of hostilities and an eye toward a potential military contract, the gun evolved into .56-56 caliber. Unlike later black-powder cartridges, where the first number denotes grains of powder and the second number gives the caliber, the Spencer .56-56 indicated that both ends of the copper rimfire case were .56 caliber, thus it was an untapered shell. To make things more confusing, the soft-lead bullet was actually .52 caliber but sported a Minie-ball-type cavity in its base that enabled it to expand and fill the six-groove rifling when the gun was fired.
On June 7, 1861—just three months after Fort Sumter—Spencer’s rifle was tested by the U.S. Army. In spite of a complication of parts, the Spencer proved capable of firing seven shots in 10 seconds (one wonders if these were “aimed” shots) and went through 500 rounds with only one failure, which—for a black-powder gun with its propensity for fouling—was remarkable. To fire the Spencer, the lever was opened, which dropped the carrier to pick up a cartridge from the tubed plunger. Raising the lever inserted the cartridge into the chamber. Then the hammer was manually cocked and the trigger pulled.
Of course, the Army was slow to acknowledge any gun other than the time-tested single-shot muzzleloader. Undaunted, Spencer conducted another test that same month, this time for the U.S. Navy. He buried one of his loaded guns, then dug it up, soaked it in salt water and proceeded to fire it 250 times without cleaning it. Naval Commander John A. Dalgren immediately ordered 700 rifles. But the Army remained unconvinced. However, there was a very influential observer at the test—President Abraham Lincoln. He pointedly asked Brigadier General James W. Ripley to reconsider his decision. As a result, the Army ended up ordering 94,196 Spencer carbines, at $25 apiece.
But Spencer’s company was ill equipped to turn out so many guns, and initial shipments were not made until 1863. However, many Yankees did not want to wait for this decided advantage in firepower, and it is estimated that an astounding 105,804 Spencer rifles were privately purchased by troops before the government guns were delivered. When the Spencers did get to the front lines, they saw plenty of action in the Battle of Antietam at Gettysburg under Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer and with the 7th Connecticut Cavalry at the Battle of Olustee. Indeed, by now the war had escalated to mounted battles, and although Army and Navy rifles were produced, the carbine was favored.
But the Spencer was not without its faults. Problems with extractors necessitated a design change. More important, if a soldier opened the lever and manually loaded a cartridge while a charged loading tube was in the stock, the gun jammed as the lever was closed. The Stabler cut-off, invented by Edward Stabler, solved this problem, but it was hardly available for every gun.
In addition, the Spencer could only be fired with its proprietary .56-56 cartridge, and supplies were often spotty at best. Thus, when a Bluecoat ran out of ammunition, his Spencer reverted to being a club. Many Confederates tossed away captured Yankee Spencers, as there was no ammo for them. The Blakeslee Cartridge Box, a bulky, leather, over-the-shoulder affair, was an attempt to alleviate the ammo shortages, as it permitted a soldier to carry 10 to 13 extra loaded tubes, but it was heavy and unwieldy, especially under battlefield conditions. And finally, because of ongoing demand for his guns, Spencer could not supply extra parts. Thus a broken Spencer remained broken.
Toward the end of the war, the Ordnance Department changed its official cartridge from .56-56 to .56-50, as many muskets were being converted to .50-caliber rimfire. To conform, the rechambered Spencer carbine in .56-50 became known as the Model 1865. This new cartridge was a formidable round, containing 45 grains of black powder behind a 350-grain bullet and producing 1,175 ft-lbs of muzzle energy and a muzzle velocity of 1,200 fps. It was deadly accurate on man-size targets out to 300 yards.
Although produced too late to see action against Johnny Reb, the Model 1865 was issued to numerous frontier Army posts and due to its firepower was highly regarded among good men and bad throughout the West. In the 1870s many of these guns were converted to centerfire. Interestingly, .56-50 ammunition continued to be made into the 1920s—evidence of the proclivity of the Model 1865.
But such longevity was not enjoyed by the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company. The abrupt cancellation of orders at war’s end plunged the company into financial peril. In an attempt to enter the civilian market, Spencer turned to Sporting Rifles. Feeling the popular .56-50 military cartridge too powerful for peacetime use, he chambered his new guns for .56-46. It was a fatal mistake. The new .56-46 Spencer was plagued with feeding problems and grumblings from hunters of being underpowered. Plus, the demand for hard-hitting frontier firearms was being filled by inexpensive surplus military arms, many of which were Spencer carbines converted to centerfire.
Thus, in spite of a distinguished service record, the dismal reputation of the postwar gun soiled the company’s name. Only about 1,700 Sporting Models were made before Spencer sold his firm to the Fogerty Rifle Company in 1868. As a final blow, that firm, which changed its name to the American Repeating Rifle Company, was acquired by Winchester Repeating Arms one year later.
A Repro at the Range
Today an extremely creditable replica of the Spencer Model 1865 Carbine is made in Brescia, Italy, by Chiappa Firearms (formerly Armi Sport) and imported by Cimarron Firearms. Like the original, it is chambered for .56-50 centerfire, which takes it out of the Civil War era and puts it at the forefront of our western expansion. And for the first time since the early 20th century, ammunition is again available, loaded by Ten-X (www.tenxammo.com). Both smokeless and Triple 7 black-powder loads are available, with the black-powder cartridges producing about 1,000 fps muzzle velocity, while the smokeless loads clock in at 1,290 fps. Both loads use the same 350-grain roundnose soft-lead bullet like the originals.
And like the original, the Spencer loads from a spring-loaded tube in the buttstock. However, due to a recent Italian law, firearms cannot have a capacity of more than five rounds. I’m sure General Custer would not have approved. That was why I could not load all seven rounds in my test gun. But a call to Cimarron confirmed that the company is now dutifully removing the plugs so that its replicas have the same firepower as the prototype.
I have fired an original Spencer, and for this go-around I was able to procure a similar Civil War carbine from fellow gunwriter Garry James for comparison. Both guns weigh a tad over eight pounds, have case-hardened receivers and hammers and sport 20-inch barrels and side-mounted saddle rings. However, Garry’s original had a remarkably smoother action. My replica was extremely stiff and loosened up only slightly after repeated firing. But as testimony to Christopher Spencer’s Army trials, the gun did not jam, even after firing more than 25 black-powder rounds without cleaning. However, I should mention that this replica is not fitted with a Stabler cutoff. That means that if you have a loaded magazine in the buttstock and try to fingerload a round in the chamber, the Spencer will jam as you raise the lever.
Recoil was nil, and even with the crude sights (which duplicate the originals), accuracy was surprisingly good. At 50 yards, I fired remarkably consistent 1½-inch groups. The Ten-X black-powder loads shot three inches high from point of aim, while the smokeless loads were right on the money elevation-wise.
I did encounter feeding problems due to the tightness of the action. And I should mention that the Spencer doesn’t really “eject” empties. They just sort of tumble out, unless you snap down the lever smartly, and even then it is best to angle the muzzle up to ensure that the cases clear the receiver. The carbine balances well, with most of the weight to the rear, which makes it feel slightly barrel-light, but this also made it a pleasure to shoot offhand. In fact, I was regularly able to ring the 100-yard gong during our session at Angeles Shooting Range (www.angelesranges.com).
For anyone wanting to pack a medium-game hunting or western reenactment rifle other than the proverbial Winchester ’73 or Sharps replicas, the Spencer is a standout. As for its place in history, well, it has been said that the final shot of the Civil War was fired by a soldier in the 9th Michigan Cavalry; given the armament of that unit, it is likely that the shot came from a Spencer carbine.