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Common Guns of the Civil War

More on Spencer's

Seven Shot Repeater

The inventor, Christopher M. Spencer (June 20, 1933 - January 14th, 1922), quit working for Colt in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1854.  Later he said he when he left Colt he already had an idea for a repeating rifle of a daringly different kind.  Like none that had come before--or since.  He went to work at the Cheney Silk Mills in Manchester (Massachusetts) with encouragement to work out something new; time and other tasks permitting.  That is, on his own time when the typical work day was all day and into the evening.  There wasn't all that much time.

Christopher Spencer at about age 30

There was nothing to work from but encouragement of a grandfather who had been an armorer with the Continental Army of the Revolution - Josiah Hollister.  As there was no commonly known repeating rifle at the time, all he had was his own imagination.

Spencer spent the scant time available for a few years making drawings, and then modeling various parts in wood.  Making test parts in wood was not unheard of in that day.  Springfield's master armorer Erskin Allen invented the first trapdoor breechloading rifle-musket mechanism in wood.  It's preserved in the Springfield Armory museum.

Finally the wood model moved so smoothly he and the folks around him were sure it would work.  It is only fair to point out that during the years 1854 to 1860 when he was inventing his repeating rifle another thing was invented--by someone else--that was absolutely critical to his mechanism design, which was the self-contained metallic cartridge for the Henry rifle.

Spencer's Patent

A patent was granted to Spencer on March 6, 1860.  His descriptive paragraph said: "My invention consists of an improved mode of locking the movable breech of a breech-loading firearm whereby it is easily opened and closed and very firmly secured in place during the explosion of the charge.  It also consists of certain contrivances for operating in combination with a movable breech for the purpose of withdrawing the cases of the exploded cartridges from the chamber of the barrel and for conducting new cartridges thereinto from a magazine located in the stock."

In Spencer's unique design, the breech block was a quarter circle of iron/steel with a groove in the top.  The whole pivoted on a screw at its lower front corner in a box-like frame.  When it was opened (lowered) by the lever, a coil spring in the magazine pushed a fresh cartridge onto the groove.  As the breech block rotated forward to close, the cartridge moved along the groove into the barrel.  When closed, the hammer was separately cocked.  After firing, the lever opened the breech, ejected the fired case, and put the groove down to accept the next cartridge.

A tube magazine held seven cartridges in the buttstock, which protected both the tube and the cartridges.

First Testing Models

Encouraged by Cheney, perhaps financially, Spencer made a few rifles and may have had barrels and parts made by other rifle manufacturers, such as Sharps.  These earliest examples have letters and numbers that look like hand stamping which suggests hand assembly.  There were made in a smaller size for the 36 caliber rimfire cartridge.  A surviving example bears the number 13.

Then the Civil War erupted.

Military Trials

Cheney arranged an interview in June, 1861, for Spencer with the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, who was a friend and neighbor of Cheney.  Spencer claimed his rifle could shoot fifteen times a minute, which was unheard of in that day.  He shot an average of 21 shots a minute in this casual meeting.

Commander John Dahlgren, the inventor of the Dahlgren naval cannon, was so impressed that Captain Andrew Harwood as Chief of Naval Ordnance ordered 700 Spencers.  Not a large order.

A test was also arranged in August, 1861, with the Army under Captain Dyer (later the Army's Chief of Ordnance) at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.  Although Fortress Monroe was safe from Confederates, such a test was rather close to the enemy.  Capt. Dyer reported he "fired it some 80 times" and gave the sample gun nasty tests with sand and covered it with salt water for 24 hours. "The rifle was then loaded and fired without difficulty ..." (an amazing feat)  "... I regard it as one of the very best breech-loading arms that I have ever seen."

There are several reasons to think these tests were with the handmade 36 caliber samples including a comment in Dyer's report of a "ratchet" extractor.  That method of extracting fired cartridge cases was not used in the larger production model that came later.

But the Army stalled in ordering any.  Spencer was interviewed by President Lincoln, who is reported at some time in 1861 to have fired a Spencer at short range using his own front sight whittled from a piece of wood.  The President instructed the Army Chief of Ordnance, General Ripley, to order 10,000.  Spencer (perhaps Cheney) accepted this first large order on the last day of 1861.

But the Army (and the Navy) balked at placing further substantial orders for another year and a half.  Spencer roamed the western fighting front south from Indiana and Illinois trying to sell guns to individual commanders.  Colonel John Wilder facing the Confederates in Tennessee ordered Spencers; the Army rejected the order; the brigade voted to buy them anyway, and did, at $35 each.  That's when a private earned $15 a month--which was about the cost of the traditional muzzle loading musket.

Major Military Usage

Spencer had another meeting with President Lincoln on August 18th, 1863, when the President hit a 6" wide pine board at about 40 yards with at least six shots.

Every reference seen in print or on the Internet to discuss the tardy procurement of Spencers uses words of scorn for the Army and the then Chief of Ordnance, General James Ripley. This is unfair to all of the participants and is a disservice to understanding the times and the political genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Points for reference are:

Lincoln had the devil of a time in the first two years of the War getting Congress to approve the conduct of the War, and to pay for it.  Before they could afford the War, the currency had to be nationalized.  Before then, local banks issued their own notes, and although printed, amounted to little more then promissory notes of the "I promise to pay to bearer" kind.  The American national currency came into being to pay for the Civil War.

The Northern States (and many Southern) were reluctant to go to war.  Not much happened from the first articles of secession in December 1860 until the firing on Ft. Sumpter in South Carolina in April of 1861.  Who fired first turned out to be important.  The North got mad as an emotional reaction, but not necessarily to be in it with everything available.  Lincoln's senior General, Winfield Scott, at the beginning of the War told the President something like "two hundred thousand men under an able general might do a reasonable job in a few years."  Ouch.  Lincoln couldn't politically get that kind of support.  His genius was working with the scum of the Republic, the profiteers and sharks, long enough until the political will was behind him.

Money counts - Spencers cost twice as much to buy as muskets, and the cost of ammunition was frightful.

Horses and wagons were in short supply.  Carrying enough ammunition by horse and wagon to keep a line of Spencers firing merrily away may well have been beyond the available capability.  The Southern soldier fought individually like a berserker, but for the North to win, the soldier had to be subordinate to a major organization.  Individual fire power wasn't as important for the North to win as dull disciplined routine of marching into the South and staying in place.

Civil War battles were quickly shrouded in heavy clouds of gunsmoke.  The opposing sides had trouble seeing each other.  Soldiers had to be constantly chivied to not shoot high--over the heads of the other side.  Tripling the rate of fire with Spencers would have laid down a more impenetrable cloud of gunsmoke.

Watch these dates.  The War starts in April 1861 but makes little progress.  Gettysburg was fought on July 1, 2, & 3 of 1863.  Lincoln shoots the Spencer again in August of 1863.  The Gettysburg Address is November 19th, 1863.  The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1st, 1863.  The Union offensive to march through Georgia, the burning of the Shenandoah Valley, and bottling the Confederates up in Richmond all occurred in 1864. All of these represented a new found feeling of competency in the rank and file of the Union Army.  Atlanta fell in late August of 1864 right while the Democratic National Convention thought the War was unwinnable. The Union Army had more deserters on its rolls then available for duty at the time of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.  But by then, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address had drawn so many others to the Federal cause that the Federal Army at Appomattox was 25% foreign born and 10% African-American.  It took years for Lincoln to muster the Federal side to a will to win.

The Federals bought a million and a half muzzle loading muskets at about $15 each.  Another hundred thousand Spencers would have been less then 10% of procurement, and at more then double the price.

For a very long time, like about the year 1700 to today, soldiers going into battle carried only a few pounds of ammunition on their person.  In the Civil War, the goal was for muzzle loading infantry to go into battle with about 40 rounds apiece (at 11 to 12 shots per pound for 4 pounds).  The Confederates could shoot that off in about a dozen minutes or so.  In World War Two, the soldiers carrying the M1 Garand carried 96 shots (12 eight round clips) at 20 shots per pound and could shoot that off in about four minutes.  In Vietnam, the soldiers carrying the M16 could carry 200 to 300 rounds for about 6 pounds, and could shoot that off in about three minutes.  When General Phil Sheridan headed south from Winchester, Virginia, on February 28th, 1865, on a sustained cavalry ride that carried his 10,000 troopers (Sharps and Spencer armed) all the way to the end of the War, each trooper started off with 40 rounds each carried on the horse.  Muzzle loader firing for 12 minutes or Spencer firing for 3 minutes, 40 rounds was the Civil War standard allotment of ammunition per man.

Taking all this in, General Ripley of Army Ordnance may not have been as wrong as frequently portrayed.  The money, the transport, the speed the soldiers would shoot off everything they had before the battle was over, and the lack of more horses to pull more wagons laden with heavy ammunition, all of this says the repeating Spencer, as wonderful as it was, may not have been the big issue.  There may not have been any more horses available.  What was more important was the will to bring the Civil War and its atrocious casualties and appalling damage to an end.

The Spencer was a marvelous invention in its day.  It was the first reliable repeater with sufficient muzzle energy for military service.  It survived the rigors of the field in good working order.  But like the other technology inventions of the Civil War of bombs, torpedoes, land mines, exploding artillery shells, aerial observation, trench warfare, armored ships, and much larger massed armies sustained in the field by the railroad, all leading to worse destruction in World War One, the rapid fire repeating Spencer was a historical technical development more then a decisive outcome on the battlefield.


Nearly all of the Spencers were made during the Civil War, and those are marked at the top of the frame in three lines as Spencer Repeating / Rifle Co. Boston, Mass / Pat'd March 6, 1860.  Additional procurement of Spencers towards the end of the War required sub-contracting to the Burnside Rifle Company as their product had fallen into disfavor.

Spencer made guns have six groove rifling.  Those made or rebarreled by Burnside or Springfield Armory have three groove rifling.


The cartridge was designed at the very beginning of the rimfire metallic cartridge era before centerfire cartridges had been invented.  They didn't yet know the brass case had to be stronger for the rigors of field service, and they hadn't yet made the discoveries and invented the machinery to make thicker cases.  The Spencer case is easier to damage then what came later just after the Civil War.

The location of the magazine in the buttstock protected both the magazine and the cartridges.

The nomenclature for the Spencer cartridges is confusing.  The cartridge issued during the War was called the "No. 56" or "56-56" where the numbers are used differently then in the following forty years.  The twin numbers 56-56 refer to the outside diameter of the case being the same at the front as in the back at 56/100 of an inch (56 caliber).  It was a straight sided case firing firing a 52 caliber bullet (54 to 55), and collectors refer to these models of Spencers as 52 caliber.

The cartridges used after the War were called 56-52 and 56-50.  Each are very slightly tapered, were supposed to be slightly different, but were interchangeably used in the practices of the day.  Collectors call these 50 caliber models (.512").

All of these Spencer and Spencer related cartridges are rimfire.

Spencers in other calibers were made, especially at first in 36 rimfire, and guns were privately rebarreled.

Very recently the Spencer Civil War carbine was put back into production in Italy as a Model 1865 in calibers 44 S&W Russian, 45 Long Colt, and 56-50 (Taylor). The new Taylor version is named for the major importer as it has more carefully controlled dimensions for modern standards of reloadable centerfire cartridges.

Blakeslee Cartridge Box

A cartridge box was invented by Blakeslee to carry Spencer ammunition and hasten reloading. It held seven tubes of seven cartridges each to quickly slide one tube at a time into the gun.

The Blakeslee box looks good in theory but was bulky. It bounced around and got in the way when in action, or on a galloping horse, or while running.  They hadnít then figured out how to hold such containers firmly to the soldierís body. The soldiers could shoot out all the ammunition they could carry nearly as quickly when issued in bulk and carried unloaded as when preloading it into tubes without the hassle of preloading the tubes of the unwieldy Blakeslee cartridge box.

Spencer Shotgun

In the 1880s, Spencer invented, patented, and manufactured in a new company (Spencer Arms Co., Windsor, Connecticut) a very advanced design, and the first, pump action shotgun.  This brought a repeating shotgun to market that many years later displaced the predominance of the double barreled shotgun.


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