Spencer Repeating Rifle: The Seven-Shooter That Changed the Civil War
The Spencer repeating rifle was one of the first successful repeating rifles in the world, and ultimately changed the tides of the Civil War for the Union Army.
Always an inventor and tinkerer, young Christopher Miner Spencer, born June 20, 1833, went to work in the 1850s at Samuel Colt’s factory, where he gained valuable insight into firearms manufacturing. By 1859, Spencer had struck off on his own and had a repeating rifle ready to patent in 1860.
The Spencer was a breech-loading rifle — a rifle that loads from the chamber end — as opposed to the muzzle-loading rifles then in common service. Spencer went one better and made his rifle a repeater by incorporating a tubular magazine in the buttstock which held seven rounds of “No. 56 Spencer rimfire” ammunition, as Spencer called it.
At the time, it was significantly quicker to load and fire compared to muzzle-loading alternatives.
“Whereas a cavalryman might get off three shots per minute with a rifled musket, a man with a Spencer could get off up to 14,” wrote Jim Van Eldik in Wild West magazine.
To operate the rifle, the magazine was withdrawn from the stock, loaded with seven cartridges, then replaced. The user then dropped the lever action on the rifle, moving the breechblock down out of the receiver, causing the magazine to feed a round into the chamber.
Raising the lever moved the breechblock back into place. Then, the shooter cocked the large hammer on the right side of the Spencer, making the gun ready to fire. This process was repeated after every shot until the gun was empty.
The Spencer came in two main variants: a rifle and a shorter carbine. The rifle had a 30-inch barrel, with an overall length of nearly four feet. The carbine, with a barrel length of 22 inches and an overall length of just under 40 inches, was much handier, being primarily issued to mounted cavalry during the Civil War.
Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles
A Hard Sell to the U.S. Government
By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Spencer was attempting to sell his new rifle to the United States military. Unfortunately for him, military tradition and attitudes towards new technology were slow to change, and many officers looked at the new repeating rifle as nothing short of a waste of ammo. Their thought was that poorly trained soldiers would get excited in battle, quickly shoot up their entire supply of ammunition, and then wait to be overrun by the enemy.
A more valid reservation was the immense pressure these hungry rifles would put on an already overtaxed quartermaster supply chain. Ensuring that soldiers would have an adequate supply of ammo for their repeating rifles was a logistics nightmare. Many times, it was a challenge just to ensure soldiers had enough ammo for their single shot Springfield muskets, let alone hundreds of thousands of rounds of Spencer ammo for an army equipped with tens of thousands of repeaters.
Cost was also a factor: the army could buy several muzzle-loading Springfield Model 1861 muskets for the price of a single Spencer. And in the eyes of the army brass, battles were fought by long lines of soldiers marching in an orderly fashion, firing volleys at each other, and then closing with bayonets fixed.
With their muzzle-loaders viewed as accurate and adequate in the hands of trained soldiers, the army saw no reason to arm their troops with what James Wolfe Ripley, chief of ordnance of the United States Army, called “newfangled gimcracks.”
The technology that allowed the Spencer to succeed was the self-contained cartridge, which appeared in the 1850s. That’s the ammo that all of us are familiar with today — a primed shell casing which also includes a projectile crimped into it. Prior to that, and throughout the Civil War, most rifles were muzzle-loaders, needing loose powder and a separate projectile to be rammed down the barrel with a ramrod, then the entire firing sequence started by the detonation of a percussion cap mounted on an external nipple.
The Spencer cartridge was originally a .56 caliber rimfire round, firing a lead projectile housed in a copper casing. Known as the .56-56 Spencer, this round was .56 inches in diameter at the cartridge base, and .56 caliber at the case mouth.
Spencer and the U.S. Government’s Springfield Armory later went on to develop a few different calibers, such as the .56-52 and .56-50, but these were relatively minor differences, and seem to be interchangeable. Indeed, measurements of the same caliber varied somewhat based on the manufacturer.
Spencer Repeating Rifles in the Civil War
One of the first major uses of the Spencer rifle occurred in 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg, where a young Brigadier General George A. Custer commanded two regiments of the “Michigan Brigade” who were armed with Spencer Rifles. One can only wonder if Custer appreciated the rapid fire that his men had against Confederate soldiers armed with single shot muskets.
Ironically, thirteen years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the situation would be reversed, with then Lieutenant Colonel Custer (ranks had been reassigned after the Civil War) on the receiving end of a combined Plains Indians force armed with repeating rifles, while the men under his command were armed with single shot breechloading Model 1873 Springfield Trapdoor rifles.
For the first two years of the Civil War, Spencer attempted to sell his rifles and carbines to the U.S. Military with little success. Some state units purchased some, but the U.S. Government refused to place a substantial order.
Spencer, who had connections with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, did manage to get the navy to purchase 700 rifles after his firearm passed an impressive trial run.
“Tests were run on the magnificent rifle,” wrote John Sickles in Military Images. “Five hundred successive rounds were fired with only one misfire, and that was due to a faulty cartridge. It was found that the seven shooters could be emptied in ten seconds.”
Much of the government’s stubbornness was due to one man: Chief of Ordnance James Wolfe Ripley. Ripley was obsessed with doing things on the cheap, and failed to appreciate new technology, even being hesitant to arm the Union with Springfield Model 1861 rifled muskets, since he believed the large number of smoothbore muskets already in U.S. inventory could simply be cheaply rifled.
After dealing with governmental red tape for the first half of the war, Spencer took matters into his own hands, using his connections to arrange a personal meeting with Abraham Lincoln at the White House.
In August, 1863, Spencer walked into Lincoln’s office carrying one of his rifles. Lincoln was extremely interested, and asked Spencer to disassemble the rifle so that Lincoln could “see the inwardness of the thing.” Spencer quickly obliged, and Lincoln, suitably impressed, asked Spencer to call again the next day so that the two of them could take the Spencer out for some hands-on target practice.
The following day Spencer and Lincoln — accompanied by Lincoln’s eldest son Robert, as well as some Naval Department officers — strolled out onto the National Mall (right about where the Washington Monument stands today). There, they set up a board about 3 feet long and 6 inches wide, with black targets painted on either end. For the next hour the pair had some range time with Spencer’s rifle.
According to Spencer’s account of the incident, Lincoln shot well, but Spencer shot better. Lincoln of course took it in good stride, telling Spencer that “you are younger than I am, have a better eye, and a steadier nerve.” At the end of the session, Spencer had the board cut in half, keeping the end Lincoln had shot as a souvenir, which he retained until 1883 when he donated it to a museum in Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln was so impressed with the Spencer that he personally ordered James Ripley to procure some for the Union. Not surprisingly, the ever-obstinate Ripley disobeyed Lincoln’s order, refusing to purchase breech-loading rifles in general, and Spencer rifles in particular. Lincoln had had enough, and in September 1863, Ripley was dismissed, finally paving the way for the first of several large Union orders.
Between 1861 and 1866 the U.S. Government purchased upwards of 13,000 rifles, nearly 95,000 carbines, which were especially popular with cavalry troopers, and tens of millions of rounds of ammunition.
“During the last year or so of the Civil War, reloading of the Spencer was greatly speeded up by the issuing of cartridges in tin tubes. One of these could be emptied into the magazine in seconds. This idea further established the Spencer as the most efficient rifle in the war, and the one with the greatest fire-power.”Major R.O. Ackerman, Real West magazine, February 1974
With tens of thousands of Spencers in Union service, it was guaranteed that at least some would be captured by Confederate forces. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the utility of any captured Spencer repeater was short lived, lasting only until any captured ammunition was expended.
The Spencer’s cartridge used a copper cartridge case, a metal that the Confederacy was in desperately short supply of, and not something that could be produced in any great amount. So while numerous Spencer rifles were captured, it wasn’t long until they became useless fence posts for any Confederate soldier lucky enough to come into possession of one.
Ironically, perhaps the last use of a Spencer repeater in a Civil War related episode was when Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth was killed in a shootout with Union soldiers: two Spencer repeaters were found near him in the burnt-out barn where he made his last stand.
A Surplus of Spencers
When the Civil War ended there was a huge glut of surplus firearms flooding the market. Many of these were fine breech-loading carbines which were cheap and readily available. With nearly 140,000 Spencers (some sources say as high as 200,000) in circulation, the market was oversaturated, and without further military contracts, consumer demand couldn’t keep Spencer in business.
Though the inventor had “successfully challenged Winchester’s in the marketplace and contributed to Union victory in the Civil War, the company bearing his name disappeared during peacetime, its name relegated to the past,” wrote John Jr. Bainbridge in Gun Barons: The Weapons That Transformed America and the Men Who Invented Them.
By 1869, he was forced to liquidate the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, which was ultimately purchased for $200,000 (in 1869 dollars) by Oliver Winchester, of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Winchester wasn’t interested in producing a Spencer rifle, he was interested in selling off Spencer’s machinery and tooling — something he actually profited from.
By 1873, the U.S. Army had withdrawn their Spencers, replacing them with the single shot breechloading Springfield Model 1873 “Trapdoor.” This wasn’t due to any fault in the Spencer design — indeed, the Spencer was a robust and sturdy rifle — but more to do with military thinking at the time. The .45-70 cartridge for the Model 1873 had greater range and stopping power, was more in line with European militaries of the time (who almost all adopted a single shot breech-loader around this time), and was an overall robust and reliable weapon.
After the Civil War, surplus arms flooded the international market, resulting in a number of countries purchasing Spencer repeaters for their own militaries, although none in any enormous numbers. Unfortunately for Spencer himself, the amount of Spencer repeaters on the open market exceeded the amount needed by foreign countries to arm themselves. As such, any foreign orders that materialized were small, and not enough to keep Spencer Repeating Arms in business.
The biggest beneficiary of all these surplus arms were America’s southern neighbors, primarily Mexico, and some countries in South America. In Mexican service, the Spencer saw combat starting in the Second Franco-Mexican war (1861-1867), and then intermittently into the early stages of the Mexican Revolution, with several eyewitness accounts of Spencer repeating rifles being used by some members of Pancho Villa’s División del Norte as late as 1915.
On the American commercial market, the Spencer survived in use long enough for several ammunition makers to offer the cartridge commercially up until about the 1920s. A major limiting factor for the Spencer’s popularity on the commercial market was that the ammunition was rimfire, and therefore not reloadable, nor was it as powerful as many of the other calibers in widespread use, particularly in the American West.
With choices like the 45-70, 50-70, a myriad number of Sharps buffalo calibers, and handy centerfire calibers like 44-40 or 38-40, the Spencer gradually faded into obsolescence.
The Legacy of Spencer Repeating Rifles Today
Today, original Spencers are highly sought after rifles, and command premium prices on the collector’s market. They’re also extremely popular with Civil War reenactors, and top-quality reproductions are made, most often in more common centerfire calibers, although specialty manufacturers still produce Spencer rimfire ammunition, albeit in very small quantities, and at very high prices.
Having invented the Spencer repeater when he was only in his twenties, it’s natural to expect Christopher Spencer to have had a long career as a prolific firearms inventor. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case; Spencer held numerous patents and dabbled in several fields, from machine tools to steam cars.
He did attempt to design a repeating shotgun through the 1870s and 1880s, but this company went bankrupt as well, with the patent being bought by the famous military surplus dealer Francis Bannerman, and produced under Bannerman’s name until about 1907.
Spencer died in 1922, age 88, having made a comfortable living from several of his machine tool patents. His long career let him be a witness to the coming of the breechloading repeater, the self-contained metallic cartridge, the first semi-automatic rifles at the end of the 19th century, all the way up through WWI and the horrors of trench warfare with the ever-present machinegun.
It was a long and fascinating journey for an inventor who was a firsthand witness to firearms history, even if he never made his fortune from his role in it. And in its short window, the Spencer repeating rifle left an indelible mark on American history.
“The seven-shooter came into the fighting like a comet, to stay long enough to help lincoln win,” wrote J. O. Buckeridge in Lincoln’s Choice: The Repeating Rifle which Cut Short the Civil War. “It was a one-war gun, an accident of history, brought into the Civil War ahead of its time, seemingly an answer to Lincoln’s prayer.”
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Sources & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.
- Ackerman, R O. “The Spencer Rifle and Abe Lincoln.” Real West 17, no. 124, February 1974.
- Adams, William G. “Spencers at Gettysburg Fact or Fiction.” Military Affairs 29, no. 1 (1965): 41–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/1985026.
- Bainbridge, John. Gun Barons: The Weapons That Transformed America and the Men Who Invented Them. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2022.
- Bilby, Joseph G. A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2015.
- Buckeridge, J. O. Lincoln’s Choice: The Repeating Rifle which Cut Short the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Stackpole Books, 2018.
- Eldik, Jim V. “Spencers Prove Their Worth.” Wild West 33, no. 4, December 2020.
- Katcher, Philip. Sharpshooters of the American Civil War 1861–65. New York, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2002.
- Marcot, Roy M. Spencer Repeating Firearms. Rochester, NY: Rowe Publications, 1990.
- Miller, H. T. “Small Arms Procurement in the Civil War.” The Military Engineer 25, no. 139 (1933): 70–77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44554994.
- Pegler, Martin. Sharpshooting Rifles of the American Civil War: Colt, Sharps, Spencer, and Whitworth. New York, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2017.
- Sadowski, Robert A. 50 Guns That Changed the World: Iconic Firearms That Altered the Course of History. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2022.
- Sickles, John. “Spencer Rifles and Carbines.” Military Images 29, no. 2 (2007): 30–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44034563.