Spencer repeating rifle

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Spencer Repeating Rifle
Spencer repeating Rifle
Type Manually cocked Lever Action Rifle
Place of origin  United States
Service history
Used by United States Army
United States Navy
Confederate States of America
Empire of Brazil
Wars American Civil War
Indian Wars
Boshin War
Paraguayan War
Franco-Prussian War
Production history
Designer Christopher Spencer
Designed 1860
Manufacturer Spencer company, Burnside Rifle Co,[1] Winchester
Produced 1860–1869
Number built 200,000 approx.
Length 47 inches (1,200 mm) rifle with 30 inch barrel
39.25 inches (997 mm) carbine with 22 inch barrel[2]
Barrel length 30 inches (760 mm)
22 inches (560 mm)[3]
20 inches (510 mm)[4]

Cartridge .56-56 Spencer rimfire
Caliber .52 inches (13 mm)
Action Manually cocked hammer, lever action
Rate of fire 14 or 20 rounds per minute[5]
Muzzle velocity 931 to 1,033 ft/s (284 to 315 m/s)
Effective firing range 500 yards[6]
Feed system 7 round tube magazine

The Spencer repeating rifle was a manually operated lever-action, seven shot repeating rifle produced in the United States by three manufacturers between 1860 and 1869. Designed by Christopher Spencer, it was fed with cartridges from a tube magazine in the rifle's buttstock.

The Spencer repeating rifle was adopted by the Union Army, especially by the cavalry, during the American Civil War, but did not replace the standard issue muzzle-loading rifled muskets in use at the time. The Spencer carbine was a shorter and lighter version.


Diagram of the Spencer rifle showing the magazine in the butt

The design for a magazine-fed, lever-operated rifle chambered for the .56-56 Spencer rimfire cartridge was completed by Christopher Spencer in 1860. Called the Spencer Repeating Rifle, it was fired by cocking a lever to extract a used case and feed a new cartridge from a tube in the buttstock. Like most firearms of the time, the hammer had to be manually cocked in a separate action before the weapon could be fired. The weapon used copper rimfire cartridges based on the 1854 Smith & Wesson patent stored in a seven-round tube magazine. A spring in the tube enabled the rounds to be fired one after another. When empty, the spring had to be released and removed before dropping in fresh cartridges, then replaced before resuming firing. Rounds could be loaded individually or from a device called the Blakeslee Cartridge Box, which contained up to thirteen (also six and ten) tubes with seven cartridges each, which could be emptied into the magazine tube in the buttstock.[7]

Unlike later cartridge designations, the .56-56 Spencer's first number referred to the diameter of the case just ahead of the rim, the second number the case diameter at the mouth; the actual bullet diameter was .52 inches. Cartridges were loaded with 45 grains (2.9 g) of black powder, and were also available as .56-52, .56-50, and a wildcat .56-46, a necked down version of the original .56-56. Cartridge length was limited by the action size to about 1.75 inches; later calibers used a smaller diameter, lighter bullet and larger powder charge to increase power and range over the original .56-56 cartridge, which was almost as powerful as the .58 caliber rifled musket of the time but underpowered by the standards of other early cartridges such as the .50–70 and .45-70.


At first, the view by the Department of War Ordnance Department was that soldiers would waste ammunition by firing too rapidly with breechloading weapons, and thus denied a government contract for all breechloading weapons. More accurately, they feared that the armies logistics train would be unable to provide enough ammunition for the soldiers in the field, as they already had grave difficulty bringing up enough ammunition to sustain armies of tens of thousands of men over distances of hundreds of miles. A weapon able to fire several times as fast would require a vastly expanded logistics train and place great strain on the already overburdened railroads and tens of thousands of more mules, wagons, and wagon train guard detachments. The fact that several Springfield rifle-muskets could be purchased for the cost of a single Spencer carbine also influenced thinking.[8] However, Christopher Spencer was eventually able to gain an audience with President Abraham Lincoln, who subsequently invited him to a shooting match and demonstration of the weapon. Lincoln was impressed with the weapon, and ordered that it be adopted for production.[1]

The Spencer repeating rifle was first adopted by the United States Navy, and subsequently adopted by the United States Army and used during the American Civil War where it was a popular weapon.[9] The South occasionally captured some of these weapons and ammunition, but, as they were unable to manufacture the cartridges because of shortages of copper, their ability to take advantage of the weapons was limited. Notable early instances of use included the Battle of Hoover's Gap (where Col. John T. Wilder's "Lightning Brigade" of mounted infantry effectively demonstrated the firepower of repeaters), and the Gettysburg Campaign, where two regiments of the Michigan Brigade (under Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer) carried them at the Battle of Hanover and at East Cavalry Field.[10] As the war progressed, Spencers were carried by a number of Union cavalry and mounted infantry regiments and provided the Union army with a firepower advantage over their Confederate adversaries. At the battle of Nashville, 9,000 mounted infantrymen armed with the Spencer, under the command of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, chief of cavalry for the Military Division of the Mississippi, rode around Gen. Hood's left flank and attacked from the rear. President Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth was armed with a Spencer carbine at the time he was captured and killed.[11]

Spencer 1865 Carbine .50 caliber

The Spencer showed itself to be very reliable under combat conditions, with a sustainable rate-of-fire in excess of 20 rounds per minute. Compared to standard muzzle-loaders, with a rate of fire of 2–3 rounds per minute, this represented a significant tactical advantage.[12] However, effective tactics had yet to be developed to take advantage of the higher rate of fire. Similarly, the supply chain was not equipped to carry the extra ammunition. Detractors would also complain that the amount of smoke produced was such that it was hard to see the enemy, unsurprising, since even the smoke produced by muzzleloaders would quickly blind whole regiments, and even divisions as if they were standing in thick fog, especially on still days.[13]

One of the advantages of the Spencer was that its ammunition was waterproof and hardy, and could stand the constant jostling of long storage on the march, such as Wilson's Raid. The story goes that every round of paper and linen Sharps ammunition carried in the supply wagons was found useless after long storage in supply wagons. Spencer ammunition had no such problem.[14]

In the late 1860s, the Spencer company was sold to the Fogerty Rifle Company and ultimately to Winchester.[15] Many Spencer carbines were later sold as surplus to France where they were used during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.[16]

Even though the Spencer company went out of business in 1869, ammunition was manufactured in the United States into the 1920s. Later, many rifles and carbines were converted to centerfire, which could fire cartridges made from the centerfire .50-70 brass. Production ammunition can still be obtained on the specialty market.[17]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Walter, John (2006). The Rifle Story. Greenhill Books. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-85367-690-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. http://www.romanorifle.com/html/spencer.html
  3. The M-1863 version
  4. The M-1865 version
  5. Walter, John (2006). The Rifle Story. Greenhill Books. pp. 256, 70–71. ISBN 978-1-85367-690-1. The fire-rate of the Spencer was usually reckoned as fourteen shots per minute. The Spencer rifle with a Blakeslee quickloader could easily fire twenty aimed shots a minute<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "The Spencer Repeater and other breechloading rifles of the Civil War". Retrieved 2011-02-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Blakeslee Cartridge Box". National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2008-06-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Davis, Burke (1982). The civil war: strange & fascinating facts (1st ed.). New York, NY: Fairfax Press. p. 135. ISBN 0517371510.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Spencer Carbine". CivilWar@Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 9 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Rummel III, George, Cavalry of the Roads to Gettysburg: Kilpatrick at Hanover and Hunterstown, White Mane Publishing Company, 2000, ISBN 1-57249-174-4.
  11. Steers, Edward (12 September 2010). The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. University Press of Kentucky. p. 93. ISBN 0-8131-2724-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "The Spencer Repeater". aotc.net Army of the Cumberland. Retrieved 9 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "More on Spencer's Seven Shot Repeater". Hackman-Adams. Retrieved 9 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Pritchard, Russ A. (1 August 2003). Civil War Weapons and Equipment. Globe Pequot Press. pp. 49–41. ISBN 978-1-58574-493-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Houze, Herb (28 February 2011). Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Iola, Wisconsin: Gun Digest Books. pp. 69–70. ISBN 1-4402-2725-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Tucker, Spencer (21 November 2012). Almanac of American Military History. ABC-CLIO. p. 1028. ISBN 978-1-59884-530-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Flatnes, Oyvind (30 November 2013). From Musket to Metallic Cartridge: A Practical History of Black Powder Firearms. Crowood Press, Limited. p. 410. ISBN 978-1-84797-594-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Chris Kyle and William Doyle, "American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms".
  • Earl J. Coates and Dean S. Thomas, An Introduction to Civil War Small Arms.
  • Ian V. Hogg, Weapons of the Civil War.
  • Barnes, Cartridges of the World.
  • Marcot, Roy A. Spencer Repeating Firearms 1995.
  • Sherman, William T. Memoirs Volume 2 - contains an account of the success of the Spencer on combat (pp. 187–8) and reflections on the role of the repeating rifle in warfare (pp. 394–5).

External links