The Spencer -- Today

Christopher Spencer's success in the repeating rifle field proved his own undoing. In the years following the American Civil War, the world firearms market was flooded with guns. This led to the curious situation of the Spencer company competing with itself, as efforts to sell new guns were undermined by the availability of cheap surplus Spencers. Other competition, from the more streamlined, large capacity magazine Winchester, hastened the end of Spencer production. Although some Regular Army cavalry units were issued Spencers following the war, the repeaters were turned in for single shot carbines with the advent of the Model 1873 .45-70 Springfield.

The Spencer's virtues as an affordable, durable, reasonably powerful repeater, however, made it popular among budget minded civilians for many years after its military demise. Spencers were still dropping deer east and west into the early years of this century. For a long time, civilian Spencer shooters were amply supplied with surplus and commercially produced ammunition for their .56-.56s and .56-.50s. The sun began to set on the Spencer, however, with the obsolete cartridge purge conducted by American manufacturers in the wake of World War I. Like the Henry, the rimfire Spencer was limited to factory produced ammunition. As the years slipped by, existing stocks were largely expended or deteriorated and by the Civil War Centennial there were few Spencers firing salutes.

While other Civil War breechloading small arms, including the Henry, Sharps, Gallagher and Smith Carbines have returned to production and are seen on firing lines at skirmishes and reenactments across America, the Spencer has not been resurrected. American and European replica makers are no doubt capable of reproducing the Spencer,, but it seems unlikely we'll see any new seven shooters soon. Probably the most important reason for this is the unavailablility of a satisfactory ammunition supply. The Smith and Sharps are externally primed breechloaders; cartridge tubes, bullet moulds and percussion caps for these arms are readily available from sutlers and ammunition is easily fabricated by shooters. The new Henry can be fed .44- 40 cartridges and remain true to its original bore diameter and ballistics, and reloading the .44-40 is a relatively painless procedure. The Spencer, on the other hand, cannot be chambered for a readily available contemporary cartridge which even approximates its original caliber.

There is hope, however, for Spencer shooters who wish to blaze away with blanks at reenactments, participate in N-SSA cartridge rifle competition or simply bust tin cans in the spirit of the 1860s. Dixie Gun Works (Dept CWN, Gunpowder Lane, PO Box 130, Union City, TN 38261; catalog $4) has long sold brass stock 56-50 cartridge cases, which may work in 56-56s as well. The Dixie cases are primed with a .22 short ±€blank± or a .22 short case with the powder and bullet removed and then loaded with black powder and Spencer bullet. The priming blank must be aligned properly with the Spencer's rimfire firing pin, however, effectively rendering the repeater into a single shot.

For those who want to use their Spencers as repeaters there is another solution. As early as 1967, an article on Spencer centerfire conversions by E.V. Hathaway appeared in the December issue of ±€Shooting± ±€Times±. Hathaway's conversion involved modifying an original upper breechblock. While relatively common when the article was published, breechblocks have grown scarce since. This problem was solved in 1985 when S & S Firearms (Dept. CWN, 74-11 Myrtle Ave., Glendale, NY 11385; catalog $3) introduced a newly manufactured Spencer center fire upper breech block. The hardened steel block, which is N-SSA approved, comes complete with spring loaded firing pin and firing pin carrier and sells for $100. It is suitable for all Spencer models, although minor fitting may be required for some guns. Since installation of the S & S breechblock does not require any firearm modification, a Spencer owner who wishes to shoot his rifle or carbine may retain his original breechblock and the collectible value of his gun.

I have never subscribed to the belief that all original guns are too fragile or valuable to shoot. As long as reasonable care and common sense are excercised, shooting original guns will not degrade their value, unless they are in "factory new" condition. Each gun is an individual case, however, and should be evaluated by a good gunsmith.

Once he installs a centerfire breechblock in his rifle or carbine, the potential Spencer shooter has to craft servicible ammunition. Cartridges for centerfire Spencer conversions are usually made from .50-70 cartridge cases, although John C. McQueen reports using 11mm Spanish cases successfully. The major American ammunition makers have long since ceased production of .50-70 cartridges, but Dixie Gun Works sells new .50-70 brass at a reasonable price. Before discussing the creation of modern Spencer cartridges, however, a brief word on original ammunition is in order.

Civil War Spencers were chambered for the "Number 56," or .56-.56 rimfire cartridge, developed by the inventor, Christopher Spencer. Unlike many 19th century cartridge designations, the numbers do not indicate bullet or bore diameter or powder charge. They represent the dimensions, in hundreths of an inch, of the cartridge case's base and mouth. The diameter of the .56-.56's 350 grain bullet was a nominal .52 caliber, (most are actually around .54 caliber) and, like a modern .22 rimfire, was held in its case by a short "heel" at the bullet base. Most of the bullet's length, including the lubrication grooves, was exposed. A charge of 45 grains of black powder gave the round a muzzle velocity of 1200 feet per second.

In 1864, Springfield Armory developed a new cartridge for the Model 1865 Spencer. This slightly tapered, heavily crimped round was dubbed the .56-.50. A nominal .50 caliber, the .56-.50 was shorter overall than the .56-.56, but had a longer case, which protected the bullet's lubrication grooves. The .56-.50's bullet weight and powder charge were identical to the .56-.56, although the Armory designed round had a slightly higher velocity. Christopher Spencer, who felt the .56-.50 had an excessive crimp, designed his own somewhat bottlenecked version of the cartridge, and called it the .56-.52. In addition, after the war a number of .56-.56 carbines were sleeved for the .56- .50/.56-.52 cartridge. Both the .56-.50 and the .56-.52 are interchangeable with each other, but theoretically not with the .56-.56. Because of these facts and the usual tolerances evident in original black powder firearms, Spencers exhibit wide variations in chamber lengths and bore diameters.

To complicate matters, commercial .56-.52 ammunition can be fired in .56-.56 guns. Neal Friedenthal of the N-SSA's 15th New Jersey Infantry reports buying 20 rounds of commercially manufactured .56-.52 cartridges (at collector's prices) about ten years ago and shooting them in his .56-.56 carbine. Although the undersized cases, manufactured around 1920, split on firing, Friedenthal recalls that the ammunition gave good accuracy in his gun. I can categorically state that any attempts to shoot 19th century ±€military± ammunition in a Spencer are doomed to failure. Priming compounds have deteriorated over the years and they will not fire. If you want to shoot a Spencer today, conversion is the way to go.

To make Spencer centerfire ammunition, .50-70 brass must be shortened. Case dimensions for an individual gun may be calculated by having a gunsmith make a sulphur chamber cast. Another alternative is to cut and try the .50-70 case a little at a time until it fits the chamber. Once proper length is established, succeeding cases can be cut to match. According to Phil Siess of S & S, cases may be trimmed on a lathe or by sliding them over a 1/2" dowel and using a tubing cutter. A sheet provided by S & S with their breech block details dimensions and provides instructions concerning trim and overall length for .56-.56 and .56-.50 guns. Overall cartridge length is critical in the Spencer, as incorrect length often leads to feeding problems.

Interior dimensions of an individual gun's barrel may be obtained by "slugging" the bore, or driving a slightly oversize piece of lead down the barrel with a brass rod. The resultant slug mirrors the bore and should be measured with a micrometer. Rapine Inc. (Dept CWN, Box 1119, East Greenville, PA 18041) makes bullet molds in three different diameters (.520, .535 and .546) and six diferent weights suitable for the Spencer. Two of the designs are "heeled" like the original .56-.56 slug, and, when loaded, expose most of their bearing surface beyond the cartridge case. For the best accuracy, bullets should be .001 to .002 over groove diameter. If you can't find a Rapine mold that throws the exact diameter bullet you want, then choose one slightly oversize. The bullets, cast from soft lead, may then be sized to the proper diameter. They should also be lubricated. The best black powder cartridge lubricant I have used is SPG±tm±.

Rapine designs differ in one notable aspect from original bullets; they are flat nosed. Original Spencer rounds were loaded with pointed bullets which rested on the center of preceeding cartridges in the gun's tubular magazine. With the volatile priming compound contained in the rim of of the Spencer's rimfire ammunition, this was not normally a problem. There is, however, at least one recorded incident of a Spencer exploding shortly after the Civil War when recoil set off a cartridge and detonated the whole magazine. Such an incident is far more serious than a similar one with the Henry, as the Spencer magazine rests alongside the shooter's head.

Because of such a possibility, heightened with centerfire primers, flat nosed bullets and flat nosed magazine followers are required for Spencers used in N-SSA competition. Along with Spencer breechblocks, S & S stocks flat nosed followers and a wide variety of original and reproduction parts. The company is a veritable one stop shop for everything needed to repair, rebuild or shoot a Spencer.

The easiest part of crafting Spencer ammunition is the assembling of the components into cartridges. Empty cases should be primed with a standard large rifle primer, using a .50-70 shellholder in a reloading press or priming tool. Centerfire Spencer cartridges, with strong solid head brass, do not hold the full 45 grain powder charge of original folded head rimfire rounds. Most shooters load 30 to 35 grains of FFG and fill any void between the base of the bullet and the powder charge with a filler like cornmeal. The original style Rapine "heeled" bullet can be hand seated but should be secured in the case with silicone adhesive or a similar cement. Spencer cartridge cases expand to fit the chamber of the gun they were fired in, and, as long as they will be fired again in the same gun, do not need to be resized. They should, however, be washed with soap and water after firing and before reloading to remove corrosive black powder residue.

For an in-depth look at Spencer centerfire cartrtidge creation, see Stephen F. Blancard's "Christopher Spencer's Horizontal Shot Tower," which appeared in the late and much lamented ±€Black± ±€Powder± ±€Report± in September of 1985. Written before the availability of the new Rapine "heeled" bullets, Blancard's case length dimensions are based on use of the old .50-70 slug. Case length will be different when bullets cast with a Rapine mold are used.

You'd be hard put to find a Civil War veteran to talk to today, but, with a little time and effort, you can make a veteran Spencer, mute for generations, speak with authority and accuracy. If for no other reason than to atavistically return to those heady days of the 1860s -- shoot that Spencer!

© 1992 by Joe Bilby

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