Spencers et le Regiment Etrangere

A few months ago I wrote about the impressive new Spencer rifle and carbine reproductions of L. Romano Rifle Company (551 Stewart's Corners Road, Pennellville, NY 13132. Tel: 315-695-2066). At that time I noted that the Romano Spencers had actions "machined from steel forgings." This was not exactly technically correct, according to Larry Romano. Larry tells me that his actions are machined from a "billet of steel," as are his upper and lower breech blocks.

Since I last wrote, L. Romano has expanded its product line. The company now offers blank cartridges, .56-.50 reloading dies at $113.40, shell holders at $15, 310 grain flat nosed bullet molds at $89.95, center fire breech blocks for conversion of original guns at $204.50, a carbine cartridge box with a wood insert drilled to hold Spencer cartridges at $79 and a carbine sling with buckle and swivel for $62.

Larry is also negotiating with suppliers to produce loaded .56-50 center fire ammunition and unloaded cartridge cases. Although .56-.50 brass is not especially difficult to produce from .50-70 brass (except for a klutz like me), doing so is a time consuming chore, involving cutting the brass to the proper length, turning doen the cartridge rim and putting a radius on it to insure proper feeding from the Spencer magazine into the gun's chamber. The Spencer action is a simple affair, and, aside from length, cartridge case rim diameter and configuration are the most critical dimensions to proper feeding in a Spencer -- original or reproduction.

Cartridge case rims for .56-50 rounds should be .670 (some modern made .50-70s vary) in diameter with a slight radius on the front of the rim cut for the average relined and rechambered barrel. If you're shooting a Model 1865 gun with an original rather than relined chamber, and are having feeding problems with .670 rim diameter cases, try taking them down to .650 diameter. Incidentally, Larry Romano's rifles and carbines work best with a .660 diameter rim. The .670 may work, but will be a tad sticky.

I believe that availability of "factory" type .56-50 brass ready to load, or loaded ammo that could be reloaded after shooting, would be warmly welcomed by Spencer shooters. If you think so too, give Larry Romano a call. In the meantime, for more details on .56-50 cartridge case forming and dimensions, see Tony Beck's excellent article on shooting the Spencer in The Skirmish Line. Tony's article and letters have provided essential assistance in getting my own Spencer, an original Model 1860 rifle, into shooting shape.

It should be noted here that original Model 1860 Spencers are chambered for the .56-.56 rim fire cartridge, requiring a "heeled" bullet with outside lubrication. Both current reproduction Model 1860 Spencers are chambered for the much easier to load .56-.50 center fire round, which was originally developed in a rim fire configuration for the Model 1865 Spencer. An original Spencer which is relined or rebarreled to serve as a practical shooting gun for live ammunition should be fitted with an S&S Firearms or Romano center fire breech block and chambered for the .56-50 center fire. Since someone long ago smoothbored my 1860 Spencer into a shotgun, probably to plink pigeons off his barn with the then available Spencer shot shells, it will be relined to .56-.50.

Speaking of Spencers, they played a major firearms role in the TNT production Last Stand at Saber River, starring Tom Selleck and set during the closing months of the Civil War. Although I enjoyed the film, based on an Elmore Leonard novel, I have a few quibbles with it on historical points, which I realize must often be compromised in the interest of story line in projects of this type. For one, a master Texas gunsmith is portrayed as converting percussion revolvers to fire self contained cartridges in early 1865. This is not impossible, as many local gunsmiths converted percussion revolvers in the early postwar period. It is, however, unlikely, since the Confederacy didn't have the industrial capacity to produce metallic cartridges to fire in the guns!

The villain of the film is an embittered Confederate agent who smuggles Enfield rifle muskets from Mexico to Arizona to ship east for Rebel soldiers. In and of itself, this is not implausible, until one remembers that the Confederacy controlled the whole Texas border to the end of the war, obviating the need to smuggle anything from Mexico through or into Arizona.

The heroine, Tom Selleck's character's wife, totes a Spencer with a Blakeslee cartridge box. Since General James Wilson could not obtain Blakeslee boxes for his men before his end of the war campaign through Alabama, however, it seems highly unlikely that one would show up in a frontier hardware store or gun shop in either Union or Confederate territory during the same time period. Or in a military unit, either.

Both Yankee and Rebel troops west of the Mississippi received the dregs of their respective governments' stocks of firearms and other supplies. There were other little flubs as well, including an highly unrealistic claim for Spencer carbine range. When you see the film, (and you should) you'll no doubt pick up a few more.

These caveats aside, Last Stand at Saber River was a fun movie -- a good old fashioned western where virtue triumphs, with an interesting ambivalent philosophical message about the nature of war and men at war and their relationships with women, and the added bonus of good costuming and a lot of neat guns -- including a Hall carbine and a LeMat revolver. We've come a long way from the days when westerns featured "Hollywood" style low slung gun rigs, clothing from Al's Western & Riding Shop and battered Winchester Model 1892 carbines with fore stocks removed masquerading as Henrys. Bravo, Mr. Selleck.

So you want to get away from it all -- your wife outshot you at the last skirmish, you wrote a bad check to a sutler for that custom kepi, you can't stand the ignominy of being unable to stomach the 69th New York's Irish whiskey and Champagne "Regimental Punch," -- then do as thousands have done before you, Beau Geste. Join the Foreign Legion. The 1860s Foreign Legion, that is.

One of the letters I received following my column on firearms research during my trip to France last summer was from Sous-lt. Troy W. Thompson, a Kentucky reenactor who is forming a company of Le Regiment Etrangere, the only French Second Empire reenactment unit in the United States.

So, if you want to thrill to the crack of an escopeta from the chaparral, fight to the last wooden hand at Camerone, or defend the honor of the ne'er do well Emperor Maximillian as he blunders his way towards a Mexican firing squad, all the while wearing a neat uniform celebrating the most famous of all military organizations -- join the Legion! Sounds neat to me. For further information, write Troy Thompson, 1397 Ward-Mt. Sherman Rd., Magnolia, KY 42757, or look him up at the Shiloh reenactment.

© 1997 by Joe Bilby

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