Spencer's Repeaters in the Civil War

By A.M. Beck

Part 1 - Getting Them Built

The Spencer repeater was one of the two most advanced firearms to see service in the War for Southern Independence, the other being the Henry. In spite of the fact that the mechanism was patented just before the war, the first general issue of these weapons was not until January 1863. The new company had many hurdles to clear before production could begin. The repeaters were very favorably tested by both the Army and Navy ordinance departments in 1861 and '62. However, by the time the prototype Spencers were being circulated within the military, the War Department already had outstanding orders for 15 or 20 different patterns of breechloading arms. Many of them had been equally favorably tested, and most of the companies that presented them had little or nothing in the way of production facilities. Certainly not what was required to fulfill a large government contract. In addition, there were many partisans for various patent weapons within both federal and state ordinance departments. Some officers were actually paid under the table by companies, others sincerely believed in the guns they championed. The people at the War Department had an awful time trying to figure out which weapons were indeed fit for service, and who was in a position to deliver on a very big order for high precision, interchangeable parts guns.

Faced with such a daunting task, the War Department pretty much threw up its collective hands and declared that no new patent weapons would be ordered. In such a climate, it is not very hard to understand why Spencer met so much resistance to the purchase of his new repeaters. This is especially true when one realizes that the people in the War Department were essentially bean counters. They had never seen such a weapon and didn't have a clue as to its tactical implications. They did however understand that it was very heavy, over 10 pounds loaded, and it used special ammunition not available through regular ordinance channels. What was worse was the price. When first quality muskets could be had from any one of a dozen contractors for $18, the price for Spencer's repeaters was $40, $43 for the Navy version with saber bayonet.

The Spencer company's first federal contract made an end run around this problem. It was directly from the Navy Department. This was obtained not so much because of the obvious superiority of the Spencer system, but rather the fact that one of the directors of the new company, Charles Cheney, was the Boston neighbor and friend of Gideon Wells, the Secretary of the Navy 1. Received in June of 1861, this contract was for only 700 rifles.

When this order was received, the company existed mainly on paper. The guns that were being circulated through the military were hand made tool room specials, constr ucted by Christopher Spencer and his gunsmith friend, Luke Wheelock. Their armory was the machine shop of the Cheney brother's silk mill, in Boston.2

Now that they had an order, the company desperately needed an armory. Seven hundred guns was not enough to start such a business, but it was decided to go ahead anyway. The enterprise was turning into a very big risk. Hoping for more and bigger orders, the second floor of the Chickering Pianoforte building was rented in Boston. Then it was discovered that equipment and machinery could not be procured, not to mention skilled machinists. With the war in full swing, it was impossi ble to obtain speedy delivery on any sort of device that could be used to make war material. Everyone that was at all politically connected, especially the cronies of Simon Cameron, Lincoln's less than honest first Secretary of War, quickly obtained government contracts and desperately needed the equipment to ful fill them. The penalties for default on these contracts were severe.

In December of 1861, The first big order came in. Based on tests ordered by General George McClellen that November, the army ordered 10,000 Spencer rifles. The first delivery of 500 was to be in three months, an impossibly short time.3

Meanwhile, one potentially large sale was lost. Spencer well understood that certain officers held great influence in Washington. One officer that he wanted particularly to impress was Hiram Berdan, of the First and Second Sharpshooters. As the Army order was being placed in December, Berdan received a sample rifle, quite possibly the same one just tested by McClellen's committee. Things started off well, but while Berdan was firing the repeater, a cartridge rim burst, blowing hot gas in the famous marksman's face. Luckily, no permanent damage was done, but Berdan ordered Sharps rifles instead.4

Less than a month after receipt of the Army order, the contract situation got even worse. Due to the sorry state of affairs at the War Department, Lincoln replaced Cameron with a no-nonsense lawyer, Edwin Stanton. One of the new secretary's first moves was to call for all outstanding contracts, with the idea of cleaning house.5 The state of the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was not good. There was no denying that the first deliveries would be several months late. The way the Army contract was written, the War Department could cancel the whole lot. The newly formed Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was facing the very real threat of default.

The Spencer situation was examined in May of 1862. Since the company was at that point 2500 rifles behind, the total deliveries for March, April and May, the quantity was reduced to 7500 and the Army order allowed to stand. This was about the best that could be hoped for. Shortly afterward, this contract was renegotiated to reflect the reduced number. The initial delivery date was moved back to even further, to July.6 Luckily, the Navy contract was not affected by the upheaval at the War Department. It was however, just as late.

Christopher Spencer excused himself from the business problems. He held no financial interest in the company that bore his name and did not take an active part in its day-to-day operation. In fact, he sold his patent rights to the company for a royalty of $1.00 per gun sold.7 This is not to say that he did not work hard to make the enterprise a success. There were plenty of technical considerations to keep him busy at the new armory. He designed most of the specialized machinery to make his guns, and then had the machinery built.

Things proceeded slowly in the Chickering building on Tremont street. The machinery began to arrive and skilled workmen were hired. By late summer gun parts were being produced. The Navy rifles were first to be built. Some key equipment had still not been delivered so Spencer called on his friend, R. S. Lawrence, of the Sharps company, for help. Sharps barrels and lock parts sped up production. Christopher Spencer had used Sharps parts in his prototypes and they again appeared in the early Navy rifles.8

The Navy's repeaters were submitted for inspection on December 4th of 1862 and the first 600 were received at the Charlestown (Boston) Navy Yard in February of 1863.9 In the meantime, the first 500 Army rifles were delivered on the last day of 1862, six months late.10 These Army rifles were actually the first to be issued, The 5th Michigan Cavalry issued 500 about January 5th , 1863. 11

By March of 1863 things were under control in Boston. With deliveries catching up and no new orders, Spencer set off to tour the Mississippi flotilla and the federal armies in the west to demonstrate his repeater and drum up some business. This trip made a very favorable impression within the armies, but its direct result was only one order. That came from Col. John T. Wilder's brigade of mounted infantry, for 1400 rifles. This order presented a serious problem. It did not come through the Ordinance Department. The men of the brigade pledged their government pay and Wilder, a very successful businessman himself, cosigned the note. This meant that the guns would not be paid for on delivery but rather as the men received their pay. Given the state of the paymasters department at the time, this presented a formidable risk. Spencer crossed his fingers and took the ord er.12 This order was later transferred to the Ordinance Department and Wilder got his guns through the regular issue.

About the same time, the State of Massachusetts was having trouble with federal supply of its State Troops. They decided to solve this problem themselves and convened a board to select arms for the State Militia. This board found the Spencer repeater the best of the 25 arms submitted. It didn't hurt that the company was located in Boston. In May of 1863, the state ordered 2000 rif les.13

Undoubtedly the most famous sales call made by Christopher Spencer was the one to President Lincoln in August of 1863. Mr. Lincoln had previously tried two different Spencer rifles supplied by the Navy. The first probably had a rusty magazine tube and could not be loaded. In firing the second, the president experienced a double feed, which locked up the gun and required several minutes to clear. This sort of failure is easy to get with the Spencer action, if the lever is not operated smoothly. Due to this experience, the President personally had stopped the issue of Spencer rifles to some units. It was this turn of events that inspired Mr. Spencer's visit. The meeting apparently went well. Spencer was able to explain the problems and their solutions satisfactorily. Then they adjourned, meeting the next evening near the Washington monument, where an hour was spent firing the rifle Spencer had brought. The President seemed quite pleased with the gun. He never again stopped its issue, although he also did not personally intervene to increase orders.14

Up to July of 1863, only rifles had been built. Most of these had been issued to cavalry and mounted infantry. As popular as they were, there was an almost immediate call for carbines. The rifles were too heavy and cumbersome for mounted service. Also, not being equipped with a sling ring, there was a very great danger of loosing the weapon if it was dropped, leaving the unfortu nate trooper unarmed.

Spencer had originally built rifles because the Army refused to raise state cavalry regiments early in the war. The belief in Washington was that the conflict would be over in less than the two years required to properly train a cavalry regiment. Now that Federal volunteer cavalry was becoming effective (strangely enough, two years into the war), the need for first class carbines was great.

In June of 1863, as the last of the Army's 7500 rifles were being delivered, the Spencer company approached the War Department with a proposal to deliver carbines. This was quickly accepted and led to a contract for 11,000 of the short guns. Initial delivery was to begin in August and be complete before the end of the year. The price was set at $25.

As usual, deliveries were late, but much less than before. The first carbines were accepted on October 3rd, 1863. Seven thousand were turned over to the Army by year's end. This time the order was not reduced for late deliveries. The worth of the repeaters was finally being appreciated. Before the contract was completed, the quantity was increased to 34,500.15

The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was finally beginning to thrive. There would be more problems, but the repeating weapon for the average trooper was finally beginning to be appreciated. The American Civil War was making the transition from the wars of the past to the wars of the future. In part this was due to the efforts of a single Yankee mechanical genius.

In all, during the War for Southern Independence, the Spencer company delivered 12,472 rifles, including 1003 for the Navy as well as Wilder's and the Massachusetts guns, both of which were diverted to the Federal Ordinance Department. The number of M1860 carbines made by Spencer eventually totaled 45,785. An additional 30,502 M1865 carbines were made by the Burnside company, but deliveries started just at the end of the war, so none were actually in service before the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. There were a few thousand civilian sales in addition to government deliveries. Many troops took advantage of a government offer and purchased their Spencers when they mustered out at the close of the war.

After the war, the company could not compete with its own surplus, at the time being sold off by the government. They introduced improved models, but the improvements were subtle. Small civilian, state and foreign orders would not sustain the company, neither would refinishing and spare parts work. Finally, in 1869, the armory closed and was bought by the Fogerty Rifle Company, who in turn were purchased by Winchester, in a move to lessen competition.16

Christopher Spencer went on to patent the first automatic screw manufacturing machine. This made possible the production of millions of identical threaded fasteners, which made modern standardized hardware practical. He helped start several companies, the most successful being the Billings and Spencer Company, which pioneered safe boiler designs. He eventually acquired 42 patents. Before his death in 1922, and at the advanced age of 89, he even took flying lessons.

1.) Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAuley, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, P.P. 93-9

2.) Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 16,253.

3.) Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAuley, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, Pg. 97

4.) Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 52

5.) Civil War Guns, William Edwards, The Stackpole Co. 1962, P.P. 147,148

6.) Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 37,38

7.) Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAuley, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, P. 97

8.) Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 42,43

9.) Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 50

10.)Civil War Guns, William Edwards, The Stackpole Co. 1962, Pg. 149

11.)Man at Arms, Vol. 19 No. 5, Sept/Oct. '97 "Those Damned Michigan Spencers", Wiley Sword, P.P. 23, 37

12.)Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 25,45

13.)Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 52

14.)Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 56-58

15.)Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, P.P. 66,67

16.)Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Norrthwood Heritage Press 1983, Pg. 155

(C) 1998 by Tony Beck

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