Spencer's Repeaters

In 1863, two guns that literally changed the course of firearms history were first delivered to the U.S. government. These are the Henry and Spencer repeaters. These arms were among the first to use rimfire cartridges. The Henry was not actually designed as a military weapon. Some were purchased by the Army due to the emergency of the war. The Spencer, however, was specifically intended for military service. Almost 100,000 rifles and carbines were delivered on federal contracts before the end of the Civil War, not to mention state purchases. The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company went on to produce improved models after 1865. Unfortunately, they never got the really big government or foreign contracts needed to stay in business after the war. The company closed and was sold to the Fogerty Rifle Company in 1869, who in turn were bought by Winchester.

It is no coincidence that Spencer carbines and rifles are quite similar to the corresponding Sharps models. Christopher Spencer was very familiar with the durability problems patent arms had experienced in service trials. He incorporated the best features of the most successful breechloader in his design. In fact, Spencer purchased complete barrels from the Sharps company for his first Navy rifles. Internal lock components are identical to the corresponding Sharps parts, except the sear, which must be ground a little to clear the Spencer magazine tube. Since the lock was one of the most vulnerable parts of a weapon, this interchangeability became a strong selling point. Spencers could be repaired with Sharps parts already on hand.

The military Spencers of 1863 were all chambered for the 56-56 cartridge, which was developed by Crittenden and Tibbles about 1861. This firm supplied Smith and Wesson with the first cartridges made under the latter's rimfire patents of 1854. In an attempt to make militarily useful ammunition, the 56-56 features the largest case that was practical to form at the time. When fired in a rifle, this round would approach the performance of the 58 caliber musket then in use.

During the War Between the States, the relatively low power of the 56-56 was not a great handicap. Most battles were fought at much less than 400 yards. Here, the cartridge was more than adequate. It also had the distinct advantage of light recoil. This was especially true for the rifle, which weighs almost ten pounds. In May of 1863, Spencer rifles became the first of the repeaters to be issued. They had an immediate and profound effect on tactics. Shortly after receiving the new guns, Wilder's Lightning Brigade defeated a Confederate force several times their own number at Hoover's Gap, Tennessee. In July, Irvin Gregg's cavalry division, including George Custer's brigade, stopped Jeb Stuart's southern troopers at Gettysburg. The Confederate cavalry was attempting to flank the Army of the Potomac in support of Pickett's ill fated charge. The Southerners had fought these same Federal troopers to a standstill at Brandy Station, only three weeks before. The Confederate horsemen then held the Yankee cavalry in check a week later at the battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. No Spencer equipped units had taken a major part in these battles. At Gettysburg, the 5th and 6th Michigan cavalry held the center of the Federal line that succeeded in stopping the southern cavalry. These units had been rearmed in May with Spencer's repeaters but were not posted to front line service until the end of June. Before then, their main duty had been riding picket in the Washington D.C. area. A good case can be made that, had Stuart's flanking movement been successful, reinforcements would not have been so readily available to the besieged Federal line. Then, Pickett's charge may well have carried the day. Not only was the Federal mounted service coming of age, so were their weapons.

The M-1865 is the Spencer of the Indian Wars era. The only major changes are a reduction in caliber to .50" and 20 inch barrels for the carbines, down from the M-1863's 22 inches. Rifles remained at 30 inches. This, and all later military Spencers, are chambered for the 56-50 cartridge. The round was actually developed by the US Ordinance Department during the Civil War. Its introduction in March of 1865 was just barely too late for service in that conflict.

The limiting factor in the Spencer design is overall cartridge length. Cases longer than about 1.7 inches will not feed through the action. By using a lighter bullet and slightly larger powder charge, the 56-50 improved on the ballistic performance of the 56-56 about as much as was possible.

The 50 caliber Spencer went on to develop an enviable reputation on the frontier. This in spite of the fact that the round was under powered for the wide open west, even when it was first introduced. Spencers were the standard issue weapon of mounted troops for a decade after 1865, with few exceptions. Their firepower saved the day in many actions. When it came to a close fight, such as Beecher's Island in eastern Colorado, the repeaters were hard to beat. In a cost cutting move, they were finally superseded by the single shot Model 1873 Springfield carbine. The changeover started late in 1874, five years after the Spencer company went out of business. Some units were equipped with Spencers well into 1876. They continued to be issued to teamsters and settlers well after their departure from front line service. Westerners prized them as a handy saddle gun. Many were in use as late as the turn of the century. Their cartridges were loaded commercially at least through 1919.

The greatest difference between the various Spencer models is the cartridge extraction system. Model 1863 and 1865 Spencers use a long blade on the left of the breech block carrier. In the M-1865, this blade is held forward with a helper spring to make single loading easier. M-1867 guns use the Lane patent extractor, a spring loaded tooth mounted on the centerline of the breech block carrier. The models of 1868 use a short blade relocated to the left of the breech block carrier.

On the Line

There are some wide spread prejudices against Spencers that have made their appearance on the line an all too rare occasion. The first is the inescapable fact that they won't shoot quite as fast as a Henry. In the time it takes a typical Henry shooter to get off 8 or 9 rounds, a Spencer will send 6 or 7 down range. This is a disadvantage, but not as much as shooting a muzzle loader in carbine matches. With practice, one can get very close to Henry speed, unless you are a lefty. The problem is mostly caused by the fact that the hammer must be cocked between shots.

Another complaint is the seven round magazine. This can be a serious disadvantage on the pigeon board. By starting with a cartridge in the chamber, eight shots are available before reloading. That means 100% hits are required in this event, while the Henry shooters can miss a few before having to reload. A helpful trick is to hold a couple of spare rounds between the knuckles of your off hand. Then, when the magazine is empty and only one or two targets are left, the gun can be single loaded very quickly. This option is not nearly as convenient for the unlucky Henry shooter. If reloading becomes necessary, the Spencer's magazine can be refilled far more rapidly than a Henry. If everyone is missing and both the Henry and Spencer must be reloaded, the Spencer armed skirmisher can overtake a Henry shooter. For hanging targets, eight rounds are usually more than sufficient. A positive advantage of the Spencer design is that the magazine is safer to reload, since the muzzle is always pointed down range.

A common misconception is that Spencers are more difficult to operate and prone to jamming. With the wrong ammunition, or a weak magazine spring, this is true. However, a properly prepared Spencer is as smooth and reliable as any Henry on the line.

The best advantage of a Spencer is the outstanding accuracy of these arms. The author's M-1868 carbine has produced 1 1/4 " groups at 100 yards. One particular M-1865 rifle shot a 2 1/4 " group the first time it was fired this century, and using the magazine, which tends to dent the bullet noses.

Like almost all Civil War carbines, Spencer's short guns shoot really high, 12" to 18" at 50 yards with original sights. Rifles are much better. They generally print about 8" high at 50 and 4" at 100 yards.

Once the shooting is over, Spencers are probably the easiest Civil War weapons there are to clean. Just open the action, turn the gun upside down and wash and oil the bore. If the mechanism needs attention, which isn't too often, remove the lever pivot screw and the whole assembly will fall out in your hand.

So, if you enjoy shooting something different, like me, bring a Spencer to the line. They have a certain unrefined mechanical charm that few repeaters can match. It won't take long to understand why they became so popular so quickly during the war.

Load M-1863 Rifle M-1865 RifleN.M. Carbine
.52 cal., 30" bbl.52 cal., 30" bbl .50 cal., 20" bbl.
35 gr. GOEX FF 931 FPS873 FPS
40 gr. GOEX FF1016 FPS965 FPS
35 gr. GOEX CTG957 FPS 939 FPS* 883 FPS*
40 gr. GOEX CTG1017 FPS*1033 FPS996 FPS

* This load gave the lowest standard deviation.


All loads used the following components.

Cartridge Confusion

There is a lot of confusion with regard to Spencer cartridges. This is due in no small part to their peculiar designations. Much has been printed about Spencer calibers and cartridges, a large portion of it is not correct. At the time of their introduction, it hadn't occurred to anyone to name cartridges by the caliber of the barrel for which they were intended. Therefore the first metallic ammunition was designated simply by its body diameter. Thus the cartridge that fits the Model 1863 rifle and carbine was called the "Number 56 Cartridge", since the weapon for which it is intended had a chamber of about .56". The actual barrel caliber is .52". When a 50 caliber round was first investigated, it became obvious that the chamber diameter designation was not going to work. The new round would also be .56" in body diameter. At that point, another designation was introduced. This method uses the diameter at the head and mouth of the cartridge. Thus the No. 56 became the 56-56 and the new 50 cal. round became the 56-52.

To add even more confusion, Springfield was also developing a 50 cal. round for the reduced bore M-1865 Spencer and, supposedly, all future carbines. This one was a great improvement over the commercial ammunition then being produced. It featured a cartridge case that covers and protects the bullet's grease grooves. In a foreshadowing of future designations based on barrel caliber, this became the 56-50. It was also known as the 50 U.S. Carbine and, in spite of its government roots, the 50 Spencer.

There was considerable debate during development of the 56-52 and 56-50 between Christopher Spencer and Steven V. Benet of Frankford (incidentally, father of the poet of the same name). Benet held that the bullet was better protected by a longer cartridge case. Spencer maintained that the heavy crimp used would damage the bullet's nose or even cause it to strip, thus ruining accuracy. The result was that there were two cartridges available for 50 caliber Spencers. The two rounds are different but interchangeable. The 56-50 is the first generally issued inside lubricated rimfire cartridge. The bullet's grease grooves are covered by the cartridge case. In the 56-52, The bullet's grease grooves are exposed. The Army almost exclusively issued the Springfield designed 56-50 ammunition, even if it was commercially made.

Civil War contract arms were all originally made in 52 caliber with 6 groove rifling. Over 11,000 of these were refinished and converted at Springfield to 50 caliber. Most also had Stabler's patent magazine cutoff added to allow use as a single shot. This work was done from late 1865 through the early 1870's. The conversions can easily be distinguished by their three groove rifled barrel liners. All other military models are 50 caliber. While these are the two common calibers of Spencer firearms, other chamberings exist. A few very rare and valuable sporting rifles were produced just after the Civil War, mostly from condemned parts. The greater number of these used a bottlenecked 44 caliber cartridge based on the 56-52 case. There are also a very few early prototypes in various small caliber chamberings, particularly 38 and 46 straight.

(c) 1998 by A. M. Beck

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