Weapons of War Series – The Spencer Repeating Rifle
The most advanced infantry weapon in the world of its times, it was patented in 1860 by Christian Spencer, a machinist who worked in Hartford, Conn. for Sharps and developed the Spencer on his own time. It was the world's first practical repeater and fired a .52 caliber metallic rimfire cartridge (patented by Smith & Wesson in 1854 and perfected by Henry in the late 1850's)1 which completely prevented gas leakage from the back because the brass casing expanded on ignition to seal the chamber. It had a "rolling block" (actually a rotating block) activated by lowering the trigger guard. This movement opened the breech and extracted the spent cartridge. Raising the lever caused a new cartridge, pushed into position by a spring in the 7-round magazine, to be locked into the firing chamber. As you can see in the illustration above, the 7-round magazine was located in the stock. The Spencer was easy to manufacture (given the requisite industrial infrastructure), had relatively few parts, many of which were in common with the Sharps rifles, and was cheaper than other repeaters on the market such as the Henry. It also turned out to be extremely reliable under battlefield conditions. Its great advantage over the muzzle loading rifles such as the Enfields and Springfields lay not only in the rapidity of fire, but also in the ability of the shooter to aim each shot. In a normal battle situation, the muzzle loaders were fired in an aimed manner only the first few shots, thereafter it was usually a case of hurried fire after frantic loading. A trained soldier could get off two or three shots a minute with them until the barrel fouled with lead deposit. With the Spencer the soldier could fire 20 to 30 times a minute when necessary, taking advantage of the cartridge box which held 10 preloaded magazines. The only disadvantage of the Spencers was the relatively small powder charge in the cartridge which limited its range. Some marksmen therefore preferred the single shot Sharps breechloader which used paper or linen cartridges with a larger powder charge and had greater range. With the Sharps you could fire about 10 times a minute. But for the cavalry which fought mostly at close range, the Spencer was the weapon of choice. Introduced in Jan. 1862, it found its first major use by Col. John Wilder's Indiana "Lightning Brigade" of mounted infantry at Hoover's Gap during the Tullahoma Campaign (22 June - 3 July 1863). The firepower and speed of this unit overwhelmed Wheeler's cavalry guarding the southern end of this pass and allowed George H. Thomas's 14th infantry corps to place itself on the flank of the Confederate General Hardee. This sudden development misled Hardee into thinking he had been outflanked by the entire Union Army of the Cumberland, and he retreated without orders back to Tullahoma, 15 miles in his rear. Wilder then spearheaded the turning movement to the east of Tullahoma, and this in turn undermined Bragg's entire defensive line, and he had to pull back into Chattanooga. At the price of about 600 casualties the Union Army advanced 100 miles and made military history. Later, at the battle of Chickamauga (19-20 Sept. 1863), his troops used them with decisive effect on the first day, keeping Bragg's troops from cutting the road to Chattanooga, and slowing Longstreet's attack on the second day.
Between the rifle and carbine versions, about 48,000 of these weapons were in use by 1865. The carbine was a shorter version of the Spencer 7-shot repeating rifle and was introduced primarily for cavalry use in 1864. The effective range (about 500 yards) was the same as the longer "rifle", but it was more difficult to aim because of the shorter distance between the sights. Rest assured that very few marksman with the unaided eye could or can reliably hit a man-sized target at more than 200 yards, regardless of the effective range of the weapon.
Confederates captured some of these weapons, but the South's armament industry was unable to manufacture the ammunition due to a shortage of copper. It is only a small exaggeration to state that this cartridge decided the outcome of the Civil War.
Col. John T. Wilder said of them:"Hoover's Gap was the first battle where the Spencer repeating rifle had ever been used, and in my estimation they were better weapons that has yet taken their place, being strong and not easily injured by the rough usage of army movements, and carrying a projectile that disabled any man who was unlucky enough to be hit by it." One of his soldiers wrote about the Spencer that it "never got out of repair. It would shoot a mile just as accurately as the finest rifle in the world. It was the easiest gun to handle in the manual of arms drill I have ever seen. It could be taken all to pieces to clean, and hence was little trouble to keep in order -- quite an item to lazy soldiers." According to Smith Aktins, a colonel in Wilder's regiment, it was "the best arm for service in the field ever invented, better than any other arm in the world then or now, so simple in its mechanism that it never got out of order, and was always ready for instant service.".
Major-General James H. Wilson, who was instrumental in crushing Hood at Nashville (15-16 Dec. 1864) and defeated Forrest at Selma (2 April 1865), wrote the following about them: "There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral. Our best officers estimate one man armed with it [is] equivalent to three with any other arm. I have never seen anything else like the confidence inspired by it in the regiments or brigades which have it. A common belief amongst them is if their flanks are covered they can go anywhere. I have seen a large number of dismounted charges made with them against cavalry, infantry, and breast-works, and never knew one to fail.