Common Guns in the Civil War
The Spencer was the primary repeating carbine and rifle of the Civil
War. Most were issued in carbine form for the cavalry although rifles were
also made for the infantry. Of the 144,500 Spencers made, 107,372 were acquired by
the Federal Government during the war. It became the most popular of the carbines for
cavalry use by the Union Army, and was widely used in the west after the
The Spencer is a seven shot repeater loaded through the stock at the
back end. Operating the Spencer required both working the lever to load a
fresh cartridge and separately cocking the hammer. An experienced man
could shoot all seven shots in about fifteen seconds. The Confederates
could not use captured Spencers after the supply of captured cartridge
ammunition was used up, as it could not be loaded and fired with separate
powder, percussion cap, and bullet.
The Army was reluctant to purchase the Spencer early in the Civil War.
The available wagon transportation was incapable of delivering the
additional ammunition the soldiers would shoot when given a repeating
firearm. President Lincoln intervened by endorsing procurement of the
Spencer after test firing one in 1863 halfway through the war.
The Spencer used the first self-contained metallic cartridge powerful
enough for regular military use. The standard Spencer cartridge is called
the 56-56 being named for being the same size diameter at the front end as
at the back
end of the copper cartridge case. It fired a 54 caliber bullet with a
muzzle energy of 1125 foot pounds. The energy compares favorably with the
typical paper cartridges of the Civil War muskets. By comparison, the
other self-contained metallic cartridge regularly available during the Civil War, the 44 Henry,
only developed about 700 foot pounds of energy. The cartridge could be
successful in the wide variance in barrel bore diameters shown below
because the bullet had a huge hollow in its base of the same style as the Minie ball first used in the 58 Springfield musket.
The Spencer was the most advanced shoulder fired longarm of its day.
In action, the firepower could be devastating. But only so long as
there was more ammunition close at hand. The gunsmoke from firing
in the single shot muzzle loaders was a serious problem in battle.
The dense cloud of smoke could make the enemy impossible to shoot
at accurately, or even to see what they were doing. A line
of Spencers in rapid fire was far worse. In anything less then a
strong wind, a line of soldiers shooting Spencers very quickly couldn't
see what they were shooting at. Great for psychological
intimidation. Terrible against a determined enemy pressing the
attack through the cloud of smoke. And with the Spencer, the
ammunition was gone before the fight was over. Regiments armed
with rapid fire repeaters in the Civil War had to be shunted aside in
the major battles. Good for the soldiers, perhaps; bad for the
Generals trying to win the war.
Wagon teamsters in Indian country after the Civil War preferred the
Spencer. They needed rapid fire self defense as they were all too
frequently traveling alone. And they had the wagon to carry all
the ammunition they wanted. The regular Army, however, was still
bedeviled by the risks of soldiers shooting off all the ammunition they
could carry (a problem that persists), so the Army issued single shot
breechloaders after the Civil War.
As late as the early 1870s the government's Springfield Armory was
still converting a few Spencer carbines to rifles. Springfield Armory had
devised a slightly different cartridge with a 50 (.512") caliber bullet that the
inventor, Christopher Spencer, thought had too much taper. The Spencer
Repeating Rifle Company failed financially in the general economic malaise
after the Civil War and with a glut of surplus firearms on the market.
Further information is at a second
For more information, consult "Flayderman's
Guide To Antique American
Firearms" by Norm Flayderman, "Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry" by John
D. McAulay, and a
website with a
good drawing of the mechanism promoting a new book on
the Spencer. A Google search of the Internet will also find sources for
purchasing Spencers being newly made in Italy.
||52 (.540 to .555")
||1200 feet per second
||1125 foot pounds