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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 Civil War.

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 blackpowder 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 page on this website.

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.

Technical Information

Length 42 Inches
Weight 8 pounds
Caliber 52 (.540 to .555")
Bullet Weight 350 grains
Power Charge 45 grains
Muzzle Velocity 1200 feet per second
Muzzle Energy 1125 foot pounds

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