Christopher Spencer’s seven-shot repeating rifle gave Union forces in the Civil War a fearsome edge against their Confederate enemies.
On August 18, 1863—a day that saw fighting in Virginia, Kentucky, and both Carolinas—President Abraham Lincoln stood in the Oval Office with Christopher Spencer, very carefully examining his guest’s repeating rifle. “Handling it as one familiar with firearms,” Spencer would later recall, “he requested me to take it apart to show [him] the ‘Inwardness of the thing.’” Intrigued, Lincoln invited the inventor to return the next day so that he could, as Spencer recalled, “see the thing shoot.”
At the appointed hour Spencer met the president, his son Robert, and a Navy Department officer at the White House. The men walked to a spot near the unfinished Washington Monument, where the officer set up a target—a three-foot-long pine board with a black spot for a bullseye. Spencer then handed Lincoln his loaded seven-shooter, and the president paced off a suitable distance. “Mr. Lincoln’s first shot was low,” Spencer later wrote, “but the next hit the bullseye, and the other five were close around it.” When it was the inventor’s turn, he bested the president by a bit. Lincoln, according to Spencer, said, “Well, you are younger than I am, have a better eye, and a steadier nerve.”
After another such shooting match the following day, Spencer felt certain that Lincoln would recommend his repeater to the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department.
Over his lifetime, Christopher Miner Spencer was awarded more than 40 U.S. patents for such diverse inventions as a silk-winding machine, a fully automatic turret lathe, and an automatic screw machine. In 1862, a year before his visit to the White House, he built a steam-powered carriage that he regularly drove to work until the authorities asked him to keep off the roads because it spooked the horses. He is best known, however, for the seven-shot repeating rifle that Lincoln tested. In the hands of Federal soldiers in the latter part of the Civil War, the .52 caliber Spencers spelled victory on many a hard-fought battlefield. Dubbed “horizontal shot towers” by the Confederate soldiers who first faced them in battle, Spencer’s lever-action seven-shooters were the war’s finest repeating weapons.
Born in 1833 in Manchester, Connecticut, Spencer acquired an enthusiasm for firearms from a grandfather who had been an armorer for the Continental Army. At age 14 Spencer began an apprenticeship at the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company in Manchester, and in two years he became a full-time journeyman machinist. But he soon grew restless and drifted around for the next few years, making machine tools in Rochester, New York; repairing locomotives for the New York Central Railroad; and working as a machinist in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Spencer also began using his skills as a machinist to repair damaged six-shooters at the Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut. It was there, at his oil-soaked workbench, that the idea for a repeating rifle was born. Several such weapons already existed, but Spencer, now 21, envisioned one that fired self-
contained metallic cartridges—an entirely new concept. In 1855 Spencer returned to his hometown and the Cheney Brothers silk mills, where in his off hours in the machine shop he could construct a working model of the rifle he envisioned. His first prototype was made of wood.
On March 6, 1860, Spencer was awarded a U.S. Patent (No. 27,393) for his “Magazine Gun.” The weapon featured numerous innovations. It fired copper-cased cartridges, seven of which were held in a spring-loaded tubular magazine in the weapon’s buttstock, which also protected them from damage. Because the cartridges were rim fire, there was no need to prime the rifle after loading it—an action required with muzzle-loading muskets. The Spencer’s lever action also afforded several advantages. When lowered with the hammer at half cock, the lever would eject the spent cartridge. Raising the lever—which doubled as a trigger guard—would push a new round into the barrel and completely seal off the breech. All that remained was to fully cock the hammer, aim, and pull the trigger.
Thanks to these innovations, Spencer’s rifle was extremely easy to load and fire—a trooper could easily fire all seven rounds in its magazine in just one minute. (Some accounts claim up to twice that number of rounds.) The majority of soldiers in the Civil War were armed with muzzle-loading weapons—the .58 caliber Springfield, and the .577 caliber Enfield being the most common—that could be loaded and fired, at best, three times per minute. The Spencer’s rate of fire was thus two to potentially almost five times that of other shoulder arms used at the time.
The first Spencer repeating rifles were manufactured in 1861. Hindsight tells us that Northern armies completely outfitted with the seven-shooter could have defeated the Confederacy in short order. It would be two years, however, before Spencers made their presence felt on Civil War battlefields. The holdup was the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department, whose chief in 1861, 66-year-old Brigadier General James W. Ripley, delayed the purchase of repeating weapons because he believed that soldiers so armed would waste ammunition. To overcome this fogeyism, Spencer contacted army and navy brass directly. U.S. Navy captain (later admiral) John A. Dahlgren test-fired a Spencer in June 1861, the result of which was an order for 700 rifles. A U.S. Army test board under then-captain Alfred Pleasonton (who later commanded the Union cavalry at Gettysburg), gave it a favorable review after shooting it that November. President Lincoln’s recommendation in 1863 was icing on the cake. “After that,” Spencer said, “we had more orders than we could fill, from the War Department as well as the navy, for the rest of the war.”
All told, the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, established in 1862, supplied some 106,000 of the seven-shooters for the Union war effort. Manufactured at the former Chickering & Sons piano factory in Boston, Spencers came in two basic models: a rifle, with a 30-inch barrel and a stud for attaching a sword bayonet, and a cavalry carbine, with a 20-inch barrel. During the war the Union army purchased 12,000 rifles, 94,000 carbines, and 58 million rounds of Spencer ammunition at a total cost of approximately $4.2 million.
The Spencer’s main competitor was the .44 caliber Henry rifle, the ancestor of the Winchester. Also lever action, its tubular magazine, beneath the barrel, held 16 rounds. But according to Brigadier General George D. Ramsay, who replaced Ripley as chief of the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department, it was “expensive and too delicate for service in its present form.” Only about 1,700 Henry rifles were officially purchased for the army, but perhaps as many as 10,000 saw service in the war because many soldiers purchased their own, as they did with many other types of arms.
The sharp crack of a Spencer repeater was first heard in combat on October 16, 1862, during a skirmish near Cumberland, Maryland. The rifle was fired by Sergeant Francis O. Lombard, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, a former Smith & Wesson gunsmith and a friend of Christopher Spencer, who’d given him a handmade prototype of his gun.
At Hoover’s Gap, Tennessee, on June 24, 1863, Spencer’s seven-shooters played a decisive role. There, Colonel John T. Wilder’s famous “Lightning Brigade”—2,000 mounted infantrymen, all armed with Spencers they had purchased themselves—advanced ahead of the army, seized the gap through the Cumberland Mountains, and dug in to defend it against a much larger enemy force. When Confederates charged Wilder’s artillery, the fire from the Spencers caused them to reel. “Thinking to reach our battery before our guns can be reloaded,” recalled Colonel James Connolly, 123rd Illinois Mounted Infantry, the Confederates rallied and continued on, when “their charging yell was answered by another terrible volley, and another and another without cessation,” until they were “literally cut to pieces.”
At Hunterstown, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1863—while fighting raged at nearby Gettysburg—a line of 6th Michigan cavalrymen covered the withdrawal of Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer’s brigade. “The enemy attempted a charge in pursuit,” Captain James H. Kidd of the 6th wrote, “but the dismounted men…kept up such a fusillade with their Spencer [rifles]…that he was driven back in great confusion.” The following day, during a large-scale cavalry fight east of Gettysburg, Confederate major general J. E. B. Stuart tried to break into the rear of Union colonel Russell A.
Alger’s 5th Michigan Cavalry. Armed with Spencer rifles, Kidd wrote, Alger’s men “forced their adversaries slowly but surely back, the gray line fighting well, and superior in numbers, but unable to withstand the storm of bullets.”
After Gettysburg, a Confederate officer was captured during a skirmish and taken to the rear. When he passed a line of his dead behind a stone wall he began to complain bitterly, saying, “Almost all are shot through the head,” implying that they had been murdered after surrendering. Shown the Union troops’ Spencer repeaters, he marveled that more hadn’t been shot. One writer claimed that a Confederate soldier who had experienced the seemingly unrelenting fire from Spencer repeaters shouted out to a Union skirmish line: “Helloa Yanks, have you got them damned guns loaded to the muzzle again?” Southerners learned to fear the seven-shooters and were elated when they captured them. When they ran out of ammunition, however, the Spencers were useless, as the Confederacy was unable to manufacture the copper-cased cartridges the rifle required.
During the 1864 fighting in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Union major general Philip Sheridan commanded about 20 regiments armed with Spencers, including the 37th Massachusetts Infantry. On September 19, at the Third Battle of Winchester, that unit was ordered to advance “with its 296 rifles and seven times that number of deadly shots,” according to James L. Bowen, the regiment’s historian. “One crashing volley followed the order to fire, supplemented by…a rapid succession of shots….The demoralization of the Confederate lines was speedy and complete.”
Brought back east to rejoin the Army of the Potomac, Sheridan’s Spencer-armed units greatly assisted in the annihilation of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. At Five Forks, Virginia, on April 1, 1865, the 1st Rhode Island cavalry was ordered to attack dismounted against a large Confederate force posted behind a fence. “The men unsling their carbines,” the unit’s chaplain wrote, “and, resting the butts on their hips, charge in solid ranks….We give them the contents of our seven-shooters….The rebel lines begin to waver, and soon the enemy is in full retreat.”
Five days later, at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, the 37th Massachusetts Infantry helped smash the Confederate right rear. Once the regiment closed within range, “the Spencer rifle did the work for which it was intended,” Bowen wrote. “Volley followed volley with almost the rapidity of thought, tearing the opposing line into demoralized fragments.” Many of the enemy surrendered, including Major General Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s eldest son.
The surrender at Appomattox Court House, the end of the war in Virginia, came only three days later, on April 9. Abraham Lincoln—the president who had test-fired and promoted Spencer’s seven-shooters—was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth the evening of April 14. Coincidentally, when Booth was cornered and killed 12 days later, he was armed with a Spencer repeating carbine.
At war’s end Spencer was left with a large inventory of weapons he couldn’t sell, and his company declared bankruptcy in 1868. The following year the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (the firm that by then was producing an improved version of the .44 caliber Henry) purchased the Spencer company’s assets. In 1869 Spencer founded Billings & Spencer Company in Hartford, Connecticut, which went on to manufacture machine tools and drop-forged hand tools. In the 1880s another firearms company Spencer founded produced the world’s first commercially successful pump-action shotgun. When that company, too, went under, Francis Bannerman & Sons acquired Spencer’s patents and manufactured his shotgun into the early 1900s.
Spencer died in 1922 at age 88 and was buried in Windsor, Connecticut. An inveterate tinkerer and a brilliant
inventor, his screw machine and other manufacturing innovations greatly advanced American industry. But Spencer is best remembered for his repeating rifle, which helped propel the North to victory in the Civil War. MHQ
Rick Britton, a historian and cartographer, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue (Vol. 33, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Behind the Lines | A New Kind of Firepower
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