Spencer patent drawing for "magazine gun"
Christopher Spencer received a patent for his breechloader on March 6, 1860. The drawing illustrates how .52-caliber metal cartridges were fed through a “tunnel” in the gun’s butt. A user loaded the magazine with seven rounds, dropped and raised the trigger guard to feed a cartridge into the breech and eject a used case, and then cocked and fired Spencer’s invention. The rimfire cartridges meant that no percussion caps were needed, speeding the process. (U.S. Patent Office)
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The breechloading seven-shot, metallic-cartridge rifles invented by Christopher Miner Spencer were the most innovative and reliable repeaters of the conflict. The deadly weapons were the precursor to modern assault rifles.

Spencer was born in 1833, and grew up in Connecticut, a hotbed of industrial innovation. After cutting his gunmaking teeth working for Samuel Colt’s factory, Spencer left to develop his repeating rifle.

Christopher Spencer
Christopher Spencer (WHS Collections 2015.1.114)

The inventor moved to Massachusetts, working in a silk mill by day and making drawings and wooden models of his firearm by night. After being satisfied his concept would work, he applied for and received a patent for his prototype in early 1860.

It’s a familiar story that the U.S. Army was hesitant to adopt new weapon technologies, and chose to rely on single-shot muzzle-loaders to arm the volunteer regiments that formed after the Civil War began.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, however, was impressed with a demonstration of his repeater, and the Navy ordered 700 of them. Spencer then pressed his case all the way to President Lincoln, who ordered 10,000 in 1861. But it wasn’t until January 1863, when the weapons were in the hands of Union land troops. Four companies of Ohio sharpshooters were the first infantrymen to carry the weapon, and the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry used Spencer rifles to good effect at Gettysburg.

The gun’s reputation soared, and after Lincoln test fired a Spencer at the White House, their production and usage greatly increased. More than 200,000 were made at Spencer’s factory or under contract at the Burnside Rifle Company by 1869.

Spencer lived until 1922, long enough to see rapid-firing guns using metal cartridges dominating battlefields. 

Spencer rifle and carbine
The seven-shot Spencer rifle and carbine provided Union soldiers with weapons that could fire, for the time, a blistering 20 rounds a minute. The rifle weighed in at 10 pounds and 47 inches, and infantry troops who were issued the weapon also received a socket bayonet — rare collectibles today. The carbine was 8 inches shorter and about two pounds lighter. Even today, Spencers still look sleek and capable. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)
Union cavalrymen posing with Spencer carbines
Two no-nonsense Union cavalrymen pose with the weapons of their trade, including Spencer carbines. The carbine model did not begin to get issued until October 1863. The federal government eventually purchased more than 95,000 Spencer carbines. That would be more than any other model. (Library of Congress)
Cartridge box and Blakeslee box
Most soldiers carried their Spencer rounds in a cartridge box, left. In December 1864, however, Erastus Blakeslee of the 1st Connecticut Cavalry invented the “Blakeslee Box.” It held seven tubes of seven .52-caliber rounds. Each tube could be quickly dumped into the Spencer’s magazine. The boxes, though, were found to be bulky and awkward. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)
Union soldier posing with Spencer rifle
A Union soldier poses with the magazine removed from the butt of his Spencer rifle. The magazine’s internal spring forced rounds forward. An admiring Federal officer wrote, the Spencer “never got out of repair. It would shoot a mile….It could be taken all to pieces to clean, and hence was little trouble to keep in order — quite an item to lazy soldiers.” (©Don Troiani/Bridgeman Images)

this article first appeared in civil war times magazine

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