A hybrid is defined as “one of mixed origin or composition,” and the most famous and prolific hybrid to flourish in the harshly demanding environment of the American frontier was the sturdy and intelligent mule—ungainly offspring of the horse and donkey. Hybrid firearms were generally not in demand in the premetallic-cartridge era. Weapons like the Elgin cutlass pistol, which merged a cold steel blade with powder and ball, attracted few partisans among the pragmatic plainsmen, who rarely opted for any arm more unconventional than a twin-barreled rifle-shotgun combination.
One rare exception to the prevailing prejudice against hybrid weapons was the Hawken-Spencer rifle, which merged the defining characteristics of a single-shot muzzle-loading percussion plains rifle with those of a breechloading metallic-cartridge repeating arm. Of dimly documented origins and limited production numbers, this distinctive crossbreed was the weapon of choice for at least one hard-bitten Rocky Mountain denizen and his comrades.
Jacob, Samuel and William S. Hawken—of Hagerstown, Md., Harpers Ferry, Va., and Xenia, Ohio—were established as gunsmiths in St. Louis by 1825, crafting long-barreled flintlock rifles for the local trade as well as for fur traders such as William H. Ashley and Pierre Chouteau who were bound up the Missouri for the Rocky Mountains. A decade later the Hawkens were offering percussion lock weapons, and by 1840 their shop was fabricating the distinctive plains rifle, which featured heavy octagonal barrels of medium lengths bored for large-caliber loads and mated to sturdy, thick half-stocks secured by means of wedge keys. This general class of weapon, whether made by the Hawkens or their rivals, became an increasingly common sight in the mountains or along the Santa Fe Trail. In 1859 Sam Hawken and his son William migrated to Denver in Colorado Territory, where they resumed the gunsmith’s trade on Ferry Street in the suburb of Auraria (modern Aurora).
A year later Christopher Spencer patented his revolutionary breechloading metallic-cartridge repeating rifle, subsequently selling more than 100,000 of the new weapons to the Union government during the Civil War. Carrying seven rimfire cartridges in a tubular magazine bored through the weapon’s buttstock, the lever-action Spencer was a fast-firing, medium-range weapon of stunning firepower and comforting reliability. It quickly became a popular civilian arm on the postwar frontier, where it and its immense quantities of surplus cartridges sold at surprisingly low prices.
With the close of the Civil War, Denver gunsmith J. Philip Gemmer, previously a Hawken employee, bought out the firm and continued to make muzzle-loading plains rifles, some still bearing the popular Hawken name stamped upon their barrel flats, while others bore the Gemmer title or carried no markings at all. At some point, the firm began taking Spencer actions and mating them to half-stocked heavy octagonal barrels and crescent-butted shoulder stocks pierced to hold the distinctive tubular Spencer magazines. Each arm sported a cleaning rod in the thimbles beneath the barrel, giving it a superficial resemblance to the old muzzleloader, while boasting the ability to spit out rounds as fast as the shooter could work its lever action. Only a handful of the hybrid Hawken-Spencers were made, if the paucity of documented surviving examples is any guide.
Tradition holds that some anonymous pilgrim purchased one of the first such arms fabricated by Gemmer in his Denver shop and carried it westward into the Rockies, where a Crow Indian brave claimed it as booty after slaying the wasicu for allegedly assaulting his sister. Soon thereafter the noted plainsman John “Liver-Eating” Johnson (Johnston) killed the warrior and took the rifle for his own. If such was the case, Johnson had acquired a weapon whose heft and balance were familiar, and whose heavy barrel could effectively absorb the heat generated by sustained rapid fire by its magazine-fed repeating action. The new hybrid lacked the range and hitting power of a big-bore muzzle-loading Hawken stoked with a heavy measure of powder as opposed to the modest 48-grain charge carried by the thin-walled .50-caliber Spencer rimfire round, but at medium ranges it was still potent medicine against man or beast. (Of six surviving Hawken-Spencers known today, several are also chambered for the Spencer .56-46-rimfire sporting round while another accepts only the earlier and less potent .44-rimfire cartridge.)
Veteran mountain man Johnson returned to the West after service in the Civil War, already bearing his grisly sobriquet of “Liver-Eating.” Waging a longstanding personal feud with the Crow Indians, Johnson reputedly removed (and allegedly consumed) the liver from each warrior he killed, leaving the surgically altered body behind as his calling card. Given Johnson’s violent history in the region, it was not surprising that he would welcome acquisition of a weapon like the Hawken-Spencer fusion.
Montana buffalo hunter Victor (“Yellowstone Vic”) Grant Smith related an incident from Johnson’s days as a “wolfer” based at Fort Hawley, a trading post sited on the Musselshell River at its junction with the Missouri. During a seasonal hiatus from harvesting wolf pelts for the bounty offered for them by the territorial government, Johnson and his fellow hunting companions were taking their ease at the post one May morning when the sound of gunfire rose on the spring wind. A Sioux raiding party had caught a local trader’s wife, Jennie Smith, and an Indian woman companion while they were harvesting wild berries on the nearby plains. The Indian woman escaped with a flesh wound to the leg, but Mrs. Smith fell unconscious with a neck wound. The raiders lifted a portion of her scalp and then fled as the local residents mounted a pursuit.
John Johnson took up the chase in company with George Grinnell, Johnnie Cochran, Ben Greenwood and five other men from the post as the 75 warriors led them downriver for some distance until the Sioux “forted” up in a washout off the river channel that measured about 12 feet deep, 8 feet wide and 30 feet long at its deepest portion. The plainsmen approached to within 20 feet of the depression’s rim and a standoff ensued, as neither side could look over or down into the raiders’ refuge without exposing themselves to fire. The Indians were armed with bows and muzzleloading trade muskets, weapons that were every bit as lethal as the most modern breechloading rifle at such short range. Johnson realized that decisive action had to be taken, because darkness would permit the braves to slip away through the washout’s river frontage.
Johnson led Grinnell and trader Jimmy Deer down the river’s bank for 300 yards before wading the Musselshell in the company of Frank Smith, the injured woman’s spouse. Using a thick stand of willows to screen their movement, they worked their way stealthily back along the riverside to the mouth of the washout, 75 yards from the Indians’ position, which had been barricaded on that side by cut poles adorned with blankets and buffalo-hide shields, thus obscuring observation into the channel of the washout concealing the raiders. “The men were all armed with Hawkins-Spencer rifles” related Vic Smith, and when the four men opened fire, a storm of rimfire rounds began turning the defile into an abattoir as the slugs scythed through the packed bodies of the Sioux.
Working their rifles’ levers in a blur of motion, the frontiersmen riddled the shield and blanket screen and “as the bullets came through the barricade, the Indians, realizing the desperate strait they were in, commenced to sing their death song and to climb out of the washout,” Smith said. All the whites were firing now, and within moments they had reportedly killed 32 braves as the rest scattered into the cover of dusk and the riverside brush.
The Sioux had their chance only a few days after the massacre at the washout when an English tourist disembarked from a steamboat at Fort Hawley and engaged Johnson’s services as a hunting guide. They rode about seven miles onto the plains, where the Englishman shot an elk. The lurking Sioux heard the shot and closed on the whites’ position while Johnson was skinning the elk. They fired a volley that killed Johnson’s horse, which fell on its master. The Englishman mounted his own horse and fled back to Fort Hawley.
Johnson quickly recovered his wits and found that he had luckily fallen within reach of his rifle. He levered a round into the breech as the Indians rushed him and proceeded to kill five braves in midstride from behind the cover of his slain mount. The remaining warriors prudently gave up the fight and departed, having concluded that their quarry’s Hawken-Spencer was truly a “medicine gun.”
There is no documented record of how many Hawken-Spencer rifles left the Gemmer shop for service on the frontier. The most authoritative histories of the Hawken and Spencer arms yet in print devote barely more than a half a dozen pages to detailing the evolution and use of the mixed-parentage rifles, yet assuredly there were others besides Johnson, Smith, Grinnell and Deer who roamed those wild basins and ranges with the repeaters.
In 1999 a similar weapon surfaced from amid a Kansas family’s heirlooms. The weapon began life as a Spencer cavalry carbine, serial number 42024, and research divulged that it was originally issued to a trooper of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry during the Civil War. It still sported a carbine’s wooden forestock, but the carbine barrel had been replaced by a hefty octagonal tube measuring 291⁄4 inches and giving the gun a weight of 14 pounds. The alternations did not end there. The military style rear sight had been replaced by an adjustable buckhorn aperture and a crescent-shaped front blade side. A dim fragmentary marking is still visible on top of the barrel where it joins the receiver. Reading “…CO. CHICAGO ILL.,” it suggests that the weapon’s modifications took place at the hands of a Midwestern gunsmith. Currently owned by an Arizona collector, this Kansas Hawken-Spencer style weapon remains a mysterious variation to the hybrid strain.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.