Reach into your pocket and withdraw a five-dollar bill. Or, if you’re broke like me, just imagine one. That guy on the front of that bill was a pretty wise dude, right? And one of the really wise choices he made during his presidency was to give the designer of the Spencer Repeating Rifle—a design that helped turn the tide of the U.S. Civil War—a chance to display the gun’s prowess, even when the Department of War dragged their feet. In a dark display of irony, Lincoln’s assassin, the infamous John Wilkes Booth, shared the president’s fondness for the Spencer—the killer had one with him when he was captured and killed following the president’s death.
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Christopher Spencer was understandably frustrated by the Department of War’s slow acceptance of his design. After all, he knew what he had, and what it could do for the Union army. So he sought out an audience with President Lincoln, who, being the stand-up guy he was, invited Spencer to a shooting match to demonstrate his design’s attributes. It didn’t disappoint. Lincoln ordered its immediate adoption for production. The Spencer rifle went on to serve primarily cavalry troops: At Gettysburg, two regiments of the Michigan Brigade—led by another famous figure by the name of Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer—carried Spencer rifles into the field to great effect. The Spencer proved to be very reliable even in adverse conditions, with a sustainable rate-of-fire hovering around 20 rounds per minute. When compared to the standard muzzle-loaders of the time, capable of firing only three rounds per minute, you can quickly understand how dramatic an effect a regiment of soldiers armed with these rifles could be.
The Spencer was one of the first lever-action rifles. But unlike the modern variety we’re more familiar with, the Spencer’s hammer had to be manually cocked each time a fresh round was cycled into the action. Those cartridges were stored in a seven-round tube magazine found in the butt stock (not quite as inventive as the barber-pole magazine of the Evans Repeater, but still pretty clever), which could be rapidly loaded from a device called the Blakeslee Cartridge Box (right).
The Spencer fired the unusual .56-56 Spencer rimfire cartridge. Unlike later cartridges such as the .45-70, where the name implies a .45 caliber bullet and 70 grains of blackpowder, the Spencer’s first number referred to the diameter of the case ahead of the rim, while the second number referred to the diameter at the cartridge’s mouth. The actual bullet diameter was .52 inches. These cartridges were loaded with 45 grains of blackpowder, making the round about as powerful as the .58 caliber rifled muskets of the time, which still isn’t very noteworthy. If there was one substantial downside to the Spencer, it was the cartridge: Union supply lines found it difficult to get adequate amounts of the unique ammunition where it needed to go.
First, this is a very neat looking gun. Though I’ve not shot it, I have competed against it in long-range shoots, and can say it is both accurate and extremely attractive in design. Its rich history just makes it that much more fascinating.
Opening photo courtesy of Cimarron Firearms.
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