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Spencer Rifle / Carbine Lever-Action Repeating Firearm (1860)

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 4/9/2013

The famous Spencer Rifle allowed a repeat-fire action by way of a lever and seven-round tube magazine.

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Christopher Spencer (1833-1922) proved an inventor at heart and one of his most storied creations became the repeat-fire, lever-action "Spencer Rifle" which aptly carried his surname (Spencer had spent some time under the employ of Samuel Colt). The rifle was used extensively throughout the American Civil War (1861-1865), primarily on the side of the Union though occasionally fielded by the Confederates when captured and its distinct ammunition supply allowed. The Spencer Rifle proved one of the earlier successful forms of a repeating rifle anywhere in the world, solidifying Christopher Spencer's piece in the annals of firearms history. Design work on the rifle began in the late 1850s, development culminating in 1859.

Design of the Spencer Rifle included a wooden shoulder stock with integral straight grip, metal receiver, wooden forend and long-running section of exposed barrel with three barrel bands joining it to the forend. The hammer was external and offset to the right side of the body as in preceding flintlock and percussion-based designs. A flip-up type sighting device was ahead of the receiver with a simpler sighting device just aft of the muzzle. The trigger unit sat under the grip handle with the lever doubling as the trigger guard. Sling loops were located under the shoulder stock and at the second barrel band for use of an optional shoulder strap. Barrel lengths were variable depending on the Spencer model in question, ranging from 20- to 30-inches long.

The rifle was chambered for the unique .56-56 Spencer rimfire cartridge feeding from a 7-round internal tube magazine located in the buttstock. The magazine tube was spring-loaded at its rear, the cartridges aligned in single file order and fed into the firing chamber in turn. The magazine was locked into place within the butt by a rotating release/catch which had to be positioned 90-degrees of center for removal of the tube. The action relied upon manual management of the lever which introduced a fresh cartridge into the chamber and cleared any spent shell casings therein (ejecting downwards). The lever was brought down at a forward angle which worked the internal action against the magazine. When brought back up against the stock, the cartridge was firmly in place. The hammer was then manually cocked to bring the gun into a proper firing condition (for each successive shot as the hammer was not automatically actuated by management of the lever). In this arrangement, the operator could supply a repeat-fire pattern, reaching rates-of-fire of 14- to 20-rounds per minute - a great advantage concerning rifles of the day. Cartridges of the period still relied on black powder which gave off excessive amounts of smoke during the action. Reloading was either through manual means by dropping individual rounds into the buttstock opening (through the open rear by way of the removed magazine cover/tube) or by prefabricated cartridge boxes known as the "Blakeslee Cartridge Box", these available in variable counts.

Effective range of Spencer Rifles was listed at approximately 500 yards which gave it a substantial reach on the battlefield. Muzzle velocity was in the range of 1,000 feet per second which gave the bullet good penetration values at range as well.

The "Spencer Carbine" was nothing more than a shortened, lightened and more compact form of the base Spencer Rifle appearing after 1863. In this modification, both the forend and barrel were noticeably shortened to make the weapon more portable - extremely suitable for horse-mounted infantry and specialist troops requiring an easy-to-tote primary firearm.

With his action patented in 1861, Christopher Spencer personally (and successfully) sold the idea of his Spencer Rifle directly to then-President Abraham Lincoln after a second display of target shooting out on the Washington Mall in August of 1863 (his first visit with the President ended in a misfire). This allowed greater procurement from the military with the President's formal endorsement of the product. The US military then commissioned for 13,171 of the type in both the full-length rifle and shortened carbine forms as well as the requisite ammunition supply. Interestingly, the weapon was first adopted by the United States Navy in June 1861 through an initial order of 700 units, they then being followed by the United States Army for an order of 10,000 units. However, formal issue did not occur until 1863 for Spencer lacked the required production facilities to fulfill such large orders. The US Army did, however, receive some units in December 1862 for its cavalry forces. Considering the standard long gun of the time was still of the muzzle-loading type, the repeat-fire characteristics of the Spencer series was a giant leap in technology giving a sound advantage to the owner.

First combat use of Spencer guns was in the American Civil War (1861-1865). While available in some number, they did not outright replace their muzzle-loading brethren due its specialized ammunition and the supplies required over prolonged use. Its smoke-filled firing action also led to some complaints with the system and the weapon had to be removed from the shoulder to recock. However, few could argue its value as a repeater where a single operator could loose all seven rounds in under a minute. From a mounted position such as that of a horse, the operator also held a tactical advantage in more ways than one, being able to survey more of the battlefield than foot infantry while gaining the higher ground over his opponent. Battlefield performance of the Spencer action proved highly reliable and made for a well-liked and well-accepted weapon for Union forces. The large, heavy breechblock allowed many battlefield abuses to be heaped upon the design without issue while its magazine was well-protected in the solid wooden buttstock. Its popularity surpassed even Union forces where Confederates were known to take the weapon into inventory when possible. Of course they were largely limited by their inability to manufacture the exact ammunition which limited its reach in enemy hands. Union General Ulysses S. Grant became a proponent of the Spencer design, remarking that it was "the best breech-loading arms available". During the conflict, production peaked at nearly 100,000 units.

In post-war America, the Spencer Rifle and Carbine continued its storied existence across the expansion into the wild American West. Due to the large quantities already in circulation, the series was assured a lengthy operational service life in both private and military hands. During the Civil War, Spencer was forced to procure additional machinery to keep pace with military orders. However, this eventually led to too many rifles available in the post-war economy, limited additional sales. As such, the investment proved unsound and Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was forced into bankruptcy in 1868, sold to Fogerty Rifle Company. In 1869, Oliver Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company purchased the Spencer assets.

Spencer Rifles and Carbines did manage to find additional service lives overseas. They were shipped to French forces for use in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). However, this resulted in a German victory, giving rise to the German Empire of World War 1 fame. This also spurred the rise of the French Third Republic and the arrival of the Lebel bolt-action service rifle, the world's first smokeless-propellant cartridge rifle. The Spencer series was also noted for its use in the long-running Indian Wars (1622-1924) (mainly carbines) that followed the American Civil War and in the Boshin War (1868-1869) which ended the age of the Shogun.

Total production of Spencer Rifles and Carbines eventually reached 200,000 units. Production ran from 1860 into 1869. Ironically, a Spencer Carbine was one of the weapons found with John Wilkes Booth when he was surrounded and killed in the days following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Modern replica Spencers are available from various suppliers and chambered in .45 Colt or .44-40 forms to suit buyer tastes.

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Specifications for the
Spencer Rifle / Carbine
Lever-Action Repeating Firearm


Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Spencer Repeating Rifle Company; Winchester Repeating Arms Company - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1860


Overall Length: 760mm (29.92in)
Barrel Length: 560.00mm (22.05in)
Weight (Empty): 0.00lbs (0.00kg)


Caliber: .56-56 Spencer rimfire
Action: Lever-Action; Manually-Cocked; Repeat-Fire
Feed: 7-round internal tube magazine
Muzzle Velocity: 1,033ft/sec (315m/sec)
Rate-of-Fire: 20 rounds per minute
Range: 1,640ft (500m; 547yds)
Sights: Graduated Rear; Fixed Front Post


Variants:
Model 1860 - Base Series Designation; adopted by US military in 1862; available in full-length rifle and shortened carbine forms.


Model 1865 - Slightly modified production version; available in full-length rifle and shortened carbine forms.


Operators:
Confederate States; France; Japan; United States