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Spencer Carbine

The greatest advance in weaponry of the time was the "repeater" – a gun that could be fired many times in succession before the magazine had to be replaced or replenished. Most rifles used in the day were single shot muzzleloaders.

Confederates who came up against Union outfits using repeaters often called it, "…that damned Yankee rifle they load up on Sunday and fire all week!"

The most famous repeater of the war was the Spencer.

The Spencer

The Spencer was the most widely used and sought after breechloader of the war. Its spring-fed tubular magazine held seven rounds; these could fire as fast as the user could work the lever and thumb back the hammer. Objections were made over the time it took to reload the magazine, but this problem was resolved by the use of quick-loading cartridge boxes holding ten tubes, or 70 rounds. The other objection, the weight, faded fast after the first use in battle proved its superior firepower.
The Civil War version usually used a .56 caliber bullet with a rimfire brass cartridge with not too long of a range; however, most battles were fought at under 400 yards and for this the rifle was ideal. The effective range on the rifle was supposedly 2,000 yards, but battle range was 300-500 yards. One other distinct advantage, its low recoil or kick, made it easier to fire.

The tests ran before it was issued were staggering – submerging it in saltwater for over 24 hours and then burying it in sand is one example. It worked perfectly without a jam or misfire. About 106,000 saw service, of which around 12,000 were rifles, and 94,000 were carbines that were mainly used for cavalry. The Spencer was a very efficient and mechanically reliable, one of the most outstanding shoulder arms in service during the war.

Spencers in Gettysburg

The Spencer played a pivotal role at the start of the Battle of Gettysburg! On June 30, 1863, Union Brigadier-General John Buford's 1st Division Cavalry Corps consisted of 2,500 dismounted horse soldiers. They positioned along McPherson's ridge, holding back a much larger force of muzzle loader-equipped men under the command of Confederate Major-General Henry Heth. Buford's much smaller force of repeater-firing cavalry held the advance long enough for the Union foot soldier reinforcements from I Corps under Major-General John Reynolds to arrive and help him hold the line, and thus enjoin the three-day epic engagement.

Donations Wanted! Civil War Artifacts and Books

Do you have Civil War related artifacts or books that you would like to donate to the Drum Barracks? Contact Museum Director, Tara Fansler, at 310-548-7509.