Christopher Spencer and the Spencer Repeating Rifle

1859–1865

Christopher Spencer invented the Spencer Repeating Rifle that was used by Union forces during the Civil War.

Christopher Miner Spencer, Inventor, Spencer Repeating Rifle

Christopher Miner Spencer was the inventory of the Spencer Repeating Rifle. Image Source: Commemorative Biographical Record of Hartford County, Connecticut.

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Who was Christopher Miner Spencer?

Christopher Miner Spencer was an American inventor, from Manchester, Connecticut, who invented the Spencer repeating rifle. Spencer learned how to manufacture guns as an employee of Samuel Colt, who founded Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company. Colt was the inventor of many products, including an early lever-action rifle and steam-powered “horseless carriage.”

Spencer Repeating Rifle, Civil War
A Spencer Repeating Rifle. Image Source: National Park Service.
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Spencer Founds the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company

By all accounts, Spencer was a gifted engineer in his own right. In 1859, he developed his own rifle that allowed a man to fire as many as 14 shots — 2 full magazines — per minute. It was a repeating rifle, and the first one to use a metallic cartridge.

The Spencer Rifle was a lever-action repeating rifle that held seven metallic cartridges in the stock — or rear — of the rifle. To fire, the lever was moved back and forth, which ejected a  spent — or used — cartridge case and load a new one. However, the hammer had to be manually cocked before pulling the trigger. To reload the weapon, a tube with seven cartridges was loaded into the stock. 

After the Civil War started in 1861, the demand for rifles dramatically increased. In June 1861, Spencer took his rifle to Washington, D.C. where it was tested by Commander John A. Dahlgren of the U.S. Navy Ordnance Department. Dahlgren was impressed, and the Army tested the rifle in November. The Ordnance Board placed an order for about 10,000 Spencer Rifles. 

In 1862, Spencer founded the Spencer Repeating Rifle Co. and started production. Unfortunately, there with issues with purchasing the rifles and putting them into the hands of soldiers. By 1863, there were only around 7,500 rifles had been distributed.

The Lightning Brigade and the Spencer Repeating Rifle

In February 1863, General William S. Rosecrans authorized the establishment of cavalry under the command of John T. Wilder. Spencer wanted his men to be able to have the best rifle he could find, in order to deal with Confederate forces, especially those led by John Hunt Morgan.

Wilder initially ordered Henry Rifles, which were similar to the Spencer Rifles. However, the manufacturer was not able to fill the order and Wilder started looking for alternatives. Around that time, Spencer visited the headquarters of General Rosecrans so he could demonstrate his rifle to him.

Wilder was so impressed by Spencer’s rifle that he canvassed his men and they agreed to adopt the new weapon. Unfortunately, army officials were unwilling to purchase repeating rifles because of concerns about soldiers wasting ammunition. Refusing to be denied the new weapon, Wilder bypassed the War Department and personally ordered enough rifles from Spencer to arm his brigade. To pay for the weapons, Wilder mortgaged his business and home to secure a bank loan, and each of his men co-signed promissory notes to cover the price of their individual rifles. Later in the year, after the rifles proved highly effective, the army reversed its position and covered the cost. 

Lincoln and the Spencer Rifle

President Abraham Lincoln tested the Spencer Rifle himself in 1861, but it failed both times. However, he heard enough good things from others who tested it that he approved the initial order of the rifles for the army.

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On August 18, 1863, Spencer visited the White House and presented President Lincoln with a Spencer Rifle as a gift. The next day, the two of them went to the President’s personal shooting range, which was just east of the White House. Lincoln was impressed and the army eventually ordered another 100,000 rifles.

Spencer’s Recollection of His Meeting with Lincoln

In December 1921, Scientific American Magazine printed the following, which is Christopher Spencer’s recollection of his meeting with Lincoln.

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“Among my most pleasing recollections of the war times was a shooting match which I engaged in with President Lincoln. I had been delegated by our company to present the President with one of the rifles, which I did on August 17, 1863. On my arrival at the White House, I was ushered immediately into the reception room, with my repeating rifle in my hand, and there I found the President alone. took the rifle from its cloth case and I handed it to him. He examined it carefully and handled it like one familiar with firearms. He requested me to take it apart and show the ‘inwardness of the thing. approving the gun, he asked me if I had any engagement for the following day, and requested me to come over about 2 o’clock, when, he said, ‘We will go out and see the thing shoot.’”

Christopher Spencer, Scientific American Magazine
This picture from Scientific American shows Spencer and his invention. Image Source: Archive.org.

“The next day we started on time for the shooting place, which was about where stands the Washington Monument. With us was the President’s son Robert and an official of the War Department. On the way the President stopped in front of the War Department and sent Robert to ask Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War, to come with us. waiting Mr. Lincoln told us some good stories, and, noticing that one of the pockets of his black alpaca coat was torn, he took a pin from his waistcoat and proceeded to mend it, saying, laughingly, ‘It seems to me that this does not look quite right for the chief magistrate of this mighty Republic.’ Robert reported that Mr. Stanton was too busy to accompany Well, said the President, ‘They do pretty much as they have a mind to over there.’ The target was a board 6 inches wide and 3 feet long, with a black spot painted at each end. The rifle contained six 50-caliber, rim-fire, copper cartridges. Mr. Lincoln’s first shot was to the left and 5 inches low, but the next shot hit the bullseye and the other five were placed close around it. Now, said Mr. Lincoln, ‘We will see the inventor try it.’ The board was reversed and I did somewhat better than the President. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you are  younger than I am and have a better eye and steadier nerve.”

Abraham Lincoln, Portrait, Gardner
President Abraham Lincoln personally tested the Spencer Repeating Rifle. Image Source: Library of Congress.
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The Spencer Rifle in Combat

Battle of Hoover’s Gap

The Spencer Rifles made their debut during the Battle of Hoover’s Gap in June 1863. Wilder and his men helped lead Union forces to victory. After the Wilder’s men took control of Hoover’s Gap, they held off separate counterattacks due to the firepower of their Spencer Rifles. When Union reinforcements arrived, under the command of Major General George Thomas, the Confederates withdrew. Thomas was impressed and told Wilder “You have saved the lives of a thousand men by your gallant conduct today. I didn’t expect to get this Gap for three days.” Thomas christened Wilder and his men the “Lightning Brigade.”

John Wilder, Portrait, Lightning Brigade, Civil War
John T. Wilder led the Lightning Brigade. He bought rifles for his men from Spencer, using his own funds. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Chickamauga

The Spencer Rifle provided Wilder and his men with accuracy and unmatched firepower. After the Battle of Chickamauga, Wilder wrote:

“As the rebels entered the field, in heavy masses fully exposed, the mounted infantry with their seven-shooting Spencer rifles, kept up a continuous blast of fire upon them. The effect was awful. Every shot seemed to tell. The head of the column as it was pushed on by those behind, appeared to melt away…Hardly a man got out of it alive. When the firing ceased, one could have walked for two hundred yards down that ditch on dead rebels, without ever touching the ground.”

Spencer Rifles After the Civil War

After the Civil War, the demand for the Spencer Repeating Rifle dropped, since the government had no reason to buy them. The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company went out of business. However, there were still thousands of the popular rifles in circulation. As Americans moved west, they took their Spencer Rifles with them.

Learn More About the Civil War

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Anaconda Plan. Designed by General Winfield Scott, it was a strategy to strangle the rebellion by blockading southern seaports and seizing control of the Mississippi River.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Illustration

Battle of Fort Sumter. The battle took place from April 12–13, 1861. It was the first battle of the Civil War and ended in a Confederate victory.

Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett's Charge

Pickett’s Charge. On July 3, 1863, Lee ordered Confederate forces to assault the Union positions on the high ground at Gettysburg.

1860 Spencer Repeating Rifle

This video from Brownells Gun Techs showcases the Spencer Repeating Rifle, explains how it works, and what is unique about it.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Christopher Spencer and the Spencer Repeating Rifle
  • Coverage 1859–1865
  • Author
  • Keywords Christopher Miner Spencer, Spencer Repeating Rifle, Abraham Lincoln, William S. Rosecrans, John T. Wilder, Lightning Brigade
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 2, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 19, 2022

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