The Spencer Carbine

Christopher Spencer, a trained mechanic, worked to perfect his gun, the Spencer Carbine, for six years.1 Throughout the 1850s, Mechanic Spencer was employed at various companies, which was typical of the talented inventors and skilled workers of his time. He worked for the Ames Manufacturing Company, which created manufacturing tools and edged weapons, and the Colt Firearms factory in Hartford, Connecticut.2 While he was superintendent of the Cheney silk ribbon factory in the mid 1850s, he worked to create his own carbine.3 Although he originally looked for the Spencer to be a sporting gun, he realized that the Civil War opened up a new market for his arm, provided that he made some adjustments.4

Getting a Contract and a Company


Christopher Minor Spencer, c.1863, 30 years old


A cartridge where the ignition material is located on the bottom of the cartridge around the rim, or outside edge of the cartridge. When the hammer struck the cartridge, that action caused the explosion to set off the bullet.

Because the inventor did not have the resources available to him, he looked to an outside firm, Crittenden & Tibbals of South Coventry, Connecticut, to manufacture the Spencer’s cartridges.4 That prominent ammunition company created a copper-cased rimfire cartridge labeled “No. 56 Army,” known later as the .56-.56 Spencer cartridge.5  The .56-.56 guns usually fired .52 caliber cartridges; however, due to bore variation, the Spencer could fit a .54 caliber cartridge, the same as a Sharps carbine. Although this was not the preferred .58 caliber bullet of the government (same size as a Springfield cartridge), this was still a close attempt to appease the government’s, and more specifically the Chief of Ordnance Ripley’s, pro-standardization stance.5

Before the Spencer was tested in a military trial, the inventor gained advice on his arm from Richard Lawrence, whose company manufactured the Sharps Carbine.  In fact, both guns, at least initially, have a similar look because of the men’s friendship.5 Several parts were sold to Spencer to make his prototype, making several parts of the Sharps New Model 1959 and the early Spencers, “including the barrel, stock, rear sight, and some internal lock parts,” interchangeable.5

Similar to other inventors, Christopher Spencer continued to use his connections to obtain a military contract.  In fact, without the help of his friends, the Cheney brothers, he would not have been able to be a successful arms manufacturer. Charles Cheney was a good friend of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles who, in turn, wrote the Washington Navy Yard Commander John A. Dahlgren asking for Dahlgren to test the Spencer carbine.6 During the test held over two mornings, the gun was fired 500 times, one shot after the other. The gun was not cleaned during the testing. Commander Dahlgren tested the Spencer, found it highly satisfactory, and recommended it for military use. In his June 1861 report, Admiral Dahlgren wrote, "The mechanism is compact and strong. [...] There was 

but one failure to fire, supposed to be due to the absence of fulminate. In every other instance, the operation was complete. [...] Not the least foulness on the outside, and very little within, The least time of firing seven rounds was ten seconds."7 On June 22, the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography bought 700 Spencer rifles with sword bayonets for $43 each and 70,000 rounds of .56-.56 ammunition.6

Then, the Cheneys and the inventor obtained an army test for the Spencer by Captain Alexander Dyer (later the Chief of Ordnance). The Captain put the Spencer through even more rigorous testing than the Navy, including burying the loaded gun in sand to see if the sand clogged the mechanisms. It didn't.8 Although Dyer liked the arm, no army contract directly followed, even after Spencer hired a lobbyist.9 Ultimately, the overwhelming requests for breechloader contracts caused Chief of Ordnance James Ripley to overlook the possibility of a contract with Spencer.9 However, the Spencer Carbine would not be economically feasible; investing a lot of capital into manufacturing such a small order would result in a loss for the manufacturers.10 Yet, the Christopher Spencer and his friends refused to give up on an army contract. The inventor demonstrated his gun to Major General George B. McClellan who then gave the prototype to the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Ordnance Colonel C. P. Kingsbury as well as three other officers. Kingsbury was in agreement with the earlier test results, and recommended the Spencer carbine for infantry or cavalry use.9 The other officers preferred the Spencer over the Henry because it seemed more durable.11 Yet, Ripley refused to give in. The Chief of Ordnance disliked repeating arms just as much as single breechloaders. He could not see the advantage of the Spencer and saw metallic cartridges as potentially dangerous as well as a nuisance because of the different ammunition required.12

The Spencer underwent more tests, and all the while Ripley still resisted the mounting pressure to allow a government contract. Spencer used his contacts again to gain an audience with a wealthy financier named Warren Fisher. Fisher wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. After that letter, Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott ordered Ripley to write up a contract for Spencers.13a On December 26, 1861, Ripley entered into a contract with Spencer for 10,000 rifles, in which the first 500 were to be delivered by the end of March 1862.14 Then the Spencers were to be delivered at a rate of 1,000 per month for the following eight months, and in December 1862 the order was to be complete with a 1,500 carbine delivery.15 The rifles came with “triangular bladed socket bayonets” and costed $40 per rifle.14 That order was a daunting task for an established company, and even more challenging for an inventor without a company.b

After accepting the contract on Dec. 31, 1861, Spencer and the Cheneys looked to their new problem: they needed a factory with machinery and workers.16 That meant that they had to secure investors willing to back their endeavor. By January 23, 1862, the Cheney’s had secured enough investors to incorporate the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company in Boston, Massachusetts.16 The government contract would have made their project more attractive, and may have been one of the reasons, along with good networking, that the men built the company so quickly. Using factory space in the Chickering and Sons Piano-Forte Company in Boston, the Spencer partners raised enough money to purchase machinery and hire workers.16 Although they had fabricated a company in around one month, they only had two months to create at least 500 carbines. When working with new machines, a certain amount of time needed to be dedicated to workers learning how to use them as well. Likewise, getting all of the machines and workers to manufacture in a cohesive way took great planning as well as time. After creating a production plan, the businessmen realized that the factory could not make the March deadline.16

The company’s trouble was compounded when Simeon Cameron was removed from office and Edwin Stanton became Secretary of War. Stanton ordered that all arms contractors be judged by the Special Commission on Ordnance and Ordnance Stores.16 With Company Treasurer and Primary Contract Contact Warren Fisher’s persistent communication with Stanton and the Commission through letters and personal appearances, the Commission upheld the contract with Spencer Repeating Rifle Co., but reduced the order by 2,500 rifles and pushed back initial deliveries to June 1862.17 Although the company worked non-stop throughout this entire process and the order was reduced, the factory still was not able to meet the June deadline. Fisher, partially covering their lack of ability, blamed Ripley’s initial tardiness, who did not approve the Spencer’s pattern until June 9, 1862. He promised to have the first delivery by July or August and only charged $35 per rifle because the order was late.18c However, the company was not able to make that deadline either. With every deadline the company missed, the risk of losing their government contract increased.

a Historian William B. Edwards argues in Civil War Guns that Ripley was not actually opposed to the Spencer, because he obeyed the order in the same day. 19 However, both points can be argued.

b Despite all of the difficulties, by the end of 1862, the 700 navy rifles and bayonets were submitted for inspection by Captain Jonathan S. Chauncy. The Spencers then underwent strict testing and proved to be a very reliable arm. Chauncy recommended the Spencers for immediate use, but they were delivered two months later.20

c William B. Edwards argues in Civil War Guns that it was mainly due to Ripley's delayed decision that they were behind on their contract. However, in reality, the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was trying to accomplish an almost insurmountable task.

1 Joseph G. Bilby, A Revolution in Arms:  A History of the First Repeating Rifles (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2006),68.

2 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 69.
3 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 70.
4 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 71.
5 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 72.
6 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 74; William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns: The complete story of Federal and Confederate small arms:  design, manufacture, identification, procurement, issue, employment, effectiveness, and postwar disposal (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982), 146; Margaret Wagner E., Gary W. Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman, eds., Civil War Reference Desk (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 195.
7 Captain John A. Dahlgren, Report, June 1861, quoted in William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns: The complete story of Federal and Confederate small arms:  design, manufacture, identification, procurement, issue, employment, effectiveness, and postwar disposal (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982), 146.

8 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 74.

9 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 76.
10 Edwards, Civil War Guns, 146.
11 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 77.
12 Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union:  Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, (New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 134.
13 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 77-78.
14 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 78.
15 Warren Fisher to Simon Cameron, December 18, 1861, quoted in William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns: The complete story of Federal and Confederate small arms:  design, manufacture, identification, procurement, issue, employment, effectiveness, and postwar disposal (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982),147.
16 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 79.
17 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 80-81.
18 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 81-82.
19 Edwards, Civil War Guns, 147.
20 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 84-85.