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The Spencer Carbine

Although the first Spencer used in battle was actually a gift from the inventor to his friend Sergeant Francis O. Lombard of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry,a the call for government issued Spencers became significantly loud in the ears of the Ordnance Department.

Politically-influential Lt. Col. Joseph Tarr Copeland of the Fifth Michigan Cavalry demanded repeating breechloaders for his regiment. While his regiment was still recruiting, Copeland used his political connections to request carbines for his men, refusing to have any other arms but Spencers. First Sergeant Roger Hannaford of the Second Ohio Cavalry, recalls in his memoirs of the war,


           Custars [sic; Custar replaced Copeland before Gettysburg] celebrated Michigan Brig. were another example [of the limited prestige 

           through arms]: they were the first that were armed with Spencers Carbine, had them months before any others, + that was the time the[y] gained

           their reputation [...] but after all the Cav Corp were armed with seven shooters. you did not hear so much about the Mich. Brig.”1

Copeland’s men were the pioneers of the Spencer. Once the carbine proved itself in combat to the confidence of the men, it became a desired commodity. . From Hannaford’s memoirs, we can assume that as more and more cavalrymen were assigned these carbines, their morale rose as did their reputation for being a good fighting unit.  As more and more troops became fighting equals due to their enhanced capability with their Spencers, the troops were known less as legendary and more as good fighters due to their leadership and their weapon. However, not all of the cavalry could be outfitted with Spencer carbines, because the company’s manufacturing capability would not be able to keep up with such a high demand.

By the middle of August in 1862, the company’s factory was ready for inspection. After the company passed the inspection, a delivery date for 1,000 rifles was set up, and in October Copeland heard word that his regiment would be outfitted with Spencer carbines.2 Then, on November 21, 1862, part of the total 1,200 Spencers completed inspection and were shipped to Copeland. It took until December for the regiment to receive the carbines, because the regiment had departed for Washington before the delivery date.2 The remainder of the rifles were then delivered in January 1863. Supplying carbines to troops was not a simple task. Many factors, including politics, testing and inspections, could have easily delayed the process. However, the basic logistics of transportation proved to be a challenge.


Letter from Warren Fisher Jr. to President Abraham Lincoln  on Aug. 13, 1863 concerning the Spencer.

In January 1863 the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was manufacturing 50 rifles or carbines per day. Orders from the army and state governments started to come in for the famous repeating rifles, especially for sharpshooter units.
3 Most of the next army order of 7,500 were probably assigned to the 98th Illinois Infantry regiments and 72nd and 75th Indiana regiments due to their leader’s, Col. General John T. Wilder’s, vision. Wilder’s goal, which matched his commanding officer General Rosecrans of the Army of the Cumberland, was to have a brigade that was “mounted and armed with the latest and best weapons."4 At Liberty, Tennessee, Wilder’s men were the first to use their government-issued Spencers in fighting.5 From Wilder’s men to General Butler’s Army of the James c to the Army of the Potomac, soldiers  were happy to use the reliable Spencer.6

To gain additional support for his carbine, Christopher Spencer demonstrated his arm to President Lincoln on August 18, 1863. Lincoln fired about seven shots into a target 40 yards away. Impressed with the gun, Lincoln endorsed its use in the military.7 The President’s approval further popularized the arm. Yet, the satisfaction of the gun extended past the President. From its first shipments during the Civil War to January 1, 1866, the U.S. government obtained 77, 181 Spencer Carbines (Gluckman, 389; Lord 340-341).b

a Sergeant Lombard used it when he confronted Confederates near Cumberland, Maryland on October 16, 1862.8​

​b According to Gluckman in Identifying Old Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, “77,181 Spencer Carbines were procured by the Ordnance Department,” which is slightly over the sum of the totals listed by Gluckman and Satterlee of  2,471 Spencer rifles and 64,685 Spencer carbines.
9 Francis A. Lord in Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia recorded 77,181 Spencer Carbines procured by the government and other state and local organizations for use in the Civil War.10 Likewise, William B. Edwards in Civil War Guns agreed with that number, "in addition to 1,500 bought by Massachusetts," however he believes those were probably rifles.11

c Butler’s men of 7th Connecticut were unsuccessful in their mission and some soldiers were cut off and captured. Their arms were confiscated.6

1 Roger Hannaford,  Papers (Mss 579 Backlog, Cincinnati History Library & Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1865), 54c.
2 Joseph G. Bilby, A Revolution in Arms:  A History of the First Repeating Rifles (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2006), 84.
3 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 85.
4 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 89.
5 Bibly, A Revolution in Arms, 102.
6 Bibly, A Revolution in Arms, 161 - 163.
7 The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution,
Margaret E.Wagner, Gary W. Gallagher, and paul Finkelman, eds., Civil War Desk Reference (New
 York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 495.

9 Arcadi Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines (New York: Bonanza Books, 1965), 389; Arcadi Gluckman and L. D. Saterlee. American Gun Makers, 2nd ed. Revised (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Telegraph Press, 1953), 204.
10 Francis A. Lord, Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia: Arms, Uniforms, and Equipment of the Union and Confederacy (New York:  Castle Books, 1965), 340-341.

11  Edwards, WIlliam B.  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), 156.

Supplying a Demand

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