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​The Spencer Carbine

The Spencer was one of the most loved carbines of the Civil War due to its relative simplicity and, more importantly, its ability to shoot multiple bullets quickly without the hassle of reloading both the bullet and priming material after each shot. The Spencer carbine could fire seven shots rapidly and, therefore, was known as a “seven-shooter.” The magazine is a metal tube that holds up to seven cartridges, stacked one on top of the other (the tip of the elongated ball to the bottom of the copper cartridge) rather than side by side. The magazine was changed by unlocking the tube at the butt of the stock (twisting the locking plate sideways); sliding the empty tube out; replacing it with another magazine; and locking the new magazine in place.​

Pushing down the guard lever below the trigger opened the breech and extracted the spent cartridge.  When the breech closed through pushing the guard lever back up, the next cartridge was pushed into the ready-to-fire position. Then a spring pushed the breech slide up, locking the breech and sealing off the barrel. The breech block offered a simple way to load cartridges into to the ready-to-fire position as well as extract used cartridges. To explain in more detail:  When the lever was fully down and the breech slide completely free from the tube’s opening, a spiral spring and plug propelled the next cartridge into place. Then a metal forked tongue and a breech piece called a projection held the cartridge in place at the cartridge’s tip. When the lever or breech guard was raised, the motion moved the slide back into position. That slide had a concave top that fed the cartridge into the barrel. As the marksman pulled down on the guard lever, the breech opened, forcing a thin metal lever (the tongue) back, and ejected the spent cartridge.



The Spencer carbine was the “first of the successful repeaters,” and “was afterwards thought to be the most finished and ready weapon of the Civil War.”

 -- William Addleman Ganoe, History of the United States Army, p. 247

“This gun was
definitely one of the most charismatic, successful and
instantly recognizable weapons of
the Civil War”

--David Miller, Illustrated Directory of Guns:  A Collector’s Guide to over 2,000 Military, Sporting, and Antique Firearms, p. 539-540

The Spencer carbine manufactured by the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company had a 22-inch barrel, rifled with three grooves.2a The total length of the gun was 39 inches, and the carbine weighed 8 pounds and 4 ounces.3 Then at the end of the Civil War, the Burnside Rifle Company of Providence, Rhode Island made Spencer carbines to help fill the military’s demand. Those Spencers were .50 caliber with a 30-inch barrel that was rifled with 3 grooves. However, those carbines were contracted too late to be used in the Civil War.4 The Burnside Rifle Company created 30,496 Spencers that were purchased by private funds for state troops.5

Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms … and their values, 5th ed. says that the adopted Spencer model had 6 grooves for its rifling, not three.6

1 Arcadi Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines (New York: Bonanza Books, 1965), 390.

2 Norm Flayderman, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms … and their values, 5th ed. (Northbrook: DBI Books, Inc., 1990), 503; Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 288; 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), 154.

3 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 288.

4 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 389.

5 Arcadi Gluckman and L. D. Saterlee, American Gun Makers, 2nd ed. Revised (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Telegraph Press, 1953), 204.

6 Flayderman, Flayderman’s Guide 5th ed., 155.

The Spencer’s metallic rimfire cartridges enabled to gun to work as it did. By not using a tape primer or  percussion caps, the carbine functioned a lot faster than others. The Spencer cartridges were made in three sizes:  .50, .52, and .56 caliber. According to Historian and retired Colonel Arcadi Gluckman, “The bullets were conical, grooved and greased, and weighed about 350 grains. The powder charge was about 45 grains.”1 Approximately 60,000 cartridges were sold to the government throughout the Civil War.1

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