Friday, July 10, 2009

Tullahoma: Spencer rifle

From Murfreesboro Post:

In a scene that couldn’t be repeated today an inventor walked into the White House in 1863 with a rifle and a supply of cartridges.

That man was Christopher M. Spencer, a former employee of Samuel Colt.

The Connecticut native walked past the sentries and straight into President Abraham Lincoln’s office.

The discussion that followed led to a meeting the following afternoon. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton joined Lincoln and Spencer for some target practice near the still incomplete Washington Monument.

Eventually, the U.S. government ordered some 13,171 rifles and carbines along with some 58 million rounds of ammunition.

Spencer had invented his rife in 1859 and patented it in 1860 before the start of the Civil War, but the government had been slow to appreciate its value. It was a seven-shot repeater that had a firing rate of between 14-20 shots per minute, compared to the two or three shots per minute of a conventional Springfield muzzleloading rifle.

It was a magazine-fed, lever-operated rifle chambered for the 56-56 Spencer rimfire cartridge. Cartridges were loaded with 45 grains of black powder with the bullet approximately .52-caliber.

The lever extracted the used shell and fed a new cartridge from the magazine. The hammer was then manually cocked. Once empty, the tube magazine could be rapidly loaded either by dropping in fresh cartridges or from a device called the Blakeslee cartridge box, which contained up to 10 tubes with seven cartridges each, which could be emptied in the magazine tube in the butt stock of the rifle.

Despite the impressive accuracy and firepower, the Spencer had its critics among the military establishment. With its rapid fire, more ammo was necessary. The cartridges were expensive, and because of the number of rounds needed, units would need larger wagon trains. The cartridges were also very smoky and a soldier firing at maximum capacity would create so much haze it was difficult to see the enemy. The price of the repeaters was also a sticking point. Springfields cost $18 a piece compared to $40 for a much heavier Spencer.

The weapon was first adopted by the U.S. Navy and finally the Army, but Spencer was allowed to do demonstrations for Union armies. He captured the attention of the Gen. William S. Rosecrans and the generals of the Army of the Cumberland during a demonstration in Murfreesboro.

Spencer’s repeater proved ideal for mounted infantry and cavalry.

Col. John T. Wilder’s Brigade” bought its own Spencers after witnessing the demonstration at Murfreesboro. Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer was another early advocate. Two regiments of his Michigan cavalry used the repeaters with great effect during the Gettysburg campaign on the East Cavalry Field and at Hanover, Penn.

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