Here’s a nice little rifle, for sale by Ancestry Guns. It’s a Spencer Model 1865 cavalry carbine, possibly issued to Union cavalry during the Civil War or shortly thereafter. This particular example is for sale at Ancestry Guns. Spencers aren’t terribly rare — tens of thousands were made, and many survive — but they’re historic guns. It was the Spencer that was brought in for Abe Lincoln to take some shots with, and the President quickly became an advocate of the repeater. An apocryphal story has a Confederate calling it, “The Damn Yankee gun you can load on Sunday and shoot all week.” Indeed, Spencers put seven rapid shots in a horse soldiers hands, giving him about the firing cadence of his revolver but in a more accurate shoulder weapon. Light and handy, they were popular with the troops.
Most of the Union cavalry were equipped with breechloaders relatively early in the war — by Gettysburg in 1863, for example, most cavalry were armed with a chaotic mix of breechloading carbines while the infantry were mostly armed with muzzle-loading rifle-muskets, and among the exceptions on the infantry side, smoothbores, which were still preferred by some regimental colonels, were more common than repeaters, which were at the cutting edge of technology. The two major repeaters used by the Union were the Henry, which was an intermediate stage of evolution between the Volcanic and the familiar Winchester lever-action rifles, and the Spencer, which had a number of interesting and unique features. By war’s end, Henrys and Spencers were already replacing a previous generation of single-shot breechloaders. (After the war, the Army would revert to single-shot Allin-patent Springfield breechloaders, and not issue a repeater widely again until the short-lived .30-40 Krag in the 1890s).
What made the Spencer carbine go bang was a unique cartridge with a unique label: the .56-56 Spencer. In this photograph, with nothing to give it scale, it looks like a .22 short. It is, like the .22, a rimfire cartridge. Even though a lot of internally-primed balloon-head centerfire cartridges of the era had the smooth base we now think of as characteristic of a rimfire, this one really is rimfire. And, based on usual blackpowder nomenclature, you might expect a .56-56 was a .56 bullet propelled by 56 grains of black powder. You’d be wrong. Christopher Spencer’s company didn’t label its proprietary cartridges with standard nomenclature: a .56-56 was a case with a .56 caliber at the mouth and a .56 caliber at the base (forward of the rim) , in other words, an untapered, straight case. Other Spencer cartridges, like the .52-56, were tapered (all had a .56 base). The most common by far, and the GI caliber, was .56-56.
Civil War era cases were copper, not brass, and less durable than subsequent cases. Like all non-.22 19th Century rimfires, ammunition ceased being produced early in the 20th Century.
Like familiar Winchester and Marlin rifles, a lever that formed the trigger guard operated the Spencer’s action, although the Spencer lever lacked a finger loop. Closed, the action was smooth and looked much like a conventional muzzle-loaded carbine, apart from a protuberance for the lever hinge on the ventral surface of a receiver — the new concept of a receiver, a unit frame or body for the firearm, replaced the separate barrel, breech and lockplate of the muzzle-loading era.
Unlike the Henry, Marlin, and Winchester form factor of firearm, the Spencer’s magazine is in its buttstock. There are pros and cons to each layout: the mag in the stock is better protected, but it weakens the stock; the mag under the barrel can hold more rounds than one in the stock, except in the case of very short barrels. These days, with any tubular magazine, jacketed and spitzer bullets are not recommended; in the Spencer it didn’t matter because (1) it was not centerfire and (2) jacketed and spitzer bullets were yet to be invented. All bullets, in 1865, were made of lead.
The saddle ring is a characteristic of a cavalry arm. Three things that greatly concerned cavalry arms buyers were firearm retention, positive safety, and, now that breechloaders had enabled it, reloading whilst mounted, especially on the move. A special set of loading tubes — sort of a speedloader for tubular magazines — was developed for Union Army cavalrymen armed with Spencers.
As you can see, preparing a follow-up shot in the Spencer was a two-stage action. You cycled the lever (ejecting the old cartridge case, if any, and loading the new). Then you had to manually cock the hammer before discharging the firearm again. When Spencer was designing the rifle, end users had asked for that as a safety feature.
The Spencer was considerably trickier to manufacture (as was its ammunition) compared to conventional firearms of the day. The Rebels, then, had no real hope of copying the rifle in any kind of quantity manufacture. A close-up of the mechanism exposed when the lever is opened gives a hint of why.
Endorsed by no less a figure than President Lincoln, the demand for cavalry Spencers soon outstripped the ability of Spencer’s Boston factory to produce them. Which brings us to this particular carbine, one of some 30,000 made under Spencer’s license by the Burnside Rifle Company in Providence, Rhode Island. Here are its markings:
And for comparison’s sake, here is another Model 1865, this one made in Christopher Spencer’s factory in Boston:
This image came from the site that will be this week’s Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week. So if you recognize the shot, you may already know the site.
The above pictures also let us know a little bit about the degree to which rifle manufacture in 1865 involved hand work as well as state of the art, for the year, automation. Note that on both the Spencer- and the Burnside-made carbines, the areas that blend the flat top and upper-left and upper-right surfaces of the receiver are a little uneven. These were probably rounded or radiused by hand on a belt-driven grinding wheel, and the craftsman’s concern would have been more with eliminating sharp edges than with making the carbines uniform or beautiful.
Peak Burnside in a Matthew Brady photo. Yes, sideburns are named for him. (The English word for them was previously “sideboards.”)
The Burnside company was founded by Providence entrepreneur, failed politician (as a Democrat) and Rhode Island militia officer Ambrose Burnside. During the war he ascended from colonel of a state militia regiment to commanding general of Union armies, and after being sacked from that job was left without portfolio after a meeting in Washington with the men who ordered him relieved, Lincoln and Secretary of War Edward Stanton.
Burnside was by all accounts a nice guy, personable and friendly, honest, and admired and beloved by his men. A modest man, he had doubts that he had the ability for high command, and his course as commander of the Army of the Potomac indicates that the doubts were well-placed. If an error can be made, he probably made it, and then followed up with the opposite error in the next battle. (He is a rare general who has been pilloried as too cautious and too aggressive in the same book or article). He is usually listed on any list of Civil War or all-time worst generals; he has a chapter to himself in Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, an honor, if honor it is, that extends to no other officer.
After the war, he tried politics again, as a Republican this time, and served as Governor and one of the Senators for his home state of Rhode Island. To the astonishment of the good burghers of Rhode Island, his tenure in these positions was unmarked by corruption or scandal, which hardly ever happens. In Providence, where he lived before and after the war, and died of a heart attack, he remained well-regarded; there’s always talk about restoring his once-palatial corner townhome, which has been converted to apartments. He and his wife had no children, and he made bequests of land and money that are today memorialized in Burnside Park. In the 1880s an equestrian statue was erected to his memory in a downtown traffic circle; it was later moved to a new plinth in Burnside Park.
The Burnside Rifle Company made Burnside’s own breechloader, one of the single-shot breechloading carbines widely used by Union cavalry. There was no conflict of interest; Burnside had lost his interest in a pre-war reorganization. But they also stepped up to manufacture the Spencer on demand, and made 30,503 of them. (Spencer made 45,733 carbines and about 11,671 rifles).
As a rule of thumb, a Spencer-made Spencer and a Burnside-made Spencer are about equivalent in value. However, the Burnsides were mostly made too late to participate in the Civil War themselves. Over 19,000 of them were made a device called the “Stabler cut-off” which was also added to about 11,000 Spencer-made Spencer carbines post-war. This carbine is, according to the seller, one of the early, pre-cut-off Burnsides, and you can see that the cut-off is absent in the photos. It is the rectangular switch visible forward of the trigger in this picture of another Spencer (the same Spencer-made one we’ve already seen one picture of).
The cut-off was an ingenious way to address the brass’s belief that giving Private Joe Tentpeg a repeating rifle simply encouraged him to squander ammunition, for instance by firing it at the enemy. (This belief has arisen every time in history a technological advance has improved the infantryman’s rate of fire, and it always manifests in ways to force the new, more rapid-fire technology to perform more like the old technology it has just made obsolete). Stabler’s switch, located forward of the trigger, prevented the lever from reaching full stroke, ejecting the fired casing and allowing single shots to be loaded without calling on the rounds in the buttstock tubular magazine.
Turned 90º, it allowed the action to fully stroke and pick up a new cartridge. Thus a cavalryman could go in the flick of a switch from firing an economical single-shot to firing seven rounds of rimfire mischief, as fast as he could cycle the lever and cock the hammer.
(The otherwise inexplicable adoption of the .30-40 Krag is explained in part by the Krag’s excellent and easy-to-use magazine cut-off; the 3-round-burst device used on the obsolete M16A2 and M4 was a more recent attempt to impose forced ammo economy on Joe)).
Again, as a rule of thumb, Spencers without the Stabler switch are worth a little more than those without, as the former are more likely to be postwar guns and the latter original Civil War firearms.
Ancestry Guns is asking $2,750 for the Burnside Spencer, and says this about it:
Spencer is one of the great names in arms manufacturing during the American Civil War. After a private audience with President Abraham Lincoln, Christian Spencer’s invention was contracted for the Union troops to their great advantage.
This model was manufactured under contract by the Burnside Rifle Company and has 3 groove rifling instead of Spencer’s six. One of only 34,000 it remains in its original configuration without the Stabler cutoff, making it all the more desirable.
Model and Patent are stamped on the top of the receiver.
Serial Number: 4301
Caliber: .52 (56-56 is what it was known by in the 1860s)
Bore is in nice condition and all parts mechanically functional.
Overall condition as seen in photos.
We’re not sure whether Ancestry Guns’ price for the Burnside-made Spencer is reasonable; it depends on how you’d class the gun’s condition. We are sure it’s an opportunity to acquire a firearm that lets you tell a story of Abraham Lincoln and one of Ambrose Burnside at the same time.