The Fast and the Furious — A Quick History of Civil War Repeating Rifles

Soldiers of the 7th Illinois Volunteers pose with their privately purchased Henry repeaters. The rapid-fire rifles allowed soldiers to shoot nearly 30 rounds a minute; 10 times more than a government-issued musket could manage. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The two most common repeater rifles available during the Civil War were the Spencer and Henry rifles. Both gave the infantry a tremendous advantage on the battlefield.”

By Sam Bocetta

THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR was a time of great advances in weaponry. This is especially so in terms of small arms.

In 1861, most infantrymen marched off to war with smooth-bore muskets that were only slightly better than those found on Napoleonic battlefields. As the fighting continued, most of these clumsy and antiquated weapons were replaced by a new type of firearm – the rifle or rifled musket. Yet despite being far more accurate than smooth-bores, the new weapons were still manually loaded with paper cartridges and ramrods. Even in well trained hands, a rifled musket could still only fire three volleys a minute.

The advent of repeater rifles promised to change all of that. Instead of manually loading each shot individually, this revolutionary new class of weapon made use of an automatic loading mechanism. The technology allowed a soldier to fire and then, with the quick pull of a lever, eject the spent casing, chamber a fresh round from an internal magazine and shoot again. The entire process could be completed in as little as two seconds (and sometimes less). The unheard-of rates of fire offered by repeaters effectively put the firepower of an entire infantry company into the hands of just a few troops.

The two most common repeating rifles available during the Civil War were the seven-shot Spencer, and the 16-shot Henry.

Ironically, despite the great advantages of these repeaters, the new weapons would make only limited contributions to the war. This was largely because the military tactics of the day had not kept pace with the rapid rate of technological change. And even when the utility of repeating rifles was recognized, they were never available in large enough numbers to change the outcome of the war, or even speed its conclusion.

Still, the history of Civil War repeaters is a fascinating one, not least for what it tells us about the origins of the most modern rifles available today. In fact, the Henry and Spencer are the ancestors of the lever-action rifles that are still popular today.

Let’s take a look at both.

A Spencer carbine. (Image source: Smithsonian)

The Spencer

The Spencer repeater was one of the two most advanced weapons used during the Civil War. Though the automatic loading mechanism for the gun had actually been patented long before the outbreak of hostilities, the first Spencer repeaters were not available until 1860.

Pioneered by a 26-year-old inventor and gunsmith from Connecticut named Christopher Spencer, the rifle offered several advantages over the muzzle-loading, single-shot muskets still in use by both armies. The weapon’s seven-shot tube magazine, which was inserted into the rifle butt, may have been hopelessly unreliable compared to today’s rifle mags, but it did increase a soldier’s rate of fire enormously. In addition, the rifling grooves inside the barrel – then still a novelty – put a stabilizing spin on bullets giving the gun an effective range of 500 yards.

A cutaway diagram of a Spencer. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Despite this, Spencer had great difficulty convincing the War Department to approve his 52-calibre rifle for service. The clerks in the War Department, being more accountants than soldiers, initially thought the weapon too heavy for practical use – it was more than 10 pounds when loaded. They also fretted that since the Spencer used its own special ammunition, and could fire much faster than most other weapons, vast sums would need to be spent on bullets.

In order to overcome such objections, Spencer hoped to sell the idea for his rifle directly to President Lincoln. The two met in August of 1863. Their conversation, perhaps the most famous “sales call” in history, makes for fascinating reading. I quote from A. M. Beck, over at RareWinchesters.com:

Mr. Lincoln had previously tried two different Spencer rifles supplied by the Navy. The first probably had a rusty magazine tube and could not be loaded. In firing the second, the president experienced a double feed, which locked up the gun and required several minutes to clear. This sort of failure is easy to get with the Spencer action, if the lever is not operated smoothly. Due to this experience, the President personally had stopped the issue of Spencer rifles to some units. It was this turn of events that inspired Mr. Spencer’s visit. The meeting apparently went well. Spencer was able to explain the problems and their solutions satisfactorily. Then they adjourned, meeting the next evening near the Washington monument, where an hour was spent firing the rifle Spencer had brought. The President seemed quite pleased with the gun.

Following this meeting, the tide began to turn in favour of Spencer’s repeating rifle. Actual field testing suggested that it was a far better weapon than others currently in use, and soon the first big order for the weapon – 10,000 rifles – was issued. More would follow. By war’s end, more than 85,000 Spencers were in the hands of Union soldiers and sailors.

The 56-56 Spencer cartridge featured a ball or bullet, power and primer, all packaged in single a metal casing. It was a far cry from the old-style paper musket cartridges. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Prized by the infantry, production difficulties meant that the Spencer repeater, despite all its advantages, still remained quite rare until very late in the war. In fact, it was not until immediately following the surrender of the Confederacy that production of the weapon reached its peak. Amazingly, the success of the Spencer actually doomed the company in peacetime. Having saturated the market with repeaters, orders dropped off after 1865. Within four years, the floundering business was taken over by Winchester. Surplus Spencers were later sold off by Washington, with some even finding their way into France where they would see action during the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71.

An 1860 Henry rifle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Henry Rifle

Another repeater that would achieve fame in the American Civil War was the Henry rifle. Patented in 1860 by Benjamin Tyler Henry, the rifle’s 16-shot ammunition capacity and greater stopping power made it superior to the Spencer.

The Henry was chambered for the reliable .44 caliber rimfire cartridge, which was also designed by Henry himself. Reports of its devastating effect on enemy soldiers are common in despatches from the battlefield. Major William Ludlow’s account of the fighting at Allatoona Pass, for instance, notes that “what saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles … This company of 16 shooters sprang to the parapet and poured out such a multiplied, rapid and deadly fire, that no men could stand in front of it and no serious effort was made thereafter to take the fort by assault.”

Not surprisingly, Southern soldiers grew to fear the Henry when they encountered it. Rebs famously described it as “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

Though the Henry was devastating when used by small groups of trained soldiers, it was never issued in large numbers. And just like the Spencer repeater, the Henry was never available in quantities to make a huge contribution to the war.

Although they were issued, many soldiers and officers procured their Henry’s privately with their own money.

As such, the Henry’s impact wouldn’t be felt until after the war, when it became the basis of the iconic Winchester rifle of the Wild West era.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the Henry rifle would achieve lasting fame. Its deadly effectiveness was already well proven by the time of the 1876 battle of Little Big Horn, where Lakota warriors and their allies would use the rifle to wipe out Custer’s less well-armed 7th Cavalry. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Conclusion

Though they represented a huge technological advance, the impact of repeaters in the Civil War was actually surprisingly small. There were several reasons for this.

As mentioned above, the bean-counters in the War Department viewed the expensive weapons as a drain on resources. It was even felt that being able to fire more quickly would lead to soldiers waste ammunition. It is sobering to note, in this regard, that today the average infantry soldier in Iraq fires some 250,000 rounds before incapacitating an enemy.

Secondly, the first repeating rifles were only useful for one particular type of soldier – infantry. Though, in theory, a cavalryman armed with a repeating rifle would have made a potent opponent, practical difficulties limited their adoption by mounted troops. Shorter carbines were the norm for cavalry, though many also carried percussion revolvers for close-quarter combat.

Overall, then, the impact of repeating rifles was limited. Their real value, for the historian as well as the gun enthusiast, is that these rifles set the pattern that would last, essentially unchanged, until today.

Sam Bocetta is a writer at Gun News Daily where he covers US gun news and reviews the latest firearm products and gear.

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