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  • Scientific American Spencer Rifle Edition

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    Scientific American - Spencer's Breech-Loading Rifles Edition.  Vol VI-No. 4, Printed January 25, 1862, contains pages 49-64. 

    During the American Civil War many breech loaders would be fielded. The Sharps rifle used a successful dropping block design. The Greene Rifle used rotating bolt-action, and was fed from the breech. The Spencer, which used lever-actuated bolt-action, was fed from a 6-round detachable tube magazine. The Henry rifles and Volcanic rifles used rimfire metallic cartridges fed from a tube magazine under the barrel. These held a significant advantage over muzzle-loaders. The improvements in breech-loaders had spelled the end of muzzle-loaders. To make use of the enormous number of war surplus muzzle-loaders, the Allin conversion Springfield. 

    Lincoln heard that Spencers, often privately purchased despite their dearness, were, like Henrys, more than twice as expensive as standard Springfields, costing the average soldier four months' pay. But they were becoming popular thanks to their ability to rattle the enemy with rapid fire. One Southern lieutenant, taken prisoner, asked his Spencer-armed captors, "What kind of Hell-fired guns have your men got?" And Col. George Custer remarked that if his entire command were armed with Spencers he would not hesitate to charge the rebels even when outnumbered two to one. This was something of an irony, given that at the Little Bighorn, most of the charging Indian warriors who used repeaters carried Winchesters.

    Intrigued, the president requested that one be sent to the White House. Unfortunately, it was defective and so too was its replacement, prompting the president to dismiss the gun as fatally flawed. In mid-August 1863, hoping to salvage the situation, Christopher Spencer himself came to demonstrate the firearm. Betraying his curiosity in all things mechanical, Lincoln asked to be shown "the inwardness of the thing." So Spencer took the piece apart and screwed it back together, delighting the president. Spencer then accompanied the president, Lincoln's son Robert and his secretary John Hay to Treasury Park. They set up a wooden plank three feet long and six inches wide to use as a target. Lincoln took the first shot, from 40 yds. away. It hit 5" below, and somewhat to the left, of the bullseye. His next hit the spot, and by furiously working the lever, he rapidly placed five more in the neighborhood. "Now," he said, "we will see the inventor try it." Spencer then performed, in Hay's words, "some splendid shooting," and beat the president's score. Lincoln, amused, defended his inferiority by remarking that Spencer was younger than he. Then Hay had a try, but his efforts were "lamentably bad." Being younger than both, he blamed his poor eyesight.

    Bidding farewell to Spencer, Lincoln gave him the riddled target, saying that "it might be a gratifying souvenir." (In 1883, Spencer donated it to the Lincoln collection in Springfield, Ill., but it was subsequently lost.) In his diary, Hay echoed his boss' thoughts on the Spencer: "A wonderful gun, loading with absolutely contemptible simplicity and ease with seven balls and firing the whole readily and deliberately in less than half a minute."

    The most immediate and important result of the Spencer test was that Lincoln ousted Ripley from his post, for it was now clear that the chief had been foot-dragging since the beginning. Henceforth, federal procurement of Spencers (mostly in a carbine version for cavalry) quickened and eventually amounted to roughly 100,000 pieces. Although the exact number is debatable, this increase was owed less to any direct intervention on Lincoln's part than to Ripley's successors believing that muzzleloaders were on their way out, destined to be replaced by breechloaders-a category that included not only lever-action repeaters but single-shot rifles.

    Inventory Number: FIR 038