A Spencer Anecdote

In early 1864, Arizona pioneer and Colonel King S. Woolsey borrowed a Spencer repeating rifle from then-Territorial Governor John Goodwin for an expedition against a band of Apaches. On Aril 26, 1864, the Hartford Evening Press published this account from Woolsey:

We rested the next day to arrange details,, fit pack saddles, assort and equalize packs, etc. The note of preparation was heard everywhere, mules being shod, saddles and bridles repaired, balls cast and cartridges made. The citizens were trying their long rifles at a mark at about a hundred yards. It was a small board painted black, with a bit of white paper, about an inch square, in the center. All frontiersmen are curious about new weapons, and at the same time prejudiced against them. The fame of my seven-shooter, the Spencer, had got abroad, and they wanted to see it shoot.

I don’t much like to waste ammunition when no more can be got, and to tell the truth I had no great confidence in my marksmanship to do justice to the weapon. I had never fired a rifle in my life until I left the Missouri, and I never fired anything but the Spencer. This last gave me great advantage, for the weight in the Spencer is very different from any other, and usually annoys a stranger in firing it at first. I advanced into the ring, and at the first shot had the good luck to hit the paper in the center and split the board. I concluded it was best not to try again, and others fired off the other shots.

As a weapon for fighting Indians, the Spencer has no superior. Its seven shots can be loaded in less time than any other rifle can be loaded and capped, it can be fired more rapidly than a revolver, and reloaded in a tenth of the time it would take to reload a Colt, in fact in an Indian fight, in close quarters, I think a revolver was never reloaded. The fixed ammunition has immense advantages, as soon it can be easily obtained say at San Francisco even, for it never wastes, and cannot be injured by transportation.

So completely were the soldiers and civilians convinced of this that I could have sold a dozen on the spot with two or three hundred rounds of ammunition each, at very near a hundred dollars in gold apiece, if I had had them.

From Roy Marcot’s Spencer Repeating Firearms (Northwood Heritage Press, 1993).


  1. Your article about the Spencer was quite interesting.You may wish to note that as gold was $16.00 per oz. in those days that is the equal of $7500 in today’s money or roughly double the cost of a SCAR or really good equipped AR 15 style rifle.
    By the way did you ever get the copies of my Testing the War Weapons, The 100 Greatest Combat Handguns,the Smith and Wesson series (three volumes) or my 365 Guns You Must Shoot books? I sent you some and I was surprised that you never reviewed them.
    I enjoy your website.
    Tim Mullin

  2. It’s interesting that as well liked as the Spencer and other repeating rifles were throughout the late 19th century, the U.S. Army basically rejected them all, opting instead for a more budget-minded solution — single-shot rifles — like the Trapdoor Springfield.

    Such thinking would seem almost unimaginable in the modern era, with Congress routinely spending money they don’t have to buy the military multi-billion-dollar weapons they don’t need — and often don’t even want.

    • “U.S. Army basically rejected them all, opting instead for a more budget-minded solution — single-shot rifles — like the Trapdoor Springfield.”
      I always though it was example of OUR (Army) vs NOT OUR (Commercial) case.
      Adopting single-shot weapon in 1873 wasn’t obsolete – other powers also adopted single-shot design in these times:
      Russia: Berdan No. 2 in 1870
      Germany: Gewehr 71 also known as Mauser Modell 1871 in 1871
      Turkey: Peabody Martini in 1874
      and others

      • And the Swiss adopted the magazine fed Vetterli in the late 1860s to replace a trapdoor style action.

        Just because others adopted single shots in the 1870s, does not necessarily make it a good idea. At least the 71 Mauser was easily redesigned to take a magazine, but the fact remains the US military (among others) was significantly behind the curve, in relation to what was available. The trapdoor conversions were at best an 1860s technology, and adopting a NEW MANUFACTURE version, decades after others had come up with many more viable options, is in hindsight, the depths of stupidity.

    • Civil War issue Spencers were used by the U.S. cavalry throughout the Indian wars period, mostly after arsenal refurbishment. These “Indian war” Spencers can generally easily be spotted by the presence of the Stabler magazine cut off lever ahead of the trigger;


      Also, quite a few were rebarreled to the 56-50 Spencer cartridge from the earlier 56-52. These rebarreled Spencers can generally be discerned by the difference in finish between the barrel and the action; most of the new 56-50 barrels were rust blued rather than case-hardened or lacquered.

      Also, Spencers issued to the cavalry usually came with the Blakeslee magazine box, which allowed tubes of cartridges to be “dumped” into the magazine much like a modern-day shotgun speedloader;


      With this “equipment”, the Spencer could actually be reloaded faster than a Winchester.

      Ironically, Custer’s 7th Cavalry had been armed with Spencers until about six weeks before the Little Big Horn, when they were issued the then brand-new Trapdoor Springfield .45-70 single-shot carbines. These were considered superior to the Spencer due to the greater effective range and energy of the .45-70 round. And “on paper”, they were. In an actual CQB situation it was a different story.

      Had they had the fast-firing repeaters at that engagement, with the Blakeslee boxes, it might have ended a bit differently.



      • As much as we like to harp on the Springfield it wasn’t the reason why Custer got cut to ribbons. Blinding overconfidence and bad intelligence did that.

          • Common misconception about the Gatling. Lugging a piece of artillery (and yes, the tactical protocols of the times dictated deployment of a Gatling as artillery) would have accomplished nothing but gifting at least one “machine gun” to the Native American contingent.
            Do oneself a favor, go walk the Little Big Horn and see just how showing up with a few hundred Cavs had NO chance against a couple thousand really pissed off Lakota.
            As they say, “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”
            Well, “Don’t bring unsupported artillery to a Cav fight.”
            They were swamped. Never would have even a chance to deploy a Gatling.
            Walk the Horn, you’ll see.

        • Actually it’s been found after recent archeological studies that although Dusters group had the single shot Springfield, the indians on the other hand were better armed with repeaters often. In fact over forth different kinds of weapons were being used by the various Indian tribes in the fight and while Dusters side might hit a brave at a longer range it became a moot point with a swirling mass of repeater equiped braves returning fire two and three for one. Rich / San Jose

  3. I would have made bold the following lines:

    “I don’t much like to waste ammunition when no more can be got”


    “The fixed ammunition has immense advantages, as soon it can be easily obtained”

    It’s important to remember that these were early days for water, dirt, and oil resistant metallic cartridges.

  4. On 2 June 1866 No5 Co Queens Own Rifles of Canada engaged Fenians who had invaded Canada from the US with Spencer rifles at Ridgeway Ontario. This was the only combat use of a rimfire infantry rifle by soldiers of the British Empire.

  5. Few Spencers (belgian copies actually, made by Falisse Trapmann and clambering centerfire version of 56-50 Spencer cartridge) that got with foreign volunteers to Serbia in Serbian-Turkish war 1876-77 got excellent reputation with cavalry. Serbia actually very briefly considered adopting it for cavalry, but by then Spencer factory was closed and and surplus weapons were not considered good idea after Green conversion of surplus rifles debacle. Ironically, Winchesters captured from Turks were actually disliked.

    Standard cavalry weapon was Peabody conversion of Austrian M1854 carbines, but there was a lot of privately acquired weapons, including Sharps cartridge conversions.

  6. I have wondered why no on made a centerfire reproduction in .44 special or .45 LC. Expensive to manufacture?
    It would seem to be a good choice for Cowboy Action Shooting, especially with the Blakeslee quick loaders.

      • I couldn’t help noticing this “statement of fact” on the Chiappa Firearms page:

        ” … The original caliber was 56/50 Spencer rimfire … ”

        I’ve got to wonder if they’re telling that fib because the later 56-50 is the only Spencer caliber that they can legally (unambiguously) sell in the USA today?

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