August 19, 1863: Lincoln Test Fires Spencer Rifle


How times have changed!  On August 18, 1863 Christopher Spencer, inventor of the revolutionary Spencer repeating rifle, was able to walk into the White House and show one of his rifles to President Lincoln.

The concept of a repeating rifle was not new, and examples of such weapons had been produced since at least 1779.  However, teething problems with the new technology made them impracticable as mass weapons until shortly before the Civil War.  Benjamin Tyler Henry developed the famed Henry repeating rifle in 1860.  Although never officially adopted by the Union army, this rifle was highly thought of enough by Union cavalry troopers that thousands of them purchased them privately, and they were equally prized when captured by Confederate troopers.  The rifle could fire off 28 rounds per minute, compared to a rifled musket that could barely manage three rounds per minute under ideal conditions.

The Spencer repeating rifle was developed by Christopher Spencer in 1860.  A seven shot weapon, it could manage 20 shots a minute and proved durable under battlefield conditions.  By the end of the War, most Union cavalry and mounted infantry units had Spencers and their firepower was often devastatingly effective on the battlefield. 

War department conservatism is often blamed for the fact that the Spencers were not more widely used during the War, especially by the infantry, but the truth is that the ability to supply Spencers to replace all of the Union rifles and rifled muskets simply did not exist during the War, and supplying the ones that could be manufactured to units cavalry and mounted infantry was a wise choice since they greatly magnified the combat power of the most mobile forces that the Union had.

Spencer’s meeting with Lincoln was the result of Lincoln’s test firing in July of 1863 of two Spencers that had been marred by technical difficulties.  Spencer, a consummate salesman, wanted to remove any concerns that Lincoln had about the reliability of the Spencers.  After their meeting, during which Spencer stripped one of his rifles down to its component parts, Lincoln agreed to participate in a firing of a Spencer on August 19, 1863.  The test firing was so satisfactory, that Lincoln had another test firing the next day on August 20, 1863, inviting John Hay, one of his two secretaries, to participate.  Hay was enthusiastic  for the weapon, recalling that the Spencer was  “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.”
In later years a myth developed that the meeting with Lincoln was the reason why the Union army purchased Spencers.  Such was not the case, the Army having already received 7500 Spencers and having placed a large order for more prior to Spencer’s meeting with the President.  However, I am sure that Lincoln’s favorable opinion of the Spencer helped smooth over any remaining resistance to the new-fangled repeater.

Published in: on August 19, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on August 19, 1863: Lincoln Test Fires Spencer Rifle  
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