Red Dead Redemption 2 arsenal: The Spencer repeating rifle

8 November 2018

By the beginning of the Civil War the United States had two types of small arms, by far superior to all others. We have already told you about the Henry rifle. The second version of the latest repeating firearm was the Christopher Spencer rifle.


A former employee of the Colt company came up with a system with the magazine tube located in the rifle butt. Unlike the Henry rifle, the Spencer rifle magazine was removable. After firing seven cartridges, you could take out the magazine tube, load a new one and continue firing, striking the enemy with bullets at rate of fire unprecedented at that time.

If this was a science-fiction story, whoever got their hands on the "miracle weapon" of the future would immediately arm themselves head to toe. And in a couple of months, the brave Yankees would have urged forward the captive Confederate generals with the butts of their Spencers. However, in reality, the Spencer took a winding path, like the trail of a rattlesnake after it had drunk some tequila.

Firstly, the army had already ordered a lot of firearms for itself. Even at the beginning of the war the northerners were armed with a couple of dozen different various types of weapons. At the same time many officers, some who genuinely believed and some motivated by money, stated: "this is the best rifle!". Suppliers who had to provide the ammunition for all this sighed deeply, and asked to include in the next batches either whiskey, or a rope and soap, or both.

Secondly, at the beginning the Federal government did not have that much money. Before the war, the Americans reasonably believed it was not a good idea to entrust the government with such an important thing as printing money. Therefore, there were either coins in circulation (best of all, gold ones) or banknotes from local banks, which could became as valuable as candy wrappers. Only after the war began, the US Congress decided to print as much as $60 million of paper money to support the army (about $1.6 billion in present-day prices). They were the first "greenbacks", just because there was no other paint available in sufficient quantity.

The money supply was initially limited, and when Spencer would declare that his wonderful rifle cost $40, twice the price of an ordinary musket, the enthusiasm of potential buyers would immediately fade.


Finally, the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company received its first contract for 700 rifles from the Navy. It just so happened that the naval officers liked the rifle, and, more importantly, one of the company directors turned out to be the neighbor of Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy.

However, when this order was received, it turned out that no actual rifle production facilities existed. Rifles provided for testing were made by hand by Spencer himself and his gunsmith friend. When the order was finally received, it turned out that there was no way of finding the right machines or skilled workers, as all the best had already been snapped up by friends of Simon Cameron, the Secretary of War.

As a result, Spencer had to work as a traveling salesman. Fortunately this worked thanks to the mess that the army was in, as some military units could order firearms themselves without consent from their command. The renowned marksman Hiram Berdan was looking for something to arm his snipers with, and almost become one of Spencer's customers. Unfortunately, one of the cartridges blew up during the test. Berdan escaped unhurt, but his idea to equip his squad with Spencers went out the window. Despite this, potential customers gradually appeared – mostly within the cavalry, where the idea of fast and furious shooting was more popular than within the infantry.


A modern replica of the Spencer rifle

However, one fine day the whole contract almost went out of the window because of problems at the very top. Abraham Lincoln, whose curiosity was sparked by the novelty, asked if he could try a couple of Spencer rifles so he could see the guns that were supplied to his soldiers. Out of the two delivered rifles from the naval order, one had a rusty magazine tube and was impossible to use, while, for the second one, the President experienced a double feed, which jammed the gun. Spencer had to rush to the White House and sort the problem out himself.

By the end of the Civil War, Spencer's company had produced about 12,000 rifles and 45,000 shorter carbines. Although Spencer rifles were not made in time for most of this war's battles, they were considered to be ideal weapons. And the American military were sure that if they had managed to defeat the south with the Spencer rifle, then the valiant cavalry would easily deal with the rebellious Native Americans.

However, before long it became clear that the "Miracle Weapon" was not so efficient against the Native Americans. For example, during the Battle of Beecher Island, fifty scouts commanded by Major Forsyth fought off several hundred Cheyenne warriors. Despite firing a huge number of bullets, it is believed that only nine Native Americans were killed. The idea became more widespread that the Spencer could shoot fast, but was not good at killing.


In fact, there were several problems.

The Spencer rifle fired cartridges with smoky gunpowder. On a calm day, even one magazine was enough for the shooter to be covered with a smokescreen. And then began the "smoky battle" where the shooter shot at what was visible. Of course, it was harder to miss a crowd of Confederate soldiers.

But the Spencer had problems shooting at long range. It had a very unique .56–56 Spencer cartridge with a circular ignition system, like present-day .22LR small-bores. Although the carbine seemed to issue the cartridge at a higher muzzle velocity than that of the ammo of a regular infantry rifle, the bullet of this cartridge was like a hedgehog – strong but light. As a result, it turned out that at a distance of up to 100 meters the Spencer really hit the target, but any further and it was likely to miss.

Besides, few cavalrymen could determine the distance to the target, correct their aim and shoot accurately. But as usual, the soldier would rather blame his weapon than believe that he was unable to use it properly.

As a result, it took very long and careful consideration to select the next repeating rifle for the US army.

As for Christopher Spencer, he invented a lot of useful things during his long life, and even managed to fly the first aircraft in his old age. He also lived to see that he had been right and that the future belonged to repeating rifles. However, this moment had not yet happened in 1861.

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