The American Civil War spanned a period when rifle innovation and transitional ammunition systems were quickly advancing. While rapid-fire muzzleloaders had existed as novelties for hundreds of years prior, mid-19th-century industrialization finally allowed the repeating rifle to be produced en mass
(Lot 9) A documented Civil War production Henry lever action rifle.
The Henry rifle, Spencer repeater, and Colt revolving rifle offered a new level of firepower during the Civil War, and several other innovative designs appeared at the tail end of the conflict. While each type of repeating rifle had plenty of obstacles to overcome, they weren’t always viewed as an obvious upgrade to the conventional single shot rifles of the era.
With more than 12,000 Spencer lever action rifles and upwards of 90,000 Spencer carbines purchased by the Union during the Civil War, Christopher Spencer’s seven-shot design was by far the most common repeater on the battlefield.
The Spencer is credited with being the world’s first military-issued repeating metallic cartridge rifle, but the U.S. Ordnance Department was slow to order or deploy these advanced firearms in large numbers. After two years of frustrations with the War Department and pitching his repeating rifle directly to Northern governors, Christopher Spencer was invited to Washington in the spring of 1862 to demonstrate his invention to President Lincoln himself.
After a personal shooting exhibition, President Lincoln was so impressed with the Spencer that he immediately issued the repeating rifle to Union forces. Production stepped up, and though the Spencer rifle and the Spencer cavalry carbine weren’t widely available until the fall of 1863, over 500 Spencer rifles saw action with the 5th and 6th Regiment of the Michigan Cavalry during the Gettysburg campaign. The repeating rifle made a clear impression, and its impact became undeniable as the war progressed, contributing to Union victories during Sherman’s Georgia campaign and playing a key role in the taking of Nashville.
Perhaps the most famous Civil War repeating rifle, the New Haven Arms Co. Henry rifle is also one of the most recognizable collector guns today. These trailblazing lever action rifles fired .44 Henry rimfire cartridges, 15 of which were kept within a tube magazine located under the barrel, offering an unprecedented rate of fire for the era.
Of the approximately 13,000 Henry rifles manufactured from 1860-1866, only 1,731 were purchased by the U.S. Ordnance Department. Many other Henry rifles were acquired by individual soldiers, often veterans using a portion of their re-enlistment bonus to obtain the expensive firearm.
Like the Spencer repeater, the Henry cost far more to manufacture than popular muzzleloaders such as the Springfield 1861. Still, the limited number of Henry repeating rifles proved effective in the field, with the 7th Illinois Infantry carrying them during General Sherman’s March late in the war. A large number of these famous repeating rifles were also used by the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry as they guarded Washington D.C.
The cap-and-ball Colt Model 1855 revolving rifle was manufactured from 1856 through 1864. Originally produced as an enlarged version of the Colt Root revolver, the military-ordered versions of the rifle typically featured .56 caliber ammunition, a five-round cylinder, and front sights that could double as a bayonet lug.
Samuel Colt produced numerous size variations of the rifle and tried to tailor it to different branches of the military. Colt’s revolving rifle was carried by numerous regiments, like the 1st United States Sharpshooters, and many were purchased by state militias. Perhaps the rifle’s most famous action was by the 21st Ohio Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Chickamauga, where over 43,000 rounds of ammunition were unloaded by Union forces at the defense of Snodgrass Hill in a single afternoon.
Despite the Colt revolving rifle’s impressive rate of fire, complaints began to mount. Soldiers observed that the rifle tended to chain fire when multiple cylinders went off at once, resulting in catastrophic failure. Numerous reports noted that the rifle would shoot splinters of lead into the forward hand of the soldier operating it. Needless to say, the Colt revolving rifle’s reputation suffered as the war progressed.
Ordered by the Union in 1864, a reported 1,002 Lamson & Co. Ball carbines were received by the U.S. Army the following year, just in time to miss the end of the war. The seven-shot repeater’s design was conceived and patented by Albert Ball of Worchester, MA. Originally ordered in .44RF, the U.S. Ordnance Department changed its specifications to .56-50 Spencer in the middle of production, delaying delivery of the Ball repeating carbine.
The Ball carbine demonstrates some of the design refinements that Civil War-era gunmakers were experimenting with when it came to metallic cartridge repeating rifles. While it shared certain similarities with a Spencer carbine, the Lamson & Co. Ball repeater also used a side action loading system and tubular magazine covered by a wooden forestock, elements that the 1866 Winchester famously employed and improved upon.
Produced in 1865 by the Meriden Manufacturing Company, 5,000 Triplett & Scott repeating carbines were ordered by the Kentucky Home Guard to help protect supply lines under General Sherman. Unfortunately, these unique repeaters were received too late to see action in the Civil War.
Despite its innovation, the Triplett & Scott repeater’s magazine tube being mounted into the butt stock severely weakened the firearm and left the wrist portion of the gun vulnerable to cracking and wood loss, a major liability for a battlefield weapon. All-in-all, Lewis Triplet’s invention is another fascinating experiment in repeating military rifles that arrived too late to make a difference and were eclipsed by more proven and available options.
“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” said former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when asked about supply shortages during the Iraq War. Viewed as a gaffe at the time, in a broader sense Rumsfeld’s now-famous quote illustrates the logistical decisions wartime leaders are faced with when equipping a military.
As Winston Churchill said, “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war.” In wartime weaponry, governments prefer old standards and proven reliability. Military quality repeating rifles that could be produced in large numbers was a new concept during the American Civil War. In addition, there were several notable drawbacks that were universal to each of the repeating rifle designs covered above.
Expensive Production Cost
The reality was that muzzleloader rifles were several times cheaper than the Henry, Spencer, and the Colt revolving rifle. The popular Springfield Model 1861 cost less than $15.00, for example, whereas the Spencer cost up to $40.00, and the Henry repeating rifle retailed for $44.00. Muzzleloaders were also readily available, and so was their ammunition.
On the other hand, the brass rimfire cartridges used by the Henry and Spencer repeating rifles were also expensive. Continued used of black powder and lead rounds made sense logistically as well as financially, especially with the U.S. Ordinance Department hoping to standardize the countless types of firearms and calibers being used by various militia units.
Special Ammunition Requirements
In a December 9, 1861 letter from Union Brigadier-General James Ripley, Chief of Ordnance, to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Ripley opposes the adoption of the Spencer and Henry repeating rifles for numerous reasons, including the ammunition. “I regard the weight of the arms with the loaded magazine as objectionable, and also the requirement of a special ammunition, rendering it impossible to use the arms with ordinary cartridges or with powder and ball.”
General Ripley goes on to express skepticism toward the sturdiness of copper and brass rimfire ammunition during transport, and worries that the metallic cartridges in the magazine could be accidentally crushed while on horseback. While it’s easy for us to dismiss his concerns today, they weren’t completely unfounded. Pinfire cartridges, for example, the first widely used metallic cartridges, could get damaged and accidentally detonate. And while these flaws were far less common in the rimfire cartridge, they were still a comparatively new invention during the Civil War, and from Ripley’s perspective, an unknown variable.
Another issue the Ordnance Department had with the Spencer and Henry was the belief that soldiers would expend their ammunition faster than they could be resupplied. Traditionalists like General Ripley saw the Union’s strength as superior manpower, so early in the war the priority was fielding more soldiers with adequate equipment than gambling on new technology.
All new inventions take time to work out, as illustrated by the way the Gatling gun was initially treated more like an artillery piece in its deployment. Later in the war, General Benjamin Butler, who’d purchased eight Gatling guns out of his own pocket, used these hand-driven machine guns to defend his trenches during the Siege of Petersburg. Working out the tactics for repeating rifles required a similar combination of trial and error and willingness to push back against conservative military doctrine.
Both the Spencer rifle and Henry rifle made their impact during Sherman’s March and throughout the final months of the war. More than 10 years later, during the Russo-Turkish War, Turkey delayed the superior Russian-Romanian force by using M1872 Peabody-Martini rifles at a distance, then switching to 1866 Winchester repeaters, the Henry’s famous successor, at close range. The repeating Winchesters inflicted devastating casualties, showing the world the effectiveness of repeating military arms on a mass scale.
U.S. Army Bureaucracy
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the adoption of repeating rifles by the Union was bureaucracy. As Chief of Ordnance, General Ripley sabotaged contracts and canceled orders on technicalities, fearing that the resources needed to produce these “new-fangled gimcracks” would hinder production of the standard rifle-musket. Early in the Civil War, Union leadership like General Winfield Scott sided with Ripley’s traditionalist point of view more often than not.
Soldiers and field commanders had a different perspective, which is why thousands of Henry rifles were privately purchased despite their steep price. After nearly two years of clashing with Ripley, President Abraham Lincoln forced the general into retirement in the fall of 1863. Though tens of thousands of Spencer rifles were issued over the next two years, they were never equipped in the numbers Lincoln envisioned thanks to Ripley’s early resistance and delays.
When it comes to experimentation, innovation, and the sheer number of weapon types fielded, it’s hard to match the Civil War era. Most firearms from the period have a rich history to tell and a story to share, like the Spencer repeaters, Henry lever actions, and Colt revolving rifles featured above. It’s little wonder that gun collectors and history enthusiasts are drawn to relics from the Civil War, and Rock Island Auction Company’s February 11-13 Sporting & Collector Auction is a perfect place to start.
Whether you’re hoping to own a Civil War repeater, a Sharp’s breechloader, or a Springfield 1861 rifle-musket, February’s selection has you covered. President Lincoln’s dream of issuing repeating long arms to nearly every cavalry officer may not have been fully realized, but that makes owning a surviving example of these historic weapons all the more desirable today.
McAulay, John D., Carbines of the Civil War, 1861-1865
Marcot, Roy, Spencer Repeating Firearms
Rock Island Auction Company