July 28, 2023
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Dateline July 3, 1863,
U.S. Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer and a brigade consisting of the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan prepared to confront a superior Confederate cavalry force led by the legendary General J.E.B. Stuart as he tried to circle behind the Federal lines and attack Meade’s rear in support of General George E. Pickett’s planned charge into the Union center. The 5th Michigan Cavalry, armed with Spencer rifles, pistols and sabers, dismounted and took up skirmish positions on the Rummel Farm 3.5 miles east of Gettysburg. The 5th held their fire until the Confederates were within 100 yards. Stuart’s men were surprised by the heavy volume of fire the Spencer rifles delivered and believed they were facing a far greater force. New to fire discipline, the 5th quickly expended their ammunition, likely exacerbated by little understanding from high command of how many rounds each soldier might need, but they nonetheless sent the Confederates into disarray.
The impetuous Custer and the 7th Michigan drew their sabers and mounted a furious cavalry charge head on into Stuart’s cavalry in what was termed the greatest cavalry engagement in the Western hemisphere. Custer broke the Confederate maneuver and another charge by the 1st Cavalry cannoned into the Confederates and Stuart was turned back. Without support for the frontal assault, Pickett’s charge failed with a tremendous loss of life as well as the battle for Gettysburg.
Soft-spoken Christopher Miner Spencer revolutionized warfare forever with his repeating rifle and carbine. The seven-shot Spencer firing the stubby No. 56 rimfire cartridge launched a one-ounce ball over 42 grains of black powder and it had sufficient power to compete with the muzzleloading musket on an open battlefield (something the .44 Henry’s 200-grain bullet over 28 grains of powder couldn’t do). The Spencer rifle delivered seven fast shots, could be loaded and fired prone reducing the men’s exposure to return fire and artillery. Unlike the
Henry with its large, open, slotted magazine running under the barrel and open top action allowing debris into the works, the Spencer’s magazine was enclosed and protected from mud and debris. The action’s enclosed breechblock was less susceptible to dust and dirt, too. The Henry had an all-metal barrel which was hard on fingers as it heated, while the Spencer had a wooden fore-end to protect the shooter’s fingers during a prolonged action. Best of all, the rimfire round was waterproof and didn’t fall apart in the cartridge box during movement as
routinely happened with paper cartridges. Post war, the Spencer set off a new and wonderful aspect of American arms making art (see nearby sidebar) that continues to this day.
Dateline June 24, 1863,
Hoover’s Gap, Tennessee
Proof of the efficacy of the Spencer occurred when Colonel John T. Wilder’s Lightning Brigade received 1,400 Spencer rifles with each man issued 80 rounds. So armed, the 17th and 72nd Indiana Mounted Infantry along with the 92nd, 98th and 123rd Illinois Mounted Infantry pushed a small contingent of Confederate cavalry out of Hoover’s Gap near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A swift counterattack by C.S. General William Bate ensued. Wilder was outnumbered five to one, yet the Spencer-armed Federals repulsed Bate’s Confederate infantry who took more than 500 casualties to Wilder’s loss of 47 men. Later that November Wilder wrote to the Spencer Repeating Rifle Co.; “…My Brigade of Mounted Infantry have repeatedly routed and driven largely superior forces of rebels, in some instances five or six times our number and the result is mainly due to our being armed with the Spencer Repeating Rifle… “My experience is that no line of men, who come within 50 yards of another force armed with the Spencer Repeating Rifle, can either get away alive, or reach them with a charge, as in either case they are certain to be destroyed by the terrible fire poured into their ranks by cool men so armed… “I believe that the ammunition is the cheapest kind for the service, as it does not wear out in the cartridge boxes and has the quality of being water-proof—the men of my command carry 100 rounds of ammunition in their saddle bags, and in two instances went into a fight immediately after swimming their horses across streams 12 feet deep and it is very rare that a single cartridge fails to fire.”
While the Spencer was most efficacious within 100 yards, it proved capable much farther out. Despite its rainbow trajectory, the Spencer’s one-ounce ball still caused plenty of grief even after wheezing to its destination. Capt. G.M. Barber, writing from the headquarters of the 1st Battalion Ohio Volunteer Sharpshooters relates his men’s use of the Spencer in 1863 in Chattanooga, Tenn., “…About six miles below Chattanooga the main road, over which supplies for the whole army must be drawn, lays along the banks of the Tennessee river, the south bank of which was held by the enemy, and their Sharpshooters played havoc with our teams and drivers… The river is 500 yards wide and I was ordered to protect the road… we found by actual trial that our guns had longer range and greater accuracy. We seldom missed at 700 yards. I had 125 men with me, and for two weeks kept 600 reb’s at bay, and, as I afterwards learned, killed and wounded over thirty, with a loss of one man wounded.”
The Taylor’s & Co. Spencer Rifle
The Civil War Spencer is imported in both rifle and carbine versions by Taylor’s & Co. and called the Model 1860. While most might select the carbine, since it was the most issued of the arms, the rifle was made first and used by the cavalry, infantry and Navy. Made by Chiappa in Italy, these reproductions share attributes with several models including the post-Civil War M1865 caliber of 56-50, the flat-nose hammer of the M1860, the sight ladder from the M1865 and the M1868 extraction mechanism. The post-war rifle’s magazine cutoff allowing single loading with the seven shots kept in reserve is not present. All these little things make the rifle a hybrid. While I would have preferred testing a Spencer in the post-Civil War 56-50, lack of loaded ammo, tools and components curbed my enthusiasm, but I do have a big box of .45 Colt brass, plenty of bullets and sufficient primers.
The Spencer is also available in .44-40 as well as 56-50. Overall, Taylor’s Spencer rifle is beautifully fit and finished with a richly blued barrel, beautiful case coloring and glossy finished walnut stock. The stout construction follows the original and is very well done considering the complicated inletting requiring the buttstock, lock, magazine tube and buttplate to come together perfectly around the fixed length of the magazine tube. Inletting of wood to metal is precise and close in the buttstock. The stock slides over the magazine tube and a nut locks the two together at the rear. Underneath, the long lower tang is held by one machine screw into the receiver ahead of the trigger, and two wood screws behind. On the left side of the receiver, a long machine screw goes through the wood under the magazine tube and engages the tail of the lock plate, which in turn has a machine screw securing the front of the lock in a machined recess in the receiver.
A military rifle, the fore-end is full length ending 3¼ inches from the muzzle and held by one screw at the back and three bands. The bands are held in place by band springs underneath rather than on the side. The fore-end wood is considerably proud of the receiver metal unlike the stock. Due to the barrels’s taper, the forward two-barrel bands have a gap between the barrel and the top of the bands. The rear band fits the best. Good news is the forward bands fit the fore-end wood well and the fore-end fit is solid. Originally this model would have gotten a socket bayonet when issued to the infantry, but one isn’t reproduced presently. The barrel is well polished and richly blued along with the upper breechblock. The receiver and upper breechblock are numbered together. The receiver, hammer, lever, lower breechblock, buttplate and barrel bands are beautifully case colored. The stock and fore-end are given a high-gloss synthetic finish.
At 10-pounds, nine ounces, the rifle, with a long 30-inch barrel, is about the average weight and length for the era’s infantry arms. The rifle carries better in the hand than the carbine having a balance point just ahead of the receiver. The rifle has sling swivels, and a reproduction musket sling from Jarnigan’s fits nicely and carries comfortably butt up or muzzle up. Taylor’s also offers a sling of similar design. Not so well thought out originally is that the sling gets in the way of the lever if it isn’t left with plenty of slack because the swivels are at the six o’clock position rather than at the more sensible nine o’clock position used on the Henry rifle. The sling is one-hand adjustable and quiet and sure in use.
Built by Chiappa of Italy, these Spencers share the quirks of the original yet offer some improvements. Remember this was nascent technology! While it was a workhorse in the Civil War, the Spencer features many operational detractions. Safe muzzle management is critical because you are depressing the muzzle to load, and elevating the muzzle high if you unload without shooting, and you must ensure a cartridge isn’t left on the block, since you can’t see inside very well. Put the hammer on half cock before the chambering cycle. Although the firing pin is an inertial type with a spring to retract it, I’m a little superstitious about leaving the hammer down with live rounds going into the chamber and the firing pin striker plate banging on the hammer nose as the action closes.
How It Works
The Spencer is a seven-shot lever action rifle with a two-piece tubular magazine in the butt. The Chiappa magazine tubes are universal (a 56-50 drops right in the .45 Colt tube), simplifying manufacture. It doesn’t impede reliability when the gun is run properly, which we will get to soon. The inner tube has a lever held in two spots. A tab at the base of the buttplate entry port engages a slot in the tube to keep it in the gun and a spring-powered ball detent keeps it vertical up top. Swing the tube 45-degrees to the right and withdraw it from the butt. Drop in seven cartridges making sure they go in nose first, and reinsert the inner tube wiggling it over the rounds as necessary. Turn the lever back upright.
The Achilles heel of the Spencer is having to separate a critical part—the inner magazine tube—to reload. Losing the tube meant you now had a very complicated single shot. It wasn’t hard to do with Johnny Reb’s cannon shells bursting around you and volleys of .58 Minié balls whizzing past your head. An early accessory was the “Blakeslee Box” holding six or 10 tubes with seven cartridges in each. Other inventors offered similar systems, and all were much speedier. If you’re out plinking, it isn’t too hard to put the mag tube between the first two fingers of your left hand while also holding the rifle slightly down to load with your right.
To shoot, first half cock the hammer. Briskly pull down the trigger guard/lever to open the action. The lever is pinned to a rod that pulls the breechblock down against a large spring until it clears the receiver locking mortise, thus compressing it onto the lower block, and both then rotate backwards. A round moves from the magazine tube onto this compressed breechblock pair now almost 90 degrees from the locked position. Briskly sweep up the lever which rotates the breechblock pair moving the cartridge towards the chamber. The large, compressed spring raises the upper block into its locking position in the receiver. Full cock the hammer and squeeze the trigger. Half cock the hammer.
Upon opening the lever again, the spent round runs up the spring-powered “cartridge keeper lever” pivoting on a screw through the receiver. Behind and underneath the keeper lever is a spring to provide downward tension to help keep the next round on the feedway and help guide it into the chamber. Upon closing the action, the lever flips the spent case free if opening the breechblock smartly hasn’t already done so. It helps ejection if the muzzle is pointed up slightly.
Working the action smoothly and briskly is the key to consistent reliability. Any lethargy in opening the action might not move the spent case far enough out of the chamber to be tossed free, while any hesitation during the chambering part of cycle can end in a jam. Best to surprise the rifle into working properly. Don’t give it any time to question your intentions. Empties fly out, as do loaded cartridges if the lever is worked briskly. A sure, steady rhythm helps, and foot-pounds of force aren’t necessary, only speed of manipulation. If you’re trying to speed the engagement of targets, you might think of full cocking the hammer before cycling the action, but be aware you might fire the gun on closing if any part of your hand hits the trigger. The trigger pull-weight averages six pounds, and it breaks so crisply it feels lighter than it is.
To unload, half-cock the hammer, pull the lever open and pluck the unfired cartridge off the keeper lever. Pull the mag tube and let the unfired cartridges roll out the back. Be aware one round may still be on the breechblock. Pushing the lever fully open with the muzzle up will send this round down the mag tube. Work the action a couple of times to ensure the carrier/chamber is clear. Civil War-era Spencers had a blade-type extractor on the three o’clock side. For these centerfire versions, the Italian engineers have chosen the later extractor first appearing in 1868. It is a spring-loaded shark-fin-shaped extractor on the lower breechblock at the six o’clock position. This gives the rifle more barrel wall thickness than the originals for a greater margin of safety with smokeless powder. These are fun guns, and I consider its extra strength and better steel as insurance rather than an invitation to experiment.
Sights are the usual picayune type of the era with a shallow V-notch rear matched up with a square-post front. The rear has a ladder marked with gradually increasing increments out to an optimistic “9” at the very top. Because of the external sight spring, if the ladder’s slider is run in to the lowest increment, it raises the ladder off the barrel high enough to foul the already minuscule rear notch. Run forward, the ladder/slider allows use of the rear sight notch.
Cowboy Action Shooting has proved a blessing and a curse to enthusiasts of Old West arms by putting one cartridge—the .45 Colt—into every type of arm including ones for which it was never originally considered. The beauty is that a wider variety of arms have been recreated if the .45 Colt is the main event. Simple fact is, the round was a revolver round with a tiny rim and straight-wall case that doesn’t seal the chambers of lever actions well, although arms designers have managed to get it to extract well. Only Colt originally chambered the .45 Colt in any quantity in their Single Action Army and 1878 double action back then, although Remington chambered a few 1875 revolvers as did Webley in their big No. 5 Express. But all of today’s replica rifles and handguns are chambered in the big .45, and it is the strongest seller by far however much teeth gnashing it causes a certain firearm correspondent. Part of the charm for me is experiencing the shooting capabilities of the sometimes-odd ammunition of the era.
Originally, the Spencer was designed around one cartridge with a standard overall length. Today’s .45 Colt ammunition is loaded to a wide variety of overall lengths. For the Spencer, there is an admonishment to maintain a strict cartridge overall length of 1.600 inches for the .45 Colt and that is absolutely necessary. Chiappa adamantly recommends flat-nose bullets. Not a bad idea since the mag tube is against your face. Sadly, measuring a variety of Winchester, Remington and Hornady factory ammunition showed none hit that length. The Hornady Critical Defense round with 185-grain FTX bullet was the longest at 1.590 inches. It fed a couple of times but usually hung up. Hornady LeveRevolution with 225-grain FTX bullets hit 1.650 inches and wouldn’t feed. The profile of the two Hornady bullets look promising for reliability, but only the 225-grain FTX is available to handloaders currently.
Reliability now meant carefully tailored handloads. Creating several dummies with hardcast bullets of traditional round/flatnose shape weighing 250 grains at a strict 1.600 inch fed like a charm. So seated, the bullet’s crimping groove is just above the case lip, and the rounds were run into a Lee Factory Crimp to remove any residual case-mouth flare after seating. I wasn’t overly worried about the bullets telescoping into the case due to the mild recoil. While a telescoping bullet might prove dangerous, it probably wouldn’t feed. A sliver of a silver lining. More importantly, make sure you have no proud primers! The magazine is, after all, against your face. The Lyman 49th Manual has data for Lyman Mold 454190 seated to 1.600 inches.
My cases were a little shorter than the trim-to length. If you desire a crimp—it can make ignition more consistent—I suggest measuring your case length and going to Rim Rock Bullets. They list the distance from crimp groove to bullet nose on their website and a little math will get you to the OAL necessary for reliable shooting with a crimp. S&S Firearms, who offers centerfire breechblocks for original Spencers, told me the overall length of the cartridge can be adjusted by adding a little Brownells AcraGlas or JB Weld to the “cam” that sits just behind the extractor on the lower block (easily identified by the twin pins holding it in place). When cured, the epoxy is simply filed until your chosen load feeds. It is tedious, since you have to remove the block each time, but if you don’t handload, you have options. Since I haven’t tried it, I can’t comment on the efficacy, but if it were me, after finding the sweet spot, I’d record the height in case it wore down and needed to be repaired.
On The Range
Winter was severe here in Northern Nevada, and I had to cool my heels before going to the range. Handloads were prepared with Trail Boss, Unique and Blackhorn 209 under the aforementioned cast bullet over Winchester Large Pistol primers in Winchester cases. The first day of clear skies and modest temperatures in the 50s led me to the desert to set up the chronograph, but winds were high. Even with the legs of the tripod pushed into the soft earth, the wind blew over the Competition Electronics Pro Chrono twice, but it didn’t suffer, thankfully.
Target shooting would have to wait for another day. All three loads ran reliably, but the Blackhorn 209 didn’t seal the chamber well (a problem often encountered with .45 Colt-chambered lever actions) and blowby of gases fouled the chamber enough extraction got iffy as shooting progressed. I had to clean the barrel and chamber to restore order. The Spencer ran like a gentleman with Trail Boss and Unique, although there was some gas blowby with Trail Boss. Be sure and wear your shooting glasses! Recoil was very mild and there was little smoke out in front of the 30-inch barrel even with the Blackhorn loads. As long as I worked the gun smoothly and surely, there were no malfunctions, although I had to use a cleaning rod to punch out the last couple of Blackhorn-loaded cases.
A beautiful spring day with bright sun, temps in the 70s and no wind greeted me at the shooting bench. The rifle shot about four inches low at 50 yards and a little to the left depending on the load when using a six o’clock hold on an eight-inch Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C bull’s-eye target. Grouping was pretty good considering the very fine sights. Trying to keep the tiny front post settled into the little notch was difficult, and some vertical stringing occurred if I got careless, but the best groups were perfectly adequate, and a little file work would certainly bring the grouping to point-of-aim. Best group of the day was a nice cluster of 2¾ inches with Trail Boss under the 250-grain hardcast bullet.
The Blackhorn 209 loads fouled the chamber as expected. I cleaned the barrel after shooting them, but was unable to thoroughly police the chamber since the rod only goes in from the muzzle. The last couple of Blackhorn loaded rounds stuck in the chamber as did the first couple of Hornady rounds. If Hornady jacketed bullets were purchased for handloading, their use opens up extra possibilities for these Spencer repros as retro hunting rifles. For more than 500 years, armies slowly evolved from fighting with sword, spear and bow to use of a single-firing arm utilizing loose gun powder and ball ignited by some kind of separate ignition source. The United States Army’s adoption of the Christian Miner Spencer’s Repeating Rifle firing a copper-cased rimfire cartridge of sufficient power to influence events across the battlefield ended that era. The whole world changed forever.
Chiappa Spencer Rifle Specs
- SKU: LC2/220027
- Weight: 10.6 lbs.
- Action Type: Lever action
- Barrel Bore Diameter: .443 in.
- Barrel Contour: Round
- Barrel Finish: Blued steel
- Barrel Grooves: 6
- Barrel Length: 30 in.
- Barrel Twist Rate: RH 1x16 in.
- Buttplate/Pad: Casehardened steel
- Caliber: .45 Long Colt
- Capacity: 7 rds.
- Firing Pin Type: Traditional
- Front Sight: Fixed blade
- Forend Finish: Walnut
- Frame Finish: Casehardened steel
- Hand Dominance: RH
- Overall Length: 47 in.
- Rear Sight: Dovetail ladder sight
- Stock Finish: Walnut
- Trigger Type & Pull: Single Trigger
- Triggerguard Finish: Casehardened steel
- MSRP: $2,358
- Contact: Taylor's and Company
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