Plains War Spencers

Civil War Carbines Saw Frontier Service

The Spencer carbine played an important role in the Plains Indian Wars yet it’s almost been forgotten by modern shooters. Its cartridges came with confusing names such as .56-56, .56-52 and .56-50. Unlike most black powder-era metallic cartridges, the first set of digits does not allude to caliber but to the width of the cartridge rim. The second set of digits — at least in the case of the .56-50 — actually refers to bullet diameter.

During the Civil War, Spencers were the most prevalent carbines issued to Federal Cavalry and played important roles in several large battles. In essence, the Spencer design (rifle and carbine) was a lever action but it differed greatly in function from the Winchester, Marlin and other leverguns of the era.

What a well-armed U.S. Cavalryman carried in the Civil War: a Spencer carbine, a Colt .44 revolver and a saber.

Manual Of Arms

To load a Spencer, you must first open the trapdoor in the butt plate and remove the cartridge follower. With muzzle slightly at downward angle, you drop in seven cartridges and reinsert the follower. The breechblock is then lowered by pulling down on the trigger guard to expose the chamber. If there’s an empty case in the chamber it will be ejected. Pulling the lever back into place feeds a fresh cartridge into the chamber. The hammer is then full-cocked for firing.

Interestingly, during the Civil War a “speed loader” was developed called the Blakeslee Box. It could hold seven to 10 tubes made of tin, with each tube holding seven rounds. It was carried by the trooper with a leather strap over the right shoulder with the box hanging to the wearer’s left side. The magazine was emptied into the Spencer with muzzle tilting down. Alternately a Spencer’s magazine could be filled one round at a time and if severely pressed for time during a battle it could be fired as a single shot.

Duke shoots a Chiappa-made Spencer Model 1865 .56-50 carbine.

The system for loading the Spencer is akin to how some .22 rimfires are loaded still.

Field Reports

History buffs of Plains Indian Wars history can run across numerous instances of soldiers and civilians using Spencers against hostile warriors and vice-versa. A most interesting book is Cheyenne War, Indian Raids on the Roads to Denver 1864-1869 by Jeff Broome. What intrigued me was most accounts in the book are first- person narratives taken when the speaker was under oath. Several times survivors of raids credited their fast-firing Spencer carbines with saving their lives (.44 Henry repeaters also get credit at times).

Army use of Spencer carbines in the 1860s Plains Indian Wars was considerable. In December 1866 near Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming, an infantry/cavalry detachment of 81, plus two civilian volunteers, was wiped out to a man by Sioux and Cheyenne. The warriors took 29 Spencer carbines from the dead cavalrymen. A young Cheyenne named Two Moons took one and used it until surrendering in 1877.

In September 1868 in eastern Colorado, a special unit of “frontier scouts” commanded by Major George A. Forsyth was surprised in camp by a large force of Cheyenne. The scouts ran across a channel of the Republican River’s Arickaree fork to a small island and made their stand.

Each of the scouts had been issued a Spencer carbine and Colt .44 (Model 1860) revolver. Using those arms they successfully held the Indians at bay for three days. Six of the scouts were killed and 18 wounded. In November of the same year, the 7th Cavalry under Lt. Col. George A. Custer tracked a raiding party of Cheyenne holding white captives to their village on the Washita River in Oklahoma. Most of the 7th Cav. troops carried a Spencer and so did many officers. In this instance, it wasn’t enough.

After about 1870 civilian and military references about Spencers are not exactly rare but not at the 1860s level. It could be due to the fact production ceased in 1869 but ammunition was still factory loaded until well into the 20th Century.

Taylor & Company’s Model 1865 Spencer with lever down and breechblock lowered.

At left is an original .56-50 factory load. At right is a “new” .56-50 using Starline brass.

The Spencer Today

Back in the mid-1980s I was loaned a Spencer on which I had a centerfire breechblock fitted. After much experimentation I got it functioning about 90 percent of the time with my black powder loads. (Rimfire .56-50 Spencer cartridges were said to have 350-gr. conical lead bullets in front of 45 grains of black powder.)

With the growing interest in Cowboy Action Shooting, it was a certainty somebody would offer a Spencer replica. The loaner carbine I have on hand is marketed by Taylors & Company and made by Chiappa Firearms of Italy. The chambering is called .56-50 Centerfire and Lyman even makes dies for this “new” cartridge.

My handloads use newly made Starline brass and 320-gr. bullets from an old mold I had lying around. With little effort I had it shooting nicely considering its military open sights — best of all, it functioned 100 percent.

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