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The Significance of the Spencer Repeating Carbine

  • Posted on
  • By Marlan Ingram
  • 4
The Significance of the  Spencer Repeating Carbine

What do the French and Indian War (1754-63), the American Revolution (1775-81), the War of 1812 (1812-15), the Texas Revolution (1835-36), and the Mexican War (1846-48) all have in common? It’s that the single shot, muzzleloading musket was the mainstay frontline firearm used by soldiers throughout those conflicts.

What do the French and Indian War (1754-63), the American Revolution (1775-81), the War of 1812 (1812-15), the Texas Revolution (1835-36), and the Mexican War (1846-48) all have in common? It’s that the single shot, muzzleloading musket was the mainstay frontline firearm used by soldiers throughout those conflicts. By 1860, it was obvious that another war (The American Civil War – 1861-65) was on the horizon, and it was expected to be fought in the same fashion as the previous conflicts.

However, a change was on the horizon.  In March of 1860, a young inventor by the name of Christopher Minor Spencer patented his newly created 7 shot Spencer Repeating Rifle and Carbine.  Given the current technology of the time, his invention was revolutionary, but he found that getting military ordnance officials to test and consider his carbine was pretty much impossible.  Even after the Civil War started and with arms production ramping up, he was still turned down…they wouldn’t even look at it.

After one such rejection, he was sitting outside the Ordnance Bureau (which was at this time located in the White House) when a doorman saw him sitting in a depressed state.  The doorman told him to wait a moment, and he would find someone to look at the young man’s invention.  The doorman came back with the President himself, Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln looked the weapon over:  What he saw was a weapon that was extremely well made, compact, and rugged.  It held seven rounds of .56-56 caliber rimfire metallic cartridge ammunition, that was housed in a magazine tube in the gun’s buttstock.  To operate the weapon, the hammer had to be manually cocked, and then lowering and raising the lever would chamber the round.  It was a solid combat weapon.  Lincoln liked it and told him to come back the next day to have the weapon tested.  Christopher Spencer came back the next day, and President Lincoln personally shot and tested the weapon (on the White House lawn!).  President Lincoln was impressed with the weapon and recommended its immediate adoption.  President Lincoln’s target is in the Illinois State Military Museum.

While both Spencer rifles and carbines were produced, the carbine especially became the mainstay of Union Cavalry, and is credited with helping to turn the tide of the war.  General George Armstrong Custers Michigan Cavalry Brigade used them in a string of victories, and General Custer’s brother, Tom Custer, became a rare recipient of TWO Medals of Honor during the Civil War.  More on the Custers shortly.

After the Civil War, the migration into the western territories of America ramped up, and the U.S. Government prepared for this migration by raising ten calvary regiments for service on the frontier. This included the 9th and 10th cavalry, most of whom were ex-slaves, but ultimately became known as the famed ‘Buffalo Soldiers’.

The nature of the conflict that followed was simple.  Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America, there were upwards of 500 Nations of people living in North America.  I didn’t say tribes, I said nations…. with their own beliefs, customs, languages, political structures, and religious systems.  When we hear such names as Sioux, Arapaho or Absaroka, they sound exotic to us, but their meanings are often quite simple.  Sioux simply means ‘the people’.  The stance of the U.S. Government at the time was that ‘the people’ needed to be moved (by force if necessary) from their ancestral homelands to land designated to them (reservations) by the U.S. Government, or they would be declared ‘hostile’.  The people resisted, and the conflicts that resulted became known as the Indian Wars.

The Spencer Repeating Carbine in use by the U.S. Cavalry made its mark during these conflicts.  The first Buffalo Soldier to win the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars was Sgt. Emanuel Stance of the 9th cavalry, who did so by slamming ferocious attacks into the ranks of the Comanche Warriors (even though he and his command were outnumbered) at the Battle of Kickapoo Springs, to include saving a wagon train that was under siege.  By the time the Indian Wars were over, the Buffalo Soldiers had received 13 Medals of Honor (more than any other regiment), and they would go on to receive 6 more Medals of Honor for their actions in combat in the Spanish American War in Cuba in 1898.

Meanwhile, the 7th. Cavalry Regiment was under the command of General George Armstrong Custer of Civil War fame.  His brother, Captain Tom Custer was serving right beside him.  By all accounts, their Spencer Carbines served them well, but in 1873 the Ordnance Bureau introduced a new Single Shot Rifle and Carbine, made by Springfield Armory.  The 7 shot Spencer repeater was gradually withdrawn from service and replaced with the single shot Model 1873 Trapdoor Springfield.  The Ordnance Bureau congratulated themselves on their success in removing repeating firearms from military service, but tragedy was soon to come. 

In 1876, the U.S. Government issued an ultimatum to the tribes who still inhabited the frontier.  They had to report to designated reservations by January 31, 1876, or they would be forced into compliance by the War Department.  Instead of compliance, the various Plains Nations banded together for protection, which set the stage for a great battle. 

By the spring of 1876, up to 10,000 people from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Nations were encamped together near the Little Bighorn River in Montana, with Sitting Bull of the Sioux Nation seen as the leader.  Before the battle which was to come, Sitting Bull called for a Sun Dance, during which he had a vision.  In his vision, he saw that the soldiers would attack their camp, but would fall upside down into the camp like a bunch of dead locusts.  It was now up to the military to play their part in Sitting Bull’s vision.

The U.S. Military sent three Army columns to find and trap the hostiles.  One column was under the command of General George Crook.  Another was under the command of Colonel John Gibbon.  The third was under the command of General Alfred Terry, along with General Custer, leading the 7th. Cavalry. To put into perspective the type of combat commanders and fighters the U.S. Military was up against during the Little Bighorn campaign, consider the following:  Ten years earlier, in 1866, Captain William Fetterman stated that with 80 men, he could ride through the entire Sioux Nation.  He ultimately got his chance and attacked the Sioux with exactly 82 men.  He and his command were wiped out to the last man, and it’s said that Captain’s Fetterman and Brown both committed suicide during the battle by putting their revolvers to each other’s head and pulling the triggers.  The Sioux War Chief who defeated Fetterman was named Crazy Horse.

Now, in 1876, Crazy Horse attacked the largest of the three columns, under the command of General Crook.  He defeated Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud, causing Crook to retreat with the remainder of his force.  The significance of this is not just the defeat, but General Crook’s column was carrying most of the ammunition intended for the expedition, but it was used up in the fight.

Crazy Horse returned to the encampment, and General Custer (who had split off from General Terry) was slowly approaching.  It was said that many of Custer’s soldiers were frightened, and Custer’s Crow Scouts were singing their death songs.

Custer further divided his command, putting some under Captain Benteen, who was then sent too far away to be of assistance, and a portion under Colonel Reno.  General Custer had Colonel Reno attack one part of the camp, while Custer took the remainder of the command, and with shouts of ‘We Got Em Boys!” charged in, only to realize that due to the enormity of the camp, they were vastly outnumbered.  Custer’s command was forced out of the camp and took a position on some high ground which has become known as ‘Last Stand Hill’.

The resulting fight has been called many names, including ‘The Battle of the Little Bighorn’, and ‘Custer’s Last Stand’.  Among the Sioux, it’s known as ‘The Greasy Grass Fight’, as it was the sight of a large Buffalo wallow.  Not only was Custer and his command outnumbered, but they were up against a seasoned and accomplished combat commander who had defeated U.S. Military forces before.  However, Custer was also outgunned:  Remember those Spencer’s that the U.S. Ordnance Bureau had removed from service?  They were now in the hands of the warriors fighting Custer, along with other repeating rifles, such as the Henry and the Winchester.  Custer and his entire immediate command were wiped out to the last man.  The casualties among the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho were comparatively light, in part because the warriors (who later told their story to the U.S. Military, and to researcher Edward S. Curtis) stated that a great many soldiers committed suicide on the battlefield.  Later archeological surveys and digs showed this to be true.

The Plains Nations that fought against Custer believed in the afterlife, and accordingly, would mutilate the bodies of fallen enemies, so that they wouldn’t have to fight them in the next life.  Slashing the upper arm of a fallen opponent meant that in the afterlife, he wouldn’t be able to saddle his horse.  Custer wasn’t mutilated, because he was considered to be a relative to the Cheyenne (he had a baby by a Cheyenne woman, although the baby didn’t survive).  However, he did receive one slight modification after the battle.  In a previous treaty, Custer promised the Cheyenne that he would not hunt them or fight them again.  They promised that they would kill him, and all his soldiers if he did.  Sure enough, he broke his word, and they kept theirs.  After the battle the Cheyenne women punctured his eardrums with their sewing awls.  They wanted him to him them better in the next life.

The Significance of the Spencer Repeating Carbine?

  1. The Spencer was the FIRST metallic cartridge repeating rifle ever adopted by the U.S. Military
  2. The Spencer Carbine was the FIRST metallic cartridge repeating carbine issued to the famed Buffalo Soldiers, the 9th and 10th Cavalry
  3. The FIRST Buffalo Soldier to receive the Medal of Honor did so with a Spencer Repeating Carbine in his hands
  4. The Spencer Repeating Carbine played a decisive role in the biggest military defeat of the Plains Indian Wars – but this time in the hands of ‘The People’.

Back in the day:  This photo depicts me back in the 1990s when I was heavily involved in competing in historical research, and ‘cowboy action’ shooting competitions at the National Level.


  1. Jack B Jack B

    While the repeating rifles may not have had impact against Custer, they had great effect against Reno’s position. That part of the battle still has the remnants of fighting positions dig by the soldiers to protect against the Indian warriors with repeating rifles on the bluffs above and supposedly out of range. They pinned Reno down and kept him out of the fight. Walking that battlefield has many lessons for the student.

  2. Richard Richard

    Sioux actually means something like little snake and is a English corruption of a French corruption of a Chippewa word. They refer to themselves as Lakota which actually does mean The People. They consider Sioux to be offensive as it was coined by their traditional enemy.

  3. Ivan J Schell Ivan J Schell

    I have read a lot about the fight at the Little Bighorn and have visited the battlefield. Your description of those circumstances is generally accurate. However visiting the battlefield is paramount to understanding how difficult that communication and coordination between the distantly separated units under the command of Custer and and those under Major Reno and Captain Benteen were. Ultimately the over-riding factor in the defeat of Custer was probably not the use of Spencer, Winchester and Henry rifles by the Indians. Most Indians were armed with bows, clubs and knives. The number of the repeating rifles in use at the Little Bighorn has been downplayed by a number of historians. Custer's Achilles heel was his arrogance in thinking that his men could defeat a vastly superior force of Indians without proper recon and by choosing to leave behind his Gatling guns. There was a reason that Custer finished last in his West Point class. Very nice article.

  4. Jim Supica Jim Supica

    Great story well told! Really enjoyed the intertwining branches of the Spencer story!

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