Spencer Carbines Help John Buford’s Unmounted Cavalry Hold The High Ground
…or did they?
Gettysburg, July 1, 1863.
As General John Buford’s unmounted cavalry held the high ground for the Union on July 1, 1863 on the outskirts of Gettysburg, they had a technological advantage over the Confederates they were fighting.
Buford’s unmounted cavalry used breech-loading Spencer carbine rifles. These rifles allowed the Union men to fire at a rate comparable to a larger unit of men.
Buford’s cavalry had less guns firing, but their guns could be loaded and fired faster than other guns, so they were more effective … and deadly.
It may be worth noting the Definition of CARBINE:
1: a short-barreled lightweight firearm originally used by cavalry
2: a light short-barreled repeating rifle that is used as a supplementary military arm or for hunting in dense brush
Source: Merriam-Webster online dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/carbine
Learn More About John Buford
New Model 1863 Sharps Carbine – Civil War
Following are two videos demonstrating the difference between loading and firing a Civil War musket, and a Spencer carbine. The musket must be reloaded after each firing, while the Spencer could fire seven times before a reload. In the heat of a battle, which one would you prefer to have?
This is a demonstration of the steps, and time, required to load and fire a musket. A Civil War soldier would be loading and firing faster than in this demonstration.
Civil War musket shooting demo
In the below video, the gentleman fires the Spencer three times. I don’t think he is particularly skilled or fast with his firing, but we’ll cut him some slack because as the video text indicates he may be doing some test firing after converting the rifle to centre-fire. You will notice that between the first and second shots he fumbles somewhat with the cocking. At the start, you will see him load a round into the magazine, which would hold seven rounds total. All seven rounds could be fired in under a minute. Confederates called the Spencers; “the damnyankee rifles you could load on Sunday and fire all week.”
Shooting an antique Spencer carbine
Shooting a Model 1865 Spencer Carbine. First trial after converting it to centre-fire so it can use available ammunition.
POST ADDENDUM: General John Buford’s Spencer Carbine Rifles
Readers of this blog will notice that this post has generated some comments with discussion, and controversy regarding whether or not John Buford had Spencers on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Below we have two opposing views on this matter.
I’ll provide the view supporting Buford having Spencers at Gettysburg, and Professor John Vogt of Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, provides us the viewpoint that Buford did not have Spencers at Gettysburg.
I think both points of view are worthy of consideration as both are backed up by credible sources. Sometimes history is messy.
In the end, I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide for him or herself regarding John Buford’s use or non-use of Spencer carbines/rifles on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. If anyone has information to add, then please contribute!
I thank Professor Vogt for his contribution to www.learncivilwarhistory.com.
BUFORD’S CAVALRY COULD NOT HAVE HAD SPENCER CARBINES AT GETTYSBURG
The history of the Spencer company is chronicled in the book, ‘Spencer Repeating Firearms’ by Roy Marcot (Irvine, CA: Northwood Heritage Press, 1983). This well-regarded but out-of-print work appears on the Smithsonian list of Selected Bibliography on Firearms (http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmah/firearms.htm) and is an indispensible resource for anyone interested in Spencer firearms. Tony Beck has relied on it heavily for his article ‘Spencer Carbines’ (http://www.civilwarguns.com/spencer1.html).
Marcot’s impeccable research leaves little room for doubt. The first Spencer carbines were delivered in early October, 1863 (Marcot, pgs 66-67.) Whatever repeaters Buford’s men might have had that first day of July in 1863, they were not Spencer carbines!
Prof. John Vogt
JOHN BUFORD HAD SPENCER CARBINES AT GETTYSBURG
In addition to sources I have provided further below in my reply comment to Mr. Ken James, I’ll quote some passages from the book They Met at Gettysburg by General Edward J. Stackpole (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1956).
From pages 55-56, Stackpole is writing about the Affair at Hanover which occurred on June 30, 1863. Near Hanover, there was a skirmish between Stuart’s cavalry and a squadron of Yankee cavalry that was part of Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division.
The first passage I’ll use from my source is to support and setup the second passages I’ll use. Here we see, according to Stackpole, that Spencers were in use by Federal cavalry in June, 1863 during the Gettysburg campaign:
“Stuart’s weary troopers were in no condition to contest the right of way with the Federal cavalry, whose new lease on life and improved morale had recently been given a special fillup with the issue of the new Spencer rifle, a seven-shot repeating arm that was the equivalent of at least quadrupled manpower for dismounted fighting.
“The 6th Michigan and 1st West Virginia Cavalry regiments, of Custer’s and Farnsworth’s brigades respectively, are known to have been recently armed with the Spencer repeater, and both were engaged with Stuart’s troopers in the Hanover skirmish. Whether they used their Spencers effectively from horseback is questionable, but the fact remains that Kilpatrick definitely blocked Stuart from the two roads leading north from Hanover to Carlisle.”
Now, quoted below are various passages from pages 120-122 of the section Buford’s New Tactics from Stackpole’s book that I believe support the argument of Buford having Spencers at Gettysburg. I’ll include some passages that talk about Buford’s style, and background of fighting with cavalry, which I think are interesting and pertinent to how Buford and his cavalry fought at Gettysburg:
“For his part Buford considered the saber to be of little practical value. He thought of the horse as a means of transportation, useful chiefly because of the greatly increased mobility which it gave to the mounted troops. He treated the cavalry as mounted infantry, and instilled that belief in his brigade and later his division, until it became practically instinctive. The procedure was to move rapidly to a critical position and dismount the troops to quickly form an infantry skirmish line while one out of every four men became horseholder for the group, under cover to the immediate rear, ready at all times for the set of fours to remount in an instant and gallop off to a new position.[…]
“[…] The extent to which the Spencer seven-shot repeating rifle contributed to Buford’s success in Virginia is not entirely clear, but careful researching in the last few years has uncovered material which may cause historians to reappraise the relative cavalry capabilities of the opposing sides and the resulting impact on Civil War campaigns and battles following Chancellorsville.** What is certain is that Buford’s cavalry division was armed in part with the repeater before leaving Virginia for the Gettysburg campaign and concurrently several regiments of Kilpatrick’s division received an issue of the same new weapon prior to their fight with Stuart at Hanover on June 30. It is therefore not difficult to imagine the superior firepower that the Federal cavalry was enabled to bring to bear against the Confederates who in the main were still forced to rely on their muzzle-loading single shot muskets both at Hanover and at Gettysburg on the morning of the first day.”
**J. O. Buckeridge, Lincoln’s Choice, The Stackpole Company, Harrisburg, 1956.