General John Buford’s Spencer Carbine Rifles

Spencer Carbines Help John Buford’s Unmounted Cavalry Hold The High Ground

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 participation in, and 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
Newman University
Wichita KS

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.

10 thoughts on “General John Buford’s Spencer Carbine Rifles

  1. Buford’s troopers were not armed with Spencer Carbines. The only troops armed with “Spencers” during the Getysburg campaign were the 6th Michigan of Custers command. The “rifles” were used at Hanover to prevent Stuarts drive to link up with the Army of Northern Virginia. His deflection from intended route caused his absence during the critical 1st. day as Confederate Infantry searching for shoes blundered into Bufords Sharps(1859) armed dismounted troopers. The Sharps was a reliable accurate single shot Breechloader and had been in service since before the start of the war. In practice the rate of fire was almost as high as a Spencer as there wasn’t a pause while the seven rnds. were loaded into the magazine of the Spencer before resuming fire. After the wars end. Spencers were fitted with a Stabler cut off to preserve the Magazines 7 rnd reserve while carbine was fired single shot as the Sharps were used at Gettysburg. Yes the firepower factor of Buford’s command was signifigant. The tool that was so confidently used was Mdl. 1859 Sharps Carbine.

    • Dropped Spencer bullets (cartridge and projectile) have been found on Buford’s defensive line along “McPherson’s Ridge” over the last 150 years. I would think this provides irrefutable evidence.

  2. The most significant use of Spencers came late in the war as Gen. Wilson’s Cav. “Blitzkrieged” their way to Confederate arsenals at Selma Alabama. At one disputed river crossing his troopers crossed waist deep ford ducking underwater to lever their carbines, pouring out their barrels and using them as “Assualt Guns” to advance by fire. The rebs opposing them threw down their Enfields complete with paper cartidges that often didn’t work after a heavy dew. The south captured Spencers and used them as long as the ammo held out but was never able to make the metalic cartridges. John Wilkes booth had a US Spencer in hand when he was shot as Union Cav. Smoked him out of the barn he was hiding in.

  3. In response to Mr. Ken James, I cite the following sources in support of General John Buford’s cavalry using Spencer Carbines on July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg:

    • - Here is a link to a pdf file:

    http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA250501&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf

    titled Buford at Gettysburg, by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel D. Devlin of the United States Army. I will quote the following text from pages 15 and 16 of Lieutenant Colonel Devlin’s publication:

    “The Confederate force continued forward and by 8:30 A.M. they ran into the main body of General John Buford’s division, three of every four men dismounted forward, with the fourth holding all four horses to the rear. This most certainly confused the Confederates. Not realizing that the force was only cavalry, but assuming that dismounted troops must include infantry, the forces deployed for attack. Just changing formations requires time, and every minute spent by the Confederates was a minute gained for General Buford in his wait for General John F. Reynolds First Corps.

    “A second factor in the delay of the Confederate force was the difference in individual weapons. General Buford’s cavalry was equipped with mostly single-shot, breech loading carbines. General Heth’s division was armed almost entirely with muzzle loaders, requiring more time, and more importantly, an upright position to load. The cavalrymen, using rocks, fences and trees as natural cover, could load from that position, much more rapidly. Some of the men were even armed with the Spencer repeating rifle, that held seven rounds in a tube in the stock, a rifle, it was said, for all week. The ability to fire without standing, while reloading much more quickly, and particularly the ability of the Spencer repeaters to fire seven rounds in the same time as the Confederate muzzle loader’s one, may very well have added to the confusion of the southern forces. The number of shots coming from the small cavalry force may very well have seemed like a much larger, although still fairly small and weak, infantry unit.”

    • - The late Shelby Foote, a noted Civil War author and historian, wrote the following on pages 67-68 in his book Stars In Their Courses – The Gettysburg Campaign:

    “One strenuous objector was there, however, in the person, of John Buford, a tough Kentucky-born regular with a fondness for hard fighting and the skill to back it up. And though Hill was strictly correct in saying that the only bluecoats now in Gettysburg were cavalry, Buford’s two brigades were formidable in their own right, being equipped with the new seven-shot Spencer carbine, which enabled a handy trooper to get off twenty rounds a minute, as compared to his muzzle-loading adversary, who would do well get off four in the same span.”

    • - In his The Civil War Dictionary, Mark M. Boatner III states the following on page 334 under his GETTYSBURG CAMPAIGN entry: Battle of Gettysburg — First Day

    “[...] Heavy fighting started at 10. Buford’s dismounted troopers, armed with the new Spencer carbines, held off the first infantry attacks of Heth and Pender’s divisions[...]”

    Please note that in my post, I do not claim that Buford’s unmounted cavalry had ONLY Spencer carbines. Mr. James is correct that they also had the Sharps carbine.

    Mr. James offers some good information in his comments, I thank him for his participation here at LearnCivilWarHistory.com.

  4. Look not to the mistakes various authors have made, but to the actual history of the Spencer repeaters. The first Spencer carbine was not delivered to the U.S. Army until October of 1863, so if Buford’s cavalry had any Spencers, they were rifles, not carbines.

  5. Please realize that I’m not on a campaign for “Buford used Spencer Carbine Rifles at Gettysburg.” My post is based on information that I have cited in my reply to Ken James’ comment.

    I have responded to John Vogt privately by email with an offer. I hope we are able to learn more from him regarding Buford and Spencer carbines/rifles at Gettysburg.

  6. Gents,

    Apparently the original ordnance records in the National Archives indicate that at least on 30 June 1863 only two units in the AoP were armed with Spencer rifles (Dr. Vogt is correct- no carbines at all). These two units were the 5th and 6th Michigan Cav. in Custer’s brigade. The 1st WVA is listed as having mostly Sharps but a few Burnsides. These historians did not go to the correct primary sources it would seem. I urge you to pick up a copy of the 1981 “Ready, Aim, Fire!” by Dean S.Thomas. Despite the unimaginative title, he refers to exactly which ordnance records indicate the weapons possessed by each unit at the end of June 1863. If we only had such for the ANV! It is always possible, however, that individuals picked up or privately purchased other weapons. Thousands of Spencers were privately owned by the end of the war so it is not impossible that a handful of Buford’s men possessed Spencer rifles and were providing their own ammunition as well.
    -V/R,
    Pete Smith

  7. Gentlemen:

    Last week at a gun show in Pasadena Texas I got a origional Spenser serial number 30691 patnent date March 1860. The guy I got it from said he got it from an estate in Pittsburge and that it likely belonged to Capt. Samual Taggart. I am trying to verify if this might be true. Please tell me if there are any photos or record of him owning or being issued a Spenser? Where can I find the manufactures records? I think that the PN unit was sold these carbines and that will help me to determin if this is the case. Any references or other leads you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

    Y.O.S

    Michael Bunch
    11th TX Dismounted

    • Michael Bunch,

      I suggest you begin with using the Internet to find information about your Spencer and Captain Samuel Taggart. A quick search of “civil war relic dealers” brought up 1,370,000 results. Another search for “civil war artifacts antiques dealers” brought up 218,000 results, I would think that certainly there is a link somewhere in this search result that will help answer your questions. I think you’re going to have to take on the role of detective! There are people who specialize in Civil War relics, I know from trips to Gettysburg that there are several shops there you may find helpful. Here are their website links:

      The Horse Soldier
      http://www.horsesoldier.com/

      The Union Drummer Boy
      http://www.uniondb.com/

      Note: I have no association with these establishments, I’ve only been a happy browser!

      Here is a book that may be useful:
      How To Do Civil War Research
      Richard A. Sauers, Ph.D.
      ISBN 1-58097-041-9 (pb)

      Ideas:
      – Talk to local antique dealers.
      – Try your library, ask for help to find information.
      – Is there a Civil War Round Table where you live? This could be a good resource.
      – Make a trip, phone, or write the nearest Civil War museum to you.

      I hope you are able to learn the history of this Spencer. It sounds like you have made an interesting purchase. Please report back to http://www.LearnCivilWarHistory.com with what you discover! You ought to have some fun tracking down this information.

      Best of luck,

      …Jonathan R. Allen

  8. One of the problems in this discussion is the failure of many to distinguish the Spencer rifle from the Spencer carbine. The 20″ barrelled carbine was not available at the time of the Gettysburg campaign the 30″ barrelled rifle was and undoubtedly is the Spencer referred to. The fact that the Sharps also came in 20″ and 30″ versions only adds to the confusion. Even among respected and experienced firearms dealers the terms rifle and carbine are confused and are often used incorrectly and indiscrimanently. In “Encounter at Hanover, Prelude to Gettysburg” Hanover Chamber of Commerce, 1963 mention is made (p. 85) of the many broken carbines picked up by citizens after the battle.

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