Reenacting with a Spencer Repeater, Revisited

By Terry L. Shultz

The Confederates had many names for it, the name which stuck was, "that dreaded infernal horizontal shot-tower."

Spencer Carbine

Throughout the history of firearms, there are certain people that become inevitably linked with their inventions such that their names become synonymous with those achievements.  This is true of Samuel Colt and his patented revolver, though that was certainly just one of his many contributions to the history of firearms.  Another such person was Christopher Minor Spencer and his famous Spencer repeater.  In 1847, at age 14, young Spencer started as a machinist's apprentice for the Cheney Silk Mill in South Manchester, Connecticut.  In mid-1854, he worked at the Colt Firearms factory where he helped design and construct machinery for making Colt's firearms.  Later that year, he returned to the Cheney Silk Mill and soon became the superintendent.  In 1859, he received his first patent for a machine to attach labels to silk spools.  He was given a $25 royalty for each machine sold.  He made his first prototype of the legendary Spencer repeater in 1857 and patented the final version in 1860.  It should be noted that many of the parts for the Spencer were taken from or modifications of parts from the 1859 Sharps.

There were about 100,000 Spencer carbines and rifles purchased by the Union forces during the Civil War, some by the Navy but most by the Army for the Cavalry, but it was a very hard sell.  General James Ripley, the Chief of Ordinance, was not very interested and claimed that it was a damned new fangled thing.  Besides, he said that "if you give a man a gun that will shoot 14 rounds a minute, he will shoot 14 rounds a minute and we will have to buy all that ammunition."  Christopher Spencer had to make an end run to President Lincoln to procure some military orders.               

It wasn't too long ago that if you wanted to use a repeater for reenacting, the only economical way to go was to use a Henry.  The problem with using a Henry is that very few were purchased by the Union and issued to soldiers.  They also were never equipped with a ring & bar for mounted use.  It is my opinion that if you are presently using a Henry for a Cavalry impression, then it would be more accurate to use a Spencer.  It may not be as accurate as using a Sharps or a Burnside, but the late war would have seen many Spencer carbines in use.  Having said that let's get started.

The first thing you will need is a Spencer carbine.  Here, you have two options available to you - the use of an original or a reproduction.  I do not favor using an original, as the price for the gun can be high, the ammunition is expensive to make, and you run the risk of destroying a piece of history by taking it into the field where it might get damaged.  For the aforementioned reasons, I prefer using the Spencer reproduction made by Armi-Sport.  This gun comes in several different calibers and is a well made reproduction.  After a short break-in period, it will function just fine.  The original gun was chambered for .52 caliber and the reproductions can be had in the .50 caliber version.  Unfortunately, constructing blanks for this caliber is really expensive.  But as luck would have, it they also make one in .44-40 caliber and constructing blanks that will cycle and chamber in this caliber is relatively easy and inexpensive.  Armi-Sport has done away with the paddle extractors they used in the .44 Russian and .45 Schofield models and went with the Lane extractor.  This move has made the Spencer in .44-40 extremely reliable.  Also, no modification to the gun is necessary to use it for blanks.  Others have tried the Hollywood 5-in-one plastic blanks in their .44-40 Henrys, but the two reenactors that I know that WERE using them both said the same thing.  They aren't loud enough, they didn't produce any smoke, they are expensive, they stick when the gun gets hot, and sometimes the extractor rips through the plastic lip when they are trying to eject a spent shell.  Four years ago, they told me that by the time they get done with shipping, these blanks cost 50 cents each (I think they are more now).  You can get 5 in 1 cases in brass that you can load yourself but they cost around 30 cents each just for the cases.  So to make the use of the Spencer, financially feasible I use once fired .410 shotgun casings for the blanks and cut them to length with a band saw.  Case length is important because the Spencer is very sensitive to the length of the cartridge and if they are not the correct length, they will not cycle properly.  The .410 cases can be purchased for about 9 cents each in once fired condition or sometimes you can go to your local Skeet range and pick them up off the ground for free.  When I buy them, I usually get 1,000 at a time.  You may think that is a lot of brass, but you would be surprised how fast one can go through that supply.  Since the cases are so cheap, trying to pick them up during a battle can be avoided.  However, depending on the circumstances, one should go back after the battle and make an effort to clean up after oneself.  In places like the Genesee Country Museum in Mumford, NY, where the battle is held on nice manicured green lawns, I go back and attempt to pick up the brass.  But in an empty field in the middle of nowhere, this would probably not be an issue.  I have found that in many instances, the younger spectators have picked up all my brass for souvenirs and I don't have to do anything.  One drawback to using the .410 cases is that they are made partially out of plastic and this makes them a little "farby."  Also, a .44-40 is not the correct caliber for a Civil War gun.  The spectators and other reenactors usually can't tell the difference, and if you can get past these little inconsistencies, you can have a great time reenacting with a Spencer.

  Making the blanks.  As stated, above I start with a .410 shotgun case.   You will need some dies and tools, they are:

  1. De-capping and capping press for .410 shotgun
  2. .44-40 sizing die
  3. Star crimping die for .44 Magnum
  4. Shoulder forming die for .44 Russian
  5. Shell Holder, RCBS #41
  6. MEC Super Sizer, Model SS77 in .410
  7. Single or multi-turret loading press
  8. 3/8 inch leather hole punch
  9. Electric candle heater
  10. Eye dropper
  11. Powder throw
  12. 5/8 inch wooden dowel
  13. Elmer's glue

All the dies mentioned above and some of the other tools that are listed at the end of this paper can be purchased from The Company Quartermaster. Call (716) 693-3239 and ask for Terry.

.44-40 Blanks

The first thing I do to the cases is to cut them to length.  I do this with a standard band saw.  Just put a stop fence on your saw so the final length of each shell is about 1.535" and run them through one at a time.  I figure the optimum length is 1.530" to1.540."  I then put them through my MEC 600 Jr. press to remove the spent primer and put a new shotgun primer into the case.  Then I fill the case with about 29 grains 3F black powder.  I try to gauge it so the top of the powder is about .30" from the top edge of the shell.  I have found that not having any powder in the upper .30" gives me room for the wax paper circles and some lube.  This also helps the shell keep the star crimp shape better.  The plastic has a tendency to remember the round shape it started with and with nothing in the top area of the shell to push outward on the case, the star crimp tends to stay put.  I still get plenty of noise and smoke with just the 29 grains, so that is not an issue.

Now, I need to keep the powder from falling out of the cartridge, add lube to keep the fouling caused by the burned black powder in the barrel soft, and close up the end of the cartridge.  I do this by putting a round, 3/8 inch size piece of waxed paper on top of the powder charge.  I push the circle down flush on the powder charge with the flat end of a 3/8 inch wood dowel.  Then I put 3 drops of lube on the first paper circle such as MCM, SPG, or, if you don't have access to those, you can use a 50/50 mixture of beeswax and Crisco.  To add the lube, I put the lube in an old metal cap tin or tuna can, put the tin on an electric candle burner to melt the lube, and use an eyedropper to put just 3 drops on the first waxed paper circle.  Then I place another waxed paper circle on top of the lube and also push it down with the dowel.  To make the wax paper circles, I take a 3/8 inch leather hole punch and punch them out of old wax coated milk cartons.  

Then I run the prepared cases through a .44-40 sizer die without the decapper installed.  I do this because if I try to run it through my star crimp die without going through the .44-40 sizer first, it will sometimes catch the lip of the plastic hull and crunch it.  I was getting 8 out of 100 that deformed in the star crimp die even if I was very careful, so by using the .44-40 sizing die first I have reduced it to 0.  This has actually speeded up the loading process because I don't have to spend as much time trying to get the shell into the star crimp die without it deforming.  Next, I put it through the star crimp die to close and put a taper to the end.  I leave the shell in the star crimp die for a count of 5 to give the plastic a chance to mold to the new form.  If I just put it in and take it out quickly, the plastic tends to bounce back some and I lose some of the taper on the end.  The next step is to run the cartridge through the shoulder forming die.  This step is necessary as the casing for the .44-40 is bottlenecked and the bullet in a .44-40 cartridge is slightly smaller than the case, so I need to simulate these two facets of the cartridge so it will chamber properly.  It also helps with ejection as the spent shell expands when fired and this shoulder forming helps to keep it from grabbing the chamber on the way out.  Lastly, I run them through a MEC Super Sizer in .410 (model SS77).  This sizes the brass part of the shell down from a .474" to about .471" so it will chamber in the .44-40.  I do each of these steps in groups of at least 100.  I cut all the cases first, sizing them all, priming them all, filling them all with powder, and each of the remainding steps in groups of 100.  For the steps of .44-40 sizing, star crimp & shoulder forming dies, I do them all at once.  I have a Lyman press that has a 6 hole turret.  I put all 3 dies in it and once I have the shell in the shell holder, I just run it through each of the dies, one right after the other.  I estimate that it takes just slightly longer to make 100 of the .410 blanks as it does to make the same amount of musket blanks.  I figure that the blanks cost between 15 and 20 cents each to make, unless you can get the once fired .410 cases for free, then they are even cheaper.

I have mainly been using the old style Winchester AA hulls, but the Remington STS hulls don't seem to give me any more trouble cycling than the old style AA.  Also the Remington & the new Federal cases need about 1 more grain of powder to reach the proper level than the old style AA shells do.  I have just recently started using the new Federal shells and they work very nicely in the gun, but I had to adjust my MEC 600 press to accommodate the higher brass.  I have not been able to use the Italian shells by Fiocchi.  They will not go into the shell holder, and I doubt that they will chamber in the gun and allow the block to fully close.  The rims seem to be a lot thicker.  I have been using the Fiocchi primers and they work, but are a little harder to get into the primer pocket then the Federals.  I think they are metric and are off by just a hair.

I have tried reloading the blanks a second time, but they just don't work as well when I try to cycle them through the Spencer. I think that the second star crimp deforms the tip too much and they have trouble finding the chamber when cycled, so think of these as a one time use item.

Blakeslee Box

Now that I have the cartridges made, I need a way to carry them into the field and load them into the Spencer.   I could just take a bunch of blanks and carry them onto the field in a pouch, then feed them into the Spencer magazine one at a time, or I could use a Blakeslee box.  The Blakeslee box is the most efficient way to do it as I can load the entire magazine in less time than it takes to put 3 in the magazine, one at a time.   Here too, there are some tricks.  A normal Blakeslee box has 6 or 10 metal tubes that are held by a wooden block with holes drilled in it.  I prefer the 10 tube model, this allows me to get about 22 paper tubes in it as compared to the 6 tube version that I can only get 12 in it.  I have found that it's better to take the wood block and metal tubes out and use paper tubes.   This way they are lighter, I can carry more tubes and they are disposable.  The tubes are made much like the tubes for a musket cartridge but much longer.  Using a 5/8 inch wood dowel, I roll the tube up and using the flat end of the wood dowel put a flat bottom on one end.  You can hold it in place with glue or just a piece of scotch tape.  Fill the tube with 7 blanks and fold the end over just like a musket blank and lightly glue it down using a very small dot of Elmer's glue.  The length of the paper tube will be about 14 inches long and the tab will be folded over about 3 inches so the finished length will be 11 inches long.  I make the tubes out of legal size copy paper and cut them into a trapezoid shape to the following dimensions: left edge is 14," bottom edge is 8 1/2 ," top edge is 2 3/4," and the right edge is cut diagonally from the top right to the bottom right which makes it about 15 1/2."  When I go into battle at a reenactment, I carry both a full Blakeslee box with paper tubes and a cartridge box with loose cartridges in it.  This way If I run out of tubes, I can still load and fire as a single shot gun.  To load the Spencer magazine, I hold the gun at the wrist of the stock with my left hand, muzzle down, butt up.  With my right hand, I remove the magazine spring assembly and stick it in my belt or hold it with one finger of my left hand.  I open the Blakeslee box and remove one of the paper tubes, tear it open with my teeth and pour the blanks into the magazine tube.  It is a good idea to look down the paper tube and make sure all the cartridges have been loaded into the magazine.  Sometimes one or two will stick in the tube and you need to coax them out by pinching the tube above the cartridge.  Replace the magazine spring assembly and close the Blakeslee box.  Cycle the action, cock the hammer, and I am now ready to fire.  I don't have to worry about the paper circles or the lube flying out of the muzzle as the lube melts in the barrel and the wax paper circles go out about 10 feet and flutter to the ground.

I have found that to get the gun to cycle smoothly, I must use a brisk motion when operating the lever.  I have also found that by holding the gun in a vertical position (muzzle up), the spent shell falls clear of the gun.  If you lever the gun with it in the horizontal position, sometimes the spent shell will fall back into the works and wedge itself between the chamber and the cartridge keeper (the cartridge keeper is that flipper that is attached to the top of the breech area and rides on the rotating block).  This is easily cleared by just picking the spent cartridge out of the way.  If you lever the gun with it in the horizontal position, tipping the gun to one side will also allow the spent shell to fall to the ground and clear the chamber area.

Occasionally, a cartridge will not find the chamber on its way in and it kind of wedges between the block, the cartridge keeper, and the face of the breech.  Most of the time just pushing the cartridge keeper down and working the lever back and forth a little will get it to chamber.  I have never had a cartridge stick in the breech but if this should happen, in order to remove it I feel it would be possible to borrow a ramrod from someone near by and stick it down the barrel to force out the offending cartridge.  This will work but I would only do it with a spent cartridge because doing it with a live one in the breech would get me into trouble with the rest of the reenacting community because now I have a projectile and a powder charge in the weapon.  This is a big "NO NO," so don't ever do it.  To avoid this potential problem I took my Dremel tool to the breech and cut a small notch into the top of the breech, so I can insert a small screwdriver or knife into it and pry out the offending cartridge by its rim.  

A problem I have run into with this Spencer is that after I load a tube of 7 blanks into the magazine, the first one will not always come out of the magazine so the rotating block can chamber it.  When this happens, I remove the magazine fouler, put my hand over the hole in the butt stock and shake the gun so the cartridges fall back towards my hand.  I leave the lever down, put the gun in the loading position, and put the magazine fouler back into the gun.  I look into the receiver area so I can see that the first one did go into the rotating block.  This only happens on the first round, and it only happens 1 or 2 time per battle.  I use 20 to 25 tubes per battle, so you can see that this is not a common occurrence.

Cleaning the Spencer is really pretty easy, so don't be concerned.  This description sounds more complicated than it really is.  First, I make sure the breech and magazine are empty.  Then I remove the breech block by unscrewing and removing the single screw that holds it in.  I clean the whole breach block assembly with soap and water.  I use a product called Simple Green, but even ordinary dish soap will work.  Dry thoroughly and lightly oil with a good gun oil.  If you have an air compressor handy, it's a good idea to blow out any remaining water with a pressure nozzle.  At this point, I check all the screws and make sure they are tight.  Two screws to pay particular attention to are the ones that hold in the firing pin slide plate.  They tend to loosen up after a lot of firing.  If they are not kept tight, the heads will wear down and they will need to be replaced.  I put some blue Locktite on the screws to stop the problem and I also used a small hand impact driver to set the screws.  I haven't used the carbine enough since I did this to fully determine if this fix will work.  But if you remember to retighten them after each battle, you may not have any problems with them.  I clean the inside of the barrel, again using soap and water and a .44 caliber cleaning rod.   Patch until clean, dry patch, and coat with oil.   It is also necessary to clean the magazine tube and magazine spring assembly.  I remove the magazine spring assembly and use a 12 gauge cleaning brush with a patch over it to clean the magazine tube.  I also clean the magazine spring assembly and check to make sure that there isn't any black powder residue in or on the mechanism.

Reassembling the carbine is next.  I place the gun on a table with the muzzle to the left.  Insert the assembly halfway in from the bottom.  I put my right thumb on the breech block and wrap my right hand fingers around the wrist of the stock.  Push the entire unit upward into the carbine's block.  I have to push down on the spring that works the Cartridge keeper lever to let the cartridge keeper move up and out of the way.  Sometimes, I have to jiggle the assembly a little but the whole thing should slide right in.  I hold the assembly in with one hand and insert the screw with the other and tighten it down.  I then lightly oil the outside and I'm done.  

I have been using my Spencer for reenacting as dismounted cavalry this summer and it has been great fun.  When I use it, I generally fire 100 to 175 blanks per battle (what a rush!) and I wind up answering a lot of questions from both reenactors and spectators about the weapon, but that is part of the fun.  If you want to learn more about the history of the Spencer you can read “Spencer Repeating Firearms" by Roy M. Marcot (ISBN Number 1-884-849-14-8).  I would be happy to answer any questions you might have, just give me a call at (716) 693-3239 or e-mail me at t.schultz5@roadrunner.com.

Terry with Spencer

So, if you like to burn powder, want to reenact cavalry, and don't mind fielding questions you might want to try using a Spencer for reenacting.

The preceding was an explanation of what I do so I can use a Spencer carbine for Civil War reenacting.  You are not required to follow my example, and I make no claim as to the serviceability or safety of the blanks.  Only you can decide if you want to copy my example.

The following parts and tools are listed below for your information and can be purchased from the Company Quartermaster.  Call (716) 693-3239 and ask for Terry.

Spencer Carbine in .44-40:$1100.00
  
Shell Holder, RCBS #41:$9.50
Sizer & De-capper die for .44 Magnum:$26.00
Star crimp die for .44 Magnum:$93.00
Shoulder forming die for .44 Magnum blanks:$45.00
Total for all 4 pieces:$173.50
  
3/8" leather hole punch:$13.00
Lee perfect powder measure:$30.00
Hand made leather Blakeslee Box:$250.00

 Prices do not include shipping.

Reference

Marcot, R. M. (1995). Spencer Repeating Firearms. Irvine, CA: Northwood Heritage Press.