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THE SPENCER CARBINE AT THE BEECHER’S ISLAND FIGHT ( Remastered)

When the Civil war ended, the breech loading Spencer repeating carbine benefited from  a wave of popularity. Gen. James Harrison Wilson had high praise for the firearm. “the Spencer carbine is undoubtedly the best firearm ever put into the hands of the soldier” he wrote in a document that would end up becoming part of the official records of the union and CSA armies. He went on to saw it “should be supplied for the entire commands all other arms are bad in comparison”.  high praise indeed but is it really justified?


The carbine first got into the hands of Union cavalry in Oct of 1863. The carbine was recommended as ordnance officers deemed the rifle too heavy for mounted troops. the rife combined two highly desirable features, repeated firing and breech loading. both huge advantages in an era dominated by muzzle loaders. Seven rim fire .52 caliber cartridges were inserted through a channel bored through the butt stock. The user inserted a spring loaded magazine tube over the rounds to provide the needed pressure to feed the rounds, one at a time into the receiver when the lever was activated. Pushing the lever/trigger  guard forward moved parts inside the receiver to eject fired cases and dropped the breech block and allowed the magazine to feed a round. Moving the lever to the rear raised the breech block and feed the round into the chamber. the user then had to cock the hammer manually to fire. An additional round could be chambered to give the carbine a total capacity of 8 rounds.

The first model fired a .52 caliber cartridge called the .56-52. this was the model that saw service in the Civil war. According to cartridges of the world , this round was only a fraction more powerful than modern smokeless factory loads in the .44-40. For sporting use the round was considered short range and not effective on anything larger than deer even when fired from the rifle length barrel.    While most users had nothing but praise for its robustness and reliability to stand up to repeated firing and fouling, its main short coming would come to light.

By the time the Spencer carbine became a prominent weapon of the the Union Cavalry many of the engagements were fought dismounted. Against dismounted CSA cavalry armed with Enfield rifles the union soldiers were at a disadvantage. Despite all its good points, the carbine with its short barrel and under powered rim fire round could not deliver a dependable knock out punch.  Though it was difficult to see the results of the carbine during the civil war due to many factors including many different arms,  the later Indian wars would prove the acid test.

Years later on September 17, 1868  in northeastern Colorado near the Kansas and Nebraska border fifty frontier scouts under Col. George Forsyth defended a brush and grass covered sandy island in the Republican river.  The main arm of the men was the Spencer carbine. They faced a Cheyenne force estimated at between 450 and 600 who carried guns and bows and arrows.  Even though the force defending the 150  long by 75 wide sand bar had plenty of ammunition, they accounted for only 9 Indians killed.  Even firing from firing pits and strong points dug from the sand, many of the defenders were dead or wounded by the middle of the day. Among the defenders killed was Lt. Fredrick H. Beecher, second in command. The Island would later bear his name. -AR

John Hurst, one of the scouts described the battle.”Hardly were we located on the island before the Indians were charging us, not in solid bodies, but singly or in groups of a few warriors. Scouts Armstrong and Barney Day were by my side.. each by a small tree. Jack Stillwell and his party were on the east end of the island and Jack Donovan and others were in the center, all pretty well hidden and shooting whenever the Indians came within close range. Our bullets coming from all directions in this manner seemed to daze the Indians. We were armed with Spencer seven shot repeating rifles and this was another thing that puzzled our foes, who could not determine how we were able to load and fire so rapidly.”

The mounted charges by the Indians never overran the defenders, but the defenders killed only a few of the attacking warriors. Unless shot in the head an enemy would neither be killed nor even receive a mortal wound unless hit within a few  yards of the muzzle. the figure of only 9 Indians KIA is reliable as it was well reported by George Bird Grinnell and George Brent. Grinnell was a famed naturalist and studied Indian life. His account of the Beecher Island fight can be found in his book The Fighting Cheyennes. George Bent, left his account in his correspondence.

The Indians killed during the fight were IDed as : Roman Nose, Prairie Bear , Dry Throat, White Thunder, Weasel Bear, Killed by A Bull, Little Man , Black Crow and Old Sioux man. the accounts of their death gives evidence to the inadequate power of the Spencer carbine.

A young scout names Jack Stillwell took up a position a position with several others on the lower east end of the island with several others. They occupied a wash under an overhanging bank in the nearly dry river bed with tall grass and bushes to conceal their position.  These scouts shot most of the Indians killed as they rode directly over Stillwell’s foxhole. Their first kill was Weasel Bear who rode almost directly over the rifle pit. The bullet hit the rider at his hip and came out the top of his back. His nephew, White Thunder saw his Uncle fall and went to his aid, When White Thunder was about ten feet from the crouching scouts they shot him through his shoulder, the ball exiting just above his waist. During this this action the main force of scouts fired and took a toll on the Indian ponies causing the attackers to dismount and advance the attack on foot.-AR

Three Indians managed to sneak close to the scouts main position in the center of the island. Doing this they dug themselves a a firing pit in the soft sand. When Prairie Bear and Little Man rose up over the berm, it was their last earthly act as they took shots to the head. The third Indian in the hole, Good Bear, jumped and dodging and running, got away.

, Louis Farley and his son Hudson were considered the best two shots in the scout unit. Louis was lying in the grass with a broken leg when he saw two Indians as they crept along a ridge of sand. Farley shot them both, neatly drilling them with head shots. This is believed by some defenders to have stopped further infiltration of the scout’s position.

Intent on retrieving the their dead and wounded comrades if at all possible, another of White Thunder’s uncles, Two Crows,with a band of friends went down to the river to retrieve the bodies of Weasel Bear and White Thunder. Stillwell and his concealed party of scouts were still watching the grass for approaching enemy, seeing the grass move about unnaturally, they fired and wounded Bear Feathers  with a crease along his right shoulder. Another round fired from the group deflected off Two Crows’ shield that he had tied to his back and another  round wounded Black Moon and another wounded Turkey Without Feathers in the shoulder. They managed to drag out their  dead friend’s body with a rope they tied to him while another of the party was wounded.-AR

Another Indian killed named Killed By A Bull, was shot at  was described as “considerable distance” by a Springfield rifle, one of a few scattered among the scout. He was shot while carrying away the body of another Indian killed in the fight.

The death of Roman Nose is well known and worth repeating because it an example of the inadequate performance of the cartridge from the Spencer.  He kept a low profile throughout most of the fighting. Believing fully in the power of the medicine in his war bonnet, a single horned affair made for him by a medicine man named White Bull. The power of the bonnet could be rendered ineffective  if  before the battle he ate food served to him with a metal implement. If he did so, a cleansing ceremony was needed to restore the magic of his bonnet. A squaw served him some pan bread she removed from the pan with an iron fork. There was not enough time to perform the cleansing  and being pressured, he joined the fight. Roman Nose went into the battle convinced he would die.-AR

He led a mounted charge of a small band against the scouts and made the same error as did Weasel Bear. Riding  over the small group of scout secured under the over hang in the near dry river bank. A Spencer ball hit Roman Nose in the back just above his hips. He did not fall from this mortal wound but returned to his own lines and back to his own people to finally die before sundown.

Having much faith in the power of their medicine, one of the boys who was at the Beecher Island fight changed his name to Bullet Proof as a result of his battle experience that day. Bullet Proof had been shot in the breast and it appeared ( appeared that is) the bullet passed through him exiting his back. According to this fanciful lad, he was able to stop the bleeding and heal the wound by only placing his hand on the ground and rubbing his wounds.  If this is his medicine the wounds were very slight indeed. “Had he been hit like Gunga Din where the bullet come and drilled the beggar clean, a stronger remedy surely would have been required” – Tate  Most likely the young warrior was hit by a bullet at some distance as he rode toward the island and possible once again as he rode away.  Unfortunately for his pals he was overly impressed with his own invincibility and practiced a dubious medicine that got two of his friends killed.  Supposedly immune to bullets due to Bullet Proofs methods, two friends were later killed while charging the troopers in the 10th Cav. later.-Tate

As the fight went on and with only a few warriors were killed by the Spencer, the repeating ability of the carbine was of very little value to the defenders on the island. It was not safe to be exposed to enemy fire long enough get off more than one or two shots. Scout Sigmund Schlessinger said of his time in the firefight , “I have often been asked whether I killed any Indians, I don’t know.. I did not consider it safe to watch the result of a shot. Also taking a general observation by suddenly jumping up and as quickly dropping back into my hole, which enabled me to take a shot, or as many as the target warranted, without undue exposure”  John Hurst agreed, since twice he shot at mounted Indians but did not see either fall. Seeing an Indian creeping toward him, ” I fired at him but without waiting to see the effect of the shot.” Not leaving themselves exposed long enough to observe the effect of a hit is understandable.

No doubt many more hits were made as accounts vary from sources on both sides of the battle on Beecher’s Island, without any more than 9 killed. One to a Springfield rifles bullet. Other battles and fights from the Indian wars went on to produce reports of Indians shot solid but not dead.  One Captain reported knocking a Indian of about 18 off his horse from less than 30 yards. When the Cavalry officer went forward he found this Indian  dazed but crawling away still alive.  From the known load from the time and the bullets used it is no doubt that the iconic weapon produced less than comforting ballistic performance when one needed to send to the Happy Hunting grounds an enemy as tenacious as the American Indian. Whether due to quality control in ammo, lower velocities than claimed or poor accuracy on the part of the users or the gun, the Spencer carbine seemed to not be the last word on military service rifles its greatest admirers thought to be.

No doubt, another contributing problem is the same thing seen during the Korean War.  In that case, it is the M1 carbine and its .30 carbine cartridge that takes the blame.  Veterans from the war claiming the M1 carbine round so small in comparison to the full size service cartridge just had to be the problem.  When shot at  charging communist troops in their thick quilted coats failed to move to the next life, the men, as they always do, blamed the puny round and not  marginal hits or misses.   Had to be the round not doing it’s job.  Blaming the gun and not the shooter is a timeless tradition.  With the Cavalry troopers surrounded and in a desperate fight, taking snap shots on moving targets moving through high grass and on horses, while under withering fire,it is easy to come to the conclusion all but the most close range shots were certain. The confirmed dead is testament to that.

This Post uses heavily from the following sources. If you want more about the subject  or the rifle and its use in the Indian war the bellow books and articles and recommended. The Tate article providing the

The Accurate Rifle , The Gun With The Powder Puff Punch  ,Tate.

The Beecher Island Fight , John Hurst and Sigmund Schlessinger, Vol 15

A Frontier Fight, George Forsyth

The Battle of Beecher Island And The Indian War of 1867-1869

15 thoughts on “THE SPENCER CARBINE AT THE BEECHER’S ISLAND FIGHT ( Remastered)”

    • I’m surprised anyone read that. Usually with my longer historical pieces no one gives enough of a shit to read it. Takes too long while sitting on the toilet scrolling on the phone I guess. Sometimes I don’t know why i bother to do all the research and type them. Thank you for actually reading it

      Reply
      • Here’s everything I knew about Spencer carbines before I read this post:
        1. They existed.
        2. They were used a little in the Civil War.
        3. They weren’t adopted by the Department of War afterwards.
        4. They don’t really have any successor designs in the modern day.
        5. The magazine was in the buttstock.

        So suffice it to say, I learned a ton from this article. I think a lot of times the heavily-researched pieces aren’t commented upon much because the audience doesn’t have enough background to say intelligent things. Especially with historical stuff, what you’re presenting doesn’t provoke much controversy.

        If you’d been running this blog in 1920, I’m sure the Spencer Carbine partisans would give you the same flak for this that you get from the M14 guys, but the Spencer Carbine just doesn’t have any partisans left.

        Reply
  1. Wikipedia has the Spencer .56-56 as 350 gr @ 1200 fps, which certainly isn’t .45-70 territory, but seems like it would part one’s hair. I wonder if wartime expedients (or an early version of the self-licking ice cream cone) led to bad powder or insufficient charges. Maybe the cartridge wasn’t well sealed and the black powder degraded relatively rapidly? It’s also possible that Wikipedia is just wrong. Curious.

    Reply
    • i think its the same thing as with the 30 carbine round. Bad shots/wounding/non-lethal hits or misses lead to US soldiers claiming it was the round. Because no one ever assumes they just missed.
      The Spencer saw a lot more combat in the Civil War than it did at Beecher Island and I cant find any reports of it being ineffective

      Reply
      • There’s a whole aspect of the psychology of perception that goes into weapons effects. Some of which are tangible, and a bunch of others that are clearly not.

        I’ve got two acquaintances who were Rangers at the infamous Battle of Mogadishu. One guy came back swearing to never carry or use anything in 5.56mm ever again, and the other guy says his weapons performed perfectly. They are both excellent shooters who I’ve seen on the range, but I can’t take either of them as authoritative on this subject. Mainly because they contradict the hell out of each other…

        I think there’s something of an “observer effect” that plays into all this. You see one guy get up after what you are morally certain was a “good hit”, and you start questioning yourself “Did I hit that guy…?”, and then the evidence takes you where it does. Say you’ve got a succession of “guys you hit” who get up after–You are going to start to question the weapon, no matter what.

        And, since we never bother to actually go downrange and do a real BDA on what happened, guess what? All that subjective reality-warping that goes on between the concrete effect downrange and your perception of it are what become “data” fed into the system. ‘Cos, that’s how we roll…

        Any number of things could go into you thinking you got a solid hit on someone–Say they slipped and fell, just as you shot. Bang! He’s down… WTF? He’s up, again? After that one time, where you had legit reason to think you’d successfully connected with the target, then what? Few more times where similar things happen, and you start having a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy to it all–“Oh, this rifle/cartridge can’t hit shit…”, and you start making mistakes, not taking your time.

        You’re never going to get good data until you start going downrange and pulling the bodies, as well as tying them back into the weapons. I would wager that probably 90% of any data we’ve gathered from engagements downrange is suspect, and mostly utter crap. Watched that in real-time down at the NTC with regards to tank engagements, and I’m pretty sure the issue is even worse out on the ground with the infantry. We really don’t know what the f**k is going on in firefights, to this day. It’s all subjective, and mostly imaginary–I’ve seen questions on after-action weapons surveys that are completely impossible to answer, and then seen the data gathered used as though it were actually real. Garbage in, garbage out, and we get things like the 5.56mm and 7.62mm come out of the mill afterwards. Both are cartridges that I feel are “off” in some way or another, but since I don’t have hard objective data, I can no more prove that than the wonks can prove they’re ideal.

        Reply
          • No US military person would ever miss or make a less than lethal hit in the chaos and extreme stress of a gunfight, So it must be the fault of our gun and small the mouse caliber we use.
            Notice how the complaints of the M855 went away as the ACOG was fielded more widely in Iraq?

          • M855 had its issues, mostly out of the M4. The terminal ballistics were never really validated out of the 14.5″ barrel, because when all that crap was done, the M16A2 was supposed to be the standard battle rifle. Then, the infantry branch guys saw the M4, and glommed on to it like there was nothing else going. At certain points in the range band for that rifle, the M855 simply didn’t have enough velocity for the killing mechanism to actually work. And, here we are…

            I’m not sure that they really knew what they were doing with any of that crap. I’ve talked to guys who took part in the initial fielding of the M16 in Vietnam, and they all reported that the damn things were like a death ray in terms of lethality. Once the Big Army got done massaging the design and the ammo, though? The rifles were nothing like what they field-tested.

            My own take on it is that 5.56mm can be effective, but the wounding/killing mechanism is so damn iffy and marginal that you can completely louse it up with some very small changes–Which Big Army made during the fielding process, in complete ignorance of what they were doing.

            Or, conversely, maybe they did know. It has always been my opinion that SPIW was the intended outcome, and after they cocked up the M14 program, the M16 was supposed to be this “just good enough” interim deal that would be easily supplanted by their Golden Child SPIW.

            I hate to say it, but we’ve done more by accident than we have by intent, when it comes to small arms cartridge and weapon design. The 7.62mm NATO round was supposed to be a universal cartridge weighted towards the individual weapon needs, and now we’re using it as sniper and support MG weapon round. 5.56mm was always marginal, and now look what we’re doing, firing it out of a 14.5″ barrel. A length that was arrived at by (Ta DA!!!) figuring out the max length on the accessories for the weapon like the M203 and the bayonet…

            I’m telling you, if you were to sit down and write up all the myriad little stupidities that have driven the decision-making down the years, you’d wind up with a litany of ridiculous horror that nobody would buy–Because it’d be too unbelievable. No competent military belonging to a competent nation could possibly do business like that… Could they?

          • Yeah, see… I’ve met a lot of those people. They are not actually anyone’s betters, in any way, shape, or form. The majority of them are jumped-up apparatchiks whose sole concern is perpetuating the bureaucracy and enhancing their position within it.

            There are a few worthwhile people in the hierarchy, but they’re drowning in a sea of mediocrity, and are generally never the people making decisions. How that came to be? It’s what humans do, whenever and wherever. We’re really not all that good at this “organization” thing, when you get down to it. Not for the long haul, anyway.

          • Won’t do any good, you know… They’re still gonna put you up in the re-education camps. I think there’s one specifically for people like us, at Camp Perry…

        • Howard puts this mind set very well, we talked about it one time and he came up with this Truism. “When a US soldier gets hit multiple times by and enemy’s rifle and keeps going he is an ultimate bad ass warrior. When the enemy takes a few hits and continues to fight or get away , then it’s OUR RIFLE AND AMMO SUCKS!”

          Reply

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