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 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