There were four major types of repeating rifles used in the American Civil War. Gun experts agree that identifying all the different types of weapons used in the war is nearly impossible (Niepert 2007). In his article Carbines, Revolving Rifles and Repeating Rifles,” Robert Niepert of the Florida Historical Society identifies the Colt-Root Rifle, Sharps Carbine, Henry Repeating Rifle, and Spencer Carbine as the pre-eminent repeating weapons of the war (2007).
According to the Smithsonian Institute’s history of the war, many Union soldiers who were not issued with Spencer carbine went out and bought their own. The site claims that 95,000 Spencer rifles were purchased for Union soldiers during the war. Another site claims that more than 200,000 were purchased but some did not see action because they could not be delivered before the end of the war.
The Spencer carbine’s popularity was largely due to its firing mechanism. The carbine had a breach-loading seven-shot magazine encased in metal, not a paper firing mechanism. This meant that the gun would fire even after getting wet (Barnett). Additionally, the gun was completely useless when captured by the South because they did not have ammunition for it. Gun enthusiasts have argued since the war whether it was a better weapon than the Sharps Carbine, which the South had manufactured in response (Smithsonian 2007). The importance of this carbine was its usefulness for mounted troops. The shorter, rifled gun was lighter and designed to be carried by mounted troops. It could be fired easily from horseback and even foot soldiers preferred it to other weapons because of its lightness and ease of use (Smithsonian 2007).
During the Civil War, two repeating rifles gained widespread use: the Colt-Root Rifle and the Henry Repeating Rifle (Niepert 2007). The Colt-Root rifle was almost identical to the Colt revolver, and many soldiers enjoyed carrying both weapons because their ammunition was interchangeable (Smithsonian 2007).
Rifle manufacturing had a significant impact on the economy during the Civil War. In the South, most of the production of munitions was concentrated in Texas, where Winchester, Enfields and Colt dragoons were manufactured. Additionally, Texas housed a gunpowder manufacturer and a munitions manufacturing plant (Steuart 2007). After Arkansas fell to the Union in 1863 (Steuart 2007), manufacturing plants from Arkansas were also relocated to Texas.
The Spencer carbine was favored by Union procurement officers during the war, but after its conclusion, gun enthusiasts sought the Henry rifle (ref). Based in Brooklyn, New York, Henry Repeating Arms attempted to attract more Union business by presenting President Lincoln with a gold-plated Henry repeater. However, this effort failed (Henry Repeating Arms 2007). Numerous reports of successful use of Henry rifles in the Civil War exist. Major William Ludlow’s account of the Battle of Altoona Pass highlights the incredible firepower unleashed by the Henry: What saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles,” wrote Major Ludlow. “This company of 16 shooters sprang to the parapet and poured out such a multiplied, rapid and deadly fire that no men could stand in front of it and no serious effort was made thereafter to take the fort by assault” (Henry Repeating Arms 2007). The popularity of the Henry extended beyond wartime as it played a significant role in winning over American West.
Although the Henry Repeating Arms company did not make the most profit during the war, it was one of the munitions manufacturers that survived. The Spencer carbine, which performed admirably during the war, barely made it through and was bought out by Winchester Rifle Company in 1967. Since then, over 50 companies worldwide have attempted to reconstruct the Spencer carbine (Romano Rifle 2007).
Colt rifles were popular in various forms, particularly in the South. During the Civil War, the War Department purchased only 4,712 of these weapons – a relatively small number. Although this rifle could be fired rapidly, it was much slower to load than other breech-loading weapons and had an unfortunate tendency to fire all of its cylinders at once. This often resulted in removing fingers from the rifleman’s forward hand. While a few Southern units were initially equipped with this weapon at the beginning of the war, it is best remembered for its use by Union troops.
The first weapon issued to Berdan’s Sharpshooters were Colt Repeaters but they were soon replaced with Sharps rifles (Smithsonian 2007).
After the Civil War, the Spencer rifle lost out to the advantages of the Henry. As a result, the Spencer Company went bankrupt in 1869. The Henry rifle was manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut. However, this company dissolved in 1866 and was reformed into the Winchester Repeating Arms Company that same year (Aeragon 2007).
The majority of rifles for the North were manufactured near New Haven while in Texas there was a major manufacturing effort for rifles during this time. Connecticut played a significant role in gun production during the Civil War as it was home to both Colt and The New Havens Arms Company (Barnett 2007).
The Sharps carbine was developed by Charles Sharps, who started working at the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He began manufacturing in 1848, and the factory in Vermont continued until his death in 1884. After he died, the company closed down. (The Price of Freedom,” 2007)
Measuring the effects of wartime munitions production on the wartime economy is difficult. Estimates suggest that a Remington rifle cost $12 at the height of the war, and a Colt revolver was $25. However, in most cases, money was not the issue (Barnett 2007). Production simply could not keep up with demand. Even with converting other manufacturing operations to munitions production, the American economy was not prepared for a wartime effort.
Both sides of the war suffered from a lack of supplies, but the South suffered more due to the blockade of Southern ports and the generalized lack of Southern manufacturing. The North had textile mills and other manufacturing concerns before the war, and non-combatants were already familiar with the effort necessary to make a manufacturing system work. In the end, it wasn’t gun production that won or lost the war, although as time went on, the North did become better equipped. It was ultimately due to a lack of other manufacturing and destruction in agriculture that caused downfall for Confederacy.
Barnett, Bertram wrote an article titled The Price of Freedom” which can be found at http://americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/collection/object.asp?ID=118. The article was published on July 30, 2007.
Civil War Ordinance” is an article available at http://www.aeragon.com/03/#artillery, dated July 30, 2007.
Welcome to the Henry Repeating Arms Company home page. Visit us at http://www.henryrepeating.com/history.cfm. This website was last updated on July 30, 2007.
Niepert, Robert. Carbines, Revolving Rifles and Repeating Rifles.” Retrieved from http://www.floridareenactorsonline.com/carbinesetc.htm on July 30, 2007.
Welcome to the Romano Rifle home page. You can visit our website at http://www.romanorifle.com/html/spencer.html. This page was last updated on July 30, 2007.
Smithsonian Institution’s American history pages (http://www.civilwar.si.edu/weapons_spencer.html) – July 30, 2007.
Steuart, Richard D. wrote an article titled Gun Manufacturing During the Civil War” for The Handbook of Texas Online. The article can be accessed at http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/GG/dlg1.html. It was last accessed on July 30, 2007.