“Not Much For Fighting”: The Spencer Carbine, At LooseRounds

The Spencer Carbine was one of the first successful repeating rifles ever fielded by the US Army, seeing use in the Civil War. Despite being a very advanced design for the period offering firepower well above what muzzleloading rifled-muskets of the period were capable of, the Spencer has been denigrated in retrospect due to its cartridge, which has been perceived to be underpowered. Shawn of LooseRounds takes a look at some of the anecdotes surrounding the Spencer in a recent article:

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.


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

It doesn’t look good for the ol’ .56 Spencer, but Shawn thinks (as do I) that there is probably more to the story:

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.

Ballistically, the .56 Spencer (of which there are several variations, but all of which are ballistically equivalent) is not particularly anemic for the period. The carbine fired a bullet of about 350 grains at a muzzle velocity of approximately 1,200 ft/s, which gives a muzzle energy of approximately 1,520 Joules. For comparison, a Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled-musket with 2.5 drams of blackpowder, firing a 530 grain Minie ball gives muzzle velocities in the 900 ft/s range, for a muzzle energy of ~1,290 J. So, in fact, at short ranges the Spencer gives more energy than a standard musket, implying better terminal effectiveness. However, the Spencer fires a much lighter bullet with a lower ballistic coefficient, which both means its velocity will drop off much more quickly, and that it will have less penetrating power. How big of a difference does this make? Let’s compare, the top graph being the .56-56 Spencer, and the bottom being a Minie ball fired from a Pattern 1853 rifled-musket:



So, in terms of energy, the rifled-musket clearly pulls ahead almost immediately, giving over 100J more energy than the Spencer by a scant 100 meters, a gap that only widens as ranges increase. It’s therefore not unreasonable to suggest that a typical rifled-musket of the period was more effective than the Spencer, but what about claims that the round didn’t penetrate deeply enough? That seems unlikely; the .56-56 Spencer similar velocities out to 300 meters to the modern .45 ACP pistol round, which fires a lighter, smaller caliber bullet of almost identical sectional density.


One could perhaps suppose the .56 Spencer was prone to flattening or tumbling, which could reduce its penetration, but surely that wouldn’t reduce penetration so significantly vs. the .45 ACP that it would leave its target barely scathed, and such effects should, in theory, actually improve it’s immediate terminal effectiveness!

In my opinion, Shawn has the right of it in attributing at least some of the Spencer’s terminal effectiveness woes to “.30 Carbine syndrome”, where in the midst of frenetic combat misses are conflated with ineffective hits.

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


  • marathag

    30 Carbine syndrome, it was was real per one I spoke with

    My Uncle was issued one in Korea, and hated it, from ‘stopping power’ issues, the lack of it during Winter.

    However, the next war he got one willingly in SEAsia, trading with an ARVN trooper for an M2, as he didn’t trust the new M16 from stoppages, he said at least the Carbine was reliable, plus working fine for ‘stopping power’ where he was at

    The difference, from my questions, was closer engagement ranges, ‘Black Pajamas’ vs Winter Jackets, and the guys were physically smaller: ‘Hundred pounds, soaking wet’ as he put it.

    • Anonymoose

      The only member of my family who was issued an M1 Carbine was my grandpa, and he was a radar technician at Ramstein during the Korean War, so he never used his outside of drills.

    • mosinman

      yeah i recall hearing the extreme cold made it so the primer didn’t ignite the powder as efficiently, leading to reduced muzzle velocity. combined with the “carbine syndrome” i can see how it got such a bad reputation

  • Nattleby .

    The real problem with the .30 Carbine round was the FMJ Bullet. It overpenetrated at close range leaving a clean narrow hole, not doing a lot of damage. The quilted overcoats of Chinese soldiers would not show the hole very well, leaving the shooter thinking that it just bounced off. If it didn’t hit bone or a vital organ, it failed to stop the attacker. That is the real reason that there were so many conflicting reports about the .30 Carbine. It’s certainly not underpowered.

    I have seen the major difference in ballistic gelatin between FMJ and Soft Point .30 Carbine. The Soft Point dumps a ton more energy as it expands.

    • Darren Hruska

      In reality, the muzzle energy of surplus .30 Carbine loads isn’t THAT far off from the muzzle energy of surplus 5.56x45mm NATO loads. I’d say the latter is a “superior” cartridge, but the former would can still be quite formidable with the right loadings. Sadly, nobody wants to make good .30 Carbines loads anymore, seeing how much cheaper it is to buy an AR-15 and 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington ammo than it is to buy an M1 Carbine and .30 Carbine ammo.

      • Jim_Macklin

        Keep in mind, the M1 Carbine was intended to be a replacement for the handgun in service with truck and armor drivers, machine and mortar crews. It was not intended to be a main battle rifle.

      • iksnilol

        Point is, how well does it retain energy? You can make a super powerful cartridge but it will still be weaker if it loses energy faster. Take 7.62×51 and 6.5×55 for instance. The NATO round has usually more energy, but the 6.5 retains its energy better. So at distances the 6.5 is superior.

  • Cannoneer No. 4

    Thrilling Days In Army Life by General George A. Forsyth: “I have determined to organize a scouting party of fifty men from among the frontiersmen living here on the border. There is no law that will permit me to enlist them, and I can only employ them as scouts through the quartermaster’s department, I will offer them a dollar a day, and thirty-five cents a day for the use of their horses, which will, I think, bring good material. Of course the government will equip them, and they will draw soldiers, rations.”

  • Southpaw89

    I never really understood why the repeating Spencer was replaced with the single shot Springfield. I’m guessing that these problems, real or imagined, were a factor in that decision.

    • Don Ward

      It is because the 45.70 Government cartridge. The US Army wanted a weapon chambered in it. It was felt at the time that with the linear European tactics still in play, the ideal target engagement range started at 500-800 yards or more. The 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfield was seen as a robust and reliable weapon which was still quick loading. It would also accept ammo in pinch from the 1873 Colt revolver which was also adopted by the US that year as its official sidearm.

      The Spencer was a great weapon for the Civil War. It was just a nightmare to load though.

      • marathag

        except they went to 50-70 before that, after the 58 rimfire was found to be poor as the Sharps

        • Don Ward

          The 1873 military testing board headed by General Terry tested about 100 different weapons and numerous cartridges with the aim of replacing and standardizing the hodgepodge of weaponry in the US Army inventory. Let’s not outhink ourselves here. The perfect cartridge that the board decided upon was the “SCHV” 45-70 Government chambered in the 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfield.

          • marathag

            That ‘perfect’ cartridge was proclaimed by the Terry Board as it had the mean average deviation of under 9 inches at 500 yards, with a 32.5″ barrel, and of course, came from Springfield Armory

            Not exactly handy for the mounted trooper, though.

            So they got a shorter barreled carbine, and a 55 grain BP load and 405 grain bullet vs the 500gr and 70gr BP.

            No longer ideal, not much more powerful than the Spencer, and slow to load.

    • borekfk

      It helped that Erskine Allin, who designed the Trapdoor system was an employee of the Springfield Armory. Thus the US Army wouldn’t have to pay him royalties for the design. Also think of the Spencer as a sub-machine gun and the Trapdoor as a battle rifle. Trapdoor was slower to load, but had greater range and that along with the thinking of fighting a proper war with linear tactics influenced the selection.

    • Jim_Macklin

      Springfield Armory, Harpers Ferry Arsenal and later Rock Island were GOVERNMENT agencies. The Spencer and Henry were commercial arms, often purchased privately by “officers” who had become militia officers by the act of raising a few hundred men and arming them, often with better arms than the government issued.
      Springfield Armory did install Allin Conversions on 1858 muskets, this was the trapdoor action.
      In 1873, about 8 years after the war ended, the 1873 Springfield was adopted as a rifle. Later a cavalry issue carbine using a 45-55-405 cartridge which replaced the 45-70-500 in the 1880s.
      By 1900 companies such as SEARS and Monkey Ward sold surplus 1873 Springfields, some modified as “long range or target rifles.”

      • borekfk

        That Officer’s Model Trapdoor is beautiful.

  • Don Ward

    I don’t get the point of Looseround’s article and it makes some rather dramatic jumps to conclusion while jumping all around the historical baseball park while waving a lacrosse stick. The Spencer was “heap good” as a cavalry weapon as seen in the Civil War and the early stages of the Plains Indian Wars. But by 1873 the US Army wanted something better and more standardized to the hodgepodge of weapons that they had at the time.

  • Don Ward

    Also, cue the “My Grandpappy in the Korean War/M1 Carbine Bouncing Off Chinese Quilted Jackets” twaddle.

    • Bear The Grizzly

      My grandpappy in the Korean War was a drunk who once knocked a mule out for cutting him off as he was walking out of a bar, but he likened the M1 to the .22lr. I don’t think he ever shot anybody with it though.

      • Don Ward

        My grandfather had some whizbang World War 2 stories. I think some of them were even true.

        • Anonymoose

          My great uncle was nominally a crew chief of a C-47 during WWII, but, according to his accounts, spent most of his time plowing French farmgirls.

          • Cymond

            Lucky dog! I imagine French farm girls know a fair bit about plowing.

            One of my grandfathers was a flight instructor in WW2. There was a broken wooden propeller in the garage. Apparently, it was from an aquatic plane, and the tips struck the water during a landing on the Kanawha river. Supposedly, some of his students died flying over the Himalayan mountains. I never really knew him, he died a drunkard when I was 4.

            My other grandfather was in the 8th Armored Division. He didn’t talk about it much, except for flirting with German girls in the post-war occupation and repeating badly-mangled German phrases like ‘roustamit’. He did have one story about operating the tank’s main gun, but he didn’t have the gunner’s heat-proof gloves. Apparently the shells come out HOT! He was a good man in the time I knew him, and rather hard of hearing. I’m still amazed that any soldier came out of tank warfare with any hearing intact whatsoever.

            My grandfather-in-law served in the Navy. He has quite a few stories, mostly of what he saw others do, rather than his own exploits. He watched men stand on a sinking ship, sticking to disable the depth charges before the ship sank. He served on DE-169, famous for sinking a UBoat on May 6, 1945. It was the last one sunk, and was a pointless waste. He showed me an newspaper clipping about it, and said that after the war, he wrote to the German naval command to request a personnel roster of the sub. I get the very strong impression that it effected him deeply.

    • borekfk

      My great-great-great grandpappy was in the Civil War and said those Spencer and Henry rifles were useless against charging Rebs because of the lack of stopping power and the unreliability of the action. Especially in either dense brush or in the winter when they wore heavy clothes or when…..

    • Cal S.

      My grandfather got drafted into the Navy in 1945 and was given the choice to serve 2 years or until the war was over. Everyone thought the invasion of Japan was imminent, and no one knew how long that would take, so he enlists for the two year option. A month after he gets out of training, the bombs are dropped and the war ends.

      Not really on-topic, just thought I’d throw that in there.

      • iksnilol

        You know that feeling when you’re on the bus and you forgot your headphones? I bet your grandfather had that feeling big time. The helplessness that could have been easily avoided.

        Interesting story to say the least.

    • Grindstone50k

      My friend’s uncle had an M1 Carbine in Korea. His complaint wasn’t the cartridge, but the fact that the folding buttstock crumbled when he tried to buttstroke a Chinese soldier.

      • Cal S.

        That’s what the pointy thing you stick on the front is for… 😉

        • iksnilol

          The flash hider?

          • Cal S.

            Nope, the front sight post, silly! Or the bayonet…

          • iksnilol

            But what will I use to open cans and probe for landmines if I am going all stabby shooty with the bayonet?

          • Cal S.

            Easy. Just chuck the ration tins on the landmines from a safe distance.

    • Y-man

      My Grandpa personally [As he told it] tracked and killed Tojo with his bare hands in the mountains of Burma, as a member of the West African Rifles in WW2. He was also just about to be dropped from a B36 bomber without a parachute into Berlin to do the same on Hitler, when the coward killed himself…
      And oh, the B36 had an engine break off in flight. My Grandpa says he crawled out on the wing, no tether, and held the engine with his teeth until they landed. He swears the aircraft was the Enola Gay..
      This was a few days after he finished inventing Penicillin, and completed training for Orde Wingate, then supervising the Manila landings for MacArthur…

      Pinky swear!

      [Shocking how those villagers believed the stories… He was a bloody cook based in Rawalpindi throughout!]

      • Jim_Macklin

        Are you sure that wasn’t a B32 ?

        • Y-man

          No, he was very sure: he described it down to the Nuclear Pulse Blast engines, the eight pilots and one gunner, and the windows that could be opened to let fresh air in at 50,000 feet. LOL!

      • BrandonAKsALot

        and with that, Y-man wins best comment of the month!

    • Nattleby .

      I once asked a WW2 Veteran what kind of rifle he carried and if he got any Germans with it. He replied:

      “I was lucky that they issued me a Carbine, it was much lighter and easier to carry than the M1 Rifle. I don’t know if I hit anyone because I had my eyes squeezed shut the whole time I was in combat…”

    • Dan

      Bounce of one and came back and killed my grandpappy

  • iksnilol

    Could the cold have affected the powder enough to make it less effective? This is in regards to .30 carbine. Sorry for the derailment.

    • Don Ward

      The cold affected the soldiers/marines enough to make them less effective.

      • iksnilol

        I know, but I was thinking about the powder itself.

    • Dracon1201

      It does. Lower muzzle velocities are a common thing in cold conditions.

      • Yes, cartridges produce lower velocities and pressures the colder they are.

  • Hudson

    You also need to remember that the US Army Chief of Ordnance who was in office from the late 1860s to about 1890 didn’t like repeating rifles, He thought they wasted ammunition.

  • Cal S.

    “The Chopping Block” on YouTube did a pretty conclusive test on the .30 Carbine. Even through a very thick layer of frozen cloth (and some Level II armor for a bonus), the .30 Carbine just sailed through it like it was nothing. I’m an engineer, so I guess I’m more analytical than a lot of people out there, but I don’t get caught up in personal preferences when it comes to things like specific guns or ammo. I do my research, I figure out what I want, and then I get it. If it turns out I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, but I don’t overestimate a round like some (Oh, you can use a .22LR to take down an elephant!) or underestimate a round like others (Oh, that 5.56NAY-TOE is just a little-bitty varmint round!) based on my own opinion.

    That being said, I have always loved the .30 Carbine. I don’t even own a gun that shoots it, but I love the concept behind it. To be clear, I don’t think it’s the best and I don’t overestimate it, but I appreciate it for what it does. It’s a 200 yard round that is shot from light rifles with good accuracy. That’s what it was designed to do, and it did it. Asking anything to perform outside of its design parameters is asking for bad things to happen.

    • marathag

      punching holes means energy isn’t transferring to the meat

      • Cal S.

        Agreed, but shot is shot. The point is, the Chinese coats weren’t the problem. If this was a mythbuster’s episode, it would be busted.

        • marathag

          Now if they would do it with 1945 milsurp ammo at 5 below

          • Cal S.

            Indeed. Should be interesting.

  • mikenz25

    How about some Gelatin Tests. I suspect being hit with a Spencer round at anything under 100 years would not be a pleasant experience.

    • marathag

      Hits so hard, knocks you back in time 🙂

  • mikenz25


  • Wolfgar

    As a hunter I have seen some animals drop like lead weight and others that defy any logic when post shot evaluation is done. Why the same rifle and cartridge will have complete different outcomes with similar shot placement and wounds is confusing at least. Maybe the ability of some creatures and humans alike having a stronger constitution than others should not be left out of the equation. This sounds crazy but I have witnessed it many times.

    • The_Champ

      I second this!

      Hunting big game gives one a great perspective on the killing power of firearms(and great respect for their lethality). I’ve read a ton on ‘killing power’, and hydrostatic shock and all of the rest. And no matter the theories and science there are always those instances that seem to defy easy explanation.

  • tazman66gt

    I always wondered on the talking down of the M1 carbine was that they wanted the Garand and were issued the carbine so they felt shorted so no matter how well it worked it was still a lesser firearm to them.

  • Edeco

    Well, I wasn’t there at the time, blaming-the-gun is a reasonable scenario. But, like Southpaw points out out the next thing to be widely implemented was again single-shot, higher-powered rifles. I’m leaning toward thinking it was a case of the Spencer being mismatched with the tactics and expectations of the day, despite being ahead on the general trend toward increased capacity and ROF.

    So, were they misunderstnading a sufficiently powerful gun… yeah, I beleive that. Blaming, I’m not convinced.

    • Tassiebush

      I agree. I think too that while the Spencer was quicker than the Sharps it still needed the hammer separately cocked so it wasn’t hugely fast. Not like other leverguns still with us now. Then when we bring in the round and the probable price difference between the guns that’s maybe what killed it?
      Nice muntjac avatar btw!

      • Edeco

        Ah thanks! musk deer though. I’ve been kind of totemistic about them since learning they are a thing, like that they’re primitive and not symbolic of much (in North America anyway) 🙂

        • Tassiebush

          I’d forgotten they had tusks!

  • Jim_Macklin

    During the Civil War 1861-65 most infantry battles took place at less than 200 yards. The firepower increase of the 7 shot Spencer was a big advantage for foot and mounted troops.
    The issue of loose rounds was soon finished with several companies offering cartridge tubes for rapid reloads.
    On the battle field, recent doctrine says that wounding a soldier takes three off the field to evacuate the wounded comrade. The Spencer may have been ahead of time.
    Since medical science was so poor any bullet wound could be fatal from infection.

    • gunsandrockets

      Yep, one of the earliest speedloading military weapons.

      • Jim_Macklin

        A short coming of the Spencer was the buttstock magazine required the tube mounted follower be removed from the stock in order to dump the cartridges one at a time or with the pre-loaded tubes. The design was improved with side loading .22 rifles of Browning design manufactured by Winchester and FN Browning.

  • Tassiebush

    Interesting to compare the bullet drop of the two. At 100 yards it’s 5.9″ for Spencer and 13.2″ for rifled musket. At 200m that becomes 55.5″ for Spencer and 86.9″ for musket. At that point Spencer groups (says windage but presumably it’s group width) are wider at 24″ while musket only 13.8″. Basically I could see the Spencer with a sensible zero being much more effective for aimed fire at 200m or less without mucking round with sight settings but it would lose it’s advantage to the rifle musket at greater distances. It wouldn’t be so prone to accidentally overshooting or undershooting whereas the musket would be.

    • It’s windage.

      • Tassiebush

        So would that be horizontal dispersion of rounds or adjustment of the sights?

        • Tassiebush

          Oh I see it includes a 10mph crosswind. So that’s horizontal effect of a crosswind.

  • WFDT

    .45 ACP round noses worked pretty well for Alvin York.

    • eriky

      That came out a little wrong. .45 is still one hell of a round and no one is lining up to get shot with one but it could be better.

  • Nattleby .

    Here is a real true story for ya….My Great Uncle was 10th Mountain Division in WW2 and fought in Italy. One night, he and a buddy were ordered to recon the enemy areas before the push on Mt. Belvedere. They set out at night and crawled through two minefields using their bayonets as mine probes. As they were mapping these minefields, they ran right into two German soldiers. My Uncle’s buddy, who happened to speak fluent German, told the soldiers that they were German Intel officers returning from infiltrating American lines with important information, and not to blow their cover. The Germans bought it and let them go.

    They went on to mapping two more enemy minefields, and interviewed local civilians about German positions. The information that my Uncle brought back saved many lives, and he was awarded the Bronze star for his actions. (He was just supposed to ask locals a few questions, crawling around in four minefields making maps was way beyond what he he was ordered to do!)

    Sadly he was KIA a few weeks later in the last major battle in Italy, when the 10th broke through the Gothic Line.

  • This book from 1864 includes some of the earliest records of the Civil War era repeating rifles like the Spencer and Henry.


  • Flipping the issue, the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors’ Henry and Spencer repeaters worked quite well against the 7th Cavalry’s Trapdoor Springfields.