General Buford or General Custer?

For many years I believed that General Buford’s cavalry troopers repelled several waves of Confederate infantry on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg – July 1, 1863 – using the Spencer repeating rifle. I was wrong. During my research for my historical novel Thundering Courage: George Armstrong Custer, the Union Cavalry Boy Generals, and Justified Defiance at Gettysburg I discovered the truth about the Army of the Potomac’s use of the Spencer rifle. Only General Custer’s Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry Regiments were armed with the Spencer rifle at the Battle of Hanover – June 30, 1863 – the Battle of Hunterstown – July 2, 1863 – and subsequently at Gettysburg – July 3, 1863.[1] 

General Buford at Gettysburg

Buford’s cavalry troopers on July 1, 1863, were armed with an assortment of weapons including revolvers and Burnside, Sharps, and Smith single-shot breech-loading carbines.[2] “These carbines used “semi-self-contained cartridges consisting of powder and ball that were inserted in the gun’s breech in their entirety but were fired by separate priming – a percussion cap fitted to a nipple just like the rifle musket.”[3] 

The rate of fire of the Sharps was much faster than the Smith and Burnside carbines because its linen cartridge was entirely consumed on firing. Thus, the cartridge didn’t have to be removed after firing. The Burnside used copper cartridges and the Smith used a rubber or composition cartridge and these empty cartridge cases had to be removed by hand before the gun could be reloaded. Consequently, the Burnside and Smith single-shot breech-loading carbines were not dramatically higher firing rate than that of the Confederate Enfield muzzle-loading muskets.[4]

Admittedly, the Sharps carbine was a much faster weapon than the Confederate Enfield muzzle-loading musket. But not all of Buford’s troopers were armed with the Sharps carbine. Historian Joseph G. Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifle, argues that the Buford’s success in delaying Confederate General Henry Heth’s infantry division advance on July 1, 1863, was less about the Union troopers using single-shot breech-loading carbines but more about Buford’s use of skirmishers in a layered defensive deployment that forced the Confederates to deploy into a long line of battle, which took considerable time.[5] I would argue, however, that both the fast-firing Sharps carbine and Buford’s layered defense were both key factors in delaying Heth’s forces on the first day of Gettysburg. 

Spencer Repeating Rifle

In 1860 Christopher Spencer received a patent for the breech-loading Spencer repeating rifle. His idea was to create a single-shot, magazine-fed, repeating rifle which used a metallic cartridge.[6] The magazine was a metal tube that held seven rounds in the stock with an eighth round in the firing chamber.[7] The seven rounds rested directly behind each other.[8] In 1861 the U.S. Navy Department placed an order for 1,200 Spencers. At this time, the Army did not place an order. Unfortunately, the manufacturing of Spencer repeating rifles was not fast.[9]

Colonel Joseph Copeland

In the summer of 1862 Colonel Copeland, a former Michigan state senator and state Supreme Court justice, was raising a new unit called the Fifth Michigan Cavalry. Formerly, Copeland was the second in command of the saber-and-pistol-armed First Michigan cavalry. Copeland wanted the Fifth Michigan to be like the Irish dragoons of old, who were heavily armed infantry mounted on horses and capable of fighting effectively, mounted or dismounted.[10] 

Copeland wrote to Michigan Governor Austin Blair requesting the state purchase Spencer repeating rifles for the newly formed Fifth Michigan. On November 29, 1862, Copeland was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the Michigan Brigade. On December 27, 1863, the Fifth Michigan Cavalry Regiment received over 500 Spencers.[11] Colonel Alger commanded the Fifth Michigan Cavalry Regiment, and Alger gave nearly 80 Spencer rifles to two companies in his sister Sixth Michigan Cavalry Regiment.[12]

On the July 3, 1863, the Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry Regiments were armed with 572 Spencer repeating rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.[13] The rapid-firing Spencer repeating rifle enabled General Custer’s outnumbered brigade to thwart several enemy advances beyond Cress Ridge and the Rummel Farm, now called Gettysburg, East Cavalry Field.

The Spencer Repeating Carbine

At Gettysburg, Custer’s Wolverines were armed with the Spencer repeating rifle. Although deadly, the Wolverine troopers at Gettysburg found the Spencer rifle too heavy and the 30-inch barrel too long for cavalry. In October 1863 Christopher Spencer started delivering the first Spencer carbines to the U.S. War Department, and Custer’s Wolverines traded in their Spencer rifles for Spencer carbines.[14] The Spencer carbine was a lighter arm than the Spencer rifle and had a 22-inch barrel, eight inches shorter than the rifle.[15]

New Magazine Loading

At Gettysburg, a Michigan trooper reloaded the Spencer rifle by inserting seven bullets individually into a magazine tube through the rifle’s wooden buttstock.[16] “A spring in the magazine tube forced the next round into the chamber when the lever action swung down from the trigger at the same time ejecting the spent cartridge from the breech. An experienced soldier could chamber and fire up to seven shots in about fifteen seconds.”[17] In other words, the average Michigan trooper armed with a fast-firing Spencer could fire over twenty rounds in one minute.

The Spencer’s limiting rate of fire was reloading its magazine. “To reload, a soldier removed the Spencer’s follower and spring tube from the buttstock magazine well, dropped seven individual rounds into the well, and then replaced the spring and follower assembly in the stock.  Spencer cavalry cartridge boxes contained a block of wood drilled to accept twenty rounds.”[18]   

Spencer Pre-Loaded Tin Tube

Late in 1864, Michigan troopers loaded the Spencer carbine used a pre-loaded tin tube holding seven 7.52 caliber cartridges. When the trooper had discharged seven rounds, he withdrew the magazine follower, inserted the tip of the tin loading tube in the magazine well, and let all seven rounds slide in, and then replaced the follower tube.[19] The tin tube innovation enabled the trooper to insert seven rounds into the magazine as quickly as inserting one round. 

Blakeslee Cartridge Box

Another innovation was the Blakeslee cartridge box that had a wooden insert drilled to hold six metal tubes with preloaded Spencer 7-shot cartridges.”[20] On December 20, 1864, Erastus Blakeslee of the  First Connecticut Volunteer Cavalry received a patent for his cartridge box. The tall hexagonal cylinder box was made of wood and covered with leather. It was 10½ inches high and the hexagonal was 2 ¾ inches by 2 inches.[21] It had a hinged lid with a securing strap and adjustable carrying strap that was carried over the shoulder. Blakeslee designed three different types of cartridge boxes. One held six metal tubes filled with seven cartridges, while the others held ten and thirteen tubes.[22]  

In sum, Custer’s Michigan Fifth and Sixth Cavalry Regiments were the only units armed with the Spencer repeating rifle at the Battles of Hanover and Gettysburg. No Spencer carbines were in production during the Battle of Gettysburg.[23]  On East Cavalry Field on July 3, 1863, Custer’s dismounted Fifth and Sixth Michigan troopers inflicted a large number of causalities using the burst of seven rounds from the Spencer repeating rifle and proved that the Spencer could play a significant tactical role for the Union cavalry.  

Terry Pierce’s first historical novel in his Gettysburg Trilogy is Without Warning: The Saga of Gettysburg, A Reluctant Union Hero, and the Men He Inspired, Heart Ally Books, June 15, 2020.

His second historical novel in his Gettysburg Trilogy is Thundering Courage: George Armstrong Custer, The Union Cavalry Boy Generals, and Justified Defiance at Gettysburg.  Publication date is October 2023.

[1] Joseph Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles, page 111.  “The only Spencers in the whole Army of the Potomac were the rifles carried by the Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry.”  The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, Weapons at Gettysburg – The Spencer Repeating Rifle, September 1, 2011,  

[2] Joseph Bilby, page 111.

[3] Ibid, page 39.

[4] Ibid, page 111.

[5] Ibid, page 111. 

[6] The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, Weapons at Gettysburg – The Spencer Repeating Rifle, September 1, 2011, 

[7] Edward Longacre, Custer and His Wolverines: The Michigan Cavalry Brigade, 1861-1865. Combined Publishing, 1997, page 86.

[8] Joseph Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles, page 70.

[9] Ibid, page 82.

[10] Ibid, page 82.

[11] Ibid, page 84.

[12] The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, Weapons at Gettysburg – The Spencer Repeating Rifle, September 1, 2011, 

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid,

[15] Philip Thomas Tucker, Custer at Gettysburg, Stackpole Books, 2019, Page 90.  See Joseph Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles, page 123.

[16] Steve Alexander, Believe in the Bold: Custer and the Gettysburg Campaign, Andrea Press, 2013, Page 46.

[17] Ibid, page 46.

[18] Joseph Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles, pages 210-211.

[19] Ibid, page 211.

[20] Terry C. Pierce, Thundering Courage: George Armstrong Custer: The Union Cavalry Boy Generals, and Justified Defiance at Gettysburg, Heart Ally Books, 2023, Page 482.


[22] Blakeslee Cartridge Box

[23] Joseph Bilby, page 111.