It would be easy to hold up Connecticut inventor Christopher Miner Spencer as an archetype of 19th century Yankee ingenuity: Not only was he was a man who spent his whole life tinkering with machinery, filing patents, aggressively marketing his creations, but like so many other Connecticut inventors, his innovations changed the course of history.
As a young boy growing up in Manchester, Spencer lived with his grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran, who encouraged him to pursue his hobbies of tinkering with with machinery and firearms. Spencer never received a formal education, but gathered plenty of hands-on experience repairing factory machinery as a young apprentice, first at Manchester’s famous Cheney silk mills, then at a number of firearms manufacturing companies (including Colt, in Hartford). Over the course of his lifetime, Spencer would obtain over 40 patents in his name, most of which were related to firearms improvement and manufacturing.
In 1860, right around the time the Civil War broke out, Spencer patented his Model 1860 rifle — the world’s first breech-loading military repeating rifle — and soon founded the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company in Boston to mass-produce them. Spencer tried for years to gain an audience with the War Department to prove the usefulness of his rifle for the Union Army, but was stonewalled at every turn. Finally, Spencer took matters into his own hands: he contacted President Abraham Lincoln directly in order to pitch the utility of his new rifle for the U.S. military. On August 18, 1863, armed with a Model 1860 repeating rifle and carrying plenty of ammunition, he arrived at the White House in Washington, D.C., calmly walked past the sentries, and straight into the Oval Office, where the President was waiting for him.
Having grown up in rural Illinois, Lincoln himself was no stranger to firearms; after watching Spencer take apart and reassemble his creation, Lincoln invited him back the following day for a field demonstration. That afternoon, in a cornfield located near where the Washington Monument stands today, Spencer and Lincoln took turns firing the Model 1860 rifle, using a a marked piece of wood as target practice. The President was quite impressed with the rifle’s speed and its ease of use; the Model 1860 could fire seven shots in rapid succession — ten times faster than a muzzle-loading rifle — before needing to be reloaded and was unlike any firearm the Confederate Army was known to possess.
The shooting match proved to be a mixed success for Spencer: While Lincoln forwarded a glowing recommendation of Spencer’s Model 1860 to the War Department, officials quietly ignored it at first, fearing that the repeating rifle would lead to impossibly high demands for ammunition. Less than a year later, however, the U.S. Navy became the first branch of the American military to place an order for Spencer’s rifles. The Army soon followed suit, and Spencer’s factory ended up producing over 100,000 repeating rifles for the U.S. military by war’s end. After the Civil War, Spencer’s repeating rifle and its shorter-barreled cousin, the repeating carbine, rose to fame as some of the most popular firearms used throughout the western American frontier, only to be eclipsed in sales by another Connecticut firearms company — Winchester Repeating Arms — by the end of the 19th century.
Jessica Jenkins, “Christopher Miner Spencer, 19th-Century Arms Manufacturer,” connecticuthistory.org
“A Conversation with Vesta Spencer Taylor,” Windsor [Connecticut] Historical Society