The Day Spencer Shot Holes in Criticisms of His Rifle
By Richard Tambling

This account of Christopher Miner Spencer's famous meeting with Abraham Lincoln -- in which Spencer convinced Lincoln of the merits of his seven-shot Spencer repeating rifle -- is taken from several sources. First is a letter, now at The Connecticut Historical Society, in which Spencer described the event 45 years later; second, an interview the inventor had with Scientific American magazine (Dec. 1921) when he was 88 years old, and finally, a recent telephone interview with Percival Spencer, 92, Christopher Spencer's son [circa 1989].

Spencer's meeting with Lincoln was on August 18, 1863. Lincoln's approval of the Spencer rifle is thought by many to have led to large numbers of them being produced and used during the Civil War.

Spencer, bearing a new repeating rifle as a gift for Lincoln, arrived at the White House and was ushered into a room where Lincoln was waiting. Lincoln knowledgeably inspected the rifle, then asked Spencer to take it apart and show the "inwardness of the thing." He asked Spencer, if he was not busy, to return the following day at 2 p.m. to shoot the rifle.

The test took place near where the Washington Monument was later built. Accompanying the two men were Lincoln's son Robert and a Navy Department officer who carried the rifle, ammunition, and a target. The little group stopped in front of the War Department and Lincoln sent Robert to ask Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to come witness the trial.

While waiting, Lincoln told a few entertaining stories. Perhaps it was then that Spencer spoke of his frustration with the War Department and that Lincoln said, "That's not strange, you ought to hear what I hear from them over there."

Then noticing that one of the pockets of his black alpaca coat was torn, Lincoln took a large pin from his waistband and mended it. He said, "It seems to me, that don't look quite right for the chief magistrate of this mighty republic. Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Robert came back and reported that Stanton was too busy to come. "Well," said the president, with humor, "they do pretty much as they have a mind to over there."

At the shooting site -- which was in or near a cornfield -- Lincoln spotted a "colored gentleman down yonder," and said they had better place the target so as to avoid shooting a bystander.

The target was a board 6 inches wide and 3 feet long with a black spot near each end. Lincoln's first show was low, the next hit the bull and the other five were close around it.

It was Spence's turn and the board was reversed, flipping up the other target.

Spencer would recall humbly, "Being in almost daily practice, I naturally beat the president a little."

Lincoln took it well. "Well," he said, "you are younger than I am, have a better eye and a steadier nerve."

Spencer and Lincoln parted on the White House steps with a hearty handshake and good wishes.

The Navy officer had cut off the end of the target board and given it to Spencer as a memento. Spencer had photos taken of the target board and kept it until 1883 when he donated it to the collection of war relics in Springfield, Ill.

Also: The Manchester Historical Society exhibits Spencer rifles in our collection at the Old Manchester Museum. Please check the Home Page of our web site for the hours of operation and directions to the Museum.

And: To view a biography of Christopher Spencer, from the 1886 "Hollister Family of America" geneaology compiled by Layafette Wallace Case MD, which is also accessible in this web site's "Vintage Reprints" section, please click: here.