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June 26, 1863: A baptism of 'repeating rifle' fire

Jun. 26, 2013 - 04:47PM   |  
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MURFREESBORO, TENN. — A revolutionary new weapon was baptized in a hail of fire during a battle that ended today in central Tennessee, in the process helping earn a Union infantry unit the nickname “Lightning Brigade.”

Dubbed the “Spencer Repeating Rifle,” the weapon is the first to employ new cutting-edge “magazine-fed” technology that allows shooters to fire an unheard of seven bullets in a row before reloading.

Although the .52-caliber bullet fired by the Spencer is less potent than the .58-caliber projectiles shot from the Springfield muskets in use by most units, marksmen firing the Spencer can crank out all seven rounds in 10 seconds. That’s a considerable improvement over the 20 to 30 seconds it takes most troops to load and fire a single shot from the Springfield.

Union Brigade commander Col. John T. Wilder was so impressed with the weapon a few months ago that he and his men, ignoring Army red tape, decided to buy the rifle out of their own pockets.

Wilder leads an experimental unit that has also incorporated the speed and maneuverability of mounted cavalry, with horses seized from local farmers, while retaining the firepower and organization of the infantry.

Wilder’s men all voted to add the Spencer rifles to their arsenal, agreeing to each pay the $35 cost per rifle through a unit-wide loan.

One of Wilder’s officers describes the Spencer as “the most effective and complete weapon for actual service ever placed in the hands of soldiers.”

Over the last two days those two innovations — horse-mounted infantry and the repeating rifles — were put to the test when Wilder and his troops were ordered to seize a critical mountain gap in a Federal bid to push Confederate troops out of middle Tennessee.

Although Wilder’s troops were outnumbered, they were able to quickly take control of the gap and hold it against a determined Confederate counterattack. Worried that his unit would be overwhelmed at one point, top commanders ordered Wilder to withdraw, but he ignored the command and held firm.

Wilder said one of his regiments used their repeating rifles to outflank “the rebel left, and opened a rapid, raking fire upon them, caused them to break in disorder down the hill,” during one key moment in the battle. “The fighting for a few moments had been desperate, most of it at a distance of not over 20 yards between the combatants.”

The fighting ended today around noon with a rebel retreat.

The Spencer may soon see action elsewhere in the war.

Troopers of the 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment assigned to General George Armstrong Custer’s Brigade are also equipped with the new rifle. That unit is now on the move with the Army of the Potomac.

Major fighting is expected soon in Pennsylvania after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia launched an invasion into Federal territory in recent days.

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