By John Hart, Director
Beginning in 1863, Spencer Repeating Rifles were issued to Union troops and quickly became the weapon of choice as they were easier to load, faster to fire, and were more accurate than other weaponry available to the soldiers. According to family history and other writings, Christopher Spencer personally presented President Abraham Lincoln with a Spencer rifle on August 18, 1863 as the President wanted to know what he would be authorizing for his Army. When the President finished looking at the rifle, both inside and out, he requested Spencer accompany him the next day to shoot the weapon. President Lincoln was no stranger to firearms and was generally known to be a good shooter.
President Lincoln, along with Spencer, the President’s son, Robert, and an officer of the Naval Department walked to the mall (now the site of the Washington Monument) for target practice. On the way, Robert stopped to invite Secretary of War Edward Stanton, but Stanton declined having pressing matters at hand. Lincoln fired the first rounds, hitting a target from approximately 40 yards, largely near or on the bullseye. Spencer fired the second rounds, doing nearly the same in terms of accuracy. President Lincoln must have enjoyed himself as there are accounts of him taking “Spencer’s gun” out again the next day.
By the end of the Civil War, the Spencer Repeating Rifle was in mass production and shipped to as many troops as possible. This rifle, on display in the Sullivan Museum’s current exhibit 200 Years—200 Objects, was acquired in 2014 and bears a note “Respectfully submitted to the Sec of Navy. /A. Lincoln.” Much mystery still surrounds the history of this rifle, but we know from documented sources that it did indeed descend through the family of Gideon Welles (Class of 1836), who was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy. Perhaps this Spencer Repeating Rifle was truly fired by President Lincoln.