Testing the Chiappa Spencer .56-50

In June of 1863, a 23-year-old Union captain named George Armstrong Custer was given a field promotion to brigadier general and placed in command of the Michigan Brigade consisting of the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan Cavalry regiments. Custer’s Michigan boys were armed with the full complement of weapons, including the Spencer repeating rifle. Unlike many cavalry regiments that would later carry the Spencer carbine into battle, Custer’s men were armed with the longer, 30-inch-barreled, three-band, full-stocked rifles. The carbines would not be in general use until October, and Custer’s success at Gettysburg on July 3 during mounted and dismounted engagements with Confederate forces east of Gettysburg was due in part to the accuracy and rate of fire from the Spencers. Custer’s cavalry were the only mounted troops to use Spencers at Gettysburg. Many historians believe Custer’s actions at Gettysburg, including an unprecedented cavalry charge against Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s position, thereby stalling Stuart’s crucial offensive during Pickett’s Charge, contributed to the Confederate’s defeat in the battle.

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To test the Chiappa’s finely crafted reproduction of the Spencer three-band rifle, I asked my friend, noted North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) competitor and Civil War gun collector Dr. John Wells to handload .56-50 centerfire cartridges specially fitted to the Chiappa Spencer. Test rounds used 35-grain bulk Goex black powder, a 350-grain Lyman cast bullet (bullet mold 51539) and Federal No. 215 magnum large rifle primers. For the Chiappa Spencer, bullets were set 0.02 inches deeper in the case than normal to improve feeding. The rifle was sighted in at 25 yards, with groups fired off-hand at 25, 50 and 100 yards. The best five-round groups measured 4.5 inches at 50 yards. The Chiappa functioned smoothly throughout the entire test, and like the original, the rifle’s action lever must be worked smartly to prevent hang-ups when ejecting and chambering rounds. Overall, this is as close to an original 1865 Spencer rifle as you can get, and the Chiappa, priced at $1,790, is well worth the investment for this historic Civil War repeater.

For more information, visit http://www.chiappafirearms.com or call 540-722-2017.

This article originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.

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