Booth's Weapons

As I write these lines, my body is still thawing from a day spent at the range in the depths of a cold and snow-blanketed January here in the Northeast. Although frigid, it was one of the most interesting days I've ever spent at the range. Phil Seiss of S&S Firearms and I acted as firearms consultants for Powderhouse Productions, a Boston-based film production company.

Powderhouse was working on a new documentary film investigating the medical and ballistic aspects of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Phil supplied an original derringer virtually identical to the weapon John Wilkes Booth used that fateful April night in 1865.

Accompanied by two prominent neurosurgeons from New York Hospital, who brought some sophisticated measuring devices to the range, we used the gun in a series of shooting tests - with very interesting initial results. Further testing with an MRI machine at New York Hospital will, I am sure, reveal even more fascinating information.

I know that I learned some new things as a result of this project, and I'm sure I'll learn some more once all the results are in. The thoroughness and care I witnessed in this Powderhouse production promises that it will provide the definitive word on the subject. If you have an interest in Civil War era firearms and history, you won't want to miss this documentary, which will air on the Discovery Channel in April.

When John Wilkes Booth was finally cornered in a Virginia barn on April 26, 1865, he had stepped up his personal armament several levels from the Derringer and Bowie knife he carried at Ford's Theater. The actor-turned- assassin carried two Colt Model 1860 Army revolvers and a Spencer carbine - the most up-to-date rapid-fire armament in the Yankee arsenal.

Although the Spencer Booth carried in his final fight failed to save him, it has been regarded by many historians as the most effective firearm of the American Civil War. The belief that Confederates could not effectively fight against Federals armed with repeating Spencers has become part of the historical canon of the conflict. Longtime readers of this column are aware, however, that that belief is not shared here. As effective as the Spencer could be on occasion, it was not a super weapon.

Perhaps the most striking failure of the Spencer to save the day is illustrted by the story of Blazer's Scouts. Frustrated by Major John Singleton Mosby's constant attacks on his supply lines in the Shenandoah Valley, in September, 1864, Major General Philip Sheridan called for a volunteer force to hunt down and destroy Mosby's 43rd Virginia Cavalry Partisan Rangers Battalion.

Convinced of the efficacy of the Spencer, Sheridan wrote General Christopher Augur: "I have 100 men who will take the contract to clean out Mosby's gang. I want 100 Spencer rifles for them."

Captain Richard Blazer assumed command of the unit, which immediately began to pick off Mosby's men and guerillas from other commands. The captain surprised and routed one of Mosby's companies at Myer's Ford. Although Blazer claimed "the seven shooters proved too much for them," his success at Mayer's Ford was determined more by his swift movements and mastery of surprise than his men's Spencers. Several days prior to the fight at Myer's Ford, the Partisan Rangers had wrecked a company of the Spencer -armed 6th New York Cavalry.

As good a counter-guerilla warrior as he was, Blazer was facing masters of the art in Mosby's men. The Yankee captain's undoing came in an ambush where Company A of the 43rd feigned flight from the dismounted Yankees' rapid- fire repeaters. When Blazer's Scouts mounted up to pursue, Mosby's Company B charged them, six-guns blazing. As Company B hit the Federals, Company A wheeled around and attacked the Yankee flank. Within minutes, Blazer's Scouts effectively ceased to exist, and the captain was wounded and captured. The Scouts' Spencers could not save them.

Fortunately, today's shooter doesn't have to depend on a Spencer to fend off Mosby's Partisan Rangers. Spencers may, however, be used in the North- South Skirmish Association's (N-SSA) "Breech Loading Rifle/Carbine II" target match. Until now, those guns had to be original weapons fitted with a center- fire conversion breechblock.

In December's coumn I noted that Bill Osborne of Lodgewood Manufacturing had submitted a prototype of the Spencer Repeating Arms Company's new reproduction carbine to the N-SSA Small Arms Committee for evaluation and approval. The carbine, which is chambered for a proprietary .56-50 center- fire cartridge, was, as expected, approved by the Committee.

It should be noted that the .44-40 and .45 Colt versions of this gun are not approved for N-SSA use. These "smallbore" Spencers may, however, be useful in renactments, as they will feed and fire the standard movie "5 in 1" blanks, which are readily available from several sources. Anyone interested in a new Spencer should contact Bill Osborne at Lodgewood Mfg., PO Box 611, Whitewater, WI 53190, ro call him at (414) 473-5444.

The N-SSA Small Arms Committee also approved the Colt Blackpowder Firearms Third Model Dragoon revolver and the Whitacre barrel re-lining process.

1996, 1998 by Joe Bilby

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