MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History


On August 18, 1863—a day that saw fighting in Virginia, Kentucky, and both Carolinas—President Abraham Lincoln stood in the Oval Office with Christopher Spencer, very carefully examining his guest’s repeating rifle. “Handling it as one familiar with firearms,” Spencer would later recall, “he requested me to take it apart to show [him] the ‘Inwardness of the thing.’” Intrigued, Lincoln invited the inventor to return the next day so that he could, as Spencer recalled, “see the thing shoot.”

At the appointed hour Spencer met the president, his son Robert, and a Navy Department officer at the White House. The men walked to a spot near the unfinished Washington Monument, where the officer set up a target—a three-footlong pine board with a black spot for a bullseye. Spencer then handed Lincoln his loaded seven-shooter, and the president paced off a suitable distance. “Mr. Lincoln’s first shot was low,” Spencer later wrote, “but the next hit the bullseye, and the other five were close around it.” When it was the inventor’s turn, he bested the president by a bit. Lincoln, according to Spencer, said, “Well, you are younger than I am, have a better eye, and a steadier nerve.”

Lincoln invited Spencer to

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