Spencer Carbine

At the beginning of the service, Pony riders carried two revolvers, a bowie-knife and a rifle, plus a horn to sound his coming. All of this hardware proved too heavy for the express rider to carry, so most of it was discarded for the greater part of the Pony's existence, finally settling upon was a single pistol, with an extra loaded cylinder occasionally carried. It was also the rule of the Company that a rider should never fight unless compelled to do so. The speed of their mounts was the primary defense against Indian attack.

colt-navyThe revolvers of the express rider traditionally have been identified as Navy Colts, which would have been of the 1851 model, then in popular use. The Colt "Navy" pistols were so named more for the naval scene engraved on their cylinder than for their use by that branch of the service. This huge pistol was a six-shot, percussion fired, .36-caliber weapon, with an octagonal-shaped barrel. It was not an automatic, but had to be cocked for each firing.

Practically speaking, a number of different types were seen along the trail. Original equipment was purchased at both ends of the line and identical firearms in quantity could not have been expected from the widely separated suppliers.

Another possible gun could have been the Wells Fargo model Colt, a short pocket pistol made mainly with a three-inch, octagonal shaped barrel. Like the Navy Colt, it was percussion fired and a five-shot revolver, but used a lighter, .31-caliber ball. Some 200,000 guns of this model had been manufactured and were available by 1860, and their use by stage coach messengers would tend to suggest their adoption by the Pony Express.

Early in the Pony's life the Army near Salt Lake City furnished guns for protection against marauding Indians, and at about the same time Finney, at Carson City, asked for the loan of 20 dragoon pistols.

It has often been reported that the riders initially carried a Spencer carbine strapped the their back. Although a number of historians who have written about the Pony Express mention the Spencer carbine, current research shows that the carrying of the Spencer carbine may be just another of the many legends that have been perpetuated about the Pony Express.

Kate Carter (1960), states that the rider's outfit included “a pair of Colt revolvers in his holsters, sometimes a dagger and a Spencer rifle, which was later discarded because it proved too cumbersome.”

Glenn D. Bradley (1913), states that the riders always went well armed. “At first a Spencer carbine was carried strapped to the rider's back, besides a sheath knife at his side. In the saddle holsters, he carried a pair of Colt revolvers. After a time their carbines were left off and only side arms taken along.” Bradley is credited with as having written one of the best pioneer treatments of the Pony Express. He is considered generally reliable, with the advantage of proximity of the writer to eyewitnesses.

Lee Jensen (1955), states that the Expressmen’s equipment included “a Bible, a pair of Colt revolvers, a sheath knife and a Spencer carbine.”

William Lightfoot Vischer (1908), states that the arms of the Pony Express rider were limited to revolver and knife to keep the weight at a minimum.

Arthur Chapman (1932), states that at first the riders were armed with carbines, as well as two revolvers per man. The carbines were soon discarded, as were the extra revolvers. The usual armament was one “navy” revolver. Occasionally a rider carried an extra, loaded cylinder for his revolver, in case of a fight with several opponents at close quarters. Even this extra weight was begrudged.

The Spencer rifle, was an extremely heavy gun, made by the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company of Boston. However, the Spencer was not patented until March 6, 1860, less than a month prior to the Pony's inaugural service, and it was not placed into service until December 1861.

Many of the Pony Express riders in later years in their memoirs reported the use of weapons on the trail:

Pony Bob Haslam rode regularly between Lake Tahoe and Buckland’s Station in Nevada. Once he recalled that when asked to make an extra long ride when his relief rider refused to continue, he was ready to ride “... after adjusting my Spencer rifle, which was a seven-shooter and my Colt revolver, with two cylinders ready for use in case of emergency.”

Jay G. Kelley, who rode between Cold Springs and Sand Springs in Nevada, remembers that once on the trail his was expecting trouble from some Indians waiting in ambush. He prepared for it by dropping his bridle reins on the neck of the horse, putting his Sharps rifle at full cock, and keeping his spurs into the pony's flanks, went through the forest like a “streak of greased lightening.”

Thomas Dobson, who rode for Major Egan between Ruby Valley, Nevada, and Deep Creek, Utah, recounted once that when some Indians pursued them they were glad that they had pistols while the Indians had only bows and arrows. No mention was made of having a rifle.

Howard Ranson Egan, who rode between Shell Creek and Butte Stations, remembered once when being threatened by Indians, that he rode straight through them “with pistol in my hand”. Again, no mention of having a rifle.

Jack Keetley, remembers that when the riders left St. Joseph they always rode out of town with silver mounted trappings decorating both man and horse and regular uniforms with plated horn, pistol, scabbard and belt. Again, no mention of having a rifle.

William Henry Streeper, who rode between Diamond Springs and Smith Creek in Nevada, remembers that “we had guns and pistols, and sometimes used arrows in self defense. I carried a pair of pistols, but never had any trouble.”

“Uncle Nick” Wilson, who rode between Schell Creek and Deep Creek, remembers that if the riders did not have a revolver, they had to get one from the company and would be charged forty dollars out of their wages for it.

In her biography of Amos Wright (1981), who rode out of Salt Lake City, Geneva Ensign Wright quotes Major Eagan as having said after swearing in the new riders, “Here's a pair of Colt revolvers, a holster, a dagger and a Spencer rifle. They'll be charged to your account. You'd better know how to use any or all of them.” This is most likely just a fictional account of a statement by Eagan.

colt-dragoonWhile riders of the Pony Express preferred the Model 1851 Colt Navy pistol, a .36 caliber six-shooter, a few carried the big .44 Dragoon Colt, 106 having been furnished by the army and 25 by citizens of Sacramento. The army supplied 60 of the .54 caliber Model 1841 "Mississippi" rifles for use at the Pony Express relay stations. The riders also preferred the light Sharps carbines when it was necessary for them to carry a shoulder arm.

Following the Pah Ute Indian uprising William F. Finney, an official of the Pony Express in California appealed through a Sacramento newspaper for weapons, stating: "What is needed are twenty-five Sharps rifles and as many dragoon pistols."

In a letter of July 18, 1860, Col. C. F. Smith, in response to a request from an agent of the Pony Express, said "In view of the circumstances I let him have 106 Army sized revolvers and 60 'Mississippi rifles and some ammunition for the same. The Commander of the Department has been heretofore in the habit of selling this kind of rifle, no longer in the hands of troops, to emigrants and discharged soldiers."

Mississippi Rifle

With 106 caliber .44 Colt Dragoon pistols obtained from the government at Camp Floyd and 25 more from Sacramento, along with the 60 Model 1841 "Mississippi" rifles and 24 Sharps carbines, there was added a formidable arsenal to the previous equipment of the riders and station attendants throughout the Utah-Nevada trouble areas.

The .44 caliber Dragoon pistols were fine for the station attendants but too heavy (weighing over 4 pounds) for the riders who preferred Colt's lighter .36 caliber Navy six-shooters. In September, 1860, the Army advised the Pony Express that they might exchange the .44 Dragoon pistols for .36 Navy pattern Colt pistols. They also indicated that the purchase price for the Mississippi rifles was $13.25. Today such rifles bring over $100 as collectors specimens.

Source: James E. Serven, Conquering the Frontiers

Pony Express Rifles

Matthias S. Recktenwald
Editor-in-Staff from VISIER Magazine
Europe's leading gun magazine.
August 2005

Reading about Spencer, I think it would have been impossible for Pony-Express-riders to carry a Spencer-Rifle.

The inventor was Christopher Miner Spencer (born 1833, died 1922).

He received his first patent for this repeating gun in 1860.

In April 1861, the War Between the States began.

At this moment, Spencer had only made a few Sporting Rifles in rather small calibers like .36 and .44. These were nine-shooters and were not made in big numbers. If a Pone-Express-rider had a Spencer, than it must have been such an item. But this theory sounds really impossible to me.

Naturally, Mr. Spencer tried to get orders from the military.

After a lot of testing, He received an order over 700 rifles form the U.S. Navy in June 1861. Now the caliber was 56-56, patented in Match 1861 and fabricated in large numbers since 1862. Therefore, the capacity was reduced form nine to seven cartridges (btw: rim fire, not the modern center fire).

And in autumn 1861 he had a much bigger order over 10000 rifles.

The production of the shorter carbines started in 1863.

All that makes it rather impossible that any of the XP-riders rode en route with such a military Spencer-rifle or -carbine strapped on his saddle or on his back.

In my opinion, if Pony-Express-riders ever had long guns, then probably carbines with a breech-loading-system. And that would have probably been one of the Sharps models 1852 or 1853. Both of them have the nick "slanting breech."

They were just in time: Those Sharps models were made between 1852 and 1858. There were a lot of them: approximately 4500 M 1852 & 10,300 M 1853, which is more than 14,500 pieces.

They were on hand: In 1858, John Brown looted circa 100 pieces in Harper's Ferry. And in the West, Slanting Breech-Sharps were known as "Beecher's Bible": Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of novelist Harriet Beecher-Stowe (famous for "Uncle Tom's cabin" from 1853) received in 1854 the order to send bibles into "Bleeding Kansas". But the good Reverend was a little bit more grounded than his bosses and bought instead Slanting-Breech-Sharps-carbines for the abolitionists in Kansas. This was after the Kansas-Nebraska-act (has something to do with the Missouri-compromise from 1820 --- but I don't remind the details).

Perhaps the riders from Pony Express could have had the newest Sharps-carbine, the model 1859. This had a new designed breech, what was more vertical or straight. This model came out around 1859, maybe in 1860. But I don't believe that. The M 1859 went mostly to the fighting "Billy Yanks" of the Civil war.

For the Pony Express, I think it was one of the earlier Sharps-models. They were in large numbers in the west when Johnny Fry & Co. started.

Very important: The Sharps M 1852, M 1853, M 1859 (and later M 1863 + 1865) did not use metallic cartridges. They were made for paper cartridges, to ignite with a separate primer.

You wrote the Spencer was an unusual heavy gun that's not right. It was not heavier than other rifles of this time. You see: All those technicians and inventors tried to get a military order. That means big money. But therefore you have to get with the rules for military rifle.

Return to List