A Steam-Powered Bike Killed the Designer of the World’s First Successful Pump Shotgun
One half of a pioneering gun-making duo met an ignominous end
The Spencer-Roper pump-action shotgun, while not the first shotgun to use a slide action, was the first mass-produced gun of the type.
The shotgun was designed by Sylvester Roper and Christopher Spencer. The latter perhaps was best known for his repeating rifle that was popular during the American Civil War. In 1866, Roper had patented a revolving shotgun. And in 1889 he would develop a second pump-action design.
Spencer lived a long life. Roper died in his 70s, the victim of a strange bicycle accident.
In April 1882, Spencer and Roper were received a patent for their design and subsequently established the Spencer Arms Company in Amherst, Massachusetts. They based the Spencer Model 1882 on their pump-action designs. Chambered in 10 and 12 gauge, with the latter being the most popular, the 1882 had a tubular magazine below the barrel that held five black-powder shells.
The Spencer-Roper had a complex action. When the shooter cycled the pump, the gun’s breech block dropped below the receiver, allowing the next shell to enter the action while, almost simultaneously, the spent shell ejected out the top of the gun.
What appears to be another trigger facing backwards inside the trigger guard was in fact a slide unlock latch. The early shotguns had small pump handles and deeply swept stocks. Later models had larger pump handles.
Above — a Spencer Model 1882. Source
The Model 1882 was somewhat successful, but the Spencer Company still went bankrupt in 1889. In 1890 Francis Bannerman VI, an entrepreneur specializing in junk and scrap and later surplus, purchased the Spencer Arms Company and the rights to the company’s patents.
Bannerman continued producing the shotgun as the Bannerman Model 1890. Then in 1893, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company introduced a new pump shotgun — the John Browning-designed Model 1893.
In response, in October 1894 Bannerman filed a lawsuit against the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, claiming that the slide-pump actions in the Winchester Model 1890 and Model 1893 shotguns infringed on the Spencer and Roper patents that he owned.
Bannerman lost the suit in June 1897 and Winchester began production of the legendary Model 1897. Bannerman continued producing and improving his shotgun with the 1894 and 1896 models. The Model 1900 was his last. Its production ended in the early 1900s.
Roper, a pioneer of early automobiles, died in 1896 at the age of 72 while riding a steam-powered bicycle. Spencer died in 1922 at the age of 88. The Spencer and Roper shotgun is largely forgotten today, but it remains an important historical footnote as the first commercially successful pump-action shotgun.