THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL LEVERGUN—THE .44 HENRY RIMFIRE

BY JOHN TAFFIN

Matthew Holden woke up screaming and sweating, his body racked by cold chills. This had happened to him often ever since the terrible time the Yanks called the Civil War, and which the Johnny Rebs referred to it as the War of Northern Aggression. Whatever one chose to call it, Matt knew it was the most tragic thing that had ever happened to our country causing the slaughter of thousands of good men on both sides. Young men, many of them just boys, men that would never grow up, men that would never have families, men that would never have accomplished who knows what, and now they were all dead. Matt simply could not get the horrible picture of war out of his mind, a vision made all the worse by the fact this war had split his family right down the middle. While he joined the Northern Army, his brother went south to join General Lee. His brother never made it back.

Matt could only think of two things that came out of the War. He himself had made it out alive, and when he mustered out he took with him is personal rifle, his Model 1860 Henry. Other soldiers often gambled away or drank up their pay, however Matt saved his to purchase his own 1860 Henry. Matt had always been a shooter and as such realized one of the best ways to survive was to forego a single shot muzzle loading cap-lock rifle supplied by the United States Army in favor of one of the new lever action rifles.

Matt felt totally lost after the war. He spent some time wandering around the West finding himself totally awed by the vastness of this new land while at the same time gaining appreciation and respect for the many Indian tribes in the area even though he often found himself having to fight to survive. He was one man who would not take part in the slaughter of the buffalo for two reasons. The indiscriminate killing of the shaggy beasts sickened him almost as much as the war, but more importantly he could see what the removal of the buffalo would do to the Plains Indians. He didn't want to hunt buffalo, he didn't see any future in following a dusty trail behind a bunch of stubborn cattle, and he certainly didn't want to mine for gold. That left him with one choice in his mind. He knew the West well, the Army needed scouts, and perhaps in that position he could help save lives.      

            Matt still had his 1860 Henry, which went in his saddle scabbard instead of one of the issue single-shot Trapdoors as the troopers called them. Those Trapdoors were so much more powerful than his levergun with its .44 Rimfire ammunition, and it was certainly more expensive to purchase his own rifle loads instead of using the issue .45-70s, however he realized that old Henry rifle had saved his life many times and he certainly wasn't about to go against that. That Henry would be his companion as long as he lived.

It was one of those calls no one likes to receive. My friend, Detective Glenn of the local sheriff’s department wanted me to go along to see a retired deputy who was dying of cancer. The purpose of the visit was to look at an antique firearm and make arrangements for his widow to get the best possible price. That firearm turned out to be a rifle, not just any rifle, but an 1860 Henry which had been in the family forever and in fact had spent the last 50 years in a barn in Minnesota being used as a pest rifle. Somehow it had survived all those years without rusting. That was the first Henry I had ever actually had my hands on and I was very impressed with the workmanship and especially the condition after nearly 150 years. The bad news is the owner died shortly thereafter, however the good news is we were able to find a place to sell that Henry and receive a very good price for his widow. It is one of those things that happen in life that makes one feel very good to have been part of.

            Just this past month I was privileged to see not one but two factory engraved 1860 Henry rifles. One, at the local gunshop, was in such nice shape I thought it was a replica. The value placed on it was $55,000! The other Henry was not quite as pristine and has a known history. In the early years of the Civil War a family in Tennessee had three boys all of which eventually joined the Northern Army. The first boy marched off with one of the early iron-framed examples his family was able to purchase for him. Several months later when the second boy came of age the family was able to purchase a factory engraved Henry and this is the rifle seen in the pictures. Henry rifles sold for $40 and it cost a whopping $10 for factory engraving.

            The 1860 Henry was the first truly successful cartridge firing lever action rifle; it had been preceded by the Hunt, the Jennings, and the Volcanic, however it was the Henry that really worked. The Volcanic used a hollow based bullet which held the powder charge and the primer. It was not only anemic but with no cartridge to seal the chamber gases could come back at the shooter. The Volcanic came from a factory owned by three very familiar names, Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, and Oliver Winchester. Smith & Wesson followed a different path and proceeded to produce revolvers while Winchester took the idea of the Volcanic and turned it over to his shop foreman, one B.Tyler Henry.

            When one hears the words "firearms design genius” the names immediately coming to mind are Sam Colt, John Browning, and Bill Ruger. All three of these men produced many workable firearms and deserve the genius label; so does B. Tyler Henry. Sam Colt gave us the first truly workable revolver; John Browning had many patents on lever action rifles, shotguns, machine guns, and semi automatic pistols; and Bill Ruger brought new manufacturing methods to the firearms industry as well as providing an inexpensive .22 semi-automatic pistol and resurrecting the single action revolver. Henry does not have such a long list but he did produce the first truly workable lever action rifle and paved the way for all those leverguns following afterwards.

            When the Civil War broke out the troops on both sides were equipped with single-shot muzzle-loading rifles, the same basic design which had been used for over 100 years. By the 1860s rifle barrels were actually rifled and the flintlock had given way to the percussion cap, however rifles were still operated the same way, the same slow way, with powder down the barrel, followed by a patched ball rammed home by a rod, and then the percussion cap placed on the nipple. Nothing really changed until the Henry rifle appeared on the scene.

            Henry received a patent in 1860 for his rifle firing the first truly successful cartridge consisting of a copper case holding both powder and bullet with the ignition also contained in the rimfire case.  The 44 Henry round used a bullet that was originally 216 grains in weight over 26 grains of black powder.  The weight of the bullet was soon reduced to 200 grains over the same powder charge for about 1,200 fps.  The bullet was lubricated to help reduce fouling and with its tubular magazine, the 1860 Henry had so much firepower it was advertised that "A resolute man, with was one of these rifles, particularly if on horseback, cannot be captured."

            The 1860 Henry was operated with a lever under the receiver and a tubular magazine which loaded from the front.  A brass follower in the magazine tube was pushed forward until it released the catch allowing the end of the barrel to swing to the right, exposing the end of the magazine and allowing cartridges to be dropped down the tube.  After the magazine was filled with 15 rounds, the follower was allowed to settle on the nose of the last bullet loaded, and the end of the barrel swung back into place and locked. There is no doubt the muzzle loading rifles had superior range and power; but I can't imagine any soldier not preferring the 16 round capacity of the Henry. Sixteen rounds which could be fired faster than a muzzle loading rifle could be reloaded.

            The original .44 Henry round was a rimfire with a grease wad between bullet and powder; this was soon changed to an internal lubed bullet, which allowed the cartridge case to be crimped which of course provided cleaner burning of the powder charge. Even though only about 13,000 Henry rifles were produced they must have been very popular as the ammunition factory was turning out 20,000 rounds per day by the end of the war and ammunition was still produced until the mid 1930s.

            One might think the U.S. government would have done everything possible to procure the new Henry rifle for the Northern troops. Instead less than 2,000 were actually purchased by the government and most soldiers who had them had to buy their own rifle. Apparently the powers to be were afraid of the troops wasting ammunition. Since that time waste has almost become synonymous with government.

            The first 400 or so Henry rifles produced had iron receivers, however the change was soon made to brass which was much easier to work with. Unbelievable claims were made of the Henry, probably originally by Oliver Winchester, as to its effective range with even the figure 1,000 yards being advanced. A 200 grain bullet traveling at 1,200 fps at the muzzle could hardly be considered effective at such a distance. However at reasonable ranges, the 1860 Henry was a formidable fighting weapon; in fact it soon became known as "that damned Yankee rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week". As good as it was the 1860 Henry could be improved and the stage was set for the first rifle to bear the Winchester name. 

The 1860 Henry had one major competitor, the Spencer rifle. The latter used a .56 caliber rimfire round. A .56 Spencer was much more powerful than the .44 Rimfire of the 1860 Henry, however the Spencer rifle had less than half the capacity of the 1860 Henry. The Spencer was also not a true lever action rifle but rather a "repeating single-shot”; that is a lever worked the action ejecting the fired case and feeding a new cartridge into the chamber, however the hammer had to be cocked manually before the Spencer could be fired. When the lever of the 1860 Henry was worked it ejected the fired case, chambered a new round, and also cocked the hammer making it immediately ready to fire. Christopher Spencer patented his rifle the same year as the 1860 Henry and it was also used in the Civil War. After the war ended Spencer sales plummeted and Oliver Winchester bought the company thus handily removing any possible competition. 

            The 1860 Henry was produced by the New Haven Arms Company which succeeded the Volcanic Arms Company. In 1865 the company became known as the Henry Repeating Rifle Company and then was changed one year later to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and moved from New Haven to Bridgeport Connecticut. The Henry was manufactured only from 1860 to 1866 and was then improved with Nelson King's patent. King followed B. Tyler Henry as Oliver Winchester's shop foreman. Winchester was originally a manufacturer of men's clothing, however it is obvious he knew how to pick qualified men. B.Tyler Henry designed the first successful levergun, while Nelson King set the pattern for all future lever action rifles. In all probability, Winchester chose King as foreman to be able to use the patent. King's patent provided for the use of a loading gate on the 1860 Henry. Now instead of loading the rifle from the front dropping cartridges down the magazine to as we still do with many .22 rifles, cartridges could be inserted through a gate on the right side in the receiver one at a time. This improvement allowed one to keep the rifle pointed in the direction of danger while reloading. It was much quicker to load a few cartridges at a time with this method instead of removing the rifle from action while reloading using the front loading tube of the Henry.

            The new improved rifle became known as the 1866 Winchester and with its introduction production of the 1860 Henry ceased. Since the 1866 Winchester did not require a follower feeding cartridges down the tube towards the action it could be fitted with a forearm. The 1860 Henry had posed two problems for shooters when being fired. First if one was not paying attention the follower would hit the offhand and stop feeding cartridges into the action, and secondly without a forearm the hand would not be protected against a hot barrel. With black powder cartridges it does not take too many rounds for the barrel to really heat up and make it uncomfortable to hold.

The 1866 Winchester soon became known as the Yellow Boy as it maintained the same brass receiver as its predecessor and also fired the same round, the .44 Henry a.k.a. the .44 Rimfire. The 1866 was offered in both a 24” rifle and 20” carbine weighing 9 1/2 and 7 3/4 pounds respectively with a capacity of 17 rounds and 13 rounds also respectively. Unlike the 1860 the Winchester factory offered several options for the 1866 including various barrel lengths, fancy wood, gold plating, factory engraving, octagon or round barrels or a combination thereof, and even the barrel browned instead of blued.

Shooters could also choose standard fixed sights, adjustable rear sights, and tang sights. Remember the Henry originally sold for $40? By 1884 the standard 1866 was priced at $20 and than by 1895 could be found for just under $13.  Even though the Model 1866 Winchester was eventually followed by the Winchester Models of 1873, 1876, 1886, 1892, 1894, and 1895, it would last almost to the 20th century being removed from production in 1898. Throughout its lifespan it was chambered only in .44 Rimfire, however some rifles were converted to centerfire after leaving the factory. The 1860 Henry and the 1866 Yellow Boy were both tremendous rifles, however it would not be long until they would be overshadowed by “The Gun Than Won The West.”

2-1) In 1866 the Henry Rifle was improved with the addition of a loading gate

and a forearm to become the cap Winchester Model 1866 a.k.a. the Yellow Boy.

Picture courtesy of Jim Supica’s Old Town Station Ltd.

 

 

2-2) The Henry Rifle was the rifle to “Load on Sunday and shoot all week."

 

 

2-3) This factory engraved 1860 Henry saw service in the Civil War carried by one of three brothers.

 Photo courtesy of Bill Agler.

 

 

2-4) This type of factory engraving on an 1860 Henry cost $10 in the 1860s.

Photo courtesy of Bill Agler.

 

2-5) Note the quality of the $10 engraving on this 1860 Henry and also the brass follower which

is at its far rearward movement.

Photo courtesy of BillAgler.

 

 

2-6) No wonder Jason Hopper of Boise Gun Company is smiling! That is not a replica but an original

1866 Yellow Boy in superb condition and valued at $55,000.

Photo courtesy on Steve Rodoletz.

 

2-7 and 2-8) Right and left side close-ups of the beautiful engraving on the Model 1866 Winchester.

Photo courtesy of Steve Rodoletz.

 

 

2-9 and 2-10) Even the bottom and top of the receiver of the 1866 Winchester

held by Jason Hopper is also profusely engraved.

Photo courtesy of Steve Rodoletz

 

 

2-11) Thanks to replicas we can now shoot both the 1860 Henry and 1866 Winchester,

however they are chambered in .44-40 instead of the original .44 Henry Rimfire.

 

 

2-12) The differences are readily apparent looking at these 1860 and 1866 replicas;

the 1866 has a loading gate and a forearm, the 1860 does not.

 

 

2-13) The unlatching of the lever at the end of the barrel of the 1860 allowed

it to be rotated for loading the magazine tube.

Chapter 1         Chapter 3