Stop what you’re doing, lean back, close your eyes and picture 10 of your all-time favorite Western movie and TV heroes. Got ’em? OK, now picture them with guns in their hands. Chances are, if you’re anything like me, there’ll be a mix of two guns: the Colt Peacemaker and a Winchester rifle. The Colts were an absolute requirement—you couldn’t hardly have a Western hero worth watching without one, since we all know the Old West couldn’t possibly have been the Old West without Sam Colt’s foundation to build it on. But, the Winchester was always there, too, in one model or another, and in some cases like The Rifleman on the little screen and Winchester 73 on the big one, it was even the star of the show. Winchesters, then and now, were ingrained so deeply into our firearms psyche that the uniquely American design is linked forever with “cowboy,” and to this day it remains an excellent choice as a working rifle in several models and calibers, old or new.
This didn’t all spring from one fertile mind, like the Colt dynasty; four names were actually responsible for the success of the lever gun as we know it today. Two were a pair of partners named Smith and Wesson, who promoted (unsuccessfully) the idea of a lever-operated gun that fired “pre-loaded” projectiles in their early efforts with the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company.
Another was a then-unknown clothing manufacturer named Oliver Winchester, looking for a good investment opportunity, and arguably the most important to historians and aficionados of the classic repeating lever gun, Benjamin Tyler Henry. Without Henry’s engineering abilities, which helped Winchester transition the failing Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, acquired in 1850, into a successful company that became synonymous with “repeating rifle” throughout the expanding West within the space of roughly 25 years, the name Winchester would quite likely mean nothing whatsoever in modern times. Henry, with his metallic-cased, self-contained .44 Rimfire cartridges and the rifle bearing his name (with its astounding magazine capacity), was the spark of genius that created the Winchester brand, and he managed to succeed with the lever-action concept where even Smith & Wesson couldn’t.
The Henry lever gun was built from 1860 to 1866, when it was replaced by a product-improved Model 1866, this time under the new Winchester name. The rimfire Henry was manufactured in both iron- and brass-framed versions, in an overall configuration familiar to most lever-gunners today: a long under-barrel tube magazine, a top-ejecting action with an external hammer, a half-cock “safety” position with the hammer resting off the firing pin for carry, and a pivoting lever-operated system to cycle the reciprocating bolt back and forth to cock the hammer, feed a round from the magazine, chamber it, extract and eject the empty, and repeat the process as indicated. When single-shot muzzleloaders reigned in 1860, the quick-firing Henry was a huge innovation, and limited numbers used in battle by Union forces during the Civil War earned it the famous title of “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week!” from Confederate soldiers still fighting with more traditional (and much slower) muskets and rifles.
Besides the obvious advantages of a rifle that could be fired up to 16 times without reloading in repelling a charge or in mounting one, the ability to load the gun without having to completely stand up and expose his torso to enemy fire while pouring powder down the bore under a ball or Minie bullet was another understandably significant selling point for the soldier fortunate enough to get his hands on one. The primary reason the Henry wasn’t adopted more widely was the stone wall erected by military higher-ups who maintained their position that repeaters would cause a large waste of ammunition by soldiers placing more emphasis on firepower than accuracy, well into the 1890s.
The Henry was a true groundbreaker in many ways, but it did have its weaknesses. The original rimfire round it fired, with a 216-grain bullet in front of 25 grains of black powder, was relatively anemic in terms of range when compared to what a standard long-barreled infantry rifle could do in the hands of a good rifleman shooting a much heavier bullet much farther, with more impact energy and penetration. The tube magazine that gave the Henry one of its greatest advantages was also one of its greatest liabilities. Not enclosed as it was on later Winchesters and other makes, it was fabricated with two circular “walls” along the barrel’s underside that curved around the cartridge cases, leaving a full-length open raceway for the follower’s brass thumb tab to travel in.
Before the frame’s side-loading gate was developed by Nelson King for the later 1866 Winchester, the Henry was loaded from the front by running the magazine follower fully forward, compressing the spring, until the follower cleared the rotating external sleeve section joint at the muzzle end of the barrel. Once the spring and follower were forward of that section, the sleeve containing the compressed spring and follower was rotated to the left to clear the open front of the magazine tube, and the rifle was loaded by inserting rounds base-first down the tube and letting them slide toward the receiver, after which the sleeve was rotated carefully around to align its flats with the barrel flats again, and to let the follower and spring extend back into the tube to place feeding tension against the in-line rounds. This system worked, but the open follower raceway left the magazine vulnerable to debris getting in and impeding feeding, and on the battlefield there was always plenty of debris, in the form of mud, leaves, grass, twigs and so on, to gum things up. As followers do, that one also moved rearward with each round cycled, and if its owner didn’t remember to cup his support hand around the rear of the barrel in front of the frame enough to let the external follower tab work its way through that hand, it’d jam against the hand when it reached it, causing a feeding interruption which Murphy’s Law would dictate happening at just the wrong time. And, since there was no practical way to attach a split wooden forend as a heat guard because of that follower tab, multiple shots through the Henry in battle left its entire front section too hot to hold with a bare hand, and required a glove or some other field-expedient skin wrap for sustained action. The open-topped frame was another weakness, letting all sorts of gunk into the action itself.
Despite these faults, the Henry was one of the best things going at the time, and roughly 14,000 were built before the gun was superseded by the side-loading, enclosed-magazine Model 1866. As a milestone design, it’s been available as an import for many years, but because of its relatively limited market in favor of the more advanced Winchester designs and the higher costs involved in manufacturing its complicated barrel, the 1860 Henry has never been reproduced on our shores. Until now, that is.
Henry Repeating Arms, founded by Lou Imperato and son Anthony in 1993, has made lever-action models in calibers from .17 to .45-70 for several years, with most deliberately bearing an external resemblance to the profile of the classic 1860 Henry while using totally different internals. I’ve worked with several and my preference, the “brass” models, are handsome, very slick-actioned, accurate, reliable and worth their price tags in any of the calibers offered. After Lou passed in 2007, Anthony has continued on with the original vision of providing quality products 100 percent made here in the U.S., and in response to consumer demand and what he calls “the challenge of making it,” his company has now introduced the first actual 1860 Henry built on these shores in nearly a century and a half. It’s called the Original Henry.
The new Henry is beautifully done, and with a suggested retail price of $2,300, it has to be. Weighing in at 9 pounds, from the nicely figured oil-finished American walnut stock through the gleaming brass frame to the deep bluing on the barrel, there’s no question that this rifle was taken very seriously by the people who built it. The wood-to-metal fit is well done, the inletting leaves no gaps, the side plates are precisely fitted and polished to the frame, the frame flats are not rippled, the screw holes are not dished, and there’s very little wobble to the lever from side to side. The crescent brass buttplate, complete with a trapdoor for a cleaning kit, contributes to the rifle’s classic lines, and it’s well fitted to the stock.
Purists like me will be happy to see that Henry’s designers fortunately resisted the impulse to monkey-up the action by incorporating modern safety features like crossbolt or tang safeties and un-wanted rebounding hammers; aside from the frame being stretched slightly to allow longer, modern centerfire ammunition to fit the action, this Henry runs just like B.T. Henry’s brainchild did the day the first one left the factory so long ago. The “safety” here lies between your ears; use the half-cock feature for carry with a loaded chamber to keep the hammer from resting on the firing pin, and don’t drop the gun. Pretty simple, overall, as generations of lever-gunners have lived quite well with. When you’re ready to fire, just fully cock the hammer as the gun comes up on the shoulder. Otherwise, if you’ve lined up on a target and decided not to fire after all, point the muzzle in a safe direction, pull the trigger while carefully maintaining control of the hammer with your thumb, and lower it to the half-cock position. Unload the rifle by reversing the loading process up front, then cycling the action to empty the chamber. The Henry is actually fractionally safer to unload, since you don’t have to cycle a full magazine through the action like other designs to get there.
The .44-40 caliber was chosen for the 1860’s resurrection because nobody makes the old .44 Henry Rimfire round, nobody will and few could afford it if anybody did. While the intended market for the new gun is collectors, it’s also directed at re-enactors and Cowboy Action Shooters, and I’m sure this Original Henry will be approved by the SASS shortly. An historical round itself, the .44-40 is easily reloadable and is bottlenecked to seal well in the action.
The sights are authentic, with a longitudinally dovetailed, nickel-plated steel blade up front and a rear ladder graduated out to 800 yards when swiveled up for long-range shooting. The rear sight is dovetailed for windage adjustments, and the sight picture with the ladder either up or down is equally usable at reasonable distances. The regular notch is a square-bottomed “U,” the long-range slider’s notch is a round-bottomed “U,” and both are flat-topped. True to the Henry of old, the Original features a brass cartridge elevator, visible through the rifle’s large, open, rectangular ejection port in the top of the frame. The first Henry 1860 and its successors, which used essentially the same internal design through the Winchester Models 1866 and 1873, have always been known for their smooth actions, and the new 1860 merges both traditions into another slick-handling package here.
Okay, the question of what prices this Henry so far above a comparable Italian-made 1860 has been lurking, so let’s address it. The answer is in how it’s made. The complicated button-rifled barrel, with its 1-in-36-inch twist rate, is a good part of the picture. It starts out as a one-piece extrusion (barrel and magazine tube) of 4140 ordnance steel at a specialty shop in Massachusetts, goes to a specialty drilling facility in Tennessee, then on to a specialty machining company in Pennsylvania, and eventually ends up at the Henry plant in New Jersey for final machining, chambering, crowning, polishing and bluing. Notice how that “specialty” word keeps cropping up? The frame, a proprietary alloy formula that the company calls “hardened brass,” is cast in Ohio, machined in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and finally fitted and polished in the New Jersey plant. That brass, incidentally, has the same tensile strength as steel according to Anthony Imperato, and if you’re concerned about its longevity or overall strength with hotter .44-40 loads, he also says the rifle’s perfectly safe with any .44-40 load that meets SAAMI specifications, and that you can “rest assured this gun will withstand lifetimes of extensive shooting.”
The high level of polish on the brass frame, follower tab and buttplate is another area that demands more effort, which also contributes to the cost. The semi-fancy-grade walnut for the stock comes from Missouri and Iowa. And, a final factor is that this is all done in America, under American labor rates that can’t compete with Italian counterparts in that area.
Firing three different commercial loads off a rest at 50 yards, the new 1860 showed that it was accurate and dependable, as long as the shooter pays attention to its quirks. Watch what you’re doing in running the follower and spring fully into the sleeve to rotate it out of the way. Do not load the rifle by dropping rounds down the tube with the barrel straight up. Instead, angle the barrel enough to let them slide down at a gentle slope to reduce any possibility of detonating a primer on a bullet nose, use only flat-nosed bullets (for the same reason), and don’t let the follower snap back down into the tube (loaded or empty) after rotating the barrel sleeve back into line. One other departure from the original 1860 is the orange follower insert, included for visibility and to resist bullet-nose deformation, but letting it snap down out of control can damage the follower itself.
Surprisingly, the single and supposedly mild “cowboy” lead load from Black Hills Ammunition chronographed hotter than the two Winchester and Remington jacketed hunting loads, and not surprisingly, recoil in the heavy lever gun felt comparable to a light .22 Long Rifle. The trigger broke just beyond my 8-pound scale limit, with minor creep that should smooth up with use, and the only other mild issue was the ladder sight’s detents, which were too weak to hold the ladder firmly upright. In an early production gun, this isn’t a deal-killer, and it was passed on to the company for attention on subsequent guns. Henry, by the way, has one of the best customer service reputations in the industry, if ever needed.
So, yes, it’s expensive. But for those looking for an American-made version of the gun that eventually made Winchester a household name, you’ll get what you pay for, and what you pay for here is a very well-made beauty you can own and shoot with pride.
For more information, call 201-858-4400 or visit http://www.henryrepeating.com.