The Henry Repeating Arms Company, located in both Bayonne, New Jersey, and Rice Lake, Wisconsin, is one of the great American manufacturing success stories. Under the leadership of Anthony Imperato, the company has adapted to modern times with state-of-the-art, 100-percent American manufacture and is now the leader in American-made lever-action rifles. The company’s current inventory includes Western-style rimfire rifles in both lever-action and gallery-style pump versions, an updated AR-7 semi-automatic survival rifle and several lever-action centerfire rifles. The centerfire lever gun lineup includes the focus of this piece, the Henry Big Boy .44 Mag.
The Big Boy .44 Mag rifle is a striking piece of the gun-maker’s art. The first thing one notices about it is the bright brass frame, which recalls the original .44 Rimfire Civil War lever action. In fact, for the first time in 150 years, the original Henry rifle can be had in its American-made form from Henry Repeating Arms. While the Big Boy bears the styling cues of its famous ancestor, it is clearly a much different and more advanced arm.
The Big Boy .44, as well as its stablemates in .357 Mag and .45 Colt, is not a reproduction rifle. Reproductions copy with great exactness existing and often out-of-production firearms designs. The Big Boy is a “retro” firearm.
Retro firearms contain features and styling of other older designs, maybe multiple designs, and incorporate them into a modern piece with modern features and manufacturing methods that strongly recall the original. Think of the highly successful retro Ford Mustang or Dodge Challenger automobiles. The Big Boy .44 is much like those in terms of retro concept. They appear much like the originals on the outside, even in much of the interior, but underneath are full of modern improvements. And, they can be driven anywhere at anytime—they aren’t reserved for shows or parades.
While the Big Boy is a retro gun, it is close enough in original design and spirit to be permissible for use in Cowboy Action Shooting. This says something for the attention to detail lavished upon the Big Boy .44 that keeps the Old West spirit alive in it. It is nothing like the “space age,” internal-hammer “lever actions” once offered by Ruger and Winchester that are no longer in production.
So, what is it about the Big Boy .44 that keeps it Cowboy Action authentic and harkens back to the original Henry and other period designs? First is the aforementioned brass frame, the defining feature of the original Henry and the 1866 Winchester “Yellow Boy.” Besides giving the Big Boy a distinctive and unique look, the use of brass for the frame eliminates corrosion for that part. Sure, it will need to be polished eventually, but no rust will attack it. Don’t worry about strength, either. The brass used by Henry Repeating Arms is plenty strong enough to handle the .44 Mag and like cartridges, since the chamber itself is made of steel. The same bright brass used for the frame is also used for the barrel band and buttplate.
The second feature that keeps the Big Boy “Old West” is the heavy octagonal barrel, which was once a very popular style on period lever guns. It is elegant, and makes the Big Boy .44 look more authentic than the modern round-barrel lever guns currently available. The heavy barrel in part accounts for the overall weight of the gun—8.68 pounds—which turns even hot .44 Mag rounds into soft-shooting pussycats.
Third, the lever itself, as well as the other main action components, including the hammer, are blued steel and of the traditional style. Most Henry lever guns are available with a Hollywood-style “Rifleman” large lever loop, which may be of value in Cowboy Action matches or when wearing gloves. While I prefer the traditional lever style, this is one of the benefits of a retro gun—it doesn’t have to be a historically period-correct piece. It is designed to be used and enjoyed.
Fourth, Henry uses nothing but American walnut for the stocks—no “hardwood” or synthetic stocks are available. The butt of the stock is curved and, as mentioned earlier, covered with a brass buttplate. While a curved butt is not known for comfort on heavy-recoiling calibers, it is not an issue with the .44 Mag. The forend is wider than traditional “splinter” forends and allows for a more comfortable purchase at the front end.
The last Old West characteristic of the Big Boy .44 is also a characteristic of a retro gun—the lack of a manually operated safety button or lever. But on the retro side of things there is also no “half-cock” safety notch for the exposed hammer. Henry uses a patented transfer bar mechanism on the Big Boy that eliminates the half-cock notch and makes for a very safe rifle without a manual safety. This keeps the overall look very traditional and makes the gun quick to operate.
The main retro feature of the Big Boy .44 is the loading system, which is based on the tubular magazine loading system found on .22 rimfire rifles, including Henry .22s. This time-proven system works just as well on centerfire Henry rifles as it has for a century or more on .22 rimfires. To load the Henry Big Boy (and all their other centerfire arms with the exception of the Original model), push down slightly and turn the knurled magazine tube knob to the left, and withdraw the brass tube either past the loading port or all the way out. Insert up to 10 rounds of .44 Mag ammunition base first and let the rounds slide down the tube. When you have inserted all of the rounds you intend to shoot, reinsert the tube into the magazine and gently allow the spring to compress as you close it. Then turn the knob to lock the tube back into place. While this system may not be as fast as loading from a loading gate, note that the loading gate system is not fast either, and if you don’t insert the cartridges in a loading gate system just right, they will hang up and require a bit of fiddling to complete the process. The Henry also unloads more smoothly than gate-loading guns. Simply pull the tube forward or out and let the cartridges slide forward, out of the loading port. There’s no need to cycle the action. Clearly, I prefer the Henry tubular magazine system.
I found three loads to test in the Henry at the range. It must first be said that the tubular bolt of the Big Boy action, which glides in the brass frame, is incredibly smooth—the two dissimilar metals produce less friction than the steel-on-steel construction of other competing brands. There is no smoother-operating lever action that I have tried than that of the Henry—in rimfire or centerfire versions. It has to be tried to be appreciated!
The loads were the Blazer .44 Mag, aluminum-case 240-grain JHP, the Blazer .44 Special, aluminum-case 200-grain Gold Dot JHP and the Winchester .44 Special 240-grain, lead flat point (LFP) Cowboy Action load. Interestingly enough, Henry does not recommend aluminum-case ammunition in its rifles (no explanation as to why is given in the manual), but I had no choice but to try the Blazer rounds because that was the only .44 Magnum ammo available, and one of only two .44 Special loads that I could find. I worked slowly with the ammo at first. The .44 Mag Blazer worked just fine, smoothly cycling through the action. Moving onto the Winchester Cowboy Action loads presented a problem, and the problem is with the Winchester .44 Special ammo, and not the Henry Rifle. For some reason the 240-grain LFP bullets are much shorter than the standard 246-grain, round-nose, lead bullets that used to be the standard for the .44 Special round since its inception. The overall length of the Cowboy Action rounds threw off the timing of the magazine feed cycle, causing those .44 Special rounds to jam in the magazine tube and not feed up the elevator. In checking with Henry, the company was not aware of this issue and had not tried the Winchester loads in the .44 Big Boy. This is a shame, since the Big Boy .44 is a Cowboy Action-certified rifle. If you are planning on shooting .44 Specials, make sure you check (as the Henry manual advises) to make sure the rounds you are planning on using cycle through the gun.
The .44 Special Blazer GDHP rounds, even though their bullet weight is 40 grains lighter than the Winchester rounds, cycled flawlessly despite their aluminum cases. I wouldn’t hesitate to keep the Henry stoked with either of these loads. As a side note, I have used aluminum-case Blazer ammo ever since it was created for law enforcement training or personal use and have never had a problem with them. I can’t directly tell you to use them yourself and am officially advising you to use brass-case ammunition if it is a choice between the two since the Henry manual advises against it.
Shooting the Henry was a blast, even with the magnum loads. The brass bead front sight and adjustable rear sight were easy to pick up even at my age, and were perfectly zeroed from the box. Recoil, especially with the .44 Special rounds, was insignificant. I should mention that the Big Boy .44 is capable of having a scope mounted on it, but I wouldn’t do it. In my humble opinion, a scope would detract from the classic retro beauty of this piece. Besides, the .44 Mag, though quite a powerhouse, isn’t a 300-yard rifle cartridge. Those irons should be able to handle any situation within the capability of the .44 Mag/Special rounds with aplomb. Were I a deer hunter, I wouldn’t hesitate to take this rifle into the woods, despite the brass receiver. In Ohio, this is now a possibility, as the statehouse passed a new law finally allowing the use of rifles for deer hunting as long as they are chambered for a straight-walled cartridge like the .44 Mag. If I were a Cowboy Action aficionado, I would favor the Big Boy for competitive use due to its slick and reliable action, and remember that the .357 Mag Big Boy is also an option.
The Henry Big Boy .44 is a great rifle—period. It harkens back to the Old West and the original .44 Henry, yet it features modern improvements that really are improvements. It can be used to defend hearth and home with its 10-round capacity and the big .44 caliber slugs it throws downrange. If I lived in an area of deep woods where large, unpredictable animals capable of eating or stomping me roam, this rifle, not a puny 5.56mm AR, is the gun I would keep at hand. It would also be capable of dealing with the two-legged predators as well. If fact, the shiny brass frame and large bore would surely get the attention of the two-legged variety in short order. With a bit of practice, one can rapidly sling serious lead downrange—and maintain a big smile the entire time while your imagination and your Henry take you back to the cowboy days of old. For more information, visit henryrifles.com or call 201-858-4400. ✪
Specifications: Henry Big Boy .44 Mag
Caliber: .44 Mag • Barrel: 20 inches
OA Length: 38½ inches • Weight: 8.68 pounds • Stock: American walnut
Sights: Bead front, semi-buckhorn rear • Action: Lever
Finish: Blued/brass • Capacity: 10+1 • MSRP: $899.95
This article originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.