Over the years, in working with a dozen or so Henry lever guns myself and noting frequent mention of them on various internet gun forums, three impressions have risen to the top: They’re lookers, they’re heavy, and while people do occasionally gripe about the fact that John Wayne never carried one, you just don’t see a hell of a lot of people complaining about how well they shoot. Ever since the Henry Repeating Arms Company was founded back in the 1990s, some die-hard traditionalist lever-gunners have tended to sniff derisively at the fact that the Henry lever guns were designed in the “wrong ’90s,” and they just didn’t appeal to fans of the more classic designs. For some, the old way is the only way, and it ends right there.
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Having grown up when and where Winchester meant lever action and lever action meant Winchester (with a grudging acknowledgement that we’d heard something called a Marlin did exist, although it was never seen when I was a kid), I’ll admit that I was a little slow to entirely trust the new Henry rimfire lever guns when they first came out. Slicker than a snail trail and uniformly accurate, they had that radical hidden frame inside a genuine external pseudo-frame (actually just an action cover), and they dared to use something other than steel right out where you could see it! I worked with several; all held together, none blew up, and they were super-smooth and accurate guns.
When the centerfires came along, I shot my way through the Big Boy rifle line in handgun calibers, too, and found they had their own particular quirks—they were still heavy and kept that rimfire-style magazine tube loading setup. But they were still smooth, reliable and accurate guns. I wrote each up one as I found it, which progressively added to the chain of positive Henry experiences, while still holding back with a personal cautious “wait and see policy” as far as long-term durability went. I don’t mind “new,” but I tend to prefer at least a minimal track record before committing. After more than 15 years of experience with Henry rifles, though, I’m calling it. The wait’s over. They’re working, they’re holding up, they’re shooting and they’re hitting where they’re pointing. Traditionalists just need to get past the fact that John Browning and Oliver Winchester were not involved in any part of the proceedings and concentrate
on today’s performance instead of yesterday’s nostalgia. The company continues to expand its lineup with new model variations, which leads us to the brand-new Big Boy Carbine, first out of the gate in .357 Mag.
By 2001, the success of the Henry rimfire line was creating requests for a bigger-bore version firing the most popular centerfire calibers in use for Cowboy Action Shooting and general mid-level range and hunting chores. Company founders Lou and Anthony Imperato teamed up with two design engineers to produce a viable “solid-framed” platform that held to the familiar brass-colored look of the rimfires, wore a traditional lever gun profile and included enough strength to keep a lid on pressures up into .44 Mag territories.
The first concern, once the decision to go with a brass look in a solid frame was made, was finding the right material for that frame. Working with a metals specialist, a proprietary brass alloy was developed with the right yellow gleam on the outside coupled with a tensile and yield strength equal to a steel formulation on the inside. The eventual result, after working out minor details like the action design, the sights, the barrel, the wood and the magazine, was the Henry Big Boy, first shipping out in 2003. The Big Boy, one of a very few “modern” lever gun designs in recent years, met some resistance at first, but despite being a little shy on a 100 years of back history, the model’s been accepted by those who can see it for what it is—a 100-percent American-made lever action with all the classic lever gun components (external hammer, straight-wrist stock, iron sights, tube magazine, octagonal barrel) at high-quality levels with affordable pricing.
Today, besides a long list of rimfire and centerfire lever guns, Henry offers the standard Big Boy in .357 Mag, .44 Mag and .45 Colt, along with deluxe hand-engraved versions and special editions. Until now, all Big Boys carried 20-inch, octagonal barrels, and all were heavy guns—too heavy for some. Cards, letters, phone calls and emails have not been ignored, however, and with other ongoing plans at the factory for new variations in alternative frame materials and lighter barrel configurations, Henry has now built the first 16-inch-barreled rifle in its centerfire lineup—the Big Boy Carbine—which whittles some of that front-heavy balance down to more manageable levels.
My test sample was a prototype, and right out of the box, even if you’re not into Western bling (and I’m not, normally), you have to admit that this is one beautifully done little lever gun. The brass shines like gold, and the wood that Henry uses is certainly not bargain-basement lumber. The carbine, in .357 Mag as the first caliber offered, has the usual Henry brass frame, brass barrel band and brass carbine-style buttplate. And, as usual, the inletting is literally a cut above other entries in the current lever gun arena (both at higher and lower price-points), with no gaps between the wood and metal, and only a couple spots where the walnut stock rises a shade proud around the two frame tangs.
The carbine’s fitted with Marble sights; a big visible brass bead up front and a step-adjustable semi-buckhorn at the rear, with a vertical sliding notch plate for finer elevation adjustments. These are quick to pick up and, as one particular test load showed, are more than good enough for either target or hunting use out to at least 100 yards, which is getting close to the practical limitations of the caliber. The stock has very nicely figured grain under a satin oil finish.
Inside, the Henry design feeds from the aforementioned tube magazine, ejects out the right-side port and uses a sliding (and automatic) transfer bar situated inside the hammer face in lieu of either a manual safety or a half-cock notch. With this, the carbine can be carried all day long with a round chambered and the hammer down fully, ready for an instant thumb-cock when needed, with no safety worries at all.
And, about that magazine—it has the rimfire loading style common to the rest of the Big Boy family. That means you load it like a .22; turn the knurled head at the muzzle end to unlock it, trombone the inner tube out to clear the loading port about 4 inches back in the outer tube, tilt the muzzle up enough for rounds to slide down one at a time through the port and close the inner tube up again when you’ve got all eight rounds in. This is admittedly not a wildly popular loading method for many potential Henry buyers, but it does work, you can get used to it, and it totally eliminates any possibility of “Sore Loading Gate Thumb Syndrome.”
The two features that really define this carbine, though, are the 16.5-inch barrel and the oversized loop lever, both firsts in the Big Boy series that give it a very business-like profile and a nod to certain Hollywood icons that I don’t even need to mention. While it’s still no lightweight, it has a 3.5-pound trigger, a glove-sized lever, a usable 7+1 capacity, recoil that feels like a .22, good sights, compact dimensions, better mid-point balance and accuracy that can rival a scoped bolt-action rifle. In short, Henry has one very likable little lever gun in this model. The short barrel’s handy out of the truck and through the brush, and Henry’s loop lever is just big enough to be distinctive without slowing the hand down too much.
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At the range, the Henry Big Boy Carbine put three Hornady 140-grain FTX LeveRevolution rounds into an almost perfectly centered 0.63-inch group at 100 yards, just 1 inch below a 6 o’clock point of aim. If you find the right load, the gun can do you very proud. No feeding failures, smooth cycling mild ejection. This sure-shooting shorty’s ready for the road.
For more information on the Henry Big Boy Carbine, visit henryrifles.com or call 201-858-4400.