Lever-action rifles are uniquely American.
Though they have been used on every continent, lever-action rifles originated in the United States, and they are indelibly identified with America. For about 100 years, beginning in 1860, lever-action rifles were the overwhelming choice of American sportsmen. As a Vermont farm boy in the 1950s and 1960s, every hunter I knew (which is to say, every man I knew) had a lever-action rifle. My own first centerfire rifle was a Winchester Model 1894. That heritage as America’s rifle started with the 1860 Henry rifle.
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The 1860 Henry rifle transformed a New Haven, Connecticut, shirt-maker named Oliver Winchester into one of the world’s most successful firearms manufacturers. And the Henry laid the foundation for the lever action to become America’s rifle. But the lever action’s rise to preeminence wasn’t inevitable.
Birth Of The Henry
The gun that evolved into the Henry rifle started out as a lever-action handgun, the Volcanic lever-action repeating pistol of 1855. This gun was a refinement of Walter Hunt’s 1848 lever-action design. It used a unique type of fixed “Rocket Ball” ammunition, which consisted of a .41-caliber lead bullet that had a long, hollow-based skirt where the gunpowder was held. The powder charge was sealed into the bullet by a double layer of metal foil with a priming charge sandwiched between the two layers of foil.
This was a fairly robust type of ammunition that could be carried conveniently and could stand up to rough handling. But the powder charge was very light for the weight of the bullet that it had to push. Still, as a handgun round, it could have been a lot worse. The problem with the Volcanic pistol was that it was in competition with cap-and-ball revolvers, which were reaching their pinnacle of design. The revolvers were both more powerful and easier to operate.
It was a losing proposition for the Volcanic. All together, under a couple of different corporate identities, less than 4,000 Volcanic lever-action pistols and carbines were manufactured by Volcanic Arms. By 1857, the Volcanic company was insolvent. Oliver Winchester, who had been a significant Volcanic investor, acquired the company’s assets, and resurrected it as the New Haven Arms Company. Under the aegis of the New Haven Arms Company, Oliver Winchester continued to sell Volcanic pistols and Rocket Ball ammunition, but, at the same time, he set his new plant superintendent, Benjamin Tyler Henry, to the task of turning the Volcanic design into a viable repeating rifle firing metallic cartridges.
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In October 1860, Henry filed a patent for a lever-action rifle that fired a self-contained, rimfire, brass cartridge with a 216-grain lead bullet powered by a 26-grain charge of black powder. The 1860 Henry rifle was born. The toggle-link action that the Henry inherited from the Volcanic would be the heart of Winchester lever-action rifles until John Browning’s breakthrough 1886 Winchester design.
The 1860 Henry rifle had its faults, but it revolutionized rifle shooting in America. The Henry was only in production until 1866, with a total of 14,000 manufactured, but it set the stage for the Model 1866, which was in production for 32 years with 170,000 manufactured, and the iconic Winchester Model 1873, which remained in production until 1919 with a production total of over 720,000 rifles. When you add in the Model 1876 rifle, there were close to 1 million toggle-link-action Winchester rifles produced in the 19th century, making them America’s rifle. And it all started with the 1860 Henry.
An original Henry rifle will set you back anywhere from $20,000 to over $100,000, depending on the rarity of the variation. But even if you had money to burn, shooting your antique Model 1860 Henry would require finding rare .44 Henry rimfire ammunition. The last box I saw, the only one of its kind, was going for $2,500. Luckily, we have an alternative that doesn’t require shooting rare historical relics.
Uberti, the famous Italian gun manufacturer, makes an excellent reproduction of this classic rifle, and these replicas are chambered for .45 Colt or .44-40, either of which is certainly easier to find at the sporting goods store than .44 Henry rimfire ammunition.
The test gun from Uberti was the classic, brass-framed civilian model. Uberti also makes a reproduction of the much more rare iron-framed Henry rifle, though Uberti’s version has a frame made of modern steel rather than the forged iron frames of the original Henry rifles. My test gun had a blued, full-octagon, 24½-inch barrel, like the originals. Uberti also offers an 18½-inch-barreled Trapper model for those who want a more compact rifle.
The sights on the Uberti-made Henry are excellent. The front sight is a fixed, silver-colored blade that provides a highly visible aiming point in just about any lighting condition except total darkness. The rear sight has a generous-sized main blade with a V-shaped notch. I found the sights to be quick to acquire and easy to hit with. The rear sight also has a flip-up ladder for long-range work. It is calibrated out to an amazingly optimistic 900 yards. I know Gus made a shot like that in Lonesome Dove, but since I can’t even shoot a Sharps rifle accurately at 900 yards, I don’t think I’ll be attempting it with a Henry.
My test Henry had a brightly polished brass frame with a color-casehardened lever and hammer. The buttstock is typical of Uberti rifles. The walnut is covered in a heavy reddish-brown stain that gives you no clue as to the figure of the wood itself. I’ve stripped and refinished a number of Uberti rifles over the years. Most of them had wood that was as plain as a back door, but a couple of them turned out to have highly figured pieces of walnut hiding under that stain.
Henry rifles are instantly recognizable because they have no forend, a fact that the movie industry took advantage of. Prop houses would take the forends off of Winchester 1892s, turning them into “Hollywood Henries.” But the magazine on real Henry rifles is quite different. Almost every lever-action rifle made after the Henry has a separate tubular magazine, mounted under the barrel. On a Henry the barrel and the magazine are forged and machined from of a single piece of steel.
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The underside of a Henry magazine is slotted, allowing the spring-powered magazine follower to protrude below the body of the magazine. To load a Henry rifle, you pull the follower and compress its spring into the top section of the magazine. When the spring is fully compressed, you can swing the top of the magazine to the left, exposing the empty magazine tube. You load it by dropping bullets into the magazine base-first. Back when original Henry rifles took rimfire ammunition, you could just drop the rounds in, but since the reproduction rifles shoot centerfire ammo, you’ll want to load in a way that won’t result in a detonating primer. I hold the barrel at a shallow angle and slide the rounds in. My test gun holds 13 rounds of .44-40 ammunition in the magazine. When all the cartridges are loaded, you swing the top of the magazine back into line and carefully lower the follower.
The Henry’s unique magazine system leads to some interesting shooting idiosyncrasies. For instance, every time you fire and then lever a fresh round into the chamber, the follower advances one cartridge length down the magazine tube. Depending on where you hold the rifle, when you are down to the last three or four rounds in the magazine, the follower is going to be hitting your hand. That’s when you start executing what is known as the “Henry Shuffle,” as you move your hand around on the Henry’s barrel so the carrier can get by.
Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) competitors who shoot Henry rifles deal with this by making a “cheater stick.” The purpose of a cheater stick is to keep the magazine follower from hitting your hand. To make a cheater stick, all you need is a half-inch-diameter hardwood dowel that is 4¾ inches long. That will take up the same space as three cartridges in the magazine. You will need to put a small brass stud into the dowel about half an inch from the bottom face of the dowel. This stud needs to be short enough not to protrude past the slot in the magazine but long enough to catch on the front of the frame. Without that stud, your cheater stick would go all the way into the lifter block, tying up the action.
The other accessory that is de rigeur for Henry rifle shooters is a leather glove for your supporting hand. When you rip 10 rounds out of a Henry as fast as you can work the lever, your left hand is going to feel the heat. If you shoot blackpowder cartridges, the amount of heat goes up exponentially. Without a wooden forend, your hand is in direct contact with that sizzling hot barrel. So, wear a glove, and you’ll enjoy shooting your Henry a lot more.
Henry rifles are very cool-looking guns, but they can do more than look good. My test gun had a nice, crisp, 3.63-pound trigger pull, and it can put lead on target. I shot my test gun with Black Hills factory ammo as well as smokeless-powder and blackpowder handloads. The Henry shot everything into 1.5-inch-diameter groups at 25 yards, and 3.5- to 4-inch groups at 50 yards. I’m convinced that the rifle can do better, but my eyes are the
Because Henry rifles have a different feel and require different shooting techniques than other lever-action rifles, they make me feel more of a connection with the frontiersmen of the 1860s. If you are a history buff, it doesn’t get any better than this. For more information, visit uberti.com or call 800-264-4962.
Uberti 1860 Henry Specifications
• Caliber: .44-40
• Barrel: 24½ inches
• OA Length: 43.3 inches
• Weight: 9 pounds (empty)
• Stock: Walnut
• Sights: Front blade, ladder rear
• Action: Lever
• Finish: Blued, brass frame and buttplate, casehardened
• Capacity: 13+1
• MSRP: $1,429
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This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.