Winchester Lever Action Development: 1860 Henry

The Henry Repeating Rifle was a truly revolutionary development in firearms technology. It was not the first repeating rifle, but it was the best of a emerging class of new arms, reliable in function and very fast to shoot (much faster than the contemporary Spencers). The Henry used a simple toggle lock locking system, with a single throw of its lever performing all the elements necessary to reload and recock the action.

The Henry’s quick action was coupled with a 15-round magazine, more than double what the Spencer offered. It fired the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, which threw a 216 grain bullet at about 1125 feet per second (this would change to 200 grains at 1200 fps within a few years). This was substantially less powerful than a heavy muzzleloader charge, but the volume of fire more than made up for it. Within 200 yards, the Henry could produce a devastating volume of fire.

The Henry was only produced for about 5 years (1862 – 1866), with about 12,000 manufactured in total. The rifle was made almost exclusively in a standard rifle pattern, with a 24 inch barrel. Some were later cut down into carbines, though. While the US military rejected the Henry for a variety of reasons, nearly all of the guns produced before the end of the war did actually see military service, with state units or individuals who supplied their own arms. In the few engagements where Henry rifles were present in substantial numbers, they proved to be a significant force multiplier.

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Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another
video on ForgottenWeapons.com. I’m Ian McCollum, and I’m here today at the Rock Island Auction House taking a look at some of the guns that they’re going To be selling in their upcoming June of 2017 Regional auction. And today we’re going to take a look at an 1860 Henry. And this will be the first of, I believe, an 8 part series looking At the whole development of Winchester lever-action rifles. I know to a lot of people they all kind of look the same, But when you get to know them there’s a very specific rationale For each improvement in the system, and to me at least, It’s a very interesting progression. So we’re going to start today with … really the first gun in this line, which is the Henry. Now there were some predecessors to the Henry, The Volcanic, and then a whole series of Quasi-experimental repeating rifles. I have a couple of videos on some of those guns, And if you’re interested more in what led to the Henry, I would suggest checking out those videos, Because we’re going to kind of start from this position here. Now what the Henry brought to the table that had not existed before was a reasonably powerful cartridge. Benjamin Taylor Henry, the namesake of the gun, had been able to put together the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, And this was one of the very first rimfire cartridges to actually be developed And commercially exploited. Smith & Wesson did this a little bit earlier with the .22 rimfire cartridge Which interestingly continues to survive today as the .22 long rifle. But it was a pretty wimpy cartridge, I mean it still is, and the very early versions of it were far Less powerful even than the .22 rimfire that we have today. The Volcanic that preceded this was also A seriously underpowered rifle, and what it needed to become commercially viable Was more oomph. So what Henry put together was a cartridge that fired a 216 grain bullet at 1,200 feet per second. It used a charge of nominally 26 grains of black powder and a case that was 0.82 inches long. In metric terms this is a 14 gram bullet at about 365 metres per second. This was actually a reasonably powerful cartridge, and it was pretty good for the technology of the time. At this point rimfire cartridges were still using copper cases, they weren’t even using brass. These cartridges kind of had a tendency to rupture, not every time, but it was by no means unheard of.

You had to design a gun that could handle a ruptured case because it did happen, The metallurgy of the cartridge cases just wasn’t mature yet. So what Henry had here was A reasonably powerful cartridge, he built this into a rifle with a 24 inch long barrel, And a continuous magazine tube under the barrel that would hold 15 rounds. You could have a sixteenth round in the chamber, and that’s what Winchester, Or what Henry, the New Haven Arms Company that was producing and selling these guns, That’s what they advertised was 16 shots without reloading. Which is technically feasible, Although it’s important to point out that the Henry didn’t even have a half-cock notch on the hammer. This was not a safe rifle to carry with a loaded chamber. So would you actually carry it with 16? No, you definitely wouldn’t. You put 15 in the magazine And then when you were ready to start shooting you’d run the first one into the chamber. The other thing that made the Henry such a revolutionary weapon (and I really think revolutionary is the proper term for this, this was A fundamental change in small arms technology when it came out, at least for rifles), Is it was a very fast weapon to use. There were other repeaters of the time, The 1860 Spencer for example, which was far more widely used by the US military during the Civil War, It also, if you just look at it on the books it looks very similar. It only has a seven round magazine, But it does fire a more powerful cartridge, and it’s got the same sort of lever action design. But handling them you’ll really see the difference, because the Spencer is a slow gun to operate. It has to be operated with a bit of finesse, you have to hold the gun kind of right, operate the lever in the right Manner, and it is prone to jamming itself up if you’re not practiced at how to do this. And it separates the actions of loading a cartridge and cocking the hammer. You have to do them both separately. You would cock the hammer, and then cycle the lever, and then you could fire. The Henry put all of these operations into a single stroke. When you run the lever it’s going to cock The hammer and load the new cartridge, extract and reliably eject the old cartridge, and it did this well, And it did it very rapidly. It’s something that you can’t really appreciate until you actually Have the chance to try the two types of rifle side by side. The Henry really does offer a far higher rate of fire than the Spencer or than anything else that existed at the time. Now it was patented in 1860. First production wasn’t actually available until 1862, And of course at that point the US Civil War is now on-going. Winchester and Henry and the New Haven Company were eager to get a military contract. They submitted these rifles to the Ordnance Department for testing and inspection. And they were rejected for a number of different reasons. … Well, we can just go through the reasons. There were a number related to the magazine tube.

It was considered easily damaged, and that’s valid. The ammunition: the Ordnance Department didn’t like the fact that used its own Special proprietary ammunition, OK, we can understand. It was considered too expensive, OK. Interestingly the cartridges were considered to be unsafe because they contain both The gunpowder and the primer, the fulminate, that would fire the round. That’s interesting because at this point, remember what the military is using are muzzle loading rifles, Where you pour a powder for the charge and then you prime the gun separately. And those two are never in contact, They’re never in the same place at the same time until you’re actually ready to fire. It’s understandable, although not from today’s perspective, but looking back you can see how someone proposing that, ”Hey, we’re going to make this cartridge with all the necessary things to explode already in it.” Someone could look at that and go, ”That doesn’t seem like a very safe idea. What if they just start detonating randomly? Or, you know, you get jostled and the cartridges all explode?” Understandable, turned out to not really be the case, but I can see why they’d say that. The rifle didn’t do very well in rust testing, it did OK in dust testing. And then the last reason, which is the one that everyone kind latches on to because it’s the most sensational, … was that the Ordnance Department was concerned that troops would just waste Too much ammunition if they had a rifle like this that could fire that quickly. And there is some validity to that again, in that this is the 1860s, you can’t just, You know, overnight some more ammo to the battlefield with FedEx or whatever. … There’s a much more involved process for resupply and for logistics in general. That said, the battlefield capability of this rifle was really quite remarkable at the time, and it’s something that Those commanders who had access to Henrys during the Civil War absolutely recognised and commented on at length. … Total production of these was about 12,000 guns, And most of those were manufactured during the years of the Civil War. Now the US government did eventually order some, in a couple of batches. In total they bought 1,731 of these. To put that in comparison, they bought almost 100,000 Spencer repeating rifles. That said, almost all of the 12,000 guns that were made were used in the Civil War, the vast majority of them, Because the ones that weren’t purchased by the government were purchased by civilians Or Volunteer Militia companies or State Militia companies, groups that armed themselves. And anybody who had a Henry repeating rifle during the US Civil War, there’s a reasonable Chance they were going to be involved in the Civil War, and they were definitely going to Use that Henry because it was the best repeating rifle available at the time. So even though they weren’t heavily … purchased by the Federal government at the time,

Virtually the entire production of the … New Haven Arms Company was used during the Civil War. So this example is a standard pattern Henry rifle, and it represents the vast majority of what was produced. Their demand was substantially outstripping their production capability, And so it didn’t make sense for them to go trying to fill special orders If that resulted in not being able to get as many guns out the door as possible. So, standard was a 24 inch barrel, 15 round magazine tube, this type of flip up ladder rear sight. The first 400 guns or so were actually made with iron frames before being replaced with gunmetal. Often called brass, it’s actually bronze. It’s a copper-tin alloy, brass is copper and zinc. And this made for a somewhat heavy rifle, it is a little bit longer than you might expect, Weighs about 9.25 pounds, so a little over 4 kilos, and the Army actually even complained about Its weight, which seems a bit odd considering what they were normally carrying. There are a couple features here we can point out. It does have sling swivels on it. These were standard, That’s the the rear swivel, the front is actually just kind of a loop right there Fixed to the side of the barrel and magazine assembly. These were standard on military ordered guns. They were not standard on civilian guns, but they could be ordered and most of the guns were ordered with them. So it’s more common to find them with sling swivels than without. On the bottom, this is our magazine follower. Now the spring in this one is kind of jammed in the magazine tube, But we’ll take a look at the magazine loading in a moment. There was no handguard on these rifles and as the … magazine was emptied you’d have a stack of Cartridges here behind the follower, this follower would slowly advance with each cartridge loaded. So if you had your hand out here on the magazine, The follower would eventually advance up and hit your hand and stop. And … if you did that you’d Basically take all the spring tension out of the magazine and it wouldn’t feed Until you took your hand away and allowed the follower to advance past your hand. Just kind of an unusual little quirk to the gun. Now markings on these are pretty sparse. What we have is right there. This is Henry’s patent October 16 1860. Manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company, New Haven, Connecticut. And then behind the sight we have a serial number, This one’s in the early 11,000s, so this is a pretty late production gun. They only made about 12,000 of them, and the serial numbers would actually advance all the way up to about 14,000. Early in the 12,000 range they actually started making 1866 Winchester Rifles. But people did still order the occasional Henry after that point, and the two serial number ranges are intermixed. Now, how does the Henry actually work? Let’s take a look inside one. I have a second … example here, And we have a bronze or gunmetal side plate that is held in place with one screw.

This is the screw that acts as the pivot for the lever, so if I take that screw off, which I already have, We can slide this dovetailed side plate out. There is one on the other side by the way, It makes it a lot easier to manufacture by having both sides exposed. And now we can see inside the system, and it’s a remarkably simple system. When the lever comes down, this toggle breaks like this, this is the bolt itself. So you can see the bolt inside here moving back and forth. And we have an elevator that rises and drops. So there the elevator is in the upward position, it brings a cartridge up from the magazine, The bolt runs that cartridge into the chamber, the elevator then drops, and this is the bottom of the elevator right there. Here is the arm that is actually connected to the elevator. So once you fire the cartridge you run the lever once again. It’s going to pull the bolt back, That extracts the empty case, ejects it, and lifts the next one into position. And as far as locking goes, when the lever’s all the way back, this toggle lock forms a straight line Which is nice and strong and resists the force of the cartridge firing so it doesn’t blow open. Only when you pull the lever does it pull this joint down out of alignment, and allows the toggle to open. Now the Henry is a rimfire firearm, as I’ve explained, And you can see the two firing pins at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions on the bolt right there. And those firing pins are actually connected to a separate sleeve. So the centre of the bolt is going to push the cartridge into position, and then when the hammer drops It punches those two firing pins forward and fires the cartridge. There are two of them Because early cartridges were relatively unreliable, and having two obviously gave you Twice as much chance to have the cartridge go off. And having two meant it pretty much always did. Having one meant you would get periodic misfires. So looking at the … second Henry we have here It’s interesting to note that this one has actually been converted to centrefire use. This is something that was done later on once centrefire cartridges had been effectively developed. Of course there were people who went back and wanted the new technology in their older rifles, And so conversions like this were made, and there was centrefire Henry ammunition made for a short period of time. The other thing that we can see nice and clearly on this Henry is that the chamber Has actually been recessed so that the rim of the cartridge sits all the way into The face of the barrel and that helps support it, it makes it a little bit stronger. And it means that if the cartridge does burst, it’s a little more contained. And that was standard on all of the rimfire guns, so the Henry and also the 1866 that we’ll be looking at next. So one last thing to mention before we move over to the magazine is

While the Henry didn’t have any sort of real manual firing safety, it didn’t have a half-cock notch, It did have a safety mechanism of sorts, and that’s this. This is a little threaded locking lever that allows you … when open to operate the lever, Or when it’s in the perpendicular position it locks the lever in place. And so that means you … can carry the gun with the chamber empty but you could have the Magazine tube full, and you wouldn’t have to worry about, you know, if the rifle were jostled or bumped, You don’t have to worry about the lever opening and maybe partially chambering a shell Or partially ejecting something out of the action. This allows you to carry the rifle nice and securely. Alright, now I want to take a look at the magazine, because the magazine is really The one place where the Henry had a lot of room for improvement. This was massively better than the Volcanic, but it wasn’t anywhere near perfected yet. Now this particular rifle is a carbine version, this is the one we have taken apart to look inside. Carbines were discussed by Winchester, he told the Army he would develop one, But then never ended up actually doing so. So this rifle was actually shortened By a gunsmith at some point after it left the factory. However, it has a nicely functional magazine tube and so I can show you how that works. You can see the open slot here with a magazine spring and the follower, And the slot is there so that the follower has a place to go. And to load the gun what we are going to do is pull the follower all the way up to the front here. Once you have the follower all the way up here, you can then Rotate this front of the magazine tube about 45 degrees, maybe 30 degrees, Just enough to open up access to the front of the tube. And you then slide cartridges into the tube, Bullet facing forward, primer facing backwards, And you gently slide them all the way down the magazine tube, so they’ll stack up in here. Once you have it full, you then grab this, hold the follower, rotate it back into alignment, and then let the follower down. Now, of course, if the magazine is full the follower is going to only go about this far. This front rotating section was one of the things that the Army had trouble with. So one potential problem was that the magazine tube could be fairly easily dented, Especially because it was open like this, it didn’t have the strength of a complete encircled tube. And then this front part could become rusted, so one potential problem was if you get rust in the pivoting areas here, Well, then you can’t open this anymore, and if you can’t open it, you can’t reload the magazine. There is an assembly right up here that limits when you can rotate this front piece, And that could become damaged which could allow a couple things to happen. If this got to rotating out of alignment while the magazine was full it could actually shear the spring off

And then, well with a damaged spring best case you’ve reduced the available magazine capacity, Worst case it doesn’t work at all. You could also have this lose tension completely and not hold this in position. So there were a lot of potential ways for this magazine system to not work optimally, And that is the problem that Winchester and Henry would have to tackle next. The Henry has become quite the exceedingly valuable and pricey gun these days. Of course there weren’t that many made in the grand scheme of things and most of them Haven’t survived the 150 years to still be around today. And they really do represent a substantial paradigm shift in small arms technology, And that makes them very interesting from a collector’s point of view and a historian’s point of view. All these things together mean that the prices go way up. It also means that there’s enough interest that companies have put together reproductions, so There is a company that exists today called the Henry Repeating Arms Company (or Henry Rifle Company), Totally different from the original New Haven Arms Company that made the Henry, But it’s the company that owns the trademark to the name today and is producing a variety of Lever-action rifles, some modern sporting plinking target guns, And … they actually have a line that is a recreation of this, the original Henry rifle, offered in modern centrefire cartridges. So if you really want to get the experience of shooting one of these, you can actually do it without spending the Substantial sum of money that’s required to buy an original. And, of course, the originals are all still rimfire And you really can’t get ammunition for them. So if you want to shoot one Reproductions are the way to go. But if you would like to have one of the true original Henry repeating rifles, well they do come up for sale from time to time, and this one right here is a prime example. If you do want this one, take a look at the description text below, that’ll take you to Rock Island’s Catalogue page on this rifle, and you can see their description, pictures, etc. You can place a bid on it in person here at the auction, or over the phone, or over the web. And we will continue this series with the next video which will be the Winchester 1866, Which solved a lot of the problems of the Henry repeating rifle. So stay tuned for that. Thanks for watching.

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