Henry rifle

Henry rifle

patent drawing of the Henry rifle
Type Lever-action rifle
Place of origin United States
Service history
Used by United States United States (Union)
 Confederate States
Wars American Civil War, Indian Wars
Production history
Designer Benjamin Tyler Henry
Designed 1860
Manufacturer New Haven Arms Company
Produced Early 1860s to 1866
Number built 14,000 approx.
Weight 9 lb 4 oz (4.2 kg)
Length 44.75 in (113.7 cm)
Barrel length 24 in (61 cm)

Caliber .44 Henry rimfire
Action breech-loading lever action
Feed system 16-round tubular magazine

The Henry repeating rifle is a lever-action, breech-loading, tubular magazine rifle famed both for its use at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and being the basis for the iconic Winchester rifle of the American Wild West.

Designed by Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1860, the Henry was introduced in the early 1860s and produced through 1866 in the United States by the New Haven Arms Company. It was adopted in small quantities by the Union in the Civil War, favored for its greater firepower than the standard issue carbine. Many later found their way West, notably in the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne in their obliteration of Custer's U.S. Cavalry troops in June 1876.

Modern versions of the weapon are produced by A. Uberti Firearms and Henry Repeating Arms. Most replicas are chambered in .44-40 Winchester or .45 Long Colt.


The original Henry rifle was a sixteen shot .44 caliber rimfire, lever-action, breech-loading rifle patented by Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1860 after three years of design work.[1] The Henry was an improved version of the earlier Volition Repeating Rifle, and later Volcanic Repeating Rifle. The Henry used copper (later brass) rimfire cartridges with a 216 grain (14.0 gram, 0.490 ounce) bullet over 25 grains (1.6 g, 0.056 oz.) of gunpowder. Production was very small (150 to 200 a month) until the middle of 1864. Nine hundred were manufactured between summer and October 1862; by 1864, production had peaked at 290 per month, bringing the total to 8,000 manufactured.[2] By the time production ended in 1866, approximately 14,000 units had been manufactured.

For a Civil War soldier, owning a Henry rifle was a point of pride.[3] Letters home would call them "Sixteen" or "Seventeen" Shooters, depending whether a round was loaded in the chamber. The US Government purchased about 3,140 (early versions with inspector marks) in late 1863 to early 1864, mostly for Cavalry units. Just 1,731 of the standard rifles were purchased by the government during the Civil War.[4] The relative fragility of Henrys compared to Spencer repeating rifles hampered their official acceptance. More Henrys were purchased by soldiers than by the government.[5] Many infantry soldiers purchased Henrys with their reenlistment bounties of 1864. Most of these units were associated with Sherman's Western Troops.

When used correctly, the brass framed rifles had an exceptionally high rate of fire compared to any other weapon on the battlefield. Soldiers who saved their pay to buy one believed it would help save their lives. Since tactics had not been developed to take advantage of their firepower, Henrys were frequently used by scouts, skirmishers, flank guards, and raiding parties rather than in regular infantry formations. To the amazed muzzleloader-armed Confederates who had to face this deadly "sixteen shooter", it was called "a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long."[6] Those few Confederate troops who came into possession of captured Henry rifles had little way to resupply the special ammunition used by the weapon, making its widespread use by Confederate forces impractical. The rifle was, however, known to have been used at least in part by some fifteen different Confederate units in Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia, as well as the personal bodyguards of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.[7]


The Henry rifle used a .44 caliber cartridge with 26 to 28 grains (1.7 to 1.8 g) of black powder.[8] This gave it significantly less muzzle velocity and energy than other repeaters of the era, such as the Spencer. The lever action, on the down-stroke, ejected the spent cartridge from the chamber and cocked the hammer. A spring in the magazine forced the next round into the follower; locking the lever back into position pushed the new cartridge into the chamber and closed the breech. As designed, the Henry lacked any form of safety. When not in use its hammer rested on the cartridge rim; any impact on the back of the exposed hammer could cause a chambered round to fire. If left cocked, it was in the firing position without a safety.[9]


While never issued on a large scale, the Henry rifle demonstrated its advantages of rapid fire at close range several times in the Civil War and later during the wars between the United States and the Plains Indians. Examples include the successes of two Henry-armed Union regiments at the Battle of Franklin against large Confederate attacks, as well as the Henry-armed Sioux and Cheyenne's destruction of the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn.

Manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company, the Henry rifle evolved into the famous Winchester Model 1866 lever-action rifle. With the introduction of the new Model 1866, the New Haven Arms Company was renamed the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.


The unrelated Henry Repeating Arms produces a replica of the Model 1860 Henry Rifle with brass receiver and American walnut stock, but a modern steel barrel and internal components.[10]

Uberti produces an almost exact copy Henry Model 1860 chambered in .44-40 Winchester or .45 Colt, rather than the original .44 Henry rimfire. Distributed by several companies, these replicas are popular among Cowboy Action Shooters and Civil War reenactors, as well as competition shooters in the North-South Skirmish Association(N-SSA).[11]

See also



  1. Butler, David F. United States Firearms The First Century 1776-1875. New York, Winchester Press, 1971. p229
  2. Butler, p.226 (8,000 by 1864)
  3. Butler, p.233
  4. Butler, p.232
  5. Butler, p.226
  6. http://www.henryrepeating.com/history.cfm
  7. Bresnan, Andrew L. "Chapter 7: The "Modern Henry"". The Henry Repeating Rifle: Victory thru rapid fire. rarewinchesters.com. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
  8. Bresnan, Andrew L. "Introduction". The Henry Repeating Rifle: Victory thru rapid fire. rarewinchesters.com. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
  9. Bresnan, jack L. "Chapter 6: Henry Odds and Ends". The Henry Repeating Rifle: Victory thru rapid fire. rarewinchesters.com. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
  10. Staff (January 2014). "Henry Repeating Arms Co. Expands line and capacity". American Rifleman. 162 (1): 32.
  11. NSSA Approved Arms page. Archived March 5, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.


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