Perceived Problems, Potential Problems, Problems
Henry Repeating Rifle
By: Andrew L. Bresnan
Due to the large amount of misconceptions concerning the problems of the Henry repeating rifle it is interesting in trying to get to the source of what some of the problems of the Henry rifle were, both real and potential. The Henry rifle was truly the first successful repeating rifle in history. When success is measured with what rifle was first on the scene in numbers, used in a combat situations, and had the longevity of the design into the future, the Henry Rifle is the winner. The Henry rifle design evolved into the Winchester Model 1866 followed by the Winchester 1873 and ending with the big brother of the design, the Winchester 1876. This was as far as the “toggle-link” design went.
Today’s “keyboard commandos” are always quick to point out what they feel are the problems of the Henry rifle. Many of these individuals barely know what a Henry rifle is, probably have never handled an original or reproduction Henry rifle and have never used a Henry rifle, reproduction, either shooting live ammunition or blanks at reenactment events. Most of the perceived problems are not necessarily based on any historic instances but what “they” think happened. The problems that are usually brought up include the following: 1. the open slot of the magazine would fill with dirt, sand or other substance rendering the rifle useless, 2. the magazine on the Henry rifle was dented during combat and would then not feed causing a jammed rifle, 3. the action of the Henry rifle was not reliable and too delicate for the “common soldier”, 4. the parts of the Henry rifle were more prong to breakage than other firearms.
The historic documentation does not seem to support the above claims. In fact it would seem that those that actually used the Henry repeating rifle felt that the Henry repeating rifle was the best weapon of its day. There are several letters, diaries, newspaper accounts and the Official Records that would seem to back up this claim.
Many times those citing problems of the Henry rifle will mention the fact that General Ripley was not in favor of it and will make mention of his December 9, 1861 letter to the Secretary of War Cameron. Ripley mentions his doubts about the ammunition, the weight of the Henry, plus the fact that they have already ordered 73,000 breech loaders as reason why not to purchase Henry rifles. Ripley’s reasons against the Henry Repeating rifle are: 1. weight, 2. need for special ammunition, 3. effect on the cartridges in the magazine while on horseback being crushed, etc., 4. safe transportation of ammunition, 5. wear of spiral spring in field use, 6. No advantage over other breech-loaders, 7. too many different types of arms in use., and 8. high price. While he may be right with some of them he is merely speculating on the others and down right incorrect about some of his points. Also by the date of his letter there were very few Henry rifles that were produced and none in the field being field tested in battle.
As an inventor or manufacturer of weapons you do want to know what any potential problems are so that future design changes can be made and the end result is the “perfect” weapon. The magazine did hold the potential for problems and was the actual source of other problems.
The magazine was a potential problem with the slot that could allow dirt and other debris to enter. This could happen if a soldier did not take care of his weapon and maintain it properly. But then any weapon that is not maintained, be it a repeater or a muzzle-loader, does have the problem of letting the soldier down in time of need. In the research that I and others have done over the last several years this problem has not surfaced by those actually using the Henry rifle. While the government test of the Henry rifle have made mention of this being a potential problem those using the government purchased Henry rifles, the 1st DC Cavalry, do not mention this as a problem.
One must remember that with the onset of the Civil War the Henry rifle had not been around that long. The patent date is October 16, 1860. With the war starting the following year there was not enough Henry rifles to arm large numbers of troops. That coupled with the fact that the government has never been quick to adopt any new weapons in time of war, or any other time for that matter, left the Henry in the civilian market. Most Henry rifles used in the Civil War were private purchased rifles. Somewhere around 8,000 to 9,000 Henry rifles were used during the Civil War.
While a severely dented magazine would cause the Henry not to function the reality is that this was not a serious problem or non-existent problem as there seems to be no mention of this in the official reports, letters home, letters to the New Haven Arms Company or in the diaries of the troops. The only mention of a dent in the magazine putting a Henry rifle out of action that I could find came when several horse stomped on a Henry rifle in a stampede. I could hardly fault the Henry rifle design for horses stomping on the rifle.
While I have not used an original Henry rifle I have used a reproduction Henry rifle, in fact several of them over the last 30 years. My first reproduction was an American made Navy Arms Henry rifle which I still have along with an Uberti made Henry rifle. I have used these for hunting, Cowboy Action Shooting as well as Civil War reenacting. While my first Henry does indeed have a dent in the magazine it has not effected the functioning of the weapon. Over the 30 years of using these Henry rifles I have never experienced a problem with the open slot in the magazine. I have used the Henry reproduction is all kinds of weather and temperatures. At one event my Henry was completely submerged in water and still function without any problems. The problems I have had with my Henry reproductions have been due to a broken main spring, which I have had 3 break in 30 years and several thousands of rounds fired, the only other part that has broken has been the firing pin. Parts on weapons that are used do wear out over extended period of time.
Did parts break on the original Henry rifle, the answer is yes but then this was a problem on any weapon of the day. The Spencer rifles, Sharps, muzzle-loaders all had parts break. The Henry rifle did not experience any greater problem in this area than other weapons.
A quick check of letters and the official records does not bring to light any major problems or flaws. In fact the following have written letters expressing their satisfaction , support and praise for the Henry rifle. These include: L.C. Baker 1st DC Cavalry, Major D.S. Curtiss 1st Maine Cavalry, Major Joel Cloudman 1st DC Cavalry, Major J.S. Barker 1st DC Cavalry, Lt W. Mitchell USN, J.T. Wilder wanted to arm his regiments with the Henry and wrote March 20th, 1863, Lt. John Brown 23rd Ill Vols, Brig Gen. Alfred Ellet, John Tennyson US Gunboat Pittsburgh, John Ekstrand 51st Ill Inf, and the list could go on and on. The contrary is not true of a listing of those complaining about problems of the Henry rifle.
One of the problems or complaints of the Henry was its weight. The Henry rifle when fully loaded weighed in at close to 10 pounds. That was a heavy weapon for a cavalryman to use on horseback. With that said it was also mentioned that having a 16 shooter on horseback was a great advantage. Part of the weight problem comes from the fact of how the Henry rifle was manufactured with the barrel and magazine both made from a single piece of steel. Not only does this add weight but also slows the manufacturing process down. Machining the barrel and magazine from a single piece was a time consuming process. Another problem mentioned was that the Henry did not balance well as a weapon being barrel heavy. Again this was due to the method of manufacturing. This problem will be addressed with the “Improved Henry” after the war.
The magazine did have a problem other than the perceived ones of denting and a clogged magazine slot. The problem was the method of loading the Henry magazine. It was awkward to have to run the magazine follower to the top and turn the top section to open the magazine for loading. On horseback this could be a little tricky. Winchester wanted to address both the problem of the weight and loading the magazine in his improved model.
Nelson King actually help to solve both the weight issue as well as the loading method. Nelson King came up with a spring loaded gate in the frame of the rifle. Cartridges could be inserted one at a time into the rifle until fully loaded. This could be done easily on horseback and in almost any position. This also eliminated the need for the slot in the barrel. By the elimination of the slot meant that a separate barrel and magazine could be utilized thus reducing the weight of the rifle. This also vastly increase the production process for making the “Improved Henry”.
The “Improved Henry” becomes the Winchester Model 1866. The Model 1866 shot the same cartridge the Henry rifle used but was a lighter weight, balanced better and was faster to produce. The Model 1866 was made in a variety of barrel lengths from as long as the 30 inch musket version to shorter carbine version. The last of the Model 1866 were made in 1885.
While only about 14,000 Henry rifles were produced it became the starting point for the first successful repeating rifle. The few number of Henry rifles during the Civil War was mainly due to the production process and machining involved to produce the Henry. The toggles used for the action, the lever, carrier arm as well as the barrel/magazine all required extensive hand fitting with use of files and machining. All in all the production of the Henry rifle was a slow process that could not keep up. The demand for the Henry rifle during the war was far greater than Henry rifles could be produced. Spencers on the other hand were far simpler to produce since Spencer used many existing parts from Sharps such as screws, springs, action parts and even some barrels. Less production time allows for a cheaper price per rifle. The Spencer was a dead end weapon in the fact that although thousands were produced during the war after the war the company died. The action of the Spencer could not be adapted to more powerful cartridges. The “toggle-link” action of the Henry rifle was adaptable to handle the more powerful .44-40 in the Model 1873 Winchester and even more powerful cartridges such as those used in the Winchester Model 1876, the .45-75. More powerful cartridges were needed and the “toggle-link” action had reach its maximum limits. The Winchester 1886 and 1892 however did not put an end to the use of the earlier models. All machines and invention have their problems and limits. The Henry rifle was no different.
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