The Reality of Using A Henry Repeating Rifle in Civil War Reenacting
If you are one of the few Civil War reenactors that choose to arm yourself with a Henry Repeating Rifle then you undoubtedly have heard one or all of the following attacks against the usage of the Henry Rifle for reenacting.
1. “They didn’t shoot the Henry like that.”
2. “They didn’t shoot from the hip.”
3. “They would not have fired as fast as the could wasting ammunition.”
4. “They would have taken their time and picked out individual targets.”
5. “Henry shooters at reenactments look farby and stupid firing as fast as possible and pretending to be John Wayne or The Rifleman or even Rambo.”
6. “Using a Henry rifle does not represent the “Common Soldier” of the Civil War.”
These are a few of the attacks against using a Henry Rifle as many of you have heard and I am sure there are probably more. It is always amusing to hear the phrase “they would have” or “the wouldn’t have” and then finished with the person’s attack. I find it amusing because it is never followed up by any documentation to support their attack. Most of the time these attacks are made by people that do not know any better, by people too lazy to research what they are saying, by people that secretly wish they had a Henry or by the muzzle-loading infantry in general. There is a phrase that I have come up with, “The Muzzle-Loader Mentality”. This phrase describes those people that think that the Civil War was fought only with the muzzle-loading musket and refuse to even entertain the thought that other weapons were used. These are the people that think that in order to portray the “Common Soldier” it can only be done with a muzzle-loader.
Let’s look at some of these attacks against the Henry Repeating Rifle and see what we can find. “They would not fire as fast as they could wasting ammunition”. That one is really two. There are numerous accounts where Henry Repeating rifles were used when the men themselves describe the rate of fire in terms such as “we worked our levers like pump handles”, “I fired 90 shots without stopping and when I spit on the barrel it would sis”, “we fired as fast as we could work the levers”, “the entire regiment fired empting the magazines in less than 25 seconds”. Frank Orcutt of the 7th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry at Allatoona Pass, GA stated that he fired over 400 rounds with his Henry in the two hours of fighting. He goes on to state that he only knew of two shots that he fired that “took effect”. The rest he presumed that he did not hit anybody. The 7th Illinois as a regiment expended over 31,000 rounds in the fight. Fire and fire fast they did indeed do. So the case can be made for a Henry user at a reenactment firing at a fast rate of fire if there are “targets of opportunity” in their front. What does look “farby” is the muzzle-loading infantryman reenactor trying to fire his muzzle-loader 4 or 5 times or more per minute. Since they do not use their ramrods in reenacting they feel that they can increase their rate of fire when firing blanks. This not only looks bad but is also very dangerous. I have witnessed on several occasions where an infantryman firing in this manner would have a round “cook off” in the barrel resulting in burns to the user. Specifically I have seen this happen at Wilson Creek, Perryville and Resaca over the years and other places as well.
The attack I really find amusing is the one “they wouldn’t fire like that because they waste ammunition”. All you have to do is a little research to find out who wasted the most ammunition in the Civil War. Probably a more interesting question would be; what constitutes wasting ammunition? I think that too many times people think that unless the shot resulted in the death of the enemy then the shot was a wasted shot. This is totally not true. Even if the bullet did not hit the intended target it probably was not a wasted round. Let me explain. A bullet could whiz by the enemy’s head causing him to duck or get down. The bullet could hit a tree or a rock next to the enemy causing the enemy to halt his advance. Bullets flying all over the place not hitting anyone do have an effect upon the enemy causing them to rethink their approach. These effects of bullets are not thought of by those attacking the reenactor that uses a Henry Repeating Rifle.
If the “Muzzle-Loader Mentality” reenactor want to look at wasting ammunition then they have to look not further than the weapon that they are armed with. When a regiment fires by volley most of the time none of the enemy were hit. In fact various studies have been done to see if a number can be found for how many bullets were fired per person hit. Searching the internet I have found that there is really no agreement on this. I have seen the number of 2500 rounds per hit as well as less than 1000. At any rate whichever number it may be there is certainly a lot of wasted ammunition by those muzzle-loading infantrymen. The “Muzzle-Loader Mentality” boys sure waste far more ammunition than the Henry Repeating rifle shooters. Before someone comes up with the rationale that there were millions of muzzle-loaders used and less than 10,000 Henry Repeating rifles were used as a defense, think of the following; if there were more Henry rifles used to the tune of tens of thousands the Civil War would have ended at least a year sooner thus saving lives as well as ammunition.
If wasting ammunition is a reason to attack Henry users then let’s look at the ammunition itself. The Henry cartridge that was used fired a 200 to 216 grain bullet using 26 to 28 grains of powder. The muzzle-loading musket fired a paper cartridge loaded with a bullet weighing in at well over twice the weight of the Henry bullet. The muzzle-loading musket also fired over twice the powder the Henry cartridge fired. So for each shot the muzzle-loaders fired you could have easily produce two Henry cartridges. Yes, if you want to talk about wasting ammunition it was definitely the muzzle-loaders of the Civil War that wasted the most when talking about small arms of the Civil War.
The attack of “they would pick out individual targets and not just blaze away” is an interesting one. When you are being attacked by a mass of men such as a massive line of an attacking regiment all one has to do is to aim at the mass to score a hit. This is true if the attacking enemy was within 100 yards or closer as many of the fights were. If the attacking enemy were within 30 yards I would even venture to say that you could even “shoot from the hip” and hit many a target in your front. At the same time this particular attack could be used against the muzzle-loaders as they were not picking out individual targets when the order to fire by volley was given. Again they are shooting at the mass that is the enemy and not the individual.
When you are attacked with the “John Wayne” or "Rambo" attack or you just look “Farby” when shooting your Henry, it generally comes from those that can be dismissed as they really do not know anything about the Henry Repeating rifle or how it was used in the Civil War. What easier way to try to smear somebody than to resort to “Name Calling”. A study of history will yield an abundant of name calling by those that are bigoted individuals and have no wish to further their education.
The whole “shooting from the hip” attack is largely due to a person’s perception of what they think that they see and not what in reality was done. A very good case in point is a witness to an event, be it an accident or other event. If ten people witness the same accident you will very likely get several different view points of what happened. In our hobby those using this attack against the Henry user are generally fifty to over a hundred yards away when they make their observation. Here is generally what happens that is witnessed by those using the “hip shooting” attack. A company of Henry armed reenactors of ten to fifteen commence to firing on the enemy. Most of the time Henry Companies are used as skirmishers. This company advances as skirmishers. While some are shooting others are topping off their magazines. Many times these skirmishers are firing from a kneeling position. While some are firing others are lowering their Henry to their hip to reload. The perception is that because some of the skirmishers are still firing that they must be shooting from the hip. In reality what some observe at a distance is that some are firing and others have their Henrys at their hip so they must be firing from the hip. All that is observed is the big picture and not what each individual Henry user is doing. Those that are observing at over fifty yards away do not have the same perspective as someone that is ten yards away. Henry users have also been accused of empting their magazine as fast as possible. Generally this is never done, at least with our group. Seven or even eight shots might be fired but then the magazine is topped off and not all of us fire at the same time. We do put out a large volume of fire but rarely do we empty the magazine unless the situation would warrant doing so.
What is the “Common Soldier” in the Civil War? This is a very interesting question that you will get varied answers depending on who is answering the question. It seems that to the “Muzzle-loader Mentality” reenactors the “Common Soldier” had to be armed with a muzzle-loading weapon, either an Enfield or a Springfield. So in their eyes it is the weapon that they are armed with that makes the soldier the “Common Soldier” and not everything else about the soldier. So if you are armed with a 1842 Springfield, or Spencer, or Lorenz or even the Henry Repeating rifle you are not a “Common Soldier” at least in their eyes. The view that I have is that most all of the Civil War reenacting community do portray the “Common Soldier” but some of us are portraying “Common Soldiers” armed with different weapons. So to state that a Henry armed soldier is not a “Common Soldier” is a gross misrepresentation by the “Muzzle-loading Mentality” group. The Henry armed soldier ate the same food, was dressed in the same basic uniform, spoke the same language and had the same beliefs as everyone else so to state that they were not the “Common Soldier” is a gross misrepresentation of history by those that are trying to honor those that fought and died in the Civil War. This hobby is about education. The hope is by attending reenactments that the public will be able to have a different view of what the Civil War was about by having a more “hands on” approach as opposed to a book learning approach.
By looking at some of the attacks made by others against the use of the Henry rifle we can better explain where they are wrong. We will be able to educate a few, some flat out will not care and others will continue their attacks as long as we field our Henry Repeating rifles in reenactments. The bottom line remains in that about 10,000 Henry Repeating rifles were used in the Civil War and were used by the “Common Soldier”. By our persistence an aspect of the Civil War will be kept alive. “You have to fight ignorance with education.”
Victory thru rapid fire,
Andrew L. Bresnan
National Henry Rifle Company
7th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry