Henry Repeating Rifle

        Western Sharpshooters & Henry Repeating Rifles


Western Sharpshooters

The 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry


Their Henry Repeating Rifles


By: Andrew L. Bresnan



The Western Sharpshooters also known as the 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry was a unique regiment concerning their choice of weapons. From the beginning with their target rifles to the end of the war when most chose to purchase the Henry repeating rifle the WSS were unlike most other regiments of the day. Being armed the way they were also influenced they way they were used by the generals. Skirmishing and scouting were their specialties. This article is not necessarily a history of the regiment in the Civil War but a history of their use of the Henry rifle in the Civil War.


The 66th Illinois Infantry was originally organized on November 23, 1861 as the 14th Missouri Infantry. However was re-designated as the 66th Illinois Infantry on November 20, 1862. The regiment was also known as Birge’s Western Sharpshooters. It started out as a regiment representing several states including Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa. With John C. Fremont in command in St. Louis he favored regiments representing several states. The federal and state governments many times changed the designation of units including this one until it was finally designated as the 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. It was also commonly called the “WSS” or Western Sharpshooters. (1)


"To Col J. W. Birge, St. Louis: Sir, you are hereby authorized to raise a regiment of Riflemen to be under your command and to serve for three years or during the war, unless sooner discharged in accordance with the late act of Congress. The men of your Regiment must have produced satisfactory evidence of their ability to hit a target at two hundred yards no three shots to measure more than ten inches. Your Regiment will rendezvous in this city to which place transportation will be furnished to all recruits and subsistence on their arrival. Recruiting officers will be provided with transportation when traveling in connection with their duties. You will report the progress of your organization to the Head Quarters, which will be complete in six weeks"

          J.C. Fremont, Maj. Gen. Commanding (2)


            In the beginning this unit that became WSS was destined to become a regiment very different than the other regiments of the war. The weapons they were armed with would also bare this out. Their first choice of weapon the regiment was armed with were the Dimick rifle manufactured by Horace Dimick also spelled as Demmick. This type of rifle was a hunting/target rifle known as a plains rifle. Hawken also made this type of half stock rifle. It is thought that while Dimick received the order for the rifles he was unable to produce the numbers that were needed. Very likely the Hawken firm also helped supply the rifles to the regiment to make up the difference as well as other manufacturers. (4)


The Dimick rifles severed the regiment well. They were still armed with the Dimick rifles well into 1863. The Quarterly reports show in the 2nd Quarter of 1863 that 538 Dimick rifles were accounted for in the regiment. However by the 4th Quarter of 1864 there were only 13 Dimick rifles in the regiment. (6)


The regiment’s choice for a replacement rifle for the Dimick was indeed a revolutionary weapon. Had soldiers of the Civil War been given a choice of weapons to go to battle with there is little doubt what they would have chose. The rifle of choice was the Henry Repeating rifle. The down side is that not all soldiers were given a choice as to the weapon they would be armed with. Part of the problem was that Henry repeating rifles were slow to make with the factory only able to produce from 200 to 400 rifles a month. With this slow rate of manufacturing there just was not enough Henry repeating rifles to meet the demand for them. The WSS just happened to be among the lucky regiments that purchased their own Henry repeating rifle. (4)


The Henry repeating rifle was unlike any other rifle of its day. The Henry rifle had a 24 inch barrel many would say was not suited for the infantry because of its short length when compared to the muzzle-loading rifle commonly used. The Henry rifle also held sixteen brass cartridges in the magazine under the barrel with another round in the chamber for a total of seventeen cartridges that could be fired without reloading. Due to the fact that not all .44 Henry cartridge manufacturers used the same detentions some of the early Henry cartridges were a little shorter allowing sixteen round in the magazine while later manufactured cartridges only fifteen could be inserted into the magazine. The Henry repeating rifle was well suited for the type of work the WSS were called up on to do. The WSS was mainly a skirmish/scouting regiment that needed the additional firepower of the Henry repeating rifle to shoot their way out of a situation as well as to dominate the battlefield in battles time and time again. (4)


Lorenzo Barker of Battle Creek, Michigan not only kept a diary of his life in the WSS but also wrote a book entitled “With the Western Sharpshooters Michigan Boys of Company D, 66th Illinois” published in 1905. Both of these are valuable resources as to activity of the men of the WSS. Lorenzo Barker mustered out of service July 7, 1865 as a sergeant and the Report of the Adjutant General to the State of Illinois also mentions that he had been wounded during his service to his country. (7)


The world we live in today makes doing historic research a lot easier than in the old days before the internet. Today more and more historic documents, letters and diaries are being digitized making it possible to research a topic from your computer. Lorenzo (Ren) Barker’s diary is one of those diaries available on line.


The first mention of the WSS having a Henry repeating rifle is mentioned in Ren’s diary on September 4, 1863 a Friday. He states “Got a pass to go to Corinth went to the 3rd mich Cavalry on a visit with some friends, Payed $40 for a Seventeen Shooter.” Ren seems to have had a busy day. What I am not for sure of is where he got the Seventeen Shooter (Henry repeating rifle) from, was it in Corinth or a member of the Michigan Cavalry. He could have had the Henry rifle shipped to Corinth and picked it up there but he was not clear in his diary entry. Forty dollars was a lot of money for a Civil War soldier, almost 3 months pay. Ren would have had to save a long time to accumulate that much money. Another interesting bit of information was also not included in his diary, that was where did he get ammunition for his new Seventeen Shooter? (5)


The WSS were assigned to Camp Davies. One of the improvements being made to the camp was a ditch around it. In Ren’s entry of September 5 he mentions “Detailed for fatigue, to work on the fort. Cavalry go out on a scout, return at night having killed one rebel and brought in one rebel prisoner.” The WSS also were called upon many times to go out on a “scout” for information and to capture prisoners. On September 6 Ren mentions, “Company inspection by Captain John H. Andrews. Co A of the 10th Mo Cavalry come from Corinth inside of our stockade & camp. Orders come for all of the men that have Seventeen Shooters to get ready to march with five days rations.” How many men of the WSS were now armed with Henry repeating rifles is not known but it would appear at least a few had Henry rifles as well as the cartridges for them, Ren may not have been among those going on the scout. In his next entry in the diary September 7 he writes, “Detailed for Camp Guard. The fifth Cavalry, with the Artillery and the mounted sharpshooters march from camp.” Since he mentions “detailed for camp guard” I would assume he was left in camp. (5)


On September 8 Ren does mention that he was relieved from camp guard and the balance of the regiment was to march out he does not mention any reference to the Henry rifles. However there is a small skirmish in which one of their men was wounded in the leg. It seems for the next few days there was a constant ambush and firing by the rebs and return fire by the WSS. (5)


On September 15 Ren writes, “Detailed for Camp Guard stood at the north gate our scouts come in with one Guerrilla. The Sharpshooters with seventeen shooters return to Camp from their Ambush.” Again this would appear that Ren did not go out on the scout for the ambush but was on guard duty with his Henry rifle. (5)


It seems that Ren stood guard several times. On September 18 he mentions once again he was standing guard but this time at the Colonel’s quarters. Another bit of interesting information is that orders were given to shoot the first man that attempted to get out of the guard house. (5)


September 21 Ren mentions the Seventeen Shooters again. “Orders for twelve men with Seventeen Shooters to get three days rations ready to march went south to Booneville to lay in ambush” This was a common theme for the boys with the Henry repeating rifles to go out to capture prisoners and ambush the rebs. On September 24th he writes, “relieved from guard, the Seventeen Shooters return with one rebel”. (5)


By the time October arrives camp life for the 66th WSS is still about the same; guard duty, work on the camp and going out on scouting expeditions. On October 2 Ren writes, “Detailed for camp guard dress parade, The Seventeen Shooters go out on a scout”. At this time it is still unknown how many of the WSS were armed with the Henry repeating rifle but there must be several. Those armed with the Henry rifle are the ones frequently going out on scouting mission. On October 3rd the scouts return with one prisoner. For the next couple of weeks the WSS stood guard duty and worked on the camp while the cavalry went out on scouting sorties. (5)  On October 21 Ren seemed to get himself in a little bit of trouble. He writes, “Orders to be ready to march. Marched back to Camp Davies. Michael Whalain, Murdock Randall, Isaac Chatfield and myself ordered in the guard house for falling out of ranks.” He doesn’t elaborate the reason for falling out of ranks but it was on their way back from Corinth when it happened. On October 22 Ren mentions, “Relieved from guard house and sent to our quarters. The Sixteen Shooter boys draw horses and saddles preparing themselves to be mounted, work on the fort still going on.” On his October 22 entry he mentions “Sixteen Shooter Boys” while always before it was “Seventeen Shooter boys”. One can speculate that they must have received another shipment of ammunition for their Henry rifles that was slightly longer in length allowing for only fifteen rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber for a total of sixteen. (5)

In the October 28th entry Ren is back to mentioning the Seventeen Shooters again. “Relieved from camp guard. Return to Quarters. Go out to shoot our guns off. Seventeen Shooters cavalry go to Corinth as a guard to Mrs. Burke.” The WSS got in a little target practice it appears. Ren is now referring to the WSS that were mounted as the Seventeen Shooters cavalry. That is interesting since in reality they were “mounted infantry” and not cavalry. (5)

 On October 30th “Detailed for Camp Guard. The Seventeen Shooters go out on a two day scout. Two rebels come into camp, it rained all day.” On the next day October 31, “Relieved from Camp Guard, Several muster for pay, the Seventeen Shooters return with two prisoners.” (5)


On November 1st they received marching orders to leave Camp Davies. The WSS left Camp Davies at 6:00 with part of the command being mounted and the rest on foot. For the next several days it was the daily routine of an army on the march. (5)


The next mention of using their Henry rifles comes on November 16 when Ren writes, “Still laying on the hill at Pulaski. Shoot off our guns. Draw fresh beef.” The WSS got in a little target practice as well as some fresh meat which had probably been a long while since they had eaten fresh beef. Then it was back to the dull camp life again complete with days of rain. (5)


On November 25th the entry reads, “Lay in camp all day, orders to shoot off our guns, rained guns wet.” Now came the task of cleaning their Henry rifles. On November 27th came the gruesome task of hanging a rebel spy named Samuel Davis. (5)


For the next several days the time was spent laying in camp but also they found time for battalion drill as well as skirmish drill. Ren also mentions that every so often it rained. The year ending 1863 brought more of the same for the WSS. Unfortunately Ren’s diary from the early part of 1864 is not legible on its online format. (5)


Ren Barker on several occasions referred to the 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry by several names. These included “Seventeen Shooters”, “Sixteen Shooters”, “Seventeen Shooter Cavalry” and even the “SS Cavalry”. The WSS is also a name used for this unique regiment in the Union army. (5)

In January 1864 most of the 66th reenlisted as Veterans.  Ren also writes that a majority of the regiment had ordered or purchased Henry rifles at their own expense.  These cost between $40 and $45.  On January 11, 1864 Barker writes “the seventeen shooters or Henry rifles comes to the company for those that had signed for them.  The rifles divided out to those in quarters.” 

The regiment was given their veteran furlough for reenlisting.  The 66th was back in action on April 28 pulling scouting, foraging duties and skirmishing with Confederate cavalry.  By May of 1864 the WSS were now in Georgia.  On May 9, 1864 it was mentioned that the regiment was ordered in haste to the front.  As soon as they arrived the regiment was deployed as skirmishers and advanced.  A fight soon insured at Resaca, Georgia where the WSS killed and captured 76 rebels.  On May 15, 1864 Company H was sent forward as skirmishers and was attacked by Confederates but was repulsed with “considerable loss” after a few minutes of fighting.  With having a company of men armed with Henry Repeating rifles several hundreds of rounds could be fired in a fight lasting a few minutes.  I am sure the Confederates doing the attacking looked upon Company H as easy pickings.  Little did the Rebs know, but soon found out, what the Henry Repeating rifle could do. 

According to the “Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, p 378 on May 16, 1864 “General Veatch had just arrived upon the ground, and was being shown the position to be taken by his division, on the right of the Second Division, when the enemy in heavy force charged down upon the right of the 66th Illinois Infantry, striking the flank.  This regiment which is armed in part with the Henry rifle, by a stubborn resistance, and a steady, cool fire, checked the enemy’s advance, and gave me time to throw forward to its support and directly to the enemy’s front, the balance of the Second Brigade and part of the Third.”  On May 27 the regiment was engaged again as skirmishers.  For most of the next several months the 66th was engaged performing skirmish duty and losing several men in the process. (3) 

Private Prosper Bowe was a member of Company D that was engaged in fighting near Atlanta.  He writes to his sister on July 28th, 1864.  His description of the fighting is very interesting.  He is describing the fighting of July 22, 1864.  The 66th were ordered to the rear and to protect the supply train.  No sooner had the 66th got into position than the rebels came out of the woods advancing across the open field.  Bowe writes, “Not a man faltered and when the order was given to open on them we started our sixteen shooters to work.  The first column in front of us nearly all fell with the first two or three volleys but they stood their ground well.  They were bound to get our trains but we had something to say about that.  We will fight for our supplies if nothing else but as luck would have it the Rebs fell back just as we had got out of ammunition.  I stood and fired ninety rounds without stopping.  My gun barrel was so hot that I could not touch it.  Spit on it and it would siz.  There was seven hundred rebels buried in front of our regiment and the ground was covered with wounded.”  Bowe goes on to mention that reinforcements came from the right and they got a new supply of ammunition.  The Rebs had captured two of the Union batteries.  This is the same fighting that is depicted on the famous print of Don Troiani’s where the 66th Illinois with their Henry Repeating rifles are helping to retake DeGress’ Battery.  The men of the 66th Illinois Infantry were part of Mersey’s Brigade assigned to the task. Bowe writes his sister, “We were then ordered to the right on a double quick nearly two miles.  We charged then and took back our works and captured our batteries back again.  The rebels’ loss on that day was very heavy.”  (3) 

 I have been able to check an original copy of Barker’s 1905 book on the 66th Illinois Company D  and the following information is taken from it. “December 16th members of the Sixty-six and Company D began to re-enlist for the war in the Veteran service, and on December 23rd fully 500 men had re-enlisted and were mustered in as Veterans by Captain T. D. Mitchell, United States Mustering Officer, of the Second Brigade.  Previous to this time the greater portion of Company D and the Regiment, had discarded their “target rifles” and purchased the celebrated “Henry Rifle,” or seventeen shooter, at their own expense, which cost the men $50 each, the men owning their guns, the Government furnishing the cartridges.  On January, 1864, the Company and Regiment left Pulaski, and marched via Petersburg and Lynnville to Columbia, Tennessee. ...On January 22nd we received four months pay and $100 Veteran bounty. ....Company D and the Sixty-six Illinois, Western Sharpshooters, had the honor on the 9th of May(1864), of opening the fighting of the Army of the Tennessee in this campaign(Atlanta), at Ball’s Knob, Snake Creek Gap and Resaca, Ga., unaided and almost unsupported of driving General Wheeler’s cavalry and brigade of rebel infantry through Snake Creek Gap, and holding until night the heights of Resaca.  In this engagement is where Company D’s repeating rifles were used to good effect.  On this campaign to Atlanta, Company D was under fire for one hundred and twenty days, and participated in not less that ten or fifteen pitched battles, and skirmishes innumerable, the Regiment losing 225 officers and men killed and wounded, Company D losing one officer killed, George M. Baldwin, two officers wounded, R. J. Williamson, one of whom died of his wounds, Captain John H. Andrews, and eight or ten men killed and wounded.  Among the regimental officers, mortally wounded was Colonel P. E. Burke, and severely wounded was Major A. K. Campbell.” (3)  The men of the 66th Illinois no sooner get their Henry rifles and they are thrown in the thick of things many times fighting their own way into and out of battles, coming out as the victors. 

Barker also writes of a couple men that are taken prisoner but before surrendering they destroy their Henry rifles to prevent their capture and use by the Rebels.  “Orderly Sergeant Albert C. Thompson, and John Randal, while in action at the battle of Dallas, Ga., May 27, 1864, were taken prisoner.  The Company was drawn up in line of battle, and had advanced, when Thompson and Randall dropped into a rebel rifle pit for protection.  About that time the command was given to fall back.  The “boys” did not hear the command, but stuck to their rifle pits, and worked their seventeen shooters for all they were worth against a large force of rebels who were advancing upon them, and ordering them to surrender, which they were forced to, but not until they had used up their last cartridge, and bent the barrels and broken the locks of their seventeen shooters when they surrendered to a mad lot of fellows, who discovered the fact that there were only two “Yank” soldiers, who had caused ten or twelve of their men to “bite the dust.”  They were taken to the Rebel General Pat Claybourne’s headquarters, who was very mad at them for not surrendering instead of holding out to the last against such odds as was opposed to them, and then had to eventually surrender.  They were pushed back to the rear of the Confederate Army to Atlanta, Macon, Milledgeville, Ga., and at last into that “hell hole,” Andersonville prison pen, where for months and months they were subjected to the horrors of a living death, until they were finally exchanged, near the close of the war.” (3) This is a classic case where a couple determined men armed with a Henry rifle could hold up a greater number.  It is also a rare example where a couple of men from the 66th ended up in Andersonville but before they surrendered they had the presence of mind to destroy their Henry to deny the enemy of its use. 

From the field near Atlanta on September 6, 1864 Captain William S. Boyd writes; “As soon as we arrived at the front the regiment was deployed as skirmishers, and advanced.  We soon came upon the rebel cavalry, driving them before us into Resaca, six miles, killing and capturing seventy-six rebels. ....... On the morning of the 19th the Regiment was sent out in advance as skirmishers.  On the same day we occupied Decatur, Ga., six companies sent on picket during the night.  On the 20th the command advanced toward Atlanta; we moved three miles.  On the 21st we advanced again a short distance.  On the 22nd we were ordered to move to the extreme left.  After marching two miles we met the enemy’s pickets.  Their force soon made an attack upon our lines.  We had a severe engagement, lasting nearly two hours.  The enemy was repulsed and withdrew from the field.  Our loss was ten killed and forty-four wounded.  We captured two hundred and ten prisoners.  As soon as the engagement was over here, the command was ordered to support a Division of the Fifteenth Corps.  We double-quicked some two miles, and recaptured the works taken by the enemy.  (In this engagement we regret that Captain Boyd for the benefit of future generations, does not give a little of his own personal exploits, of his command in recapturing four guns, twenty-pound Parrotts belonging to DeGress’ Battery, and how he loaded one of the pieces, and not ramming the charge home, in attempting to fire it, bursted it.  This is why Birge’s Western Sharpshooters know they recaptured DeGress’ Battery.---Editor) (3)

Ren Barker also writes about twelve men of the Regiment that were armed with the seventeen shooters that became the personal escort of General Dodge. “General Dodge’s Escort.  Captain William S. Boyd, Commander.  Was organized while the command was lying at Corinth, Miss., and was composed of first-class picked men, tried and true, who did not fear man or the devil, and were armed with the celebrated seventeen shooter, under the command of Captain William S. Boyd of Birge’s Western Sharpshooters, who continued as General Dodge’s escort on the Pulaski campaign, on the Atlanta campaign, on “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” and through the Carolinas to Washington, D. C., on the Grand Review, May 24, 1865.  The boys in escort from Company D, Sixty-six Illinois, Birge’s Sharpshooters, were M. A. Randall, Percival R. Dix, Lon Vincent, John S. Randall, George Yerrington, O. A. Baird, Michael Whalen, Dallas Brewster, Mace Vermett, Thomas Gleason, George Thornton, Jefferson S. Dowd.” (3) 

Company D held their first reunion in 1884.  Ren Barker brought with him the weapon that was valued by all of the members of Company D.  “Ren was accompanied by his old friend in war and companion in peace, the Henry Rifle, carried by him through the war.  The “Old Bull Dog” bore the names of the battles, skirmishes and marches of the Company, neatly engraven on its brass mountings.  It was handled carefully and reverently by all, and is prized by the owner above money.” (3)

 In another report in the “Report of the Proceedings of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee” it also mentions the 64th Illinois Infantry with their Henry Repeating rifle recapturing DeGress’ Battery. “There was one regiment in that Second Brigade, Second Division, Sixteenth Army Corps, that was deployed as skirmishers, extending far beyond the front of the brigade to the left, according to General Dodge’s command at that time that we must extend the line so as to protect the left flank.  That regiment was armed with Henry rifles, or as we say, sixteen shooters, and their fire was simply terrific.  Some of the prisoners that fell into our hands that day after this repulse said, “What kind of guns have you, anyway? These are the first guns we ever saw that fired without intermission.”  This source goes on to say, “At this junction General Logan hastened to General Dodge and asked for a brigade to retake the lost line and to recapture the guns.  The Second Brigade, Second Division, Sixteenth Army Corps, was chosen, the regiment armed with sixteen shooters.”   In this same source “Major Woods:--On behalf of my regiment, the Sixty-fourth Illinois, which carried those sixteen-shooters, I want to thank you for this magnificent tribute to their bravery.” (3)

 The use of Henry armed troops was used many times to charge and overwhelm the enemy with massive firepower.  Unfortunately many units armed with Henry Repeating rifles also suffered several casualties because of having the Henry Repeating rifle.  These units usually were deployed to the most dangerous part of the lines.  From April 29, 1864 to September 6, 1864 the 66th lost six commissioned officers another six were wounded.  Thirty-eight enlisted men were killed while 140 were wounded.  Throughout Sherman’s March to the Sea the WSS were deployed mostly as skirmishers and had several brief exchanges with the Rebs.  The WSS followed the same course of action during the Carolina Campaign.  Their Henry Repeating rifles usually got this regiment a choice spot wherever the fight was located.  The information concerning the 66th Illinois Infantry can be found in Lorenzo Barker’s book “Western Sharpshooters” 1905 and 1994, Barkers diary, the Illinois Adjutant General’s Report, Official Records of the Civil War. (3)

 There is a brief account about the Henry Repeating rifles of the 66th not being used by the 66th but by Company C of the 81st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  This account was written by Corporal Charles Wright of Company C in 1887 in his book “A Corporal’s Story”.  This took place outside of Dallas, Georgia. “The 66th Illinois came up, and as they could not get into the ditch, they laid down in our rear.  Some of the men handed their sixteen shooters to our men, and a tremendous fire was kept up along the whole line.  In the flash of one of Welker’s guns I glanced to the right and beheld, if I am not greatly mistaken, Comrade T.R. Willis pumping death into the rebels’ ranks with a borrowed sixteen shooter.  The Confederates made several attempts at different points to pierce our lines, but every attempt was repulsed, convincing themselves that assaults on the Union lines meant nothing but disaster to them; they finally desisted, and the 2nd division had no more midnight fights at Dallas.” (3) This is a unique account where Henry owners loaned their repeaters to a regiment already in position.

The WSS participated to almost the very end of the conflict. They were at Bentonville, N.C. on March 20, at Goldsboro March 23 and assisted in the capture of Raleigh April 13.  On may 24, 1865 the WSS participated in the Grand Review at Washington, D.C.  the regiment left Washington June 3 for Louisville, KY arriving on the 8th. July 7, 1865 the Regiment was mustered out of the service by Captain W.B. Guthrie at Camp Logan, KY. It then proceeded by cars to Camp Butler where it was paid off July 15 and discharged and the men bade each other adieu never to meet again as the Sixty-Six Regiment of Illinois Infantry. (7)

The WSS used their Henry Repeating rifles from the time they had acquired them in late 1863 to the end of the war. There is no doubt that having sixteen or seventeen cartridges in their rifle saved their lives many times. However because of their being armed with the Henry Repeating Rifle they were called upon for duty that may have put their lives in greater danger than if they would have been armed with the common arm of the day.


Andrew L. Bresnan, Historian



1.  Barker, Lorenzo A. (1905). With the Western Sharpshooters.


2.  National Archive Records Group 393...letters sent relating to the Organization of Volunteer Regiments, July 1861-September 1861, pp304-305

3.  Bresnan, Andrew L., “The Henry Repeating Rifle: The Weapon of Choice! Usage of the Henry Repeating Rifle In the Civil War 1861-1865” , October 14, 2013        http://44henryrifle.webs.com/civilwarusage.htm

4.  Bresnan, Andrew L., Historian and Researcher Henry Repeating Rifle October 14, 2013.

5. Barker, Lorenzo A. (1862-1863) Diary of Lorenzo A. Barker.

6. Quarterly Ordnance Reports 1863-1864 national Archives of the United States, Microfilm Publication, 1281 rolls 6-7.

7.  “Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois” State Printers, Springfield, Illinois 1900.