THE NEW ORIGINAL HENRY RARE CARBINE
THE “ASSAULT RIFLE” OF THE OLD WEST
A Confederate general called it “the rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week.” Henry Repeating Arms Company’s “New Original” is true to the 1860 pattern lever-action—the “assault rifle” of the Old West.
The history of the most American of any rifle design begins with two of the most-famous names in revolver history: Daniel Wesson and Horace Smith. Their efforts in developing the Volcanic Repeater, a lever-action pistol, led to the development of the Henry lever-action rifle—the predecessor of the Winchester legacy.
The team of Smith and Wesson patented the toggle-link action in 1854. It was used in the Henry and early Winchesters, including Models 1866, 1873 and 1876 rifles. When the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company folded, it left a Connecticut shirt-maker and major investor named Oliver Winchester holding what was left of the intellectual property and tooling.
FROM MAKING SHIRTS TO BUILDING RIFLES
When Oliver Winchester took over control of the Volcanic Arms Company in late 1856, he moved the operation to New Haven, Connecticut. He did two things that would alter the history of firearms in the world: He changed the name of the company to The New Haven Arms Company, and he hired Benjamin Tyler Henry as his shop foreman.
Henry had worked with the basic design earlier, having been shop foreman in the Robbins & Lawrence factory and producing the Jennings design. Henry went to work on improving the Smith & Wesson Volcanic design to fire a .44-caliber rimfire cartridge. Oliver Winchester was so impressed with the improvements designed by B.T. Henry that he named the rifle after him; and the Henry Rifle was born.
THE HENRY GOES TO WAR
The Henry rifle was a real game-changer. There were other repeating rifles and carbines introduced about the same time, such as the Spencer (which was built in much higher numbers and adopted by the Union Army), but it had a lower capacity and a slower rate of fire. The Henry was never officially adopted by the United States Army. However, when the Army headed south and invaded The Confederate States of America, many Henry rifles were purchased by well-financed individual soldiers, and a few units had several in their possession during the war.
The Confederates referred to the Henry as “that damn Yankee rifle that you load on Sunday and shoot all week.” It held 16+1 cartridges; to put that into context, the Army standard issue at the time was still a single-shot muzzle-loader. The soldier
with a Henry could fire all 16 rounds about as fast as (if not faster than) a soldier with a muzzle-loader could reload and get off a second shot. The Henry was the assault rifle of its day.
It was expensive to make and expensive to purchase, but it was revolutionary in its rate of sustained fire compared to the muzzle-loading muskets in use by both armies during the War Between the States.
The Henry rifle fired a rimfire cartridge commonly known as the .44 Henry, or .44 Henry Flat. Although other loads were produced, most common was a 216-grain bullet of .446-inch diameter loaded with black powder to approximately 1,125 fps.
Compared to a military musket ball of the era, the .44 Henry cartridge was not too impressive. However, having 16 of them in the magazine allowed an infantryman to lay down a lot of firepower. And, in a war situation, a wound will take a man out of the fight, along with whoever has to assist that wounded soldier off of the battlefield.
REFERRED TO THE HENRY AS “THAT DAMN
YANKEE RIFLE THAT YOU LOAD ON SUNDAY AND SHOOT ALL WEEK.”
The Henry rifle was a hit among soldiers who had access to them. After the war, as with the weapons used by soldiers in any war, the Henry transitioned well to civilian life.
HENRY GOES WEST
After the war was over and the dust had settled, many gun manufacturers folded shop. With surplus Spencers and other repeating rifles available as cheap war surplus, many companies just could not compete.
The Henry survived. It played a significant role in the settling of the American West following the war.
For those who could afford one, it offered a lot of firepower, compared to other readily available weapons. Along with other Winchester leverguns, the Henry played a role in the defeat of Custer’s 7th Calvary at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876. By that time, Winchester rifles had been upgraded with King’s patents for an improved magazine and the addition of a loading gate, but the Henry still served well on the battlefield in the hands of the American Indians—as it continued to do with farmers, ranchers and others who headed West during the latter part of the 19th century.
A man or woman alone on the prairie needed firepower in the face of fighting off enemies—often outnumbered, without a friend for several miles. Being able to fire a rapid succession of lethal shots was a matter of life and death. While no powerhouse, the Henry was also used to take game for the pot. The Henry action proved smooth and reliable and often meant the difference between abundance and starvation.
THE HENRY TODAY
The Henry Repeating Arms (HRA) Company made a name for itself in the latter part of the 20th century and continues to do so thus far in the 21st. HRA has been producing firearms for two decades now. It was initially established in Brooklyn, New York, and is now headquartered in Bayonne, New Jersey, with another manufacturing facility in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Henry excels at making smooth-running .22 rimfire leverguns.
While other American manufacturers have given up on .22 levergun production, Henry Repeating Arms has stepped in to fill that gap that desperately needed filling. It now also makes some excellent centerfire lever-action rifles chambered for the .327, .357, .41 and .44 Magnum cartridges; .45 Colt; .223, .243, .308, .30-30 and .45-70 cartridges; as well as a Mare’s Leg pistol, in both rimfire and centerfire versions.
MADE IN AMERICA ... OR NOT MADE AT ALL
The slogan of Henry Repeating Arms is, “Made in America or Not Made At All.” That philosophy is reflected in both the products and the attitudes of those running the company. I have many times had the pleasure of meeting with top executives of Henry Repeating Arms and have never met a finer bunch of patriotic Americans anywhere in the industry. They build their rifles, pistols and shotguns using American labor and with American walnut, brass and steel, and they take great pride in doing so.
A few years ago, HRA started producing its “The New Original Henry” rifle. While today there are modern production methods available that could have cut production costs—such as making the magazine tube and barrel from separate pieces of steel—Henry didn’t take those shortcuts. It produced the “The New Original Henry” as it should be produced: made from materials superior to those of the 19th-century originals but building the rifles true to form.
While the original Henry rifles of the 1860s were chambered for the .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge, that cartridge is long out of production. As a result, the folks at Henry Repeating Arms had to make an adaption ... by selecting the next best thing. The New Original Henry Rare Carbine is chambered for the centerfire cartridge .44-40 Winchester (originally called the .44 Winchester or the .44 WCF [Winchester Center Fire]). However, competitors didn’t want “Winchester” marked on their ammunition, so they called it “.44-40,” and the name stuck, with only the mechanical changes needed to fire the newer cartridge. The .44-40 was introduced by Winchester, along with the 1873 Winchester rifle, and has endured the test of time, being popular for many years as a rifle and handgun cartridge. Most ammunition sellers today erroneously list the .44-40 as a handgun cartridge, and it is frustrating to look online for the ammunition listed under rifle cartridges—where it should be—only to find it usually listed under the handgun ammunition section. However, the .44-40 was introduced in 1873 as a rifle cartridge. It has a slightly bottle-necked design, and it will always be a rifle cartridge, even though it works well when fired from a revolver.
THE SOLDIER WITH A HENRY COULD FIRE ALL 16 ROUNDS ABOUT AS FAST AS (IF NOT FASTER THAN) A SOLDIER WITH A MUZZLE-LOADER COULD RELOAD AND GET OFF A SECOND SHOT. THE HENRY WAS THE ASSAULT RIFLE OF ITS DAY.
I presently own both the brass-framed and the beautifully finished, case-colored “iron frame” models of Henry’s “New Original Henry” rifles, but I was anxious to try out the handier Rare Carbine version featured here.
The carbine has a barrel that is about 4 inches shorter than the rifle version; this makes the carbine a bit easier to handle while still having a magazine tube that accommodates 10 cartridges. The carbine version is also about a half-pound lighter than the rifle version, which is a welcome feature on the carbine that still weighs in at 8.5 pounds on my scale. The overall length of the New Original Henry Rare Carbine is only 39.5 inches, and it balances right at the front of the receiver (note: The New Original Henry brass-framed model is also available in .45 Colt).
The Rare Carbine version is produced only with the hardened brass receiver, which is superior to the brass used one and a half centuries ago, and has the same tensile strength as modern steel. The one-piece barrel/magazine tube is finished in beautiful, deep-blued, polished steel. The folding ladder rear and blade front sights are quick and easy to see. Other parts, such as the blued-steel hammer, trigger and lever, contrast nicely with the polished-brass receiver and crescent
buttplate, and the highly figured walnut stock is drop-dead gorgeous. In this era of black plastic stocks and painted metal, the fit, finish and materials used on this Henry carbine are like a breath of pure mountain air in a crowded subway tunnel.
While doing what I do for a living, most rifle boxes I open contain rifles that are as cold and black as a politician’s heart, but lifting the lid on this Henry box spurred a few moments of pure delight. The beauty and elegance of a firearm such as this are truly rare among today’s stamped, cast and molded modern firearms. This replica of 19th-century ordnance is very refreshing. But, as with any rifle worth its salt, the proof is in the shooting.
Feeding this Henry or any other rifle chambered for the .44-40 presents no problems. The cartridge was designed for smooth feeding, and there is no smoother lever action than the original toggle-link design pioneered 16 decades ago. This ammunition is available in both target-shooting type and hunting-/fighting-type loads.
I acquired some of each and also used a moderate handload of Titegroup powder under a cast lead bullet. Black Hills Ammunition produces some fine-shooting target loads, which are favored among competitive shooters, and I laid in a supply of the excellent Buffalo Bore fullpowered ammunition for the heavier loads.
Shooting the Original Henry Rare Carbine was a real pleasure. Recoil is mild, even with the fullpowered Buffalo Bore ammunition. The weight of the carbine absorbs recoil very well. The trigger was crisp and precise, releasing with just under 4 pounds of resistance. I fired the Henry on paper to measure accuracy at distances of 25 and then 50 yards. I rested the carbine atop a Target Shooting, Inc. Model 500 rifle rest, and accuracy was limited only by my vision. There is no easy way to mount a scope atop this Henry, but using the adjustable rear sight was sufficient—and authentic.
Depending on the ammunition, the Rare Carbine could place its shot on the 50-yard target very well, with an average for five five-shot groups at 2.03 inches from all six loads tested. I was well-satisfied with the accuracy performance of the Henry, because that is as good as I can do with open sights when shooting any rifle.
As expected, functioning was flawless. Cartridges fed from the 10-round magazine smoothly and fired without a hitch. Ejection was also flawless. Henry—both original designer Benjamin Henry and Henry Repeating Arms—got this one right.
The New Original Henry Rare Carbine is a version of the Henry that should have been built 16 decades ago but never was. All of its descendants were built in carbine versions, but never the Henry ... until now. GW Black Hills 200-grain Roundnose Flatpoint lead ammo performs outstandingly and comes in a cool, retro, Old West-style box.
The highly figured, fancy-grade American walnut stock is drop-dead gorgeous.
The Henry has a barrel-band blade front sight.
The beautifully polished brass receiver is made of specially formulated hardened brass and has the tensile strength of modern steel.
The .44-40 (left) is usually mistaken fora pistol cartridge but is, in fact, a rifle cartridge. Note the subtle bottleneck compared to thestraight-walled .45 Colt. The first revolver chamberedin .44-40—the Colt Frontier SixShooter—didn’tcome out until 1878. (Photo: RobbManning)
The toggle-link action is about as smooth-feeding as it gets.
The classic ladder rear sight is flipped up for long-range shooting. (Photo: Robb Manning)I
The authentic, old-style hammer provides reliable ignition. In the halfcock position (shown here), it serves as asafety.
The author, firing the Henry Original Rare CarbineI
The classic ladderstyle rear sight in the“down” position.
The toggle-link action: Cycling the lever forward ejects a spent case (if there’s one in the chamber) and cocks the hammer, and the magazine spring forces the next round into position on the follower. When the lever is cycled back, the fresh round is chambered, and the breech is closed.
Like all Henry Repeating Arms firearms, this Rare Carbine is “Made in America or Not Made at All.” (Photo: RobbManning)
The lever lock can be twisted 90 degrees so that it locks the lever in place. Here,it is shown in the “unlocked” position.
To load, press the brass follower all the way forward and then turn the barrel sleeve clockwise, as shown. The Rare Carbine holds 10 rounds of .44-40. (Photo: Robb Manning)
Buffalo Bore Ammunition is both powerful and accurate.