While not the "perfect" lever-action repeating rifle, the Henry Rifle was the revolutionary culmination of two previous major lever-action repeater attempts and forged the way for the successful line of Winchester arms to follow. The Henry Rifle saw limited service in the American Civil War as well as the Indian Wars and was produced in an equally limited number of examples. The rifle fired an all-new cartridge from a then-hefty ammunition count contained under the barrel and had certain famous gunsmith names associated with her origins including that of Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson and Oliver Winchester.
To trace back the start of the Henry Rifle, one has to visit a part of the lives of the aforementioned gentlemen beginning with Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. Horace Smith took the basic principles inherent in the complex Lewis Jennings Rifle (itself based on the failed Walter Hunt 1848 Volition Repeating Rifle of lever-action and its "Rocket Ball" caseless ammunition) and produced an improved form through the "Volcanic" rifle and pistol lines. Jennings had purchased the Hunt patents in 1849, added some workability into the system and produced small quantities of his rifle through Robbins & Lawrence of Vermont. In turn, Smith & Wesson then purchased the Jennings patent from Robbins & Lawrence and - perhaps most importantly - poached their shop foreman, inventor Benjamin Tyler Henry (1821-1898) of whom the rifle was eventually named after.
Enter Winchester, Exit Smith & Wesson
With the foundation now in place, the burgeoning group needed the capital to further their Volcanic firearms endeavor. They incorporated to become the "Volcanic Repeating Arms Company" with several investors in the stable - chief among those was clothing businessman Oliver Winchester. By the end of 1856, the company had fallen on hard times and the Volcanic line proved a commercial failure, seeing only limited production. Prime for the taking, Winchester moved in and purchased the rest of the company, moved the production plant to New Haven, Connecticut, and changed its operating name to the "New Haven Arms Company" by the end of April 1857. Horace Smith left the reorganized firm and was rejoined a short time later by fellow Daniel Wesson to form the "Smith & Wesson Revolver Company". Nevertheless, the New Haven Arms Company proceeded under the direction of Benjamin Henry and production of the Volcanic Rifle continued for the time being. Henry furthered the development of a new rimfire cartridge and its corresponding lever-action rifle (based loosely on the Volcanic, retaining only its tubular magazine and breech mechanism) to fire it. The new cartridge became the ".44 Henry" and the new rifle became the "Henry Rifle" appearing in 1860. Production ranged from the 1850s to 1866 to which some 14,000 examples would be put into circulation before the end of it all. 900 Henry Rifles were produced in 1862 alone.
Henry Rifle Reach and the NHAC is No More
The Henry Rifle would find its way (in limited, unofficial service) with Union soldiers in the American Civil War. Of greater not, however, was that both it and the comparable Spencer Rifle would introduce the new "lever-action repeater" breech-loading firearm to the mass market, destroying the long-held tradition of single-shot, muzzle-loaded rifles then en vogue. The Henry Rifle would eventually serve as the starting point for the legendary Winchester Model 1866 just a few short years later for the New Haven Arms Company would be renamed once more to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company following the end of the Civil War.
The Lever-Action and the .44 Rimfire
At its core, the Henry Rifle was characterized by her lever-action, breech-loading design. Lever-action in that the operator need only pull the integrated lever handle in a downwards/forwards fashion to introduce a fresh cartridge into the chamber (this action also simultaneously removing any spent cartridges) while at the same time cocking the hammer in preparation to fire; breech-loading in that the cartridge was loaded from the rear of the receiver as opposed to a muzzle-loading weapon loaded from the front of the barrel. The caliber of choice was the custom .44 caliber rimfire cartridge known by many names including the ".44 Henry", the ".44 Rimfire", the ".44 Long Rimfire" and the "11x23R" - "R" for "rimfire".
The .44 Henry was an all-new cartridge design featuring 200 grain and an (originally) flat nose bullet tip backed by 25 grains of gunpowder. It received its name from the method of firing in which the firing pin struck the base of the cartridge "rim" as opposed to the base of the cartridge center (as in centerfire cartridges). The Henry Rifle utilized a long spring-fed, tubular magazine holding fifteen rounds of ready-to-fire ammunition. It was this feature that forced the Confederate soldier unlucky enough to face the Henry on a given day to quip "That damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week!" and oft-called the Union's "Sixteen Shooter". Reports placed the rate-of-fire of the Henry Rifle at approximately 24 rounds per minute, this of course assuming an experienced and trainer operator.
Henry Rifle Walk-Around
Externally, the Henry Rifle shared much of the appearance of the soon-to-be Winchester lever-action repeating rifle family line. The receiver featured strong lines and little in the way of detail with the exception of a few bolts. Early frames were constructed of iron while later frames switched over to the more classy-looking brass. The cocking lever made up the trigger ring/guard and sported a wide mouth oblong loop for a good firm pull with the trigger hand. The receiver contoured finely into a wooden walnut buttstock making up the grip and capped at the curved shoulder inset by a brass plate. The 24-inch octagonal barrel extended out from the forward portion of the receiver, strengthened by the underside tubular magazine running nearly the same length but sporting no foregrip. This lacking feature would make a hot barrel a concern for the operator within time. The hammer was noticeably protruding from the rear of the upper receiver and within easy reach of the trigger hand. Sights included the standard front post and a graduated rear of the flip-up type. There was no safety feature associated with the Henry Rifle, making it one unsafe weapon when loaded but not in use.
The American Civil War
During its Civil War tenure, the Henry Rifle was something of a prize for both sides of the conflict. It was somewhat readily available to those Union soldiers willing to pay for it by their own means for the rifle was never officially adopted into service by the Army. The fifteen-round repeating action gave a distinct advantage to the Northern troops when facing the single-shot, muzzle-loading Southerners. The Confederate soldier made do with what he was issued or could get his hands on - so this very rarely meant he handled the Henry Rifle. Even when if the Confederate soldier was lucky enough to capture a Henry, there was still the issue of finding a large enough ammunition supply to feed the weapon - the .44 Henry round was essentially custom to the rifle itself and found to be more plentiful in the North where it was manufactured. Despite its limited presence in the war, the Henry Rifle still found its way into the hands of "specialist" operators such as scouts, raiders or marauding parties. However, it was not featured in those massive concentrated troop formations so common to the conflict.