Uberti 1860 Henry
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- Last updated: 10/07/2017
My first encounter with the Henry rifle was a photograph on the cover of a Uberti catalogue over a quarter of a century ago. I knew nothing of the history of this firearms icon but I knew I had to have one. I am now on my fourth example, having disposed of the first three in moments of weakness, but I can honestly say this one would be the last rifle I would sell from my cabinet.
Henry was born in Claremont, New Hampshire, on 22nd March, 1821. At the age of 16 he entered service at the custom gun shop of J.B. Ripley & Co. as an apprentice, then later moved to Windsor, Vermont, to another gun shop, which was also associated with the sewing machine business. His experience soon led to an appointment at the U.S. National Armoury in Springfield, Massachusetts and from there to the armoury of Robbins, Kendal & Lawrence back in Windsor. It was in this latter position that Henry came into contact with the Jennings breech-loading repeating rifle, itself a modified version of the Hunt rifle. The Jennings used ‘rocket ball’ ammunition, whereby a charge of powder was placed in the hollow base of a lead bullet, ignited by a percussion cap on the external nipple. While the ‘ammunition’ was fed from a tubular magazine, a new percussion cap had to be fitted for each shot. The power of the cartridge was limited to the small amount of powder that could be accommodated.
Further improvements to the Jennings by Smith & Wesson led to the introduction of the Volcanic rifle and pistol, which replaced the external cap with a primer seated in the base of the bullet. In 1855 the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company was established with one Oliver Fisher Winchester, a clothing manufacturer, as a major stockholder. When the company hit financial problems shortly afterwards the assets were sold to Winchester, who moved everything to New Haven, Connecticut, and renamed the business the New Haven Arms Company. Employed as plant superintendent at New Haven was Tyler Henry.
Henry was given the task of improving the Volcanic arms and he began by looking at the lowpowered Volcanic ammunition. Smith & Wesson had recently introduced their .22 rimfire self- contained metallic cartridge and Henry’s brief was to come up with a more powerful version of this cartridge.
The result was the Henry Flat .44 rimfire (cartridges had an ‘H’ head stamp in honour of Henry), using a 216-grain lead bullet backed by 26-grains of black powder contained in a copper case. Although still relatively weak by today’s standards, the new ammunition was a marked improvement over the Volcanic offering. Power was increased, gone was the need for percussion caps and the problem of gas escaping from the breech was all but eliminated. This new, larger (longer and of greater diameter than the .41 rocket ball) ammunition necessitated a complete overhaul of the rifle. A larger bore was obvious, along with longer and stronger frame, improved mechanism and an extraction method. In essence a complete new rifle was the result and Henry was granted a patent for his invention on 16th October, 1860.
Experiments were made with iron frames but only a small number were produced with brass becoming the norm. As was customary at the time, the patent was assigned to the manufacturer, Winchester, without monetary compensation. Instead, Henry elected to forego his annual salary of $1500.00 and take a share of the profits from the manufacture of the rifle. Over the next five-years he received a total of $15,000.00, precisely double what he would have taken in salary. Early setbacks meant that manufacture of the rifle did not commence in earnest until mid-1862 and by the time production ceased, some 14,000 units had left the factory. Although never officially adopted in any quantity by the Union Army during the Civil War, some units were issued with the Henry and more were purchased privately. Coming up against the firepower of these rifles, the Confederate troops were said to have called it “That damned Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week”.
Production of this rifle, with its barrel and magazine tube fashioned from a single piece of steel, was obviously a complex and costly process back in the 1860s. With today’s CNC machinery the procedure is somewhat facilitated, so that Uberti are able to produce an almost exact (apart from the centre fire bolt) copy of the Henry rifle.
The rifle arrived with plastic covers on the sides of the brass frame, something I have not seen before from Uberti, which left some light staining when removed. If you are the type who likes your old World guns to have a patina commensurate with use then this will not be a problem.
I also know that the brass can be polished back to new with little effort. The barrel/ magazine assembly is black and shows a moderate gloss and all metal edges on the gun are well defined. Wood to metal fit is first class. The hammer and lever/trigger guard are case coloured and the rifle has a classic Winchester-style plain brass buttplate. I have seen versions of this rifle offered with a trapdoor in the plate over an aperture in the butt for cleaning rods. Sights are basic, as per the original, with a chunky white metal front fixed to the collar at the muzzle. The rear is a ladder arrangement graduated, rather optimistically, to eight hundred yards. Those unfamiliar with the rifle are immediately struck by the absence of a loading port on the right side of the frame. The magazine tube has a slit along the length of its underside for all but the five inches or so at the muzzle end, exposing the spring. When empty, a brass button in this slit rests up against the frame. To load, push the button towards the muzzle and when it reaches its extremity, turn it to the left (looking from underneath) and let go. It will remain there, allowing you to load the cartridges rim first into the tube. When doing so, it is best not to hold the barrel vertically and drop them in but to keep the tube at a shallow angle.
When you have the required amount in position, push the brass button towards the muzzle and turn it back to lineup with the slit in the tube. At this point it is important not to let the button go but to lower it gently into place.
The strength of the spring combined with the weight of the plunger has been known to detonate cartridges in the magazine if it is allowed to go down under its own tension.
The front portion of the barrel shroud/tube is prevented from turning during use by a spring-loaded catch that sits in a notch at the muzzle.
Every example of these rifles that I have encountered has very sharp corners at the end of the slit in the magazine tube and it did not take me long to gently round these off with a needle file. Doing so will prevent that sharp corner from cutting your thumb as you turn the brass follower to load. The overall package is a superb recreation of one the most important developments in firearms history.
Almost everyone will be familiar with the operation of a lever action rifle, where each activation of the lever cocks the rifle, ejects the spent case and loads another cartridge into the breech. The slight quirk with the Henry is that every time you work the lever, that little brass button moves towards the frame as another cartridge is removed from the magazine, and if you are not aware of it, then it will stop when it reaches the hand holding the barrel. Not too important during leisurely shooting but could cost you precious seconds if you are shooting a CAS competition. You soon get used to leaving a small gap between the web of your hand and the magazine tube, allowing the button to slide through. The magazine will hold thirteen .44/40 cartridges, plus one in the breech if needed, more than enough for any CAS stage. Originals, with the shorter .44 Henry Flat cartridge in the same length magazine, held sixteen plus one.
The .44 Winchester Centre Fire (WCF) cartridge, to give it its proper name, is fairly puny by modern rifle standards and is often referred to as a ‘pistol calibre’, as it has been a standard offering in Colt single action revolvers, amongst others, since 1878. Whilst stronger lever action rifles will handle more potent examples of this cartridge, the Henry, and its successor the Model 1866, with their toggle link actions and brass frames are best used with moderate charges. Indeed, Uberti do not offer their brass framed rifles in centre fire magnum versions. Over the years I have found that the standard commercially available 200-grain bullet, backed by around eight-grains of Unique powder, performs quite well in these guns. Fairly decent accuracy can be achieved out to one hundred yards or so but after that a little practice and skill is required. With the rifle coming in at a shade over nine pounds, felt recoil with the above load is fairly mild. Trigger pull was around the six-pound mark. As with all of these ‘old time’ rifles, they should be tried, at least once, with black powder loadings. Recoil is somewhat stiffer with black powder and you have the smoke and fouling to contend with. But it’s a great feeling. Should you wish to shoot black powder rapidly, in a competition for example, the barrel on these rifles gets hot. This, along with that open magazine tube, was one reason for the modifications, which turned the Henry into the Winchester Model 1866.
There are a number of variations of this rifle available from Henry Krank and they can be found in their catalogue or on the web site.
With today’s inclination towards black rifles with gizmos hanging from every appendage, the Henry rifle’s uncluttered lines are, to my eyes, a thing of beauty. But then, that’s just the opinion of an old shooter steeped in the lore of the Old West.
Each to his own, but next time you see someone along the line shooting one of these guns, go ask if they will let you have a try. They almost certainly will and, who knows, you might like it!