Guns of Many Voices

Wild West Magazine, October 1990
by Wayne R. Austerman

The 16-shot Henry Repeating rifle served frontiersmen well on "the drop edge of yonder"

After the Civil War the weapon called by Rebels "that damned Yankee rifle that can be loaded on Sunday and fired all week," the Henry repeating rifle, endured through the late 1860s as the "boss gun!' for men who lived on the frontier. There were few plains, basins or ranges between the Rio Bravo del Norte and the Columbia that did not see the sun catch the mellow glow of its brass frame or echo to the crack of its .44-caliber cartridges.

For as long as men had used firearms, they had felt the need of a light, handy weapon that would fire many times from one loading. Most attempts to fabricate such arms resulted in weapons that were unsafe or too complicated to be reliable or manufactured in any large numbers. The 1850s saw some progress made in the introduction of the celebrated Volcanic rifle in 1854.

The lever-action Volcanic rifles and pistols were intelligently conceived, but hampered by their erratic ammunition. The cartridge consisted of a conical lead projectile with a cavity in its base. The indentation held a light charge of powder and was seated with a perforated cork disc. A fulminate of mercury primer set in the disk's center provided ignition for the powder charge when struck by the gun's firing pin. While the Volcanic had perfected the basic action of the later Henry and Winchester rifles, it was too erratic a performer to win many adherents

The basic idea was not lost, however, and When B. Tyler Henry joined the reorganized New Haven Arms Company of Connecticut in 1857, he designed a cheap, reliable rimfire cartridge that made perfect fodder for the newly improved Henry rifle. It was a rimfire that detonated when the firing pin struck anywhere on the rim. Patented in October 1860, the repeater boasted 16 rounds ready in the magazine to be chambered, and the previous cartridge ejected with just a flick of the wrist.

The Henry won immediate fame in the Civil War, but surprisingly few sales resulted to the national government. Although several Union regiments were armed with the Henry, the authorities in Washington purchased only 1,731 of the repeaters, giving the lion's share of government patronage to the rival Spencer. Encouraging to the manufacturer, 880 of the 1,731 government arms were later bought by soldiers upon their discharge.

Many of those veterans headed westward in search of new opportunities. The Henry would go with them in 1865, but it was already a familiar sight on the frontier. As early as May 1863, one California dealer ordered 10 cases of Henrys, and wrote that even at $75 apiece, the repeaters were selling well. Territorial Governor William F. Arny of New Mexico received an engraved Henry as a gift from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in August of that year, and by September 1864, at least one shipment of 500 rifles had reached Chicago for sale on the Western markets. The Chouteau Trading Company at Fort Benton, Montana Territory, was also selling Henrys that year. It quickly became a popular arm among the plainsmen. Serial No. 504 still survives, bearing the inscription "F.W. Binger Salt Creek, Neb. 1864."

By the spring of 1865 the war was over and thousands of surplus Spencers flooded the market at low prices the Henry could never hope to match. Still, many men who were headed west to what was commonly called "the drop edge of yonder" preferred the 16-shooter to the cheaper Spencer with its 7-round magazine. One of the earliest postwar emigrants to carry the Henry was George Ray, who joined a small train of 25 wagons with his family as it braved the heart of the Sioux country in the Dakotas. One August day in 1865, Ray mounted a horse and left the train to hunt antelope, leaving his wife to drive the wagon. He was two miles away from the caravan when it came under attack and a band of warriors sought to cut him off from his companions. Captain James B, Loomis and a detachment of the 7th Michigan Cavalry arrived on the scene a few hours later and broke the siege, but by then Ray had staged a one-man demonstration of what the repeater could do against heavy odds.

"He had a Henry rifle ... a 16-shooter," reported Loomis, ...and he determined to make a fight of it. The Redskins rode in a circle as usual out of range, waiting for him but he not wishing to waste a shot, held his fire for them. Seeing that he did not shoot, they began drawing in their line until Ray knew that they were in range and he fired, killing one the first shot:' By that time he had come within sight of the wagons and saw them surrounded by more Sioux. "Then he told me that hope died out in his heart:' wrote the cavalryman, "but he knew his fate if taken so determined to fight until he was killed. For two hours and a half, he fought them single-handed, breaking both lines and gaining camp in safety." His wife had stood by the wagon and given covering fire with a Wesson rifle as he made his break for the train.

That summer of 1865 saw the Henry in use on every quarter of the frontier. Albert J. Fountain, a New Mexico settler, saved his own life and ended the careers of several Navaho warriors with a 16-shooter during that bloody season. Fountain had originally come to that arrid territory as a trooper in the 1st California Infantry when General James E. Carleton marched east from the Pacific to secure New Mexico and Arizona from Confederate invasion in 1862. Two years later Lieutenant Fountain was mustered out and decided to make a home in that savage expanse of desert and sierra. Commissioned a captain in the territorial militia, he soon won a name as a seasoned Indian-fighter.

In June 1865, Chief Ganado Blanco led his Navahos off the reservation and began raiding the Rio Grande settlements below Santa Fe. For two weeks Fountain and his scouts patrolled the river's fords, hoping to ambush the hostiles. Early in July he and a lone companion, Corporal Val Sanchez, probed the mountains that fronted the river to the east of the dreaded Jornada del Muerto a wasteland of rock and scrub that ran for 90 miles above the village of Dona Ana. Both men carried revolvers and the Henry rifles that had been recently issued to the militia. They picked up the Indians' trail and followed it out of the mountains and across the Jornada as they swung northward. When the braves grew wary and back-tracked to find their pursuers, Fountain and Sanchez made a break for a mountain pass that led to Fort McRae, the nearest army post.

Riding hard, they seemed to have shaken off their enemies by the time they reached the narrow defile. Fountain was suspicious and feared that an ambush already awaited them in its thorned gullet. Taking the lead, he cautioned Sanchez to take another route to the fort if he was bushwhacked. The officer entered the gloomy notch in the mesa with his Henry at the ready.

He had almost reached the head of the pass when his horse shied, and he looked up into the bore of a Navaho rifle. The brave fired just as the horse spooked, and the bullet tore into its head, killing the animal instantly. Fountain was pinned beneath its carcass. "The first shot was followed by a volley and as I went down crushed and stunned under my dead horse, an arrow passed through my left shoulder, a bullet entered my left thigh, and an arrow severed the artery in my right forearm:' recalled Fountain. "As I lay crushed and bleeding the Indians rushed on me. The pass was so narrow that but one could approach me at a time. Lying on my back under my dead horse I fired shot after shot from my repeating rifle. I had no occasion to look through the sight as my assailants were not three yards from me."

In less than a minute, Fountain said, he had pumped 10 rounds from his smoking Henry and broken the Indians' will to fight. The last brave he saw rushed up to within six feet of him with lance upraised. Fountain extended the Henry in one hand, pistol-fashion, and dropped him in mid-stride. The tribesmen kept watch from a safe distance as Fountain recharged the gun's magazine and used its sectioned cleaning rod to wind a tourniquet around his bleeding arm. Sanchez had bolted for Fort McRae, and when help reached Fountain the next morning, the Navahos had departed. For the next 30 years Fountain would play an increasingly prominent role in New Mexico affairs, becoming one of the leading political figures in the territory before his mysterious murder in 1896. He owed his full life and distinguished career to Tyler Henry's magnificent repeater.

The Henry continued to enjoy mounting popularity in the immediate postwar years. Veteran plains freighter August Santleben of Texas carried one of the first 16-shooters to enter the state, having paid gunsmith Charles Hummel of San Antonio the staggering price of $95 for it. The weapon helped to guard his Chihuahua-bound caravans until he replaced it with a more powerful .44-40 Model 1873 Winchester several years later.

Every man who lived or traveled on the Comanche-plagued Texas frontier came to value the repeater, although it could not always guarantee his survival. In September 1867, cattleman Oliver Loving and a companion were ambushed by Indians on the Pecos River as they scouted ahead of their trail herd. Loving had a Henry and his friend carried a Colt revolving rifle. Despite a mortal wound, Loving held the warriors at bay until help could arrive. Others were luckier. Prussian emigrant Jacob Huffman of Castroville, Texas, joined a posse in pursuit of Indian stock thieves and brought smoke on the band with his Henry when the pursuers caught up with them in the hills northwest of San Antonio.

Less savory citizens also favored the lever-action. "Old Man James" led a band of 25 outlaws on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River near Fort Griffin. Each man was armed with two Colts and a Henry. The brigands were finally dealt with by a mixed force of troops and settlers led by Colonel George Buell. The posse attacked the outlaws' stronghold in force and killed seven of them before the rest fled in defeat.

The Texas outlaws were small-time hardcases compared to another denizen of the Southwest. James Hobbs, a professional scalp hunter, carried two Henrys with him on his Indian expeditions in Arizona and Nevada. In an 1868 fight at Owens Lake, Nev., he and his companions drove in excess of 100 Paiutes into the water and killed more than half of them as they thrashed in the shallows.

The Henry proved equally popular on the Central Plains and in the Upper Missouri River country. When the Andrew Simmons party traveled down the Missouri by boat in 1866, it was threatened by a large party of Sioux on the riverbank. "Each of our Henry rifles contained sixteen cartridges when we opened fire:' exulted Simmons, "and the distance being about one hundred and fifty yards to the bluff, which was literally swarming with savages, not more than ten minutes elapsed until every one of them had disappeared. The fearful death howl, however, assured us that our fire had not been in vain."

The Sioux country continued to hear the Henry's voice as more of the weapons filtered upriver to the forts and trading posts. The celebrated Luther S. "Yellowstone" Kelly purchased a Henry carbine and stock of cartridges at Fort Berthold in Montana Territory in 1868 for $50. "With the Henry and the stubby little .44 caliber cartridges that went with it. "I killed many a buffalo, as well as other game, and it stood me in good hand when I was forced to defend myself in encounters with hostile Indians," Kelly wrote years later.

Kelly's carbine proved its value soon afterward when he contracted to carry the mail between Fort Berthold and Fort Stevenson. Ambushed by a pair of Sioux, he relied on the Henry to bring him safely through the encounter. At 30 yards one brave opened fire with a shotgun while the other lofted arrows at the dispatch rider. Kelly leaped from his horse and dropped the first Indian with a snap shot from the hip. The other sought cover behind a tree and they traded fire until one of the .44s broke the brave's arm. Clutching an arrow in his good hand, the Sioux rushed the courier, but the Henry put an abrupt halt to his attack.

Word of Kelly's encounter spread, and Colonel Regis de Trobriand recalled that Henrys became standard equipment for virtually all the mail carriers who served the Montana posts. Alexander Toponce, a contract freighter who hauled supplies to such isolated garrisons as Fort Union and Fort Benton, issued Henrys to his teamsters. In one fight with the Sioux, they held off several hundred braves and killed or wounded at least 50 with the blunt-nosed little .44 cartridges.

The Henry's reputation was such that even Army officers with ready access to government issue Spencers opted to purchase the civilian arm for their own use. Lieutenant A.H. Ward of the 36th Infantry served in Montana in 1866 and credited his Henry with saving his life in two near encounters. Lieutenant James A. Rothermel of the 8th Cavalry obtained a Henry while posted at Fort Boise, Idaho Territory, in 1868. His Henry was not so lucky for him as Ward's. While trying to club a rabbit with its butt, Rothermel jarred the hammer loose on a chambered round and mortally wounded himself.

The most prominent junior officer to carry a Henry was probably Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher of the 3rd Infantry, a unit whose rank and file carried Spencer rifles. Beecher was photographed with some brother officers of the 7th Cavalry at Fort Wallace, Kan., in the spring of 1867, proudly holding his Henry. A year later he organized and led a company of picked volunteers against the Cheyenne in eastern Colorado. Most of the men carried Spencers, but there were a sprinkling of Henrys, and Beecher's repeater was probably in his hands when he was mortally wounded on an Arickaree River island that now bears his name in commemoration of the epic fight his command waged there.

In the late 1860s, the construction of a transcontinental railroad line brought thousands of men flooding into the high plains and mountain country beyond the Missouri, and, the Henry came with them in greater numbers. General Grenville M. Dodge, chief of the Union Pacific Railroad project, led a Henry-armed 1865 exploratory expedition into the Powder River country to chart a route for the rails and found a trafficable pass through the Laramie Mountains while his repeaters held the suspicious Cheyenne at bay. It was the start of an enduring partnership between the railroaders and the rimfires. Although the Army provided some troops to guard the construction crews, Indian attack was a constant problem, and the men often had to lay aside their tools and transits to mount watch with surplus Springfields and Spencers as well as the Henrys. Pioneer photographer A.J. Russell recorded the Union Pacific's westward progress in a series of remarkably clear and vivid pictures of the men and the harsh land they challenged. One image captured Engine No. 23 and its proud crew at Wyoming Station on a bright day in 1868. Gleaming with polish, and sporting a huge rack of elk antlers from its headlight, the locomotive and its tender were obvious objects of pride, much like the Henry rifle that one of the railroaders displayed for Russell's lens.

The construction crews and troops had to be fed, and this provided work for a legion of commercial hunters who killed buffalo by the thousand for their rations. One of the most prominent was Billy Comstock, who dropped the bison with his Henry by hunting them at the dead run while on horseback. He was bested only by William F. Cody, who preferred the more powerful .50-70 Springfield rifle to the light repeater. Cody and his Springfield, dubbed "Lucretia Borgia," once fired a match at Fort McPherson, Kan., with Lieutenant George P. Belden, who favored the Henry. Cody won $50 by beating the officer in 10 shots each at 200 yards. Belden then retrieved his cash by edging out Cody in a second shoot at 100 yards. He freely admitted that the Springfield had the reach on his .44.

The Indians also admired the brass-framed rifles, and they quickly acquired them by conquest or barter. The Cheyenne chieftain High Backed Wolf was carrying Henry No. 2729 when he was killed in battle at Platte Creek Bridge, Wyoming Territory, on July 25, 1865. In December 1866, the Sioux captured a brace of Henrys from two civilian scouts who were killed in the Fetterman Massacre near Fort Phil Kearney, another post in the territory. Capturing the repeaters in open battle was always a risky proposition, but sometimes the braves scored easy triumphs over tenderfeet, whose prudence was much less marked than their firepower. In 1868, a group of young Missourians set up a wood yard to supply riverboats with fuel as they made the runs up and downriver near Fort Union. An ostensibly friendly band of Sioux entered their camp and asked to inspect their Henrys. The greenhorns obliged and died under their own guns.

A large proportion of the Indian Henrys reached the tribes through trade, both legal and illicit. The post trader at Fort Bridget, Montana Territory, was selling .44 rimfire cartridges to the Shoshone as early as the fall of 1869, and he was but one of many who dealt in guns and ammunition in trade to the American Indians. So brisk was the commerce that the government felt obliged to exert some measure of control over it to prevent the hostiles from becoming too well armed. In November 1872, the chief Indian agent for Montana Territory, A.J. Simmons, issued a blanket ban on the sale of breechloading guns and ammunition to the Indians-which was cheerfully ignored by many merchants. By March 1873, the Piegan were acting restless and obtaining "all the 'Henry Rifles' and fixed ammunition possible," reported a nervous agent. Trader Nelson Story dealt extensively with the friendly Crow, and, in June 1873, reported that he had sold 2,000 rounds of Henry ammunition to them in the past six months. The Crow were blood enemies of the Sioux, so that ammunition probably went to benefit the whites; but there was still an alarming number of repeaters turning up among the hostiles.

James W. Schultz, a confirmed romantic, traveled up the Missouri in the 1870s to abandon his old identity and live among the Blackfeet, and found the Henry to be a very common arm among them. He was particularly impressed by William Jackson, a mixed-blood Blackfoot with Scot and French ancestry who carried a Henry as he scouted for the Army against the Sioux and led his own people against the enemy tribe. In one lone encounter with the Sioux he faced five warriors with his Henry and dropped three of them with dispatch in a running fight. The last warrior was spilled from the saddle at 100 yards in a piece of shooting that many trained marksmen might have envied. Jackson's Henry claimed more Sioux lives in June 1876 when he served with Major Reno's battalion of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

Despite the most diligent efforts to police the arms trade and keep the repeaters out of hostile hands, the treacherous commerce continued to flourish. As early as May 1871, General William T. Sherman was gloomily contemplating the situation in the Southwest, where "a system exists of trading the stolen horses & mules to Kansas & New Mexico for arms and ammunition for these marauding parties are all armed with Sharps, Spencer, and Henry Rifles, and are supplied with patent cartridges." Two years later a Crow warrior reported to an Indian agent that, during a fight with the Sioux on the Bighorn River, he concluded that "the Sioux must have good white men friends on the Platte and Missouri. They get...Winchester, Henry and Spencer rifles .... We took some of these guns from those we killed."

The rimfire cartridges used by the Henry were not intended for reloading, unlike the later stronger-cased .44-40 center fire rounds used in the Model 1873 Winchester (these had a replaceable primer in the center of the base). This fact did not deter the Indians from finding ways to use the expended cartridges again and again. A common method of reloading rimfire cases was to soak the heads off matches and cover the interior of the case's rim with the phosphorus, which, with luck, would give enough flash to detonate the powder when the hammer crimped the rim. It must have worked, for the Henry continued in use among the Sioux and Cheyenne well after the center fire arms became available. A survey of cartridge cases recovered from Indian positions at the Little Bighorn battle site registered the .44 rimfires as the second most numerous type at 380 cases, after the .45 Springfield carbine cartridges, which totaled 969. Some of the Henry cases bore two or three pairs of firing-pin indentations as proof of their reloading.

The Henry continued to serve with the Indians for more than 20 years of bitter strife on the plains and deserts of the West. The Apache were still using the weapon as late as the mid-1880s as they waged a final doomed campaign to reclaim their harsh homeland from white encroachment. The lever action endured among the frontiersmen as well. It was particularly popular in Mexico, where large government purchases of the Model 1866 Winchester, which used the old .44 rim, fire cartridge, ensured that ammunition would remain common for the earlier repeater for many years.

Probably the best testimonial to the durable Henry came from James H. Cook, a veteran of 40 years' experience on the frontier as a cowboy, Army scout and big-game hunter. For much of that period he relied on a Winchester or heavy .40-90 Sharps, but in the early 1870s, when he began his career in Texas, he trusted to Tyler Henry's handiwork. Cook signed on with cattleman Ben Slaughter's outfit near San Antonio while still in his teens. Slaughter was a Henry adherent, and the young greenhorn eagerly followed his example. "I had been at work but a short time when a Mexican rode into camp with an almost new Henry rifle on his saddle' wrote Cook in 1923. "He wanted to buy some cartridges for it. We had no Henry rifle shells, but did have some Spencer ammunition, and I succeeded in trading him, for his Henry, my Spencer carbine and what cartridges I had. In a short time I secured some ammunition for it from Mr. Slaughter. This rifle proved to be a most accurate shooting piece, and I had the satisfaction of knowing that nobody in Texas had a better shooting iron than I. " Many other men, from the Metis of Canada to the Yaqui braves of Chihuahua and Sonora, would have echoed Cook's praise of the handsome 16-shooter. With its elegant lines and commodious magazine, the Henry had proven itself to be a fit companion for those who dared "the drop edge of yonder.

Wayne. R. Austerman writes on many historical subjects and is especially interested in early arms. For further reading, try: The Story of the Soldier, by George A. Forsyth; The First Winchester, by John E. Parsons; Apaches and Longhorns, by William C. Barnes; and Yellowstone Kelly: The Memoirs of Luther S. Kelly, edited by Milo M. Quaife.

 

 

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