The Henry Rifle, Then

by Joe bilby

In late May of 1864, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Hyde, a staff officer in the Army of the Potomac's VI Army Corps, found himself leading a catchall command of a few hundred cavalrymen, most of them troopers of the First District of Columbia Cavalry.  While on a foraging expedition, Hyde's force was fired on by a small enemy patrol.  As the boys of the 1st D.C. responded with a fusillade of fire, the Rebels scooted away.  Hyde's attempts to stop the shooting were futile, and the Yanks didn't cease firing until they emptied their guns.  The din startled Major General Horatio Wright, who, believing the major's men were seriously engaged, rushed an infantry brigade forward to their support.  When it was over, Major Hyde found two dead enemy horses, and ruefully concluded that he had had "quite a lesson in the improper use of rapid-firing arms."

The instrument of Hyde's instruction was the .44 caliber Henry rifle.  The Henry, with its fifteen shot spring loaded magazine slung under a 24 inch blued barrel, was the fastest shooting small arm used in the Civil War.  A lever, actuating a toggle link mechanism housed in a brass framed action (some early guns had iron frames), extracted and ejected fired cartridge cases, cocked the Henry's hammer and reloaded its chamber with a simple flick of the wrist.

The Henry evolved out of the earlier "Volcanic" repeating rifles and pistols.  The Volcanic arms fired a "rocket ball" bullet with a hollow base containing powder and priming compound.  Produced between 1855 and 1860, Volcanic arms, costly, prone to malfunctions and limited in power, never achieved popularity.  The Volcanic company went bankrupt in 1857, and was reorganized as the New Haven Arms Company by Oliver Winchester.  In 1860, B. Tyler Henry, New Haven's plant superintendent, redesigned the Volcanic action to fire a .44 caliber rimfire brass cartridge loaded with 25 grains of powder behind a 216 grain bullet (a load with a 210 grain bullet and 30 grains of powder is also recorded).  Thus was born the Henry rifle.

Although the outbreak of Civil War brought with it the hope of contracts for New Haven Arms, Union Chief of Ordnance Brigadier General James W. Ripley, besieged by firearms inventors, crackpot and otherwise, was not receptive to new weapons.  The general was particularly leery of repeaters, which he believed expensive, wasteful of ammunition and too delicate for active service. Although Ripley has been pilloried down the years for his conservatism, he faced the herculean task of equipping a rapidly expanding army with acceptable small arms.  Diversion of funds and manufacturing facilities to the production of unproven weapons was simply out of the question.

Like other arms-makers, Oliver Winchester was not above going over Ripley's head, and presentation guns were soon on the way to prominent politicians, including Navy Secretary Gideon Welles.  In May of 1862 the navy tested the Henry for accuracy, rapidity of fire and endurance.  The rifle performed well, firing 1040 rounds without cleaning and hitting an eighteen inch square with fourteen of fifteen shots at a range of 348 feet.  Despite the favorable report, Federal military contracts were not forthcoming.

Had they come, it is doubtful they could have been filled.  The first Henry rifles did not appear on the market until the summer of 1862, and by October only 900 guns had been manufactured.  In late 1864, production peaked at 290 rifles a month, and a total of only 13,000 were manufactured through 1866.  At a list price of $42 with sling when a private soldier's salary was $13 a month, the Henry was expensive protection.

For many it was well worth the price.  Although dealers from New York to San Francisco were soon advertising Henrys, most of the first guns went to Kentucky, where the Unionist Louisville Journal thought Henrys "the simplest, surest and most effective" way to deal with Rebel guerillas. Individual sales were brisk, and Kentucky armed Company M of its 12th cavalry regiment with the repeaters.  Company M's Captain James Wilson allegedly killed seven bushwackers with eight shots from his Henry.  Wilson's escapade was widely circulated in promotional literature, but Winchester admitted privately that he did not "feel confidence in its accuracy."  Wilson and his troopers did use their Henrys effectively on a number of other occasions, however.

Although Federal ordnance officers largely ignored the Henry, soldiers bought the guns at their own expense.  Among units wholly or partially armed with Henrys were the 7th, 16th, 23rd, 51st, 66th and 80th Illinois, the 58th, 93rd and 97th Indiana and the 7th West Virginia, all infantry outfits.  Seeking replacements for his 35th New Jersey Infantry, Colonel John J. Cladek advertised that he had access to a trove of Henrys, which recruits could purchase through payroll deductions.

Relenting a bit from official policy, the Ordnance Department issued Henrys to the 1st D.C. Cavalry. The 1st D.C., a special provost and counter-guerilla battalion commanded by the mercurial Colonel Lafayette Baker, was issued 240 Henrys in 1863.  The unit was augmented in 1864 by 800 Maine recruits, who also received Henrys.  The Maine companies and their repeaters were later transferred to the 1st Maine cavalry. The 1st D. C., 1st Maine and the 7th West Virginia were the only units in the eastern theater to officially carry Henrys, although some were sold to individual soldiers, mostly in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's Veteran Volunteer Corps, which operated in the Shenandoah Valley in the last months of the war.  A few Confederates, including Jefferson Davis' bodyguards and at least one man, R. H. Bates, of the 29th Texas Cavalry, armed themselves with captured Henrys.  Henry cartridges, not manufactured in the south, presented a logistical problem, however.

Although its rapidity of fire was credited with turning the tide in a number of skirmishes, the Henry won no major battles for the Union.  No tactical doctrine ever evolved for the use of the Henry or its companion (and far more numerous) repeater, the Spencer.  Tactics were ad hoc and dependent upon the creativity of field commanders, many of whom had no idea of how to employ rifle muskets appropriately, much less rapid fire small arms.

One wonders what today's politicians, eager to ban "assault rifles" as a crime panacea, would have made of the Henry, surely the assault rifle of its' day.  t certainly frightened Governor John Brough of Ohio, who, in 1864, fantasized an uprising by thousands of Henry armed draft dodgers.  rough frantically telegraphed Secretary of War Stanton with a request to stop sales of the Henry.  Although Stanton replied the government had no jurisdiction because the Henry was not a contract arm, the Henry salesman, who protested he only sold to loyal men, agreed to store his unsold weapons in an armory.

Although it terrified Governor Brough, the Henry scared more than a few Rebels as well, like the patrol Thomas Hyde's D.C. boys sent skedaddling.  Hyde's concern about ammunition wastage by soldiers armed with rapid firing weapons, however, was shared by many officers in the postwar years, and the Henry and its successor Winchester arms made more of a mark in civilian (and Indian) than military hands.  The United States army did not formally adopt a repeating rifle, the bolt action Krag Jorgensen, until 1892.

Original Henry rifles are rare and valuable collectibles, but the romance of the rifle, abetted by films like Dances With Wolves, battle reenactments and the recent introduction of marksmanship competition with reproduction guns by the N-SSA, assures that B. Tyler Henry and the rifle you could "load on Sunday and shoot all week" will not be forgotten.

© 1991 by Joe Bilby

 

 

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