Genesis Of The Henry Rifle

How a little S&W pistol grew up to be “That-DamnYankee-Rifle-They-Load-On-Sunday-’n-Shoot-All-Week” and more.

by Chick Blood

Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson teamed up in 1852 to form the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. The lever action firearms they developed was designed around a caseless Rocket Ball cartridge consisting of a hollow base bullet containing a powder charge, reported by some sources as fulminate of mercury, and capped with a primer. It was a terribly unreliable round producing large belches of gassy flame. Much of the havoc was due to the gap between the bolt and breech, a fault that has long since been eliminated in lever action rifles by the addition of a locking bolt aft of the primary bolt to press it into tighter contact with the barrel breech.

It might have been due to all the fire and smoke it produced with every shot that Horace and Daniel decided to call their pistol “Volcanic” and named their new company after it. Despite being revolutionary in its use of caseless ammunition and lever action technology, the Volcanic was a failure. It was unreliable, not always effective due to the loss of propellant gas, awkward to operate and it had no extractor. Each misfire required using a separate rod—not included—to dislodge a stuck round from the barrel. It is reasonable to assume the problems with the pistol played no small role in the demise of Volcanic Repeating Arms.

Before that fateful day, a shirtmaker entered the scene. His name was Oliver Winchester. He came to know and greatly admire Volcanic’s leading technician, first name Benjamin, who had been working closely with Smith and Wesson in eliminating the problems with their firearms, not the least of which was the caseless ammunition. Like Benjamin, Winchester believed a highly profitable future was to be had with the perfecting of self-contained cartridges. He bought the S&W patents and “encouraged” Benjamin to leave Volcanic and join him at New Haven Firearms. There, he promised, Benjamin could continue work on ammunition full blast. As a bonus came the opportunity to devote ample time to eliminating the mechanical problems of the Volcanic design by transforming it into a new lever action rifle. Benjamin Tyler Henry accepted and joined New Haven. What resulted was the ancestor of a legendary line of Winchester lever action rifles. If you haven’t guessed by now, it was the Henry. The year was 1860.

The faithful duplicate of that rifle being featured in this article is made in the U.S.A. by Henry Repeating Arms, an admirably appropriate undertaking. Ah, you ask, “How faithful is it?” Putting it mildly, Henry Repeating Arms went about the project as though Benjamin Tyler Henry was supervising it every step of the way. HRA did make improvements. The 1860 Henry had a bronze receiver. So does the 2016 Henry, but it’s of proprietary composition and much stronger. The caliber stamped on the 1860 was .44-40. Ditto the 2016. The 1860 was a black powder rifle capable of firing thirteen .44 caliber rounds without reloading. The 2016 Henry can fire the same number of rounds of .44 caliber S&W Special Smokeless Cartridges. Why not chamber the 2016 Henry for .44 Magnum you may ask? Because there was no such thing in 1860. So, it isn’t.

Read more in the February 2017 issue.

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