These days, it seems like more gun companies have put more focus on the speed of production rather than producing a quality firearm. But there was a time when gunsmiths crafted each individual firearm for a specific owner, a bespoke product of the craft with an impeccable fit and finish that someone would be proud to hand down to their children one day. In that tradition, Henry Repeating Arms started producing the Henry Original Rifle this year, a reincarnation of the Model 1860 lever action rifle that first went into production the year that the American Civil War started . . .
Over 1,700 of the original rifles were purchased for use in the war between the states, but advancements in metallurgy and cartridge design quickly made the Model 1860 obsolete. By 1866 the Winchester Arms Company had stopped production of the firearm and the U.S. Army’s preference for single shot rifles in heavy-hitting calibers put the final nail in the coffin of the pistol-caliber Model 1860. The brass-based beauty would be resurrected by Uberti in Italy and imported into the United States, but even their efforts were nowhere near the level of Henry’s original offering.
From the first time I took the rifle out of its box, I knew that it was something special. I had asked Anthony Imperato, the owner of Henry Repeating Arms, to send me a .45-70 lever action to test out — a workhorse rifle with a hunting background — so imagine my surprise when the first thing that I saw was a presentation quality wood grain stock.
I just want to salivate over that stock for a few more seconds. The last time I hadn’t seen wood of this quality since I was sitting in Holland & Holland’s New York City gun room and fondling $20,000 shotguns. But the Henry handiwork gives them a run for their money.
Not only is the stock devastatingly beautiful, the fit and finish are amazing. The wood is perfectly shaped to meet the brass receiver, leaving no gaps or ridges. And the brass buttplate and receiver tang are recessed into the stock in such a way that it looks like they were painted on after the stock was finished. Running your hand over the finely sanded and stained wood feels like stroking a satin bedspread and resting your cheek on the stock is like putting it on a pillow. It’s just perfect.
The receiver on the Henry Original is made from a solid chunk of hardened brass, then polished to the point where any glimmer of light whatsoever completely washes out the picture on your camera. The surface of the receiver came beautifully clean and polished from the factory, but after only a few minutes of handling the gun was filled with fingerprints. Thankfully, the kind folks at Henry include a black cloth that is designed to go around the receiver and polish it back to its original luster and protect it when not in use.
The Model 1860 was designed in an era when repeating firearms were still new, and no one had really figured out how to make the damned things work right. John Browning’s designs were still decades away and so the gunsmiths of the time were improvising and finding dozens of ways to accomplish the same thing — ending up with some of the overly-complicated design we see today. If you’ve ever watched an Orangutan try to work on a Ford Model T, it’s kind of the same principle. All of the parts are there, but the mechanism is overly complicated and seems built for failure.
Take the loading mechanism for example. Everything happens along the top of the receiver, with the bolt pulling the spent cartridge out of the chamber and then the lifter rising up like two golden hands presenting the holy .44-40 Winchester Cartridge for loading into the breech. It’s a beautiful system and very aesthetically pleasing, but it relies on the bullets being perfectly round and perfectly seated to work — any minor imperfections and the gun starts to jam. Throw a little dirt and grime into the system and it starts behaving more like the prima donna it appears to be.
Keeping those bullets perfectly seated is a challenge, especially with the magazine mechanism.
While later models of lever action rifles would be loaded from the breech, the Henry Model 1860 uses a unique magazine system. The follower (also made of a piece of beautiful hardened brass with an orange high-visibility head) has a tab that protrudes from the bottom of the gun. To load the rifle, the shooter moves that follower along the slotted track until it retracts into the top of the tube. From there, the top portion actually pivots to the right and reveals the magazine tube. The shooter then loads the rounds one by one, dropping them in the tube magazine and letting gravity move them to the bottom of the slot. When full, the shooter pivots the follower back into position and releases it.
There are two issues with this system. First, that initial round you load into the gun will be hammered by each successive round you load and will have its projectile seated further inside the cartridge as a result. If the bullet goes too far inside, the gun will fail to properly load and will jam. Or, if you just release the follower, the bullet of the top cartridge will be hammered back into the case and the same thing will happen. In other words, no bueno. Second, the follower has a rather large tab that protrudes from the bottom of the gun and moves with the bullets. So if your hand gets in the way, the follower won’t work and the gun will jam. And don’t even get me started about the open magazine design and the lessons we learned from the Chauchat.
There’s no doubt that the design is fascinating, and it’s a great milestone in firearms engineering, but you can see why people preferred the closed magazine with a loading gate instead.
Moving on, the sights are somewhat interesting. The rifle has a ladder rear sight (that folds down for a standard set of open sights), and a silver blade front sight. Shiny front sights like these are standard fare for fine firearms, and Holland & Holland use actual silver on their front sights as well, but in the shiny Texas sunlight things tend to get a bit washed out. Picking up the front sight was difficult in the bright daylight on a dirt background, but against trees or other colored targets (like, say, deer) this should do well.
Speaking of shooting, the gun is an absolute dream to fire.
The rifle is chambered in .44-40 Winchester, a relatively light pistol load that (according to Wikipedia) is second only to the .30-30 as having the most deer kills on record. The result of using such a light kicking load in a long and heavy rifle such as this is that recoil is downright pleasant, only a mild push instead of the harsh kick that comes with the .45-70 Government.
Everything about the firing process is excellent. The action is crisp and responsive, making loading the rifle extremely easy. The trigger is as crisp as a glass rod breaking, and the blade of the trigger is finely polished and feels very nice against your trigger finger. Even the hammer has been sculpted and polished to perfection. It’s a delightful firearm that I’ve truly enjoyed playing with on the range.
When it comes to this review, I’m conflicted. As a firearm design, the gun has some glaring issues — which is why it didn’t see much usage and was discontinued pretty quickly. But as a reproduction and a historical piece, this firearm is amazing. The fit and finish, along with the near perfect mechanics of the gun make it stand out among the crowd as something truly special.
Original Henry Rifle (Model 1860)
Caliber: .44-40 Winchester
Barrel: 24 inches
Size: 43 inches
Weight: 9 lbs empty
Capacity: 13 + 1
Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category.
Accuracy: * * * * *
For a pistol caliber lever action rifle, it shot remarkably well. Probably not a 100+ yard gun, but ver nice nevertheless.
Ergonomics: * * *
The magazine follower brought back some unpleasant memories of a freezing cold night I spent in a trench with a DP-28 machine gun. Which explains my distaste for reciprocating charging handles. That, plus there’s a tab that keeps the action closed when in storage and I got my hand caught in it when cycling the action. It caused a pretty nasty bruise.
Ergonomics Firing: * * * * *
Recoil is downright enjoyable, the trigger is nearly perfect and the hammer is easy to manipulate.
Overall Rating: * * * *
While the gun itself is only “meh” even compared to other lever action rifles, it’s the quality of the reproduction that we care about here. In that sense, this is a fantastic firearm that shows superb craftsmanship and attention to detail. I dropped one star because the Uberti reproduction looks pretty good, too, but costs almost $1,000 less.