Oliver Winchester Owes His Success to Benjamin Tyler Henry

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By T. Logan Metesh

If it hadn’t been for B. Tyler Henry and his rifle design, O. F. Winchester and his rifle might not have become the iconic firearm that it is today.

When Henry patented his new rifle in October 1860, he couldn’t have known the ripple effect that his gun would have. Though it took until July 1862 to get guns produced and ready for sale, they were a hit with the men who got to try one out. Soldiers fighting our bloody Civil War saw the advantage of this repeater.

S. Curtiss, Major of the 1st Maine Cavalry, said the Henry was “far superior in all respects” and that he “would by no means use any other [rifle] if it could possibly be procured.” Major Ludlow of the U.S. Corps of Engineers was equally enthusiastic. Speaking about the 1864 battle of Allatoona Pass, he said ,“[w]hat saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles,” adding that the rapid fire produced by the rifles was something that “no man could stand in front of.”

Military brass, however, saw things differently. Not only were Henry rifles more expensive to purchase than their muzzleloading counterparts ($42 each compared to $20 for a Model 1861 muzzleloader), their rapid firepower caused some officials to fear that soldiers would waste ammo if they could fire it faster. A soldier was more likely to make a well-aimed shot if he could only fire the gun three times a minute, they reasoned.

Despite the fact that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and President Abraham Lincoln himself all owned Henry rifles, they were never adopted as a standard issue firearm. (Interestingly, Secretary Stanton got serial number 1; President Lincoln got serial number 6.) Only 1,731 rifles were actually purchased by the United States. Even so, many units purchased them privately and used them with great effectiveness in the field. The 7th Illinois Infantry is known to have carried Henry rifles. They even posed for a group photo, complete with their flag and their Henry rifles.

Henry rifles were also made with iron frames, but in much smaller numbers. Believed to have been made in hopes of securing a contract with the U.S. Navy, production stopped when no such contract materialized. As such, the total production of iron frame Henry rifles sits at around 300 units, making them highly collectible today.

Henry’s rifle was only in production for a brief period of time. Despite its ingenuity, the gun had some drawbacks. Chief among them was the loading mechanism, which had an external sleeve that rotated out at the muzzle to allow rounds to enter the magazine tube located directly under the barrel. The brass follower worked its way from the muzzle toward the receiver with each round fired, which meant that a poorly placed hand could prevent the gun from cycling. A lack of hand guard – because of the follower – also meant that the shooter could burn their hand on the barrel when the gun was fired rapidly.

By 1866, production on Henry’s rifle came to an end with only 14,000 having been produced. The gun didn’t disappear entirely, though. A similar rifle featuring a hand guard and loading gate designed by Nelson King entered the market that same year under a new name: Winchester’s Model 1866.

It would be Winchester’s 1866 that paved the way for the most iconic lever action rifles of all time. Their Model 1873 is probably one of the most recognizable long guns known the world over. Now celebrating their 150th anniversary, Winchester owes a debt of gratitude to Benjamin Tyler Henry and his rifle.

comments

  1. avatar Ken says:

    Winchester might owe the early success to Henry but the great majority of their success was due to the brilliance of John Browning. John Browning didn’t invent a rifle, he invented rifles, pistols and machine guns. He sold many of his designs to Winchester but they didn’t make many of them but bought them to keep then away from the competition.

  2. avatar Mikial says:

    All true. This month’s American Rifleman has a great article on Winchester and talks about Henry’s contribution. Lever action rifles like the Winchester, Henry and Marlin are uniquely American and I have a faithful Marlin 30-30 in my emergency stash. These are great guns for prepping or just for general use. You can put rifle caliber rounds downrange at a decent rate of fire, reload on the fly, and the 30-30 is very comparable to the 7.62X39 round in pretty much every way. Finally, if they ever do succeed in outlawing detachable magazine rifles, the lever action will still be around.

    1. avatar BLAMMO says:

      Yeah, let’s statutorily return to the 19th Century.

      Twitter is the “assault weapon” of the 1st Amendment.

  3. avatar jwm says:

    It’s a little more complicated than this article would suggest. Winchester, a successful business man, bought out the volcanic arms company, which had folks like Smith and Wesson involved. If you see a photo of a volcanic arms pistol it screams Henry and proto type Winchester at you.

    The biggest weakness of the Volcanic was it’s ammo. Most guns were front loaders at this time and the volcanic was an attempt at a repeating firearm with self contained ammo. The ammo sucked and people stayed away in droves.

    Henry worked for Winchester, who had at least one factory at the time. Winchester dropped the volcanic and it’s ammo on Henry’s desk and asked him what could be done about the pistol.

    In the process of correcting the faults of the volcanic pistol Henry turned it into a rifle and starting from scratch he designed the .44 henry rimfire ammo.

    In the civil war the Spencer was much more successsfull, with something like 90k being purchased by the union army. Several other carbines bought by the ever gun hungry Union were chambered in the Spencer round just to provide some ammo commonality in supply.

  4. avatar Geoff PR says:

    “Henry rifles were also made with iron frames, but in much smaller numbers. Believed to have been made in hopes of securing a contract with the U.S. Navy,…”

    Now that’s interesting.

    I would think in a saltwater environ, brass would be far superior to corrosion-prone iron.

    Or am I missing something obvious?

    1. avatar Mikial says:

      I was kind of wondering that myself.

    2. avatar T. Logan Metesh says:

      Brass doesn’t hold up in salt water. Believe it or not, iron holds up better than brass in those conditions.

      1. avatar Geoff PR says:

        H’mmm.

        Marine propellers are made of bronze, a copper-tin alloy, while brass, a copper-tin mix is supposedly more malleable. But I’m no metallurgist…

  5. avatar Alex Waits says:

    I wish modern Henrys had a loading gate.

    1. avatar Joe says:

      Ideally. Although my Big Boy 357 is so dang beautiful and fun, I can forgive them.

  6. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

    Owes or owed?

  7. avatar george from fort worth says:

    there’s this, ya’ll

    winchester ’73: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D5_0cMzFVw

    fun ta watch, an’ some familiar faces when they were lots younger, and rock hudson as an indian war chief.

  8. avatar Tom W. says:

    Don’t forget the era. Schofield, Spencer, Martini, Mauser, Remington, Colt; were all making big strides in ballistics and platforms to make them shoot bigger better faster.

    Browning, Maxim, Garand soon followed.

    Amazing moment in firearm history.

    1. avatar Lying Bastard says:

      And don’t forget the likes of Dreyse, Mondragon, and Lee. And of course the many French designers whose main limitation was their government who never seemed to make up their mind besides to screw a good design up.

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