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.