Winchester Lever Action Development: 1860 Henry

The Henry Repeating Rifle was a truly revolutionary development in firearms technology. It was not the first repeating rifle, but it was the best of a emerging class of new arms, reliable in function and very fast to shoot (much faster than the contemporary Spencers). The Henry used a simple toggle lock locking system, with a single throw of its lever performing all the elements necessary to reload and recock the action.

The Henry’s quick action was coupled with a 15-round magazine, more than double what the Spencer offered. It fired the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, which threw a 216 grain bullet at about 1125 feet per second (this would change to 200 grains at 1200 fps within a few years). This was substantially less powerful than a heavy muzzleloader charge, but the volume of fire more than made up for it. Within 200 yards, the Henry could produce a devastating volume of fire.

The Henry was only produced for about 5 years (1862 – 1866), with about 12,000 manufactured in total. The rifle was made almost exclusively in a standard rifle pattern, with a 24 inch barrel. Some were later cut down into carbines, though. While the US military rejected the Henry for a variety of reasons, nearly all of the guns produced before the end of the war did actually see military service, with state units or individuals who supplied their own arms. In the few engagements where Henry rifles were present in substantial numbers, they proved to be a significant force multiplier.


  1. “US military rejected the Henry for a variety of reasons”
    At this even metallic-cartridge single-shot rifle was something new, if I am not mistaken. So weapon like this must be shocking for people accustomed to percussion rifles.
    European nations adopted repeating rifles after 1870 at best (with exception of Switzerland and Vetterli – – which is said to be inspired by Henry repeating rifle) if I am not mistaken.

    • Traditionalists often cited “novelty” and “development costs” for rejection of further development. “How much will one spend on brass for casings?” “How many new training manuals are needed to use and then maintain this fickle poodle gun?” “We will run out of bullets before the other team does and then they will stab us to death.” None of the traditionalists had asked for the opinions of the ordinary infantrymen…

      The Swiss needed a rifle that gave their militiamen an advantage in ammunition capacity and accuracy. The Vetterli was a bit heavy, but then again the Swiss started their fights at comfortably high positions compared to the entry paths of potential invaders. In 1867, the most advanced designs from Prussia, France, and Austria-Hungary were single-shot breech loaders firing paper cartridge ammunition. At the time, advanced methods in lugging heavy artillery up hill (and dealing with mountain sickness) was probably not a big priority for the potential invaders… or am I wrong?

      • ” None of the traditionalists had asked for the opinions of the ordinary infantrymen…”
        Most of those guys did not known better. Firearm and military culture was rather poor at all levels in those days. No forgeting the lack of proper training.

      • “had asked for the opinions of the ordinary infantrymen”
        Am I not sure what they would say about that repeating rifle, but metallic-cartridge weapon would be probable favored than percussion – just placing of cartridge in chamber is easier than placing primer cap (compare size of both)

  2. One problem with the Henry that Henry and Winchester both recognized was that the long open slot of the magazine tube also could allow dirt and etc. to enter it, thus jamming up the whole production.

    Still, a lot of the opposition to the Henry and Spencer, and other breechloaders generally, mainly came from two men, Gen. James Craig and Col. (later Gen.) James Ripley, the two successive heads of Army Ordnance from 1860 to 1863.

    Craig and Ripley were both old enough to have served in the War of 1812. They were also “classicists” of the worst sort, who had in their careers successively opposed the percussion system, the rifle-musket, and even the Minie’ bullet. To them, Napoleonic line tactics were the “only proper way” to fight a battle, and the smoothbore musket, fired in volleys by the numbers, was the proper weapon for the common soldier, who both of them despised.

    The way war had changed in the Crimea and etc. was an aberration in their minds (an opinion shared by numerous other senior officers, to be sure), and in the end they saw their job not as getting the most effective weapons for the Army, but ensuring that orthodoxy prevailed on the battlefield.

    Craig was forced to retire in late 1862 due to Congress blaming him for the shortage of modern, percussion-fired rifle-muskets that hampered the Union Army in the first two years of the war. (The Confederates had problems with supplies of same right through to Appomattox.) Ripley succeeded him and did his best to block even testing of rifles like the Henry and Spencer.

    It ended in mid-1863, when after a particularly acrimonious session between Ripley and President Lincoln, the President first had the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, order Spencer carbines for the Army in addition to an order of Spencer rifles for the Navy, and then fired Ripley, replacing him with the much younger and less hidebound Maj. Gen. Alexander Dyer, an artilleryman by trade. Dyer opined that if there had been enough breechloaders and repeating rifles to go around in 1861, the war would probably have ended by the fall of 1862.

    Interestingly, Gen. Robert E. Lee had made essentially the same observation a few days after Gettysburg. Except he thought that if the CSA had possessed a sufficiency of such arms, the war would likely have ended at Antietam or Shiloh, with a Southern victory sufficient to result in an armistice.



    • The amount of continuity between then and now, in terms of the folks running the US small arms procurement system is truly incredible, when you contemplate it.

      A hundred years separate the periods, but when you look at the procurement fiascoes surrounding the M14, the M60, the M73/219 and M85, you kinda go “Whoa… What the hell?”, and you’re struck by the similar parochial mentalities possessed and demonstrated by the involved parties. The reasons and facts were different, but the reasoning and processes involved were quite similar–Just as they were with the WWI period, when the US establishment resisted the hell out of adopting the Lewis Gun.

      Makes you wonder how on earth we ever managed to get thing like the M1911, the Garand, and the M16 out of the process, doesn’t it?

      • The answer is: WITH GREAT DIFFICULTY.

        Unlike Imperial Germany, the Habsburg Empire, the French Republic, Imperial Russia, and all the Balkan countries, America has never been embroiled with a border war involving a neighbor with equal access to massive arms development/production and associated research materials. Instead, what I see is “America vs dying Spanish Empire,” “America vs outdated Korean Empire,” or “America vs very, very, angry Natives.” None of these conflicts involved an opponent who had equal armaments production capabilities. Sure, the Trapdoor Springfield had better range and punching power than commercially available Winchester rifles bought by hostile Native American tribes, but once the Trapdoor Springfield went up against exported Mauser rifles, it became obvious that somebody didn’t do the homework. And yes, while the Trapdoor Springfield might beat the Mosin-Nagant in a run-and-gun let’s remember that infantry fights of the early 20th Century are not one-on-one duels at 10 paces. Perhaps the traditionalists decided to show that “pampered poodle guns” were unworthy of adoption by means of percussively abusing the rifles half to death with sledge hammers before test-firing them… Or am I wrong?

        • The America Civil War was a bloody war that was fought by, in effect, two neighboring countries. It was anything but an easy victory for the north–that is why it dragged on for a long time and why around 750,000 soldiers died in the conflict. US Army officers picked sides at the start of the war. The south had a greater military tradition and had almost all the good officers while the north had more manufacturing capacity and a larger population.

          It was not a typical civil war where the leaders of the defeated side, military and civil, were executed or exiled after the war. The military experiences of the south were, to some degree, absorbed into the federal army. A few southern officers even rejoined the federal army. It seems to have been well understood that overall the southern army had tremendously better leadership and much was to be learned from that experience.

          Years after the war reunions were popular, reunions were both sides would meet at the old battlefields and socialize. Hard to imagine that ever happening again. The WWII General Patton’s grandfather died fighting for the south; after few other civil wars would the grandson of a defeated rebel be made a four start general. The point being that when the country came back together at the end of the war the successes of both sides were internalized, and one of those sides excelled at leadership while lacking in everything else and was on the receiving end of “total war,” i.e., Sherman’s march to the sea where everything in path of the army was destroyed. I grew up in the west but have been in the south for the last 17 years or so. Most pre-civil war buildings were burned down by the federal troops. The church my wife and I were married in still has charred timbers in the basement where the federal troops tried to set it ablaze as they left town.

          For what it is worth, by the end of the 1800’s the Navy and War Depts had adopted bolt action or straight-pull repeaters.

          • And after the American Civil War traditionalists tried to “do away with novelty.” The better rifles were adopted after several big failures. Custer’ demise may have contributed to the rush to get repeating rifles into service. Does anyone want to “save ammo” when getting bum rushed by angry natives outnumbering him ten to one?

          • The WWII General Patton’s grandfather died fighting for the south; after few other civil wars would the grandson of a defeated rebel be made a four start general.

            Interestingly, as a boy in Texas, Patton spent much of his time hearing stories of the Civil War, specifically the way it was fought as opposed to how it should have been fought, from his mother’s older brother. Colonel John Singleton Mosby.

            In later life, he credited what he learned from his beloved and respected uncle with influencing much of his own thinking on the most intelligent tactics for “The Tank In Combat”, along with the likes of Scipio Africanus, Rommel, and etc.



          • Eon,

            It struck me that Patton fought like a southerner while other US generals, Bradley for example, fought like a northerner.

            The Northernern generals saw war as a meat grinder and if one had more troops and the kill ratio was not too badly skewed, then trade pawns until the other side ran out of them. That was McNamera’s grand strategy in Vietnam.

            The point being that the lessons learned from the desperate struggle of the south were added to the catalog of strategies of the army post Civil War, along with the strategies of the north.

            There is irony that repeating rifles were not widely issued in the Civil War. Iron clad ships, submarines, troop movement via trains, observation balloons, and telegraphs were used. Repeating revolvers were used and the saber became obsolete. But since neither side used repeating rifles in really large numbers perhaps there was no lesson to learn.

          • Jacob;

            A lot of cavalry commanders on both sides still thought the saber was the weapon. Their first attempt at charging an infantry rifle line generally disabused them of that notion, assuming they survived it.

            Generals on both sides also were hostile to the idea of entrenchment. The Sunken Road at Antietam came as a rude shock to the Union Army, to say the least. On several later occasions, Union officers were “standing proud” and exhorting their men to get up off their bellies and face the rebels’ fire “properly”, only to be shot dead by some Southerner who couldn’t resist such an easy target.

            Interestingly enough, the one officer who advocated entrenchments from the start was Robert E. Lee. So much so that early on, new recruits referred to him disparagingly as “General Pick-and-Shovel”. They soon learned that “Marse Robert” knew what he was talking about.

            While it’s true that few units were armed with large numbers of repeaters,quite a few units in the Union Army were entirely armed with at least single-shot breechloaders. Notably Gen. John Buford’s cavalry on the first day of Gettysburg, who used their Sharps carbines to inflict horrendous casualties on the Confederates during their skirmishing withdrawal through the town.

            Also at least two volunteer units at Chickamauga, who were using the primitive and dangerous Colt revolving rifle, and still managed to deliver the equivalent of a division’s worth of fire (about 700 rounds per man over six hours) to completely disrupt several attempted assaults. The lessons were there to be seen, if anybody had the wit to look.

            The most obvious lesson was the Pickett/Pettigrew debacle. Never mind the failed artillery prep, never mind the Union line being armed entirely with muzzle-loading rifle muskets, the cold brutal fact is that men armed with muzzle-loaders cannot deliver effective fire while advancing, because reloading a muzzle loader “on the move” is next to impossible. You either have to trail it, hold it over your shoulder, or stop and ground the butt. The first two slow you down and the third traps you stationary.

            Any way of the three, you’re caught in the killing ground of the line you’re assaulting, who just have to stand there and fire by the numbers or just blaze away in individual fire. Either way, they win, and you die. This doesn’t happen when you’re armed with a breechloader, even a single-shot. With a repeater, unless the defenders also have them, you actually have the advantage; you can move and shoot and keep doing both.

            Most of the senior officers on both sides were still somehow mesmerized by the supposed “elegance” of Napoleonic tactics. It took a long time for at least some of them to unlearn the wrong lessons and learn the right ones. Some never did. (Ambrose Burnside, to name only one.)

            In the end was the siege of Richmond. With entrenchments, dun-colored uniforms, indirect artillery fire (pre-registered), and all the trappings of Flanders in 1915, fifty years ahead of time.

            Few “theorists” figured out that they’d been given a look into a very ugly future. The lessons thus had to be learned all over again, at horrendous cost.



          • “McNamera”
            Shouldn’t be McNamara or Robert Strange McNamara?
            Wait, is Strange his real name or only nickname?
            Oh, I also found that one of generals commanding during Korean War was Matthew Bunker Ridgway.
            BTW: Maybe of one would know: please put full name in …:
            31st President of USA was Clark
            32nd was Delano
            33rd was …

  3. Excellent presentation of such staple of American tradition – and I wholeheartedly embrace it. The way Ian introduces the subject is easy to comprehend even for those whole not versed with technical details and historical connections.

    • Also, I want to say that I appreciate that metric equivalents of loads and velocities are given. I do not have to multiply and divide from top of my head. 🙂

        • Continental English adopted metric units rather well – and they had hardly a choice. It is Americans who dwell in this absurd medieval tradition. In spite of some 40 years in this continent (luckily in northern part) I have absolutely no appreciation for ounces, miles, feet per second and degrees Fahrenheit – and never will. If someone wants to make nasty joke on April (it appears on radio every year) they say that Canada is to adopt American units. I shall not forget jealous look in face of a young American of German background I met down there:”…. you are metric right?”. Of course – I responded proudly.

          • Yes, this may be the case and that is reasonable. However, what I remember from old Europe, there was never talk among interested people (I used to subscribe firearms & shooting magazine) in terms of inch equivalent. Pistol calibres were always in metric values (e.g. 7.65×17 or 9mm Browning). On my own I knew (mostly as result of my interest in aircraft weaponry) that .30cal Browning MG was in fact 7.62×63 mm.

          • “Pistol calibres were always in metric values (e.g. 7.65×17 or 9mm Browning)”
            This practice seems to started as early as popularization of automatic pistol in Europe (say from 1900 to start of Great War) – most automatic pistols seems to have information like 6,35 or 7,65 put onto them (in various versions – with mm or m/m or without) or both meter-inch rather than inch only.

          • The reason for the almost exclusive use of metric for the 7.65mm Browning (.32 ACP) and 9mm Browning Short (.380 ACP) in continental Europe is simply that these cartridges were introduced with metric names in Europe. In other words, they had both a metric and imperial names from the beginning (although the latter was introduced first in the US).

            Use of converted names like the 7.62×63mm for .30-06 is rare outside official military records, but not unheard of. For example .303 British was in many countries known as 7.7mm, especially when referring to aircraft guns. For example the Italian 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT (7.7×56mmR) fired the same cartridge as the various British .303 guns, but it is or was practically never called .303 in other than English language sources.

          • “In other words, they had both a metric and imperial names from the beginning (although the latter was introduced first in the US).”
            But introduced in similar time 9x20SR Browning Long, used in Husqvarna m/1907, has no inch name.

          • @euroweasel

            Oh yeah, Vicker’s on back of Wellington bomber (3 Czech and Slovak wings flew them) were in literature I read at that time always in 7.7mm. Name .303 British was not even mentioned.

          • @Daweo. Yes, because the FN M1903 was never sold in the US and Colt didn’t want to make a gun chambered for the 9mm Browning Long cartridge. They already had the similarly Browning-designed .38 ACP, which was a more potent cartridge and required a locked breech action.

            Ironically, in practice the .38 ACP factory loadings were only slightly more powerful than 9mm Browning Long. The Colt M1900 was not quite strong enough for the original loadings of the .38 ACP and the later “standard” loadings were considerably milder.

  4. Ian, having shot some Henry replicas, I am surprised you could swing open the magazine without pushing the button on the magazine end. This very button even seems to stick out. Is is related to the looseness of the pivoting part?

  5. The Indian wars come up frequently, mainly because of the romance of the “Wild West.”

    The fact is though that there were only about 1,000 federal troops lost in those various conflicts post-Civil War. Cold comfort for those who died, but it comes out to about 30 troop deaths a year for that era. Probably a lot more than that were lost due to tuberculosis, etc.

    Reading civilian accounts of that era, most of the Indian fighting was done by civilians, not by the army. Especially pursuing raiding parties. The civilians would saddle up and give chase immediately while the nearby army post took a couple of hours hitching up their supply wagons and such. There was one post in Comanche country in Texas where the soldiers apparently never engaged the the Comanche but tended to have their horses taken off post by sneaky Indians. It would be interesting to survey what rifles were used by civilians in that era.

    The lack of regular issue repeaters to the Indian war era soldiers may not be as serious in its final impact as might be imagined. Custer was an example of death by arrogance.

    The Civil war though, yes a widely issued repeater would have been a game changer.

    • IIRC, there were also civilian parties who at out and tended badly injured survivors and adopted orphaned children after the army had had its sadistic sport with women children and oldies.

      I’m trying to think of the name of the railroad speculator who got himself appointed “general” in the northern army, and then spent the entire period of the war against the south, using northern soldiers and supplies to murder any indigenous people who lived along the route of his planned railroad, and the land he wanted to be granted for several miles either side of the line. Was it Grant?

      • I don’t know, but I would NOT want to get into a fight with Native American units fighting for the Confederacy. The Confederate-aligned Cherokee were rather nasty and would find countless ways to relieve you of your life and your possessions! And no, they didn’t fight by “proper gentlemanly” rules.

  6. Conservatism in a bureaucrapic organisation can also be arse cover. IBM used to use the marketing slogan that “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”

    Running with the herd and not taking even the slightest risk, can result in a nice easy, trouble free career and a secure pension at the end of it. No nasty decisions to make and no controversies to fight.

    Eventually even IBM became too conservative to be able to sell computers to conservative IT managers.

    • While IBM nowadays gets most of its revenue from software and services, particularly the latter, it still does make and sell computer hardware, namely z System mainframes and i System (nee OS/400), Unix (AIX) and Linux servers. No Personal Computers, though; they sold their PC division to the Chinese Lenovo 15 years ago.

  7. As a point of curiosity, I suggest that the locking mechanism on Henry rifle might have been precursor what became later “toggle lock” on common machinegun some 30 years after.

    As is visible, the mechanism is really snug and relies on bearing surface machined into receiver rather than shear strength of pins and that certainly makes sense (BAR and MAG58 are similar in that way). When comes to “perfect alignment”, as Ian points out, I have small amount of doubt that alignment was truly perfect – there is nothing perfect in machining and fitting of parts. But, it may be close enough and the mechanism is apparently accommodating some to small deviation and remain durable and safe in long term use. In that sense, Henry is true genius.

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