Henry Big Boy .357 Magnum Rifle
By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
The arrival of our Henry Big Boy .357 Magnum rifle was greatly anticipated by yours truly. I had spoken to Anthony Imperato, President of Henry Repeating Arms, last February at the 2006 SHOT Show and requested that a .357 Big Boy be sent for a Guns and Shooting Online review. At that time the gun was not yet in production and I was warned not to expect it until August or September. Low and behold, it arrived in the middle of August, just as promised.
The new rifle benefited from Henry's usual excellent packaging. There was even a cloth sock to protect the brass receiver during shipment. The included Instruction Manual is written in plain English that anyone should be able to understand.
Henry rifles come with an unusually simple and straightforward warrantee. To quote from the Instruction Manual: "We offer a simple limited lifetime warrantee. If you have a problem with a Henry rifle, and it is our fault, we will fix it at any time and at no charge."
Once out of its box and protective wrap, it became obvious that the Big Boy is a beauty. The Henry Big Boy features a solid brass receiver, barrel band and carbine style buttplate. The 20" octagon barrel is a polished blue, as is the lever, hammer, loading gate and all screws.
Henry proudly stocks their rifles in select American walnut. To quote from their catalog: "The grade of walnut we provide is typically found on guns three times the price of our rifles." If you peruse the photos in the Henry catalog, you will see that most of the rifles pictured are stocked in handsome walnut and some are spectacular.
Henry RAC outdid themselves with our test rifle; it is one of the spectacular ones. The forend and buttstock are highly figured (approximately AAA grade) walnut. This is the best walnut I have ever encountered on a production rifle. Its color and figure puts many custom rifle stocks to shame and the forend and buttstock are well matched. It is truly attractive wood, far better than anyone has a right to expect on a production rifle. Sometimes you just get lucky.
Some readers are bound to suspect that Henry RAC sent us a "ringer" in order to get a favorable review. Frankly, I doubt it. The test rifle showed absolutely no signs of having been tuned or hand polished. In fact, the action was a little rougher than the Big Boy rifles I have handled previously. Also, the lever had flaws in its bluing; evidently there were bubbles or contaminates in the blue bath. These things would have been addressed if the rifle was a hand selected "ringer." This example is superior to the other Henry rifles I have examined only in the area of its stock wood.
Out of the box the Big Boy's trigger pull measured 4.5 pounds with considerable creep on my RCBS premium gauge. By the end of this review it had lightened to 4.0 pounds, but the creep was still there.
The action was initially relatively stiff for a Henry, but smoother than most lever actions. Feeding was a bit sluggish, but improved with use. This is basically a fairly simple action and I could probably smooth it considerably with a little judicious hand polishing, particularly where the bolt meets the cartridge carrier as the bolt slides closed. Unfortunately, Henry RAC cannot afford to do the kind of hand polishing that was standard on Henry rifles in the 1860's; modern labor costs are prohibitive. However, they are doing the best they can to produce a superior quality rifle right here in the U.S.A.
It should be noted that over tightening the receiver screws will tend to bind the action; the brass receiver apparently has more flex than would a steel receiver. On the other hand, all lever actions generally tend to work their screws loose with use, so you can't allow the action screws to become too loose. All that is needed is to occasionally check the tension on the Big Boy's receiver screws, which you should do with any lever action rifle. Keep them screwed in, but don't reef them down tight.
The Big Boy is a fast handling rifle, but not as quick as most lever action carbines. That is because it is around two pounds heavier. A lot of the extra weight is in the Big Boy's 20" octagon barrel, which is considerably heavier than the typical round barrel. The Henry balances about a half-inch in front of the receiver. This slight muzzle heaviness makes it slower to swing, but a steadier rifle to shoot from the offhand position. Its short overall length makes it a handy brush country or deep woods hunting rifle.
The Big Boy's iron sights are a mixed bag. The brass bead front sight is good, but the tiny "U" or "V" (your choice, both are available by reversing the insert) notch in the Marbles semi-buckhorn rear sight is way too small. My aging eyes simply cannot resolve the notch when I mount the rifle to my shoulder. Somehow I managed to shoot the Big Boy fairly well with the supplied iron sights, but I did it by aligning the front bead with the target and largely ignoring the tiny rear sight notch that I couldn't see anyway. ("Let the Force guide you.") By our second trip to the range with the Henry I had filed the rear sight's "V" notch deeper and wider with a fine 60-degree triangular file.
I would greatly appreciate it if Henry would drill and tap the receivers of their lever guns to accept Lyman and Williams receiver (peep) sights. It would be a great boon for those of use whose eyes have lost most of their power of accommodation.
A cantilever scope mount for the Big Boy is available from Henry RAC. This requires drilling and tapping the barrel to accept the scope mount, as Henry does not supply their barrels pre-drilled and tapped. Why, I don't know, as they definitely should. Once your gunsmith mounts the scope base it accepts standard Weaver style rings.
Another useful option would be a small scope mounted on the barrel forward of the action in "scout rifle" style. I suggest that Henry RAC should offer such a mount for their rifles. The Big Boy is an accurate rifle, but you can't hit what you can't see.
The Henry cantilever scope base puts the scope so high above the receiver that a proper cheek weld on the comb is nearly impossible for most shooters. A large scope merely aggravates the problem, so a compact scope that can be mounted in Weaver Low Rings is most appropriate. The fixed power Leupold FX-II 2.5x20mm, Sightron SII 4x32mm Compact or Weaver K2.5x20mm are examples of appropriate riflescopes.
Here are the basic specifications of the Henry Big Boy test rifle:
We had the Henry Big Boy at the range at the same time as a Uberti 1866 Yellow Boy Short Rifle in .45 Colt that we were also reviewing. The two lever action, brass framed, octagon barreled rifles made an interesting comparison. Both are chambered for revolver cartridges and we had a lot of fun shooting them. (See the article "Shooting Classics" on the Collector's Corner page.)
We did our shooting, as usual, at the Izaak Walton gun range south of Eugene, Oregon. For those new to Guns and Shooting Online Reviews, this facility offers covered bench rest shooting positions and target stands at 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. The summer weather brought sunshine and blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70 degree F range. The wind was moderately gusty, but was not a problem at the relatively short range at which we were shooting the Big Boy.
Guns and Shooting Online staffers Bob Fleck, Rocky Hays and I did the shooting chores. Our shooting for record was done at our usual iron sight range of 50 yards from a shooting bench using a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest weighted with one 25 pound bag of lead shot. We used NRA 100 yard Small Bore Rifle Targets and fired five shot groups. Barrel heating was not a factor.
Why, you ask, were we shooting at 50 yards? The answer is that we are all middle aged guys whose eyes simply lack the ability to accommodate to the supplied semi-buckhorn iron rear sight and the greater the range the blurrier the target and the worse the sighting error becomes. It's not the rifle at fault here, but the shooters. Better to shoot at 50 yards and multiply the resultant group sizes by two to approximate the results at 100 yards (for normal shooters) when you are dealing with geezer shooters like us.
We shot groups for record with the several types of .357 Magnum ammunition. Included were reloads using the 140 grain Speer JHP bullet in front of 15.1 grains of Alliant 2400 powder for a MV of 1795 fps from a rifle barrel, Winchester Supreme factory loads with 180 grain Partition Gold JHP bullets at a MV of 1550 from a rifle barrel, Winchester Super-X factory loads with 158 grain JHP bullets at a MV of 1830 fps from a rifle barrel, Cor-Bon Premium factory loads with 180 grain Bonded Core Soft Point bullets at an estimated MV of 1600 fps from a rifle barrel, Remington/UMC factory loads with 125 grain JSP bullet at an estimated MV of 2040 fps from a rifle barrel and Federal American Eagle factory loads with 158 grain JSP bullets at an estimated MV of 1830 fps from a rifle barrel.
As a point of interest, .357 Magnum ammunition chronographed in a 4" revolver barrel usually gives an increase of about 350-500 fps when fired from a 20" rifle barrel, depending on bullet weight. The lighter bullets at higher velocities usually show the biggest increases.
Our thanks to Cor-Bon and Winchester/Olin for graciously supplying ammunition for this review. The other loads we had on hand.
For comparison and to check functioning (it worked fine), we also tried a .38 Special factory load from American Quality Ammunition using a 125 grain Montana Gold JHP bullet at an estimated 850 fps from a revolver barrel; MV from the Henry rifle unknown. Here are the shooting results:
As you can see from these results, the .357 Big Boy proved to be quite accurate, even with iron sights, as has every Henry rifle we have reviewed. Anyone who thinks that lever guns are inherently inferior in accuracy needs to spend some time with a Henry rifle. The Winchester Supreme 180 grain Partition Gold and Super-X 158 grain JHP hunting loads performed particularly well and would be our first choice for hunting CXP2 game.
I did pretty well at 50 yards with the iron sights, so I was elected to lob a few bullets at a 14"x14" plain cardboard target at 100 yards. The resulting three shot groups, fired with the 125 grain UMC factory load, averaged a surprisingly tight 2.5". That is a little better than the 2.75" group that two times my 50 yard average group size with that ammo would predict, but definitely in the ballpark. A five shot group, fired for comparison with the Winchester Super-X 158 grain JHP load, also went into 2.5".
We had a great time shooting the Henry Big Boy. We have long been a suckers for .357 Mag. lever guns. With proper hunting ammunition they offer about the least recoil available in a 100 yard deer rifle (only about 4.1 ft. lbs.). The guns are handy in the woods and easy to carry. They are fun with which to practice and plink; that .357" bullet really tosses tin cans around.
Everyone who shot the Henry Big Boy liked it. It is one of the prettiest .357 Mag. rifles on the market and it's made 100% in the U.S.A. Its classic styling, smooth action and accuracy (even with iron sights) justify its not inconsiderable MSRP. If you try one, you'll probably be hooked, just as we were.
Early in 2009 I finally got around to mounting a telescopic sight on the Big Boy using Henry's barrel mounted, cantilever scope base and Weaver rings. The scope was a Nikon ProStaff 4x32mm that I had received for review. This allowed me to see 100 yard targets clearly and zero the rifle/scope combination at that range. I was not disappointed, the Henry proved to be as accurate as our previous results had indicated it would be.
All test groups consisted of three shots from a bench rest with the rifle supported by a sandbag under the forearm. I used .357 Magnum Winchester Super-X 158 grain JHP loads at a MV of 1830 fps from a rifle barrel. This load had proven to be quite accurate in our earlier testing. Here are the scoped 100 yard results:
The last two groups I fired with the Henry went into 5/8" and 3/8" respectively, with the last three shots in the center of the 100 yard bull's-eye. These results from a lever action carbine shooting standard factory loaded ammunition seem remarkable to me. I don't think that anyone could reasonably ask for more. I could probably develop a handload specifically for this rifle and shrink the average group size even more, but what would be the point? The Henry Big Boy is worth every penny it costs.
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
Copyright 2006, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.