The NEW Original Henry Lever Action .44-40 Rifle
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
The Henry repeating rifle of 1860 was the most advanced rifle of its time. It was a lever action repeater with a tubular magazine holding 17 rounds and chambered for a self-contained, metallic cartridge. Operating the loop lever extracted and ejected the fired casing from the chamber, loaded a fresh cartridge into the chamber and cocked the hammer for the next shot. The shooter needed only to pull the trigger and work the lever until the magazine was empty. All this at a time when single shot muzzleloaders were the norm for both civilian hunters and the armies of the world. The only other contemporary repeater used in the American Civil War was the Spencer, but it loaded through the butt and was not self-cocking, which is why, after the end of the Civil War, Benjamin Tyler Henry's rifle and action design went on to dominate the Western Frontier and into history as "the rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long."
B. Tyler Henry was the head designer and plant manager for Oliver Winchester; he never owned a manufacturing company. Oliver Winchester owned the controlling interest in the New Haven Arms Company and when B. Tyler Henry patented his ground breaking lever action repeater in 1860, it was New Haven Arms that manufactured and sold it. New Haven Arms was renamed Winchester Repeating Arms after the commercial success of the Henry rifle, which was in production for six years and sold around 13,000 units. With the addition of a walnut forend and a side loading gate, the Henry rifle was transformed into the Winchester Model 1866 rifle, the first rifle to wear the Winchester name. The basic Henry action was used in the Winchester Models 1866 ("Golden Boy"), 1873 ("the Gun that Won the West") and 1876 ("Centennial").
From the shooter's perspective, the Original Henry is similar in operation to modern Henry, Marlin and Winchester lever actions. It is an exposed hammer, tubular magazine fed, lever action repeater. You swing the lever down and forward to extract and eject the fired case and cock the hammer, then back and up to its starting position to chamber a new cartridge and lock the action. A single action trigger fires the rifle. The Henry's mainspring is easy to compress when the hammer is thumb cocked. The hammer's tall spur gives the thumb excellent purchase, but blocks the view of the sights when the hammer is not cocked. A small turn-latch can be used to keep the lever in its "up" position when the rifle is not in use.
1860's Henry rifles did not have a "half-cock" hammer safety notch. The only safe way to carry a Henry was with the chamber empty, or with the action open. If the hammer was lowered on a chambered round, the firing pin rested on the primer and a blow to the hammer could accidentally fire the cartridge. The new Original Henry adds a half-cock safety notch to the hammer to allow for normal lever action carry with the chamber loaded and the hammer lifted off of the firing pin.
Unlike modern lever actions, the Henry action uses a cartridge carrier that raises and lowers vertically in what is effectively an elevator shaft in the receiver, directly behind the breech. This "cartridge elevator" lengthens the receiver, but is very smooth in operation and allows completely controlled cartridge feeding. Removing the lever and the receiver's side plates (a total of only two screws) allows easy access to the action.
No ejector, per se, is required in the Henry. The rising cartridge carrier block simply pushes the fired and extracted case out the open top of the receiver as it raises a new cartridge into alignment with the chamber, no matter how slowly or rapidly the finger lever is operated. When shooting from a bench rest, fired cases just plop onto the shooting table if the lever is operated slowly. Rapid lever operation ejects fired cases vertically from the open top receiver.
The Henry rifle is completely insensitive to position or attitude. It feeds and ejects properly with the rifle held at any angle, including upside down. The Henry's open top action is also easy to single load. Just operate the lever far enough to completely withdraw the breech block, without raising the cartridge carrier. Slip a cartridge into the chamber from the top and use the lever to close the action. That's all there is to it.
The Henry's breech block is held closed by the finger lever operating a relatively weak toggle-link system. This is not the strongest system ever devised, but it was more than adequate for the original .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge and (in subsequent Winchester brand rifles) early centerfire cartridges, such as the .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20.
Loading an Original Henry rifle is different than loading a modern Henry tube feed lever action; these modern designs use an inner magazine tube that is withdrawn for loading, similar to tube fed .22 rimfires. The tubular magazines of modern Winchester 94 and Marlin 336 lever actions are loaded via a loading gate in the side of the receiver. Loading the Original Henry's integral tubular magazine is easy enough, once you know how it is done, but the procedure is not obvious to the uninitiated.
To load the magazine, lift the magazine finger tab all the way to the top of its travel (this fully compresses the magazine spring) and then twist the front end of the magazine tube assembly to open the end of the magazine tube. Drop up to 13 cartridges, rim first, down the magazine tube, then twist the front end of the magazine tube assembly back to its original position to close the magazine tube. Work the lever and you are ready to shoot.
B. Tyler Henry's open top action is also very easy to single load. Just operate the lever far enough to completely withdraw the breech block without raising the cartridge carrier and insert a cartridge from the top--no need to slide it into the chamber, although you can. Moving the lever rearward to close the breechblock will chamber the cartridge. The Henry action is very user friendly.
For many years Uberti and other overseas manufacturers have been selling reproductions of the seminal Henry repeating rifle chambered for modern cartridges. (1860's vintage Henry's are very expensive collectors' items for which ammo is not available.) For 2013, Henry Repeating Arms of New York, USA began offering this historic firearm, which is made in their own factory. This is not a close copy of a Henry rifle; it is a Henry rifle, line by line. The new Original Henry is identical to the Henry rifle of 1860, except it is chambered for the classic .44-40 centerfire cartridge instead of the long discontinued .44 Henry rimfire cartridge. Purchasers of new Original Henry Rifles can, therefore, shoot them.
Actually, the new Henry is better than the 1860 version, because while the same basic materials are used in its construction (brass, steel and walnut) the new model takes advantage of modern metallurgy. The brass used in the new receiver, for example, is heat treated and far stronger than antique brass. Henry Arms claims these receivers have the same tensile and yield strength as steel.
When the new Henry's became available Anthony Imperato, owner of the modern Henry Repeating Arms Company, e-mailed us and asked if we would like to review one. Naturally, we jumped at the chance!
When it arrived, opening the box was an event. Inside was a magnificent rifle. It is amazing that something like this could have been produced with 1860's technology. The barrel and magazine tube are integral, machined from a single steel billet. The machining and metal finish is impressive. The receiver and crescent buttplate are polished brass, while the barrel/magazine tube, lever, hammer, trigger and screws are highly polished and deeply blued. The buttstock (Henry rifles have no forend) is fancy black walnut (approximately A grade).
Our only aesthetic criticism is the wood to metal fit, which is not up to the high standards set by the metal machining and finish. There are gaps where the stock fits the top and bottom tangs and the metal protrudes slightly above the wood. In addition, the wood pores are not completely filled by the oil finish. We rectified the latter deficiency by applying 10 additional coats of stock oil. The result was the hand-rubbed gloss finish that should have been applied at the factory.
This is probably the smoothest lever action we have ever reviewed, which is saying something. Each gun's serial number begins with the initials BTH in honor of Benjamin Tyler Henry. You really need see this rifle in person to fully appreciate it and understand why it carries a 2013 MSRP of $2300.
For those who want something even more special, there is a limited edition of 1000 Original Henry Rifles with receivers engraved in a period pattern. Both sides of the receiver are completely covered with relief scroll engraving. These instant collectables, otherwise identical to the standard model, retail for $3495.
We did our test shooting at the Izaak Walton outdoor range south of Eugene, Oregon. This rifle range offers covered bench rests and target stands at 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. We shot our groups for record at 50 yards, our usual distance for rifles with iron sights. (Multiply the results by two to approximate 100 yard groups.) Our targets were Hoppe's slow fire pistol targets, because they offer better visibility than rifle targets to our aging eyes at 50 yards. We used a Caldwell sandbag rest and fired three shot groups for record in order to conserve our limited supply of .44-40 ammunition. The Western Oregon winter weather was partly cloudy, damp and chilly, with a temperature of 28-degrees F. The wind was negligible and barrel heating was not a factor. Guns and Shooting Online staff members Chuck Hawks, Rocky Hays and Jim Fleck handled the shooting chores.
We shot our groups for record with Winchester Super-X .44-40 rifle ammunition. This load launches a 200 grain Power-Point (JSP) bullet at a catalog muzzle velocity of 1190 fps with 690 ft. lbs muzzle energy. We chronographed 10 rounds from the barrel of our Original Henry and got an average instrumental velocity of 1018 fps 10 feet from the muzzle.
Winchester kindly provided the ammunition for this review, which was the only .44-40 rifle factory load available at the time of this review, due to the Obama Administration inspired ammo shortage. Without the generosity of our friends at Winchester ammunition, this review would not have been possible.
50 Yard Shooting Results
Obviously, Winchester has learned a thing or two about loading accurate .44-40 ammunition over the last 140 years. These accuracy results from three shooters with old eyes lacking accommodation (we had to use our reading glasses to see the sights, which meant the target was an indistinct blur) are a tribute to a fine rifle and excellent ammunition. Only one group was larger than one inch (at 1-5/8") and that was primarily attributable to shooter error. We were all very impressed with the accuracy of the Original Henry rifle and Winchester Super-X .44-40 ammunition.
The Henry's rear ladder sight has extremely fine clicks between markings for 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 (presumably 100 yard increments). It is a precision sight, if your eyes can take advantage of it. We did our test shooting using the rear sight in its short range folded position, what the military would have called "battle sights" in historical times. Even so, our shots were impacting about 8" above the point of aim. We suspect this was because Henry Repeating Arms exactly copied the 1860 rifle, including the sights, which were calibrated for the .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge.
Because our eyes lack the accommodation to make efficient use of open sights, we all felt we could have shot even smaller groups with some sort of aperture sight. A tang mounted peep sight could probably be fitted to the Original Henry, if the owner were willing to drill and tap the rear tang, which we are going to do. This rifle deserves the best practical sights.
Our shooters praised the Henry's ultra-smooth action. This is the smoothest lever action rifle we have ever tested, even smoother than the Uberti and Winchester Model 1866, 1873 and 1886 rifles we have reviewed. There were no malfunctions of any kind in the course of our testing.
The curved, rifle style buttplate helps keep the Original Henry in place at the shoulder when levering off fast shots. Even with a solid brass buttplate, the felt recoil from this nine pound .44-40 rifle was very light. It is a pussycat to shoot.
On the other hand, we detested the creepy and heavy trigger pull, which definitely degrades practical accuracy. There is approximately 6.5 pounds of creep, which seems to go on forever, before the trigger finally releases at about 8.5 pounds. This rifle screams for a trigger job, which the factory should have performed before it left the plant. We don't understand a $2300 rifle with this accuracy potential being supplied with an 8.5 pound trigger pull. Less experienced shooters, fighting this trigger, would probably have difficulty duplicating our excellent groups.
The 24.5" barrel and integrally machined magazine tube make the Original Henry muzzle heavy. Even with an empty magazine, it balances well in front of the receiver. Nor, at about nine pounds 10 ounces with a fully loaded magazine, is it a featherweight to carry in the field. However, the weight and balance make it relatively easy to hold steady when fired from a rest.
We had a lot of fun at the rifle range with the Original Henry and there is no question that it is an attention getter. We can practically guarantee that no one else at your local rifle range will be shooting a genuine, made in the USA, Original Henry Rifle. Even though it is impractical to fit sling swivels to an Original Henry rifle, due to the absence of a forend and the design of the magazine, we'd like to take it deer hunting. It is a shooter and it would be a sensation in deer camp. History amply demonstrates that the .44-40 cartridge can get the job done at woods ranges with careful shot placement.
The basic action designed by B. Tyler Henry over a century and a half ago is a real pleasure to use. We can see why Winchester continued to use it in their Model 1866, 1873 and 1876 rifles and kept it in production for so long. (Until 1919 in the case of the Model '73.) The Henry action established the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. as one of the world's greatest rifle makers.
Since it is practically impossible to shoot a .44 rimfire Henry rifle, the new Original Henry .44-40 is the way to go if you want to experience a bit of history. The list price of this rifle is substantial, but not out of line considering its quality. Compared to the collector's price of an 1860's vintage Henry, not to mention the near impossibility of acquiring shootable quantities of .44 Henry rimfire ammo, the new Original Henry Rifle is a bargain.
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
Copyright 2013 by chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.