With its terrible carnage, the Civil War did push technical innovation. A new rifle was needed to replace the muskets, and one of the first attempts, the Volcanic Repeating Rifle—which fired a “Rocket Ball” bullet with a hollow base containing powder and priming compound—never achieved popularity. However, fortunately, Henry Repeating Rifles was able to fill the need.
The Rise of Henry Repeating Rifles
In 1857, the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company went bankrupt, and Oliver Winchester reorganized it as the New Haven Arms Company. His plant superintendent was Benjamin Tyler Henry. In 1860, Henry redesigned the Volcanic action to fire a .44-caliber rimfire brass cartridge loaded with 25 grains of powder behind a 216-grain bullet. The Henry rifle was born.
The Union, though, was overrun by firearms inventors, crackpots, and other shysters and not very receptive to new weapons. Many were leery of repeaters, which they believed expensive, wasteful of ammunition, and too delicate for active service. They also couldn’t waste money on untested and unproven weapons when the Union Army needed arms and needed them fast.
Undeterred, Oliver Winchester went political and gave presentation weapons to prominent individuals. This included Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and President Lincoln. In May of 1862, the Union Navy tested the Henry for accuracy, rapidity of fire, and endurance. And the rifle performed well.
Despite this, the Union was still not keen on buying unproven weapons. The problem was that the Union was losing the war, and its soldiers knew it. Correspondingly, they wanted to tip the odds in their favor.
News of this Henry repeating rifle was widespread, and many units and individuals purchased their own. Due to its revolutionary design and rapid rate of fire, the Henry became popular with military and civilian purchasers alike. Especially in the West.
The Most Advanced Infantry Weapon of the Civil War
The Henry rifle held 16 rounds of .44 rimfire ammunition in a tubular magazine. This was at a time when most soldiers were equipped with single-shot muzzleloading rifles. The Henry was perhaps the most advanced infantry weapon of the American Civil War.
Reports of the successful use of Henry rifles in the Civil War were numerous. The incredible firepower unleashed by the Henry is evident in Major William Ludlow’s account of the Battle of Allatoona Pass.
“What saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles,” wrote Major Ludlow. “This company of 16 shooters sprang to the parapet and poured out such a multiplied, rapid and deadly fire, that no men could stand in front of it, and no serious effort was made thereafter to take the fort by assault.”
After an encounter with the 7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which had the good fortune to be armed with Henrys, one Confederate officer is credited with the phrase:
“It’s a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long.”
Respect for the Henry was so widespread that even Confederate President Jefferson Davis ensured that his security detail was armed with Henry rifles.
Henry Repeating Rifles’ Role in Winning the West
The Henry rifle went on to play a large role in winning the West. The Henry would soon become one of the most legendary, respected, and sought-after rifles in the history of firearms. A contemporary rifle collection isn’t complete without one, and today that legacy continues with Henry Repeating Rifles.
Today, the gun company that helped win the Civil War and the Old West is based in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Likewise, there is another manufacturing facility in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Henry Repeating Arms adheres to a tradition of qualify craftsmanship and rifle production.
As current owner Anthony Imperato told me, “Every part of our firearms production is based in the United States. Nothing made by Henry is from a foreign source, and we take pride that we offer only all-American-made firearms and gear.
“We source the wood for the stocks from the Midwest United States, and the steel from the Great Lakes states. Everything we make a Henry with is American sources and manufacturing,” said Imperator.
To accomplish this, Henry builds a complete line of classically styled American rifles. These range from the classic Henry lever-action rifle chambered in .44-40 Winchester to the Big Boy Classic in .44 Magnum that can shoot .44 Special rounds to the .357 Magnum that can shoot .38 Special rounds, .327 Federal Magnum and .32 H&R for Cowboy Action Shooting.
More Than Just Rifles
Henry also offers lever-action shotguns like the .410 bore, as well as tribute and youth-oriented rifles chambered in .22 caliber. The company also runs the Guns for Great Causes program. Guns for Great Causes will donate rifles for youth, veterans, or other worthy charities to raise money for good causes.
The Henry rifle was the first practical lever-action repeating rifle and the immediate forerunner of the Winchester rifles. About 14,000 were made between 1860 and 1866 by the New Haven Arms Company. And 1,731 made their way to the Civil War battlefields and many more out West.
Today, every weapon made that is capable of repeat firing, especially with the military, owes its legacy to Henry rifles.
Our American firearms heritage is proudly kept alive with Henry Repeating Arms. So much so that if you visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, you will find Henry Rifle serial number 6.
It is chambered in .44 caliber, made of forged steel with a wooden stock. The top of the barrel is stamped “Henry’s Patent Oct. 16, 1860/Manufactured New Haven Arms Company New Haven, Ct.”
On the right side of the stock is an engraved gold mounting with a floral design that reads “Lincoln/President/U.S.A.”
This gold-mounted, engraved Henry rifle was presented to Abraham Lincoln in an effort to obtain his influence in their purchase for the war effort. This same rifle was awarded the National Rifle Association Collectors Society Gold Medal as an outstanding historical firearm.
So if you want to keep American firearms legacy and heritage alive, you can do that with a Henry.
For more information, please visit HenryUSA.com.
Q&A with Anthony Imperato
How does a guy from Brooklyn make Old West heritage guns?
The company dates back to 1911, when John Jovino operated a gun store in Manhattan and made holsters, and sold guns to the NYPD. The Manhattan store was sold to Frank Albanese, who hired my father, Lou Imperato.
My father expanded the company, and when I took it over, I acquired the Henry name and eventually moved it out of Brooklyn to Bayonne, New Jersey.
What makes Henry rifles so special?
We take pride in everything we do at Henry, from sourcing materials to craftsmanship to customer service. We are consistently rated at the top when it comes to customer service with our no-small-print guarantee. Our slogan remains “Made in America, Or Not Made at All.”
With your “Made in America, Or Not Made At All” slogan, where do you source the components to build the rifles?
The wood comes from Midwestern states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, and we get the steel and brass from places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even our shirts, hats, and jackets we sell are made in the U.S.A.
What are your feelings on the current gun debate swirling in the nation?
Since we are a heritage manufacturer, we don’t really get brought into that conversation like manufacturers of modern firearms. Generally, we, of course, support the Second Amendment. We also support youth organizations and good causes, like the Boy Scouts, that teach good firearms safety, use, and respect.
How has the company grown?
Our biggest growth came in 2008, when we moved from New York to our 100,000-square-foot location in Bayonne, New Jersey. We also decided to purchase the firearm receivers manufacturer in Rice Lake, Wisconsin and began making rifles there as well.
This article was originally published in the Guns of the Old West Winter 2022 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email email@example.com.