Trials and Tribulations of the Henry Rifle

Internal Strife in The New Haven Arms Company, Along with Certain Design Flaws Left An
Otherwise Good Arm Out of Wide Spread Service

Henry Rifle

Written and Illustrated by Eric Ortner
(Originally Published in the Civil War Courier)

The shortages of arms on both sides during the War Between the States brought some innovative weapons to the forefront. A barrage of breech loading arms saw active service in the hostilities. This inevitably led to the inclusion of the repeating rifle. However, the United States Ordnance Department was not immediately convinced of the inherent merits of a magazine weapon. To a certain extent this explains why the war lasted as long as it did. However, the truth of the matter is that neither of the two leading manufacturers, Spencer Repeating Rifle Company and the New Haven Arms Company were in any condition to be filling large orders by 1861. Therefore, the conservative views of James W. Ripley cannot entirely be blamed for their slow implementation in military service.

Yet, the story of the Henry Rifle's struggle to create a lasting legacy for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company did not start on April 24, 1861 when Lieutenant Colonel Ripley assumed the duties of Acting Chief of Ordnance. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of the lever-action rifle. However, one of the first tubular magazines was patented on August 21, 1849. Its creator, Hunt is far better known for his invention of the sewing machine. In late 1849 A. Arrowsmith acquired Hunt's patent rights. He allowed his employee, Lewis Jennings, to simplify Hunt's creation, which was needlessly complicated. Courtland C. Palmer recognized the importance of Hunt and Jennings' patents and purchased their rights. He quickly allowed the production of the arms in 1850 by giving the Robbins and Lawrence Company the opportunity to start the manufacture of 5,000 rifles using Jennings' improved construction.

Portrait of Benjamin Tyler Henry

It so happened that a man by the name of Benjamin Tyler Henry worked at Robbins and Lawrence, which was located in Windsor, VT. He saw the need for further improvements in Jennings' magazine, and took it upon himself to carry them out. He combined elements of Jennings' arm with those of another gentleman by the name of Horace Smith. Henry had previously worked with Smith during their mutual employment in Springfield Armory.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Henry could not afford to patent these improvements. However, his friend Horace Smith, who by this point was an arms factory owner from Worchester, was able to give the 30 year old Henry a reasonable deal on August 26, 1851.

Mr. Smith collaborated with Daniel B. Wesson who was also working at Robbins and Lawrence. Smith had originally met Wesson while they were both employed as barrel makers for Allen, Brown & Luther. Their friendship remained strong as they continued the development of the tubular magazine. After the two gunsmiths made some more improvements to Hunt's, Jennings' and Henry's repeating rifle, they earned the patent number 10,535.

Smith and Wesson sought additional assistance in their project. They needed the funding of Courland Palmer, and the technical expertise of B. T. Henry to form a new company in Norwich. There Henry became superintendent. It wasn't before too long that the production facility was moved to New Haven and renamed the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company.

Sales were not nearly as brisk as Smith and Wesson had hoped. They therefore lost interest in the lever-action weapons and began to consider the production of revolvers. In 1855 Smith and Wesson sold all of their rights and machinery to Nelson H. Gaston and Oliver F. Winchester. This sale was basically what led to the ultimate demise of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. The exhaustive investment in machinery during the transaction, made it next to impossible to meet the Company's operating expenses. This problem was further amplified as sales failed to reach expected projections.

To cover operating expenses, the company borrowed money. This was in part to pay the employees, but it was also done to cover previous debt. Gaston and Winchester were willing to give as much financial assistance as needed to keep the company afloat. This policy quickly changed though, when in December of 1856 Nelson Gaston suddenly past away. Winchester, with the help of the executors of Gaston's estate, forced the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company into bankruptcy. After some careful economic maneuvering on the part of Winchester, the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company relinquished all their assets to two trustees. The gentlemen receiving the company were from the Tradesman Bank, and went by the name of Samuel L. Talcott and Gardner Morse. They applied for permission to liquidate the assets from the Probate Court of New Haven, Connecticut. It was at this point that all of Oliver F. Winchester's financial savvy truly shined through. He loaned the trustees the funds that were required to pay off other loans, and secure mortgages. In this way he protected the company's assets from being claimed by other lenders. Moreover, he advanced the trustees the required funding to pay the cost of the patents still under the control of Courtland Palmer, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. These actions left Winchester as the only mortgage holder of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, at a cost of $35,438.74.

The Probate Court accepted Talcott and Morse as Volcanic Arms' executors on February 18. They soon found themselves with the responsibility of preparing a list of all creditors, mortgage claims and assets. Some of these creditors included the suppliers of raw materials to Volcanic. With the help of Eli Whitney, Jr., Henry Munson and Charles Ball, the two executors determined the total assets amounted to $57,714.53. However, a mortgage was leveraged against the assets totaling $65,632. Therefore the court ordered that Talcott and Morse sell the assets of the company. Through various means, Winchester purchased all the assets at a total cost to him of $40,242.51.

Winchester had finally gained complete control of all the company's machinery and facilities. It was now time to reorganize to ensure future success. He met with William Story and J.W. King and signed an agreement on April 3, 1857. The new corporation was named the New Haven Arms Company and arms production commenced almost immediately. Horace Smith remained affiliated with Winchester until April or May of 1858. Until that time Smith served as superintendent for the company. During Smith's tenure in this position, the fledgling New Haven Arms Company began to pay its own way. It did so by completing the construction of 2,000 arms that were started while the facilities still went by the name of Volcanic Arms. They helped to pay off some of the debts that were incurred by Winchester in his efforts to salvage the Volcanic Company. Oliver Winchester made, what seemed at the time, a good decision by placing Benjamin Tyler Henry in Smith's former position. Winchester recognized that his sales were already starting to decline. Therefore, he told Henry to try and improve the efficiency of the arm. Mr. Winchester was later quoted as saying, "After buying the Smith & Wesson patents in 1855, I was never able to make the improvements in their February 14 and October 10 1854 patents work reliably, but used the hollow ball. It was for this reason that I hired Henry to work out a practical system." 1

At first Henry's refinements merely cut corners in the production of components. A prime example of this is the use of Brass for the receivers of the weapons rather than iron. This eliminated the stage of blueing the iron, which could be very time consuming. If a component was blued improperly, it would have to be redone. Brass was much easier to handle. It simply needed to be polished and lacquered. Once it was sold, the upkeep of brass was left to the customer's discretion. Henry's most significant improvement, though, was hands down in regard to ammunition.

On October 16, 1860 a patent was granted for an improved cartridge. The cartridge was made of copper. It can be described as having a flat lipped bottom that was filled with fulminate. This patent stated, "My patent invention relates to improvements in a repeating breech-loading gun designed and arranged for the exclusive use of a hollow loaded ball, with a primer inserted in the base the addition of new features, adapting the arm to the use of a solid ball enclosed in a metal cartridge, thus greatly increasing the power and certainty of fire of the arm." 2

Diagram of the loaded Henry Rifle

Diagram of a Henry Rifle in the process of Loading

The patent went on to explain in great detail Henry's improvements to the action of the arm. Basically the action contained a breech-pin which worked with a piston. When the hammer fell, it struck a breech pin that held two sharp points. The points slammed into the rim of the cartridge thus igniting the fulminate. The ammunition was sure to discharge, if struck anywhere on the rim. In essence, it was a true rim-fire cartridge. The cartridge was .44 caliber. It held about 25 grains of powder along with a conical bullet. The bullet weighed about a half ounce or exactly 216 grains. The case was light in comparison, weighing in at 50 grains, with the tallow and fulminate each weighing a mere two grains. This brought the total weight of the cartridge in its entirety to 295 grains. Patent #30,446 also covered an improved lever-action and toggle system.

In December of 1861, Ripley wrote to secretary of War Simon Cameron about the fate of breech-loading weapons in the service. He included some comments about repeating style arms. He was reluctant to recommend the Henry and the Spencer rifle due to their weight when loaded. The overall complexity of the action that resulted from movable parts, worried Ripley because it could possibly malfunction also. Just as importantly these arms were extremely expensive for the day. Henrys sold at $40 a piece. Compared with an $8 Springfield that is a fortune. However, the greatest evils in Ripley's eyes were the odd caliber and style ammunition required by repeaters. Ripley, of course, was a strong advocate for the standardization of ammunition.

There was no getting around this problem for the New Haven Arms Company since improved rim-fire cartridges was one of the Henry's strongest selling points. Moreover, the company was able to profit from such a bizarre ammunition because it was the only facility that manufactured it. The brass frame Henry rifle came into production in early spring of 1862, and by July, enough had been produced to fill the early orders. The weapon could finally be widely marketed. However, it seems that the legacy of the unpopular Volcanic Arms lived on, as sales did not pick up until 1863.

Still, in May of 1862, the weapon was being contemplated by J.A. Dahlgren, he was in command of the Washington Navy Yards. He gave an accurate description of the arm by writing, "The principle novelty in this gun is the magazine, and the manner of loading from it. It consists of a tube, under the barrel, extending its entire length, of sufficient diameter to admit the cartridges freely. A section of this tube, near the muzzle contains a spiral spring, to throw the cartridges upon a carrier-block in the rear. When the spring is pressed into the section, it turns upon the axis of the bore, leaving the magazine open for the introduction of cartridges, of which it holds fifteen. Upon closing it, after filling, the spring throws a cartridge upon the carrier-block, which by a forward movement of the trigger guard, is raised to a level with the chamber, the hammer by the same movement being carried to a full cock. A reverse movement of the guard, bringing it to its place again, forces the cartridge into the chamber, and the gun is ready to fire."3

Dahlgren failed to mention that the 24-inch octagonal barrel was rifled with 6 grooves, with a gain twist making 1 turn in 16 feet at the breech. The spiral was somewhat tighter at the muzzle at 33 inches. Although, the cartridge used a .44 bullet, the diameter of the bore was just .42. Oh, the advantages of breech-loading weapons. The total length of this arm was 43 inches and it weighed 9 pounds.

The finely crafted butt stock was made of walnut. However, there was no fore-stock on these arms. This was mostly due to the spiral spring magazine located underneath the barrel.

The Henry Repeating Rifle received an extremely favorable review from Dahlgren following testing for endurance. One rifle was fired 1,040 times, without being cleaned. Dahlgren noted that it was extremely fouled but otherwise in perfect order. Moreover, Lieutenant W. Mitchel was able to fire 187 shots in three minutes and thirty-six seconds under Dahlgren's supervision.

Despite a very positive review, the Ordnance Department favored Christopher Spencer's Arm over New Haven Arms Company's. This was for a variety of reasons including the length and perceived strength of the weapon. The Spencer's magazine was better protected from the rigors of service in its location in the butt stock.

The Henry did have a lot of advantages, too. Still, the Henry's lighter rounds, larger magazine capacity and greater rate of fire were not enough to outweigh the Spencer's overall durability. As a result, the Federal government only purchased 1,730 Henry rifles as opposed to the contracts for more than 105,000 Spencers.

Even with the limited number of Henry Rifles purchased, the arm left an extremely lasting impression on many members of the Confederate Ranks. One of the regiment's fortunate enough to be equipped with Henry Repeaters was Col. Lafayette C. Baker's 1st D.C. Cavalry. The organization was known as "Baker's Mounted Rangers." This unit has been compared to the Gestapo for its actions as a D.C. police force. Baker called this group of elite soldiers the "terror of evil doers."

A member of this division, Major Joel W. Cloudman, sang the praises of the Henry Rifle to Oliver Winchester. Major Cloudman wrote to the industrialist about his experiences with a captured Southerner who exclaimed, "Give us anything but that damned Yankee rifle that can be loaded on Sunday and fired all week."

Cloudman went on to elaborate about an engagement near Ream's Station where his unit gallantly withstood a Confederate charge. The unit was entirely armed with Henries and, "easily repulsed the foe, while the infantry were broken and swept from their well constructed breastworks." 4

Although only a small number of the arms were purchased by the government, the popularity of the gun was such in the ranks that soldiers were willing to give up two months of their hard earned wages for the chance to carry one into battle. Oscar C. Wither, one of Sherman's soldiers wrote in his journal on May 11, 1864, "I got a Henry rifle — a 16 shooter — yesterday… I gave 35 dollars, all the money I had, for it… I am glad I could get it. They are good shooters and I like to think I have so many shots in reserve." 5

In an official report on January 20, 1865 Baker listed all of the engagements his Cavalry had been involved in and sang glowing praises of the Henry rifle. He commented, "The rifles now in use by my command are the same that were issued to us at the time of our organization, and since that time they have been in constant use, most of the time in active service in the field, and they are now with a very few exceptions, as serviceable and efficient as they were when they were placed in the hands of the regiment… The remarkable rapidity and accuracy with which the gun can be discharged, renders it an invaluable weapon to the Army. Under ordinary circumstances, I believe it utterly impossible to make a successful charge on troops armed with them. At the battle of Ream's station on the 25th of August, repeated attempts were made by the enemy in large numbers to charge a position held by my regiment (they being dismounted) and at each attempt they were repulsed with heavy loss. On one occasion there were several officers of high rank from the Cavalry Corps and the 2nd Army Corps present, and noticed the destructive effect of my fire upon the enemy."

Although Baker's comments made for some of the greatest publicity any business owner could hope for, a few design flaws became apparent as the weapon saw active service. The first was associated with the rotating collar that allowed the magazine to be charged. If exposed to mud or rain, it was prone to sticking due to rust making the weapon difficult, if not impossible to load. The magazine tube itself could also be fowled by mud or dust. The cartridges would not feed properly as a result. Therefore, the Ordnance Departments reservations about the use of the arm were, in fact, accurate.

These design flaws were coupled with another major internal problem at New Haven Arms Company resulting in the arms limited implementation during The War Between the States. Some dissention within the ranks of the company resulted primarily from the Superintendent of the facility. Henry was certainly a good mechanical designer, but his abilities as a superintendent left a little to be desired. Even after orders for the weapon began to increase, and additional machinery was purchased, B. Tyler Henry did not increase the work force.

This inadequate work force created some substantial delays between the time orders were placed and the actual delivery of rifles. A prime example of lost business over this poor management can be related to an order placed by Brigadier General John T. Wilder. He wrote a letter to New Haven Arms Company requesting 900 rifles be delivered to Cincinnati Ohio. The New Haven Arms Company was unable to deliver 900 rifles in a timely manner, so the contract wound up in the hands of Christopher Spencer. However, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which superceded the New Haven Arms Company, managed to use the letter to their advantage as a way to market Winchester Arms in 1875. Of course, by then, they had already taken over the Spencer Company. These delays caused some major internal strife between Oliver Winchester and Benjamin Henry. Winchester retaliated by leasing a production facility in Bridgeport, CT from Wheeler and Wilson of New Haven in order to expand the production. He filled the building with additional machinery in order to double production. Luke Wheelock was hired and oversaw the activities of setting up the new facilities during December 1863 and January 1864. While the factory was being set up Oliver Winchester did not violate his five-year contract with B.T. Henry, as no Arms were produced in the new facility until the superintendent left.

Henry left the company in mid-May, 1864 which seems to have been about the best thing that could have happened to the New Haven Arms Company. Production increased about 25 percent upon his departure. Winchester appointed George W. Briggs to the task of improving the Henry Repeating Rifle's Magazine. Briggs accomplished this task by replacing the rotating muzzle collar with a sliding cover. Oliver Winchester retired from his prosperous textile company, which was largely responsible for funding his endeavors in armaments, in December 1864. He traveled to Europe and apparently remained interested in the production of rifles because he contracted with several designers to further improve the Henry's Magazine.#

At this time, Benjamin Tyler Henry retaliated against Winchester for his refusal to reinstate a contract. Henry, still a share holder of New Haven Arms Company, collaborated with Charles W. Nott who was the company's Secretary and petitioned the Connecticut State Legislature to change the name to Henry Repeating Rifle Company. On his return to the United States in June 1865, Winchester decided it would be easier to start a new company than fight the name change. As a result, the Winchester Arms Company was signed into existence in Bridgeport CT, July 1, 1865. Since Oliver leased and equipped the Bridgeport facility at his own expense, he simply didn't allow the New Haven Arms Company any use of the property. He then held a vote to determine who the officers of New Haven Arms Company should be. Oliver and his allies held the most stock, so Winchester remained the president while Charles W. Nott was effectively voted out of the Secretary position. Winchester's enterprising business leadership led to the eventual buyout of the New Haven Arms Company and on July 7, 1866 it officially closed. In August 1869, the Henry's greatest competitor, The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, was permanently put to rest. It had been experiencing severe financial difficulties in the post Civil War Period. In fact, the company was merged with the Fogarty Repeating Arms Company. This new corporation failed shortly after the merger and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company subsequently bought all the assets. James Wolf Ripley is often sighted as being too conservative and sometimes even incompetent in regard to his acquisition of Arms. However, he was correct to refuse the vast implementation of the Henry Repeater. Ripley wrote to Oliver Winchester in 1861 and gruffly explained that he didn't believe the repeaters were valuable as a military weapon. He was correct! The risks involved with a jammed magazine in Henry's design were far too great.

End Notes

1. Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards. pg. 177

2.The Breech-Loader in the Service: 1816-1857, Claud E. Fuller. pg. 190

3.The Breech-Loader in the Service: 1816-1857, Claud E. Fuller. pg. 190

4. Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards. pg. 158

5. Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards. pg. 159


Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards 1962, Stackpole Books Harrisburg, PA

Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865 to 1981, by Herbert G. Houze 1994. Krause Publications Iola, WI.

The Breech-Loader in the Service 1816-1917, Clad E. Fuller 1965 N. Flayderman & Co. Norwalk, CT.

Great Century of Guns, Branko Bogdanovic and Ivan balencak 1986. Gallery Books, New York, NY.

Guns of the American West, Joseph G. Rosa. 1985 Crown Publishers, New York, NY.

Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles and Carbines, Colonel Arcadi Gluckman. 1965 Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA.

Arming the Union, Carl S. Davis. 1973 Kennikat Press Portwatson NY.

Military Small Arms: 300 Years of Soldiers' Firearms, Edited By Graham Smith 1996 Salamander Books, Distributed by Random House Publishing, Avenel, NJ

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