April 06, 2021
By Joseph Von Benedikt
As the first truly successful repeating metallic-cartridge lever action, the Henry rifle introduced by New Haven Arms in 1860 was certainly one of the most influential in history. It had flaws and was short-lived because the subsequent Winchester Model 1866 (by the same company) corrected most of those flaws, but the Henry led the way.
Original Henry rifles were chambered for the .44 Rimfire cartridge. Short and mild, the cartridge was adequate for close-range fighting and hunting. It generated around 1,125 fps with a 200-grain bullet, similar to zesty .44-40 loads today, and featured a fairly pointy bullet, which was safe due to the rimfire case. A full 15 rounds fit into the magazine of a standard rifle-length model with a 24-inch barrel.
Navy Arms was the first to produce an American-made reproduction of the Henry (nearly 50 years ago), and some of the very early ones were chambered in .44 Rimfire, but nearly all the rest were made in .44-40. Eventually, Navy Arms moved production to Italy and no longer offers either brass-frame or iron-frame Henry rifles.
The original New Haven Arms produced only about 14,000 Henry rifles before discontinuing it in favor of the mechanically superior Winchester Model 1866 (about which time the company changed its name to Winchester). Certainly, far more Henry models have been manufactured as reproductions than ever were as originals.
Most unique about how the Henry functions is its loading mechanism. To load, locate the brass follower’s acorn-size external tab at the bottom of the magazine tube (interestingly, the magazine tube is machined integral to the barrel) and use it to draw the follower toward the muzzle. It will slide easily in its slot, compressing the magazine spring. About five inches from the muzzle it will pass from the magazine tube into a rotating sleeve or shroud around the last five inches of the barrel. The shroud is contoured to match the profile of the octagon barrel and magazine tube. With the magazine spring and follower fully compressed into the shroud, it can be rotated about 45 degrees, exposing the end of the magazine tube. Drop cartridges base-first into the magazine tube. Rifle-length versions hold 13 rounds of .44-40 ammo.
Navy Arms was one of my two favorite firearm companies when I was a kid. I used to pore over the catalogs for hours. My first centerfire rifle was a reproduction Winchester Model 1892 built by Rossi. Eventually, we traded it and a double handful of cash I had earned toward a shiny and new iron-framed Henry made by Navy Arms.
To my disappointment, it proved to have excessive headspace, so I shipped it in for repair. And waited. Months later, I made a frustrated call. The service department must have taken pity on me, because a few days later a brand-new Italian-made iron-frame Henry (circa 1980) showed up to replace my defective one.
To my surprise, the top of its receiver was engraved “One of One Thousand,” and the walnut was nicer than on my first one. The rifle shot well, and for a few years it was my constant companion in the woods and while working cattle.
While shooting the Henry a lot back in the day, I worked up a handload using 240-grain bullets I cast from a mild alloy. Like early .44 Rimfire original rifles, my Henry has a slow rifling twist rate (1:32, I believe ), and I wondered if the 240-grain bullet would even stabilize. Indeed it did and proved to be very accurate. I remember putting 10 out of 10 shots through a gallon-size coffee can at 200 yards at one point.
I made one adaption to the Henry that I now regret. I replaced the traditional ladder-type rear sight with a semi-buckhorn rear that’s adjustable via a blade elevator. Because the rear sight dovetail is close to the front of the action, I had to install the sight backward. It worked, allowing me to make fine sight adjustments, but now I’m looking for a replacement ladder sight.
For this column, I blew off the dust and shot some groups with two handloads powered by 7.3 grains of Alliant Unique powder. The results are shown in the accompanying chart.
For plinking, for cowboy competition, and for hunting hogs and deer up close, it’s a fun tool. Interestingly, I recently found two past online auctions for engraved One of One Thousand Henry reproduction rifles, and they sold for $710 and $750.
Model 1860 Henry Specs
MANUFACTURER: Navy Arms/A. Uberti
TYPE: Lever-action repeater
CALIBER: .44-40 Win.
MAGAZINE CAPACITY: 13 rounds
BARREL: 24 in.
OVERALL LENGTH: 43.3 in.
WEIGHT: 9 lbs.
FINISH: Case-colored action, blued barrel and buttplate
LENGTH OF PULL: 13.25 in.
SIGHTS: Semi-buckhorn rear, post front
TRIGGER: 2.38-lb. pull (as tested)
SAFETY: Halfcock notch