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Common Guns in the Civil War

1860 Henry Rifle

The Henry rifle was created in 1860 the year before the American Civil War. B. Tyler Henry invented both the cartridge and the rifle that are known by his name. The 44 Henry rimfire cartridge was the first practical fully complete self-contained metallic cartridge. The Henry Rifle was a further development of prior attempts to make a repeating firearm.

B. Tyler Henry invented the rifle prior to the Civil War

The metallic (copper or brass) case of the cartridge effectively sealed the breech of the gun to contain the hot propellent gases. The priming element was inside a folded rim. The firing pin struck the rim without piercing it. The 22 Short rimfire dates from a few years earlier, but lacked power for practical self defense. Henry was able to make a mass produced cartridge with a significant powder charge.

The 44 Henry cartridge was comparable in power and competitive with military pistols, but was still under strength for military shoulder arms and buffalo hunting. The majority of Civil War military shoulder arms fired a bullet between 350 and 500 grains propelled by 40 to 60 grains of powder. Using modern reloading components, the 44 Henry load of a 200 grain bullet and 26 to 28 grains of black powder can be readily duplicated using the 44 Magnum cartridge case. The 44 Special can be used if the bullet is seated out to the same cartridge length as the 44 Magnum.

The 44 Henry rifle was carried in the Civil War but was not widely accepted nor popular with the Army. And the Army could not readily transport the extra weight of all the ammunition the soldiers would shoot from a repeating firearm.

The Henry was a little tedious to load. The magazine was a tube under the barrel and loaded from the front end. The magazine tube was rendered delicate for military service by a lengthwise slot on the lower side. The slot is necessary for retracting the follower and spring into the front end section for reloading. The slot and follower precluded a wooden forestock.

A few shots rapid fire on a sunny summer day would make the barrel too hot to hold. The average man could shoot all 15 shots of the Henry rifle in about a dozen seconds. The Henry did not have a wooden stock at the front end to protect the shooter's hand from a hot barrel.

A successful businessman arranged a bank loan to Henry's company. The loan was secured by a lien against Henry's and the businessman's homes. When the company failed financially after the Civil War was over, the businessman Oliver Winchester bought the bank note against Henry's house. Frustrated by the inventor and poor sales after the War, Oliver Winchester directed the rifle be improved with a loading gate in the receiver (at the back end of the magazine) for easier reloading and a wooden forestock to protect the shooter's hand. The result was the 1866 Winchester as the first in the long line of Winchester rifles. The term "Model 1866" wasn't applied until the next model of Winchester came out in 1873. Until then, there was only one "Winchester."

The last of the new 1866 Winchesters was shipped around 1915 to a foreign buyer. The manufacture of the 44 Henry rimfire cartridge was discontinued by the big ammunition companies in 1934 during the Great Depression.

Approximately 14,000 Henry rifles were made and most were made during the Civil War. Total quantity purchased by the U.S. Government is 1,731, many of which are in a narrow serial number range of 3,000 to 4,200. The narrow serial number range strongly suggests purchases earlier in the War were not repeated. The Spencer was more powerful and reliable for rugged field use.

A few Henry rifles were made after the War. The first 1866 Winchester serial numbers overlap with the last Henry rifle serial numbers. Total production of all Henry and 1866 Winchester rifles was about 160,000. All were made for the 44 Henry cartridge.

For more information on what happened next to the Henry rifle, see Winchester webpage.

More information is on an e-mail exchange of the pricing and costs of the Henry Rifle.

Technical Information

Barrel Length 24 inches
Overall Length 44 inches
Weight 9 1/4 pounds
Caliber 44 (.435")
Bullet Weight 200 grains
Power Charge 26 grains
Muzzle Velocity 1100 feet per seconds
Muzzle Energy 540 foot pounds

More About Civil War Guns

 

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