The Henry Rifle -- Today

Oliver Winchester's factory ceased production of the Henry rifle in 1866, when the gun was replaced with his namesake model of that year. The Winchester Model 1866 was chambered for the same .44 rimfire cartridge as the Henry, but had an improved sidegate loading system and a wooden forestock. Production of .44 rimfire ammunition ended in the 1920s, and by the centennial of the war in which it gained its fame, the Henry was relegated to an expensive collector's curio. The grand old gun gained a second lease on life, however, when it was reintroduced in 1979 by Val Forgett, who has made many old guns new again. Today Forgett's Navy Arms, Dixie Gun Works and other dealers offer Henrys for sale. All are made by Aldo Uberti, the Italian gunmaker known as the "king of the replicas."

Anyone planning to use a Henry in authentic reenactments or the recently approved N-SSA breech loading arms competition category should buy the military version of the rifle, sporting a 24 inch barrrel and sling swivels, rather than the short barreled carbine or "trapper" versions occasionally encounterd. Winchester offered a multitude of barrel lengths on its later lever guns, but original Henrys only came with 24 inch tubes. Although most modern Henrys have brass frames, Navy Arms catalogs both brass and iron frame versions, the latter a rarity among original guns. A Uberti Henry buyer has a choice of two barrel and magazine tube finishes, modern dark phosphate blue or, for a small premium, a beautiful iridescent heat blue. Although historically correct, heat bluing is more susceptible to wear and rust.

Fired factory rounds can be reloaded with lead bullets and black powder to comply with N-SSA regulations. New unfired brass cases are available from a number of sources, including Midway (Dept. CWN, 5875-D W. Van Horn Tavern Rd., Columbia, MO. 65203). Bullet molds specifically designed for the .44-40 are produced by Lee, Lyman, Rapine and RCBS. The mold I am currently using is a two cavity Rapine, (Dept. CWN Box 1119, East Greenville, PA 18041) which throws beautiful bullets. Bullets for the .44-40 should be flat nosed, as the primer of a cartridge loaded in a tubular magazine rests on the bullet of the cartridge loaded behind it. Theoretically, recoil of the gun, especially with a primer not fully seated, could cause a chain fire, turning your Henry into a Roman candle. This consideration is less critical in the mild recoiling .44-40 than other arms, but the Henry's loading method creates a different problem. A round with a high primer sliding down the magazine tube from the muzzle might go off if it hit a pointed or even round nosed bullet at the bottom. Because of these possibilities, the N-SSA requires that only flat nosed bullets be used in competition. Interestingly, most original Henry cartridges were loaded with pointed bullets for better long range ballistics. With priming compound "spun" into the outer rim of the case during the loading process, the possibility of bullet point detonation was largely obviated.

Casting bullets for the .44-40 is a lot easier than molding minie balls, and, since they are less than half the weight of a musket slug, your lead supply lasts a lot longer. A multiple cavity mold increases casting speed dramatically. Once bullets are cast, they must be sized and lubricated. Most people who cast a lot of bullets have a Lyman or RCBS lubricator/sizer. For those who don't, Rapine sells a simple sizer and Lee has an inexpensive lubricator/sizer which works on a reloading press. I size my .44-40 bullets to .429 diameter and lubricate them with SPG lubricant, specially designed for black powder cartridge rifle shooting.

The best way to reload cartridges is with a bench mounted loading press and reloading dies made by Lee, Lyman, RCBS or one of the other leading manufacturers. A powder scale for weighing charges is also a must. For those with space problems, the Lee hand press, which uses standard dies, does a dandy job. The reloading process involves depriming and resizing the fired cartridge case, repriming, neck expansion, powder charging, bullet seating and crimping. A solid crimp assures complete combustion and uniform bullet "pull," and prevents bullets from moving in the cartridge case during recoil or the feeding process.

Loaded .44-40s should not exceed 1.592 inches in length. Consistent overall length is important in a lever action rifle, as a cartridge which is too long or too short can cause feeding problems. Cartridge cases, which stretch upon firing, should not become overlong either and should be periodically trimmmed. Many reloaders have a special tool for case trimming, but an inexpensive Lee .44-40 case trimming kit, which includes a pilot, shell holder and cutter, works as well.

Although the .44-40 can be satisfactorily loaded with a number of smokeless powders, for tradition's sake and because the N-SSA requires it, we'll only deal with blackpowder loads here.

Original folded head .44-40 cartridge cases were loaded with 40 grains of black powder, but modern solid head cases will not hold that much propellant. When reproducing original Henry loads or creating accurate target ammo, this fact is inconsequential. Most Henry shooters load .44-40s with 25 to 28 grains (weight) of FFFG. This load does not quite fill up the case to the base of the bullet, and needs a filler, like corn meal or a wad, to insure proper powder compression and combustion. I use Ox-Yoke® dry lubricated "Wonder Wads," as they help sweep fouling out the bore. Wads also protect the base of the bullet from gas cutting. The .45 caliber Wonder Wads have to be squeezed into the .44-40 cases, while the .36 caliber wads fit easily and seem to expand to fit the bore on firing. My own favorite load of a CCI large pistol primer, 25 grains of 3FG GOI black powder, .36 caliber Wonder Wad and Rapine bullet lubricated with SPG produces benchrest groups which hover around 1 1/2 inches at 50 yards. Another type of wadding material, which I have not yet tried, but looks promising, is the "soft check" wax sheet. Thumb pressing the sheet over a cartridge case loaded with powder creates a custom fitted wad. Soft check sheets and SPG lubricant are available from J&J Enterprises (Dept CWN, 3 Greenbriar Drive No. 104, North Reading, MA 01864). J&J also sells empty .44-40 brass as well as an authentic sling with metal hook ($35) copied from an original used by the 63rd Ohio Volunteers. As far as I know, J&J is the only current source of Henry slings.

Although I have never used blank ammo in my Henry, blanks, either plastic or brass, are available from several sources, including The Old Western Scrounger (Dept CWN, 12924 Hwy. A-12, Montague, CA 96064 - catalog $2). One reenactor I know reloads brass blanks, but I imagine he loses a lot in high grass while running around the battlefield. Although I cannot personally attest to it, I have heard of some reenactors buying .303 British surplus ammo, pulling the bullets, dumping the powder, trimming to .44-40 length and loading with black powder for use as throwaway Henry blanks. Corrosive, mercuric, Berdan primed .303 ammo is cheap, plentiful and not reloadable after firing. I am not familiar with the details of this practice and it sounds like it could be dangerous, especially if the bullets are pulled with an inertia bullet puller. For that matter, I can only attest to the safety of ammunition I load in my own particular Henry, and neither I nor Civil War News assume responsibility for those loads used by other persons in other guns.

A fact of blackpowder life, when shooting muzzle loaders, breechloaders or both, is powder fouling. The black residue may be cleaned by a number of methods, including the old army standby of water as well as a number of modern solvents, all more or less effective. A Henry barrel has to be swabbed from the muzzle, and it is advisable to stick a rag in the open breech when cleaning, otherwise water, solvent and gunk may end up in the action. The use of SPG lube and Wonder Wads makes cleaning a Henry less of a task than scrubbing out a muzzle loader. Blanks, no doubt, leave a gun a lot dirtier.

The sights on reproduction Henrys are true to the originals, and the sight picture is just as wretched for those of us whose eyesight leaves a bit to be desired. The rear sight notch, may, however, be dressed up a bit with a file. Unlike those on muskets, Henry rear sights are readily adjustable for windage, easing the sighting-in process. The rear sight is drifted in its dovetail to adjust windage, and a ladder provides elevation for longer ranges. My own gun shot six inches high at 50 yards with its sight at the lowest elevation, so I levered the pressed in front sight blade up a bit to drop the point of impact. Some shooters may wish to replace the issue front blade with a higher one, filing it down to the proper height for their particular loads.

If I recall correctly, some of the early Navy Arms Henrys were chambered for the .44 rimfire cartridge, no doubt for collectors who couldn't ante up the cash for an original rifle. I believe there was a limited run of .44 rimfire ammo as well, for those collectors who wanted to try out their Henrys or simply (and more likely) to display with their guns. Once fired, a rimfire cartridge case is useless, for it cannot be reloaded.

Current Henrys are chambered for the .44-40 centerfire cartridge, a reloadable round introduced in the Winchester Model 1873. The .44-40. with a 200 grain bullet backed by 40 grains of black powder, was a more powerful round than its rimfire predecessor. Although not strictly "authentic," this chambering provides modern Henrys with readily available shootable ammunition. Current .44-40 cartridges produced by Remington and Winchester are loaded with smokeless powder and jacketed bullets. Modern factory ammunition is safe to fire in a reproduction Henry, but cannot be used in N-SSA competition, which mandates black powder and lead bullets. Should you come across any old "High Speed" .44-40 cartridges from the 1920s at a gun show, do not use them in your Henry. This ammunition which, when unboxed, cannot be distinguished from ordinary .44-40 ammo, is designed for the much stronger 1892 Winchester. Its use in a firearm of older design like the Henry can wreck both gun and shooter.

Making today's Henrys shoot well the old fashioned way is both challenging and interesting, even if you can't really "load on Sunday and shoot all week." I took a long time getting around to buying mine, but wouldn't give it up for the world. The rebirth of Henry shooting has just begun, and I am sure industrious N-SSA shooters will pioneer a number of advances in the years to come. If anyone has shooting tips or information on products useful for shooting Henrys or any other Civil War era guns, please send them along care of this publication and I'll share them with the readership in a future column.

Next Month -- Ordnance Questions and Answers

1991 by Joe Bilby

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