Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Henry Rifle

Designed by Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1860, the Henry rifle was was a sixteen shot .44 caliber rimfire introduced in the early 1860s and produced through 1866 by the New Haven Arms Company.

Firearms historians estimate 14,000 units had been manufactured by the time production ended in 1866 and approximately 1700 were purchased by the government during the Civil War. The states of Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana purchased for some regiments.

However more Henrys were purchased by individual soldiers than by the government and 6 to 7 thousand saw use by Union soldiers from those private purchases. Many infantry soldiers purchased Henrys with their reenlistment bounties of 1864, most of these units were associated with Sherman's Western Troops.

While never issued on a large scale, the Henry rifle demonstrated its advantages of rapid fire at close range several times in the Civil War and were frequently used by scouts, skirmishers, flank guards, and raiding parties rather than in regular infantry formations.

The Battle of Franklin was a Union success where two Henry-armed Union regiments held off repeated attacks from large Confederate forces.
The few Confederate troops who came into possession of captured Henry rifles had little way to resupply the special ammunition used by the weapon, making its widespread use by Confederate forces impractical. The rifle is known to have been used at least in part by Confederate units in Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia, as well as the personal bodyguards of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry with Henry Rifles

Later during the wars between the United States and the Plains Indians the Henry fire power would prove to be the destruction of the 7th Cavalry in the hands Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Bighorn. 

The Henry was not without problems and the fragility of Henry compared to Spencer repeating rifles hampered their official acceptance.

It was not a particularly safe weapon. A Henry rifle, when not in use, would either have the hammer cocked or resting on the rim of the cartridge. In the first case, the rifle had no safety and was in firing position. In the second, an impact on the back of the exposed hammer could cause a chambered round to fire.

It is very likely that the pictured rifle was a promotional gift from the manufacturer. The Connecticut-based New Haven Arms Company hoped to make the Henry the standard-issue rifle of the Union Army and sought favorable endorsements in hopes of securing government contracts. As a matter of fact, a similar engraved rifle was presented to President Abraham Lincoln.


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