Reenacting with a Henry Repeater
By Terry L. Shultz
"That d****d Yankee rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week." - Anonymous Confederate Officer, 1862
Throughout the history of firearms, there are certain people that become inevitably linked with their inventions such that their names become synonymous with those achievements. This is true of Samuel Colt and his patented revolver, though that was certainly just one of his many contributions to the history of firearms. Another such person was Benjamin Tyler Henry, and his famous Henry Rifle.
It was Mr. Henry, after all, that made one of the first practical lever action repeating rifles. And he did so in 1860. The Henry evolved out of the earlier "Volcanic" repeating rifles and pistols. The Volcanic arms fired a "rocket ball" bullet with a hollow base containing powder and priming compound, produced between 1855 and 1860. Volcanic arms were costly, prone to malfunctions, limited in power, and never achieved any real acceptance. The Volcanic Company went out of business in 1857, and was reorganized as the New Haven Arms Company by Oliver Winchester. In 1860, B. Tyler Henry, who had been the plant supervisor and head mechanic in Winchester's shirt factory, became the New Haven plant superintendent. He redesigned the Volcanic action to fire a .44 caliber rimfire copper cartridge loaded with 25 grains of powder behind a 216 grain bullet, thus was born the Henry rifle. The official total number of Henrys purchased by the Federal government is 1,731, but 10,900 were manufactured between 1862 and 1865. The factory owned by Mr. Winchester was continually running behind in manufacturing the Henrys and virtually every gun that it made were shipped out to the waiting hands of state governments and private purchasers. Most notably, the State of Kentucky bought 104 Henrys early in 1862 for the 12th Kentucky Cavalry. It is my opinion that if you are presently reenacting as dismounted cavalry, using a Henry for a Union Cavalry impression would not be out of place or inaccurate. It would not be as common as using a Sharps or a Smith, but mid to late war would have seen many Henry rifles and Spencer carbines in use.
The first thing that is required is the purchase of a Henry rifle. There is really only one option here, as the only manufacturer of reproduction Henry rifles is Uberti. The Henry is made in .44-40 or .45 Long Colt, and has recently become available in .44 Special. The one I have has sling swivels, so it can be easily carried. I use the one in .44-40, because constructing blanks that will cycle and chamber in it is relatively easy and inexpensive. I use .44 Magnum casings for the blanks, because they are cheaper than using .44-40 cases, and the dimensions of the main case and flange are almost identical. Another advantage is that by using .44 Magnum cases, I can get 16 blanks in the magazine. if I use .44-40 I can only fit 15 I have experimented with .44 Russian brass and have found that this will allow me to get 20 rounds in the magazine. I have to use slightly less powder but it still produces the smoke and noise required for reenacting. I am still using the .44 Magnum cases because I have two other guns that can use the same blanks and I still have a lot of brass to use. The set screw in the elevator (to be explained later) needs to be in a different location, but that's not a problem. The Henry rifle needs to be modified to accept the blanks. The modification is relatively easy, but some basic mechanical ability is necessary. The modification will be discussed later. .44 Magnum cases can be purchased for about 10 cents each in once fired condition, or for 14 cents as new brass if I buy 1,000 at a time. You may think that is a lot of brass, but you would be surprised how fast one can go through that supply. Since the cases are relatively inexpensive, you can avoid the chore of picking up brass during a battle. However, depending on the circumstances, I will sometimes go back after the battle and make an effort to clean up after myself. In places like Mumford, NY, at the Genesee Country Museum, where the battle is held on nice manicured green lawns I go back and attempt to pick up all my brass. However, in an empty field in the middle of nowhere this would probably not be an issue. Many times when I go back to pick up my brass, I find that the kids that were watching have picked up most or all of it for souvenirs and saved me the trouble.
I never try to reuse the brass because the star crimp and the shoulder forming die fatigue the metal and doing it a second time might be a safety issue.
I will now explain how I make the blanks. As stated above I start with a .44 Magnum case. I use the following dies to make my blanks, they are:
1. Decapping and sizing die for .44 Magnum.
2. Star crimping die for 44 Magnum.
3. Shoulder forming die for 44 Russian .
First, if I am using once fired brass I clean the brass in a tumbler, not so much to get it shiny, but to clean up the outside to protect the sizing die from excessive wear. After the brass is clean, I lube the cases with RCBS "Case Lube-2" and run them through the de-capping and sizing die. Then I install large pistol primers in the brass. I use pistol primers because they are shorter than the rifle primers and will recess deeper into the brass thus reducing the possibility of an early detonation in the tubular magazine of the Henry. I also use a hand-priming tool, as they are cheap and fast. I then have to fill the case with black powder. I was using about 34 grains of Goex Clear Shot but I found the use of Clear Shot is not necessary if I add lube to the cartridge. FFFg black powder works just as well and it's less costly. I need to keep the powder from falling out of the case, keep the fouling in the barrel caused by the burned black powder soft, and close up the end of the cartridge. I do this by putting a round piece of waxed paper on top of the powder charge. Then put a dab of black powder lube on the first paper circle such as MCM, SPG, or, if you don't have access to either of those, you can use a 50/50 mixture of beeswax and Crisco. To add the lube, I use an electric candle burner to melt the lube and an eyedropper to put just a very small drop on the first waxed paper circle. I then place another waxed paper circle on top of the lube. The brass is then run through the star crimp die to close it and put a slight taper to the end. I don't want to close it all the way, as it is desirable to not put a point on the tip of the cartridge. To make the wax paper circles, I take a 3/8 leather hole punch and punch them out of old wax coated milk cartons. The last step is to run the cartridge through the shoulder forming die. This step is necessary as the bullet in a .44-40 cartridge is slightly smaller than the case and the .44-40 cases are bottle necked. These physical characteristics need to be simulated on the tip of the cartridge so it will chamber and eject properly.
Now that I have the cartridges made I need a way to carry them into the field and load them into the Henry. I take a bunch of blanks, put them into a standard .58 caliber musket cartridge box and feed them into the Henry magazine one at a time. I recently started to use a .69 caliber box and found that I can get 190 blanks in it as compared to 150 in the .58 box. This is more than I will usually use in one battle, but it has come in handy when doing a prolonged battle or a series of smaller battles where I can't get back to camp to replenish my supply. The original Henry had an official cartridge box and it looked very similar to the Federal issue .58 or .69 caliber cartridge box. The actual Henry box had four wooden blocks that held the copper cartridges. When one block was empty it was removed from the top of the box and inserted into the bottom of the box and held in with a couple of springs on each end of the box. The other blocks were then pushed up to the top. I have only seen pictures of this box and it is my understanding that they were a very rare item during the Civil War.
To load the Henry, I need to raise the magazine spring up to the muzzle and twist the muzzle end of the gun to the left. Then I put the barrel at about a 45 degree angle. This way the blanks slide down into the magazine instead of dropping straight down on the previous blank. I put about 16 blanks into the magazine, and I twist the muzzle to the right and let the spring down easy. Never let the magazine spring snap down. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the magazine spring fowler could break if it is let fly. The second is that letting it fly could put sudden pressure on one of the primers and an early detonation in the magazine could occur. This is a remote possibility but why tempt fate? Just before going into battle, I cock the hammer, lower the lever gently but not far enough to move the elevator so that I can put one round in the chamber. Close the action gently and carefully put the hammer on half cock. When I go to fire, I cock the hammer and pull the trigger. For the next round I cycle the action, which cocks the hammer, feeds another cartridge into the breach and I am now ready to fire again. Many times during a battle, I load and fire single rounds by using the same method as mentioned above and save the magazine for times when I need to simulate firing a lot of lead into the enemy, such as when the rebels do one of their famous suicide charges. It looks really impressive to the spectators when 5 or more Henrys empty their magazines into their charge and they all take hits. The only problem I encounter with this scenario is that it is hard to see what is happening through all the smoke.
The Henry has to be modified to fire the blanks, and it is a relatively simple task. First, the Henry action has to be taken apart so that the elevator (sometimes called a carrier block) and the bolt can be removed. Because the .44 Magnum blank is not as long as the .44-40 with a bullet in it, a set screw (Allen head) stop needs to be installed in the elevator. This is installed from the right side and when installed, the socket end needs to be flush with the outside surface of the elevator and the set screw should stick out slightly into the inside of the elevator. This stops the cartridge from going all the way to the back of the elevator and prevents the gun from trying to load 1 1/4 cartridges. The blanks are about 1.275 inches long and the forward edge of the set screw (not the center) needs to be placed at about this point. I use a 6-32 N.C. set screw that is 3/16 inch long. I use the blank itself to determine where exactly the hole should be drilled and because the elevator has a tapered lip where the cartridge slides into the elevator, I backed the blank up just a little to give it some wiggle room. Then I drill the hole with a Number 36 drill and thread the hole with a 6-32 N. C. tap. Before installing the set screw, I "bugger up" the threads a little near the socket end by putting just the socket end on a hard metal surface and lightly tapping it with a hammer. By doing this, the set screw starts going in easy, but by the time the screw head becomes flush with the elevator, it is a very snug fit. Locktite can be added to the socket end of the set screw. Next, the rifle bolt needs to be notched to pass by the set screw but still push the cartridge into the breach. Install the bolt into the elevator and slide the bolt forward so it touches the set screw. I suggest the use of a long needle or other long sharp pointed object to mark around the set screw to mark where and how much material needs to be taken off. I then remove the bolt and used a Dremel tool with a cutoff disk to remove the material inside the marks. Only a little amount needs to be removed and I try not to get carried away with the power tool. I keep checking the fit, taking off just a little at a time, until the bolt slides easily past the set screw. It is only necessary to go back along the bolt about 1/2 inch as the bolt tapers down after that and is flat on both sides. Test the fit with the parts back in the gun to make sure everything fits and nothing rubs or hits. Finally, re-blue the bolt area with a cold bluing paste available from the local gun store, re-assemble the gun, and that is it. I am ready to reenact.
After the battle, the Henry needs to be cleaned. I use a .44 caliber cleaning rod and some patches along with some cleaning solvent. I use a product called Simple Green to clean the black powder out of the barrel and the elevator chamber. If you don't have access to this any good dish soap will work. At least once per year, I completely disassemble the action and give it a thorough cleaning (you may wish to do so more often, but not less often). I lightly oil the barrel and moving parts and the job is done. Some people shine the brass, but I think it looks more authentic with a little patina on it. There are some other methods of creating blanks that I have tried that don't require any gun modifications. A while ago, I got some .303 British blanks and made them into blanks for the Henry. I cut off the balsa wood bullet and dumped out the modern powder. I used a band saw to cut them to the full length of a 44-40 if it had a bullet in it, filled it with black powder, then plugged and crimped the end similar to the method used on the .44 Magnum blanks. It made it nice that I didn't have to modify the Henry any to accommodate them. The problem with them was that the .303's diameter was slightly smaller than the .44-40 and the .303 was tapered, so it did not create the best gas seal. A slight blow back occurred each time they were fired, and after about 50 rounds of these the elevator in the Henry would stick from the crud. I gave up on this method and found that the .44 Magnum shells create a much better gas seal, which makes them a much better choice. With the .44 Magnum blanks, I have fired over 150 blanks in one battle without any problem. Also it is possible to load 16 blanks in the magazine with the .44 Magnum blanks but only 13 with the .303 British blanks. Others have tried the Hollywood 5-in-one plastic blanks, but the two reenactors that I know that WERE using them both said the same thing. They aren't loud enough, they don't create any smoke, they are expensive, they stick when the gun gets hot, and sometimes the extractor rips through the plastic lip when they are trying to eject a spent shell. Four years ago, they told me that by the time they get done with shipping these blanks cost 50 cents each (I think they are more now). I can make brass ones with 34 grains of black powder and some lube in them for less than 20 cents each. When you are firing 100+ blanks in each battle, that becomes a significant amount of money.
I used my Henry and Spencer for reenacting as dismounted cavalry last summer and they were both great fun. When I use them, I generally fire 100 to 150 blanks per battle (what a rush!) and I wind up answering a lot of questions from both Federal and Confederate reenactors along with many spectators about the weapons, but that is part of the fun.
A couple of points about safety. I always use a glove on my left hand, as the barrel gets very hot. I have found that it is easier to load if I leave my right hand bare. Historically, this is true of the original Henry as well. Also, when shooting a Henry, wear a hat with a wide brim all the way around. This keeps the HOT spent cartridges that are flying out of the chamber from going down you shirt collar and burning your skin. I have personal experience with this occurrence.
If you want to learn more about the history of the Henry you can read "The Historic Henry Rifle" by Wiley Sword (ISBN Number 0-931464-01-4).
I would be happy to answer any question you might have, and provide you with additional information on where to get the necessary tools to make the blanks. Just give me a call at (716) 693-3239 or e-mail me at email@example.com.
The preceding was an explanation of what I do so I can use a Henry rifle for Civil War reenacting. You are not required to follow my example, and I make no claim as to the serviceability or safety of the blanks or rifle modification. Only you can decide if you want to copy my example. As a side note, I have found that I can also use the same blanks in my original Sharps & Hankins that I have modified for center fire.
In conclusion if you like to burn powder, want to reenact with a repeater, and don't mind fielding a lot of questions, you might want to try using a Henry the next time out.
Here is some sample pricing for the Henry itself and the tools to make the blanks:
|Uberti Henry Rifle in .44-40:||$1150.00|
|Shell Holder, RCBS #11:||$9.50|
|Sizer & De-capper die for .44 Magnum:||$26.00|
|Star crimp die for .44 Magnum:||$93.00|
|Shoulder forming die for .44 Magnum blanks:||$45.00|
|Total for all 4 pieces:||$173.50|
|Hand priming tool:||$48.00|
|Single stage press:||$126.00|
|3/8" leather hole punch||$13.00|
|Lee perfect powder measure:||$30.00|
|Leather sling for the Henry Rifle:||$30.00|
|Brass cleaning rod with "T" handle:||$17.00|
|Cable gun lock for lever action type guns:||$12.00|
Prices do not include shipping.
Please feel free to contact Terry at the Company Quartermaster if you have any question or need any of the tools listed above at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (716) 693-3239.
Sword, W. (2002). The Historic Henry Rifle: Oliver Winchester's Famous Civil War Repeater. Woonsocket, RI: Andrew Mobray Publishers.