The Henry Repeating Rifle

Victory thru rapid fire
Andrew L. Bresnan, M.S.
The National Henry Rifle Company

Chapter 4: Power and Accuracy

The Henry repeating rifle, though a rapid fire weapon, was an under powered weapon despite claims to the contrary. The New Haven Arms Company's catalog of 1865 states "caliber 44-100, weighing 10 pounds, and carrying a conical ball of 32 to the pound designed especially as a sporting rifle for hunting buffalo, bear, deer, etc." John Tennyson of the USS Black Hawk states he fired shooting matches against Smith & Wesson and Sharps rifles at 400 and 500 yards and won. A.A. Vanwormer writes June 3, 1863 that the Henry is certain death at 800 yards and probably 1,000 yards. The Louisville Journal in an article on the Henry says that at 100 yards penetration is 8 inches, at 400 yards 5 inches and killing power at a range of over 1,000 yards.(14)

These stories make the Henry out to be some kind of super weapon when it comes to power and accuracy at long ranges. What needs to be looked at, are these claims realistic considering the sights and ammunition used by the Henry.

First let's look at the sights of the Henry. The iron frame Henry of 1861 to 1862 had a rear folding leaf sight with elevation markings from 100 to 1,000 yards. The brass frame Henry also had a folding leaf sight but with elevation markings from 100 to 800 yards. This rear sight was mounted by means of a dovetail slot either on the receiver or located on the barrel. On some Henrys dovetail slots were located on the receiver and the barrel. Sights mounted on the receiver are generally considered an early feature on guns serial numbered under 3,000. Henry number 293 shows both dovetail slots while iron frame Henry number 31 has only the receiver dovetail. Brass frame Henry 6850, which has a 19 inch barrel, has only the barrel mounted sight.(6)

The folding leaf sight was not the only kind of rear sight used on Henrys. There was also a fixed sight. They were more durable but the adjustable folding leaf was more popular. The fixed sight was also either mounted on the receiver or on the barrel. Henry number 4178 is inscribed "G. Burkhardt, Co. H. 7th Ill. Vol. In." This Henry appears to be equipped with a fixed sight. Henry number 6850 has a large buck-horn fixed sight.(6)

The front sight on most Henrys was a German silver blade. There are a couple of variations of the front sight. One is on Henry 6409. This rifle is equipped with a globe front sight and a folding leaf rear sight.(6) The globe sight is rare and was discouraged at the factory. In a letter to the factory, John Ekstrand, Ordnance Sergeant, 51st Illinois Infantry, states that he would prefer a globe front sight.(14)

The other variation was that of a telescope sight. One of these telescope sights is mounted on Henry number 731. The scope is marked "Malcolm; Syracuse, N.Y." For the most part there is no indication that the New Haven Arms Company ever got the telescope and the globe sights past the planning stage.(6)

In showing the type of sights that were used and given the fact that most soldiers were average or less marksmen, it is doubtful if they could hit a target beyond 200 to 300 yards. An accomplished marksmen would hit with any gun including the Henry. When we look at the type of ammunition used in the Henry, it is doubtful that even an expert marksmen could hit targets regularly at long ranges of over 500 yards with a Henry.

Let's examine the type of ammunition that was used in the Henry. The Henry cartridge is a rim-fire round that uses a casing .875 inches long. The total length of the round is 1.345 inches. A 200 or 216 grain bullet of .446 diameter was loaded atop 26 to 28 grains of black powder. This round had a muzzle velocity of 1125 feet per second and muzzle energy of 568 foot pounds of energy.(8) According to these ballistics, most shooting experts will readily agree that this cartridge is hardly adequate for deer size animals and certainly no match for buffalo or grizzly bears. The .44 Henry's 200 grain bullet is a flat nose bullet, later a pointed nose was used, with a ballistic coefficient number of about .153. The coefficient number is the bullet's ability to overcome resistance in flight relative to the performance of a standard projectile used to compute ballistic tables. A number of .153 represents a bullet of very poor long range capabilities. The .44 Henry must have had a giant rainbow trajectory making hitting a target past 200 yards almost impossible for the average shooters.(24)

The .44-40 cartridge is the round that the reproduction Henrys are chambered. The .44-40 was originally loaded with a 200 grain flat nose bullet with 40 grains of black powder. Keep in mind the .44 Henry was loaded with a 200 grain bullet and only 26 to 28 grains of black powder. The .44-40 has a muzzle velocity of 1310 feet per second and muzzle energy of 760 foot pounds of energy. This is slightly better than the Henry round. If the gun is sighted in for 100 yards, the .44-40 bullet at 200 yards will drop 29.6 inches and by the time the bullet has traveled 300 yards it will have dropped 95.2 inches, according to the Remington Arms Company.(25) That's almost an 8 foot drop and that's only at 300 yards. The .44 Henry round would have even more of a drop than 8 feet at 300 yards. Hitting at longer ranges would be next to impossible. Claims from the 1860's say the lower powered Henry round was "certain death at 800 Yards." I doubt this to be possible.

The tactics of units armed with Henrys do not substantiate the use of the Henry as a long range weapon. Instead they were the assault weapon of the day. Units would close to within 200 yards, then attack, firing as fast as possible driving the enemy from the field with their close range massive volume of fire.

Even though the Henry round was underpowered the government purchased 4,610,400 rounds of ammunition.(27) Today Henry ammunition is a collector's item. Ammunition could still be purchased in 1902 from Sears and Roebuck at a cost of $1.14 per 100 rounds.(26)

The Henry was an excellent short range weapon, less than 200 yards. Its 14 shots in as many seconds made it the fastest firing shoulder arm of the Civil War. As a close range support or attack weapon, the Henry was second to none. It proved its worth many times to those troops that were armed with them. But sorry to say, the Henry as a long range weapon was greatly lacking in both power and accuracy. [Next]

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