The Henry Repeating Rifle

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

Chapter 5:  The Henry On the Frontier

Total production of the Henry repeating rifle was 14,094. These were produced from 1860 to 1866 or early 1867. Many of these rifles found their way West to the American Frontier. After the Civil War many soldiers who were armed with the Henry recognized the value of such a rifle on the frontier. Those that had a Henry treasured it. The government did sell off about 100 Henrys between 1866 and 1868. At one such sale the price ranged from $2.25 to $14.50 each. That's a far cry from their original price of $36.00 to $44.00. Over 800 Henrys were taken home by soldiers in 1865.(7)

The Henry was not a powerful round but it held 16 quick shots with which to repel a sudden Indian attack. The cartridge, with it's 200 grain bullet and 26 grains of black powder, is a marginal hunting round. The Hew Haven Arms Company, however, made claims to the contrary saying lethal on buffalo and bear. Despite the lack of power, the Henry was highly sought after by men of the frontier.

George Ray demonstrated what a Henry could do in August, 1865. His wagon train was attacked by the Sioux. He realized the Henry was not a long range gun and simply waited until the Sioux would come within range. He killed several before the cavalry arrived.(17)

General Grenville Dodge, who was the chief of the Union Pacific Railroad, lead a group of men armed with Henrys in 1865 along the Powder River area. Indians were a constant threat while building the railroad and many attacks were sudden, without warning. This is where the rapid fire Henry with it's 16 shots saved many a construction worker.(17)

One trick the Indians used was to draw the fire of their enemy, after their guns were empty and they were trying to reload, the Indians would rush them. This tactic worked for over a hundred years. But in 1865 one group of Indians were in for a surprise.

Two former Union soldiers had kept their Henrys and took them with them into Blackfoot Indian country. They began mining borax, knowing it was just a matter of time before they were paid a visit by the Indians. That day did not take long in coming. One morning about 40 warriors dismounted out of range and advanced. Once they got in range, two of the Indians would show themselves hoping to draw the fire of the two miners. The miners caught on to what the Indians were trying to do. The miners fired their Henrys at the same time but only one round each. The Indians seeing that two shots had been fired decided to rush the miners, thinking they were reloading their "muzzle loaders." The two miners waited until the Indians were within easy range and started a deadly rapid fire with the 15 remaining shots in each of their Henrys. Reloading, they chased the fleeing Indians and shot any of the wounded Indians that were left behind. After the shooting was all over, they dragged the dead Indians and piled them up out of rifle range and left them as a warning to any would-be attackers. The surviving Indians never bothered them again, they even named the Henry the "Spirit Gun."

The buffalo hunting era did not see extensive use of the Henry. Most buffalo hunters preferred cartridges with a little more power, such as the Big 50, .50-70, .45-70, .45-90, .45-110, .44-90, .40-70, .40-90, and many more. A Henry could kill a buffalo but rarely with 1 or 2 or even 3 or 4 shots.(19) The larger calibers could kill a buffalo in only 1 or 2 shots if the hunter did his part. Also the larger calibers had greater range making them more effective.

One buffalo hunter that used a Henry was Billy Comstock. He would drop buffalo with his Henry while on horse back on a dead run. This was both dangerous and rarely done. However this type of hunting may be seen in the movie Dances With Wolves. Most buffalo hunters like Billy Dixon and Frank Mayer favored "stand hunting" using the Big 50.(19)

The Fetterman Massacre of December 21, 1866 also saw Henrys used. Captain William Fetterman having recently arrived in the West, made a comment that if he had 80 men he could cut through the Sioux nation. In December, 1866 the Sioux Indians lead by Chief Red Cloud were attacking the army's wood cutting details. On December 21, 1866 the wood train left at 10:00 AM and by 11:00 AM it was under attack by Indians. Captain Fetterman went out to rescue the detail. Fetterman had 76 men. 48 of these were infantry, armed with muzzle loading rifles and 27 cavalry were armed with the Spencer carbine. The cavalry were commanded by Lieutenant Grummon. Two others volunteered making 78. Finally there were 2 civilians that wanted to go, James Wheatly and Issac Fisher. Both of these men were armed with Henrys. So Fetterman had his 80 men. They were decoyed into a trap where 2,000 Sioux were waiting for them. Wheatly and Fisher must have put up a good fight with their Henrys. Around the area where they were fighting were indications of over 60 Indians who had been hit.(34) When their ammunition ran out, both were killed and their Henrys ended up in the hands of the Indians to be used against the cavalry another day.

That other day could have been at the Little Bighorn Massacre. There has been much speculation that if Custer would have been armed with his old Spencer carbines he might have escaped with some of his men or even defeated the Sioux. In 1873 the military adopted the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield. They chose it because of it's greater range and power over the Spencer. In an article by George Lyman for Dixie Gun Works 1989 Annual, he feels the Spencer would not have made a difference because it had a slower rate of fire than the Springfield. The rate of fire, according to his tests, for the Spencer was 14 per minute and for the Trapdoor Springfield 16 per minute.(18) I happen to disagree with his figure for the Spencer. It is closer to 22 per minute using a Blakeslee cartridge box. But let's speculate from the Henry perspective. What if Custer and his entire command were armed with Henry repeating rifles and the "McKinch Box." The Henry is capable of firing 45 shots per minute. Custer's group numbered a total of 600 men, before he split his force. At a rate of 45 shots per minute, that equals 27,000 rounds of ammunition per minute to be fired at 1,200 to 1,500 Indians. I think the Henry would have made a difference. So much for the "what if" questions.

Custer's reality was that he was armed with the Trapdoor Springfield and many of the Indians had the Henrys. On the recent excavation at the Little Bighorn, there is evidence to show the Indians were armed with over 100 Henrys or Winchester Model 1866 rifles. One hill the Indians were shooting from had so many Henry casings that it was nicknamed "Henry Hill." All of these were aimed at Custer and his men with their Trapdoor Springfields.(28) The Trapdoor Springfields were adopted for their power and greater range, but the common soldier did not any target practice. In one battle the soldiers fired over 30,000 rounds of ammunition only to kill 9 Indians. There are very few instances where the greater range of the Springfields saved the soldier's lives. In fact it took the government until 1893 to adopt a repeating rifle, the .30-40 Krag.(27)

Hundreds of repeaters were used by the Indians. Many of these were Henrys. Pictured in Guns and Ammo magazine May, 1982 is Chief Grey Wolf holding a Henry rifle.(6) Also in the 1987 EMF catalog, they mention that in 1921 near Powder River in Wyoming, the mummified body of an Indian was discovered. He was identified as the "Tall-backed Wolf", a Cheyenne killed July 25, 1865. Under his body was found a Henry rifle, serial number 2729. This could have been one captured from General Dodge's command from the Union Pacific.(21)

Henrys commanded a high price on the frontier with some selling for as much as $95.00. For 15 years after the Civil War the Henry was one of the best rifles and most sought after repeating rifles in the West.

It was not always the guys in "White Hats" that were armed with Henrys. Old Man James led a gang of 25 outlaws on the Clear Fork of the Brozos River near Fort Griffen. Each man was armed with 2 Colts and a Henry. It took a large force of cavalry and settlers to clear them out.(17)

Mail carriers found the Henry to be a useful tool. Luther S. " Yellowstone" Kelly purchased a Henry and ammunition for $50.00 in 1868. While delivering mail between Fort Berthold and Fort Stevenson, he was ambushed by 2 Sioux braves. Kelly leaped off his horse and dropped the first Indian with a hip shot. He shot the other Indian in the arm and finally firing again, killing him. The Henry became standard equipment for mail carriers in Montana. Alexander Toponce, a freighter hauling supplies to Fort Union and Fort Benton, issued Henrys to his teamsters. In one fight they held off several hundred braves killing or wounding at least 50.(17)

A man armed with a Henry in the 1860's and 1870's was a well armed man. Even though underpowered, it did kill several buffalo as well as other wild game. It also served well in defense against Indians and other enemies. By the late 1870's the Winchester '73 and other more advanced weapons became available. When one of these more modern weapons could not be had, a Henry was a frontiersman's best friend. Sixteen shots in sixteen seconds would discourage any attacking enemy. The Henry was one of the best rifles that helped open the frontier making it safe for civilization. [Next]

 

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