by B. W. Hicks
With its lever operated repeating mechanism the Henry could be fired, the empty ejected, and a fresh round chambered without taking the rifle from the shoulder. Its rival, the Spencer shot a more powerful cartridge and could be cycled at the shoulder, but the hammer had to be cocked each time before firing. The greater magazine capacity of the Henry compensated for its weaker cartridge.
Capitalizing on the military success of the Henry, Winchester attempted to entice the military in several prototypes using systems after the end of the Civil War. Tight military budgets and the adoption of conversion of the Springfield system to a single breech loading rifle for a more powerful centerfire cartridge, the 50-70, precluded any success for a military market for the lever action repeater. Winchester concentrated on the sporting market.
Beside the relatively weak .44 Henry rim fire, the Henry had two major disadvantages--a slit magazine tube (to accommodate the knob on the magazine follower) and a rather complicated loading mechanism. The open magazine tube was vulnerable to debris and precluded a wooden forearm. To load the Henry, the shooter had to run the follower up the magazine until the spiral spring was fully compressed against the housing mounted under the barrel in front of the magazine tube. When the follower cleared the magazine the spring housing was rotated until the magazine was open to receive fresh cartridges which were loaded rim first into the tube. The lip of the magazine captured the follower and compressed spring during loading. With the magazine charged, the housing was rotated into battery and the follower let down by hand on the loaded cartridges. Winchester began modifying the basic Henry rifle to produce a new arm which retained the firepower capabilities of the Henry, but eliminated some of its problems.
Birth of the Yellow Boy
Utilizing the King patents and other innovations, Winchester placed a spring load gate on the right side plate of the Henry. With the cartridge loading gate in the receiver the complicated magazine of the Henry was replaced with a closed end tube attached under the barrel. A coil spring fed cartridges to the follower. The closed magazine facilitated the addition of a forearm to the new system.
Initially, the basic toggle joint breech mechanism of the Henry was retained. It worked and was not changed at first. Some modifications to the breech system occurred later with some minor changes to the bolt.
Some Henry rifles were made with iron frames, but gun metal, a form of bronze about the same color as brass, was used almost exclusively after serious production began. Easy to machine, gun metal was used exclusively in the frames of the new rifles. It was not long before the new Winchester was dubbed the “Yellow Boy.” The rifle was an instant hit. Some 150,000 Yellow Boys were produced from 1867 to 1892-93. Serial numbers began in the 13,000 range where the Henry left off.
During this period the company reorganized and changed its name from the Henry Repeating Arms Company, formerly the New Haven Arms Company, to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The new rifle was the first to bear the Winchester name.
The Yellow Boy was offered in rifle, carbine, or musket models. Standard barrel length for the rifles was 24 inches; carbines, 20 inches; and muskets, 27 inches. Sights on the rifle were a blade front and ladder type rear similar to those used on the Henry. The rear sight for the carbine was shorter than the rifle in its long range configuration.
A number of factory engraved Yellow Boys with fancy wood were produced. Factory engraving is distinguished from after market embellishment by being ordered as such. While Winchester employed some in house engravers, orders were also “farmed out” to individual engravers. At least one Model 1866 was made with a silver frame.
Peak production came shortly before the introduction of the Model 1873 Winchester. The Yellow Boy enjoyed certain popularity in Central and South American countries.
It is hard to estimate how many of the original Yellow Boys exist. With the Winchester collecting fever during the last half of the 20th century, most of them ended up in collections. Today, an original Model 1866 Winchester in fair shape is somewhat pricey. Estimating the worth of one in good or excellent condition is speculative at best.
The .44 Henry Flat Rimfire Cartridge
Since the development of the new rife occurred during the developmental period of the center fire rifle cartridge, and no compatible center fire round was in existence, Winchester chambered it for the .44 Henry Flat round that had been proven in combat. Loaded with about 28 grains of black powder behind a 200 grain flat nosed bullet, the .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge was hardly a big game number. Muzzle velocity was about 1100 fps that gave it a bit more than 500 foot pounds of energy. This gave only about 30 pounds feet of momentum. This would be about the punch as a comparably loaded .44 Smith and Wesson. Near the end of the production of the Model 1866 Winchester developed a .44 Henry centerfire cartridge. Model 1866 Winchesters chambered for this cartridge are rare. The .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge was loaded by ammunition companies into the 1930s.
Lying, crouching, kneeling or on horseback, the shooter could recharge the magazine of the 1886 Winchester from almost any position. The dust and debris problems in the magazine of the Henry were largely eliminated in the new Winchester. No dust covers were used on the 1866. This did permit dust and other debris to enter the action, however, some shooters removed the dust covers on the Model 1873 Winchester. They were easily damaged if the shooter was not careful. Worn dust covers were prone to cause malfunctions. To avoid problems many Model 1873 owners would leave the dust cover in its rear position.
While some Henry rifles were made with iron frames, most of the frames were made of gun metal, a form of bronze, that has been incorrectly identified as brass. Easy to machine, gun metal was strong enough to withstand the .44 Henry flat rimfire cartridge. The brass color of the frame gave the Model 1866 its knick name, “Yellow Boy.”
The Yellow Boy’s popularity with Native Americans as well as the general shooting public continued its production after the introduction of the more powerful Model 1873 Winchester.
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