The Henry Repeating Rifle

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

Chapter 3: The Henry, Spencer and Their Tactics

The Henry rifle would prove to be a very useful weapon during the Civil War. Around 10,000 Henrys were used in the War but the United States government purchased only 1731. Some of the drawbacks are the following: 1. troops would waste ammunition, 2. the ammunition would be dangerous to transport because of containing the priming compound in the rim, 3. the magazine spring could be damaged easily, 4. the magazine could be dented if dropped, thus jamming the gun, 5. the barrel would become too hot after a few shots. In general, many felt the Henry was too delicate to be issued to common troops. At this time most military leaders believed in what had worked in the past and were not willing to make changes in weaponry with the country in the middle of a Civil War. The military leaders did not have the foresight to see that a weapon of this nature could shorten the war if used in large numbers. The government was also looking at another repeating breech loading weapon at the same time.

This weapon was the Spencer repeating rifle and carbine. The Spencer rifle and carbine were quite different weapons than the Henry. The Spencer was an eight shot, lever action, repeating weapon with a 30 inch barrel for the rifle and a 20 inch barrel for the carbine. The Spencer weighed about 10 pounds for the rifle and a little less for the carbine. The Spencer loaded by removing the magazine outer tube from the butt stock and dropping in 7 rounds and replacing the magazine tube. The ammunition for the Spencer was self-contained, a .56 caliber rim-fire cartridge with a 350 grain bullet backed by 45 grains of black powder. The government purchased 94,000 carbines and 12,000 rifles.(22) It is estimated there were over 230,000 Spencers used in the Civil War, however this figure is questionable. The patent date for the Spencer is March 6, 1860. Most of the major purchases did not begin until 1863. Many states' militia purchased their own at a cost of around $35.00 each.(33)

Even though the Spencer did not hold as many rounds as the Henry, it did have some advantages over the Henry that the government liked: 1. slower rate of fire due to the fact that the hammer had to cocked by hand for each shot and it did not hold as many rounds, 2. the magazine of the Spencer was better protected from dirt and damage by being enclosed in the butt stock of the gun, 3. a quick loading device was produced in December, 1864 known as the Blakeslee cartridge box, 4. it had a forearm stock which protected the user from burns during prolong firing, 5. the Spencer was better suited for cavalry work.(30)

The most famous unit that was armed with the Spencer was the Lightning Brigade commanded by Colonel John T. Wilder. This brigade consisted of the 17th Indiana Infantry, the 72nd Indiana Infantry, 92nd Illinois Infantry, 98th Illinois and the 123rd Illinois Infantry. These were mounted infantry units. Most cavalry units were armed with the Spencer carbine but Wilder's Brigade was armed with the Spencer rifle.(31) An interesting side note is the Spencer rifle was not Wilder's first choice for a weapon. His first choice was the Henry. He placed an order for 900 Henrys with the New Haven Arms Company. Unfortunately they were unable to fill it and Wilder needed weapons in a hurry.(14)

The following are some of the new tactics possibly developed as a result of these new weapons, the Henry and the Spencer. One tactic that seemed to develop was the idea of repeated volley fire. By use of a controlled volley, every 2 seconds, a frontal charge could be broken up most of the time, demoralizing the enemy. Where many volleys could be fired with repeaters in a minute, a man with a muzzle loader could only fire 2 or 3 per minute. With a repeater continued volleys could be sustained for long periods. Another tactic was the use of repeaters by skirmishers. By sending out skirmishers with repeaters, their rate of fire would confuse the enemy. The enemy would not be able to tell how many were in their front. Also they could send out fewer skirmishers to do the same job as several, thus risking fewer lives. Troops armed with Henrys and Spencers would often fire a volley then wait. The enemy thinking they were reloading would attack across the open, only to be greeted by a hail of lead from the muzzles of the repeaters. This caused a great many casualties to the attacking army. Some reports state that the repeaters' levers were operated like pump handles, or a stream of lead was fired, or a raking fire, or they fired as fast as they could work their levers. Another tactic was to plug a gap in the lines. One report mentions that the Lightning Brigade was capable of firing 160,000 rounds of ammunition in 5 minutes. That is a rate of fire that could plug any gap in the lines.(31)

The Henry and the Spencer were the assault weapons of their day. Troops armed with these weapons would close to within 200 yards, then charge and fire as fast as they could. Their large volume of fire would cause the enemy to flee their infantry positions or leave their artillery behind.(14)

Since no official tactics existed, the brigade commanders came up with their own. Most of the time these tactics involved the repeater as a rapid fire weapon. To fire in a slow fire operation and not make use of the rapid fire capability, would render the repeater no more useful than a muzzle loader.

The Henry changed warfare forever making the muzzle loader obsolete for future wars. General Porter Alexander, CSA Artillery, commented that if the Union would have adopted repeaters in large numbers, the war would have ended within a year or two at the most.

What the military would not accept was the fact that the Henry and Spencer made single shot weapons obsolete for regular army use. There failure to adopt a repeating rifle sooner cost many soldiers their lives. The 1873 Trapdoor Springfield, although and excellent and durable weapon, was outdated when it was introduced. Even though it had greater range with it's .45-70 caliber, the common soldier had very little target practice and was unable to hit targets consistently at ranges beyond 150 to 200 yards, the effective range of the repeaters. So the trade off of rapid fire for greater range was a poor trade. There are claims of great shooting and statements that a Henry has killing power out to 1,000 yards. These claims are not quite believable as we will see.   [Next]


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