I recently took the Taylors and Company Henry rifle to the range. When the Uberti 1860 Henry rifle came out of the case, I was the center of attention. The rifle is historically accurate, beautifully made, and a superior conversation piece. It is all somewhat secondary to the shooting but satisfying just the same. The kindred soul that understands what the rifle is admires the purchase while others listen attentively to the tale of the Henry rifle.
The Old West is without a flaw in the eyes of the youth who longs to be a cowboy, but those who have studied the era realize how rugged and unforgiving the land could be. All that stood between the man and starvation was a good rifle or a silver dollar—with the rifle the more important. When the Henry rifle was introduced, it probably elicited much the same response as I did at the range. After all, the Henry burst into a world in which single-shot rifles were the norm and the breech loading Sharps was considered a modern achievement.
The Henry owes much of its development to the curious realm of manually operated repeating handguns. In the years before the War Between the States, the Pepperbox and other oddities were popular with men desperate for an edge against robbers and aboriginals. As early as 1850, a lever-action design with a tubular magazine was developed for the ‘Rocket Ball’ cartridge. The Rocket Ball featured a cavity in the projectile that contained powder and a cap for ignition. While the powder capacity and power were low, the Rocket Ball was an important step in ammunition development.
Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson were involved in the Volcanic repeating pistol from 1855-1857, and then stockholder Oliver Winchester came to own the company outright. His company, New Haven Arms Company, hired Benjamin Tyler Henry as shop foreman. Henry developed an improved rifle that chambered a rimfire cartridge. This new cartridge used a drawn brass inside a primed cartridge case. This cartridge proved sturdy enough to work through the magazine and shell carrier of the new rifle. Loaded with a 200- to 216-grain bullet, the .44 Henry produced 1,100 fps.
The Henry rifle was used during the War Between the States and developed into the Winchester 1866 rifle. Although the Henry lacked long-range power or penetration, compared to the standard musket of the day, its magazine capacity of 16 cartridges would be a devastating advantage at close range. The Henry’s tactical niche was much the same as a submachine gun as was used during later years. The Henry rifle was much stronger than the original Volcanic action, with modifications to the feed design, shell carriage, and barrel.
The ammunition was stamped H for Henry, the man and the rifle. This is the rifle that is the subject of this report, or rather a modern replica of the rifle. The rifle, like the original, features a brass frame. The barrel length is 24 inches, hardly a carbine, but shorter than many rifles of the period. The rifle features a beautiful stock with a crescent butt plate. There is no forend. The fit, finish, and smoothness of operation are impressive.
The octagon barrel’s flats are very well turned out. The receiver, follower, and butt plate are brass; other parts are highly polished. I particularly like the ladder sights. The sights are graduated to an optimistic 800 yards. During the War Between the States or when facing warriors on horseback, there was a chance of striking an adversary to 500 yards or more using these sights.
Loading the rifle is interesting—even an experience. There is a tab on the magazine spring that normally rides near the receiver when the rifle is unloaded. To load the rifle, the tab is run forward where it runs into a release button near the end of the barrel. The end of the barrel is actually a cover that is twisted to one side and locked. In my example, chambered for the more modern .44-40 Winchester centerfire cartridge, 13 cartridges may be loaded.
The barrel cover is then moved back in place. The tab holding the magazine spring snaps sharply into place, so be certain to control this tab as you load the rifle. I have never handled the original, but the Uberti ’73 may be smoother than the original—with modern CNC machinery it should be—and I would bet no Westerner ever had it so good.
The bolt is light and leverage with the toggle link set up is excellent. When we term the action as weak, perhaps we should rephrase the description. ‘Not well suited for powerful cartridges’ would be better. My example is chambered for the .44-40 WCF cartridge. To the best of my knowledge, there are no loads commercially available—save for cowboy action loads.
The Black Hills Ammunition 200-grain flat point is a high quality loading that is accurate and clean burning. This is the recommended load for this rifle. This is not the rifle to hot rod or even modestly attempt to improve ballistics. The Black Hills Ammunition 200-grain load isn’t underpowered by any means. Breaking at over 800 fps from most single-action revolvers, the load clocked a solid 1,100 fps from the Uberti’s 24-inch barrel.
If you would like to hunt with this rifle, this load would do for deer at close range with perfect placement. If you wish to carefully work up a load with more power, then FFFG or Pyrodex P and the Oregon Trail a hard cast 200-grain bullet will serve. With 36.5 grains of FFFG, I was able to get a safe 1,500 fps with black powder.
The Uberti is well made, but the design was intended to contain the modest pressure of a rimfire cartridge. The factory loaded .44-40 smokeless powder load is clean burning and accurate, and a bit more powerful than the .44 Henry. It would be a disaster to experience a blown cartridge case close to your face when firing this rifle. Here is a tip, obtain a good supply of modern Starline Brass. This brass is high quality, dead on specification, and will survive many loadings at cowboy action pressure levels.
It is interesting to fire a period piece or an accurate replica. Firearms were much more individualistic than they are today. Each had individual operating characteristics that had to be learned. I can understand why the original loading mechanism of the Henry rifle was changed in the Winchester ’66. Gate loading is more positive and the Henry magazine is more likely to pick up dirt and lint.
I can only imagine the difficulty keeping the piece clean on a 1860s battlefield. When the rifle is fired, the loading tab moves to the rear and may be stopped by the support hand—resulting in a failure to feed. The rifle really needed a forend and was redesigned with the Winchester ’66. Just the same, it is what it is and the 1860 Henry is a very smooth rifle to operate.
Every cartridge fed, chambered, fired, and ejected without a problem. Firing off hand, recoil was never a factor. Black powder loads were dirty enough that after a few dozen rounds or less, the rifle’s action would become sluggish and difficult to manage. Accuracy would also deteriorate rapidly. Not so with modern smokeless loads though.
Firing off hand at targets at known and unknown ranges confirmed the rifle is quite accurate. Moreover, while drop is greater than with a .30 caliber rifle, 1,200 fps isn’t all that slow. When I settled into a solid benchrest firing position, it took some acclimation to handle a lever-action rifle off of the rest. However, the rifle was very stable.
I fired a few sighting shots at 50 yards and discovered the sights were well regulated. Moving elevation a few notches up also allowed the rifle to be sighted for a long 100 yards. At 50 yards, a three-shot group settled into 1.5 inches. This is excellent accuracy for a pistol-caliber carbine.
The Uberti rifle is well made of good material and functions flawlessly. Anyone wishing to own bragging rights at the range must own one. As a piece of Americana, the Henry rifle is unique and the Uberti rifle a fitting replica.
Have you ever fired the Taylors and Company Henry rifle? What is your favorite lever action? Share your answers in the comment section.
Dedicated to Colonel Cleveland J. Campbell, of New York, the Ellswoth Avengers (44th New York Infantry) and the 4th Division, 2nd Brigade, 23rd Troops. Colonel Campbell died of wounds received at Petersburg.