June 1989

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The Development of

The Henry Rifle


Robert Rockwell III

The Henry rifle embodies the ingenuity of a Frenchman, the tenacity of a Springfield mechanic, the enterprising ability of Smith and Wesson, the dream of a Union soldier, and the birth of the Winchester Repeating Firearms Company.

Benjamin Tyler Henry was born in 1821 in Claremont, New Hampshire. There he served his apprenticeship with two local gunsmiths, J. B.. and R. B. Ripley. Henry finished his requirements to become a master mechanic at the Springfield Armory in 1842. He stated that he was employed for the purpose of retooling the factories when Springfield became convinced of the necessity of manufacturing guns with interchangeable parts. He went to Windsor, Connecticut, to work for Robbins & Lawrence Company who were starting to produce the U. S. Model 1841 Rifle (Mississippi). In 1854 he went to work for William Smith, whom he had known while at Springfield Armory.

William Smith had always dreamed of a repeating firearm. His earlier experiments included a firearm that fired under water. This idea was patented in 1839, and while the idea was sound, the firearm was impractical. In 1859 Smith came up with the idea of a self-loading pistol using a brass case rather than a paper one.

The brass case proved too tough for the shell extractor, so Smith developed the idea of a younger partner, Daniel Wesson, for a self-contained cartridge wherein the bullet, powder, and primer were all in one, and the extractor was unnecessary. Firearms with these cartridges were produced under the company name of Smith & Wesson. Glory faded fast. By 1855 Smith & Wesson was sold to a group of investors which included Oliver Winchester, a shirtmaker. They formed the Volcanic Firearms Company and moved the tools and dies to New Haven.

The Volcanic Firearms Company tried to revive the idea of the lever action principle, but due to stockholder squabbles and dashed expectations regarding the capabilities of the firearms themselves, they were forced into insolvency by 1857.

Winchester, unwilling to let the idea die, formed the New Haven Firearms Company. Winchester hired Henry to work the bugs out of the self-loading firearm. Major problems that had to be addressed included the design of the conical bullet and the extractor, both of which could cause the firearm to misfire and jam. Henry took on the challenge with an effort that must have been born of his enthusiastic desire to leave his mark on the firearm world. This he would do!

Benjamin Henry was responsible for the ultimate design and development of the Winchester repeater. It was he who perfected the mechanism and heavier frame that could withstand the pressure of a contained charge from a large caliber cartridge. Henry also adopted an idea from a Frenchman by the name of Flobert for a self-primed cartridge. Using his and Flobert's ideas, Henry developed the rim-fire cartridge that was the predecessor of today's 22-caliber rim-fire cartridge.

(A Henry Rifle with full documentation of its history was recently given to The Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York. A new display of the museum's firearm collection is on the third floor of the museum building.)

Camp of the 8th NY Cav.

Near Rappahanock Station, Va.

July 29, 1863

Dear Frank,

As I have a little spare time today I well write you a short letter and let you know that I am still alive and well, and hope that this will find you all at home the same.

Since my brief visit home the Cavalry has been doing a great deal of hard work, considerable fighting and an immense amount of marching, both night and day, and with all sorts of weather.

I have seen scarcely a single day of rest since my return, and I must say that I am feeling very much like an old man just at present.

We have been here two days and are expecting to be ordered away again every moment to go where I of course cannot tell. We are picketing on this side of the Rappahannock and the Rebels on the other. They have 7 ugly looking Guns mounted just over the River on a Hill and bearing on our camp. I would not wonder if we heard from them in a short time. I have been through both Maryland and Penna. lately and must say that I prefer either to this desolate old State.

I was much surprised yesterday to see John Smith whose Regt. lies only a short distance from here. He came to see me and stayed some time, is looking quite well, was through the Gettysburg Battle and has been right close where I have been most of the time for the past month but neither knew it.

He showed me a letter he received from Lucinda a day or two ago dated about 10 days previous.

I do not know why it is but I have heard nothing from Homer since my return, only from Abrams letter, although I have written Lucinda many times. We receive a mail now so seldom that I presume most of it is lost. Yesterday we had a small mail, the first in 12 days, but I received nothing, not even a "Newspaper".

I have a Splendid Black Mare, 5 year old "Thoroughbred" which I intend sending home if I can get her to Washington so as to ship her. I got her previous to going to Penna. and rode her through the Gettysburg fight, and several since, and I don't want to have her killed. I have also a fine Saddle and Bridle captured from a Rebel Quartermaster a few days ago, which I will send with the Mare. Write me soon and with love to Father, Mother, John and wife, Lucinda, Matilda and yourself I remain you aff. Brother. Hobart

Camp of the 8th NY Cav.

Near Rappahannock Station, Va.

August 13, 1863

Dear Frank

I received a letter from you a few days ago and was glad to hear that you are well at home. I have heard nothing from Abram since he was injured only what you wrote and what I saw in the Papers. Have been expecting a letter from Frank telling me something about how he was getting along, but so far have been disappointed. I wrote Father a few days ago and in it stated that if you were drafted and in need of any money to pay your exemption Fee you could go to Abram and get it on my account. I do this on your account as I know what you would have to endure should you come here and as I think your health not good enough to stand the service. Perhaps you will escape the draft but if not you need not say anything to any one what I have advised you to do.

I also think you ought to stay at home with Father and Mother, as they have no person to take care of matters at home, only yourself and I know they would feel very bad to have you leave them. I well try and do the fighting for both of us. Some of my men were counting up the no. of fights we have been in this summer and they counted up 21 in all. So you see we have done something so far this summer.

I sent "Bess" to Rochester a few days ago in care of Bradstreet but if you with to take care of her for me I would be pleased to have you do so. I do not wish to have her worked or harnessed at all. You can ride her when you wish but would rather she was not allowed to gallop as I will never want her for a Saddle Horse any more, and wish to learn her to trot.

Write me how the mare gets home and what Father thinks of her. She can run very fast but I wish you would never run her any, as I with to make a trotter of her if I can get home. I sent a Reb Saddle and Bridle with her. I presume you will think her awkward to run as she is broken different from the horses out of the army. Perhaps Abram remembers how to rein her. Well I must close and with love to Father, Mother, John and wife, Lucin

Robert Rockwell, III wrote this and a previous article, Storied Henry Rifle Given To The Rockwell Museum, that appeared in the March issue [No. 12] Of The Crooked Lake Review

That article was mistakenly not credited to Robert Rockwell.


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