The Confederate Iron Frame Henry Rifle
By Joel Kolander
Iron Frame Henry Rifle: Not to be confused with their modern counterparts, Henry rifles have long been an indispensable part of firearms development and, therefore, America itself. Their Winchester lineage is well-known, but there’s more to these iconic lever actions than serving as a fondly recalled firearms patriarch. They have seen the best and worst of times, as both an ornate presentation Henry Rifle to Abraham Lincoln and in their limited service during that terrible war which threatened to tear our country asunder. In Rock Island Auction Company’s 2017 May Premiere Firearms Auction is a supremely rare Henry rifle whose provenance can be traced back to that very conflict.
At first glance, you may notice something strange about this Henry rifle. Aren’t Henry rifles usually yellow in color courtesy of their brass receivers? You are correct, but the key word is “usually.” Very early in the Henry production, iron was occasionally used to make a very limited number of receivers and butt plates. The exact production number of these rare iron frame Henry rifles is not known, but expert collectors estimate between 200-275 exist out of the roughly 14,000 Henry rifles that were produced from 1860-1866. Numbers that low make these historically significant collector firearms extremely desirable.
Surviving iron frame Henry rifles are often found with little, if any remaining finish, save for the prized example of an Iron Frame Henry Rifle RIAC sold back in 2013 for $603,750. Much like the prized Colt Walker revolvers, if a collector does have the good fortune to find an iron frame Henry, they are often well worn from use and time. Indeed, many collectors are surprised to find that these prized firearms were originally covered in a rich black finish, having only seen the bare, gray iron receivers in photographs.
The iron Henry rifle featured in the 2017 May Premiere Auction remains in fine condition, and more importantly, original. A mottled gray-brown patina now covers most of its surface, the barrel markings and serial number remain sharp, and the stock still wears most of its original piano finish. All in all, it is an impressive and extremely desirable example among iron frame Henry rifles. As if the rarity and condition of this iron frame Henry already weren’t enough to make collectors swoon, the rifle is also accompanied by a letter of provenance from the family dating its history back three generations to an ancestor who is documented to have served for the Confederacy.
As clearly stated in the letter above, written by a descendent of the original owner, the gun has been in the hands of the Rasdall family since the 19th century. It was brought into the family by Lorenzo D. Rasdall, who is documented as enlisting in a Confederate cavalry unit in Bowling Green, Kentucky, just outside their home in Smith’s Grove. Kentucky was a Union state, but like many areas across the country, that did not eliminate residents with differing opinions. L.D. Rasdall found himself serving in Buckner’s Guides in 1862, at the tender age of 19. Early 1862 also happens to be the year of manufacture for this rifle.
The Rasdall family were well-to-do business owners & land owners and would have been easily able to afford the $42 retail cost of a Henry rifle, which would have also been present in the area, appearing on the open market in Louisville, KY by July of 1862. Ammunition would also have been available to the Rasdalls, access not enjoyed by the majority of Confederates.
So while it can be proven that the L.D. Rasdall had the opportunity and means to purchase both the iron frame Henry rifle and its ammunition, and can also be proven that he enlisted to serve in the Civil War, it cannot be known whether this early rifle, serial number 64, was actually used by him in mortal combat. Such historic information has been lost to time. Key events in the provenance all happen in the year 1862: the gun was manufactured that year, Henry rifles and ammo became locally available to the Rasdall family that year, and L.D. Rasdall enlisted that year, all of which seemingly point to his use of the rifle for the Confederacy during the Civil War, but such historical facts may simply be coincidental. It is not known who originally purchased the rifle in 1862. It could have been Rasdall, or he could have come into the rifle later during the Reconstruction Era.
However, knowing what we do about the manufacture of firearms during the Civil War and the great need of supplies by the Confederacy during that terrible spilling of fraternal blood, it seems implausible to suggest that nearly every available rifle, including this rare and historical Henry, would not have been put to service.
In an epilogue of sorts, after the rifle had passed down several generations, it entered the public eye for the first time since the Civil War, when the author of the aforementioned letter, and then owner, Sue Rasdall Ruddell took the rifle to be appraised on the PBS TV show “Antiques Roadshow.” When it was featured on the show in the year 2000, it was appraised between $75,000 and $100,000 dollars, as shown in the clip below. In the May 2017 Premiere Firearms Auction, RIAC currently has the rifle appraised at $85,000 – $110,000.
Written by Joel R. Kolander