Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 12: "Winchester's Improvement" Henry Lever Action Rifle

Auction Date: December 3, 2021

Extremely Rare Experimental "Winchester's Improvement/Brigg's Patent" Henry Lever Action Rifle

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $95,000 - $160,000

Extremely Rare Experimental "Winchester's Improvement/Brigg's Patent" Henry Lever Action Rifle

Manufacturer: Winchester
Model: Henry
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 44
Barrel: 24 inch round
Finish: blue/bright
Stock: walnut
Item Views: 3203
Item Interest: Very Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 17
Class: Antique

The New Haven Arms Co. Henry rifle and subsequent Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Model 1866 are arguably the two most significant lever action firearms in history and are responsible for establishing lever action repeaters as a genre. The '66 in particular is incredibly significant as it introduced the Nelson King's patented loading gate system that has set the standard for lever action rifles ever since, but this was not predestined to be the case as is shown on this incredibly rare transitional experimental carbine manufacture in late 1865 or early 1866, and the transition was more complicated than Oliver Winchester simply taking over the New Haven Arms Co. and slapping his name on it. Instead, there was a clash in 1865 and 1866 that included innovating the Henry design by men working for Winchester. This incredibly rare rifle is one of the very few firearms that survive from that transition between the Henry rifle and the birth of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. and their premiere firearm: the Model 1866, and it is even rarer in that it remains in private hands and is now available at public auction. Winchester historian Herbert Houze discusses the transition from the Henry to the Model 1866 in great detail in "Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865 to 1981" and noted on page 42 that these Winchester Arms Co. rifles and carbines manufactured using Oliver F. Winchester's magazine system "must be regarded as the first, true production Winchester firearms" and that the subsequent Model 1866 then secured the Winchester's name forever in American firearms history. Houze's layout of the historical context should be referred to for those deeply interested in the context of the production of this rifle, but a summary is useful here. By the time this rare rifle was manufactured, Oliver Winchester had already been involved in the financing of the manufacturing of repeating arms for a decade as a significant financier and shareholder. After the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. had been reorganized as the New Haven Arms Company, Benjamin Tyler Henry was hired as the firm's superintendent in the spring of 1858 and tasked with improving the Volcanic/Smith & Wesson repeater design so that it could use more advanced and powerful rimfire ammunition. The result was the historic Henry rifle that became famous in the hands of Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Henry received a five year contract for his rifle design in May of 1859, but he and Winchester clashed as the end of Henry's contract approached and Winchester leased a factory in Bridgeport to expand Henry rifle production without the same contractual obligations to Henry. The latter left the company in the middle of 1864 but continued to be a thorn in Winchester's side. At the same time, the company (or companies) began exploring improvements and alterations of the Henry design with a particular focus on the magazine system which was a noted weak point due to the open channel along the bottom that allowed debris to clog the magazine. For example, George W. Briggs (on leave from his work as chief designer at the New Haven factory) received patent no. 58,937 for an "Improvement in Magazine Fire-Arms" on October 16, 1866, that was assigned to Winchester. The patent notes "a great objection has existed from the fact that the open slot upon the underside of the tube would admit more or less dirt, or other substances foreign and injurious to the proper workings of the follower and spring, within the magazine, and the necessary complication in the construction of the upper part of the magazine and barrel renders them very liable to get out of repair." Winchester also explored international contracts and went to Europe at the beginning of 1865. While there, he had Weber Ruesch of Zurich build a rifle along with a shotgun with another sliding magazine tube system and also made contact with representatives of the French government interested in purchasing improved Henry rifles. He also learned that Henry and Secretary Charles W. Nott of the New Haven Arms Co. were working to change the name of the New Haven Arms Company to the Henry Repeating Rifle Co. in his absence using a power of attorney he had arranged before he left the country. In response, Winchester rushed home, and he, his son William Wirt Winchester, and his business partner John M. Davies established the Winchester Arms Co. in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on July 1, 1865. In order to prevent Henry from interfering with the new company's production through legal action and to offer a superior product, the company set about creating a design that was sufficiently different from the original Henry rifle. Winchester already owned the factory and machinery in Bridgeport and so diverted them from the old company to his new company decreasing the production capability of the former company by half or more. They also hired Nelson King as their superintendent and set about preparing to manufacture improved Henry rifles. At the same time, Winchester and his allies remained the largest shareholders of the New Haven Arms Co./Henry Repeating Rifle Co., and Winchester was also the company's president. He and his allies ousted Nott and moved to consolidate control. Ultimately, Winchester was able to maneuver to buy out the company in 1866, and in early the following year combined the company with the Winchester Arms Co. to form the famous Winchester Repeating Arms Co. on April 1, 1867. The Henry rifle with improvements, most notably those of Nelson King, became the company's flagship model: the Winchester Model 1866. The rest, as they say, is history. In the complicated and messy genesis of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. and the Model 1866, the current rifle was manufactured based directly on Oliver Winchester's input on how to improve the Henry rifle design. It offers a glimpse into what might have been an alternate route for the standard for loading lever action rifles. Unlike the Briggs design which has the magazine slide forward for loading, on the current rifle, the magazine is an enclosed, stationary tube and has a brass sliding cover with a small button on the right that releases it. Another example of this type is shown on pages 38 and 39 of "Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865 to 1981" by Herbert G. Houze and noted as "Winchester's Improvement .44 caliber carbine of the type manufactured by the Winchester Arms Company from December 1865 through the early Spring of 1866, for Maximilian I of Mexico" and noted as in the Cody Firearms Museum. Houze also shows earlier examples with knurled covers of a similar basic design and notes them as examples submitted for trials in Europe in 1865. Designs like the present example are often lumped in with the "Briggs' improvement" rifles as the magazine tube design is similar to his design, and Houze notes that the work "paralleled Briggs' work." However, it was based on Winchester's proposal for an "open slot" at the magazine's "rear which could be exposed by a sliding metal fore end." On page 41, Houze notes that by November 1865, Oliver Winchester had returned to New Haven from Europe and the company decided to retain the Henry style receiver rather than use the Smith improvements and substituted the pressed brass forends like the current example in place of the steel forends. This design was never patented in the U.S. but is noted as protected via a William Clark patent (on Winchester's behalf) in England from December 19, 1865. Houze concluded that the lack of an American patent on the design suggests Winchester never intended to market this version in the U.S. However, they were shipped overseas, including 150 to Cuba on January 12, 1866, and others manufactured on a French contract and a small number were sold commercially before Winchester had completed the takeover of the New Haven Arms Co. He estimates that more than 700 may have been manufactured in total, mostly for the French contract. Despite this, they are very rarely seen and scarcely are made publicly available. This rifle utilizes a Henry receiver combined with a 24 inch round barrel and full-length fixed magazine tube secured by two barrel bands. At the rear where a forearm would later be standard, the magazine tube has the sliding brass cover noted above. There is a small round button on the right side that releases this brass "forearm" allowing it to slide forward. The magazine can then be loaded similar to a bottom fed slide action shotgun. It should be even easier to load with this system than a rifle with a loading gate. Once the magazine is closed, you slide the cover back, and it latches in place. The design is certainly stronger than the original Henry rifle loading system, and the fact that the brass cover fits tightly would have been helpful for keeping debris out of the magazine and action. It could have been easily further improved by mounting a wood forearm around the cover to reduce heat transfer to the shooter's hand and to provide more traction. Had Winchester not gone with King's design, this design could have become the standard for loading lever action firearms. The interior left tang, lower interior of the buttplate, and the stock inlet are all marked with the number "6." The magazine tube in the loading cutout and the rear of the brass cover are also marked with "6" (misidentified as "9" in the past). Aside from the 3 to 9 graduation marks on the rear sight ladder, there are no other visible markings. The trigger has a screw through the projection at the rear that keeps the trigger pull short. The barrel has a dovetailed blade front sight, and the narrow buttstock has a brass buttplate with compartment with four-piece cleaning rod.

Rating Definition:

Fine with traces of original finish and otherwise a very attractive mottled brown patina with some light gray patches on the iron and attractive classic aged "mustard" patina on the distinctive brass cover, frame, and buttplate along with some light scratches and dings, tight side plates, and minor age and handling related wear. The buttstock is also very fine and has some attractive figure in the toe section, light scratches and dings, minor cracking at the toe, and most of the original finish remaining with some fading from age and handling. Mechanically excellent. This is an exceptionally rare and very attractive Winchester firearm certainly fitting for an advanced collection and destined to be a prized treasure worthy of prominent display.

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