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May 31, 2013

Lever Action Progression: 'That Damned Yankee Rifle..."

By Joel R Kolander

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Some stories just get better every time you hear them and chances are, if you've been collecting for any length of time, you've heard the legend behind the Henry rifle. That's right, that unassuming looking rifle of a modestly sized production that was the grandfather of the Winchesters that changed the shape of our nation and likely the world. But how did such a humble little rifle so amply carry such loads of praise and heaps of historical significance? Very little was known about Henry rifles, and their namesake since the New Haven Arms Co. left very few records after control of the business shifted to one Mr. Oliver Winchester. But I get ahead of myself...

Rock Island Auction Company will auction off several of the items mentioned in the following story in our June 2013 Regional Auction.  That auction will be held June 28th, 29th, & 30th, with a full preview day on Thursday, June 27th. Pictures of those items will be listed below along with links to them on our website if you wish to submit a sealed bid online.

"That damn yankee rifle!" The amazing Henry Rifle seems to find its way into Rock Island Auction Company's Premier Auctions with some regularity.

Walter Hunt

The first person that is partially responsible for the Henry rifle and the subsequent success of Winchester Repeating Arms is the un-notably named Walter Hunt. This native New Yorker was a mechanic and an inventor who started his business in 1826 in the city of his birth. Walter Hunt is now recognized by even revered institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum as one of the most productive inventors of his time, but he had an unfortunate habit of not patenting his inventions. His list of inventions is best described by R. Bruce McDowell.

"Among his many inventions were the safety pin (to which he sold the rights for only $400), the fountain pen, the foot-operated gong for stages and trolley cars, an advanced nail-making machine, the paper collar for the well-dressed 19th Century gentleman, a self-closing inkwell, a new type of heating stove, an ice boat, a flax-spinning machine and a lock-stich sewing needle which led to the invention of the sewing machine credited to Elias Howe."

It is only fitting that a man so content to watch his inventions be credited to others be the first mentioned in this abridged history. His contribution to the Henry rifle lies in his invention of the "rocket ball," the Hunt Magazine, and a lever mechanism rifle suitable for firing it. Through his cooperation with one Mr. Lewis Jennings, an inventor and model maker, Hunt came to make working models of his repeating rifle, which he called the "Volition Repeater," and eventually to simplify it in the design of another rifle to be discussed later, the Jennings repeater. It is popularly, yet incorrectly, accepted that Hunt's rifle failed for several reasons (cost of manufacture, primitive manufacturing equipment, too complicated), and that after its failure Jennings improved on the design and patented it. Those reasons for Hunt's failure have no merit and it is much more plausible that the Volition Repeater was never produced because Jennings was already developing a redesigned and simpler rifle. Also, since Jennings and Hunt were under the mutual employ of  George A. Arrowsmith, they were likely working on it together. This is especially credible considering the patent dates of both inventors on their respective inventions. It should also be noted at this stage that Mr. Arrowsmith could not fund both inventors so for $10,000 (perhaps already knowing he had a failure on his hands) he transferred the patent rights to Courtlandt C. Palmer, former railroad president and leading hardware merchant in New York City. Without getting ahead of ourselves, Palmer would eventually finance the production of 5,000 Jennings rifles through the Robbins & Lawrence Company. None of those names sound very important until one is told that the shop foreman of the Robbins & Lawrence Co. was Benjamin Tyler Henry.

To his credit, Walter Hunt also provided the "Hunt Magazine," which was a tubular magazine to run parallel underneath the barrel. Half of this tube would hold a compressed spring when reloading and would hold, as Hunt would phrase it in his patent text, "twelve balls, which I consider sufficient for convenience or utility."

Horace Smith, left, and Daniel Wesson likely met at the Robbins & Lawrence factory when the Jennings rifle was made there. Benjamin Tyler Henry also worked there for a time. All three would be instrumental in creating Henry's namesake rifle.

Lewis Jennings

Besides his notable presence in the life of Walter Hunt, Lewis Jennings made several independent improvements to the Hunt rifle. In fact, the only Hunt design characteristics he kept were the sliding internal bolt, the tubular magazine which would still run underneath the barrel, and the "percussion pill" magazine. The Jennings rifle was contracted by Courtlandt Palmer to be produced by the Robbins & Lawrence Company of Windsor, Vermont, then the largest non-government arms manufacturer in the United States. It was also the employer of shop foreman Benjamin Tyler Henry, who was in charge of making improvements to the mechanism. Other notable gunsmiths present at Robbins & Lawrence include:

  • Daniel Wesson, who was employed by Leonard Pistol Works but was inspecting parts and finished pistols of the Leonard percussion pepperbox pistols that were contracted to Robbins & Lawrence.
  • Horace Smith had been stationed at the Robbins & Laurence plant by Courtlandt Palmer himself to supervise the manufacturing of the Jennings rifles.

Despite this "who's who" of American gun makers present, the Jennings rifle was a failure. While the rifle would fire a "naked ball" (that without patch or lubricant) twenty times in a minute, Mr. Lawrence himself stated that, "The result in firing the gun was that the ball leaded the barrel, by building on, to such an extent that in firing twenty shots from a 50-100 calibre bore there would be a hole in the barrel less that 25-100." Apart from this it was called "too complicated" by the Ordnance Department and was still underpowered due to the limited powder in the "rocket ball." It is thought that the only Jennings Repeaters produced were for testing and a patent model. The order of 5,000 from Robbins & Lawrence, never filled to its entirety, was to be converted entirely to Jennings single shot breech loaders, much like the Sharps rifle that would eventually win the endorsement of the Ordnance Department. There were less than 1,000 Jennings rifles produced in all its varieties and every last one was weaker and more expensive that other muzzle loaders in common use at the time.

Horace Smith

Courtlandt Palmer, not being a man to quit (or to misuse an investment), assigned Horace Smith to "fix" the Jennings rifle.  Smith kept the magazine tube, sliding bolt, bolt locking lever, and priming pill magazine of the prior two designs, but with some important modifications. Most notably the action was completely redesigned by removing the rack and pinion action from the Jennings models and replacing it with an action that pivoted at the front, which would look much more familiar to shooters today. Smith was working in the same building as B. Tyler Henry and undoubtedly aware of his design improvements. However, this variant was also not without its shortcomings (e.g. the percussion pills igniting in the magazine and causing a chain reaction), and it went through three notable variants each one improving slightly on the bugs of the last. There was even an experimental Smith-Jennings repeating pistol! Despite its improvements, it was still a rifle that remained dependent on the weak rocket ball cartridge, an external primer & magazine, and it was not yet self-cocking.

The Volcanic pistol is one of the early lever guns, but suffered design flaws and poor finances sank the early Smith & Wesson company.

"The Volcanic"

How Horace Smith initially met Daniel Wesson to form The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, of New Haven Connecticut is a bit of a mystery. However, there is no mystery that the men conversed while working at the Robbins & Lawrence factory and discussed the failures of the Jennings rifle and the Smith-Jennings repeaters. Another persistent unknown is how the eventual partners came up with the toggle joint, a feature so improved that it appears in almost every lever action thereafter. It is commonly accepted that Smith was sent to London by Courtlandt Palmer in 1851 to attend The Great Exhibition in order to show their 1841 "Mississippi Rifle," but also to perform some reconnaissance on the recent innovations by European gunsmiths. While in London, Smith spoke with Louis Nicholas Auguste Flobert about his "copper case, self-contained rim fire ammunition," and method of extraction. While Smith & Wesson fully admitted they did not invent the rim fire, metallic cartridge, the claim of the toggle joint is another matter. No one knows how Smith came to utilize the toggle joint. He could have invented it himself, employee B. Tyler Henry could have invented it, or maybe he saw the little piece of engineering at work in London. In any case, it was a watershed improvement that saw prolific use in future firearms.

Smith & Wesson are also to be credited with innovations in ammunition, though lack of a reliable cartridge would eventually lead to their downfall. They recognized that neither the Flobert cartridge from France, the rocket ball, nor their own primed rocket ball had enough power to be used successfully in rifles. So they made their own new self-contained cartridge and an improved pistol to fire it, and asked Mt. Courtlandt Palmer for around $10,000 for tooling of the new inventions. He agreed and re-assigned the Hunt, Jennings, and Smith patents to the new partnership known as Smith & Wesson. Under the new partnership the men produced many pistols chambered not for the Flobert cartridge or their own improved cartridge, but instead for their primed rocket ball, eventually nicknamed the Volcanic cartridge. It was never named that officially, but the term was popularly used to describe both firearm and ammunition after being compared to the fiery eruption of a volcano in a magazine's review of the gun. B. Tyler Henry was employed likely as a shop superintendant. Smith & Wesson lasted only a year before design flaws and finances were exhausted. Returns of the pistols abounded and performance was spotty at best. Palmer, the seemingly eternal source of funds, had lost a lot of cash investing in the development of firearms and now wanted to recoup his funds. He did so with Smith & Wesson by incorporating the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. 17 months after the forming of the failed company "Smith & Wesson." There were 29 stock holders in all, one of which was a local shirt manufacturer inspired by the success of Samuel Colt. He purchased 80 shares and went by the name of Oliver F. Winchester. Within eight months the three men, Wesson, Smith, and Palmer, had fully abandoned the company and pursued other avenues in the industry even as Volcanic arms and ammunition continued to be produced and improved. It was a company of little capital, several patents on failed firearms and ammunitions, and a board of investors that knew nothing about manufacturing firearms. Smith & Wesson's insistence on using primed rocket ball cartridges, despite knowledge of other, superior rounds led to an early failure for the partners. They were not to make a practical lever action repeating pistol. It would be another two years before Smith & Wesson formed their second business venture involving the manufacture of "revolving magazine, metallic cartridge pistols."

Oliver Winchester

This name is certainly known to anyone even vaguely familiar with firearms. After becoming a minority stakeholder (1.33%) at Volcanic Arms, he also joined its Board of Directors as a Vice President in June 1855. He knew nothing of the gun business, but enjoyed such success manufacturing shirts that his capital available for outside investments was significant. Within two years the company was declared insolvent. Through the death of Volcanic Arms' president as well as Winchester paying off Volcanic’s debtors, the courts awarded all assets of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. to Oliver Winchester. This included the assignments of all patents of Hunt, Jennings, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson that had previously belonged to Volcanic.

Oliver Winchester's business accumen led his name to be associated with the success of the lever action rifle company with his name on it.

Other stockholders received nothing. Oliver Winchester had not given up hope on magazine-fed repeating firearms. On the contrary, prior to the insolvency, he had been promoting a new firearms company called the New Haven Arms Co. After acquiring some capital from the very people that had just lost every cent they had invested in Volcanic, Winchester sold all the assets from Volcanic to New Haven with the exception of the patents. He only sold to New Haven the right to produce the firearms and ammunitions named in those patents, while keeping the actual patents for himself. Winchester had just made out like a bandit. New Haven Arms Company would now be manufacturing the Volcanic Repeating Arms and paying him to do it. Besides noting the high value of the patent on the improved cartridge firearm, Winchester also took note of the experience of a man well acquainted with the design of repeating firearms and the ever evolving design of ammunition: Benjamin Tyler Henry.

Benjamin Tyler Henry worked closely with a number of the biggest names in 19th century gun manufacturing and was vital to the development of the lever action gun and metallic cartridges for rifles.

Benjamin Tyler Henry: The Inventor of that damn Yankee rifle

If you've been following closely, you've heard this name mentioned in several places. He was a shop foreman during the manufacture of the Jennings rifles. He was employed as a shop superintendent by Smith & Wesson's first failed partnership. He now was being given full control to develop a new cartridge for the New Haven Arms Co. Prior guns' actions had been sound, but their cartridges were the Achilles' heel. Standing atop of all the cartridges Henry had seen developed, he dove right in and began experimenting with the .22 caliber rimfire cartridge of Wesson, making it larger and more appropriate for rifle use. Even though Volcanic's insolvency took place in February 1857, by the end of 1858 Henry had developed a .44 caliber cartridge capable of a 1,200 fps muzzle velocity; a noted improvement over the 500 fps from Smith & Wesson cartridges. All that needed to be done now was design a gun to fire it. Much easier said than done. It would require the frame to be larger, the barrel adapted for the new cartridge, the addition of firing pins independent from the bolt face, and the development of an ejection system. The task before Henry was monumental, but he was the right man for the job. In early 1860 Henry had completed all the changes and had a patent issued by October! He had made all the adaptations in just over a year, sounded the death knell for rocket balls and other Volcanic arms, and forever associated his name with American firearms.


Boatner, Mark Mayo, Allen C. Northrop, and Lowell I. Miller. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: D. McKay, 1959. Print.

McDowell, R. Bruce. Evolution of the Winchester. Tacoma, WA: Armory Publications, 1985. Print.

Madis, George. The Winchester Handbook. 1st ed. Brownsboro, TX: Art and Reference House, 1981. Print.

Parsons, J. E. The First Winchester: The Story of the 1866 Repeating Rifle. New York: Morrow, 1955. Print.

Quick, Les. The Henry Rifle: Story of Benjamin Tyler and His Famed Repeating Rifle. Santa Ana, CA: Graphic, 2008. Print.

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