Who was Benjamin Henry? Historians and those knowledgeable of guns would be familiar with his name, but for most his significance is unknown. Conversely, the name Winchester sparks immediate recognition. Yet in one of history’s many ironies, it was Henry who was directly responsible for the Winchester rifle and Oliver Winchester’s place in American history.
As a young man Henry worked as a gunsmith apprentice and rose to foreman of a small arms company in Vermont. He worked with Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson who went on to form the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. Oliver Winchester, a clothing manufacturer, was one of their main investors. Winchester was able to take over the company and reorganize it into The New Haven Arms Company in 1857. He hired Henry as plant superintendent. While working for New Haven Henry invented the first practical lever action repeating rifle, which he patented in 1860. Now, a lone man could match the capability of a dozen armed with muzzle loading muskets. The ability to fire multiple rounds without stopping to reload after every shot was pivotal in American History.
The Civil War was brewing, and just a year after Henry’s rifle was patented fighting was in full force. By mid-1862 Henry’s rifle started reaching Union soldiers. Not only did the Henry rifle enable the soldier to fire multiple shots, it was accurate and reliable. Soldiers with a repeating rifle had a clear advantage. Major William Ludlow in his account of the Battle of Allatoona Pass wrote: “What saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles”. The phrase, “it’s a rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week” was attributed to a Confederate officer. Confederate soldiers using single shot muzzle loaders were no match. Even though the Henry rifle was a ground-breaking and popular weapon, only about 1700 were purchased by the U.S. government between 1862 and 1865. Many more made it into the hands of soldiers through private purchases. Soldiers saved up their own money to buy a Henry rifle.
In 1864 while the war was still waging, Henry was in his own battle. He felt unfairly compensated for his invention and attempted to acquire the rights of New Haven of which he was a stockholder. He and a partner convinced the Connecticut legislature to change the company’s name to Henry Arms. Winchester in Europe at the time, got wind of this and called in the debts New Haven owed him. Returning to the U.S. he formed the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Winchester had ready access to factories. Many of New Haven’s plants had been leased under his name. He personally owned much of the company’s equipment. Winchester’s designers sufficiently modified Henry’s design to prevent the Henry Arms Company from a successful lawsuit. The final transfer of New Haven assets to the Winchester Arms Company was in March 1867. Benjamin Henry left New Haven Arms and worked as a private gunsmith until his death in 1898.
With the opening of the American West after the Civil War the Winchester Company prospered. Henry’s design played a dominant role in the American frontier. West of the Mississippi River was a great unsettled untamed land where you for the most part were on your own. Whether you were a homesteader, rancher, lawman or prospector, or hunter you had a better chance at success and survival with an easy to carry, reliable lever action repeating rifle.
During this era, the Henry rifle was part of more historical irony. The firearm that went west as protection for settlers was often used against them by Native Americans trying to keep control of their lands. Modern archeology has proven Henry’s rifle and the Winchester lever action played a significant role in the defeat of Custer and his army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Despite the popularity of Henry’s rifle during the Civil War and the subsequent development of other repeating rifles, the Army equipped its soldiers with a single shot Springfield Carbine and Colt single action revolver. Survivors of Little Big Horn reported many of the Indians were armed with a repeating rifle; the favored weapon carried by Indian warriors was a Henry or its direct descendant the Winchester. Thousands of Henry rim fire cases were recovered form the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the Reno siege site, and on privately owned land in the surrounding area. Archaeologists believe over 200 Henry and Winchester rifles were at the Little Big Horn battles.
In 1996 Louis Imperato and his son started the Henry Repeating Arms company of today. They took the name from Benjamin Henry and secured the trademark to the Henry name. There is no relationship or lineage to Benjamin Henry or the New Haven Arms Company, but it is a fitting tribute to the man who influenced history with his invention of the first repeating rifle.
References & Resources:
- www.ammoland.com (Henry Rifles – History of the Lever Action)
- Repeating Rifles – Innovation in History: Impact and Change