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Henry 1860 – Winchester 1866, 1873

My daughter, Heather, recently asked me, “Do you know what a Henry’s 1866 rifle is?” Well, as it turns out, I do. Here’s the short answer. Maybe it’s more than you want to know, but it’s less than the whole story. I trust it might be kind of a “Goldilocks answer” – not too long, not too short, maybe just about right.

Henry 1860 - Winchester 1866 - Winchester 1873

Top: Henry Model 1860 rifle, produced in June 1865, near the end of its production run, brass receiver. This rifle was sold in December 2016 for $86,250. Middle: Winchester Model 1866 rifle, produced in 1868, known as “Yellow Boy,” because of it’s brass receiver. Bottom: Winchester Model 1873 rifle, produced in 1909, blued steel receiver.

The Henry Model 1860 repeating rifle is a breech loading, lever action, tubular magazine rifle that was produced from 1860 to 1866. Henry rifles, fully loaded, carried sixteen .44 caliber cartridges, one in the chamber, and fifteen in the tubular magazine under the barrel.

The Henry Model 1860 rifle was the forerunner of the famous Winchester Model 1866 and Model 1873 rifles that became the iconic rifles that won the American “Wild West.”

The Henry Model 1860 rifle was designed in the United States by Benjamin Tyler Henry, and was manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut. In 1866, the company changed its name to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, becoming one of the most famous arms manufacturing companies in the world.

The Henry Model 1860 rifle was revolutionary in warfare because of its much greater firepower that greatly extended the accuracy and killing capacity of standard, single shot rifles and carbines then in use by all armies in the world at the time.

Soldiers using standard Springfield or Enfield single shot rifles could fire two or three rounds per minute. Soldiers using Henry repeating rifles could fire 28 rounds per minute, giving soldiers armed with Henry rifles an overwhelming combat advantage over all other soldiers.

The Henry Model 1860 rifle was never used in large quantities in the American Civil War, although it easily demonstrated its absolute superiority over standard single shot weapons.

The Henry Model 1860 rifle was used in small quantities by a few units of the Union army during the Civil War. One infantry or cavalry soldier armed with the Henry Model 1860 rifle was the equivalent of 14 or 15 soldiers equipped with standard single shot weapons.

The close range, rapid fire superiority of the Henry Model 1860 rifle was demonstrated on several occasions during the Civil War, especially during the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) on November 30, 1864.

In this Civil War battle, two Union regiments, the 65th Illinois Regiment and the 65th Indiana Regiment, were partially equipped with Henry Model 1860 rifles.

During the Battle of Franklin, the combined violence of Union artillery and rapid rifle fire unleashed such a devastating storm of hot steel and lead into the densely packed formations of Confederate soldiers, that the Confederate Army of Tennessee was destroyed, and never again fought as an effective fighting force.

Nine years later, Henry Model 1860 rifles were used effectively by some of the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who destroyed George Armstrong Custer’s U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in southeast Montana on June 25, 1873. Henry Model 1860 rifles completely outclassed the single shot Springfield Model 1873 carbines of the U.S. 7th Cavalry soldiers.

Other Plains Indians also used Henry Model 1860 rifles to defend their land in wars with the United States army until about 1890.

A direct descendant of the Henry Model 1860 rifle, the Winchester Model 1873 rifle, was introduced to European warfare during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

Near the town of Plevna, in Bulgaria, a relatively small number of Turkish soldiers, armed with Winchester Model 1873 rifles, successfully defended their positions against vastly superior numbers of attacking Russian soldiers during four battles lasting nearly five months from August to December 1878. Even though few in number, the Turks inflicted many thousands of dead and wounded soldiers among the attacking Russians before the siege was finally ended and Plevna was captured.

Soon thereafter, a world wide arms race was on, resulting in hundreds of international conflicts, including the First and Second World Wars, making the 19th and 20th centuries the bloodiest and most destructive centuries in world history.