Jan 10, 2016

The Legacy Of Henry Rifles Is Alive In Wisconsin

From the battlefields of the Civil War, to winning the West in the days of frontier life, to deer hunting in today’s Northwoods, there is no more storied firearm than the lever action rifle. Today, in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, the tradition and heritage of the lever action rifle is alive and well at the Henry Arms Repeating Company where they manufacture lever action rifles in the spirit of America’s most quintessential firearm.

Henry Rifles began in the days before the Civil War. Benjamin Tyler Henry, a gunsmith at the New Haven Arms Company, was asked by Oliver Winchester to work on one of their designs of a repeating rifle. Henry tinkered with the designs for some time until he finally came up with a dependable repeating rifle with a lever action. He was granted a patent for it in 1860 and New Haven Arms Company began manufacturing the new lever action rifles at the start of the Civil War.

Prior to then, rifles were muzzle ­­loaded muskets which are single shots. Metallic rim fire cartridges were also being manufactured. The new lever action repeating rifles allowed loading of 15 rounds of copper cased .44 caliber ammunition, also invented by Henry. By 1862, the new lever action Henry was available and quickly became popular with soldiers in the Union Army. Many of these soldiers came from the Midwest states of Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky.

Over 10,000 Henry Rifles saw action in the Civil War and they made an immediate difference. A soldier could pour out a continuous rate of fire completely unknown to the average soldier who was fighting with a muzzle loaded musket. In one battle, a Union officer named Major William Ludlow wrote, “What saved the day was the fact that we had a number of Henry Rifles. This company, of 16 shooters sprang to the parapet and poured out such a multiplied, rapid and deadly fire, that no man could stand in front of it and no serious effort was made thereafter to take the fort by assault.”

In another battle where the 7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry were armed with Henry Rifles, a Confederate officer was quoted as saying, “It’s a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long.”  That “load on Sunday and shoot all week” became part of the Henry lore and reputation.

After the war, Henry lever action rifles moved west as America expanded. Throughout the Wild West the rifle of choice was the lever action. You can see them in all the photos taken of cowboys in those days. For those of us who grew up watching western films and television shows there was only one rifle; the lever action. The Henry lever action was the first and most popular lever action rifle on the frontier.

Today the Henry Repeating Arms Company is family owned. Anthony Imperato is the 3rd generation of his family to run the business. He takes his responsibilities seriously, telling customers in the Henry catalog if they have trouble finding the Henry Rifle they want, or any other issue, to contact him and he provides his personal email address. Like in the past, Henry rifles are only made in America. They are justifiably proud of that and their motto is “made in America or not made at all.” They have two factories making Henry Rifles. One is in Bayonne, New Jersey and the other in Rice Lake, Wisconsin.

Of all the rifles Henry makes today, there is one model of a pump .22 caliber and another youth bolt action .22. They also make the .22 caliber Survival AR-7. I remember seeing them in the outdoor magazines when I was a young boy growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is a .22 caliber semi-automatic with a plastic stock where the receiver, barrel and magazine are stored. Although it is 35 inches long when assembled, it is a mere 16 1/2 inches when disassembled. It is only three and a half pounds and completely waterproof. It was in my boyhood, and still today, the ultimate survival rifle.

However, Henry Repeating Arms Company is primarily known for continuing the legacy and tradition of the lever action rifle. They make 13 varieties of .22 caliber lever action rifles plus two more chambered for the .17 HMR. Additionally they have three varieties of their Golden Boy lever actions that can be individually engraved as a personalized gift. Two of them are in .22 calibers and one in .17 HMR. Plus, they have a number of special tribute lever action rifles honoring military veterans, firemen, policemen and other professions.

Their larger caliber rifles are chambered in the always popular 30/30 which has been a standard for Northwoods deer hunting for over a century and still accounts for a lot of deer taken by hunters today. The .45/70 is their largest gun and big enough for most big game hunting in North America.
Their Henry Big Boy Steel is made in .44 magnum, .45 colt and .357 magnum. The .45 Colt and .357 magnum and the .44 magnum which can be loaded with the .44 Special pistol round so it is possible to have a pistol and a Henry Rifle in the same caliber.

All of their rifles, with the exception of their survival and youth bolt action guns, are made with wood stocks. As well the larger caliber Henry Rifles also come with octagon barrels for those collectors, hunters and shooters who like a rifle with an old timer, traditional look to it.

Another unique Henry firearm is their Mare’s Leg Lever Action Pistol. Those of us remembering watching westerns on television in the 1960s well remember Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead Or Alive. McQueen played a bounty hunter armed with what looked to be a sawed off version of a lever action rifle with a large loop lever. It was then and still is a classic cowboy firearm. Although it looks like a rifle it is classified as a pistol and called a Mare’s Leg. As a throw back to years long gone by, the Mare’s Leg includes a saddle ring on the outside of the receiver. Henry has preserved the legacy of this unique firearm today in five calibers; the .44 Magnum, Colt .45, the .357 Magnum plus two versions of .22 calibers. A holster can be purchased separately for the Mare’s Leg and, in keeping with their standard of being American made, the holster is made from American leather in America.

During a recent visit to the Henry factory in Rice Lake, I got the opportunity to look at many of their rifles. They are truly pieces of art to those who appreciate a good rifle. I also worked the lever action and can attest to the fact that they are some of the smoothest working rifles I have ever held. Another advantage is all of the Henry Rifles can be used easily and safely by left handed shooters. Any of these large caliber rifles can also be personalized for an additional charge.

The Rice Lake factory has a long history in manufacturing and once made hardware for doors and locks. In 1999 they began making parts for Henry Rifles, according to Andy Wickstrom, the General Manager of the Rice Lake facility. In 2006, they officially became part of what Andy described as the Henry family. In 2014, the Rice Lake factory began making and assembling Henry Rifles. Wisconsin made Henry Rifles are now on the market and available in gun shops and outdoor sports stores.

Many of the parts for Henry Rifles, to include their extensive inventory of .22 caliber rifles, are made in Rice Lake, Andy explained, but only the larger caliber rifles are completely made and assembled in Rice Lake. The Henry 30/30 is one of those rifles, and it seems especially fitting since the 30/30 lever action rifle is considered by many deer hunters in Wisconsin’s Northwoods as being the ultimate brush gun. They also make the Henry 45/70 and the Henry Big Boy Steel in the .44 Magnum, .45 Colt and the .357 Magnum. All Wisconsin made rifles are marked on the barrels with “Henry Repeating Arms - Rice Lake, Wisconsin. As well, serial numbers of rifles made in Rice Lake start with a “W” for Wisconsin.

Another interesting Wisconsin aspect of the Henry Rifles is that a Wisconsin company in Milwaukee does all the nickel plating for Henry Arms as well as another Wisconsin company, Harley-Davidson, Andy told me. Henry Repeating Arms takes seriously their vow to be American made. In addition to their firearms, all their accessories from baseball hats and t-shirts, to campfire mugs and wall displays, to gun cases and slings are all made in America, Andy pointed out.

The facility at Rice Lake covers 137,000 square feet and employs 170 people from Rice Lake and the surrounding area. Although the machining and tool and dye work are done by machines, I was amazed to see how much is done by hand. It is the human touch that brings so much to what makes Henry Rifles so special. I watched as one man was hand stamping out .22 caliber rifle parts. I watched as a woman was placing receivers for the Henry Golden Boy rifle by hand in a machine where the serial numbers were being engraved. I saw other workers who were polishing receiver parts by hand and at another station where a man and woman were inspecting rifle barrels.

Finally, at the end of the manufacturing process, every rifle is assembled by hand and test fired. Throughout the entire making of a rifle at Rice Lake is a combination of people and machines coming together to produce an exceptionally sharp looking and ruggedly functional product which works as hard in the field as it looks good in the gun cabinet.

“We are making the best lever action rifle on the market,” Andy stated. “We use technology to it’s fullest and hire good people.”

“There is still a lot to do,“ he added. Henry Repeating Arms continues to grow, according to Andy, with new products coming in 2016.

“There is a passion here,” Andy said. “It is good for Rice Lake, Wisconsin and Henry Rifles.”

From plinking and target shooting, to hunting small or big game, the Henry rifle still sets the standard and are made only in America. The lever action rifle Benjamin Tyler Henry, designed in the middle of the 19th century that helped to win the Civil War and tame the frontier of the Wild West, lives on in the 21st Century in Henry Repeating Arms. Wisconsin is part of the tradition and legacy of today’s best lever action rifle.