The 1860 Henry rifle was a marvel of its time. The first lever action rifle made in serious quantity for the Civil War and afterwards until 1866. Thousands were produced.
But it has a different way of loading from all the lever action to follow. Winchesters, Marlins, Whitney Kennedy, Burgess and others that load from the side or the bottom of the receiver through a loading gate.
On the Henry, the first four inches or so of the barrel is “twisted” with the spring loaded magazine follower retracted as far as it will go.
From here, cartridges are dropped down the magazine tube like you would do in loading a tube fed 22 rimfire rifle.
In the above picture you can see the follower finger tab extended all the way forward and the end of the open magazine tube.
I’m always amazed when I look at a Henry rifle that the barrel and magazine tube are (were) on piece! In 1860 there were no CNC machines. There was no high speed carbide tooling. There were water wheels and iron tooling. I’d love to go back in time to see just how they made these barrels with the fantastic fit and finish they enjoyed.
The 1860 Henry was most often seen as a “Brass Frame” and sometimes called “The Golden Boy”. My version is an “Iron Frame” of which very few were manufactured. This copy is a Uberty reproduction…..A special series with the inscription “1 of 1000” engraced on the receiver top.
It has been offered many times, when discussing the Henry 1860 lever action rifle, the possibility of the spring loaded magazine follower being released accidentally and the follower slamming into the cartridges in the magazine, setting them off with bullets against primers. There are reported cases of this happening at Cowboy Action Shooting loading tables and during a stage when the magazine follower gets hung up on a prop and is suddenly released with impending doom following. I’ve never witnessed this personally, but there are a number of reports on the various forums and unfortunately, in most cases, injury was the result……and a severely damaged rifle as the magazine tube can not simply be replaced like on most other lever action rifles.
The designers of the 1860 Henry attempted to mitigate this issue by inserting a soft piece of leather into the nose of the magazine follower. In my example, this leather is quite hard and does not absorb much shock if the follower was let go on a loaded magazine.
The second issue with the 1860 Henry, when used in Cowboy Action Shooting, is the possibility of the magazine follower hitting the shooters hand and impeding the loading of the last three or four rounds depending on where the off hand is holding the barrel. If the follower is not allowed to “push” all the cartridges toward the loading block, the rifle will not load and might jam. There are reports of this happening in battle during the Civil and Indian wars. Shooting Black Powder, the barrel get extremely hot. A gloved hand is necessary. But with a glove on the off hand, one can not feel the follower tab hitting the hand and thereby not allowing the rifle to load.
Cowboy Action Shooter (CAS) only need to load ten rounds for a rifle stage. These folks will sometimes cut a piece of 3/8″ dowel about 4.5″ long and insert it after the ten rounds are loaded, thereby holding the magazine follower finger tab some 4″ from the receiver, creating room for the off hand and allowing unimpeded loading of the final three or four rounds.
I decided to “Kill Two Birds With One Stone” and build an extended magazine follower / spacer that limits the possibility of #1 and serves the same purpose as #2
Above is a photograph of the pieces I fabricated. Simple 1/2 Aluminum stock was used.
As this photograph shows, the two pieces fit together with the spring inserted and a small set screw holds everything together. The setscrew slides in a small slot milled into the main piece
The end with the brass pin is installed into the magazine tube after the last of 10 rounds is loaded. The small brass pin stops the spring loaded follower from traveling too far into the rifles action. It hits the receiver of the rifle. If this follower was not stopped when loading the last round, it would protrude into the cartridge elevator and jam up the rifle.
I will be loading some dummy cartridges with primers only to test its effectiveness in the next few days. Stay tuned!
Depending on the caliber and the cartridge OAL you use, your follower might be longer or shorter than this one. I simply made up 10 “dummy” cartridges with no powder or primers, loaded them into the magazine tube and measured the length needed. The spring I used was found in my “junk drawer” and measures 3/4″. I allowed 3/8″ of movement. Letting the follower slam home with only one cartridge in the magazine does not bottom out the spring I’m using.
I hope these pictures and words will help if you have access to a lathe and decide to undertake this modification or if you have a machinist friend that owes you a favor.
Now some folks will start to take this post in another direction by claiming this simply isn’t needed. “They have loaded thousands of rounds in an 1860 Henry with no issues.” ” We are being overly cautious.” ” If you can’t load a Henry properly you shouldn’t own one.” Etc.Etc.Etc.
Although I’ve loaded hundreds of cartridges in this Henry rifle and it is still in one piece. And I fail to see how a proper flat nose lead bullet with a properly seated primer could ever detonate the one above it, I suggest we let the owners of the 1860 Henry decide for themselves if this is a modification they might like to pursue.