Thursday, May 5, 2011

Henry Lever Action Rifles - a review

In 1860, Benjamin Tyler Henry received a patent for the first practical, lever-action repeating rifle. America was engulfed in the armed conflict of the Civil War, and the first Henry rifles were in the hands of Union soldiers by mid 1862. Noted for it's rapid rate of fire and revolutionary design, it became popular with both military and civilian purchases. It's success in Civil War fire power was reported in numerous sources including Major William Ludlow's account of the Battle of Altoona Pass. "What saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles," wrote Major Ludlow. "This company of 16 shooters sprang to the parapet and poured out such a multiplied, rapid and deadly fire, that no men could stand in front of it and no serious effort was made thereafter to take the fort by assault."

After an encounter with the 7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which had the good fortune to be armed with Henrys, one Confederate officer is credited with the phrase, "It's a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long." In the years following, the Henry rifle gained even greater popularity as the nation moved West, gaining dominance as the rifle of choice in the American West, as it continued to be a favorite of collectors, hunters and plinkers.

The Henry rifle is a true forerunner of the Winchester rifle. As it's popularity gained, further developments continued and in 1866 a new system for loading the magazine was adopted. Developed by Nelson King, of the Henry company, this consisted of a spring loaded port on the side of the action. The rounds were fed in through this to the magazine and thus the weapon could be loaded from the firing position or when lying down. This is the system that continues in use to present time. The popularity has not waned, it's a lever action rifle many consider as a first choice when they want a reliable smooth rifle to get a youngster into shooting, or for themselves for plinking, general light game hunting or cowboy shooting. Even now, I still can hold it and go back to when I was six and playing "Rifleman" with my brothers and a toy gun.

What I first noticed was the instruction manual that came with it. It's probably the most detailed one I've seen from any manufacturer, truly a hands on manual for caring for, loading, cleaning and using the weapon. Written for someone with little to no experience it's really well done, and I particularly enjoyed the photo of the experienced fellow teaching two young boys how to handle the gun, a past-time that I hope the next generations continue.

photo from
The instruction manual has everything you need to know about the basics so I'm not going to talk about that here. I'm just going to add a few things that are found through practice and use. If you're particular about sighting it in, you must know that the rear sight has only a ramp type elevation adjustment, and the way to move point of impact is to drive either the front or rear side sideways to correct aim. Out of the box, sighted at 50 feet, a reasonable range for a game of "Kill da Wabbit" it shot 3 inches to the right. Not good enough.

But the front sight is made of plastic and formed in one piece with the front barrel band. I just am not a big fan of that, for there is NO adjusting there. So you're left with drifting the rear sight sideways in it's dovetail. At it's maximum movement, before leaving one end of the sight hanging off the rifle, it would only move the group half as far as I needed it. In other words, the factory sights cannot be adjusted enough to bring the group to point of aim. (insert choice Gaelic words here). The group spread to a little over an inch and you could always factor in some "Kentucky windage" but the serious shooter may not be happy with that.
The solution. A scope. There is a 7/8" groove on the receiver specifically for rimfire scope mounts. Voila'! If you've a family budget to consider, or like me, you are simply half Scot and uh.- "frugal", there's the Simmons scope. It's cheap but it makes up for it by being seriously ugly. But the varmints tearing up your crops or the garden brawling rabbits taking out your vegetable patch won't have the time to check the price tag.

It took 24 clicks left and 22 down to put the group on point of aim, but once there it really helped with accurate shooting. With cheapo .22 bulk ammo the rifle shot 1/2" groups to just above point of aim. That makes it a wonderful woodchuck rifle out to 50 yards.

Moving over to CCI .22 CB longs, you can reset the scope to be sighted to point of aim with those low power/low noise rounds. The Henry seems to like that ammo better, and the groups tightened a bit. With the bullet traveling around 700 FPS, they are definitely more powerful than the kids air rifle and no more noisy. Good for wabbit ewadication. Unless it's one of these.

Too bad the Knights didn't have a Henry lever Action.

The action itself is held together with machine screws and serrated washers. They use these washers because the screws thread into plastic and alloy and thus can't really be tightened. The washer therefore keeps the screw from falling out

The barrel bands on this model as well are plastic. Henry offers a version known as the "Golden boy" which has a brass receiver instead of cast alloy. For this rifle you can order a nice brass barrel band for $27 as an accessory.
Overall impression though - I liked it but there were a few negatives -it's a cheap rifle, cheaply made with some plastic parts. The cast alloy receiver is painted and the off the shelf accuracy was not quite as good in my opinion as the Savage and Marlin as far as .22 cal rifles go. Lever actions are not known to provide as much accuracy as bolt action. It may not have the power for a beginner to kill much more than small game cleanly. On the plus side, it's cheap. Yes. You can afford to get one, heck, buy two, of these for the kids to learn or for family members that want to try their hand at shooting or varmint hunting. It handles well, the best way to describe it is that it's just smooth. It's easy to use and reliable, like it's maker, and shoots straight after a scope is mounted. The wood is really beautiful for a gun in this price range.

Would I buy one for myself? Probably not. Decent quality used bolt action .22's can be had for $100 all day long, and they will be made of blued steel and solid wood. But for a colleague's son who wanted his first gun, it is a great choice and one I know he will be tickled to get.

But I really  like the concept of the company, American made parts, and American jobs, promoting the shooting sports for youth and safe handling. One person I know that had a problem with his gun wrote the company and the President wrote him back personally. You don't find that kind of service much any more. Henry is a reputable company with a motto "Made in America and Priced Right" standing as true today as it did in 1860.


  1. I have one of their .22's as well. Nabbed it out of a pawn shop for massive cheap, and when I found that it was WAY off-target, I called Henry and they paid for shipping both ways and replaced it's barrel for free. Still shoots a bit off-center, but close enough that I could drift the rear to compensate. Much fun toy, and I love that kind of customer service--they took real good care of me even though I told them that this was just a used rifle from a pawn shop. They're reply: "It's still our rifle and we want to keep our customers satisfied."

    Well I am. Henry rocks!

  2. Not a real fan of lever action .22s myself. The Henry Big Boy, on the other hand, is quite possibly the finest rifle in the world.

  3. While not up to the quality of the Marlin 39, the Henry rimfire lever guns are affordable and accurate. The Octagonal barreled version is a big step up in refinement. There aren't many willing to spend a lot on a 22. My 39 Century Ltd and 1897 CB are among my most favorite firearms and definitely my most used. For cost of either one of those a person could buy three or four Henry leverguns though.

  4. Nice writeup! Sounds like the perfect rifle to get my wife interested in rifle shooting....she wasn't really happy with the way my Mosin-Nagant 91/30 took her shoulder off. LOL Plus, when the kiddo gets old enough, we can introduce her to shooting with it!

    Besides....who DOESN'T remember "The Rifleman" with fond nostalgia? I remember me and my cousins using a toy repeating rifle and pretending to blow the back out of a chair at my grandparent's house. From the hip, with pinpoint accuracy, of course. The bad guys never stood a chance.

  5. I've long loved the classic "real" Henry Rifle. I love even more that Henry today is the only company that seems to have the gumption to advertise their product on TV. They show up fairly regularly and sell the lever guns with the emphasis on "Made in America"--which is simply great.

    I'm a bit disappointed though in your review of the quality of the product. Yet, an affordable first rifle that is fun to shoot, inexpensive to feed and will get another generation of shooters in the pipeline is a good thing.

    Having an historic pedigree is just icing.

  6. The rimfire central forum is full of people who are extremely pleased with the customer service. As you saied, the president is very involved with answering emails, and will often send out new parts and such at no cost to you if you need it (and sometimes even only if you want it). The only reason I got a 10/22 instead of a Henry when I was shopping for a .22 was that every store in town was sold out of the little lever gun! Someday...

  7. I agree with your assessment of the Henry. After owning a Marlin 39M for 48 yrs, can't imagine why I would use anything else. I tried a Henry (same deal as Murphy's Law - pawn shop/cheap) and din't keep it long.

  8. I've handled and fired the Henry .22 as well as the Winchester M9422. I own a Marlin M39a and of them all, I prefer the Marlin.

    The Henry I fired belonged to a friend. He'd bought it at a local gun show and I took him out to my gun club to test it. At 50' it didn't get on paper. At 25' it was 4-5" to the right.

    We fired a couple of hundred rounds through it that afternoon. If it weren't for the sights, it'd be a good rifle for a youngster. At the end of the day, my bud had proped it up against a wooden post and it sliped and fell to the ground and broke off the front sight.

    I don't know if he ever got it fixed. It did have a scope on it the next time I saw it but forgot to notice if the front sight had been replaced.

  9. My wife wanted a Henry Golden Boy as soon as they came you a few years back. I bought her one for Christmas last year and and it has been a fun little rifle for her to shoot. I enjoy it too. It is very accurate and always reliable.

    While I have an older Marlin 39a, we've purchased a new 39a for our 4H Shooting Sports Club and it is not nearly as well finished or reliable as the older version. I know Marlin moved manufacturing facilities after the company was purchased recently, so I'm not sure if this has had an affect on quality or not.

    Nothing like a lever gun to make you feel like James Arness in Gun Smoke or Steve McQueeen in Wanted: Dead or Alive.

    Great post, Brigid!

    Dann in Ohio

  10. That little Henry is definitely great as a first rifle, maybe even a second, IMO.
    I totally agree with your assessment, Brigid. A neighbor bought a used one from a friend of his as birthday gift to his grandson. After checking it out, I find the same demerits as you: not impressed with the plastic bands and front sight- the rear was well adjusted, though.
    The wood on Erv's/Humphrie's was spectacular: the best I've ever seen on a rifle, period.
    The reciever is made of some kind of alloy covered in a thin paint that scraped easily. Not impressive at all.
    Agree, too, this is probably not a weapon for serious consideration by an adult looking to have something to pass on.
    Excellent review, too. Thanks.
    Shy III

  11. I was disappointed to hear of the use of plastic in/on the firearm, but I have always admired that they seem to put pretty nice wood on them, and the price is competitive.

    Like other commenters, my favorite .22 plinker is a 39A, PCBS (pre-crossbolt safety as all of my Marlins are). Daughter (9) is wicked accurate with it on the falling plates or 50 yd pig & chicken silhouettes.

    Adding to Dann's comment, would be cool if they'd follow Rossi/Taurus' lead and come out with a large loop/short barrel mare's leg version.

  12. Damn. I must have been lucky. Bought a Golden Boy about 5 or 6 years ago and for the sheer pleasure of burning ammunition while sitting out back and grilling I don't have a gun that I enjoy as much.
    It shot true out of the box and while the plastic front band was a bit of a disappointment, nothing else about this gun disappoints.
    Fit and finish is very nice for the price, wood is beyond nice for the price and the action is just as slick as satin sheets. After more than 10,000 rounds I've got nothing but good to say about this gun and I'm sure it will be worthy of being passed along upon my demise.

  13. I've never tried a Henry. Sounds like a good beginners gun for a child that needs to learn to take good care of firearms before trusting him or her with the family heirlooms.

    Love to plink with Hubby's old Browning 22 lr T-bolt though. His dad bought it new, way-way back and refused to give it back when the recall was issued. It dings the gongs at 100 yards quite well as long as there is no wind. Glad to hear Browning is making them again, although I doubt the trigger pull is quite as light.

    I'm somewhat frustrated by rifles because I have to make a tough choice. I'm right handed but left eye dominant. Aim with my favorite eye and become ambidextrous, or force the right eye into submission?

  14. Crow eaten here.

    Yeah, I didn't check first before spouting off that Henry should offer mare's legs - it's a fait accompli - Big Bore $950 MSRP and .22 @ $360.

    You know, that designer who started tinkering with, and strengthening the Henry design in the 1880s, ended up having a pretty good career...

  15. I had a friend in college who always brought one of these to the range on our visits to Lake City. Good gun, not great - adequately accurate, middling fit and finish, suffered from the occasional jam. On the upside, it was a very fun gun to shoot.

  16. Great points you have made! You can't expect Anchutz quality on an inexpensive rifle. I build quality bows for a very fair price, but I am constantly explaining that you can't get a $600 dollar bow for $150! Same here the Henry is a quality American made rifle made to meet a price point. The wood may not be the best, but it is serviceable, the receiver is alloy instead of investment cast steel, and the sights are simple. Good solid rifle at a fair price!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Keep your fletching dry!
    Michael Lee
    Michael Lee's Stickbow Archery Blog

  17. So, I guess the market is open for someone to make a steel or aluminum front band for the Henry to replace the plastic. It could be made to take a dovetailed drift adjustable front sight. Technology to manufacture is the same as casting the frontsight mount for an AR-15.

  18. That's as good a review of the little Henry as I've read. Three or four years ago I bought one from WalMart and popped few dozen rounds with no problems except POA difficulties as you describe. A grandson was tickled to get it as a birthday gift.

    If my local Wally gets back into the gun business and still offers them at $200 or so, I'll have another and fool with the sights. Maybe one of the old peeps in the junk box will do. And maybe one of the banded blades up front. It isn't as though I'd be mutilating a nice old Model 92.

  19. Nice wood, made in USA, classic lever guns--but my gunsnith has a sign that saysm "No Henrys". He says he's had too many headspace problems, sight problems, plastick problems, etc. that he would prefer they either bump the price and made a better gun or asknolwdge up front that they are really tomato stakes. So I guess I'll stick to the cashier stuff until that day.

  20. My son likes his Henry lever .22, which I bought for him on a "matching grant" program when he was 14 ("You decide what you want and save up half the money, I'll cover the other half"), but he seems to have had better luck with out of the box accuracy than you did. He did end up scoping it with a cheap Tasco. I, too, was not overly impressed with the fit and finish, and I think someday it will go to one of his kids (he's only 19 and doesn't shoot it much anymore), but it was a cool starter rifle for him and above all it was HIS.

  21. I have the .22 mag version with the octagon barrel, and my bands are metal. The quality of the rifle is superb. I wouldn't buy a lever action smaller than a .22 magnum.

  22. Gene4christ, If your Henry has the plastic mid band and front sight they can be replaced with steel that can be gotten from Henry for a small price . I have replaced the mid band and plan on getting a new sight for the front . The Henry is a grate value . Also according to Henry, only the receiver cover is an alloy. all in all a grate gun. :^)

  23. Got my Henry Frontier last month for my 36th Bday. I wanted a rifle that I could pling around the house with and would be easy for my sons to learn to shoot with. I have to say the extra money for the octagon barrel is worth it, espacially after pawing on a standard model. I have since scoped the rifle out to 25 yards for dillo hunting. I also zeroed a laser sight(attached to mag tube) to 25 yards for shooting in the low light when the dillos like to dig holes in the yard. Very nice gun, it will last a while.

  24. My wife has a Henry Golden Boy .22 long rifle and it is a tack driver with a very smooth action...

    Dann in Ohio

  25. I agree whole heartedly with the assessment. I just bought one here in Canada for $400 with cheap scope. Took the scope off right away. After noticing the cheap receiver - I just could not believe that a reputable gun manufacturer would create such CHEAP features on a firearm - I feel like I don't even want to shoot it! But the wood is beautiful, and it is nice and light, but I wish I had not spent the money on it. Not something to keep for long. too bad.

  26. I love my Henry .22 and I plan on picking up the .357 Big Boy at some point. Henry is loyal to its customers and treats us VERY well. I can’t say that about most gun companies or most companies in general. The Imperato’s have a customer for life in me.
    Thanks for your blog.
    Sammy P. Boss


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