History Matters: In With a Bang

History Matters: In With a Bang

Given the violent nature of much of human history—from wars to revolutions to “winning” the West—it’s hard to overstate the importance of firearms in our ancestors’ lives.

Given the violent nature of much of human history—from wars to revolutions to “winning” the West—it’s hard to overstate the importance of firearms in our ancestors’ lives. Although people have been shooting at one another since 1364 (shortly after the Chinese discovery of gunpowder), the sort of weapon we consider a “rifle” is only 150 years old. 

Little remembered now, Benjamin Tyler Henry patented the first practical, lever-action repeating rifle in 1860. Almost overnight, as the website of the Henry Repeating Arms Co. puts it today, “the Henry gave a single man the firepower of a dozen marksmen armed with muzzle-loading muskets.” Or as a Confederate officer who had the misfortune of facing the Henry-armed 7th Illinois Volunteers expressed it more memorably, “It’s a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long.” Although only 14,000 Henry rifles were sold, the 1860 invention was the grandfather of the 1873 Winchester, renowned as “the gun that won the West.”

The problem that Benjamin Henry set out to solve had puzzled firearms makers since the 1400s: how to most efficiently combine a bullet, gunpowder and a spark to set it off—and then do it again and again, as quickly as possible. The first guns worked much like cannons, fired by placing a burning wick to a “touch hole” in the barrel. The matchlock gun improved on that design by placing a match in a movable clamp that fell upon the flash pan of powder; this allowed the shooter to keep both hands on the gun, improving aim. In 1509, the wheel lock gun replaced the match with a mechanical spark. Finally, in 1630, the flintlock combined an improved sparking source—flint and steel—with a mechanism that simultaneously pushed back the flash-pan lid to expose the charge. This ignition system ruled the firearms world almost unchanged for two centuries.

About the same time, firearms makers began working on the problem of accuracy. The principle of “rifling”—grooving the metal inside the barrel to stabilize a bullet in flight—had been discovered in 1498, but wasn’t applied to firearms until 1540. Even so, most flintlock guns were “smoothbore” weapons, in part because of the difficulty of keeping the grooves clean. During the American Revolution, however, Yankee marksmen with rifled guns proved their superiority: While British smoothbore muskets were accurate to only about 50 yards, Americans could pick off Redcoats at 300 yards.

A Scottish minister, of all people, made the next great advance in firearms: In 1807, the Rev. John Forsyth patented the percussion cap, which eliminated the need for a spark. Forsyth packed fulminate of mercury—which would explode on impact from the hammer, igniting the gunpowder—into a conical container that resembled a tiny hat or “cap.”

Still, as the US Civil War loomed, loading and firing a rifle was no simple matter. The .58-caliber rifled musket the Army adopted in 1855, replacing the .69-caliber smoothbore as its standard weapon, required a soldier to take a paper packet containing powder and bullet from his cartridge box and tear open one end with his teeth. The contents then had to be loaded into the muzzle end and rammed into the breech with a metal rod. Placing a percussion cap on a hollow cone at the breech, the soldier cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. Soldiers were expected to be able to perform this gyration, aim and fire three times per minute.

An improved bullet—smaller, but expanding when fired—made the 1861 Springfield rifled percussion musket easier to load. The first mass-produced US military rifle, the Springfield was the primary infantry weapon of the Civil War. More than 1.5 million were made in the North; the Confederates then acquired Springfields as battlefield spoils.

Hearing about the Henry rifle, however, some Union infantry companies—particularly from Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri—bought the new gun out of their own pockets, figuring the purchase might save their lives. According to the report of Maj. William Ludlow, the Henry rifle did just that at the 1864 Battle of Altoona Pass in Georgia: “What saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles. This company of 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.”

At the New Haven Arms Co. in Connecticut, Benjamin Henry had built on the innovation of the Volcanic repeating rifle, whose self-contained powder, bullet and primer proved undependable. Henry encased it all in a .44-caliber copper (later brass) cartridge—finally solving the nearly 500-year-old problem of delivering all the essentials for firing. His other breakthrough was a lever-and-spring mechanism that ejected the spent cartridge and then forced the next round into the chamber; this was later made famous in the Winchester. (Remember the opening of “The Rifleman” TV series?)

Despite its rapid-fire prowess, the Henry rifle packed little power and easily misfired. Firing all 15 shots—which took only about 12 seconds—could make the barrel, which lacked a wooden stock to protect the hand, too hot to hold. At peak production in 1864, only 290 were produced each month. The US government purchased a mere 1,731, in part because the Army couldn’t readily transport all the ammunition a Henry would go through.

Enter Oliver Fisher Winchester, a shirt maker who bought controlling interest in the New Haven Arms Co. and renamed it after himself in 1866. Modifying the Henry rifle, the company introduced the first gun to bear the Winchester name, the Model 1866.

The famous 1873 Winchester came next; more than 720,000 were produced through about 1919, including the rifle held by Billy the Kid in his only known photo. The subsequent 1892 model, arguably as emblematic of the West, would later be wielded on screen by John Wayne and “Rifleman” Chuck Connors. The 1894 model became the archetypal deer-hunting rifle and was built more than 6 million times with only minor changes.

But Winchesters are no longer made in America. The successor to the company, now owned by a Belgian conglomerate, shut down the New Haven plant in 2006. Although some models continue to be made by the American arm of the Belgian conglomerate, the closing meant the end of the lever-action Winchesters that won the West.

And what of the rifle that started it all? According to the National Museum of American History, “Evidence indicates that the Indians at Little Big Horn had a large number of Henry rifles, while the Army was armed with the single-shot breech-loading Springfield Model 1873.” You might say the Henry went out with a bang.

In Time:

1364 | First recorded use of a firearm
1380 | Handguns used in Europe
1540 | Firearms with rifling used
1630 | Flintlock musket invented
1798 | US Army taps Eli Whitney to make assembly-line muskets
1807 | John Forsyth invents percussion cap
1835 | Samuel Colt invents the revolver
1850 | First shotguns made
1866 | First Winchester made
1879 | John Browning patents single-shot rifle
1892 | Joseph Laumann makes first automatic handgun
1934 | John Garand builds the M1 semiautomatic

1947 | Mikhail Kalashnikov creates the AK-47 automatic rifle
From the September 2010 Family Tree Magazine