by Joe Kurtenbach - Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The 1800s were a time of great innovation for firearms-and certainly a time of transition. Flintlocks gave way to percussion cap mechanisms, which in turn were made obsolete by self-contained metallic cartridges. Muzzleloaders were replaced by breechloading rifles built to fire the cartridge ammunition. The American Civil War in particular served as a proving ground for then-modern designs, bringing to the fore actions, arms and ammunition that would change the landscape for military and consumer firepower.
One design element that clearly made an impact was the incorporation of a lever mechanism into the trigger-guard assembly. Early incarnations took the form of single-shot, breechloading rifles, especially of the “falling block” design. A good example is the Sharps rifle. Used during the Civil War and popular among the buffalo hunters of the 19th century, the Sharps’ trigger guard had an integral lever that, on the down-stroke, would drop the steel breechblock and expose or extract a spent cartridge case. A fresh cartridge could be inserted into the breech and the return-stroke would raise the block, securing the chamber and forcing the cartridge into battery.
Falling-block single shots gained immense popularity because of their fast and easy reloading. It was those same characteristics, taken to the next level, which propelled the lever-action repeater to dominance near the end of the century. One example, “That damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week,” more commonly known as the Model 1860 Henry repeating rifle, changed the game for modern firearms. The rifle featured a tubular spring-loaded magazine that held more than a dozen rounds, and its action incorporated into the lever’s motion an elevator mechanism that picked up an unfired round from the magazine and, on the return stroke, raised the cartridge to the breech and chambered it. No longer were individual cartridges inserted one-at-a-time; rifles now held several rounds, and that same simple, speedy lever action not only ejected spent cases, it loaded an awaiting cartridge-all in one fluid motion.
Though the Henry certainly had its time in the spotlight, there were two guns-and their adaptations-that would carry the flag for traditional lever-action repeaters into the 20th century and even through today. They are the Winchester Model 1894 and the Marlin Model 1893 or more commonly the 336-though this discussion will focus on its “big-bore” cousin the Model 1895. Although they have their differences-both functional and cosmetic-the guns, and their operating methods, have stood the test of time. To date, millions of each have been sold, and they remain some of the most popular sporting guns in America.
The Winchester 1894 and Marlin Model 1895 are the culmination of several decades of lever gun development and improvement. Both utilized a tubular magazine mounted beneath the barrel and fed from a loading window on the right side of the receiver. Both took advantage of the then-new smokeless-propellant cartridges and classic chamberings, such as .30-30 Win. and .45-70 Gov’t. And both operated in the same basic manner: the lever’s down-stroke drops the locking block and moves the bolt rearward; a bolt-mounted extractor grasps the cartridge case and draws it from the chamber; once clear of the chamber, the case is ejected; the bolt’s travel pushes the hammer back into the cocked position; and the magazine spring pushes a new cartridge onto a carrier or lifter. On the return stroke: the carrier lifts the round to the chamber; the bolt returns forward, forcing the cartridge into battery; and the locking block is again raised, securing the breech bolt. Once the bolt is secure the trigger can be pulled to fire the gun.
One of the most apparent differences between the rifles, in appearance and function, involves extraction and ejection of a fired cartridge case. The Marlin has a solid-top steel receiver with a right-side ejection port and an internal ejector mounted on the left. The extractor hook is attached to the right side of the bolt. In this configuration the cartridge hits the ejector during its rearward travel and is spun around the extractor and out the port. Winchester’s bolt used a top-mounted extractor and an integral spring-tensioned ejector at the bottom. In operation, the extractor pulls the cartridge from the chamber and, once clear, the ejector plunges forward, spinning the case up and around the extractor and out the open top of the receiver. Both systems worked well, though it should be noted that the solid top of the Marlin eases the mounting of optics.
While similarities and differences could certainly be expounded upon, and advantages argued endlessly, the legacy of these two models is unquestionable. The rifles have served millions of American hunters and shooters in every corner of this country and around the world. The rifles are handy, weigh less than 8 lbs. and often have mid-length barrels, making them easy to carry and use. Their sleek exteriors, compared to bolt-actions or box-magazine-fed rifles, make them ideal for service in a saddle scabbard, and easy to transport. The lever-action design remains one of the most intuitive available, and allows for quick follow-on shots. Speaking of speed, many variations, such as the Marlin 1895 “Guide Gun,” utilize large open sights that make target acquisition fast, and thus ideal for dangerous game or moving targets. It is a testament to their makers that during the past century various iterations of these guns have plinked at tin cans, taken East Coast whitetail, stopped Alaskan brown bears, brought down African trophies and performed nearly every task in between. The guns, designed more than 100 years ago, remain as popular and practical today as at their inception.
And that is where the story could end. Certainly both guns discussed here, and the whole family of lever-actions, are poised to ride off into the sunset like the Western heroes, real and fictional, who helped make them famous.
Unfortunately, like the rugged and untamed American West, domestically produced lever guns have gone the way of the cowboy. U.S. Repeating Arms, Co., maker of Winchester rifles, closed the doors of its New Haven, Conn., plant in 2006 after more than 140 years of producing rifles and shotguns. A year later, after being purchased by Remington and the Freedom Group conglomerate, Marlin’s factory in North Haven, Conn. was also closed down. Though Model 94s can still be had today, new versions are produced by Miroku in Japan, under a licensing agreement. And while new-production Marlin’s are available, the turbulence of the past several years have distanced the modern company from its roots and rich heritage; most Marlins made today are bolt-actions. Rightly, many may lament the decline of these truly American firearms. But where some see the end of an era, Anthony Imperato and his company, Henry Repeating Arms, see opportunity.
Henry Repeating Arms traces its lineage back to 1911 and Italian saddlemaker John Jovino, who operated a gunshop in Manhattan’s “Little Italy.” Described as a “mom and pop cop shop,” because of its clientele and proximity to the local police station, Jovino did a lively trade in firearms and even ended up supplying holsters of his own design to the NYPD for a number of years. Ten or so years after opening the store, Jovino sold the shop to Frank Albanese who retained the name. While Albanese continued to run the store, the business was greatly expanded by Korean War veteran and Albanese’s would-be son-in-law Lou Imperato. Imperato worked primarily as an importer and distributor, bringing guns in from Germany, Italy and Spain, and wholesaling them to dealers nationwide. Under Imperato’s leadership and business savvy, the family business bought and sold brands-most notably Iver Johnson, twice-and increased distribution capacity, securing large deals with Colt and Smith & Wesson. And all the while, Jovino’s Gunshop thrived in New York.
A turning point came in the early 1990s when a large order came in for Colt blackpowder revolvers-a manufacturing license held by Imperato from previous dealings. Seizing the opportunity, a factory in Brooklyn was opened to meet the rising demand. Further capitalizing on the Old West trade his blackpowder guns were garnering, Imperato acquired the Henry Repeating Arms brand in 1996, and the new name also became the heart and soul of the company. The company now produces quality, reasonably priced .22-cal. rimfire lever-action rifles including the Golden Boy model that features a brass receiver and is built with the look and lines of its namesake Civil War-era lever gun-the Henry rifle. In .22s, Henry also makes a version of the AR-7 survival rifle, some bolt-actions and a Mare’s Leg pistol.
The past two decades have been a time of growth and change for the company. Lou Imperato’s son Anthony has taken over the business and recommitted it to domestic production, guaranteeing that “Henry rifles will be made in America, or they won’t be made at all.” To that end, two new plants have been opened in the United States since 2006; first a factory in Rice Lake, Wis., and in 2008 a large plant and headquarters complex in Bayonne, N.J., to replace the multiple buildings-spread over several blocks-that the company was occupying in New York. During this time, Henry Repeating Arms has continued to see opportunity and make the most of it.
Henry’s success with rimfire lever-action rifles paved the way for larger-caliber variations. First the company conquered the pistol-calibers-.357 Mag., .44 Mag. and .45 Colt-with the Big Boy rifles. These guns retain the straight stock and octagonal barrel of the classic Henrys, and definitely had the cowboy action shooting market in mind. Next, the Henry .30/30 Rifle upgraded the platform for deer hunters, chambering the .30-30 Win. cartridge. But it is the newest offering from Henry, the .45-70 Lever Action, that really captures the essence of big-bore lever guns and blends the best aspects of its classic predecessors.
Chambered for the .45-70 Gov’t, similarities between Henry’s product and the Marlin Model 1895 do not end with ammunition. The Henry’s cast-steel receiver features a solid top and an integral ejector. As well, the rifle’s bolt is rounded, much like the Marlin-the Winchester 1894 had a relatively blocky breech bolt-and utilizes a right-side extractor. Taking in the lines of the .45-70, and the matte-black metal and walnut furniture, the gun is nearly a dead ringer for the Marlin Guide Gun. A few differences set them apart however. For one, the open sights are the XS Ghost Ring and front blade. This system uses a large rear aperture and a tall front post with a bright-white stripe to draw the shooter’s attention. The sights were a popular aftermarket addition to many hunters’ lever guns, so Henry made it standard. Though classic Marlins have the rear sight mounted forward of the receiver, the .45-70’s design-which mounts the rear sight using one of the receiver’s drilled scope base screw holes-provides a longer sight radius, but does require that the rear aperture be removed in order to mount an optic.
The most obvious feature unique to the Henry .45-70 is its method for loading. Operation of the firearm is the tried-and-true method used by the Winchester and Marlin guns, but the Henry’s receiver does not incorporate a loading port. Instead, the .45-70 uses a method more commonly encountered in tubular-magazine rimfires. The black magazine tube, which is secured under the barrel by a single band, is really just a shroud. Inside, a brass cylinder contains the spring and follower, and it is into that tube that ammunition-up to four cartridges-is actually loaded. The magazine tube is secured within the shroud by a pin-and-groove locking system. Rotating the magazine inside the shroud moves a pin on the magazine cap into a groove cut into the shroud. Spring tension from the magazine spring-increased when the magazine is loaded-presses the pin against the shroud, ensuring it will not come loose under recoil. A cut-out in the shroud, shaped like .45-70 Gov’t cartridge, facilitates loading of the magazine when the internal tube is withdrawn about three-quarters of its length-the magazine tube does not need to be fully removed for loading, as with Henry’s rimfires.
Shooting the .45-70 confirmed that the gun is a blend of classic and modern designs and an excellent addition to the lever-action legacy. The 18½-inch barrel and 7-lb. overall weight make it easy and natural to shoulder, handle and point. Loading the magazine was simple and even quick after the first couple reloads. The best method seemed to be holding the rifle upside-down with the support hand, and using the firing hand to unfasten the magazine cap, withdraw the magazine, load new cartridges through the port, and replace and secure the magazine tube. It should be noted that I had to tighten the barrel band after the first couple strings because the magazine assembly started creeping out of the stock during recoil. Once tight, however, no further problems were experienced. Operating the lever requires only a moderate amount of force, but a fast, firm and fluid stroke enhances ejection from the right-side port and provides solid lock-up for the bolt and breechblock.
Accuracy at 50 yds. with the test rifle was on par with expectations. Suffice it to say, shooting “one ragged hole” was not in the cards using the open sights, though likely possible with an optic. The rounds downrange may not have been stacking one on top of another, but they did form nice round clusters surrounding the point of aim. Also, there are a few considerations that should mitigate concerns about the rifle’s accuracy. For one, I used the standard XS sights instead of attaching a scope. The sights are excellent for “guide gun” type uses, very bright and intuitive, but they are on the larger side and not really designed for the precise targeting required when shooting small targets at distance. The lever action itself also proved an impediment when shooting for accuracy. Reloading required the rifle be lifted off the rest, or canted, in order to work the lever. This also meant that cheekweld was broken between every shot.
I include these details not to detract from the gun’s shooting potential, but rather to emphasize how accurate the rifle is in real-world circumstances. Big-bore lever-actions and the .45-70 Gov’t cartridge were not designed to hit golf balls at 50 long paces, though this Henry rifle did after a couple tries. But if I were trying to hit the dinner plate-size vital area on a game animal in order to eat, or if I had to stop a charging grizzly, I would be confident of success with this firearm/ammunition combination. Henry’s .45-70 certainly ticks the boxes as a working man’s truck, ranch or guide gun. It offers: great shooting from the standing or kneeling positions at short to medium ranges; sights that are easy to use and still allow for situational awareness; and the lever-action platform just in case a quick second shot is needed.
So what is next for Henry Repeating Arms? Talking to Anthony Imperato, it was clear the company’s next project is one he’s excited about and one that couldn’t make more sense for his firm-the Original Henry rifle. The gun will be nearly identical to the Model 1860 Henry, in both size and shape and even incorporating a brass receiver-albeit hardened to ordnance tolerances. The Original’s only deviation will be its chambering, .44-40 Win. instead of the 1860’s .44 Rimfire cartridge. Offerings such as the .45-70 and the Original Henry give consumers the chance to connect with the rich heritage of American lever-actions, not only bringing this story full circle but also pointing the way to the future for these venerable firearms.
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