September 23, 2010
Leverguns made in America
Magtech ammo and a Henry Big Boy are a tough combo to beat.
I happened to find out how good Henry rifles are at a writers' get-together. After the morning info, we had lunch and then went out to the ranges. I found myself on the 200-meter rifle range with Dave Fortier, a pair of Henry Big Boy rifles in .44 Magnum and a carton of Magtech 240 jacketed softpoint.
Quite frankly, I was not expecting much. We were there by ourselves, I guess because the others weren't expecting much either. We loaded the rifles, anticipating a little plinking. Within the first tubeful of ammo, we had broken every single clay pigeon scattered across the hundred-yard berm. Reloading and sifting to the 150 berm, we found ourselves with all the birds busted and half of the second tube still in the rifles. Those Henrys were accurate.
At the 200-meter berm someone had left a LaRue target. The LaRue is a falling steel plate that uses a battery and gearbox to reset itself. So Dave and I had a contest: who could knock it over the most times, shooting offhand. The target is not big. At 200 meters the retained energy of a .44 Magnum (the "sweet spot") on the target is about the size of a pie plate. Dave and I hammered most of the remaining ammo at that LaRue. He knocked it down six times; I knocked it down eight. However, we rang steel almost 50 times between us. We had those rifles so hot you couldn't even touch the barrelband, and they kept working and hitting.
These stocks and forearms have been matched up and now rest in their "sock," awaiting their rifle.
When we were done I saved a box of Magtech ammo and asked the president of Henry Repeating Rifles, Anthony Imperato, if I could borrow that rifle to write up. Alas, he had promised it to the NSSF for training and public relations. But he promised to send me another one. In the course of researching the Henry rifle, I found that the Henry plant was in Brooklyn--Brooklyn, New York.
Therefore, when visiting my in-laws right after the writer's conference I'd be 30 miles away from the plant. Of course, I arranged a visit. What I saw impressed me, and I understood why those rifles were so accurate. Henry makes its own barrels and pays attention to the details.
As you would expect of a firearms manufacturer located in New York City, Henry is in an unmarked building. When I arrived it was blazing hot, and the company had just received multiple shipments. The plant was packed with unopened shipping crates. That didn't keep the barrel crew from working.
|HENRY BIG BOY .44 MAGNUM|
|AMMUNITION||VELOCITY (fps)||POWER FACTOR|
|Black Hills Red 240-gr. JHP||1,489||359|
|Magtech 240-gr. SJSP||1,521||365|
|Win. 210-gr. Silvertip||1,468||308|
|Black Hills Red 240-gr. L-SWC||1,298||311|
|Black Hills Red 300-gr. JHP||1,233||370|
|Black Hills Cowboy 210-gr. L-FP||838||176|
|Remington 246-gr. L-RN||711||175|
They were taking blanked-off sections of barrel steel and feeding them into Pratt & Whitney deep-drill machines dating from the 1940s. These are obviously well-cared-for machines, lovingly maintained. Once the barrel blanks are drilled, they're reamed, honed and button-rifled. After yet more inspections they go off to one of the many CNC machines, where they are profiled.
Different steel (all their steel is made in America), which arrives as rectangular stock, goes to other CNC-machining stations to be turned into bolts. Bolts are hand-inspected and gauged after machining--every one. The inspection station has an array of gauging fixtures, and the woman I saw gauging that day is very practiced. The barrel chambers are reamed and polished before installation (easy, with the CNC machines making the thread and shoulder dimensions perfect), then after the barrel is screwed into the receiver, headspace is checked again.
You might wonder about the brass frame of the Big Boy. You'd think brass is soft, right? On this use you'd be wrong. There are brass alloys with tensile and yield strengths as good as or better than steels commonly used in firearms manufacturing. Anthony simply told his engineers to find an alloy that was up to the job and someone who made it. So they did. Like the steel (and everything else in the Henry Repeating rifle catalog), the brass castings are made in America. The castings are inspected before, during and after they are machined and polished.
Each and every Henry Rifle is proof-tested, then has a full tube of ammo fired through it.
Not everything is made right there in Brooklyn. The hammers and sears, for instance, arrive from a subcontractor. But after inspection, they have the engagement surfaces surface-ground in-house before they get blued. Pins and springs, things like that, come from suppliers. The wood is good old Midwest walnut. Before the assembly crew gets to the task of building rifles, they sort wood. They spend the time to match fore-ends and buttstocks so your Henry looks right. Once paired, the wood stays in "s
ocks," felt bags with elastic around the opening. That way they don't get scratched. When the stock goes onto a rifle, the sock stays on the stock until the rifle goes into a shipping box.
Of all the attentions to detail, the sorting and grading of wood impressed me the most. When I used to work in a gunshop, the store once bought 105 brand-name shotguns in one purchase. Lucky me, I was the only one there when the truck arrived. After I unloaded them all (the truck driver was a Teamster--he didn't do unloading), I was outraged to find that the big-name shotgun maker had made no apparent effort to match stocks to forearms. Henry does, and my hat is off to the company for doing so.
In a separate section of the plant each rifle gets a proof load and a full tube of full-power ammunition test-fired through it, then it's inspected again. One last inspection for nicks, scratches or cosmetic flaws; a wiped down; and into the boxes they go.
The barrel machines may be old, but they are looked after and well maintained. It's hard to best the combination of big, sturdy and loved.
The Imperato family has been in the firearms business on almost every level for a century: shooters, retail, wholesale, manufacturing. Anthony knows from personal experience what it's like as a customer or a retailer to open a box with a new firearm and see a scratch, ding or cosmetic "oops." The Henry Repeating rifle company simply builds into its process the steps to prevent and/or catch those flaws before they go out the door.
The Henry rifles sent to me were a Big Boy just like the one I shot at the writers' conference and the .22LR Lever Action. The actions of both were just as smooth as those I shot at the conference, and accuracy-wise, I have to say there is no difference either. The Big Boy arrived in .44 Magnum, but you can also have it in .45 Colt and .357 Magnum. Yes, it is approved for Cowboy Action shooting.
A tray of .22LR barrels after the computer has machined sight slots, mag-tube slots and extractor slots.
Loading the Big Boy is not like loading the Browning or Browning-derived lever actions. You load it just like you would a .22LR lever action. Turn the magazine tube; lift and then place each round into the tube through the loading gate. Ten rounds later, shove the tube down and turn it to lock it in place. This is perhaps not as elegant as the side-loading method, but it's solid, reliable, requires fewer parts and is smoother in operation.
Bolts being machined on a CNC station that does nothing but bolts.
The smoothness of the action presents itself as an interesting phenomenon: You should have the hammer down when you shove the magazine tube down over a stack of 10 rounds. If you don't, the super-slick action will open slightly as the stack of rounds presses against the carrier/lifter. Lowering the hammer is a good idea and a good habit to get into anyway since you'll have your hands up near the muzzle to load.
The saddle-ring carbine buttplate had me concerned when I first fired the Big Boy. The rifle isn't a featherweight, but it isn't an anvil either. I expected it to thump me. After Dave and I had polished off that carton of ammo, we went on to shoot other firearms as well. My shoulder did not bother me as a result.
At the range to assist me I had an old friend and shooting buddy, Mike Clare. Mike is not a lever-action kind of guy. He's spent his time fussing over bolt-action rifles and 1911 pistols. We started by running a few various loads over the chronograph to see what a 20-inch barrel does for velocity. Basically, what it does is get the velocity up to where the published ballistics of the .44 Magnum were when it was introduced.
If you want your rifle fancy for your CAS ensemble, Henry can engrave your rifle for you. And put on fancy wood, too.
Even with a 240-grain bullet leaving the muzzle at 1,500 fps, the recoil is not exactly stout. Firing .44 Special-level reloads makes the recoil positively sedate. Just for grins we ran some Black Hills cowboy .44 Special ammunition through the Big Boy. Two-hundred-ten-grain lead flatpoint bullets at 838 fps are enough to make Major for a handgun or Minor for a rifle in USPSA competition. The recoil is so soft that anyone who has strength enough to hold up the rifle has strength enough to withstand the "recoil." The action is so slick that Mike is starting to come around about lever-action rifles.
If you are having problems with a particular brand or type of .44 Special ammunition, Henry can tune your rifle for it. Apparently, the company has some experience with fussy competition shooters and are more than happy to solve their problems. The accuracy the rifle delivered didn't hurt for Mike's conversion either. Since the ammunition I used at the writer's conference was Magtech 240 jacketed softpoint, that was what I used to shoot for groups.
The rear sight is a traditional semi-buckhorn--great for looks, OK for accuracy and a must for CAS competition. When Dave and I were battling for supremacy, we got the Henry Big Boy rifles so hot we couldn't even touch the barrelband. And they never quit on us.
As they are made in Brazil, I have found Magtech rounds to exceed my expectations for imported ammunition. At 50 yards, from the bench, I would regularly put four shots into an inch, with the fifth one spoiling the group by half an inch to an inch. Benchrest shooters will not quake in terror at groups like that. However, with buckhorn sights, a big bead out front and a lever-action rifle as the launching platform, that's just short of bragging-group performance. With a little fussing on loads, I think I can turn those into one-hole groups. My impression is that the fault lies more with me than with the rifle or ammo. And the accuracy is plenty good enough to make the club's 100-yard gongs ring out in pain at every shot.
The saddle-ring carbine buttplate has been around for a long time, and for good reason. Unlike the crescent, this one won't bring you pain.
I can see three venues for the Big Boy: hunting, defense and Cowboy Action. As a hunting gun, the accuracy is obviously there. The Big Boy can withstand any sane .44 Magnum load you care to feed it. A 265-grain or heavier hardcast bullet launched with a dollop of slow-burning powder is going to shoot through most anything you'd care to tackle with a .44 Magnum. As a deer rifle in close thickets, a 240-grain jacketed hollowpoint is going to expand and still perforate your whitetail. Fast follow-up shots will not be a problem with a Henry. For defense, it would be hard to find a firearm less likely to be viewed as an "evil assault rifle."
If you live someplace where you can own a rifle, you can most likely own a Henry. Kept loaded, locked up, with the hammer down on an empty chamber, it would be ready to go in seconds. If you're worried about overpenetration, one of the factory 180-grain jacketed hollowpoints in .44 Magnum is your best bet. Or opt for one in .357 Magnum and load it with 125-grain JHPs.
For those who don't feel comfortable with it loaded, you can make up speedloaders: Get PVC tubing of the right diameter and length. Measure out the length of 10 rounds, and drill the tube above and below for cotter pins. Push one pin in. Drop in 10 rounds; press the other pin in. To load, pull the mag tube out completely, place the PVC tube over the magazine tube, and pull out the bottom cotter pin. (Make double sure you have the tube marked as to which end is which.) Reinstall the mag tube; work the lever; you're ready.
For the Cowboy Action crowd, the benefits of the Big Boy are obvious: The lever force is relatively light, the action is smooth, the feeding is reliable, and the accuracy is everything you'd want in a carbine. With CAS-compliant ammunition the recoil is negligible. And it gets even better: Henry can engrave it for you. You can even custom-order higher-grade wood.
It would be hard to fault accuracy like this. And this is not the best group, just the average one.
When we were done, Mike was asking me if Henry could be talked into a good price for the Big Boy. "After all, it's used, right?" Me, I'm thinking I don't have a fancy firearm on hand. I might have to ask Anthony what fancy wood and engraving would run me. That way, I'll at least look good while I'm embarrassing myself with my scores while shooting Cowboy Action.
Oh, the .22? If excellence in performance can be called anticlimactic, than that's the .22 Lever Rifle. It feeds any rimfire Long Rifle-based cartridge you care to feed it. Even mixing long rifle, long and short cartridges didn't cause it to stumble. The current crop of shooters seem to think that the rimfire world revolves around the 10-22. Those of us who learned on lever guns would beg to differ. And playing "shoot the stick" at 100-yard offhand is almost boring. Make the stick jump left, make the stick jump right, it's all a matter of hold and squeeze.
The question is not "Should I get a Henry?" but "Why don't I have one already?"