March 25, 2021
Years ago I wrote an article for Guns & Ammo about the role the Henry rifle played in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, a 1,912-mile steel-ribboned link that joined the civilized East with the untamed West. It was a massive undertaking that began in 1862 and—after an interruption due to the Civil War—ended in 1869, thus making it possible to traverse the country over a period of weeks rather than months.
To accomplish this historic feat, two newly formed railroad companies were created: the Central Pacific, which started out from Sacramento, California, laying track to the east; and the Union Pacific, which began putting down rails at Omaha, Nebraska, heading west. On May 10, 1869, near what is now Promontory Point, Utah, they finally met.
Although the Central Pacific initially had challenging mountain terrain to overcome, it was the Union Pacific that faced the most immediate danger, as it found itself venturing into what most maps ominously labeled “The Great American Desert,” a vast, uncharted expanse of land that few white men had explored.
The Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapahoe Indian nations had long called these flat rolling plains home. Needless to say, they resented the encroaching railroad, as they foresaw the inevitable change that the “iron horse” would bring to their way of life and, in fact, to their very existence. As a result, their retaliation was swift and devastating—ripping up rails, tearing down newly erected telegraph poles, and attacking both men and their machines.
The first to feel this wrath were the Union Pacific‘s surveyors, small groups of five to seven men who often worked as much as 500 miles out from the rest of the track-laying crew. Although many of the railroad’s workers were armed with Civil War .58 caliber 1861 and 1863 Springfields, something more effective than single-shot muzzleloaders was needed to protect the isolated surveyors from war parties that usually consisted of 20 to 30 warriors.
At the time, the only practical weapon capable of such a task was the 15-shot Henry rifle, Oliver Winchester’s first commercially successful lever-action repeater. Slightly more than 13,500 had been produced from 1860 until 1866, fittingly, the same year as the first transcontinental rails were being laid. Chambered in the proprietary .44 Henry Flat, a chunky, copper-cased rimfire cartridge that held 13 grains of powder (later increased to 28 grains), it propelled a 200-grain bullet out the barrel at 1,125 fps with a muzzle energy of 568 ft.-lbs. Although far from being hard hitting, the Henry offered impressive firepower.
Considering that most military muzzleloaders were selling for $16 apiece at the time, the Henry’s $47 price tag was a costly proposition, but Grenville Dodge, the man in charge of the Union Pacific’s transcontinental endeavor, had no hesitation. Consequently, a small number of Henry rifles were purchased by the railroad from the New Haven Arms Company, with priority for these repeaters being given to UPRR’s surveyors. Like most of Union Pacific’s equipment, the rifles were marked “U.P.R.R.,” with the Henrys receiving these initials engraved in bold serif letters on the left forward flat of their bronze receivers.
In the spring of 1867, shortly after receiving these rifles, UPRR surveyor Lanthrop Hills and his crew were attacked somewhere in eastern Wyoming, near what is now Cheyenne. Mounted on horseback and armed with his Henry, Hills was overtaken by the Indians and killed, his rifle falling from his grasp and tumbling into the sagebrush.
The rest of his men were able to repel the attack with their sustained rifle fire, and as soon as the gun smoke and dust had cleared, they transported the dead surveyor’s body to Fort Collins, the nearest army outpost, where he was buried. But in the post-battle excitement, Hill’s rifle lay hidden and forgotten.
Sixteen years later, a retired Union Pacific section foreman, Peter Keenan, learned of this story and became fascinated by it. With a dedication that any true gun collector would appreciate, Keenan spent the next 30 years searching for Hill’s missing Henry. Unbelievably, after more than a quarter of a century of plowing and digging around the old battle site, he found it—or what was left of it. The stock had deteriorated and the side plates were missing, but the unmistakable U.P.R.R. engraved letters of the gun clearly identified it as Hill’s missing rifle. Interestingly, there were still five rounds remaining in the magazine.
In 1927 Keenan donated the rifle to the Union Pacific Rail Road’s museum in Omaha, Nebraska, (since relocated to Council Bluffs, Iowa) which is where I discovered it while taking a break during a Midwestern bird hunt. Through the kind cooperation of the railroad’s publicity department, I learned of the gun’s history.
Up until now, this was the only known example of a Union Pacific Rail Road Henry. But unbelievably, considering the rarity of these guns, in May 2020 another Union Pacific Henry, with its unmistakable U.P.R.R. engraved receiver, was sold by Cowan’s Auctions of Cincinnati, Ohio, for $25,000.
Its serial number, 7744, indicates it was made in 1864, and in 60 percent condition, this second model was in substantially better shape than Hill’s relic gun. It had a replaced magazine spring plus a few minor cracks and chips to its previously sanded stock, and had possibly been lightly cleaned many years ago.
I subsequently learned this UPRR Henry was purchased during the late 1970s or early ’80s by an old-time collector and had remained in his collection until being auctioned by Cowan’s. But then, in August 2020, just three months after the Cowan’s sale, this same gun appeared on the Guns International website and was being offered by noted gun dealer Leroy Merz, who had it priced at $38,500. As of this writing, it is still for sale.
Although the names of auction buyers and sellers are kept confidential, I can only conclude that Merz, who has specialized in early Winchesters and other antique firearms since 1965, was the successful bidder at the Cowan’s auction and purchased this Henry for resale, knowing its rarity.
“A very interesting gun,” Merz writes in his Gun International listing. “I don’t believe I have seen another Union Pacific marked Henry Rifle.”
Well, now I’ve actually seen two. No one knows exactly how many Henry rifles the Union Pacific Rail Road purchased, but after discovering this second railroading Henry, I think I know how Peter Keenan must have felt when he finally found Hills’s rifle. I can only wonder if any other UPRR Henrys are still out there.
One last note on these Henrys. About the time I discovered the Keenan rifle in the Union Pacific museum, the late Val Forgett of Navy Arms told me he was planning to produce 500 USA-made Henry replicas in .44-40. I convinced him to create 100 UPRR commemoratives, of which I bought the prototype—one of the very few guns chambered in the historically correct .44 rimfire. The rest of the commemoratives were chambered in .44-40. While not an original, it’s certainly an interesting commemoration of American firearms history.