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Friday, May 31, 2013

The Evolution of "That Damned Yankee Rifle..."

Some stories just get better every time you hear them and chances are, if you've been collecting for any length of time, you've heard the legend behind the Henry rifle. That's right, that unassuming looking rifle of a modestly sized production that was the grandfather of the Winchesters that changed the shape of our nation and likely the world. But how does such a humble little rifle so amply carry such loads of praise and heaps of historical significance? Very little was known about Henry rifles, and their namesake since the New Haven Arms Co. left very few records after control of the business shifted to one Mr. Oliver Winchester. But I get ahead of myself...

Rock Island Auction Company will auction off several of the items mentioned in the following story in our June 2013 Regional Auction.  That auction will be held June 28th, 29th, & 30th, with a full preview day on Thursday, June 27th.  Pictures of those items will be listed below along with links to them on our website if you wish to submit a sealed bid online.

Walter Hunt
Walter Hunt
The first person that is partially responsible for the Henry rifle and the subsequent success of Winchester Repeating Arms is the un-notably named Walter Hunt. This native New Yorker was a mechanic and an inventor who started his business in 1826 in the city of his birth. Walter Hunt is now recognized by revered institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum as one of the most productive inventors of his time, but he had an unfortunate habit for not patenting his inventions. His list of inventions is best described by R. Bruce McDowell.

"Among his many inventions were the safety pin (to which he sold the rights for only $400), the fountain pen, the foot-operated gong for stages and trolley cars, an advanced nail-making machine, the paper collar for the well-dressed 19th Century gentleman, a self-closing inkwell, a new type of heating stove, an ice boat, a flax-spinning machine and a lock-stich sewing needle which led to the invention of the sewing machine credited to Elias Howe."

It is only fitting that a man so content to watch his inventions be credited to others be the first mentioned in this abridged history. His contribution to the Henry rifle lies in his invention of the Hunt Magazine, the "rocket ball," and a lever mechanism rifle suitable for firing his new ammunition. Through his cooperation with one Mr. Lewis Jennings, an inventor and model maker, Hunt came to make working models of his repeating rifle, which he called the "Volition Repeater," and eventually to simplify it in the design of another rifle to be discussed later, the Jennings repeater. It is popularly, yet incorrectly, accepted that Hunt's rifle failed for several reasons (cost of manufacture, primitive manufacturing equipment, too complicated), and that after its failure Jennings improved on the design and patented it. Those reasons for Hunt's failure have no merit and it is much more plausible that the Volition Repeater was never produced because Jennings was already developing and redesigning a simpler rifle. Also, since Jennings and Hunt were under the mutual employ of one Mr. George A. Arrowsmith, they were likely working on it together. This is especially credible considering the patent dates of both inventors on their respective inventions. It should also be noted at this stage that Mr. Arrowsmith could not fund both inventors so for $10,000 (perhaps already knowing he had a failure on his hands) he transferred the patent rights to a Courtlandt C. Palmer, former railroad president and leading hardware merchant in New York City. Without getting ahead of ourselves, Palmer would eventually finance the production of 5,000 Jennings rifles through the Robbins & Lawrence Company. None of those names sound very important until one is told that the shop foreman of the Robbins & Lawrence Co. was one Mr. Benjamin Tyler Henry.

To his credit, Walter Hunt provided the "Hunt Magazine," the tubular magazine to run parallel and underneath the barrel.  This basic design would be present in all subsequent revisions leading up to the Henry rifle and remains in prolific use today.  Half of this tube would hold a compressed spring when reloading and would hold, as Hunt would phrase it in his patent text, "twelve balls, which I consider sufficient for convenience or utility."

Lewis Jennings
Besides his notable presence in the life of Walter Hunt, Lewis Jennings made several independent improvements to the Hunt rifle. In fact, the only Hunt design characteristics he kept were the sliding internal bolt, the tubular magazine which would still run underneath the barrel, and the "percussion pill" magazine. The Jennings rifle was contracted by Courtlandt Palmer to be produced by the Robbins & Lawrence Company of Windsor, Vermont, then the largest non-government arms manufacturer in the United States. It was also the employer of a shop foreman named Benjamin Tyler Henry, who was in charge of making improvements to the mechanism. Other notable gunsmiths present at Robbins & Lawrence include:
  • Horace Smith had been stationed at the Robbins & Laurence plant by Courtlandt Palmer himself to supervise the manufacturing of the Jennings rifles.
  • Daniel Wesson, who was employed by Leonard Pistol Works but was inspecting parts and finished pistols of the Leonard percussion pepperbox pistols that were contracted to Robbins & Lawrence.
Unfortunately, despite this "who's who" of American gun makers present, the Jennings rifle was a failure. While the rifle would fire a "naked ball" (that without patch or lubricant) twenty times in a minute, Mr. Lawrence himself stated that, "The result in firing the gun was that the ball leaded the barrel, by building on, to such an extent that in firing twenty shots from a 50-100 calibre bore there would be a hole in the barrel less than 25-100." Apart from this it was called "too complicated" by the Ordnance Department and was still underpowered due to the limited powder in the "rocket ball." It is thought that the only Jennings Repeaters produced were for testing and a patent model. The order of 5,000 from Robbins & Lawrence, never filled to its entirety, was to be converted entirely to Jennings single shot breech loaders, much like the Sharps rifle that would eventually win the endorsement of the Ordnance Department. There were less than 1,000 Jennings rifles produced in all its varieties and every last one was weaker and more expensive that other muzzle loaders in common use at the time.

Horace Smith
Horace Smith
Courtlandt Palmer, not being a man to quit (or to misuse an investment), assigned Horace Smith to "fix" the Jennings rifle. Smith kept the magazine tube, sliding bolt, bolt locking lever, and priming pill magazine of the prior two designs, but with some important modifications. Most notably the action was completely redesigned by removing the rack and pinion action from the Jennings models and replacing it with an action that pivoted at the front, which would look much more familiar to shooters today. Smith was working in the same building as B. Tyler Henry and undoubtedly aware of his design improvements. However, this variant was also not without its shortcomings (e.g. the percussion pills igniting in the magazine and causing a chain reaction), and it went through three notable variants each one improving slightly the bugs of the last. There was even an experimental Smith-Jennings repeating pistol! Despite its improvements, it was still a rifle that was still dependent on the weak rocket ball cartridge, an external primer & magazine, and it was not yet self-cocking.

Daniel Wesson
"The Volcanic"
How Horace Smith initially met Daniel Wesson to form The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, of New Haven Connecticut is a bit of a mystery. However, there is no mystery that the men conversed while working at the Robbins & Lawrence factory and discussed the failures of the Jennings rifle and the Smith-Jennings repeaters. Another persistent unknown is how the eventual partners came up with the toggle joint, a feature so improved that it appears in almost every lever action thereafter. It is commonly accepted that Smith was sent to London by Courtlandt Palmer in 1851 to attend The Great Exhibition in order to show their 1841 "Mississippi Rifle," but also to perform some reconnaissance on the recent innovations by European gunsmiths. While in London, Smith spoke with Louis Nicholas Auguste Flobert about his "copper case, self-contained rim fire ammunition," and method of extraction. While Smith & Wesson fully admitted they did not invent the rim fire, metallic cartridge, the claim of the toggle joint is another matter. No one knows how Smith came to utilize the toggle joint. He could have invented it himself, employee B. Tyler Henry could have invented it, or maybe he saw the little piece of engineering at work in London. In any case, it was a watershed improvement that saw prolific use in future firearms.

Smith & Wesson are also to be credited with innovations in ammunition, though lack of a reliable cartridge would eventually lead to their downfall. They recognized that neither the Flobert cartridge from France, the rocket ball, nor their own primed rocket ball had enough power to be used successfully in rifles. So they made their own new self-contained cartridge and an improved pistol to fire it, and asked Mr. Courtlandt Palmer for around $10,000 for tooling of the new inventions. He agreed and re-assigned the Hunt, Jennings, and Smith patents to the new partnership known as Smith & Wesson. Under the new partnership the men produced many pistols chambered not for the Flobert cartridge or their own improved cartridge, but instead for their primed rocket ball, eventually nicknamed the Volcanic cartridge. It was never named that officially, but the term was popularly used to describe both firearm and ammunition after being compared to the fiery eruption of a volcano in a magazine's review of the gun. B. Tyler Henry was employed likely as a shop superintendant. Smith & Wesson lasted only a year before design flaws and finances were exhausted. Returns of the pistols abounded and performance was spotty at best. Palmer, the seemingly eternal source of funds, had lost a lot of cash investing in the development of firearms and now wanted to recoup his funds. He did so with Smith & Wesson by incorporating the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. 17 months after the forming of the failed company "Smith & Wesson." There were 29 stock holders in all, one of which was a local shirt manufacturer inspired by the success of Samuel Colt. This  men's shirt maker purchased 80 shares and went by the name of Oliver F. Winchester. Within eight months the three men, Wesson, Smith, and Palmer, had fully abandoned the company and pursued other avenues in the industry even as Volcanic arms and ammunition continued to be produced and improved. It was a company of little capital, several patents on failed firearms and ammunitions, and a board of investors that knew nothing about manufacturing firearms. Smith & Wesson's insistence on using primed rocket ball cartridges, despite knowledge of other, superior rounds led to an early failure for the partners. They were not to make a practical lever action repeating pistol. It would be another two years before Smith & Wesson formed their second business venture involving the manufacture of "revolving magazine, metallic cartridge pistols."

Desirable Volcanic Repeating Arms Company Lever Action Navy Pistol
This is a solid example of one of approximately 1,500 lever action Navy pistols with an eight inch barrel manufactured by the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co., circa 1856. This pistol was manufactured before Oliver Winchester acquired the majority of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. stock and reorganized it as the New Haven Arms Co., in 1857. The pistol had a blue octagon barrel with an integral magazine. The frame, side plates and grip straps are brass. The hammer has a casehardened finish and the finger hole loading lever, bolt and cartridge elevator were niter blue. The barrel is fitted with a nickel silver post front sight with a fixed iron notch rear sight dovetailed to the top rear of the frame. The top of the barrel is marked with the three-line legend "THE VOLCANIC/REPEATING ARMS CO./PATENT NEW HAVEN CONN. FEB 14. 1854." (partially visible). The matching serial number is stamped on the right side of the loading lever, the left side of the frame under the grip and on the inside of each grip panel. Fitted with varnished two piece smooth walnut grips.

Oliver Winchester
This name is certainly known to anyone even vaguely familiar with firearms. After becoming a minority stakeholder (1.33%) at Volcanic Arms, he also joined its Board of Directors as a Vice President in June 1855. He knew nothing of the gun business, but enjoyed such success manufacturing shirts that his capital available for outside investments was significant. Within two years the company was declared insolvent and through the death of Volcanic Arms' president in addition to Winchester paying off of Volcanic’s debtors, the courts awarded all assets of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. to Oliver Winchester. This included the assignments of all patents of Hunt, Jennings, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson that had previously belonged to Volcanic. Other stockholders received nothing. Oliver Winchester had not given up hope on magazine-fed repeating firearms. On the contrary, prior to the insolvency, he had been promoting a new firearms company called the New Haven Arms Co. After acquiring some capital from the very people that had just lost every cent they had invested in Volcanic, Winchester sold all the assets from Volcanic to New Haven with the exception of the patents. He only sold to New Haven the right to produce the firearms and ammunitions named in those patents, while keeping the actual patents for himself. Winchester had just made out like a bandit. New Haven Arms Company would now be manufacturing the Volcanic Repeating Arms and paying him to do it. Besides noting the high value of the patent on the improved cartridge firearm, Winchester also took note of the experience of a man well acquainted with the design of repeating firearms and the ever evolving design of ammunition: Benjamin Tyler Henry.

Rare Factory Engraved Volcanic Lever Action No.1 Pocket Pistol
This is a solid example of one of approximately 1,500 lever action Navy pistols with an eight inch barrel manufactured by the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co., circa 1856. This pistol was manufactured before Oliver Winchester acquired the majority of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. stock and reorganized it as the New Haven Arms Co., in 1857. The pistol had a blue octagon barrel with an integral magazine. The frame, side plates and grip straps are brass. The hammer has a casehardened finish and the finger hole loading lever, bolt and cartridge elevator were niter blue. The barrel is fitted with a nickel silver post front sight with a fixed iron notch rear sight dovetailed to the top rear of the frame. The top of the barrel is marked with the three-line legend "THE VOLCANIC/REPEATING ARMS CO./PATENT NEW HAVEN CONN. FEB 14. 1854." (partially visible). The matching serial number is stamped on the right side of the loading lever, the left side of the frame under the grip and on the inside of each grip panel. Fitted with varnished two piece smooth walnut grips.

Benjamin Tyler Henry
If you've been following closely, you've heard this name mentioned in several places. He was a shop foreman during the manufacture of the Jennings rifles. He was employed as a shop superintendent by Smith & Wesson's first failed partnership. He now was being given full control to develop a new cartridge for the New Haven Arms Co. Prior guns' actions had been sound, but their cartridges were the Achilles' heel. Standing atop of all the cartridges Henry had seen developed, he dove right in and began experimenting with the .22 caliber rimfire cartridge of Wesson, making it larger and more appropriate for rifle use. Even though Volcanic's insolvency took place in Februdary 1857, by the end of 1858 Henry had developed a .44 caliber cartridge capable of a 1,200 fps muzzle velocity; a noted improvement over the 500 fps Smith & Wesson cartridges. All that needed to be done now was design a gun to fire it. Much easier said than done. It would require the frame to be larger, the barrel adapted for the new cartridge, the addition of firing pins independent from the bolt face, and the development of an ejection system. The task before Henry was monumental, but he was the right man for the job. In early 1860 Henry had completed all the changes and had a patent issued by October! He had made all the adaptations in just over a year, sounded the death knell for rocket balls and other Volcanic arms, and forever associated his name with American firearms.

New Haven Arms Co. Henry Lever Action Rifle
Manufactured by the New Haven Arms Co. in 1864. The rifle has the distinctive brass receiver and buttplate, and octagon barrel with integral 15-shot magazine. The barrel/magazine had a blue finish, the hammer and loading lever casehardened and the replacement straight grain walnut stock is oil finished. Nickel silver blade front sight and fixed iron rear sight. The left side of the barrel has the standard screw-fastened sling loop and the left side of the stock has a factory fitted sling swivel. The brass buttplate is the late pattern with pointed heel. The top of the barrel is marked "HENRY'S PAT. OCT.16. 1860/MANUFACT'D BY THE NEWHAVEN ARMS.CO.NEWHAVEN.CT" ahead of the rear sight. The serial number, "5413" is stamped on the top barrel flat at the breech. The matching serial number is stamped on the left side of the lower receiver rail.

- Written by Joel R. Kolander


Boatner, Mark Mayo, Allen C. Northrop, and Lowell I. Miller. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: D. McKay, 1959. Print.

McDowell, R. Bruce. Evolution of the Winchester. Tacoma, WA: Armory Publications, 1985. Print.

Madis, George. The Winchester Handbook. 1st ed. Brownsboro, TX: Art and Reference House, 1981. Print.

Parsons, J. E. 
The First Winchester: The Story of the 1866 Repeating Rifle. New York: Morrow, 1955. Print.

Quick, Les. The Henry Rifle: Story of Benjamin Tyler and His Famed Repeating Rifle. Santa Ana, CA: Graphic, 2008. Print.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Colorado Gun Collectors 48th Annual Gun Show

When stepping into the Colorado Gun Collectors 48th Annual Gun Show, one could tell it was very different than the NRA Annual Meeting that I had attended a few weeks earlier.  Of course, I had been told numerous times just how different it would be, but specifics were far and few between.  I guess they wanted me to find out for myself.

This wasn't the "CES" or "Comic-Con" of guns and hunting, a certain aim of the recent NRA Meeting.  This was a gun show through and through, but of a caliber I had yet to experience.  The quality of guns at this show was astounding.  Table after table were full of beautiful collector grade guns.  Sure there were some antiques that showed their age, but for the most part those that were in excellent condition far surpassed those that were presented based solely on their age.  This is a gun show put on by volunteers belonging to the Colorado Gun Collectors Club and they clearly put in a lot of hard work for a show this impressive.  There were also tables of tack, polearms, Native American artifacts, firearms curios, everything related to the Western-era, gun parts, and items from nearly every military engagement in which the U.S. has participated.

A rack displaying some beautiful Henry rifles.
This doesn't even begin to describe some of the competitive display booths!  Just when you thought you had seen some extravagant guns for sale at any number of exhibitor tables, the perimeter of the event was lined with booths that were all competing for twenty cash awards totaling over $10,000!  It goes without saying that this brought out some beautiful, comprehensive, historic, and educational displays.  These gentlemen are building their displays by themselves.  They construct them, prepare their educational materials, decide the layout, arrange any lighting or signage, and display them simply to show their love of history, firearms, and that particular genre.  Of course, taking home a coveted trophy or cash prize and securing one's bragging rights is a nice motivation as well.

Display of Burnside breech-loader carbines.

Thorough collection of South American military rifles.
A gorgeous display of Winchester Schuetzen Target Rifles.
A lifetime's worth of collecting in the making.  Amazing!
 A display of Savage lever action rifles from 1895-2003 (Models 1885,1899, & 99). It was one of the largest displays at the show and very comprehensive.
Whether an attendee was a dealer, collector, buyer, seller, or simply came to gaze at guns, Rock Island Auction Company was definitely amongst kindred spirits.  We got to talk guns, answer questions, ask questions, swap stories, and show off with people whose interest in firearms is on par with our own!  There would be few better places to display our consignors' guns.  This is absolutely the crowd that needs to see them and, if they haven't already, discover the quality of items that RIAC carries each and every auction.  One can't come to a show like this with just any old gun; these people know quality, history, and they certainly know their firearms.  Let's just say our selections passed the test.  We had plenty of people gawking, inspecting, admiring, and asking about our seven tables of guns and when our next auction would be.  It was quite encouraging to see this much interest generated by people so knowledgeable and passionate.  This is exactly our type of people and it was a pleasure to rub elbows and talk guns with them all weekend long.

Our busy booth displaying items to appear in our September 13th, 14th, & 15th Premiere Auction
Jessica has fun with a consignor while other customers survey our firearms.

Rick inspecting one of the MANY firearms people brought to us throughout the show.

A couple takes in our World War II longarms.
All the hype and warm feelings surrounding this show were perfectly fitting.  This wasn't a gun show.  It was a reunion.  People come to this show year after year after year!  The promise of quality likely drew them in, but the camaraderie, shared respect, and mutual interest keep them coming back for more.  This show holds a place in many people's hearts and it's easy to see why.  It is good to see RIAC involved in these events.  Every day I heard numerous positive comments and compliments about RIAC from established and experienced collectors.  People in the firearms collecting community trust us and that's something to be very proud of.

Note:  There's not room in this blog to put in ALL the photos we took, so make sure to check them all out in our online photo album. You won't believe some of the guns and non-gun items that were there!  Click here to view this event's photo album on our Facebook page.  YOU DO NOT NEED A FACEBOOK ACCOUNT TO VIEW OUR PICTURES!

They also had shirts like this for sale, which we agree with 100%.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2013 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits

It’s not often that I get to work and I’m so excited that I can barely perform even the most menial of tasks.  However, April 29, 2013 was different.   I was asked by Rock Island Auction Company several weeks prior if I wanted to attend the NRA Annual Meeting to be held in Houston, TX.  I immediately accepted and had been looking forward to it ever since.  I was also asked to be one of four employees who would drive down to Houston and schlep all the gear for our booth.  Granted, there was a 16-hour drive on each side of the event, but my excitement prevailed for many reasons.

First off, it was just going to the event itself.  We’re talking a National-level trade show!  You see events like ComiCon or CES all over TV when they take place and this time I was going to be at one of those events… but for guns!  I could barely imagine all the well designed, brightly lit booths garishly boasting their wares to an already eager audience.  Second, I had never been to Texas before and I never turn down a chance to see a new place.  Besides, new locale means new foods to try!  In my mind I had already made a small checklist of things to eat consisting of: a Texas steak, Gulf seafood, and Texas barbecue  As if those things weren't enough, then I started reading about the event itself.  The list of celebrities and industry celebrities was impressive to say the least.  There were such household names as Rick Perry, Stone Cold Steve Austin (never thought I'd mention those two fellas in the same sentence), Ted Nugent a.k.a. "Uncle Ted," and UFC legend, 9-time Welterweight Champion, and Illinois native Matt Hughes.  There were also scores of professional shooters and members of various shooting teams present, noted authors, exhibition shooters, outdoor TV show hosts, and training experts.  Oh, and did I mention that I transported a Model 1890 Colt Gatling gun to the event to be featured in our booth?  How's that for fun?

Model 1890 Colt Gatling gun.

Young man, invited to attend the NRA Annual Meeting, surrounded by firearms, gets to see a state he has never been to, has to haul a Gatling gun. To say I was a bit excited was an understatement. As if all this wasn't enough to get excited, I also discovered that we would be the only auction house present at the entire convention. This is an event for the best in the industry and we would be the only one making an appearance. I felt pretty proud about that and knew it was time to get the game face on and make a great impression.

The RIAC crew sets up for the exhibitions.
The RIAC booth was packed each and every day from when the doors opened to the closing announcements. It was 1200 square feet of what we do best: showing off our consignors' items and answering a ton of questions about them. There was lots of great gun talk with folks who appreciated all the different genres we brought: Colt revolvers, Winchester lever actions, German military, sporting rifles and shotguns, Smith & Wesson, and some great U.S. military pieces. Parents brought their kids to share in their lifelong hobby and to cultivate it in a new generation. We answered a ton of questions about the pieces we brought, learned a lot, and spread the good word about what Rock Island Auction Company does every single day for gun collectors. We also met a lot of good Texans and discovered a whole new brotherhood of firearms enthusiasts! A lot of planning and organization went into this event and it definitely paid off with how smooth everything ran, the amount of people that came to our booth and stayed to talk, and a great overall presentation. We impressed more than a few people in Texas and can't wait to hear how much more impressed they'll be once they get that first full-color, three volume Premiere Auction catalog!

Our booth was packed to the gills!

These fellas must've talked guns and U.S. history in our booth for at least half an hour! I just had to sit, listen, and get an education. This is what makes these fests awesome!
The booths were a blast to look at as well.  Every major gun manufacturer was represented and we were especially pleased to see we were present with our Quad City neighbors, Les Baer, Rock River Arms, ArmaLite, and Springfield Armory.  Ammunition manufacturers had great showings and great booths!  If you wanted something firearms related it was here.  Whatever your interest, there was a booth for it showing you the latest and greatest in the industry.  There were booths for scopes, magazines, uppers, lowers, optics, lights, lasers, clothing, jewelry, knives, swords, safaris, indoor ranges, bullet stops, art, taxidermy, reloading supplies, targets, and the list goes on!

If you want to see all the booths and pictures, please check out the album on our Facebook page.  YOU DO NOT NEED A FACEBOOK ACCOUNT TO SEE OUR PICTURES. 

It was a great weekend, filled with amazing toys and even better people. I'm proud to be in this industry and the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits only solidified that feeling. In fact, RIAC has already committed to attending next year’s Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, IN! We are booked up and I can’t wait to see what changes next year will hold. Especially the shorter drive.

Some folks admiring the Gatling gun.
Three generations of enthusiasts admiring our German handgun display to be auctioned in September 2013.

The Winchesters and Colts almost always had a crowd around them!