In discussions about the British Empire, it is often considered to have been a mostly English entity, while the truth is that Scots and Irish names and families feature prominently in the histories of key campaigns and positions of authority and influence. The British expedition to take on the Zulus at Isandlewana in 1879 was headed by the English Lord Chelmsford but perhaps the best soldier there was the Irishman, Col. Durnford.
Of course, a Welsh Regiment held out against 3,000 Zulus at Rourke’s Drift a day after Chelmsford’s force had been destroyed and arguably the Empire’s greatest explorer was a Welshman; Henry Morton Stanley. My own family is littered with Irish servants of Empire, from my grandmother’s father, Brigadier Stevens, who rose from the ranks, to my grandfather’s grandfather, Col. Sir Oswald FitzGerald, who was the political officer to a Maharajah. Later, my grandfather served in the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles until they were handed to India at Independence.
As with the empire, so with gun and rifle making. People talk of Fine English Guns, of London Best quality and often overlook the amazing contributions made by men from the other nations which make up the United Kingdom. Here, we will consider one of the greats, Alex Henry of Scotland, whose inventiveness and enterprise created some very important refinements in firearms, many of which went beyond the sporting field.
Referring back to the defence of Rourke’s Drift, of course, that Welsh Regiment (actually a lot of the soldiers were from the Midlands and Worcestershire; Stanley Baker’s Welsh nationalism gave the film a more ‘Welsh’ flavour than it would have had in reality) stood in line with rifles made on the Martini action, with Henry rifling, the Martini-Henry was a stalwart of the British army for around thirty years and its accuracy can be attributed to Alex Henry.
Alex Henry was born in 1818 and by 1841 was listed as ‘journeyman gunmaker’, having been apprenticed to Thomas Mortimer, the Edinburgh gunmaker, in 1830. The apprenticeship lasted seven years and Henry was so well regarded that he became the manager of Mortimer’s business at the age of twenty-two. He left Mortimer’s employ in 1852. That year he invented his three-groove rifling system and trialled it, successfully, at ranges in excess of 800 yards.
Henry began trading under his own name after acquiring the business of Samual Gourlay, in Edinburgh. Henry traded from 1852 until 1894, moving around Edinburgh several times during his lifetime. Today, Henry is best known as a rifle maker and it is rifles that he concentrated on;
they were clearly is passion and the focus of most of his energies. As a first-rate rifle shot, Henry competed and his successes acted as great advertisements for his rifles. This was a common practice at the time. Henry did with rifles much as Harris Holland had done with shotguns on the back of his prowess in the pigeon ring.
Since Henry rifling is perhaps his best known invention, it bears discussion here. at the start of the mid-19th century, two-groove rifling was in widespread use, Dickson type and Purdey type both effective to 200 yards or so but slow to load and ballistically inefficient. First experimenting with a .577 at ranges of up to 1,600 yards, Henry adjusted the size of bullet to .451 and gave the twist rate of his three-groove rifling a hike. The War Office accepted his rifling and used it in the Enfield Rifle of 1853. Henry, of course, also made use of it in his sporting rifles.
With the advent of breech-loading, Henry’s rifling was preferred to that of his rival Sir Joseph Whitworth. His 1860 patent 2802 ‘Rifled Fire-arms’ fixed the idea of an expanding bullet that was gripped around the entire surface by the lands. This was a departure from notion of mechanically fitting bullets, like the hexagonal Whitworth, or the earlier Dickson and Purdey ‘winged’ types. The most popular application of Henry rifling is a shallow seven-groove pattern. The soft lead bullet expanded into the lands and was gripped securely, thereby producing smooth rotation and resulting in extremely accurate down-range delivery. Slightly harder bullets improved accuracy further, for competition use.
One of Henry’s iconic sporting rifles emerged in 1865 from his own patent in the form of a falling-block design that was much copied by other makers. These rifles were made on actions scaled for small, standard, and large bores and were superb sporting rifles in their day. By small, we can consider .360 BPE, for standard, think .450 BPE ( a deer rifle in the pre-smokeless powder era) and the large frame was for .577. There was even a ‘massive’ frame version, which was built for the 12-bore.
These rifles came i three qualities, the lower quality versions being made-up by Samuel Allport in Birmingham, the best quality rifles being made by Henry. Locks were made by Brazier in Wolverhampton. Versions with a left lock were popular and a take-down version was available.On the success of his business, Henry opened a shop in London, much like Westley Richards of Birmingham, Rigby of Dublin and Greener, also of Birmingham, had done. Henry opened in King William Street in, 1869.
For military application, Henry’s falling block was over-looked in 1871, in favour of the Martini action, but Henry’s rifling was added to it, creating the iconic Martini-Henry . 577/.450. Superb as it was, the Henry falling block was much more expensive to produce than the Martini, which was hammerless, and therefore more robust, as well as being faster to operate. In combination, Martini’s action and Henry’s rifling served teh British Empire until it was replaced by the .303 Lee-Metford bolt-action rifle in 1888.
Alongside his developments in rifling and his contribution to military and target rifles, we still see today a fair number of beautifully made double rifles bearing Alex Henry’s name. The best of these were made in Edinburgh, but the lower grades (there were four grades in total) were made in Birmingham, some being finished in Edinburgh. Alex Henry Shotguns were made in Birmingham by firms like W&C Scott, Samuel Allport, Bentley & Playfair and Tipping & Lawden. In turn, Henry supplied best quality double rifles to other gun-makers, like Stephen Grant, Rhodda and Manton & Co.
While most Henry firearms encountered will reflect the state of the art at the time in which they were made, if you should encounter anything unusual or apparently out of its time, it may be one of ten firearms made for the great eccentric collector Charles Gordon.
Henry deserves his name to be held in the highest regards, alongside the great gunmakers of his day. His cachet may have softened a little in light of the fact that the firm no longer has the prominence it once enjoyed. However, as a contemporary to Rigby, Alex Henry guns and rifles make tempting collectables, given the high prices Rigby’s now fetch at auction and privately. A collection of Alex Henrys would be a fabulous thing to have.
For readers who would like to delve into the entire history of Alex Henry in more detail, Donald Dallas has produced a superb new book on the gunmaker, published by Quiller and available from the author.