first published on March 24, 2016 by Matt Silvey
I don’t care who you are, where you grew up, what kind of movies you liked watching as a kid, there is just something undeniably cool about lever action rifles. Even modern incarnations of the lever gun harken back to a time when America was still young and brave men set out across the country on horseback and in wagons to find a better life for themselves and their families. I own a couple of lever guns, and I cannot help but have those images flash through my mind every time I pick one of them up.
So, when I was offered the chance to review this Henry Big Boy Steel, chambered in .44 Mag, I jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant buying ammo for a caliber firearm I did not own.
The Henry name is huge in American history. The original Henry Rifle played a prominent role in the Civil War as essentially the first mass produced repeating rifles to be used by a military in a war. While the current company that bears the Henry name, Henry Repeating Arms, has no direct relation to the original company, their rifle designs can trace their roots back to that original rifle. In fact, Henry Repeating Arms does manufacture several replicas of the original Henry Rifle.
As I awaited delivery of the Henry Big Boy rifle, I began researching ammo and accessories that I would need for testing and evaluation. As I have aged, my once perfect vision has begun to fade. While I can still see perfectly at any distance longer than arms reach, I now require reading glasses in order to see things up close, which makes using iron sights on a rifle a little less than ideal, at least for accuracy testing. With that in mind, I planned to mount a scope on this rifle for use when testing the rifle for accuracy. The first place I looked was at Henry’s website and I was happy to see that they offer a factory, bolt-on optic mount. I was very happy to see that said mount came complete with all hardware needed and was very reasonably priced at $27.50. One other item that is arguably necessary for this gun when equipped with a scope is a hammer extension. It mounts on the hammer and extends to the side allowing the operator to lower the hammer without punching their thumb between the hammer and the scope. Again, that hammer extension was available directly from Henry and was again extremely reasonably priced at a whopping $11. Henry offers other factory accessories for this rifle, and all of their rifles, but those were the only two I deemed necessary, so I ordered them direct from Henry.
The day came when my local FFL called to tell me the rifle had arrived, so I went in and filled out the paperwork, and inspected the rifle. I was quite impressed by the overall look of the gun, and the fit and finish, at least upon initial inspection, were impeccable. Sadly, as a California resident, I would have to wait another 10 days before I would be able to take this rifle home (you know, 10 day waits, for people who already own guns, including cops, because I might be some crazy person who bought this particular gun to commit a crime – disregard the fact that I already own, well, let’s just say several, other guns).
Delivery and Initial Thoughts
After an agonizing 10 days, I returned and picked up the rifle and happily took it home. I removed it from the box and sat down with it and gave it a thorough once over. I found myself even more impressed with the fit and finish than I was originally.
This particular Henry Big Boy Steel holds 10 rounds of either .44 Mag or .44 Special, has a 20” barrel, is 37.5” in overall length and weighs in at 7 pounds, and it is equipped with sling swivel studs for those wanting to equip it with one. It is a comfortable, handy rifle that holds 10 rounds of ammo capable of taking down just about anything you might encounter in North America, whether it be on two or four legs. The trigger pull on this rifle, using my Lyman digital trigger pull gauge, measured an average of 4lbs, 10.9oz which contributes to this guns shootability. It shoulders nicely, is well balanced and has good ergonomics for the most people older than 12. It easily accommodated both my pre-teen son, who is “normal” size for his age, and me, with my abnormally long monkey arms.
Granted, I know some of the manufacturing processes have changed in the last 150 years, and the checkering on the stock is no longer done by hand as it once was, but I was still impressed by both the finely detailed checkering and by the crisp, clean, thin line that surrounds the checkering on the nicely finished walnut stock and forend. The finish on the wood is a very evenly applied satin finish which not only protects the wood, but also cuts down on the glare that is common when a high-gloss finish is applied. The butt end of the stock is capped with a generous rubber recoil pad which does an excellent job of taming the recoil, and adds to shooting comfort.
Speaking of glare reduction, the steel parts of the gun are also done in a matte finish. The steel receiver itself received a matte black finish that appears to be quite durable, while the barrel, magazine tube and other steel parts have a blued finish, but are not highly polished prior to bluing so they take on a somewhat satin appearance as well. While the overall finish on the gun does not necessarily make for a gorgeous wall hanger, it does make for a very functional field rifle, whether it is for hunting, shooting, or use as a ranch/truck gun.
After a thorough inspection and an initial cleaning, I took the gun out on the range to get the feel for it. This gun is different from many other centerfire lever guns in that the magazine is loaded by removing the inner magazine tube most of the way and dropping rounds into the magazine tube near the muzzle end, then pushing the inner tube back in place and rotating it slightly until it locks in. This arrangement has pros and cons when compared to a side gate loading arrangement like that found on a Winchester 94. While topping off, or loading on the move, is easier with side gate equipped rifle, that setup is much more difficult to safely unload than the Henry setup. Honestly, I’m torn on which I prefer.
The action of the Henry Big Boy Steel is very smooth, and shorter than what I am accustomed to with my other lever guns, which are chambered in .30-30 Winchester. The relative shortness of the action is likely due to the shorter length of the .44 Mag cartridge, but whatever the reason, cycling the Henry is quick and smooth, and can be done without taking your eyes off the sights or your target. Overall, during all of my shooting, the action proved to be very smooth, although every now and then, I would experience a slight hang up when chambering the next round. That minor issue was quickly resolved by releasing the pressure on the lever slightly, then bringing the lever home and the round would chamber smoothly. I should note, I only experienced that issue when I was trying to cycle the gun very rapidly, and it only occurred with certain ammo.
AMMO SIDE BAR: Speaking of ammo, when I first acquired the gun, I purchased some bulk, new production ammo from a company I had not heard of before, LAX Ammo. I chose this ammunition based on price and quantity, and it was slightly lighter loads which would be perfect for a lot of shooting. I was able to get this new ammo for less than some companies were selling reloads. The LAX ammo does have lighter recoil than other rounds I fired, but I have say I did encounter an uncommon issue that I have only encountered before. This LAX ammo is not compatible with this gun. I do not know if it is the rifling, or bullet weights, or what, but from 25 yards, prone, with a scope, I struggled to shoot a 24” group (yes, you read that correctly). In order to verify it was not just me being a moron, I had a buddy come over and his results were identical.
Before I said anything, I did two things to confirm it was a compatibility issue, and not either a bad ammunition problem, or a gun/shooter problem. First, I purchased three other brands of ammo and fired them through the Henry and all of them shot “normal” sized groups no matter what the distance was. Secondly, since I do not yet own any .44 Mag firearms, I borrowed a Colt Anaconda with a 6″ barrel from a coworker and shot the LAX ammo out of it. From 25 yards with the Anaconda, unsupported, using the LAX ammo, I was able to easily shoot a 5” group. With the Henry/LAX combo at that distance, it was practically impossible to even keep it on the paper.
As a final note, I contacted LAX Ammo and told them what I had encountered, what I did to confirm it, and that I was going to be mentioning it in this review. The response I received was very professional, and to be honest, was somewhat surprising. They said they appreciated the feedback and understood, saying that they would not want customers to purchase ammo that was not going to work well for them. For a company that I had never heard of prior to purchasing their product, the professionalism and customer service I experienced was outstanding. If you are looking for some good, inexpensive, bulk ammo to shoot out of anything other than a 44 Mag Henry rifle, I would not hesitate to buy from them.
After playing with the Henry at my home range on steel and other reactive targets, and after determining what ammo I could shoot consistently through the Henry, I installed the Henry scope mount (remember to use Loctite on the screws lest they will loosen on you while shooting – don’t ask how I know…) and then a Redfield Revolution/Tac 3-9 scope that I had laying around. I zeroed it at 50 yards (the maximum distance of my home range) and then headed off to the public range where I would test the 100 yard accuracy. Zeroing at 100 yards only took another six rounds and then it was time to check accuracy of some different loads.
The loads I had available to test (gathered from my local gun shops) were Federal American Eagle .44 Mag 240 grain JHP, Sellier & Bellot .44 Mag 240 grain semi-jacketed soft point, and much more expensive Hornady Lever Revolution .44 Mag 225 grain FTX. Surprisingly, the expensive Hornady was the least accurate load out of the Henry, and the best five (5) shot group I could manage with it was 7 ⅛”. The S&B load shot much tighter groups with the best five shot group measuring 4” and the Federal American Eagle was the clear winner of the bunch putting in a nice 2 ⅞” group from the bench at 100 yards. While that accuracy, at least with me shooting the rifle, is not nearly as tight as some of my AR’s from this distance, that is very respectable for what is a handgun cartridge, and is more than accurate enough for use as a hunting rifle or a ranch/truck gun.
Throughout my testing of the Big Boy, I encountered only one minor problem, and the fix was both simple and free. On the lever, there is a spring loaded plunger that serves to keep the lever in the closed position. That plunger is held in place by a tiny pin (see photo below). During my final accuracy testing shooting session, that pin managed to walk itself out sideways just enough that it hit the receiver preventing me from closing the action all the way. To my surprise, the pin was easy to move back into place allowing me to finish my shooting session, but it kept working itself out slightly. The fix was simple. Using an appropriately sized punch, while pushing inward one the spring loaded plunger, I pushed the pin out with the punch. I held the pin on top of a small anvil and using my teeny tiny ballpeen hammer, I smacked the pin on the side near one end just enough to slightly misshape it. Now that it was no longer perfectly round on the one end, I reinserted it into the lever and due to the tighter fit, I used my brass hammer to tap it into place. The extra friction now holds the pin in place and it will not slip out on its own, but it can also be easily removed if need be.
For those of you who are hunters, which I am not, some states are now offering special hunting seasons for straight walled cartridges, and several other states are considering doing the same. With that in mind, if you enjoy hunting and you live in one of those states, adding a rifle like this Henry Big Boy Steel in .44 Mag to your stable just might let you extend that hunting season some.
MSRP on the Henry Big Boy Steel is $850, however the “street” price varies quite a bit. I have seen them selling for as low as $675, depending on the caliber. This a very solid gun that can fill quite a few roles, from a manufacturer who stands behind their product with a 100% satisfaction guarantee. Only you can decide if the price is right, but I can tell you this without a doubt, shooting the Henry Big Boy Steel is a very enjoyable experience. It cycles smoothly, is accurate, comfortable and, well, it’s a lever gun. Shooting a lever gun is an engaging experience. While I greatly enjoy shooting an AR, or any of my other semi-auto rifles, there is just something special about shooting a lever gun, and the Henry Big Boy Steel is a wonderful example of an enjoyable, reliable lever gun.