In 1860, Benjamin Tyler Henry was awarded the first patent in history on a lever-action repeating rifle, and an iconic American gun was born. Oliver Winchester, the founder of New Haven Arms and a major benefactor of the Union Army during the Civil War, worked with Henry to place the gun in the hands of Union soldiers by 1862, and the gun’s effect on the battlefield was immediately felt. Less than a decade later, subsequent models of the Henry rifle were commonplace in the Old West, giving it the nickname “The Gun That Won the West.”
Now, 154 years later, Henry’s rifles are still in demand. For nostalgic purposes and sport, people still crave the satisfaction of holding a piece of American history, a beautifully crafted firearm steeped both in the history of western expansion and the 1950s TV cowboy culture. But Winchester no longer manufactures the gun. The Henry Repeating Arms Company, which since 2008 has been headquartered in none other than Bayonne, sells its guns to third-party retailers.
Tucked away in a 140,000-square-foot warehouse at the corner of First Street and Lexington Avenue, the company doesn’t usually publicize itself locally. Hence, the surprise many Bayonne residents express when they hear there’s a gun factory in their hometown. The lack of fanfare isn’t intentional. It’s simply that Bayonne isn’t a place where people are in the market for guns, especially historic ones owned primarily for nostalgic purposes.
Still, the company, which employs 250 workers in Bayonne and another 125 in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, provides an incomparable line of products for collectors and modern-day cowboys around the country, says CEO Anthony Imperato.
“When we resurrected the Henry name in 1996, the idea was to offer a brand associated with a rich American history and the cowboy style,” he says. “This is a classic American rifle.”
The company’s line of products range from the basic Henry .22 caliber repeater, which will cost you a bit more than $200, to beautifully crafted special-edition tribute rifles that could cost thousands.
“The idea is to serve a wide-ranging constituency, from cowboys to varmint hunters to collectors,” says Imperato, noting that Henry is the official sponsor of the Boy Scouts of America tribute rifle and has also raised $85,000 for the USA Shooting Team.
The gun’s manufacturing process has not changed all that much, except that today’s technology is much more precise than in the 1860s.
“Designing this gun is no easy task. It is still made of 72 working parts, and a lot goes into making that,” Imperato says. “We use everything from antique equipment from the 1940s to 30 state-of-the-art computerized metal cutters.”
Imperato was no stranger to the Henry rifle before he started the company. His family has been in the gun business since 1911, when they opened New York City’s oldest gun shop, a police equipment store near Battery Park. Growing up on the streets of Brooklyn and watching cowboys on TV, the gun was familiar to him when, almost five decades later, he started a company based around the design.
“I didn’t plan on it when I was a kid,” he says. “I played a lot of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians as a kid, but that’s not what inspired the company. I just wanted to build a brand around a classic design that people would want to buy. Today we’ve sold rifles in almost 140 countries.”—BLP