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Shotgun News, October 20, 2004, p. 9

The Henry Family of Gunsmiths

While many Americans know about Benjamin Tyler Henry and the Henry repeating rifles, the other Henrys, who played a major part in creating the American firearms industry, are not as well known. There had been many gunsmiths who made guns in America before the Revolution, but most were small operations, consisting of a master gunsmith and perhaps one or two apprentices. These small operations handcrafted guns one at a time. Over a lifetime, such gunsmiths might make dozens to hundreds of guns. By the 1750s, gunsmiths in some parts of America--notably in Pennsylvania--were starting to make guns in fairly large quantities. The records of most of these early gun makers are not available to historians--either they kept few records, or those records were destroyed shortly after the gunsmith's death.

I am in the process of revising my book about the development of gun culture in early America. One of the requests was that my book needed to use more unpublished primary sources. What's an unpublished primary source? That means papers and documents that are sitting in a research library, and have never been printed. These are not photocopies, or reproductions, but original letters, bound books, ads, and other materials often 150 years or more old. As you might expect, when you show up and ask to see these materials, it is not quite the same as going into the public library and checking out the latest bestseller. They ask a few questions to make sure that you have a legitimate, scholarly need to go through these materials, because the more these materials get used, the more they degrade.

In pursuit of these unpublished documents, I've just visited two research libraries on the East Coast: the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. (I also visited the Pennsylvania Longrifle Heritage Museum in the Jacobsburg National Historic District--more about that later.) While at these research libraries, I spent several days reading through letters, ledger books, sales records, and related materials from the 1760s through the 1830s. Many of these papers were associated with William Henry I, and his descendants, who were among the first really large scale industrial makers of guns in the United States.

As an example of the scale of the Henry operation, one of the documents that I read was a 1765 sales order for "93 Hammers... 77 Cocks... 81 Cock Pins... 90 Bridles... 79 Tumblers... 2 Gross Gun Bolts... 258 Fuzee Main Springs... 281 Hammer Springs... 263 Cocks... 278 Cock Pins... 305 Bridles... 271 Tumblers... 225 Forg'd Breeches..." [spelling modernized] Someone was planning to make a lot of gunlocks (the lockwork for a flintlock).1 This was at a time when most American gun makers did not make their own gunlocks--they bought them from Britain, where skilled laborers received much lower wages.

During the Revolution, the Henry family, now under the direction of William Henry I, made hundreds of rifles and muskets for the Revolutionary government. I was surprised to find that William Henry I was his own little military-industrial complex, making and delivering not only many hundreds of guns at a time, but also thousands of hats, hundreds of pairs of shoes, cartridge boxes, belts, scabbards, and bayonets.2

After the Revolution, the Henry family continued for three generations making muskets (for both federal and state governments), rifles for the federal government, and for individuals, shotguns that the American Fur Company traded to Indians for pelts, and pistols, both holster pistols and pocket pistols.

What makes the records of the Henry family's gun making so interesting is the sophistication of their efforts. Many of the firms that made muskets for the U.S. government in the first few decades after the Revolution actually lost money on every gun, because their cost accounting just wasn't sophisticated enough to figure out how to handle depreciation of tools, the cost of buildings, and other hard to measure costs.

The Henry family, however, shows a surprising cleverness. I found an 1818-19 table that is the earliest "what-if" spreadsheet that I have ever seen. In a series of rows and columns that would look quite at home in Microsoft Excel, John Joseph Henry entered various prices for materials, and calculated at each price what his profit margin would be--and the profit margins, by the 1830s, were astonishingly high. Even after accounting for wages, materials, and the costs of fire insurance on the factory, the Henrys were making 40% profit on rifles, and a 50% profit on sales of just rifled barrels. If they spent $10 making a rifle, they would sell it for close to $15.

I mentioned Jacobsburg National Historic District at the top of this column. While the Henry family started out making guns in Lancaster, after the Revolution they opened a factory near the town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a few miles north of Allentown. While the original factory is now ruins, the state has preserved the area, and there is a small but very nice Pennsylvania Longrifle Heritage Museum there, housed in one of the homes that the Henry family occupied until they went out of the gun business in 1912. The Museum has a beautiful collection of Henry guns, including rifles, muskets, and pistols, as well as interpretive exhibits explaining the manufacturing operations. I was pleased to meet with a direct descendant of the Henry family who works at the museum today. If you are in Pennsylvania, you might want to visit it. Directions are available at

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is

1 William Henry Papers, 2:9, at Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

2 William Henry Papers, 1:37, 39, 41, at Historical Society of Pennsylvania.