With its lever operated repeating mechanism the Henry could be fired, the empty ejected, and a fresh round chambered without taking the rifle from the shoulder. Its rival, the Spencer shot a more powerful cartridge and could be cycled at the shoulder, but the hammer had to be cocked each time before firing. The greater magazine capacity of the Henry compensated for its weaker cartridge.
Capitalizing on the military success of the Henry, Winchester attempted to entice the military in several prototypes using systems after the end of the Civil War. Tight military budgets and the adoption of conversion of the Springfield system to a single breech loading rifle for a more powerful centerfire cartridge, the 50-70, precluded any success for a military market for the lever action repeater. Winchester concentrated on the sporting market.
Beside the relatively weak .44 Henry rim fire, the Henry had two major disadvantages--a slit magazine tube (to accommodate the knob on the magazine follower) and a rather complicated loading mechanism. The open magazine tube was vulnerable to debris and precluded a wooden forearm. To load the Henry, the shooter had to run the follower up the magazine until the spiral spring was fully compressed against the housing mounted under the barrel in front of the magazine tube. When the follower cleared the magazine the spring housing was rotated until the magazine was open to receive fresh cartridges which were loaded rim first into the tube. The lip of the magazine captured the follower and compressed spring during loading. With the magazine charged, the housing was rotated into battery and the follower let down by hand on the loaded cartridges. Winchester began modifying the basic Henry rifle to produce a new arm which retained the firepower capabilities of the Henry, but eliminated some of its problems.
Birth of the Yellow Boy
Utilizing the King patents and other innovations, Winchester placed a spring load gate on the right side plate of the Henry. With the cartridge loading gate in the receiver the complicated magazine of the Henry was replaced with a closed end tube attached under the barrel. A coil spring fed cartridges to the follower. The closed magazine facilitated the addition of a forearm to the new system.
Initially, the basic toggle joint breech mechanism of the Henry was retained. It worked and was not changed at first. Some modifications to the breech system occurred later with some minor changes to the bolt.
Some Henry rifles were made with iron frames, but gun metal, a form of bronze about the same color as brass, was used almost exclusively after serious production began. Easy to machine, gun metal was used exclusively in the frames of the new rifles. It was not long before the new Winchester was dubbed the “Yellow Boy.” The rifle was an instant hit. Some 150,000 Yellow Boys were produced from 1867 to 1892-93. Serial numbers began in the 13,000 range where the Henry left off.
During this period the company reorganized and changed its name from the Henry Repeating Arms Company, formerly the New Haven Arms Company, to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The new rifle was the first to bear the Winchester name.
The Yellow Boy was offered in rifle, carbine, or musket models. Standard barrel length for the rifles was 24 inches; carbines, 20 inches; and muskets, 27 inches. Sights on the rifle were a blade front and ladder type rear similar to those used on the Henry. The rear sight for the carbine was shorter than the rifle in its long range configuration.
A number of factory engraved Yellow Boys with fancy wood were produced. Factory engraving is distinguished from after market embellishment by being ordered as such. While Winchester employed some in house engravers, orders were also “farmed out” to individual engravers. At least one Model 1866 was made with a silver frame.
Peak production came shortly before the introduction of the Model 1873 Winchester. The Yellow Boy enjoyed certain popularity in Central and South American countries.
It is hard to estimate how many of the original Yellow Boys exist. With the Winchester collecting fever during the last half of the 20th century, most of them ended up in collections. Today, an original Model 1866 Winchester in fair shape is somewhat pricey. Estimating the worth of one in good or excellent condition is speculative at best.
(foto; winchester 1866 Indian tacked on comb)
The .44 Henry Flat Rimfire Cartridge
Since the development of the new rife occurred during the developmental period of the center fire rifle cartridge, and no compatible center fire round was in existence, Winchester chambered it for the .44 Henry Flat round that had been proven in combat. Loaded with about 28 grains of black powder behind a 200 grain flat nosed bullet, the .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge was hardly a big game number. Muzzle velocity was about 1100 fps that gave it a bit more than 500 foot pounds of energy. This gave only about 30 pounds feet of momentum. This would be about the punch as a comparably loaded .44 Smith and Wesson. Near the end of the production of the Model 1866 Winchester developed a .44 Henry centerfire cartridge. Model 1866 Winchesters chambered for this cartridge are rare. The .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge was loaded by ammunition companies into the 1930s.
Lying, crouching, kneeling or on horseback, the shooter could recharge the magazine of the 1886 Winchester from almost any position. The dust and debris problems in the magazine of the Henry were largely eliminated in the new Winchester. No dust covers were used on the 1866. This did permit dust and other debris to enter the action, however, some shooters removed the dust covers on the Model 1873 Winchester. They were easily damaged if the shooter was not careful. Worn dust covers were prone to cause malfunctions. To avoid problems many Model 1873 owners would leave the dust cover in its rear position.
While some Henry rifles were made with iron frames, most of the frames were made of gun metal, a form of bronze, that has been incorrectly identified as brass. Easy to machine, gun metal was strong enough to withstand the .44 Henry flat rimfire cartridge. The brass color of the frame gave the Model 1866 its knick name, “Yellow Boy.”
The Yellow Boy’s popularity with Native Americans as well as the general shooting public continued its production after the introduction of the more powerful Model 1873 Winchester.
The Very First Model 1866 Winchester?
by J. L. Skinner
In late 1866, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, began manufacturing a vastly improved version of the famous Henry rifle, made by by its predecessor, the New Haven Arms Company. The new rifle had no specific name at the time, but there were references to an “improved Henry". Later it became known as the Model 1866, or “66”. When enough guns had been made to build up an inventory, the, new model was introduced to the public.
In the early 1950’s John E. Parsons conducted a thorough analysis of the Model ’66 Winchester. In 1955 he published the results of his research in THE FIRST WINCHESTER. On page 59, Parsons stated, "...officers of the company ‑noted that the first two carbines of the new model were sold to H.G. Litchfield of Omaha Nebraska, on August 31, 1867, for $34 each..."There is also reference to a single carbine, possibly a prototype, being shipped overseas in 1866.
The new model contained a number of modifications to the Henry rifle. The Most notable changes included a loading gate in the right side of the receiver, a completely enclosed magazine tube, and a wooden forearm. The new rifle retained essentially the same brass frame, brass butt plate, and wooden butt stock found on the Henry, The earliest Model '66 was manufactured at the same time the Henry was being phased out. Consequently, both rifles were manufactured concurrently. It is generally accepted by the collecting community that the first few Model '66's were serially numbered within the same range as the last few Henrys. Overlapping serials are seen on each side of the 13,000 to 14,000 serial ranges
The new model contained a number of modifications to the Henry rifle. The Most notable changes included a loading gate in the right side of the receiver, a completely enclosed magazine tube, and a wooden forearm. The new rifle retained essentially the same brass frame, brass butt plate, and wooden butt stock found on the Henry, The earliest Model '66 was manufactured at the same time the Henry was being phased out. Consequently, both rifles were manufactured concurrently. It is generally accepted by the collecting community that the first few Model '66's were serially numbered within the same range as the last few Henrys. Overlapping serials are seen on each side of the 13,000 to 14,000 serial ranges.
On page 102 of his book, Parsons concludes, "...it is the belief of the author that Model '66 serials began in Ike vicinity of 13,500, approximately where the Henrys left off." He went on to comment about lower serials. "A few specimens of the Model '66 have been reported with serial digits of three or four from 100 to 2611. While no explanation for their separate numbering is known, the frame characteristics of such pieces are later than those in the 14,000 range, yet most have inside serials which would date them in 1868, before serial 20,000." Parsons believed the low serials might have constituted a special order of about 3,000 guns, and that these guns were part of production in the year 1968. There was ample precedent for Parson's theory because there had been a few special foreign orders for several hundred Henry rifles, numbered within their own separate serial sequences.
At the time Parsons researched his book, the earliest known serial number for the ’66 was 13534. He studied several hundred serial numbers provided to him by collectors all over the United States. On page 103, Parsons concluded, "...the range of collectors, serials from 13,500 to 40,000 is quite complete, every thousand being represented with few exceptions."The fact that serials below 13,000 had not turned up suggested that initial serial numbers for the Model '66 started concurrently with serial sequences for the Henry rifle.
As an afterthought, Parsons added a footnote to his work in chapter IV. On page 49 he noted, "Since this chapter was written, the author has learned of several Henry rifles in the 14,000 serial range... but a Model 1666 Winchester carbine is known with serial 12,995… besides several in the 13,000 range. There was, therefore, an overlap in numbers as regards the Henry and its successor model."
In 1970, George Madis, noted Winchester authority and author of THE WINCHESTER BOOK, examined the records of Albert Tilton a long time employee of the Winchester Company. Madis examined these records, which dated back to 1867, at the Winchester Museum in New Haven Connecticut. On page 57 of his book, Madis stated that Tilton's records showed “…serial numbers assigned to the model 1866 were from 12,476 to 14,813 in the year 1866... " Thus, Madis narrowed the range of serials for early Model '66 production, to a specific serial range. In his various books and publications containing the dates of manufacture and production totals for all Winchesters, Madis lists the first serial number for the Model ’66 as 12476. This contrasts with most of the other Winchester models which start with the number “1”. However, there are exceptions with certain 20thcentury extensions of the model 1892 and model 1894. (Models 53, 55, 64, 65 serials were intermingled with their predecessor models’ serial sequences.) The overlapping of Henry and Model ’66 serials could have established such a precedent.
There is significant debate and speculation about how the new Model '66 was serially numbered and exactly when production for sale to the public began. Unfortunately, the manufacturing records prior to about 1875 have been lost or destroyed. From Parsons, we learn that the Model '66's with three digit or four digit serial numbers conform more closely to the physical characteristics of frames produced after the, 14,000 serial sequence. Therefore, legitimate speculation might classify these guns as a special order for overseas shipment.
In the July/August, 1991 issue of MAN AT ARMS, Herbert G. Houze, former curator of the Cody Firearms Museum, presented an argument that Model '66 production started with its own serial number sequence beginning with "1". In order to reach his conclusion, he assembled numerous original Winchester documents from museum files. All other speculation about the Model '66 serial number sequence, much of it based on those same documents, has been in direct contrast to Mr. Houze's premise.
In the January/February, 1992 issue of MAN AT ARMS, Wiley Sword offers a direct rebuttal to Houze’s earlier arguments. Both articles were well written and presented a multitude of facts, figures, and, most importantly, speculation. However, it is this writer's opinion that Sword's presentation is more logical and offers a more convincing argument that the Model '66 was, indeed, serially numbered within the latter stages of Henry rifle production. Sword concluded, "Since Mr. Houze's findings contrast with data previously published by such noted researchers and collectors as Tom E. Hall, Robert McMahon, John E. Parsons, and R.I. Wilson, his Is basically a revisionist concept As was concluded by the earlier researchers, At Model '66 was produced with serial numbers continuing from the bran framed Henry production, beginning with serial numbers about 13000 (#12476 lowest known M1866) and were intermixed with the last of the Henry rifles, some of which carried numbers into the 14000 range.”
Sword's reference to “...(#12476 lowest known M1866)... "coincides with Madis' research into Albert Tilton's records. In all the published material over the past 40 years relating to the Model '66, the ONLY documentary evidence relating to serial numbers assigned to the early Model '66 production is contained in Tilton's records. We also know from company records that the first Model '66 was a carbine.
There does exist a Model '66 carbine with serial number 12476 stamped in the correct location on the inside of the lower tang. As cited earlier, Tilton's records stated that this was the first serial number assigned to the Model '66. At some point the number was lightly marked over with a series of “X” marks and the tang stamped with an additional serial number 13024, which was also stamped on the butt stock, butt plate, and the bottom of the barrel. A small assembly number 25 was also stamped on the lower tang, and inside the left side plate.
In addition to various numerals stamped on the lower tang, the initials "L.D.N." are stamped inside the upper tang. These initials belong to Louis Daniel Nimschke, the foremost firearms engraver of his day. He was well known as an independent engraver who performed work for many gun makers. R. L. Wilson notes in his book, L.D. NIMSCHKE FIREARMS ENGRAVER, page xix, "The weapons to be engraved were brought to him, generally in the white (Le., without finish); they were engraved and then given a finish... " Wilson goes on to say, "Nimschke engraved guns made by better than 100 makers and manufacturers, with most of the work being done directly for them.”
W.A.C.A. Life Member
NRA Life Member
(J.L.. Skinner is a collector and student of Winchester arms. The '66 carbine described in this article is not for sale. The information is offered solely to expand the, body of knowledge about Winchesters. It also might help to promote additional research and interest in the field of Winchester collecting)