The Legacy of Serial #9
Arguably the most well-known 1860’s era Henry rifle is the gold-laden and intricately engraved serial number #6, which is now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, for this is the rifle that was presented to Abraham Lincoln. Its history, provenance, and spectacular finish earned it a Gold Medal from the NRA’s Collectors Society. This particular rifle wasn’t always meant to be a collector’s piece though. The New Haven Arms Company, more specifically Oliver Winchester, presented this rifle to Abraham Lincoln as more of a nudge and a wink in attempt to influence Lincoln into purchasing them en masse for the war efforts. And while the Henry rifle never saw widespread use during the war, mostly due to its price, serial #6 wasn’t the only attempt at winning a political leader’s influence to sell more rifles.
Gideon Welles, who came from a very politically involved family in Connecticut, found himself at the helm of the United States Navy in March 1861. Lincoln bestowed the honor unto Welles due to his fervent support of Lincoln’s run for the presidency in 1860. To curry favor from the new Secretary of the US Navy, and as an act of clever advertising, New Haven Arms Company presented Welles with a Henry rifle bearing serial number #9 in 1862. The silver-plated long gun features vine scrollwork engraving covering the vast majority of the receiver with a small rectangular space in the middle for Gideon Welles’ name and the words, “Secretary Navy.” Only a little over 1,700 Henry rifles ended up being sold to the US Ordnance Department, but the presentation rifles built during this era survive as shining examples of artistic gunsmithing.
To the discerning Henry Repeating Arms fan, Serial #9 may look familiar. And for a good reason. The rifle presented to Welles is the inspiration behind the Henry Silver Eagle, the very first rifle in Henry’s aptly named Silver Series. Despite being two completely different platforms, the contrast of the gleaming silver and the dark walnut combined with the expansive engraving ends up working remarkably well for the modern era Henry Silver Eagle.
While there will be only one serial #9, which now resides in the Autry Museum of the American West, the spirit of craftsmanship and its undeniable good looks will live on in the hands of thousands across America. Firearms are a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, they’re pieces to add to a collection built over a lifetime. For others, they’re a tool used to complete a job, like hunting. But one thing that all firearms have in common is a connection to the past. Shoulder a modern-day Henry Silver Eagle, and you’re connecting yourself not only to a collectible, or a small game getter, or a weekend steel plinker, but you’re also connecting yourself to a moment in history over 150 years ago when Gideon Welles was first handed his Serial #9.