Henry Side Gate Lever Action Rifle: Gun Review

A gun historian tests out the brand new Side Gate rifle and explains the past lever gun innovations necessary for Henry to get here.

The newest addition to the lineup for Henry Repeating Arms is the Side Gate Lever Action Rifle, and it's likely to be a game changer for the lever gun market.

For years, there have been countless people telling Henry that they’d buy one of their rifles in an instant—if only it had a side loading gate like other modern lever guns from Marlin or Winchester. The concept has been around for more than a century and a half, so why didn’t Henry put a gate on their guns right away? To answer that, we’ve got to look at the history of the lever action rifle.

Benjamin Tyler Henry first introduced his lever action rifle in 1860. Cartridges were loaded from the muzzle end of the gun into a magazine tube mounted under the barrel, and the spent cartridges were ejected from the top of the gun. It allowed for reliable, repeating firepower which was a huge leap forward at the time.

The rifle, which could fire as fast as a shooter could work the action and pull the trigger and held 15 rounds in the mag tube, was touted as "the gun you load on Sunday and shoot all week." In a world of single-shot breech loaders, double guns, and muzzleloaders, that was really saying something.

But the design was not without its flaws. The magazine follower had an external tab that allowed the user to push it all the way forward to the muzzle and lock it in place while opening the mag tube end for loading. But when the gun was being fired, that tab moved ever closer to the shooter as rounds were expended. This meant shooters had to execute what was sometimes called the "Henry hop," which mean moving your support hand when the tab got to it or risk shucking an empty chamber. This also meant that the gun couldn't have a handguard—shooters simply held the magazine tube and the barrel.

The long channel for the follower could allow dirt and debris get into the mag tube, and the top ejection port didn't include any kind of dust cover, allowing another entry point for crud. This is part of the reason the Henry was never issued by the U.S. military, though some units did use the gun.

henry side gate rifle
The new Henry Side Gate rifle (top) and a Winchester 1894 top ejector rifle (bottom).T. Logan Metesh

The original Henry company was taken over by Winchester Repeating Arms and they soon introduced their Model 1866 rifle—the iconic Yellow Boy. This gun utilized a newly patented design by shop foreman Nelson King, which used a side gate for loading while still ejecting from the top. This allowed for easier reloading and the addition of a protective hand guard.

The side gate has been present on every Winchester lever action model since 1866.

Winchester’s Model 1894 has been the most popular lever gun of all time, with more than 7 million made since its introduction 125 years ago. Despite its popularity, it does have some shortcomings. The top-eject design necessitates holes to be drilled into the side of the frame to mount a scope with specialized hardware, and unfired rounds must be cycled through the action in order to unload the gun.

The new Side Gate Lever Action Rifle from Henry Repeating Arms is designed to go head-to-head with the iconic Winchester by improving some of the Winchester’s previously-mentioned shortcomings. Because modern Henry rifles have always loaded from the muzzle (though the mechanism has changed since the original Henry and the external follower is no more), they’ve always ejected from the side, like Marlin's lever guns. Henry kept this feature when they added the side gate.

henry side gate rifle  and winchester rifle
The flip-side of the Henry Side Gate and the Winchester 1894.T. Logan Metesh

This gave the gun the best aspects of both worlds. You can easily top off the magazine through the side gate and empty the gun through the magazine tube, both of which are safer than the alternatives. Of course, if you're loading a full mag tube, with practice you can do so from the muzzle end quite a bit faster than loading cartridges one-by-one through the loading gate.

The hardened brass receiver, used on several Henry models, has the same tensile strength as steel. Brass accents continue through the rifle with the buttplate and barrel band, and the American walnut furniture is set off by intricate, deep checkering. A semi-buckhorn rear and ivory bead front sight accompanies a 20″ round blued steel barrel.

And the receiver is drilled and tapped for scope bases or a rail.

the detailed engraved handguard of the henry side gate rifle
A closer look at the Henry Side Gate’s handguard.T. Logan Metesh

Available in .30-30 Winchester, .38-55 Winchester, and .35 Remington, the Henry Side Gate Lever Action Rifle is ready to take on the Winchester Model 1894 and the Marlin 1895 and give them a run for their money.

With an MSRP of $1,045, regardless of the caliber you choose, it definitely stands a chance of taking the title from Winchester in the coming decades.

Henry Side Gate Lever Action Rifle SPECS

  • CALIBER: .30-30 (also available in .38-55 and 35 Rem)
  • CAPACITY: 5 rounds
  • BARREL LENGTH: 20" – round blued steel
  • TWIST: 1:12"
  • OVERALL LENGTH: 38.3"
  • WEIGHT: 7.5 lbs.
  • RECEIVER: polished brass, drilled and tapped
  • REAR SIGHT: fully adjustable semi-buckhorn w/ diamind insert
  • FRONT SIGHT: ramp with .062" ivory bead
  • SCOPE MOUNT TYPE: Weaver 63B
  • STOCK: American Walnut w/ brass buttplate and 14" LOP
  • MSRP: $1,045