Alexander Henry (gun maker)

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Alexander Henry
Photo held by The City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries; Museum of Edinburgh’, donated by Charles Henry Brown
Photo held by The City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries. Inscription reads: "The First Scottish Volunteer March 1859"
Born Alexander Henry
(1818-06-04)June 4, 1818
Died January 27, 1894(1894-01-27) (aged 75)
Cause of death Concussion of Brain together with Pneumonia
Resting place Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh
Nationality Scottish
Occupation Rifle and shotgun maker
Known for Martini–Henry rifle

Alexander Henry (1818-1894) was a Scottish gun maker, based in Edinburgh, and designer of the Henry rifling and barrel used in the Martini–Henry rifle.[1]

He submitted a rifle to the competition organised by the British government for a replacement to their existing Snider–Enfield service weapon. Ironically, his breech action and barrel were both judged to be the best (and won the prizes) but the War Office did not adopt its action, preferring that of von Martini, but did adopt its seven-grooved barrel rifling scheme. The resulting Martini-Henry rifle is named after von Martini and himself.

Henry is a fascinating character – from a number of personal tragedies in his family, to some disastrous other business ventures, but he also was the "First Volunteer" – the first signatory to the creation of the Queen’s Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers, moderator of the High Constables of Edinburgh, a JP, freemason and Edinburgh town councillor.

In 1872 he was appointed "gun and rifle manufacturer to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales".

In 1873, one of his double rifles was specially made by Henry for Queen Victoria in 1873 and presented it to her personal servant John Brown for Christmas that year. The “extremely rare” Royal .450 double-barrelled hammer rifle recently made £35000 at auction.

He and his wife Isabella had nine children : Eliza Mackay, Jemima Janet, James Alexander (accidentally shot and killed by his father in 1860, aged 12), William Orchardson (died aged 2), Isabella, a stillborn child, Alexander (Alick), Alice Mills (died aged 1) and John Chave Luxmoore Henry. When Alexander Henry died, he left the business to Alick and John.

His obituary in the Scotsman is a good summary (although he was actually apprenticed at age 12 to Thomas Mortimer):

"DEATH OF MR HENRY, THE GUNMAKER - Mr Alex. Henry, whose name is a familiar one in connection with the improvement of the modern rifle, died at his residence at Bellevue Crescent, Edinburgh, on Saturday night, at the ripe age of seventy-six, after about a fortnight's illness. He was a native of Leith. In his seventeenth year he was apprenticed to Mr Mortimer, gunmaker in Edinburgh, and in due course he started in business on his own account.

He seems at an early period to have taken an interest in the improvement of firearms, and the nature of his business led him also to take a leading part in the Volunteer movement. Indeed it was claimed for him that he was the father of the Scottish Volunteers. As early as 1859 the late Anthony Macrae, W.S., and he were associated in the endeavour to start a Volunteer corps in Edinburgh, in connection with the movement which was then common throughout the country, owing to the unsettled state of affairs on the Continent.

A list of citizens favourable to the idea, and headed by Mr Henry's name, was published, but the movement was not taken up heartily until the promulgation, later in the same year, of the Derby Government War Office circular. In consequence of this, the Lieutenancy of the city having moved in the matter, The First Citizens' Company was formed. Mr Henry for a time served in the ranks as a private, but subsequently became Armourer-Sergeant of what was them known as the Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers.

In recognition of his devoted services to the Queen's Rifle Volunteers Brigade, he was offered in 1870 the appointment of quartermaster, with the rank of Lieutenant, and four years later he received the honorary rank of Captain. As Quartermaster he was a well-known figure at the regimental camps. It may be guessed that he took a deep interest in fostering the shooting efficient of the Brigade. In connection with the early musketry of the Brigade, he presented a valuable gold medal to the best shot. At the first gathering at Wimbledon in 1860 he brought credit to himself and the corps by getting a place among the Queen's "Twenty" and tying for the silver medal. He took a deep interest in the City, and Mid-Lothian Rifle Association, at whose meeting one of the chief prizes was the "Henry" Challenge Vase. He retired from the service in 1889, on which occasion the following district order was issued:-

"Headquarters, Edinburgh, September 6, 1889 - The Major-General commanding the forces in North Britain regrets that Captain and Quartermaster Henry, of the Queen's Rifle Volunteer Brigade, is retiring from active service with his corps. The Major-General wishes to take this opportunity of recording his appreciation of Captain Henry's valuable services, not only to his regiment, but to the army at large, more especially with regard to his scientific researches concerning the Government rifle, and to his liberality in offering prizes to stimulate good shooting among the Volunteers - By Order"

It is by reason of his scientific researches that Mr Henry's name has been most widely known. The principal result of these was the well-known gun barrel and ammunition which bear his name. The barrel was invented in 1859, but the Government was slow to recognise its utility, and it was only in 1871 that, after a series of exhaustive trials, it was recommended for adoption by the British Army in a gun in which the Henry barrel was conjoined with the Martini breech action.

The first issue of the Martini-Henry rifle was made to the army in 1874, and it gradually superseded the older Snider breech-loader. The strong points of the rifle were its extreme accuracy at all ranges, the simplicity of its action, and the great penetrative power of the bullet; and in its day it was the finest weapon of the kind in Europe, The barrel was of calibre .45 of an inch, and its peculiarity was that it had seven grooves which made a complete turn in twenty-two inches. The grip of the barrel on the rifle was further increased by the fact that between the grooves there were angular projections so that the bullet, in its passage down the barrel, had fourteen bearing surfaces. In addition to the barrel used in the Martini-Henry combination, Mr Henry also invented a complete rifle, which was adopted by the Government of New South Wales. In 1876 Mr Henry was returned to the Town Council as a representative of St George's Ward, and he continued to sit till about 1885 as the colleague of the late Mr John Hope and Sir Thomas Clark. He was a justice of the peace of the city, and an active Freemason. Mr Henry is survived by two sons and three daughters."

His grave is in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh.


  1. ^ Walter, John (2006). Rifles of the World. Krause Publications. pp. 118, 173. ISBN 978-0-89689-241-5.