Remembering the Edinburgh gunmaker who armed the British Empire

This Wednesday, 6 June 2018, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Edinburgh's most illustrious sons'¦ but many may not have heard of him. Alexander Henry was respected the world over as a manufacturer of top class sporting rifles and shotguns in the second half of the 19th century, and all were made in Edinburgh. He also invented 'Henry rifling' which at the time made rifles much more accurate, and he gave his name '“ and barrel '“ to the famous Martini Henry rifle '“ the iconic weapon of the British Empire.

Edinburgh gunmaker Alexander Henry, who invented Henry rifling and helped arm the British Empire

As Henry’s great great grandson, I’ve always been fascinated by his life, as so little was known. In my collaboration with gunmaking historian Donald Dallas on his book Alexander Henry Rifle Maker I found out so much, about family tragedies and business issues, alongside his inventiveness and successes. This was helped enormously by a book of letter copies passed down through the family, written by Henry during the 1870s, his time of “troublesome business”.

Henry’s father James died when he was just 11 months old. A year later, his mother Janet remarried, to a blacksmith called John Scott. John’s own son is listed as a “journeyman blacksmith”, and Alexander as a “journeyman gunmaker” aged 22, in the same house in Leith in 1841. Presumably this is where Henry’s interest in working with metal came from.

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When Alexander and his wife Isabella had their first son in 1848, they named him James after his late father. James frequently helped his father but in a tragic accident, Henry shot his 12-year-old son dead in September 1860, at Henry’s private shooting range off Easter Road in Edinburgh, very close to what is Hibernian FC’s stadium today.

Henry rifling

It says something about the man that he continued in the business at all, let alone ever picked up a rifle again. The effect on the family must have been devastating. However, Henry must have known he was on the verge of something, because only six weeks after the accident, he registered his famous patent no. 2802 of 15 November 1860 for what became known as “Henry rifling”. It was then that his business really started to take off. Therefore, it is very likely that the first person killed by Henry rifling was his own son James.

A week later, The Scotsman reported:

Extraordinary Rifle Shooting

“A new rifle, the peculiar grooving of which has been patterned and patented by Mr Alexander Henry, gunmaker, S St Andrew Street, has within the last week been tried at ranges from 200 yards to a mile, and the results have been certainly equal, if not superior to those of any rifle we have heard of.”

“Father” of the Volunteer movement

Henry put a sign up in his shop and was the first to put his name to the new Queen’s Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers in 1859. He is known as the “Father” of the Volunteer movement in Edinburgh. The movement promoted rifle practice across Great Britain and in later years would become the Territorial Army.

The Martini Henry rifle

The War Department competition for the design of a new British Army rifle finally decided on the action submitted by Count von Martini, and Henry’s barrel, which became the Martini Henry rifle of Zulu wars fame. This always rankled with Henry as he’d won both the action and barrel prizes in the competition, but Martini’s action was chosen based on lesser cost and fewer parts.

Henry v Farquharson

John Farquharson was a Perthshire gamekeeper who shot with Henry, and for Henry, at national competitions over many years, but the two men fell out over Farquharson hanging around Henry’s workshops and asking too many questions of his men. This came to a head in 1872 when a long-running patent dispute over improvements to breech-loading firearms went to court. To his astonishment the court found in favour of Farquharson the gamekeeper, later literally turned poacher, instead of Henry with his 40 years of experience in the gun trade.

In March 1873, Henry wrote to gun maker Samuel Allport, “It seemed a very hard matter that anyone who may have spent the best part of their lifetime in communion with and in the improvement of any article, should be unscrupulously deprived of the advantages of their labour, by the dishonesty of any ungrateful cunning rascal, backed up by jealous and disingenuous rivals in business, to suit their own selfish ends.”

Almost immediately after the court case, Farquharson’s patent was reassigned to John Farquharson, gunmakers George Gibbs and William Metford, and a Thomas Pitt. Henry clearly believed Farquharson was the “rascal” and they were the “jealous and disingenuous rivals”.

Troublesome business

Henry was swindled out of £3,000 (a huge sum in the 1870s) by a JD Wormald W.S., over a loan for a share of Craiglockhart estate, which the city was selling at the time for development. Henry wrote to John Moore in February 1875, “I have been very much engaged in troublesome business which prevented my writing to you sooner.” He also lost a lot of money through investment in the Highland Peat Fuel Company (Company Secretary – one JD Wormald). Wormald went to prison for other offences – the Henry fraud charge was dropped – and was only the second WS to be struck off.

Connections with Royalty

Henry’s rifles and shotguns were very popular with the British Royal family. The Prince of Wales was particularly enthusiastic, buying several Henry shotguns and hunting rifles over the years. Queen Victoria commissioned Henry to make a double-barrelled rifle as a present for ghillie John Brown for Christmas 1873. This sold recently at Bonham’s for £35,000. Many princes, lords, earls, counts and maharajas feature in his order books which still exist today.

After Henry’s death

Henry led a very full life outside his profession, having been a Justice of the Peace, Edinburgh town councillor, captain of Earlsferry and Elie Golf club, elder of his church, and Moderator of the High Constables of Edinburgh, one of the most prestigious roles in his home city. He died at 10 Bellevue Crescent, Edinburgh in 1894, a world class gunmaker, very well-respected citizen and loving father, and is buried in Warriston cemetery with his wife and son James.

In his will, he left the business to his surviving sons Alick and John (John, on condition that he was paid off if he just wasn’t interested). Imagine if Henry knew they put the business up for sale within six weeks of his death. It took some time to sell, and from there Alexander Henry Ltd was born, but the business was never really the same without his direction.

His son James, even at the age of 12 (Henry’s own age when he started his gunmaking apprenticeship), was showing signs of great interest in his father’s work, when he tragically died. It has been said that Alexander Henry was “never the same again”.

Had it not been for that accident, we could have been talking to this day about Henry and Son, or Henry and Henry, just as we do famous gunmaking families such as James Purdey and Sons, or Holland and Holland.

A display “Alexander Henry – Rifling through a life” is at the People’s Story Museum, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, from 
8 June-9 September 2018.
Alexander Henry Rifle Maker by Donald Dallas is available from, £60.