One of the Harder Ones - Alexander Henry's 20 Bore/.577

By Tony Orr
This article first appeared in THE BIG GAME EXPRESS, journal of the Big Game Rifle Club of Australia, No.73, July 2000.

A nice example of the British double express by Alex Henry.

I was about to step back out into the glare of Melbourne's Whitehorse Road, when something in a dim corner of the Century Arms gun-rack caught my eye. Straining for a better look, I experienced that tiny flutter as the unmistakable shape of a classic old black powder double came into focus. A closer examination revealed that the rifle was in a somewhat sorry state, with patches of dry rot in the fore-end and wrist, and a cracked toe on the pistol grip. The locks were held to the gun with brown packaging tape due to the absence of the retaining screw, and the right hand mainspring, nipple, and firing pin were missing. Perfect! Not only might I be able to afford it, but it would also nurture my insatiable desire to resurrect old classics and get them bellowing once again.

The rifle turned out to be a beautiful example of Alexander Henry's best workmanship from the latter part of the nineteenth century, with a Jones' Patent under-lever and back-actioned rebounding locks. Although the bores showed light peppery pitting throughout, the original Henry rifling was in pretty good shape. The wonderfully figured stock features Henry's characteristic shadow-line cheek-piece, with trap grip-cap and laminated horn butt plate. The fore-end is lever-locked although only one screw was securing the iron to the stock-wood at the time of purchase. Externally, the metalwork carried that marvelous silver-brown appearance which is often referred to as "patina" but is really smoothly worn rust.

…and the engraving! Even the folding sight leaves feature full coverage of fine scroll. The grip-cap, hammers and top tang are works of art. The action body and lock-plates show only about 70% cover, but the work is very fine, and faultless. Typical Alexander Henry.

The chambering is typical Alex Henry as well, one of his proprietary cartridges made by necking down the 20 bore 2 3/4 inch brass rifle case to .585 inch. The original load carried a 560 or 570 grain patched lead projectile ahead of 167 grains of black powder, exactly duplicating the more common .577 3 inch Express.

So, to work. The first requirement was to get the locks attached to the rifle! Fortunately, my store of spare parts offered up a long cheese-head screw with the correct thread to serve as the lock retaining pin, so after a little lathe-work to alter the length and head dimensions, I could at least dispense with the packaging tape.

Daughter Nicole enjoys shooting the old classic.

A further search of the spare parts bin turned up a nipple from an old pommie shotgun which had the correct thread, but an oversized hex-head. More work for my poor lathe, followed by some careful filing, and the job was done. The replacement firing pin was no trouble either, so now all that prevented proper functioning of the locks was a mainspring. What fun that proved to be!

I'm rather embarrassed to admit this, but my first attempt at making a spring, by copying the existing one, resulted in a roughed-out mirror image but with the locating pin on the wrong side! Oh well, start again then! For anyone who has never attempted to make and fit a mainspring from scratch, I can thoroughly recommend the experience as good occupational therapy (...although therapy of a different kind may be required afterwards!). Even though the work will rarely be seen, I spent a lot of time shaping and polishing to achieve a worthy match. Eventually the new spring was fitted, and although the rebound sear is slightly shorter than planned, the action of both locks feels identical and the replacement spring has never failed me.

The next hurdle of course was to be ammunition. Simple, I thought. If Alex Henry could neck down 20-bore brass cases, why not do the same? A few phone calls quickly revealed that brass 20 bore cases in this country were fairly scarce. The fine berdan-primed CBC cases were occasionally available, however they were only 2 ½ inches long, so no joy there. Since the .600 Nitro case is roughly equivalent to a 3 inch 20 bore, a chat with Bruce Bertram resulted in the delivery of a couple of sample .600s together with his .600/.577, better known as the .577 Rewa. The micrometer revealed that a shortened Rewa case could work with shoulder pushed back and some lathe work on the rim. Thank you, Bruce.

My phone calls had also revealed that Clive H. once owned one of these things, and a set of Peter Davern's full-length sizing dies had accompanied its sale to Barry E. who remained the proud owner. I simply can't thank these guys enough. After boosting Telstra's profits still further, the agreed plan was as follows: I take delivery of the Bertram Rewa cases in Darwin, reduce the overall length to 2 ¾ inches, reduce the rim thickness from 65 to 54 thou (to exactly fit my gun's headspace), and reduce the rim diameter from .80 to .75 inch. I then send cases and Barry sends dies to Clive, who completes the full-length sizing and posts cases back to me, dies back to Barry.

The first boar to fall to the Alex Henry.

OK, so that gets me my first twenty shots. What then? I decided to make up a neck-sizing die by a quick and easy method I had used before. Cheap Lee RGB dies in .45/70 were softened and bored out with a slight taper and abrupt shoulder to perfectly neck size the fired 20/.577 cases. Only the neck enters the die. My long-suffering excuse for a lathe had trouble handling the boring job, however with generous assistance from Ray West and his monster machine the task was soon accomplished. I am further indebted. The seating die received similar treatment, but with a permanent epoxy resin seater stem molded in over a loaded cartridge (using 'Glad-wrap' as the release agent!). Now to business....

Ah, not quite. Another potential hurdle awaited me in bullet selection. My intention was always to make up a light nitro load with jacketed bullets. In this way I could keep the pressure down, get the best accuracy out of the lightly pitted barrels, and hunt all day in the humid tropics without having to wipe the bore. The excellent Woodleigh 650 grain bullet was the obvious choice, with the thin jacket and soft core which works so well in large bore Henry rifling, however I had my doubts about its ability to stabilize in the 'one-turn-per-football-field' twist rate of Henry's barrels.

A quick call to Shirley and Geoff McDonald resulted in the generous offer of a fist-full of 'shop-soiled' .577 projectiles to test in the rifle prior to parting with the readies. Top people! Anyway, turns out there was no cause for alarm. After working up cautiously from a low 75 grains of AR2208, I eventually settled on 93 grains behind the 650 grain bullet, with a half-inch saddle-felt wad to take up the space. Primers are the excellent Remington 9 1/2 M bought locally in Darwin.

This load cuts beautiful snake-eyes just above the 10-X at 25 meters, and groups about 2 inches apart at 50 meters. Composite groups average around 3 1/2 inches wide by 2 inches high at the latter distance, shot standing with a post support (I don't like sitting down to shoot this firearm!). Velocity is around 1650 fps at the muzzle, and you can't get the smile off my face. Graeme Wright's new book, with its pressure data for the .577 3 inch 'nitro for black' load, has encouraged me to add another grain or two of powder to finally bring the barrel groups tightly together. It looks like I should be able to sneak over the 1700 fps mark with pressure still safely below 8 tons.

By this stage more than 18 months had passed, and I was itching to see how the old girl would perform in the field. Henry didn't build his lovely express rifles for punching paper: they were, and still are, the essential hunter's arm. Unfortunately the 'wet' got started a bit early last year, with some rain falling nearly every day from October 1st, but I was determined to check out a couple of old haunts 'down the track'.

Carrying an 11 pound double all day in the heat and humidity of a Top End 'build-up' might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I can think of few better ways to spend a weekend. Wandering alone for miles on foot through remote bush, with only a heavy double for company, effectively removes the last 100 years worth of 'progress' with all its trappings. The hunter finds himself on a level playing field with the likes of Baker, Selous, Neumann, et al (if only for a few hours at a time!). Marvelous stuff!

Buffalo killed with a single 650 grain Woodleigh from 70 meters.

The first day afield with the Alex Henry saw a rather shaky start however, with no less than three blown chances on buffalo due to the swirling and unpredictable 'build-up' breezes. I also missed a chance at a good boar jumped from his bed under a pandanus, by cocking the left hammer and trying to pull the front trigger! I now cock both hammers, regardless!

Eventually I completed a successful stalk on a mob of feral horses grazing up a low ridgeline, and flattened the lead mare from about 40 paces. It was just like dropping a piano on the unfortunate equine. At the shot, a cloud of dust appeared with four hooves pointing skyward!

The projectile had struck the feeding animal on the front of the right shoulder and penetrated well over a meter to the left hip. It expanded to 1.2 inches across and still weighed 531 grains. Who could ask for better performance?

One of the small mobs of buffalo seen earlier had included a respectable bull, which inspired a couple of successive trips back to the same area. The next weekend yielded a very good boar of well over 100 kilos in the gully below the brumby carcass, stalked in his wallow and shot from about 15 meters. The bullet passed through both shoulders into the mud and was not recovered. He never knew what hit him. I was really beginning to like this rifle!

After passing up lesser game all day, I was trudging exhausted back along a creekline towards the car, when a pair of reasonable buffs emerged from a hidden wallow. They stood facing me at about 70 meters, so I shot the bull nicely under the chin. He staggered off for about 50 meters, and as I stalked in thinking a finisher might be needed, over he went. He fell so heavily that one horn stuck deeply into the soft earth and was very difficult to extract!

A week later I combed the area again looking for the big bull, but by this time the whole place was getting pretty wet and although I was on fresh sign all day, I never saw so much as a hair. A careful stalk past the remains of last week's buffalo yielded another top quality boar, jumped from his wallow but standing for the shot at about 20 paces. Hit high on the shoulder, he was flattened instantly but the projectile didn't exit. After removing the jaw I began searching for the bullet amid the wreckage of gristle and bone, but was having a bit of trouble finding it in such a tough animal.

At that point a huge tropical storm broke directly overhead, complete with much lightning and thunder, and as the car was still miles away I abandoned my dissection and set off. Striding back through the lashing rain I was soon drenched to the skin, but derived much inner comfort from the fine old Alex Henry in one hand, and an exceptional pair of trophy tusks in the other. I knew this would be my last hunt for the year, and was lucky not to get the vehicle bogged on the track out.

So, what's next? A re-stock is probably on the cards eventually, but for now I'll carefully patch the existing wood, which is far too beautiful to simply discard. Rainy days can be spent making screws to replace the motley selection in the fore-end, while I wait impatiently for the next dry season. Meanwhile, the occasional big game rifle shoot at the Micket Creek Range in Darwin should help satisfy the urge to burn a bit of nitro. One of these days we'll get a Big Game Rifle Club organized for the Territory!

Was it all worth it? Most serious rifle enthusiasts would acknowledge the enormous satisfaction to be derived from restoring an old stager like this Alex Henry, and returning it to the game fields well over a century later. I have other doubles which are easier to carry and shoot, and comparatively simple to load for, but the extra effort required to resurrect this lovely old rifle has certainly resulted in increased pride of ownership and a greater personal reward.

This big tusker dropped to a high shoulder shot.