Pistol-caliber carbines may have their roots in the Old West but they still very much have a place in the modern world, especially for a defense and survival gun. Commonality of ammunition in sidearm and long arm make logistics much easier, especially if you’re stockpiling ammo for long-term or emergency use.

A handgun is useful for close quarters work, and convenient as you can carry it on your person at all times, but it doesn’t give the stability and sight radius, or ready ability to mount an optic, that a long arm does. Typically you also pick up more power and range when you switch to a long arm as well. Even though you’re still pushing a pistol-caliber round, you usually still gain a good bit of velocity out of a longer barrel which translates into more muzzle energy; so the same round that you’re packing in your handgun is going to hit a bit harder when you launch it from a longer rifle barrel.

While there are certainly a number of pistol-caliber carbines available today using auto pistol cartridges in semi-auto format, the classic pistol-caliber carbine dates back to the late 1800s in the form of the lever-action rifle. Henry Repeating Arms is one of the companies currently at the forefront of the lever action market. It may be the 21st Century but Henry continues to innovate when it comes to the classic lever gun and keeps up with customer demand with models such as its Big Boy Steel Carbine.

Shrinking Big Boy

Back in 2015, Henry Repeating Arm’s came out with their Big Boy Steel rifle with its 20-inch barrel chambered in .357 Magnum, .45 Colt, and .44 magnum and then later, due to popular demand, .41 Magnum. The steel frame and round barrel rifle made it lighter and trimmer than its octagon barreled, brass framed Big Boy cousin and gave it a more modern, sporting look. At only 7 pounds and 37.5 inches overall it was handy rifle in its own right, but trimming another 3.5 inches off of the barrel makes for an even handier and more compact package so that’s exactly what Henry did with the introduction of the Big Boy Steel Carbine.

The Henry Big Boy Steel Carbine is offered in the .357 Magnum, .45 Colt and .44 Magnum calibers as well as the recently announced .327 Federal Magnum. With its handy 16.5-inch barrel Henry trimmed the overall length down to just 34 inches overall and knocked a half pound off of the weight bringing it down to a svelte 6.5 pounds. Magazine capacity is reduced from 10 rounds to 7 in the carbine, which is still fairly respectable considering the Magnum handgun rounds that the platform is launching.

The finish on the Big Boy Steel Carbine is an even and attractive matte blue and the stocks are of a beautiful American Walnut with checkered forend and grip. Sling swivel studs and a soft recoil pad finish off the stock and make for comfy carry in the field and easy shooting on the shoulder. Unlike the rifle, the Carbine uses an oversized lever. It isn’t an exaggerated Rifleman’s loop lever but it’s plenty large for a gloved hand. Overall fit and finish is excellent and the Henry markings on the barrel of the gun are discrete and tasteful.

The Henry Big Boy Steel Carbine features a fully adjustable semi-buckhorn rear sight with a reversible white diamond insert and a brass beaded front sight as it comes from the factory, and is drilled and tapped for an optional scope rail. Like all of its traditional ancestors there is no manual safety to mar the lines of the Henry, but it does have a sliding transfer bar safety built into the hammer which makes it safe to carry the carbine with the hammer down with a round in the chamber. The lever on this Henry, like all of the other Henry’s I’ve shot in the past, is extremely smooth and easy to operate and the trigger is crisp and breaks right around 5 pounds.

Henry Handling

Before heading to the range I rounded up some .44 ammunition from both Federal and Sig Sauer. From Federal I ended up with their Fusion .44 Magnum 240-graing jacketed hollow point hunting loads and their Federal Premium .44 Magnum 240-grain Hydra-Shok jacketed hollow points personal defense loads. Sig Sauer sent me a .44 Magnum 240-grain V-Crown jacketed hollow point and a .44 Special 200-grain V-Crown jacketed hollow point load. I felt that this gave me a good cross section of both hunting and self-defense loads.

The Henry uses a solid receiver and loads via a port at the muzzle end of its tubular magazine, rather than a loading gate in the side of the receiver like you typically see in a Winchester or Marlin lever-action rifle or carbine. The tube feed mimics Henry’s .22-caliber rifles and I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about that when I first received the rifle. On the one hand, from an aesthetic standpoint, I liked the clean receiver lines that weren’t interrupted by a loading gate. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how cumbersome this loading method might be. As it turns out there are pros and cons to it.

As far as general loading goes, it’s very easy to do and possibly faster than thumbing rounds into a loading port. Simply grasp the knurled knob at the end of the magazine tube and twist the inner brass magazine spring assembly and slide it most of the way out of the magazine tube exposing the loading port. At that point you can quickly drop your seven rounds into the magazine, slide the spring assembly back in place and you’re done. Easy and efficient.

The down side is that while initial loading is quick, you can’t top off extra rounds as you shoot as readily as you can with a loading port. For hunting and range work this isn’t an issue at all. If you’re looking at the Henry as a defense gun then it’s something to be aware of. You won’t be doing any tactical reloads after firing a few shots unless you have good cover and two hands free to pull the inner mag tube out and reload. In total fairness, the Henry was never designed as a defense gun and this system works just fine for its primary role.

Unloading is also easy since all you need to do is pull the magazine assembly and dump the magazine and then clear the chamber, rather than having to rack all of the rounds through the action like you would with a Winchester or Marlin pattern gun.

Range Work

Once I had the basic operation of the Henry Big Boy Steel Carbine down, I hit the range on a cool fall day with a light breeze and intermittent cloud cover. I did my chronograph work first, then some offhand shooting to familiarize myself with the gun before sitting down to shoot it for groups.

One of the first things I noted was the increase in velocity from a handgun barrel to the 16.5-inch carbine barrel. Sig lists the velocity of their .44 Magnum loads at 1300 fps and 900 foot pounds of muzzle energy whereas my average velocity from the carbine was right around 1600 fps, a respectable increase of 300 fps which bumps your muzzle energy up to a whopping 1364 foot pounds. Their .44 Special load is listed at 700 fps and 218 foot pounds which bumped up to 862 fps and 330 foot pounds of energy. You can see the gain the extra barrel length gives you, and also the difference in power from the .44 Special to the .44 Magnum rounds.

While the .44 Magnum may not be the most powerful handgun in the world anymore, to paraphrase Dirty Harry, it’s still a potent round and produces a goodly amount of recoil in a handgun. In the all steel Henry though it’s quite manageable and not unpleasant at all. The .44 Specials rounds were exceptionally mild with barely noticeable recoil. After chronographing my test ammunition my buddy Jeremy and I did some plinking at clay birds and rocks on the backstop of the shooting bay we were using. We found that the Henry was very pleasant to shoot, even with the magnum loads, and was extremely fast handling. The light weight and short barrel made it point very naturally and it was fast to get on target. Follow-up shots from the shoulder were easy as well, thanks in large part to the Henry’s smooth action.

We moved to the 50-yard range for accuracy testing feeling that this reflecting a practical range for what is essentially a perfect brush gun for the Western Pennsylvania woodlands where we live, and also for any sort of urban defense use. You certainly could take the Henry out further than that but personally I think I’d take advantage of the drilled and tapped receiver and add optics if I were going to do so. The buckhorn sights provided with the rifle give a good sight picture and are fast to pick up, which is perfect for moving game and close-in targets.

The Henry can and did shoot well, but I think out past 50 yards our 40-something-year-old eyes would have had some trouble keeping things tight with the iron sights. As it is, using just the irons, our best five-shot groups came in around 1.5 inches with our overall average being in the 2.5-inch range. I suspect that we’d have tightened things up with a scope but we wanted to keep the carbine trim and shoot it as it came out of the box. Sub 2.5-inch groups are plenty good for defensive or game use and shooting offhand at 50 yards we had no issues tagging clay birds on the dirt backstop.

The Henry Big Boy’s Role

The Henry Big Boy Steel Carbine proved to be fast, slick handling gun that’s built with an Old World quality we don’t often see these days. It has an obvious niche as a fantastic brush gun for hunting medium sized game like deer and hogs and it would be a great ranch gun as well for either the truck or horseback use. The ability to use the non-magnum calibers as well also opens up the use of the rifles on smaller game, especially in the .38 and .32 variants. In the heavier calibers, like the .44 Mag tested, it’d be a handy companion in bear country. The fact that you can pair it up with a handgun and only have to carry and stock one type of ammunition is a big asset for folks concerned with the logistics of ammo storage and availability, or reloading.

As far as defensive capabilities go, the lever action is no slouch. They certainly held their own in the Old West and continued to fill the rifle racks of law enforcement well up into the 1960s or so. The compact size, especially of a gun like the Big Boy Steel Carbine, makes them easy to store and have handy and fast to bring into play. Follow-up shots are fast. If you doubt that, take a look at some of the folks on the Cowboy Action Shooting circuit some day and watch how fast they can run a lever gun.

The only real downside is ammunition capacity and reload time. Even there, seven rounds of magnum pistol ammunition is nothing to scoff at. It’s especially a consideration for those of you still living in states or areas with a so-called “assault weapon” ban where a magazine-fed semi-auto isn’t an option anyway. When it comes to filling your firearm toolbox for long-term survival the pistol-caliber lever gun has a lot to offer. A quality offering like the Henry Big Boy Steel Carbine, in whatever caliber matches up with your sidearm, would fill that niche nicely.


Action: Lever

Caliber: .44 Magnum/.44 Special. .45 Colt, .357 Magnum/.38 Special, .327 Federal Magnum/.32 H&R Magnum

Capacity: 7

Length: 34 inches

Barrel Length: 16.5 inches

Weight: 6.5 pounds

Stock: Checkered American Walnut

Sights: Fully adjustable semi-buckhorn rear with adjustable white diamond insert and brass beaded front sight

Receiver: Blued steel receiver, barrel and lever

MSRP: $850

For more information on Henry’s complete line of trail-ready rifles, visit

This article is from “Survivor’s Edge” Fall 2017. To order a copy, visit

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