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Gold watches, gold coins, gold teeth and gold guns are all status symbols to own and show off with pride. For over 4,000 years, gold has been used to decorate personal possessions and bodies, not to mention for trade purposes in the form of money and other liquid assets. Gold is relatively hard to find; it’s shiny, it’s pretty, it’s expensive, it’s cool, it doesn’t corrode and not everybody can afford it. What’s not to like?

Silver shares much of the history and appeal of gold, with many of the same uses—object decoration, jewelry, money and so on. It’s also relatively hard to find, shiny, pretty and cool as a precious metal, but not nearly as expensive as gold. Silver is, by far, the more widely used of the two, and it offers a chance to add some bling without going overly gaudy or overly broke.

Both metals have been applied to firearms for centuries. Gold was initially used to fill in engraved designs on guns intended for royalty and other members of the ruling gentry far beyond anything that the hoi polloi could afford. Gold was an obvious choice for this because it was soft in purer forms for hammering into patterns cut in harder metals, and it didn’t tarnish. Silver was also used for inlaying, but pure silver has a tendency to blacken with handling and age, and it needs regular polishing (or an alloy composition) to stay bright.

Later on, when the early electroplating process was discovered by an Italian chemist in 1805, it took another 30 years to get off the ground for industrial purposes, and both metals were used for plating then and still are, but the oldest plating material widely applied to gun parts was nickel, roughly 160 years ago. Nickel was the first of the practical “shiny” finish upgrade materials, and it remains a popular option today for firearms because it’s cheap, reasonably durable, can be just as shiny as silver, doesn’t tarnish quite like silver, resists corrosion and fills in minute surface imperfections quite well. It sets off a prized handgun or rifle nicely without looking like you’re trying too hard to impress others.

Highly engraved, nickeled presentation rifles were well known in the 1860 to 1900 era. Plainer versions of plated rifles were valued on the frontier for their everyday utility as much as their show-off factor, and both Smith & Wesson and Colt have offered nickeled products for looks and rough use in hard climates since their very early days.

Gold’s the ultimate expression of “Hey, look at me!” in high-dollar guns, but gold plating can be very expensive for more than just small parts enhancements, and silver isn’t practical for the aforementioned reasons. Our modern nickel-plating processes are much more refined than in the mid-1800s, showing far better resistance to wear and flaking in high-contact areas with extensive handling and friction, and nickel remains a very viable choice. There are stronger plating finishes available nowadays, but they’re usually expensive aftermarket services that involve shipping your gun off for several weeks.

If you happen to be a traditional lever-gunner in the market for a classic nickel look, Henry Repeating Arms offers a wide selection of rimfire and centerfire models, engraved or plain, that come all shined up and ready to go right out of the box. These are all buy-it-today, shoot-it-today models without the hassle and wait of using a custom shop. The rimfires feature internal receivers and external receiver covers made of Zamak 5 alloy with nickel plating on the covers and appropriate receiver sections, and their barrel bands and buttplates are also nickel plated. The regular-edition centerfires use solid aluminum/bronze alloy receivers that are naturally silver in color, with only a high polish and no need for plating. So, without further ado, here are some of the best members of the Henry Silver Series.

For more information about the Henry Silver Series, visit henryrifles.com.

This article was originally published in “Guns of the Old West” Winter 2017. To order a copy and subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.

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