Italian gun maker Beretta will soon celebrate its 500th anniversary. The world’s oldest firearms manufacturer was founded in 1526. That’s less than 40 years after the Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. And nearly three centuries before the Remington Arms Company started producing firearms in the United States. This leads us to Henry Repeating Arms and its milestone anniversary.
Henry Repeating Arms Celebrates 25 Years
Italian, Brooklyn-born Anthony Imperato, will mark the more modest but still notable silver anniversary of his firearms firm this year. It was 25 years ago, in March of 1997, that Henry Repeating Arms entered the market.
And it didn’t do it with a modern black gun or polymer-framed semi-automatic pistol. But rather with a classic lever-action rifle—the H001 Classic Lever Action .22.
It may have seemed like a bold move to bring out such a firearm at the time, but the result has paid off. Fast forward two and a half decades and the aforementioned Remington Arms had been forced into bankruptcy.
Yet, even before the record sales of firearms that began during the global coronavirus pandemic, Henry Repeating Arms made its mark in the world and became one of the leading firearms manufacturers in the United States.
Today, in just a quarter of a century, the company is now one of the largest long gun makers and is the leading manufacturer of lever-action rifles.
“I’m going to pat the company on the back; we should take full credit for reviving interest in what was really the most American of firearms innovations,” said Imperato.
“When we brought out the H001, Winchester had been in bankruptcy and closed its New Haven, Connecticut, facility, and Marlin—the leader at the time in lever actions—was waning. The feeling from the industry was that interest in lever-actions was on the decline, and the platform wasn’t going to last.”
Imperato and Henry Repeating Arms certainly went on to prove that this line of thinking completely misread the market. The gunmaker revived interest, but perhaps it was always to be.
When his ancestors arrived at Ellis Island as immigrants from “the boot,” the spelling of the family name was changed to Imperato. In Italian this could be read “to rule or command.”
Since its founding in 1997, Henry Repeating Arms has become one of the most successful firearms stories in modern history.
Echoes of the Past
Imperato’s company has no affiliation or linage to Benjamin Tyler Henry or the New Haven Arms Company. Yet it is truly its spiritual successor in every sense of the word. And it brought back the lever action and took it to a new level.
“The lever action is America’s unique contribution to the world of firearms,” Imperato told Guns of the Old West. “It is the only one that was really birthed here. Revolvers, bolt action, semi-automatic; those all made it to America, but lever action is a true American contribution and they’re known for their reliability.”
And it began in Brooklyn, New York, which no doubt might seem like an odd place to launch a firearms company that was marketing guns that are practically synonymous with the frontier. However, “Back East” was where the guns used in the Old West typically came from. And Imperato doesn’t try to hide from his roots.
“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker and I live in Tribeca but I’m not too far from where Samuel Colt’s office was in Lower Manhattan. The first Western movie, The Great Train Robbery, was filmed in New York City and New Jersey. We’re also not far from New England’s ‘Gun Valley,’ where Remington, Smith & Wesson and other gun makers set up shop. We just came a century or so later.”
The family ties to the Big Apple run deep. In 1911, his grandfather opened a shop that supplied the NYPD with various accessories. That shop, which was located in Chinatown, even remained open until 2021 largely for sentimental reasons.
Moving to Firearms Manufacturing
The move to firearms manufacturing began in 1993 when, along with his father Louis, Imperato took out a home equity loan to fund the launch of the Colt Blackpowder Arms Company. The company made historic Colt revolvers and muskets under a license from firearms giant Colt’s Manufacturing.
Seeing some modest success, Imperato decided to move beyond black powder guns to produce modern firearms. It was an “interesting time,” to say the least, to even consider starting such a venture.
The passage of the Clinton-era Assault Weapon Ban (AWB) certainly blocked one avenue. But the New York-born firearms entrepreneur said there were other considerations.
“At the time, about 60% of the firearms market was in handguns, and we had experience making the black powder revolvers, but we also saw that a lot of urban municipalities across the country were suing companies that were making handguns,” Imperato explained.
“I decided to stick with long guns and seeing the interest that the old Colts had attracted, I decided that we’d produce lever action and be the best long gun company in the industry.”
In March 1997, the first Henry Repeating Arms model H001 Classic Lever Action .22 rifles shipped from a small factory in Brooklyn, New York. Located on the Gowanus Canal, it was far from the Rio Grande or Colorado Rivers. But Imperato is quick to note those original Brooklyn-made models have become highly sought after by collectors.
The decision to introduce high-quality yet affordable lever-action rifles paid off quickly. The timing couldn’t have been better. Henry Repeating Arms had entered the market after a wave of “new” Westerns that included such films as Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven. That may have helped renew interest in classic firearms.
“There was something interesting going on with Western films—and today, there are a lot of ‘old’ Westerns that are on various cable channels and streaming services, but there have been a number of really good ‘new’ Westerns that feature lever-action guns,” said Imperato.
He further credits the popularity of Yellowstone and its prequel, 1883, as bringing the classic Western story to a new era of viewers. Henry Repeating Arms has worked to supply firearms for some recent productions, including the upcoming Emigrant Gulch.
“Westerns are part of our DNA and part of our soul,” added Imperato. “Much like the lever-action rifle.”
Lever Action Now
Anyone visiting the local gun shop or browsing the larger gun shows today will find no shortage of AR-platform black guns. Yet, it isn’t a market that Henry Repeating Arms is actively competing in and likely never will. At the same time, Imperato said that he expects there will always be some crossover, just as some of his customers will never want an AR.
“We sell across a wide spectrum of Americans—every race, creed, color, and demographic,” Imperato explained. “Our customers buy Henry’s and stick with Henry’s because of our reputation. It may come from seeing Yellowstone or remembering how their father and grandfather shot lever action.”
Few would question the reliability of the lever action. And unlike modern sporting rifles, these classic guns keep working in rugged conditions, aren’t impacted by humidity, and can deal with the elements better than most other firearms. Shooters can trust their lever action.
“That is a fair way to look at it, and again why we believe in lever action, which I say again is America’s unique contribution to firearms,” said Imperato.
“For more than 150 years, lever action has been the dominant action for hunting and home protection. Even as we segue to other guns, we will always continue to deliver guns that are part of the Old West. We started in Brooklyn, but in our heart, we’re always part of the Old West.”
For more information about Henry Repeating Arms, please visit HenryUSA.com.
This article was originally published in the Guns of the Old West Summer 2022 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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