I was invited to be a guest on an episode of the Modern Rifleman Radio podcast, which just published today. It was a lot of fun, and the discussion ranged all over, from current Army rifle training to the genesis of the “modern” rifle to how the M1A and MAS 49/56 performed in mud and sand testing to the latest news on InRange TV – and a lot more. Check it out!
On a separate note, I would like to say that I’m really not usually the sort to buy trinkety sort of stuff – but I couldn’t help myself yesterday. I saw a mention of this:
and just had to order one. It’s a plush throw pillow copy of a Soviet spam can of 7.62x54R ammo…definitely the most amusing milsurp-related doodad I’ve seen in a long time, and a sure way to put a smile on my face every time I see it. If you’re as easily amused by the idea as I am, you can order one yourself through Amazon.
It appears that a fellow in Pennsylvania had an 1895 Lee Navy rifle explode in his hands this past Sunday while out shooting. This sort of thing happens from time to time with all sorts of different guns, and is typically found to be the result of either an accidental overcharged handload (too much powder or the wrong type of powder; occasionally too little powder) or an uncleared squib or other barrel obstruction. The reason I bring up this incident is because it does not appear to be the result of any of those common causes, and because it’s not the first Lee Navy to have done this in a documented manner.
M1895 Lee Navy kaBoom
The previous case I am aware of occurred on June 29th, 2002 and caused the death of long-time Sarco employee Glenn deRuiter. From the information available, it appears that both rifles behaved almost exactly the same way, which makes me wonder if the root cause might be something liable to happen in other Lee Navy rifles.
There was a knowledgeable fellow on the scene when Mr. deRuiter’s rifle detonated, and he posted a detailed explanation of what he saw. I have not gotten any additional information on the incident (although I’m working on it now), because until now it seemed like isolated tragic event. As far as I know, there was never a formal investigation into what happened beyond that the gun blew up – folks most likely attributed it to the standard causes I mentioned above. Well, deRuiter was by all accounts a meticulous and very experienced handloader, and not the type to inadvertently top up a 6mm Lee Navy cartridge case with Bullseye. Of course, nobody was ever able to ask him what he was using (although the account I linked to says some type if reasonable load with an IMR powder).
The results of a catastrophic ruptured case in a Lee Navy. The receiver has peeled open along the milled relief to house the extractor/ejector. Note that the bolt is still locked in battery.
Let’s start by eliminating a few of the immediate conclusions one might jump to. First, neither of these cases appear to have been an out-of-battery detonation (the most common situation for a gun to “blow up”). Photos of the recent event clearly show the cartridge case thoroughly seated in the chamber, and the bolt remained locked in the receiver after the explosion. Instead, what happened in this case (and presumably in the deRuiter case, although I cannot say with certainty without actually seeing pictures of that rifle) is that the chamber pressure upon firing was high enough to blow out the brass at the extractor (where it is not supported by the chamber) and cause the receiver ring to tear in half. The barrel remained intact; the chamber was not blown open like an overloaded revolver cylinder. The front threads of the receiver were the weak point and they failed at their thinnest point, where the extractor slot was cut. Once the receiver ring failed, the energy involved peeled a whole strip of the receiver up and back, while fracturing the rest of the receiver circumference. The result was literally the barrel separating from the ruined receiver.
The next potential conclusion would be that both shooters were firing over-pressure loads – that could certainly cause this type of damage. However, deRuiter was a very experienced shooter and handloader, and the shooter from this past weekend’s incident insists that he used data published in a recent American Rifleman article (he says he was using 30gr of IMR 4895). His previous shot was not abnormal (he says he noted light recoil, but that would be expected from a light load in 6mm Lee Navy), and the brass did not display signs of pressure. A light load could suggest a squib charge, but the bore was clear after the event. Interestingly, the witness account of deRuiter’s event says that he found a bullet still lodged in that rifle’s barrel, but no bulge or ring indicating it has been fired with the bore obstructed. Presumably, deRuiter’s gun came apart so fast that pressure vented out the rear before the bullet could finish traveling down the barrel.
Still, the photographic evidence shows that the brass clearly failed. Is there an explanation for this that does not involve loading errors? Such an explanation would also have to account for the lack of Navy complaints about the gun’s safety. The Navy complained of reliability issues sometimes, but I have never seen an account of a soldier having one of the rifle blow up in his hands.
Case fired immediately before the one that blew up. Note the .30-40 headstamp.
Well, I think there is an explanation, and I think it’s based on the brass. The two commonly understood ways to made 6mm Lee Navy brass (since it hasn’t been factory-made for about a zillion years) are to reform either .220 Swift or .30-40 Krag. The .220 Swift was actually developed from the Lee Navy, and has a pretty thick case web. The .30-40, however, has a relatively mild maximum pressure. While modified and fireformed .30-40 brass may match the external dimensions of the 6mm Lee Navy, I suspect it has significantly less material around the case head. If our shooters used .30-40 brass that had been fired a couple times already (photos show that the recent shooter was using .30-40 cases, but I don’t know how many firings that had been through), they would have stretched and lost even more case head thickness.
Chamber, with cartridge case still in place. Note that the brass has blown out exactly in line with the unsupported section at the extractor cutout.
Take weak brass already furthered weakened from use, combine it with a relatively higher-pressure load, and you have a recipe for a case head separation. The problem that gets worse when this event occurs in an 1895 Lee Navy rifle, which has a large unsupported extractor cut and no provisions for safely venting gas. If we look at the photos form the recently-destroyed rifle, the ruptured section of the brass exactly corresponds to the extractor cut. Clearly the brass blew out, had no place to safely go, and instead blew the receiver open like a hand grenade. A Mauser 98 would have handled this by venting the gas through the holes in the receiver designed for just this contingency – but the Lee Navy has no such venting capability.
Can I prove this theory? Not yet. I haven’t had the chance to section and measure the cartridges. However, I did converse with the fellow whose rifle blew up this past weekend, and will be getting a couple of his converted .30-40 cases to examine, as well as some original 6mm Lee Navy cases. However, this theory fits all the available facts without requiring error on the part of both shooters, and explains why we would see catastrophic failures today that were not reported when the rifles were in regular service.
The coroner in the earlier case was quoted as saying that the receiver ring of deRuiter’s rifle failed, which is how one would accurately describe this recent incident in a single sentence. In addition, the eyewitness report states that deRuiter suffered a single injury to the center of his forehead – exactly the same type of injury (although greater in severity) suffered by the recent shooter (who was fortunate to escape with a superficial wound). There are guns out there known to fail under specific conditions – like Colt-pattern SAA revolvers loaded too hot or Helwan pistols that will shear locking lugs. Each type generally has an understood point of failure, and they tend to behave in the same general way when they fail. In most cases, this is very frightening to the shooter but does not cause serious injury. While two examples are not a scientific study by any means, it would appear from the available data that when the Lee Navy fails, it will throw shrapnel straight back into the shooter’s head – not good!
I think that for the time being, I will put off my plans to get on the range with a Lee Navy. FWIW, if anyone has a sporterized example of the gun they would be willing to donate to the cause, I would be happy to put it to the test and see if multiple reloadings of converted .30-40 brass lead to catastrophic receiver failure (I will use a very long string to pull the trigger, obviously).
You can see the lucky recent shooter’s full set of photos here on Imgur.
I just got off the phone with a friend of Glenn deRuiter’s, who confirmed that Glenn was using .30-40 brass when his rifle exploded. In addition, this very generous friend is sending me a badly sporterized (but mechanically intact) Lee to use for destructive testing to see if I can recreate the explosion with this type of converted brass. I am not really thrilled with the idea of destroying another rifle, but it will be worth it to make sure people realize the potential danger – much better to blow up a sporter on a controlled range than see another unknowing shooter hurt or kill themselves with one.
While I was visiting the Simpson Ltd shop in Galesburg, I had the pleasure of meeting Nicole Wiley. She is working on organizing a massive reference book on German .22 training rifles (like the Sportmodell and KKW), and was kind enough to give me a tour of Robert Simpson’s collection of these guns. Between his collection (roughly 1200 guns, plus documents and accessories) and several others, all the material is there for a doozy of a book, and Nicole is the one sorting and organizing it all for publication. It’s a huge job, but she has the passion and interest to make it happen, and I’m excited to get a look at the finished product when it’s ready!
I am very happy to announce that we have a new sponsor of Forgotten Weapons: Fiocchi. Founded in Italy in 1876, the company has been making cartridge ammunition for basically as long as cartridges have existed, with only a brief interruption when Allied bombers leveled the factory late in WWII (it was rebuilt immediately after the war).
Today, Fiocchi manufactures several lines of ammunition that cover virtually every application, including hunting and competition with rifles, pistols, and shotguns. They have a specific line of unjacketed ammo for Cowboy Action shooting, and also lead-free and frangible lines for indoor ranges and other situations requiring clean ammunition. And best of all for my purposes, they have a specific line of Classic Pistol ammo focusing on obsolete cartridges that are particularly difficult to find. These include:
.44 S&W Russian (for the S&W No.3 revolver, and others)
.455 Webley (for the Mk VI Webley revolver, and others)
This line offers a great opportunity for folks into these older guns to shoot clean and new factory-quality ammunition instead of having to deal with marginal surplus military ammo, commercial reloaders of unknown quality, or hand-making brass and reloading at home. I have used Fiocchi .45 ACP in competition for many years, and look forward to the opportunity to showcase some of their other products in some otherwise-unshootable classic pistols. If your local shop doesn’t carry the calibers you need, tell them to get in touch with a Fiocchi dealer!
One of the photos that didn’t make the cut for the 2015 Forgotten Weapons Calendar: US troops demonstrating use of an M1916 37mm gun. Note how the ammo is supplied on a cloth belt – it was made for use in 37mm Vickers Pompoms.
I am happy to announce that I will be making another Vintage Photo calendar for 2015! Last year’s calendar was a big hit, and I’ve been using one myself to track and plan posts for the web site. Click below to see the full details and place your order!
Today’s high speed video analysis is the first Browning-style pistol that was at hand when I took out the camera: a Star Model B Super. Manufactured in Spain for many years, this basic pistol was made in both 9mm Luger and 9mm Largo variations as well as full-size and shortened varieties. This particular one is in 9mm Largo, and is a fine example of the tilting-barrel action developed by John Browning that dominates handgun design to this day.
Watch all the way to the end for bonus footage of a hangfire in slow motion!
I recently had the opportunity to examine a very early model 1894 Bergmann pistol, and made an interesting discovery (discovery to me, at any rate). The gun has a rather elegant bird’s-head grip, and a trigger that pulls as much down as it does back – the direction of the trigger pull is basically along the centerline of the grip. Well, when I went to take a sight picture, I put the pistol into a typical modern grip – hand high on the backstrap and arm extended straight. Which totally did not work. The distance to the trigger was too short to be comfortable, and my trigger finger was barely acting on the actual moving part of the trigger at all.
Note how a “correct” high grip on the piece puts the trigger finger very high on the trigger, which results in poor leverage and an uncomfortable hold.
I though about this for a minute, and then recalled the picture postcards I have seen from German pistol shooting competitions around this period. The shooters are not-infrequently show with a quite different grip; one we would consider laughable today. It’s a one-handed stance (of course; all competitive pistol shooting was done one-handed), and the arm is bent at the elbow, with the wrist cocked down to bring the sights in line with the eye. The best example I can find on short notice is this, from Mötz & Schuy’s fantastic book Vom Ursprung Der Selbstladepistole:
Old-fashioned pistol shooting stance (with a Steyr 1907)
That fellow is using a somewhat subtler version of this stance than others I’ve seen, but it’s enough to get the idea across. And here the thing – when I shifted to using that type of grip on the 1894 Bergmann, everything came together. The birdshead grip now works well and makes sense, and my trigger finger comes to rest in the bottom curve of the trigger, in the right alignment to make a nice smooth press. Still a substandard target shooting grip in the overall scheme of things, but it seems clear to me that Bergmann designed the pistol with it specifically in mind. It does at least have the side benefit of bring the rather small sights a bit closer to the eye.
Sometimes there is no substitute to actually putting hands on a gun to understand it.
I will admit, in the aftermath of my video on the “Nazi” belt buckle pistol I have gotten a bit interested in them. Not because of their historical significance (which I am pretty well convinced is non-existent) but because of the variety of phonies that have been created to bamboozle collectors. Call me strange, but I think it would be fun to create a nice online reference source detailing all the different variations. With that in mind, here is an example I recently got photos of:
This one shares the same basic mechanical design as the standard version, with the same firing pin, trigger, and recocking setup. It only has a single lever to open the barrels instead of two, and the cover plate is not spring loaded. It has solid cover plates extending to both sides of the main action to hide the actual belt connections. It has 4 barrels, in .22 caliber (presumably .22LR).
What is also interesting to see, and totally gives this away as a fake (as it the parrot eagle on the front cover plate isn’t enough) is the markings. Whoever made this one decided to cover all their bases, by marking it with both commercial firearms proofs (well, sort of), Waffenamt marks, and RZM marks. The RZM (or Reichszeugmeisterei) was a national material control office, responsible for a lot of soft goods, like armbands, belt buckles, and much more. They were quite specifically exclusive from WaA, though – nothing legit will have both WaA and RZM markings. And, of course, there is also the minor issue of the RZM stamp used here being incorrect – it has no crossbar on the Z. The Waffenamt marking used is WaA358, which was probably just an easy stamp for the faker to procure. It suggests that the belt buckle gun was actually made by Walther, which is definitely not true. The one other mark, an eagle holding a swastika, is clearly a crude reproduction when viewed up close. Here are detailed photos of the various markings:
I don’t know if it is funny or sad that this would probably bring several thousand dollars on the market. These devices have basically built an entire collecting sub-genre, and even the ones unanimously accepted to be totally fake sell for exorbitant amounts. I hope the buyers are simply people with too much money, and not overly gullible collectors who think they are actually genuine WWII artifacts.
The All-American 2000 was Colt’s attempt to break into the polymer high-cap pistol market in the early 1990s, when Glock was dominating that field. Colt took what appears to have been a pretty good pistol designed by Eugene Stoner and Reed Knight and made some pretty terrible decisions when adapting it for mass production – and the result was a huge failure. The pistols were remarkably unreliable and inaccurate, and the debacle nearly ran Colt into bankruptcy.
An interesting side note to the All-American 2000 story is the lesson one can take on print gun publications. Because most gun magazines are (or were) heavily dependent on a small number of major advertisers, those companies could often coax out reviews of their new products that ranged from disingenuous to outright fraudulent (Mike Irwin has an interesting behind-the-scenes experience of the American Rifleman review of the gun). Print media treatment of the AA2000 is a particularly egregious example of this behavior. Fortunately for gun buyers, the internet has allowed us to bypass print media as the gatekeepers of information, and the truth gets out very quickly now – as with the much more recent example of the Remington R51.