6mm Navy Straight Pull: The 1895 Lee Navy Rifle

Lot 3311 in the September 2019 RIA auction.

The US Navy held a trial in 1894 to adopt a new rifle, one to finally replace the .45-70 black powder Trapdoor Springfield. The rifle was to be chambered for the .236 Navy cartridge, a radically modern small bore round firing a 135 grain bullet at a remarkably fast 2500 fps. This was a lightweight cartridge which allowed sailors and Marines to carry more ammunition (standard load out was 180 rounds per man), and its high velocity provided a very flat trajectory and very good penetration.

For this round, James Paris Lee developed and patented an unusual straight-pull action. It was a tilting bolt type of system, with a bolt handle that calmed the bolt upward to unlock it (instead of the rotating bolt heads usually found on straight-pull rifles). He also developed an en bloc clip for loading in which the clip allowed 5 rounds to be loaded at once, but was not essential to the cycling of the action. Lee’s clip fell out as soon as the first round was chambered, and the rifle could be loaded with loose rounds, unlike Mannlicher’s clip system.

The Lee rifle ultimately won the trials, and a total of 15,000 were ordered in two batches by the US Navy (plus a few more supplied to replace guns destroyed in a New York dock fire). The rifle would only serve as standard for about 6 years, being replaced by the 1903 Springfield in order to unify Army and Navy ammunition logistics. During that time, however, it saw use in the Spanish-American War, in the Philippines, and in the international expedition to China. It was successful and well liked by the sailors and Marines who used it, despite a few design problems (like the extractor being easily lost when the bolt is removed). The gun was a commercial failure for Winchester, with a few thousand sales until 1902, when a large supply of cheap surplus captured Spanish Mausers dropped the bottom out of the modern small-bore rifle market in the United States. The last commercial sale was recorded in 1916.

33 Comments

  1. The one elephant in the room happens to be barrel life. I presume that many Lee rifles have burned out barrels due to the performance of the ammunition, namely frictional stress of the propellant accelerating the projectile to the specified high muzzle velocity. Anyone want to craft a better barrel? Just kidding!

    • Well, as you heard, they crafted a lighter bullet and increased the life of the barrels they had. A similar fascination for overpower caused the British to come out with the .276 Enfield for the Pattern 13 rifle, which also wore out barrels quickly, with the added bonuses of excessive noise, flash, and recoil. Steel technology had to catch up with ballistics, in the manner that lubricant technology had to catch up with improvements in motors.

      • The Bisley (target shooting) lobby in Britain, continued continued to have an inflence on rifle design, even after the war to make a world safe for Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler

        There’s an experimental rifle in the Pattern Room collection, from between the wars, chambered for an extremely hot magnum 7mm round.

        The rifle action a lot like it’s based on a P13.

        I can’t remember the bullet weight, it was heavyish

        The velocity they were aiming for was around 3,700 f/s

        That’s right up there on the ragged edge of ultra hot 7mm Shooting Times Westerner (full length .375 H&H mag blown out and necked to 7mm) loads!

        As a specialist sniper round in the role currently occupied by .338 Lapua mag, it might have had a place*

        But as a service rifle and MG round, no.

        __________________________

        *and that place is to serve the other side, by screwing up the logistics chain, for both ammunition and barrels

        • There was also the 0.303in Magnum round out of the Bisley crowd, which was a ballistic twin of the .30-06, with a rimless case similar to the 7.9 x 57 Mauser.

          Considering that any 0.303in Enfield rifle or MG could have been altered to use it with a simple rechambering job and a modified bolt head, it would probably have been a better bet than the .276.

          cheers

          eon

        • “The Bisley (target shooting) lobby in Britain, continued continued to have an inflence on rifle design, even after the war to make a world safe for Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler” – Really? Sources? Have you ever read the minutes of the target shooting lobby at the turn of the 20th century? From what I have read in those notes, the senior military heads of the time tried to disband the target shooting lobby and almost succeeded. The origins of this push to disband the target shooting lobby pre-dates WW1. The military had their own special trials groups that for example had special build .303 rifles that were built to higher tolerances and were loaded with cartridges firing higher pressure propellants. These “experiments” were abandoned around the end of WW1 as the results were inconclusive. These special rifles were not available to target rifle participants. The proportion of blame that was placed on the target rifle lobby was a red hearing to such an extent that has become a myth. The amount of correspondance and politicing that flowed, especially amongst the military, was fairly toxic concerning small arms design, development and utilisation. Furthermore, the British governments of the day were so appalled by WW1 that any serious developments in armaments at all levels was not followed up with any vigour.

      • Many thanks Ian,

        They’re a hugely interesting rifle.

        I’ve got a lindsey reprint of ordnance articles from machinery magazine during 1900 (there’s also a really interesting article about the leaf mainspring luger pistol).

        Apparently there was an almost complete re design of the Lee navy rifle in the middle of its short service as the main Navy rifle. Few if any parts remained unchanged.

        Luger’s improvement of the heavily as shlegelmilch influenced m88 commission rifle, also had a magazine which could be used with either
        en bloc packet loading, or topped up with loose cartridges

        Occasional commenter here, Bas Martens, has a good description of the Luger rifle in his (and Guus de Vreis’) book, “the Dutch luger”.

        This is a lovely example. I hope that it fetches a good price.

    • Don’t forget, the .236/6mm Lee-Navy is the parent round of the .220 Swift. Another hypervelocity (for its day), flat-shooting, high-accuracy round noted for eroding barrel leades and rifling like nobody’s business.

      cheers

      eon

  2. A fascinating bit of martial history. I did not know that imported surplus M93 and M95 Mausers killed this commercially. 7×57 is a surprisingly underrated cartridge.

    • Considering the widespread adoption by militaries around the world up to WW2, I would consider it everything but. It is more a case that it got drowned by a deluge of surplus 8*57 rifles and the current handful of general service cartridges pushed it aside. Making it a “forgotten caliber”, that is not on many people’s minds. Although it is stilla great hunting cartridge for which you can easily form your own brass from 8*57.

    • Interesting to know! I have a USMC good conduct medal. Also known as.”3 years of undetected crime” or the “Smarter than the S’Maj (Sergeant Major) Badge.
      I also own a 1895 Lee Navy rifle. I’ll have to find the medal to display with the rifle.

  3. The 6mm was designed for penetration and the original 135 gr steel jaceted bullet filled that requirement. It would shoot through 62 7/8″ pine boards at 15′.
    The steel jacket combined with erosive double base powders caused short barrel life and the bullet was changed to a 112 gr copper jacket tin plated.
    It is remarkable that the USN trials drew few entries(12) and not one production design.
    In contrast the 1892 US Army trials tested all the service rifles of the major powers plus many also rans, over 50 in total.

    • The poor interest in the Navy trials may have something to do with the bitching and subsequent retrial that followed the same 1892 adoption of the Krag & Jorgensen, delaying actual production of the first American K&J rifles until 1894.

      There was also a claim for patent infringement against the adoption of the 1892 k&j. I can’t remember the name of the guy claiming

      He had a us patent claim for a magazine opening in the left wall of the receiver

      In that case the united state declared itself sovereign

      It could only be sued if it consented to be

      And it didn’t consent

      • Uh, there were really big trees back then before the logging industry got ahead of itself. Speaking of deforestation, it appears that some people in Brazil are trying to burn down the Amazon Rainforest (and make it look like a horrible accident) to make more farmland or cattle pastures. Just wait until the thing goes too well and turns Brazil into a lifeless toxic desert…

        • That’s unlikely. That sort of slash-and-burn forced farming has been going on in Brazil for a century under successive governments of the right and left.

          It all founders on the fact that the local(reducing) soil is not the same type as typical farmland (oxidizing) soil. Meaning, most crop yield plants won’t grow well on it, if they grow at all.

          Previous regimes had a habit of gathering up the poor and indigent in their cities, taking them out into the “rain forest” (jungle), handing them implements and seeds, and telling them, “You are now farmers. FARM!”

          After an average five years worth of crop failures, bordering on starvation, dying from tropical diseases, being eaten by local wildlife, being reduced to skeletons (literally) by driver ants, and so on, the survivors (about 10% on average) would filter back to the cities and make sure the government couldn’t find them again.

          Within two years, the “rain forest” (jungle) would reclaim the cleared patch, and the only way you’d be able to tell where it had been was if you fell over some abandoned tools or etc.

          The next year, the government would round up more poor indigents, take them out to another patch of “rain forest” (jungle), hand them implements and seeds, and tell them (wait for it…) “You are now farmers. FARM!”

          Like most such authoritarian plans, Brazilian “rain forest farming” fails due to those running it thinking their ideology trumps science. It never works.

          And as the old saying goes, insanity is definable as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time.

          cheers

          eon

  4. Very difficult to watch your videos can’t you keep the captions out of the way they are full of misspelling and is totally redundant!
    Almost don’t want to watch it is so aggravating your cooperation in this matter would greatly improve the quality of your show!

    • If you are seeing badly-written captions, then you have somehow enabled Youtube’s captioning feature with auto-generated English. These captions are a feature of the Youtube player and not something that Ian has added to the video himself. They are simple to turn off, although the procedure is different depending on what kind of device you are viewing this on, so if you are having trouble figuring it out, please search online for instructions.

  5. The U.S.M.C. landed at Guantánamo Bay 10 June 1898. Almost immediately they came under fire from Spanish troops at night using 7x57mm Mauser rifles. Some of the counter-guerrilla forces among the Spaniards were Cubans, but the Marines were technically fighting Spaniards not Cubans.

    It so happened that the USMC were criticized for firing blindly and profligately such that they were using up too many of their rounds, but knowing that they each had almost double the available cartridges in the supplied belts may well account for this. Also, just as the M1 Garand was often “topped up” by firing the remaining cartridges in the magazine and then stuffing a new en-bloc clip in also proved an early feature with the M1895 Lee USN. The rifle could be topped up with loose rounds as Ian indicated, but since the ammo came in five-round clips, it was “easier” to simply stuff in a new clip of ammunition.

    The 6mm Navy Lee was given out to some Cuban Mambí insurgents and used alongside the USMC at various skirmishes, including that at Cuzco Wells to destroy the only water source in the arid part of the lower Bay, and thereby inhibit Spanish operations while the Marines and their Cuban allies got water from the U.S. Navy ships.

    The USMC used the M1895 Lee in the retreat from Beijing/Peking, and the USMC reinforcements in China during the suppression of the Boxers United in Righteousness Rebellion had mostly Krags.

    As Ian indicated, the Model 1895 “potato digger” used by the USN and USMC both was in the 6mm/.236 USN cartridge.

    More info on the Luger rifle would make a dandy future Forgotten Weapons episode!

  6. I believe the circa 1902 replacement of the 6mm Lee Navy with .30 caliber rifles was actually with the M1898.30-40 Krag rifle, which indeed did unify ammunition supply for Army, Navy and Marines with a single caliber. Until the Army adopted the M1903 Springfield and added .30-03 into the mix, shortly replaced by the .30-06. The Navy and Marines continued with the Krags until the early 19-teens.

    The Lindsey reprint article mentioned above with numerous changes in “Lee Navy” parts is almost certainly related to the switch between the Model 1882 and Model 1885 Lee Navy Rifles made by Remington, entirely different in every regard from the Model 1895 Winchester Lee Navy.

    James Paris Lee was a pretty clever guy, and his contributions to small arms development, and the extent to which they have been used around the world, are greatly underappreciated.

    • I agree RE: James Paris Lee and how lasting his contributions have been.
      I confess I’m almost obsessed with his Model 1875 modification of the Peabody action single-shot breech-loader such that it was operated by the hammer spur. A true marvel. His ammunition carriage for it is also quite interesting.

    • The lindsey reprint of the 1900 article in machinery magazine is absolutely about the Lee Navy

      I don’t know where you are getting the idea from that it was about the 1880s Lees?

      You might like to check out the actual ref

  7. Note that the 6mm Navy round used a dual base (nitro cellulose (“gun cotton”) with nitrogylcerin)propellant like the British Cordite. This makes it have a high velocity but it also literally burns “hotter” than plain nitrocellulose and the higher temperature erodes the barrel faster. Plus, the US military didn’t trust nitroglycerin, there were reports that in hot weather, it would “sweat” out of the cartridge making for a dangerous situation. This distrust of cordite and its relatives Shimose (the IJN had a very close relationship with the RN) and the Italian’s propellant(Vickers had a major stake in the Italian arms industry)seem to have been justified. The RN had a battleship (HMS Vanguard) and Armored Cruiser (HMS Natal) blow up at anchor, the Italians lost the battleship Leonardo da Vinci under identical circumstances, the Japanese lost the battleship Kawachi in 1918 while at anchor and as late as 1943, the battleship Mutsu, committed suicide in full view of the public in the Sagami Wan off Tokyo. The one thing in common in all these disasters? Dual base propellants.
    More than you ever wanted to know about Naval Propellants

    PS: The USS Maine was carry “Brown” or “Cocoa” powder, not smokeless, when she blew up in 1898

    “Another possible cause of the blast was the explosion of a magazine beginning in the magazine itself. This was the cause of accidental explosions which heavily damaged or destroyed nine other battleships around the world between 1900 and the end of the Second World War. There was one significant difference between these other, later explosions and the explosion on board the Maine in Havana harbor. Most of the later accidents involved ships carrying early smokeless powders which were chemically unstable and prone to explode as a result of chemical deterioration. The Maine, however, still carried the old fashioned brown and black powders which, though smoky when used, were much more stable and safer on board ship than the early smokeless powders. This made such a magazine explosion less likely.”

    http://navweaps.com/index_tech/tech-100.php

  8. Thanks.
    Bowman Hendry McCalla, the USN captain of _USS Marblehead_ at the time of the USMC landing at Guantánamo Bay reported an injury to his spectator wife from a piece of the M1895 6mm Lee he was firing. He reported some deficiencies with it. Note well too that at least two collectors have died in catastrophic failures, viz. ka-boom using improper handloaded ammunition. While the 6mm USN cartridge strikes us today in the early 21st century as a SCHV round “avant la lettre” it seems the metalurgy of the period wasn’t up to the task?

    As for the fate of the USS Maine in Havana harbor the night of 15 Feb. 1898, she was raised and hauled out to deep water and effectively destroyed in 1911. By the mid-1970s, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover assembled a group of experts and did a forensic study on the mysterious explosion:
    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5470/

    My understanding is that the coal bunkers came in for particular scrutiny.

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