Biography: James Paris Lee

James Paris Lee
James Paris Lee

James Paris Lee was a firearms designer whose inventions had a far greater historical significance than even most firearms enthusiasts realize. Where Lee is recognized at all, it is generally for the rifles that bear his name – the Remington-Lee, the 1895 Lee Navy, the Lee-Metford, and (of course) the Lee-Enfield. What most don’t realize is that James Lee was in fact the inventor of the detachable box magazine. His vision of the rifle magazine (and by extension, pistol magazines as well) has remained largely unchanged right up to the present day.

Lee was born on August 9th, 1831 in the southern Scottish town of Hawick to George and Margaret Lee. The family emigrated to Ontario when James was just 4 or 5 years old, and he spent his boyhood growing up in the town of Galt (now called Cambridge). James took naturally to the forests around Cambridge, as well as inheriting his father’s mechanical aptitude (the man worked as a  talented watchmaker and jeweler). What James did not inherit, it seems, was a watchmaker’s dexterity. His developmental years were rather liberally sprinkled with firearms accidents, and he is lucky to have escaped them all without any disabling injuries.

At the age of 12, Lee built his first firearm. He began with a old horse pistol from his father’s collection to get a barrel (long enough to be a rifle for a youngster of 12), and bought a piece of walnut for a penny to carve into a stock. He made a new priming pan out of a half-penny coin, and proceeded to load it up with powder, wad, and a piece of lead hammered into the shape of a bullet. What he did not recognize was than the flash hole in the horse pistol barrel was missing its bushing, and thus significantly oversized. Upon firing (which was accomplished by James aiming the gun at a tree while his brother Jack applied a match to the pan) the gun blew back rather violently, injuring James’ chin.

Not to be dissuaded, Lee continued to be an eager hunter and outdoorsman, and injured himself rather more seriously in a later adolescent camping trip. He was attempting to use some gunpowder to help ignite a campfire, and the resulting explosion left him with severe burns that took several months to recover from. Continuing his streak of bad luck (or bad choices, one might suggest), he managed to accidentally shoot himself in the heel on a hunting excursion. He was 16 years old and out hunting on a cold October day when his shotgun slipped from chilled fingers and discharged upon hitting the ground. The load of shot hit him square in the heel, and by the time he made it back to his home he was in shock and had suffered significant blood loss. That particular incident left him hospitalized for a year and a half. He would walk with a limp and a cane ever after – although his gait (and reportedly his temper) improved 50 years later when a New York doctor removed several leftover pieces of shot from his foot.

In 1848, at the age of 17 and presumably at the end of his recuperation from the wound James was apprenticed formally in his father’s watch shop, and he left a scant 2 years later to open his own shop in Chatham, Ontario. He may have been accident-prone, but he was a clever and able worker. In 1852 or 53 he met and married Caroline Chrysler, and they had a son named William in 1855. Their second son, George, was born in 1859 after the family has moved from Canada to the United States – Janesville, Wisconsin specifically. Lee never did gain US citizenship, although he reportedly did apply for it.

Lee’s first serious forays into forearms design came with the onset of the US Civil War. In 1861 he successfully developed a breech-loading conversion for the Springfield muzzle-loader, for which he was able to wrangle a 1000-unit order in 1864 from the Federal government. He collaborated with Philo Remington among others and set up a factory to produce his rifles in Milwaukee, only to have the contract cancelled with the Confederate surrender. He sued the government for $15,000 in expenses and damages, but was awarded less than half that amount (which was still better than many would-be arms manufacturers made out from the war).

However, Lee’s work with Remington was to develop into a long-time association, and he would work for Remington in Ilion, New York for many years and Remington would be the manufacturer for most of his rifle designs – but not without an initial hiccup.

Lee was awarded patent #221,328 on November 4th, 1879 for the vertical box magazine – thereby solving the serious problem of cartridge detonation in tube magazines. Lee (and other inventors) had been approached by the Sharps Rifle Company in 1876 about development of a magazine, and Lee ultimately made an agreement with them for the manufacture of his new Magazine Rifle (Model 1879). Remington at the time was focused on the Remington-Keene tube-magazine rifle for US Army trials, and presumably was not willing to split its efforts – so Lee left to work with Sharps instead. Here he worked with Hugo Borchardt (yes, that Borchardt) to improve the magazine (and Borchardt was granted a patent for magazine improvements in 1882).

The Lee Magazine Rifle was aggressively marketed by Sharps, and a contract for 300 was obtained from the US Navy. However, on October 18, 1880 the Sharps company went bankrupt, with only the first bit of work being finished on the Navy contract rifle receivers. At this point the Remington-Keene had been proven a failure in military trials, and Lee was able to return to Remington, who would produce his rifles in the US for many years to come.

Lee’s magazine was revolutionary, and virtually all existing bolt action rifles, from the Dreyse to the Murata were experimentally altered to use it. It was so influential that reportedly the Mauser company rented a room above his lodgings in a hotel across the street from Remington’s Ilion plant in order to drill a hole through the floor and spy on his work (although there appears to be no proof this was true). This interest in his magazine system saw Lee (and his wife Caroline) travel to Britain and continental Europe through the 1880s marketing guns, and these trips ultimately led to the British adoption of the Lee rifle in 1887.

Alas, Caroline fell ill and died in London in 1888, and Lee returned to New York, never to travel overseas again. The two of them had been quite close, and Lee never really recovered from her death emotionally. His own death came in 1904, at the age of 71.

James Paris Lee’s legacy lives on today in the millions of Lee-Enfield rifles manufactured on four different continents, and in the box magazine system used almost universally to this day.

References

Skennerton, Ian. Lee-Enfield Story. Ashmore City, Australia, 1993.

Myszkowski, Eugene. The Remington-Lee Rifle. Excalibur Publications, Latham NY, 1994.

32 Comments

  1. This is very revealing reading to me. I had no clue Lee was Scottish-Canadian; I always thought of his as American. BTW, city of Cambridge (based on previously separate towns of Galt, Preston and Hespeler) is in my neighbourhood. It was very industrial since early 1800s namely thanks to Scottish immigrants and it fostered many industries such as mills, foundries, machine shops and boiler builders. Unfortunately, last 20 years marked Cambridge badly and lots of traditional industries disappeared, but this is not that unique in whole of North American scale. We are getting used to it.

    • Even taking into account the inevitable time continuum imposed by history, it’s often still a small world after all, isn’t it?

    • Ha! I was going to post the same thing about Cambridge being Galt + Preston + Hespeler and it being an old industrial centre. I’ve been there quite a few times to go to the music festival in the summer. The old part of town is largely built of stone, and it’s quite nice in the summer. The river goes over a set of rapids in the middle of town, and the early industrial nature of the town was due to the availability of water power.

      If you go about 15 km down the Grand river from Galt, you come to the town of Paris. Another set of Scots named Bell settled on a farm just outside of there, and their son was Alexander Graham Bell. People like to say that the first long distance phone call was in Ontario, but that was because Alexander ran a set of wires from his parent’s farm house to a hardware store in Paris to show off his invention. I haven’t been past the Bell farm in years, but it was still in the Bell family the last time I was in the area.

      If you go about 40 km southwest of Paris, you come to the town of Vienna, amongst whose founding members was Samuel Edison. His son Samuael Jr. took part in the 1837 rebellion and had to leave the country fast when that was put down. He went to the US and his son was inventor Thomas Edison.

      So there’s quite a few interesting inventive connections in the area if you want to look for them.

      • Hi, MG :

        Thanks for the really interesting post. I had previously commented to Denny that even allowing for the time continuum factor ( different times, same places and different places ) in human history, it turns out that this is still in many ways a small world we live in. The information you have provided seems to bear this out to an even greater degree!

      • Thank you both for adding to my time&place reference. I do not add a primacy tag to one ethnic group over the other, but by dealing of destiny it was Scots who were turning the wheels first in Ontario. Soon after them it was Germans from Pennsylvania – yes, the Mennonites and after them many of other …. including my little meaningless existence. As you can see I adopted this place including its history as my own.

        • Denny, I don’t mean nor want to butt in, but I cannot help but feel that yours is far from being a meaningless existence, even given how much I realize how tiny and miniscule we all are in the greater scheme of things ( and allowing for your personal sense of modesty ). To me — and, I think, to the rest of us on FW ( based on what I have read ) — your presence and contributions are invaluable, to say the least.

  2. Do you have any documentation for a Dreyse with a magazine? The Dreyse used a paper cartridge that I can’t see working in any kind of magazine. Even after the introduction of the metallic cartridge the Germans didn’t modify the Dreyse for it – they used captured Chassepots for adaptation.

    • They are mentioned in Myszkowski’s book, which says there are illustrations in an 1886 book by a man named Thierbach titled “Die Geschichtlicht Entwicklung Der Handfeuerwaffen”.

        • Actually, I did some more poking and there may be a copy at a library not too far from me. It will be next week before I can go there, but I may be able to get a copy to look at (and scan/publish, if the copyright is expired)…

          • Depends if they have the original 1886 edition or the 1965 Austrian reprint (which might not have a US copyright registered). Either way a single published picture would surely be covered under fair use;)

  3. The 6mm Lee Navy was probably the most graceful cartridge firearm ever issued by the U.S. military.

    I saw one in excellent condition at a one off antique gun show in Westlake, Ohio about fifteen years ago. I shudder to think what they’re going for now.

    • It is an elegant rifle. Unfortunately, I’ve read accounts from Marines in the Spanish-American war that claimed the Lee Navy had a pesky habit of tossing various bolt parts (such as the ejector) over the user’s shoulder during rapid fire under combat conditions. Not a feature that would inspire user confidence. The Marine version of the 1895 Browning potato-digger in 6mm Lee has always struck me as an interesting variation.

      While it wasn’t a Lee Navy, when it comes to graceful and elegant the Lee-Enfield is no slouch. Wish I had bought more of that very affordable Greek MK7 .303 ball that was around 15 or 20 years ago. I can’t believe what .303 is going for now.

  4. “He was attempting to use some gunpowder to help ignite a campfire”
    Sounds like he was a fun guy to be around. As always, excellent article and excellent information.

  5. I seem to remember a parson (can’t remember which denomination – church of scotland (presbyterian) I guess) from Hawick (pronounced hoyk ) questioning the appropriateness of a memorial plaque for a gun designer being placed in a church.

    It was BBC radio – so if he had then asked the more obvious question of the appropriateness of a church being associated with an institution of legalized violence (a state), it certainly wasn’t going to get played.

  6. Lee’s box magazine was instrumental in bringing firearms design into the modern age. Just imagine an AR, an M1, a 1911, an AK, a Thompson, or a P-38 with a tube magazine, or even a belt or strip feed. Firearms as we know them would not look like they do today. Also, load-bearing equipment would look somewhat different, needing to accommodate loose rounds or belts or metal strips for feeding. The possibilities for a design are amazing once you take away a fundamental aspect of it.

    P.S.
    Ian, check your email.

    • Based on what you’ve said, it might be fun to extrapolate on an alternate firearms universe using known existing designs :).

      • Yes. Imagine if the Volcanic pistol was adapted to more powerful cartridges and semi-automatic operation. That would make an interesting pistol.

    • Someone else would have invented the box magazine if Lee didn’t. With a lot of inventions many people are working on very similar things at the same time, and the “inventor” is either just the one who makes it to the patent office first, or else he’s the one whose version had some very subtle refinements which made it practical.

      When it comes to firearms I’m very reluctant to say that person ‘x’ invented gadget ‘y’. Very often when you think you’ve found the inventor, you find that someone else did more or less the same thing years beforehand, but some factor such as metallurgy, ammunition, or manufacturing technology wasn’t up to the task at that time.

      Nine times out of ten, the really innovative firearms are crap, and the really great firearms are the ones which combine well known principles in a very refined and polished fashion.

      • Quite true, and I am in full agreement about the realities of history and real-world applications. However, it would still be an enjoyable and fruitful mental exercise to try going in the directions Big Al has suggested. Creativity, as long as it is tempered by a consideration for the practical, is often borne of allowing one’s imagination to work freely like this.

      • Ian has posted several examples of guns embodying features which later appeared on someone else’ patent – sometimes much later

        For example a Williams floating chamber, before David (“carbine”) Williams was born, the late 1890s Schwarzlose reappearing on steroids as the (patented) “Automag” in the 1970s, and many of the late WWii German projects re-appearing in H&K patents.

  7. Great article but I noticed his wife’s name is listed as ‘Christine’ in paragraph 5 and ‘Caroline’ in later paragraphs.

  8. I always enjoy articles about the designers and inventors having spent much of my life in new product design with a smattering of it in the area of guns. As someone noted, a lot of Scott representation in gun invention history so being of Scottish descent adds a bit of appeal to me also.

    I too find the 6mm Lee Navy an elegant rifle. And the stock length fits me much better than the Krag or ’03 Springfield. I’m not a big man but those rifles must have been stocked to accommodate short guys. I’m thinking that to accidentally shed the extractor/ejector as has been mentioned, one would have to break the bolt stop and yank the bolt out of the gun in the heat of battle (at which point it could fall on the ground, not being otherwise connected). I suppose that’s quite possible considering the metallurgy of the day and the potential for brittle parts.

    Virtually every design is an agglomeration of existing technology hopefully along with a bit of new invention or innovative combination. It’s usually easy to see the obvious in a new creation….once the inventor has shown it to you. Far fewer can see it the first time without being shown.

    Great article Ian. Thanks.

  9. I’m the great great grandson of James Paris Lee Enfield…He did it right..Where would we be if he didn’t make the Enfield rifle..?

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