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.
Skennerton, Ian. Lee-Enfield Story. Ashmore City, Australia, 1993.
Myszkowski, Eugene. The Remington-Lee Rifle. Excalibur Publications, Latham NY, 1994.