Winchester Lee Navy Safety?

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
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).

Exploded 1895 Lee Navy receiver
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.
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.

Exploded 1895 Lee Navy barrel
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.


  1. I don’t believe in “proof” testing. Why wouldn’t double loading weaken the steel, in ways that we could not easily detect?

    • “why wouldn’t proof testing weaken the steel…”

      It’s all in the metallurgical properties of carbon steel. Loading it to any load below the level of plastic deformation shouldn’t damage it. Unlike aluminum alloys, low repetitive loadings don’t fatigue steel significantly. Any load sufficient to induce fatigue is also sufficient to induce deformation.

      Also, this just doesn’t look like a fatigue failure. It looks like an overstress failure. I would defer to any pukka metallurgist that disagrees with me, but in my limited experience fatigue and overstress failures look very different.

      Microscopic examination of the failure surfaces will reveal if there was significant fatigue failure before the catastrophic overstress event.

      Glad the shooter is OK.

  2. Metallurgical appearance of the receiver ring fracture surface is mostly brittle, but there is a notably different appearance at the initiation site. Suggests typical AISI/SAE 1050 ordnance steel of that era and chamber gas escape as the source of the overload.

    Longitudinally section one of the converted cases and you will probably find inadequate thickness between the recut extractor groove and the case interior.

    A low speed metallurgical diamond saw, such as a Buehler Isomet or a Leco VP-50, is the best way to do such a section. Have a VP-50 and can ‘salami slice’ a case for you.

    A definitive determination of the cause would require scanning electron microscope (SEM) imaging of the receiver ring fracture surface.

  3. Interesting that you mention the Helwans shearing their locking lugs being common. I destroyed 2 of those pistols in the 90s, but everyone said I must have using handloads that were too hot. Yet Egyptian ammo is pretty hot as is.

  4. Could a wrong diameter bullet could cause that? The 6mm Lee used a .236 bullet, he might’ve been using .243. Whether or not that’s the case I don’t know, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

    • No, this wasn’t a bullet diameter issue. He was using a .243 bullet, which is correct for production Lee Navy rifles (although it is possible the issue was exacerbated by bullet shape, namely how much surface area was in contact with the bore).

  5. That ‘sploded Lee Navy is a heartbreaking sight. Glad the owner wasn’t seriously injured. A few years back, in trying to come up with some brass for my Lee Navy, I reached the same conclusion that maybe I could reform .30-40 and re machine an extractor cut into the rimmed case. I made a couple of cases but have never tried loading them. The case body gets reduced a fair amount when reduced to 6mm Navy dimensions and the brass in that area had a fine wrinkled or crushed appearance that left me concerned about the integrity of the brass. It hadn’t occurred to me that there also might not be enough thickness left in the case head after cutting down the rim and adding an extractor cannelure. Glad I didn’t load those cases.

    Several years ago when Old West Scrounger offered new 6mm LN, I purchased a box. It too is made on .30-40 brass. I’ve fired 15 of the 20 without incident but will opt to not reload the cases. I have some original brass but have been reluctant to try loading it due to age and uncertainty as to whether it originally had mercuric primers.

    I was hoping to replicate the long neck of the 6mm LN with the Krag brass but think the.220 Swift will be a wiser option in spite of the shorter neck. I reformed some .220 Swift to that end but other projects and making a living has delayed loading them.

    As an aside, it was always my understanding that .30-40 originated as a smokeless powder cartridge.

  6. “The .30-40, however, originated as a black powder cartridge and has a relatively mild maximum pressure.”
    Can you cite any source? I always though that .30-40 was smokeless from begin and it was only described with black-powder cartridge style (.30 diameter bullet over 40 grains of [nitro] powder).

  7. THANKS FOR THE HEADS UP. I just obtained my Navy Lee at the last RIA auction and was contemplating reloading some rounds for it. I would hate to reproduce these results.

    • Don’t think you would have any problems using gas checked cast bullets in reformed .220 Swift cases. Recutting extractor grooves is a dangerous proposition and should always be checked by sectioning sample cases. Short necks are not a real problem in bottle necked case for occasional shooting with moderate loads.

      Saw a similar situation some years ago where extractor grooves were recut into reformed .348 Winchester cases.

  8. Ian
    Great write up. While I do not have a sporter lee navy to donate (and your not getting my original). I would be willing to donate for you to purchase one for testing. Just like your Ross rifle experiment, it would be a good thing to replicate. I am also paying for membership now as I want to co tinue to support the work you do. ThAnk you.

  9. Pretty sad sight to see an original Win-Lee destroyed like that. If it had gas vent holes like a Mauser or SMLE, I am thinking this issue wouldn’t occur, but I have to wonder how thick and how the heat treating of the receiver of the Win-Lee was done. It may be a similar situation of early-number Springfields with “eyeballed” head treating based on the color of the metal at the time (which of course is variable and subjective), and combine this with a lack of gas vent holes and the fact that 6mm Lee brass had to be in spec and appropriately thick in the case web area has the margin of safety for this rifle seem quite low compared to other designs such as the Mauser.

    • The description of two different types of striation in the separated receiver ring in the fatal deRuiter accident had me thinking the same thing.

      Heat treatment was a very empirical business then; it either worked or it didn’t. And without the more advanced checking technologies developed after WW1, even when it was done correctly there really wasn’t any way to determine what was done right, or wrong, so as to make sure what was done right was replicated.

      This is why I’m careful to use only factory loads in my 6.5×55 M96/38 Mauser. Made by the Karl Gustaf factory at Eskilstuna in 1904, reworked and rebarreled in 1939, but that receiver is 110 years old.

      I prefer to treat it with respect, just on general principles.

      As for the 6mm Lee Navy, I’ve always had my doubts about that particular action, as the locking system seems a bit iffy to me, especially given age and wear. Also, most such rifles should almost be too valuable as collector’s items to fire, especially if they can be verified as having been used at a specific place (American legation at Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion, etc.).

      Plus, the 6mm round was fairly “warm” for its time. Barnes (1989) credits its factory loading with 112 grain bullet @ 2560, while the .30-40 Krag 180-grain service load left the muzzle at 2460 and the older 220-grain roundnose did so at 2150.

      The “dark bore” and lack of rifling marks on the bullet reported in the deRuiter case makes me suspect a “shot out” bore, or one that was heavily corroded by use of corrosive-primed ammunition in its “youth”. Such a bore could easily be rough enough to “drag” on a bullet, thus increasing pressure behind it beyond safe levels.

      Add in the weaker web of reformed .30-40 brass, and the question of the heat treatment of the receiver and the locking efficiency of a 100-plus year old example of a bolt system that was offbeat to begin with, design-wise, and I question the wisdom of firing an 1895 Winchester-Lee Navy at all. Period.

      Accidents seldom have a single “probable cause”. It’s usually a combination of factors. This is as true of firearms as it is of aircraft (v. Robert J.Serling’s book of that name), automobiles, or anything else mechanical or otherwise.

      The only real solution or preventative measure is to be constantly alert for anything out of the ordinary. When something seems odd, stop right there.

      Being embarrassed if it turns out you were wrong is a small price to pay for not being injured, or worse.



  10. When I acquired mine some years ago, the gentleman who sold it to me warned me that it “was an accident waiting to happen.” He never detailed the reasons (we were at a gun show and there was a lot of business going on at the table), and I assumed it was because of either a design flaw or poor metallurgy, knowing that the rifle had a very brief service life, I assumed the Navy had good reasons for withdrawing it from service and it has been a display and reference piece only. I never fired mine, nor do I now have any desire to. I believe your ammunition hypothesis is sound, and indeed the use of re-formed brass does pose certain issues with this and other calibers that often go unaddressed. Also, there could very well be a metallurgical issue that, due to the brief and limited service life of these rifles was never officially recognized (unlike the brittle “low-numbered” Springfield receivers) and these unfortunate and dangerous incidents may be a result of a combination of factors. Also, Ian, in your search for a “sporterized” Lee Navy, be aware that they were also made in a rare “sporter” version, so be sure of what you have before you blow it up. I look forward to the results of your tests, as it will definitely have bearing on whether or not I ever shoot mine.

    • Hi Doc, It not only had a short service life, but almost every part was re – designed mid way through the production.

  11. “occasionally too little powder” – how would too little powder directly cause a kaBoom? I can see that too little powder left a round stuck in the barrel and the following round caused great unpleasentness – is that the mechanism?

    • The comment about a previous squib load would lead me to suspect that a load did not drop all the way leading to a “hot” load at the next drop as the extra powder is add to the regular charge. I have experienced this with 6mm Rem and IMR. Its also why Lyman has the little tapper hammer on their 55 measure. We must visually inspect the powder level especially in reduced loads. Looking down the .243 hole may require a flash light.

  12. I agree that the case head and web is a prime suspect. I’d be interested to see some clearer shots of the fracture surfaces. The corner at the rear inside shoulder of the receiver ring does look very sharp.

    Incidentally, for gas vent holes, the least that a circular hole will do in an infinite plate is to locally double the stress, the Kirsh equations which descride that only came out in 1898, three years after the rifle was adopted, holes can all to easily form stress concentrators which later act as the initiation points for cracks. The effects of sharp corners and cracks was only worked out mathematically by Griffiths, between the world wars.

  13. Looking at the second photo, I’m a little puzzled at what I’m seeing. Looks like the web of the case and the flash hole but is that the primer pocket expanded to about twice it’s original diameter?

  14. Very interesting analysis. Glad the shooter wasn’t hurt.

    I would love to see Ian do some analysis on the apparently common out of battery incidents with FN-49. I love that firearm but I’m awfully nervous shooting mine after reading so many horror stories on the net. Plus here in Canada surplus 8mm Mauser to feed my FN is almost impossible to come by. It seems there are many causes theorized but no solid single answer.

  15. In Phillip Sharpe’s 1937 book on handloading, he noted that regarding the 220 Swift “Actually the case is the strongest for handloading ever produced commercially in the rifle series”. If the 220 Swift came from the Lee Navy, the Lee Navy may have had an unusually strong case.

    Under the Lee Navy, he did not have much to write other than the rifles having poor accuracy and that the barrel life was extremely short given the nitroglycerin powders in use. Some loads were given using Unique powder (the notes of the unfortunate person who was killed referred to Unique–which used to be commonly used in rifles, but not so much these days).

  16. Firstly, the Lee 6mm was a cartridge without a correct Powder for its time. It came out in 1895, when smokeless Powders and their characteristics were in their infancy, both as to “purity” of composition, and Burning rates etc.

    The Problem of “eyeballing” heat treatment is already noted (but How come the case-hardening system used by Mauser,& Japan etc etc., was successful? Maybe the Design Parameters combined with the regular case hardening used was the answer.) Mausers were basically SAE1035 steel ( as were the Arisakas).

    Case design & Bullet design: The theory at the time was that a long, cylindrical bullet should have a diameter in-between the Bore diameter and the Groove diameter, to allow for “Base Upset Obturation” , allowing a ring of expanded bullet flat or concave base to fill the grooves and act as a driviung band and gas seal, whilst the majority of the body of the projectile simply “rode the Lands” with minimum engraving. This was to reduce jacket friction and Metal Fouling ( Nickel alloy or Nickel-clad steel Jackets of the time.)…This System was used on nearly all the “European” 8mm rifles of the 1880s-1890s ( Austrian, German, French,Russian Portuguese, Japanese Murata, Italian Carcano and Dutch Mannlicher,even the Siamese Mauser; etc)

    SO the Bore of the 6mm Lee was .236″ (Bore in Military terms is the Calibre, ie, the natural unrifled barrel) The Groove diameter should be somewhere in the .243-245″ region….243″ is a Modern Finding.

    Now, What was the original Lee Bullet for the 6mm Lee Cartridge? That will go a long way to identifying a problem. ( Have to look at some Original 1900s designs of the cartridge to get the actual Bullet diameter.)
    Noting that the Lee Bullet was a long cylindrical Bullet, the “Base Upset Obturation” system SHOULD have been applied. Knowing the distance in Ordnance Thinking between US and European cartridge/Rifle Makers, I doubt that it was.

    Next, Case design. As P.B.Sharpe mentioned, the .220 Swift was based on the 6mm Lee Case design ( actually, the .236 Lee Rimmed), but with a Semi Rim designed to fit5 a .30/06 (Springfield) Bolt. Thus would have necessitated a slight extractor groove undercut, much less than the groove on the original 6mm Lee case. Hence both the .220 Swift and the 6mm Lee must have had a rather Thick web, to allow for the depth of cut for the groove. Also, the 6mm Lee was a High Pressure load, when compared with other cartridges of the time (ie, 30/40, etc.)The 220 Swift was definitely a “High pressure Load” to achieve the Velocities touted for it.

    I have found (in commercial case making) that .220 Swift makes excellent 6,5 Japanese, 6,5 Italian, and 6,5 Greek MS cases, due to its thick head allowing for a suitable extractor cut depth to be turned, without any danger of “Head Puncture”…(But I have not “proof tested” the cases, only standard loads.)

    I have not used .30/40 Krag cases, as here in Australia they are rare, costly, and I reserve my small lot of Winchester cases for sale to the few Krag owners here (Myself included)

    A swaged down and rim cut .303 British could be used to make 6mm Lee cases, and the Bases on these are thick enough (the Military cases) to allow for Extractor cuts of the right size…I have made 6,5 Japanese, 6,5 Italian, and 6,5 Greek from DI Z (Canadian) .303 cases (Boxer) and some have lasted over 40 years.

    Powder Loads: Correctly Loaded using Modern Powders… .243–type cartridges have a problem with “Anomalous Pressure Excursions” ( an Artillery Term for strange burning rates of Powder, usually if Undercharged…causes blowing up of Artillery Breech Pieces.

    Usually the Primer Flash ignites the Low charge in the case at the front of the case, causing a short pressure wave which forces the bullet into the Rifling, where it “Hesitates”…as the Pressure increase as more Powder burns, the Burning rate increases exponentially ( Powder burns best under pressure and heat) and the rest of the charge virtually causes a Miniature “explosion” OF pressure, the wave of which hits the Base of the stopped bullet, and rebounds down into the case to its weakest Point ( the extractor groove cut or the Primer Pocket) Hence the High pressure gas jet cutting through the steel on the weakened side of the receiver. Gas expands as the Volume increases, whilst the Pressure may drop somewhat (Boyle’s Law) it still has sufficient energy and velocity to tear the receiver ring off.

    AS a Proof of this “Gas rebound” effect, in using Blanks and Blank firing devices in SA and FA firearms, we know whyewn the Gas pressure/BFA Vent aperture is Just right…the cases come out with the crimp 3/4 to fully expanded (cylindrical)…If it comes out with the crimp closed, then the residual (Back)Pressure in the barrel is just over Optimum, and if the case is “collapsed ( crimp inverted, gas dents on the case, case collapsed) them we know that the Vent is too small, and the Gun is getting “Hammered”, both in the Gas Piston and the returning Bolt ( I Have seen two Garands destroyed this way–rear receiver Hump sheared/cracked through from Bolt slam. Cartridge loading (NOT mine) was at fault.)

    The Other Possibility is that unburnt Powder grains in the Barrel have ignited, causing some sort of Pressure Problems for the Bullet, and adding to Bullet friction.

    AS regards to the Use of Unique, a Double-base Powder developed in the 1890s ( on the guidelines of Cordite, but flaky) I have always considered it to be a Pistol Powder, and wholly unsuited to Jacketed rifle cartridge use ( Wadded loads for Cast Bullets are fine)..That is where the “Low Load” Problem may have occurred… ( My opinion). Also One cannot compare Unique of the early 1900s to Unique today…totally different characteristics. The “Unique” used for the Military Load was “Bulk” Powder, the stuff sold today is “Canistered” Powder, made to a formula of Burning rate and other characteristics, so that Loading tables don’t have to be constantly revised…in any case, when using a New Lot of Canistered Powder, it is best to “re-calibrate” your loads to the new Powder, Just in case.

    Several cases over the last 50 years have occurred of using too little of the correct or Slow ( 4831) Powder in a .243 Winchester, causing strong Mauser actions to fail (Case rupture followed by receiver failure…Bolt usually still in Battery.)

    This could be a cause of the explosions noted in the above Posting. ( combined withy Bad Case construction, Poor receiver heat treatment, Poor receiver design, etc

    There is Never ONE single cause of such destructive demolition of a rifle, but a combination of individual causes, which, by themselves, may not be disastrous (or only mildly so).

    Doc AV
    Forensic Firearms Examiner,
    Film Ordnance Services

    • The Problem of “eyeballing” heat treatment is already noted (but How come the case-hardening system used by Mauser,& Japan etc etc., was successful? Maybe the Design Parameters combined with the regular case hardening used was the answer.) Mausers were basically SAE1035 steel ( as were the Arisakas).

      Not necessarily, Doc. See “When A Rifle Blows” by Bob Bell, 1997 Gun Digest, p.106.

      The rifle in question was a prewar Brno Mauser commercial rebarreled to .22-250. It blew on the second shot at a varmint. Bell ended up having steel splinters picked out of his left eye, his right being protected by the scope, which was bent into a bow shape by impact on the window frame when it parted company with the mounts. The receiver ring split, the bolt came partway out but was caught by the rear safety lug, the forestock broke in half, and the barrel basically fell out of the receiver.

      The analysis of the rifles’ remains by P.O. Ackley concluded that the receiver ring had a flaw very like a sand crack in a casting, that was apparently induced by improper heat treatment during manufacture. His conclusion was that the rifle had never been safe to fire from the day it left the factory.

      Bell concluded that modern commercial American actions were the best choice for custom rifles, and thereafter stuck to them when he wanted to build a varmint rifle. Just on safety grounds.

      I’m seriously considering acquiring a modern rifle in .308, and retiring my M96/38 to the wall. No kidding.



  17. Ian, to give more validity to your theory I think that you’ll need to show that using 220 Swift brass would not cause similar failures. That’s what the research chemist in me says.

  18. Recognising the concerns with SEE/Anomalous Pressure Excursions (love that benign sounding term for the weapon detonating BTW) I would think that H4895/AR2206H is a fast enough powder for this not be a concern. I tend to think about SEE with Varget/AR2208 and slower powders.

    Looking at the pictures this looks like a significant over-pressure event – that right side of the receiver in picture two is peeled back. I am having a hard time imagining this with 30grains of IMR 4895 – this would be a standard load in the light 30-30 lever actions (not the strongest actions) with 150grain bullets. I don’t know about case volume of the Lee Speed 6mm compared to the .243 however Hodgdon suggest 28.5grains of H4895 with an 80grain bullet in the 243 gives 31,100cup:
    Could that open an action like the pictures demonstrate? This pressure is less than 40SW loads.

    Ian if you do work up some 30-40krag for the Lee Speed, can you fit 60grains of 4895 in it?

    • Error: Ian if you do work up some 30-40krag brass for the Lee-Navy can you fit 60grains of 4895 in it?

  19. “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”). ”
    Ian I would challenge this assertion that this is the most common cause of kaboom events. Semi-auto weapons perhaps? But out of battery detonations for bolt action rifles? Only if the firing pin was stuck forward. What is the evidence that out of battery events are common for bolt action firearms?

    • I believe Ian includes excessive headspace blowups in the “out of battery” category, and those are by far the most common cause of bolt-action blows.

      If a bolt rifle, or any other kind with a rotating or otherwise locking bolt, has worn or peened locking lugs or recesses for same, there can be an excessive headspace condition. When fired, the case head will “set back” against the bolt face. Usually, if the headspace isn’t too overly great, this just results in stretching of the brass near the case head, usually easily spotted by a “lightening” in color of the brass in a band around the case just forward of the extractor groove.

      However, if the brass is the least bit “soft”, or has been reloaded a few times, the case can fail at that point, often as a complete case head separation. The gas is released into the action and -boom. There’s your “blow up”.

      Insufficient headspace can cause similar problems, specifically in rimfire actions. If there is too little clearance (i.e., too much “crush”) between the bolt face and the breech ring face around the chamber in the rim recess, a .22 RF can be fired simply by closing the bolt too fast and hard- like when you’re bolting the rifle to get off a second shot at a highballing jackrabbit.

      As for firing pin induced blows, a firing pin with too weak a return spring can “bounce” forward under inertia when the bolt is closed with verve, and fire the round,possibly before the bolt is securely locked. Or a damaged firing pin can bind with enough protrusion from the bolt face to “slamfire” the round in the chamber like an advance-primer-ignition blowback SMG with a fixed firing pin (Sten MK II/III, MP.38/40, etc.).

      I have heard that the FN SAFN M1949 semi-automatic rifle has this problem, specifically the Egyptian contract model in 7.9x57mm. Whether or not it has the time to lock before it goes “bang” is a pretty good question, and one best answered by remote control with the rifle in an armored test cell and you well outside same.

      Lever actions have their own set of potential problems like this, but that’s another column’s worth of posts altogether.



      • For what it’s worth, a case head separation is not necessarily accompanied by a “kaboom”. I have seen several instances of total head separation which only resulted in the rear bit of the case being ejected with the rest left stuck in the chamber. Probably not as uncommon as we’d think since the military made stuck case removing tools to deal with it.

        Not that such an event isn’t to be avoided at all costs. One might not always be lucky enough to have the separation forward enough to still seal the gas.

  20. Case head separation hasn’t been a big issue for me, and I’ve probably experienced it two dozen times, along with split cases.

    Rifle A was a No.1Mk3 Enfield with the usual grossly oversized chamber; on the fourth or fifth reload, the case would fail.

    Rifle B was an 1891 Mauser in 7.65, shooting reloads of very old brass which had evidently been used with mercuric primers.

    These were all moderate loads, various powders, from the 1974(?)Speer manual.

    Also on Rifle B, a number of startling puffs around the case when experimenting with light plinker loads with .32 ACP bullets. From the sooty condition of the extracted cases, I believe the pressure was too low to obturate the case to properly function as a pressure gasket.

  21. I’m going along with the SEE theory, but noting, there is .020″ difference in the head thickness between 30-40 and 30-06. Not enough to be the sole cause of this disaster. Another fellow had a near catastrophe with one of these rifles using only 25gr of 4895. Things worked fine with a thin jacketed bullet, but a thicker jacketed heavier bullet expanded the primer pocket. He was using cases that had been swagged and reformed from 25-06 I believe. Maybe he’d have gotten similar results had he been using cases made from 30-40. Rough throat and a temporarily stopped bullet in my opinion.

  22. The real root cause of this would seem to be a relatively high-performance cartridge combined with 1890s-level metallurgy, engineering and quality control. Even the worst imaginable case failure would be unable to cause this sort of catastrophic failure in a 98 Mauser or Winchester M70, or even a low-number m1903 Springfield, in all probability. I think I have a good bit more faith in low-number Springfields, at this rate…

  23. Sadly I know almost nothing about gun failures but Doc AV’s comment about rifle failures always being a combination of individual causes reminds of exactly the same comment I heard from a British Army officer who spent his career analysing weapons failures. Even in properly used issue weapons firing issue ammunition, with enough rounds being fired a combination of individually minor factors can combine to create a major failure. You can reduce the risk but you can’t eliminate it. In the end bad luck can be a cause.

  24. Just a little more msc info on the lee navy. Back when i was 14 or 15 i bought a lee navy and 4 or 5 boxes of loaded cartridges from a neighbor. he commented that it was a reloading proposition only to obtain more ammo.I took it out to sight it in–

    first shell i fired– normal empty brass
    second — primer protruded
    third — primer fell out
    forth — I could not open the action – i hammered on the bolt with a piece of wood until the
    action opened— about 1/2 the center of the cartridge around the primer had
    disappeared and the rimless case had been fire formed into a RIMMED case!!!!how much
    pressure would that have taken? The action seemed to operate normally after this!!

    i thought myself very lucky and promptly sold the rifle and all cases to Firearms International in Montreal
    Quebec, for $25 (now that i am a lot more mature i wish i had kept it all,knowing the present value)

    In one way i was a very lucky SOB.

  25. Uh oh. I have a very nice Lee Navy (Winchester, s/n 15xx) that I load for and occasionally shoot. I use .25-06 commercial brass, 29 g. IMR-3031, .243″ 100gr. PSP (Rem) bullets. Chrono at 2,500 fps.

    There is what appears to be a gas bleed hole in the top of the bolt, prob. ~.10″ diameter, about an inch back from the bolt face.

    Working up loads, beginning at 27 grs., there appears what I’d call a slight primer extrusion immediately around the indentation. No other primer or case pressure signs, and easy extraction. Grain by grain, from 27 to 29 grs, the extrusion stayed the same. I suspect there’s too much windage between the firing pin and bolt hole, but I haven’t measured either yet, nor do I know what’s normal.

    Anyone want to opine on whether I’m looking for trouble with this gun/load?

    Thanx, guys!

  26. A late late post but you never know. A whole lot of first generation Lee Navys were in a fire prior to the SAW. Some were condemned, but other fire damaged ones were not (the USS Texas complained of receiving fire damaged Lee Navys (stocks). These would I think have been in the 5xxx and below range. I need parts for a non-firing display Winchester Lee. If you have anything left over let me know. Right now I have an early receiver, a lower receiver/trigger guard and a rear sight and I have previously done more with less. I can fake the barrel if I cannot find anything. Any wood would be great also, especially the buttstock area. Al

  27. FYI – back a long time ago when i was a teenager with very little firearms knowledge, i bought a 6mm lee navy, straight pull action, i don’t remember the maker, although i believe it was a military w.eapon.Along with the gun came several boxes of handloads.

    the first shot i fired was normal, second the primer protruded slightly, third the primer fell out when i extracted the empty cartridge, the forth and last shot i fired from that rifle the bolt would not function. i hit the bolt handle with a piece of wood, and finally the bolt came back and the empty extracted.

    the 6mm lee navy ammo i was using had a rimless case.


    I don’t know how much pressure it would take to make that brass flow into a rimmed type case, but i am very glad that i survived. I don.t know if the ammo was overloaded or what was the cause, however i promptly sold the rifle and several boxes of ammo to International Firearms in Quebec, Canada for the grand sum of $25. I don’t even have a 6mm lee navy cartridge in my ammo collection.

  28. I had a SEE type event shooting a pair of 1891 Mausers in the normal 7.65 caliber.
    One of the rifles was new to me and the other I had owned and shot many times.

    I was swapped rifles after firing 3 rounds in the new one then 2 rounds in the old rifle.
    The 3rd shot blew a primer in the new rifle. Then I fired the old one 2 more rounds.
    I swapped back to the new rifle and it blew another primer on the second shot.

    I stopped and looked everything over. Then I dry fired both rifles and the new rifle made just thud when the firing pin fell. So I swapped the bolt from the old rifle to the new rifle and the new rifle fired just fine.

    So I took down the bolt from the new rifle and found it and the main spring was packed FULL of cosmoline. I got after the grease with an old tooth brush and some Hoppe #9.
    I put the bolt back together and the new rifle shot just fine. In fact the primers were rounded from the low pressure. The cases were smutted about 3/4 of the case length. I eventually worked the load up 4 more grains until the primers looked normal and the cases were sealing off at the middle of the neck.
    At the time I bought the powder Accurate 2495 was new on the market and there was little data for it. All the data I had was printed on a flyer that had been packed in with the powder inside the cannister. I used that data to swag a load for the 7.65 using data from the .308 Win. Then I reduced the swag another 2 grains.
    Time goes buy and Accurate publishes a real loading manual with 7.65 data for Accurate 2495. Their data starts out 2 grains higher than my starting point and ends 2 grains higher than my final loads.
    The old rifle never had a single problem. The new rifle blew 2 primers that expanded the primer pockets about.010 oversize using my pin gauges.
    Apparently the weak ignition from all the cosmoline and the light load of 2495 did not want to work together. Having that second rifle made for rapid fault isolation.

    Ps I talked to Accurate and the technician attributed this to the US .30-06 military cases I used having necks that were too thick. He did not know what he was talking about. All the military Mausers I have reloaded for (maybe 15 or 20) worked fine. In addition I used pin gages to check the diameter of the chamber neck and a high quality mike to check the neck diameter of the loaded rounds.

  29. First off, can’t think of any good reason why anyone would not use the .220 Swift case, but would modify the .30-40 case instead. (Incidentally, there never was a 180 grain service load for that cartridge.) If the case diameter is swaged down, the case is worked heavily and will be harder and more brittle. If, however, the case is reduced in diameter by turning, case walls become dangerously thin. In any case, to me it looks like a typical anomalous pressure excursion. Possibly caused by a very moderate load, and too long a case.
    Now to DocAV”s Garand comments. The Blank firing device for the Garand, clamped to the muzzle, while allowing the rifle to cycle, would clog and blow up, usually splitting the rifle’s muzzle. The device was withdrawn. After that Garands started to blow out the back of the receiver when used with blanks. After courtmartialling quite a few poor souls for using the now forbidden device, ordnance finally came to the right conclusion. Well-worn cam slots in the operating rod allowed the rod to be pulled off the camming lug, especially when the bolt was pulled back palm down rather than palm up, as taught. When fired, the bolt would unlock but be free of the rod and spring and strike the back of the receive unrestrained by the spring.
    .s are swagded, th

  30. I seem to recall another analysis of this that laid the blame at not the Krag brass itself, but the reforming process that could either lead to a smaller internal capacity (and thus higher than expected pressures) than 6mm brass, though this would be more indicative of barrel failures, not receiver blow-outs like this. (more akin to high pressures in 7.62 NATO brass with loads more suitable for thinner-walled .308 cases)

    So the other case-forming problem would be improperly forming the base and instead of forming the 11.6 mm case head down to 11.3 mm, some of that brass is shaved off along with the rim, down to 11.4 mm. (ie if the rim is turned down before the base is reformed)

    Losing that .2 mm of case wall at the base might be enough to make it marginal.

    Normal .30-40 brass is suitable for the same pressure ranges the 6mm navy was intended for, though perhaps not the pressures some of the inconsistent, high pressure problematic 6mm loads from the 1890s. (ie the ones approaching 60,000 PSI)

  31. The Winchester Lee Navy has all the earmarks of a gun that was not properly tested prior to service introduction. I think the Army would have not fielded it so quickly. It seems to be not quite done. Not only was the bolt stop in the 1st production an issue causing inadvertant dropping of the bolt and more seriously the loss of the extractor, the spring for the magazine easily fatigued. Another issue is that a lot of the first batch were exposed to a warehouse fire and most were not condemned and back then the use or discard was pretty much by eyeball, and the time the choice was made under significant pressure to get these weapons out to sea and in the hands of the marines. It was one of those guns that worked well initially but I don’t think was capable of hard service. It’s a darn quirky piece and one reason it was quirky because of the non-rotating straight pull design required wholly new solutions and frankly the rifle just doesn’t feel “right” although it is quite exotic. On the other hand the Ross 1905 and Austrian 1895 rifles don’t seem to have the quirkyness of the Winchester Lee 1895.

  32. Good read. I don’t own a Lee navy, but do own & hunt with 100 plus year old 98 Mauser sporters. They are .318 so are a hand loading proposition. I am very careful and don’t believe in pushing these old guys, so I stick to moderate loads. Still they are old.

  33. Ian did you ever end up doing the test and find out if it was the .30-40 krag ammo that caused the rifle to explode?

  34. I just saw that you said you didn’t receive the gun, were you still able to look at the difference in the case web dimensions then?

  35. Has there ever been a final conclusion as to why these failures of the 6mm Navy occured? Reading the above article on the subject, I think the practice of “Fire Forming” Rifle Cases is a foolish practice. Years ago, I fired a .375 JRS in a light Ruger Single Shot. It was far most brutal recoil wise. Now, reading about lack of Gas Port Receiver Venting, as well as Fire Forming Cases seems a foolish practice. Sometimes excessive recoil tells you something and it’s a bad message your rifle is giving you – STOP! I’ve seen inferior 7.62 Military Surplus Ammo cause such violent recoil that the Gas Piston Rod became wobbly and loose in the Carrier after repeated firings.

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