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Classic test report: Lee Navy rifle 6mm.

* Being a curious sort of fellow, I have always had something of an affinity for the unusual and arcane.

This, naturally, includes firearms. I have made a kind of mental list of guns I would like to fire before passing on to that great celestial firing line.

To date, I have managed to whittle down the roster by shooting a Jacob rifle, Brunswick, Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver, and Gyrojet "rocket" pistol. Still to come are a Maxim Gun, Dreyse Zundnadlegewehr and Ferguson rifle. This test has allowed me to add one more arm to the "already done" category--the 6mm Model 1895 "straight pull" Lee Navy Rifle.

Frankly, the Lee Navy was one of the guns I had not really seriously considered. They are quite scarce and ammo is virtually nonexistent, or at the very least, difficult to fabricate. The chance of finding a collector who would be willing to let me run a few rounds through his precious keepsake was slim.

Enter Harris Bierman. Harris and I have been shooting associates for a good number of years. He is almost as aberrant as I and also loves to touch off arms curiosa.

Several months ago he called to tell me that he had picked up a very clean Lee Navy from the Camelback Gunshop in Phoenix, Arizona. Though the gun was missing a part or two, a trip to Martin Retting's, in Culver City, California, remedied this, and soon we had a functioning M-1895.

As will be seen, getting this rare bird to the firing line was something of a team effort. Many willing hands were involved in loading, case fabrication, chronographing and other tasks.

Before going any further, perhaps now might be a good time to go into a bit of history on the Lee--for it was a revolutionary gun in its time and remains the only rifle of its type to be adopted by any of the U.S. armed forces.

The U.S. Navy Rifle Model 1895, as it was to be called, was designed by James Paris Lee, of Lee-Enfield fame. The gun (and its caliber) was unlike anything ever tested by the Navy. It featured what was called a "straight-pull" bolt action, but was, in fact, more correctly a camming one. When the bolt handle was pulled to the rear, it rocked backward, freeing a stud from an aperture on the right side of the receiver and unlocking the bolt.

Loading was effected via a unique clip that incorporated a small "bail" on the rear which secured five rounds in position. This bail, besides being an effective lock, allowed Lee to successfully circumvent the earlier patents of Ferdinand Mannlicher.

The Lee was charged by opening the bolt and forcing the entire clip down into the magazine. The assembly was then given a second "push" to ready the first round for chambering.

Closing the bolt stripped off the rounds in succession. The clip itself was ejected from the magazine with the removal of the second cartridge.

Winchester Repeating Arms received a contract to manufacture some 15,000 of these muskets for the Navy. As well, some 5,000 civilian versions of military and sporting configuration were also produced.

The M-1895 measures some 4 feet, 7.9 inches overall and tips the scales at 8 lbs., 8 oz. It was fitted for an 8-1/2-inch bladed knife bayonet resembling that of the Army's .30-40 Krag. A unique sling and ammunition belt were also devised for use with the Lee.

Those firearms specifically intended for naval service were marked on their receivers "-U.S.N.-/ (anchor)/(serial numer)/-N.T.C.-" or "-J.N.J.-" (the inspector's initials of Ensign Nathan C. Twining and Lieutenant John N. Jordan).

Rear sights were of the standard military ladder-style, graduated to 2,000 yards. The front was a hooded blade. On the left side of the receiver, above the trigger, was a small, knurled bolt-release lever and vertically-sliding safety. All metal parts were blued and the stock was of the full-length walnut variety.

Winchester extolled the virtues of their new arm. According to an early manual: "The superiority of this arm over all other types of bolt guns lies in the fact that the operation of opening and closing is by a "straight pull," instead of the customary 'up turn' and 'pull back.'

"The fact that this gun is a rapid-fire repeating rifle should be borne in mind. It is always ready for rapid fire, as the time consumed in opening the breech and inserting a clip is very short, when five shots are ready for delivery. These five shots may be delivered without taking the gun from the shoulder, and it may be loaded in this position, as it need not be brought down to insert a clip unless desired."

Perhaps the most fascinating feature was the cartridge itself.

Actually, the cartridge pre-dated the rifle. The Navy had been experimenting with some Army .30 caliber loads as early as 1891, in an effort to replace the .45-70 ammo then in use.

By 1893, a board of officers decided to test a 6mm round they felt would be more pertinent to the needs of the Navy. The round, which was to be developed by Winchester, was to have a bullet weight of 135 grains and a case capacity of 35 grains of smokeless powder.

After some experimentation, a cartridge was adopted in early 1894 that consisted of a 135-grain steel-jacketed bullet propelled by 34 grains of Rifleite powder. A year later it was altered with the substitution of a 112-grain tinned, copper-jacketed bullet that had better ballistics and effected less bore wear than its progenitor. Muzzle velocity was a then-astounding 2,550 feet per second (fps).

The case was rimless and measured 2.350 inches with the entire cartridge running 3.10 inches overall. Termed the ".236 U.S.N." in its civilian loadings, the package was unlike anything previously seen in the U.S. military.

Lees were issued to naval personnel, including Marines, who were well-pleased with them. They were used to some degree during the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection, but the Lee Navies perhaps saw their finest hour in the hands of the Marines defending the Legations during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Unfortunately, it was found that storage on shipboard had a deleterious effect on the round's powder and this, coupled with the complicated logistics inherent in the Navy's having a separate caliber from the other services, caused the gun (and the round) to be scrapped; Navy personnel were rearmed first with Krags and, finally, 1903 Springfields.

Finding ammunition to test our Lee was the largest hurdle we had to overcome. Winchester had stopped loading the .236 U.S.N. in 1935, and original military fodder was even more scarce and presumably unshootable. Also, the clips proved to be just as elusive as the ammo, and while cartridges could be loaded into the magazine one at a time, we were reluctant to do this, as the object of a classic field test is to duplicate the original firing procedure as closely as possible.

After some casting about, we found that fabricating our own ammo was the only solution (feelers were put out to locate at least one clip).

As the .220 Swift was based on the 6mm Lee Navy, it was the ideal choice for conversion. Unfortunately, the .220's base was somewhat larger and the neck considerably shorter than those of the 6mm. While the shoulder was different, that at least could be taken care of with proper forming dies.

The quest for a proper bullet was also something of a challenge. The closest we could come to the original specs was with a Speer 105-grain soft point, round-nosed projectile.

Dies and a shell holder were obtained from Buzz Huntington of Huntington Die Specialties in Oroville, California. Lon Skutt, of Custom Engineering in Saginaw, Michigan, meticulously turned down the rim and cut new extractor cannelures.

Finally, after an exhaustive search, clips of original ammunition were located at Northeast Gun & Supply, Inc., in Needham, Massachusetts.

Harris began playing with loads and, with the assistance of Larry Merrill, chronographed the results. The optimum combination seemed to be 30.0 grains of IMR3031 and the 105-grain Speer bullet, with which we achieved muzzle velocities approaching 2,500 fps.

Naturally, there were some glitches. The newly-turned rims on the .220 Swift lacked the slight bevel of the original 6mm, and consequently they loaded with some difficulty into the clip. The bail had a rather nasty tendency to flip over at the wrong moment, instantly spilling the five rounds. Also, the shorter necks caused the bullets to be seated further back than called for in the 1890's specs, creating a bit of feeding trouble. But more of this later. Let's go through a step-by-step loading and firing procedure.

With all of our chronographing and experimentation behind us, the gun was finally taken to the 12 Oaks Shooting Society range in Valencia, California for a thorough going-over.

Five rounds of altered .220 Swift were duly loaded into a clip. As noted before, it took a bit of necromancy to keep the bail locked, but once this was achieved, the ammo and clip were introduced into the receiver preparatory to being pushed down into the magazine.

We found that the long extractor projected well into the receiver opening, and it was necessary to move it out of the way with the cartridges in order to position the clip properly. While this may sound awkward, in fact it presented no problem.

The five rounds were easily pressed all the way down into the magazine, though we found that an extra little nudge was necessary to drop the clip a fraction and expose the rim of the first round where it could easily be stripped off by the bolt.

The bolt was now pushed forward with a smooth, effortless action, chambering a round. The gun was aimed and the first round touched off. Despite the fact that the trigger had about 1/4 inch of takeup and the lock time was abysmally slow, my first offhand shot easily plinked the 100-yard gong I was aiming at. Recoil was virtually nil, and the report was not prohibitive.

A simple tug on the handle easily freed the bolt and ejected the spent cartridge. Another forward motion stripped off the next round and allowed the clip to drop out of the bottom of the magazine.

We found that the gun could be operated effectively without being removed from the shoulder, as Winchester claimed in their literature. I am also sure that ammo could be loaded from that position as well; but due to our slippery bail problems, we chose to charge the rifle with the gun at waist level where we could keep our eyes on the clip at all times.

The safety was positive, if somewhat awkwardly located. I'm also inclined to believe that as it simply slides up and down, with limited spring tension, it would be easy to inadvertently disengage. While the small bolt release was not particularly easy to get at, when pushed down, it did unlock the bolt. Working the bolt, by the way, is the only method by which unfired rounds can be expelled from the gun. The gun was comfortable and sure. And, as our subsequent 100-yard, 1-1/2-inch bench-rested groups proved, accurate.

Despite the difference in overall cartridge length, we experienced few chambering hangups. Ejection was positive, hurling cases well clear of the action.

It is unfortunate that the Lee was replaced prematurely. To be perfectly honest, based upon this brief experience, I found the gun decidedly superior to .30-40 Krags that I have fired. The round is certainly more effective and the clip loading method infinitely superior to the Krag's cumbersome box magazine. Granted, the Krag had a very smooth bolt action, though I doubt it could be worked any faster or more easily than the Lee's.

In effect, the Lee was a gun ahead of its time. Had the proper propellents been available, perhaps the arm would have had a longer life span--though, admittedly, interservice politics also had more than a little to do with the rifle's demise.

In any event, my wish-list has diminished by one, albeit somewhat sadly. Granted, the Lee test was a total success, but it puts me an arm closer to my goal--a goal that frankly I'm not sure I'm in a hurry to complete. I know, I'll just add another gun. How about a Remington-Keene, or a Spencer repeater, or a Borchardt auto pistol, or a Colt revolving shotgun, or perhaps....
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Jul 1, 1985
Words:2107
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