The M1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifle was an important tool in America's quest to become a
world power serving Marines and Sailors well 100 years ago in the
THE United States military has adopted and utilized many different service rifles throughout the interesting and often turbulent history of our republic. A number of these rifles saw service for many years on countless battlefields around the globe. A good example is the U.S. Model 1903 Springfield rifle, which saw active use by the American military for more than 40 years and both world wars. Another such arm is the Mt Garand rifle, which was the standard U.S. service rifle from 1936 until 1957 and remains in limited use in other nations even today. These rifles are among the best-known of all military arms because of their widespread use by two or three generations of Americans. Not all U.S. military rifles, however, remained in use for extended periods of time. One little-known, but quite interesting, rifle was adopted by the United States Navy and Marine Corps and was in active service for fewer than five years. During this brief period, the rifle literally helped shape the destiny of the United States at the turn of the 20th Century. This arm was the Model of 1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifle.
The story of this fascinating rifle has its origins during the late 1880s when smokeless powder and bolt-action repeating rifles were becoming all the rage among most European nations. The United States' standard military rifle during this period was the single-shot .45-70 Gov't "Trapdoor" Springfield that fired a blackpowder, large-caliber cartridge. The impressive ballistic performance of new, smaller-caliber, smokeless-powder cartridges being developed at the time doomed such rounds as the .45-70. In addition, modern technology clearly rendered the cumbersome single-shots such as our "Trapdoor" Springfield obsolete, if not completely unsuitable, for military use. In order to rectify this situation, the U.S. Ordnance Department began development of a suitable smokeless-powder, .30-cal. cartridge and an acceptable bolt-action repeating rifle design to team with the new cartridge. These efforts culminated in the adoption in 1892 by the U.S. Army of the Norwegian-designed Krag-Jorgensen rifle and a .30-cal., smokeless-powder cartridge designated the ".30-40." The U.S. Krag rifle began coming off the assembly line at Springfield Armory in 1894 and was immediately issued to selected infantry units. A carbine version of the Krag was also adopted for cavalry use.
During this same period, the U.S. Navy was seeking a modern smokeless-powder, bolt-action rifle with which to equip its ships' companies as well as for Marine Corps service. The Navy was not overly impressed with the Army's Krag and decided to explore other rifle and cartridge designs. The Navy, too, desired a smallcaliber, high-velocity cartridge for its new service rifle. It has been stated that one reason the Navy favored a cartridge of this type was the ability to penetrate the lightly armored motor torpedo boats just coming into service during this period. The Navy contracted with Winchester Repeating Arms Co. of New Haven, Connecticut, for development of the proposed cartridge. The new round was designated the 6 mm USN by the Navy. Winchester referred to the cartridge as the ".236 USN" since this was the decimal equivalent of the 6 mm round. The final variant had a 112-gr., jacketed, round-nose bullet and produced a muzzle velocity of 2640 f.p.s. This was a high-velocity round compared with contemporary cartridges of the era. In order to achieve the desired ballistic performance, an extremely hotburning smokeless powder was required.
The new cartridge was unique in several respects. It was the smallest-caliber, service rifle round ever a
dopted by the United States. a distinction held until the standardization of the 5.56 mm cartridge
in the 1960s. Also, it was the first U.S. military round given a metric designation.
With cartridge selection finalized, the Navy began the search for a suitable boltaction repeating rifle design. After long and exhaustive trials of a number of rifle designs, the field was eventually narrowed down to two designs. One was a rifle submitted by Georg Luger (of P08 pistol fame) and the other was invented by the prolific American arms designer James Paris Lee. The Lee rifle was eventually selected and, in May 1895, recommended for adoption as the "United States Navy Rifle, Caliber 6 Millimetres. Model of 1895" in a designation that included an unusual combination of metric and decimal designations. Rather than a conventional turning-bolt action, the new rifle utilized a type of "straight pull" action. The mechanism was actually a wedgeand-cam design rather than the more conventional (and complicated) straight-pull type employed in the Canadian Ross and Swiss Schmidt-Rubin rifles. Lee's design was locked by slamming the bolt forward so that the locking lug was brought in contact with a corresponding recoil shoulder milled into the receiver. When the rifle fired, the action tended to lock even more securely as the locking wedge was below the line of recoil. After a round was fired, the bolt handle was pulled sharply rearward, which brought the locking lug out of its recess and allowed the bolt to be withdrawn. A floating extractor removed the fired cartridge case and allowed it to be ejected from the receiver. Once the action was locked, it could only be opened if the trigger was pulled. Obviously, if the rifle was loaded, this could create a problem if one didn't wish to fire it. Therefore. it was necessary to incorporate a bolt release, termed a "dead lock actuator," to allow the action to be opened without having to pull the trigger. A bolt lock was incorporated that functioned essentially as a safety.
The Lee design was also noteworthy because it was the first clip-loading rifle adopted by the United States military.
The rifle was loaded by means of a sheet-metal clip that held five rounds. After the last round was fired, the
empty clip dropped from a slot in the bottom of the magazine when the cartridge case was ejected.
The bayonet selected for use with the Navy's new rifle was, like the rifle, a noticeable departure from the conventional designs of the day. The M 895 bayonet had a short knife-type 85/ib" bright-finish blade. This was substantially shorter than the Krag knife-type bayonet and radically different from the long, triangular socket bayonets still in use with the Trapdoor and other rifles. Contracts were awarded to both the Remington Arms Co. and Winchester for production of the M1895 6 mm Lee Navy bayonet. The Remingtonmade bayonets were marked with the name of the maker in the fuller while the bayonets produced by Winchester were marked on the bottom of the guard.
In late 1895, the Navy contracted with Winchester Repeating Arms Co. for the production of 10,000 Model 1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifles. The company secured the necessary manufacturing rights from James Lee and began plans for production of the new rifle. There were some subsequent legal problems encountered in 1899 when an army captain alleged that Lee's design infringed on patents previously secured by him. After bringing up its concerns in this matter, Winchester was assured by the government that the firm would be reimbursed for any losses due to patent problems. The company's concerns proved to be wellfounded since legal action for patent infringement was subsequently filed.
The new M 1895 rifle began to come off Winchester's assembly line in October 1896. The first 500 rifles were issued to the U.S. Marine Corps and the Navy's North Atlantic Squadron in December 1896. A total of 1,917 M1895 rifles had been delivered by Winchester by the end of fiscal year 1896. The balance of the 10,000 rifles was completed and delivered in 1897. Government records indicate that approximately 1,000 M 1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifles were damaged in a fire at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1897. Many were rebuilt by Winchester and subsequently reissued.
The rifles were serial.ly numbered beginning with 1. The serial number was stamped on the receiver ring along with "U.S.N.," an anchor marking (denoting Navy ownership) and "N.C.T." This latter marking represented the initials of navy inspector Ensign Nathan C. Twining. Various Winchester factory and patent date markings were stamped on the left side of the receiver.
As was the case with all Winchester products of the period, the M1895 Lee Navy rifles were made of the finest materials and exhibited excellent craftsmanship. All external metal parts were blued. The rifles were fitted with fulllength walnut stocks and hand guards. In order to help cool a hot barrel, there were several small gaps between the hand guard and stock. A curved butt plate was fitted with a sliding door that allowed access to a recess drilled into the stock. The recess was utilized for storage of a pull-through cleaning thong. The front sight was protected by a removable metal cover secured by two screws.
Winchester-Lee 1895 Musket 6mm s/n 8527 mfg 1897 - 1st contract "NCT" marked, recovered from
USS Maine sunk in Havana Harbor as documented in Bannerman Catalog, shown w/Triangle-T bayonet,
scabbard, cartridge belt, 6mm ammo & USMC stamped McKeever box.
The "First Contract" rifles were fitted with slings secured by detachable swivels that could be attached to the stock in two different locations. A cartridge belt constructed of dark blue webbing material was also produced and issued. The belt had twelve pockets that each held three fiveround clips. A brass hanger was used to secure the bayonet scabbard to the cartridge belt. Blue web suspenders that helped support the weight of a fully loaded cartridge belt were also issued.
The "First Contract" of 10,000 rifles essentially met the needs of the Navy and Marines until the outbreak of the SpanishAmerican War in 1898. Due to this unexpected increase in demand, the Navy ordered 5,000 additional M 1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifles from Winchester. These "Second Contract" rifles were very similar to the "First Contract" type except for some changes to the bolt lock (safety) and some other slight modifications that can be ascertained from observing the left side of the receiver. The rifles were inspected by Lt. John N. Jordan and his initials, "J.N.J.," were stamped on the receiver ring in the same manner as the "N.C.T." markings of the "First Contract" guns. Most, if not all, of the "Second Contract" rifles had fixed sling swivels and utilized the same leather sling as issued with the Army's Krag rifle.
Many M1895 6 mm rifles were in the arms racks of several navy warships. The following ships are documented to have been issued Lee Navy rifles: USS Texas; USS Columbia; USS Nashville; USS Massachusetts; USS Vicksburg; USS New York; USS St. Paul; USS Newark; USS Dolphin; USS Chicago; USS Amphitrite; USS Franklin; USS Philadelphia; USS Oregon; and USS Maine.
Combat use revealed several deficiencies of the rifle and cartridge. The smallcaliber 6 mm bullet proved to be a poor "man stopper" as compared with the .3040 Krag and similar military rounds. Also, the hot-burning powder required to achieve the desired velocity resulted in severe bore erosion. The small .24-cal. bore made proper cleaning difficult as there were no cleaning rods issued. The pull-through thong was not adequate for its intended purpose. There were also some problems encountered with the floatingextractor design since this component could be easily lost when the bolt was removed. By 1900, these problems were deemed serious enough to persuade the Navy to begin plans for phasing the Lee Navy rifle out of service to be replaced by the Krag.
The Ml 895 6 mm Lee Navy's last significant combat use prior to removal from service was during the siege of the International Legation in Peking during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. These rifles were in the hands of the heroic U.S. Marines who helped defend beleaguered citizens trapped behind the walls of the legation by bloodthirsty Chinese "Boxers." In addition to their Lee Navy rifles, the marines used a Colt M1895 "Potato Digger" machine gun chambered for the 6 mm cartridge. Lee Navy rifles were also carried by Marines in the relief expedition that eventually resulted in the lifting of the siege. If for no other reason, the M1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifle should be remembered as a historical arm because of its utilization during this campaign.
After the Lee Navy was withdrawn and replaced the by Krag, it rapidly dropped from sight in military service. Many of the rifles were destroyed by the government because they had been damaged by the corrosive effects of salt water and because of the aforementioned problems with bore erosion. Others were apparently given to state navy militia units and others were disposed of on the surplus market.
There is another, somewhat scarce, variant of the M 1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifle that has confused and confounded collectors and students of the subject for many years. Occasionally, a rifle identical to the Navyissue rifles will be found marked "U.S.N.M." on the receiver ring. It has been speculated that the rifles marked in this manner are some sort of rare and exotic Marine Corps-issue 6 mm rifles. According to this theory, the marking presumably stands for "United States Navy Marines." This is absolutely and totally wrong. There is not, and never has been, any such entity as the "U.S. Navy Marines." The 6 mm rifles used by the Marine Corps were the same rifles used by the Navy (i.e., "N.C.T." or "J.N.J." inspected). While specific documentation has not been discovered, it is almost certain that the "U.S.N.M." marking represents "U.S. Naval Militia." During the time of the Lee Navy's tenure, a number of well-heeled state naval militia outfits ordered quantities of 6 mm Navy rifles from Winchester to equip their rather modest units. In order to differentiate these rifles from the Navy-issue arms, they were likely marked in this manner. Otherwise, the rifles were essentially identical to the standard M1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifles. While scarce and seldom encountered, such rifles do not, given comparable condition, seem to brine much more on the market today than a standard military-issue Lee Navy rifle.
Although not rare, the militaryissue Winchester M1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifles have always been somewhat uncommon. Lee Navy rifles are of interest to collectors of general U.S. martial arms, military Winchesters, Marine arms and Spanish-American War arms. The commercial rifles of this pattern are not overly popular with Winchester collectors today, and prices are typically less than for the standardissue M1895s.
While now just a footnote of history, for a brief period of time, the M 1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifle was an important tool in America's quest to become a world power. Though the M1895 6 mm Lee Navy rifle was in use for only a brief span of time, it nevertheless saw action during a turbulent and historic period of our republic. With the 100th Anniversary of the SpanishAmerican War at hand, it should be remembered that the Army's Krag was not the only rifle employed in that conflict. The Navy and Marines used their 6 mm Lee straight-pull rifles to good effect during the conflict as well. Whether in the hands of sailors carrying them ashore with a landing party in Cuba, battling fierce nationalistic Filipinos or protecting frightened diplomatic families behind the walls of Peking's International Legation from crazed Boxers, the Lee Navy rifle has secured a place in the annuals of American military lore. A revolutionary design, superb craftsmanship, the mystique of the Winchester name and historical importance all make the M 1895 6 mm Lee Navy a most desirable arm in the eyes of many collectors and enthusiasts.