Ahead Of The Pack — Ahead Of Its Time
By Holt Bodinson
James P. Lee, a Scotsman by birth and a naturalized American citizen by choice, left an immense footprint on the firearms scene in the latter half of the 19th century. A watchmaker by trade, Lee’s true talent was firearms design. Most know him for three major contributions. First was the detachable box magazine, patented in 1875. Then there was Britain’s Lee-Metford/Lee-Enfield series of rifles that would soldier on in the hands of Tommies from 1888 through the Korean War. Third was the utterly spacey 1895 Winchester-Lee “Straight-Pull” U.S. Navy rifle chambered in 6mm Lee. Lee’s is a fascinating story.
His first successful design was a single-shot carbine patented in 1862 and ordered by the U.S. Ordnance Department, leading to the formation of the Lee Fire Arms Co. Throughout the 1870s we find Lee designing a series of bolt-actions, submitting them to the Ordnance Department for trials, but unsuccessful in landing a military contract. Undaunted, he continued and was issued a patent in 1878 for what we now recognize as the precursor of the Lee bolt-action rifle with its detachable magazine.
Features of the future Lee Metford/Lee-Enfield can be seen in the 1882 U.S.
Remington-Lee Trials rifle.
His latest 1878 design now produced under contract by Remington, Lee offered it in .45-70 to the Army and the Navy for trials. The Army rejected it, but the Navy’s Magazine Gun Board reported, “The comparative simplicity of the mechanism, and the ease with which the magazine can be applied, make it a valuable and destructive weapon. The trials made with the rifle in the presence of the Board were most satisfactory.”
Lee had finally snagged a paying military contact. Manufactured by E. Remington & Sons, approximately 7,500 Model 1879 Lee Magazine Navy Contract rifles were produced between 1881 and 1884.
Svelte and quick to the shoulder, the Remington-Lee Sporter is a classic hunting rifle.
This one’s chambered for the .236 Navy — a hot 6mm decades ahead of its time.
1882 Army Trials
It must have galled the Army that the Navy was now armed with bolt-action repeaters while their troops still slugged on with the Trapdoor Springfield. So the Army called for new trials in 1882, pitting the Lee against the Winchester-Hotchkiss and the Chaffee-Reese. All were 5-shot .45-70s.
Looking at the Lee Army Trials rifle, it was an improvement over the first 1879 Navy model which featuring a Mannlicher-type split bridge with an awkward bolt handle located in front of the rear receiver ring. The Army Trials rifle featured a user-friendly bolt handle placed to the rear of the receiver ring, a better locking system and a re-engineered magazine.
It was now a thoroughly modern-looking, fairly sleek rifle, weighing 8.75 lbs. with an overall length of 52″. Issued to 149-plus companies representing the infantry, cavalry and artillery, the Lee was the hands-down winner of the trial, but inexplicably, the Chief of Ordnance decided to stick with the single-shot Trapdoor.
The 1882 Army Trials rifle pictured here, firing a standard handload consisting of 9.5 grains of Trail Boss and a Lyman #457124 405-gr. cast bullet, was capable of keeping 3 shots in 1.25″ at 50 yards.
Despite losing out on the Army Trials, the basic Lee military rifle — produced by Remington in .45-70 and .43 Spanish in a variety of models — was widely sold to countries throughout the world.
The Chinese were among its biggest buyers, and Lee once jokingly observed maybe they thought he was Chinese. As their issued service rifle, the U.S. Navy kept the Remington-Lee in play until the late 1890s, phasing it out with the 1895 Winchester-Lee “Straight-Pull” 6mm.
Remington was slow to introduce a sporting rifle model based on the Lee design, but in 1899 they introduced a Remington-Lee military rifle in .30-40, followed by a handsome, little sporter in 6mm Lee (also known as the .236 Navy), 7×57, 7.65 Belgian, .30-30, .30-40 and an assortment of big-bore calibers. Only about 1,500 Lee sporters were sold between 1899–1905, making them a rare bird indeed and a great collectible.
The Remington Lee sporter has the sleek profile. Throwing it up to your shoulder, the open sights are right on and you can picture yourself easing through the hardwoods after whitetail. Fitted with a 5-round box magazine and weighing 7.5 lbs. with a 26″ barrel, the specimen pictured here is chambered for the 6mm Navy cartridge. It features a1:6.5″ twist, one of the fastest ever commercially produced.
The original military load featured a 112-gr. jacketed bullet at 2,560 fps. Our test load, using necked-up .220 Swift brass (yes, the Swift case was derived from the 6mm Lee case) consisted of a 100-gr. Sierra spitzer ahead of 27 grains of 3031 for an average velocity of 2,070 fps. The barrel was heavily eroded, exhibiting the effects of the early nitroglycerine powders, but averaged 2″ for 3-shots at 50 yards.
James P. Lee was a brilliant designer and stayed on the cutting edge of 19th century arms development throughout his career. He has not been given the credit he’s due, but receiving $250,000 from Britain for his patent rights to the Lee design, he retired a rich and successful man.