America’s Forgotten Military Rifle: M1895 Lee Navy

The M1895 Lee Navy rifle was a gun that was truly ahead of its time. It’s 6mm caliber and the rapidity with which the user could operate it were both great assets to the user, but why then did they serve for so short a time? Why are they so scarce? Well, in this video we take a look at this seldom talked about US military rifle and try to explain why it isn’t talked about by many people other than us gun nerds.

Rifles featured in this video:
Springfield 1903A3
Krag Jorgensen
M1895 Lee Navy

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Full transcript …

– [Alex] Hey guys, it’s Alex C with TFB TV.

We all know about the Springfield 1903 service rifle and how it saw use in the hands of multiple generations of Americans and soldiered through both World Wars.

Fewer people know about the M1917.

But it is certainly still held in high regard by many enthusiasts, as they were quite prolific.

In fact, more Americans in Europe used the M1917 than the Springfield in World War I.

Fewer still know much about the humble Krag rifle, probably due to its short service life in the USA, and relatively weak action compared to the aforementioned rifles.

But I have a soft spot for them because they are just so unconventionally laid out in terms of bolt-action rifles, and they have just about the slickest action I’ve ever come across.

Now, that brings us to America’s forgotten service rifle.

The Lee rifle, model of 1895, caliber 6mm, commonly know as the Lee Navy.

This is not a rifle you’re likely to see out in the wild, as it was in service for such a short amount of time.

Like most military forces in the late Nineteenth Century, the US Navy was using a smattering of old black powder firearms and was looking to change to something smokeless and small bore.

The Army had, in 1892, decided to go with the 30 caliber Krag-Jorgensen, but the Navy felt that the slow-loading Krag, with its large projectile, would not meet their needs.

It was thought that the Marine Corps and Naval Landing Parties would need a high rate of fire in addition to a high-velocity cartridge that could pierce light armor found on small torpedo boats that were becoming common.

Winchester would step up to the plate with a 6mm cartridge that the Navy deemed suitable, the 6mm USN or.236 Navy.

Originally, the cartridge contained a 135 grain projectile, but later was switched to a 112 grain bullet travelling at 2560 feet per second.

Also noteworthy is how on the box it says for Lee rifles and also Colt automatic machine guns.

Remember that before 1934, anyone could have bought a Colt potato digger no differently than a hunting shotgun.

The cartridge’s performance statistics for 1895 were incredible, and it would be the eccentric James Paris Lee, most famous for his involvement in the design of the Lee-Enfield, who designed the rifle.

Lee’s rifle is considered a straight-pull despite having to cam the bolt upwards a bit and then pull back.

This is because the rifle locks at the rear with a tilting bolt, not unlike an FN FAL, actually.

The rifle cycles incredibly fast, with speed that could rival the Lee-Enfield as both rifles share optimal bolt handle placement.

The trigger pull is also incredibly light, especially for a military rifle.

The rifle’s magazine is a single-column design loaded with clips, but unlike Mannlicher designs, the clips are not necessary.

A user would insert a clip of five rounds, and it would be retained until a round was chambered, and then it would fall out.

An order for 10,000 Lee Navy rifles was placed, and 500 were delivered in October of 1896.

And the Lee Navy is light, handy, and at the time sported the smallest-caliber military cartridge around.

Despite all of its pros, the Lee Navy only served as the standard rifle of the US Marines until shorty after 1900.

While it served valiantly in the Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion, and elsewhere, problems quickly became evident.

The bolt is a complicated affair and is difficult to take out of the rifle.

This bit must be pushed down, and it can be very stubborn.

The extractor is a floating design as well, and it can be easily lost in the field.

The coup de grace was however, the ammunition.

Today, we’re used to being able to push bullets well beyond 3000 feet per second, but back in 1895, the hot-burning compositions, corrosive primers, and even unstability was a problem.

The powder, called Rifelite, became unstable over time, and as Navy guns, the Lee Navy rifles and their ammo were kept in humid, salty conditions.

Essentially, the cartridge was overly ambitious for the time.

That is to say that the chemistry and metallurgical constraints of the day were detrimental to more widespread acceptance of the Lee Navy.

Thus, the Lee Navy is a perfect example of an idea on paper not working in concept.

The idea for a 6mm high-velocity rifle was sound for naval use, but technological constraints certainly held it back.

This incident convinced the Navy that rifle procurement with the Army might not be such a bad idea, and they soon switched to the Krag.

Military production for the 6mm cartridge stopped before 1917, and commercial ammo for the rifle was no longer in production by 1935, which would make a running gun impossible without a highly modified DeLorean.

The demise of the Lee Navy is a sad one.

It was unarguably ahead of its time, but perhaps ambition outpaced practicality in this case.

Either way, it’s one hell of a cool piece of US Naval history.

Thank you for watching this episode of TFB TV.

Big thanks to Ventura Munitions for making our shooting videos possible, and we hope to see you next time.

(rifle fires) (bullets clinking)

Alex C.

Alex is a Senior Writer for The Firearm Blog and Director of TFBTV.


  • Darkpr0

    The Lee Navy is a cool gun. I wish more of them were on the market. I remember there was some hubbub over a couple of kabooms they had recently, though. Were the causes of those ever found?

    • ostiariusalpha

      It was the use of altered 30-40 Krag brass that destroyed both guns. It was a common practice to lathe down the Krag case for creating makeshift Lee Navy rounds, but it made the case head dangerously thin and prone to splitting & separation under pressure. And the Lee Navy is not the kind of gun that is forgiving of case head separation.

      • Sam Helm

        Very true. You can neck up a .220 Swift to .243 and load for the Lee, and that is a LOT safer than attacking a .30-40 with a lathe. . . The .220 Swift is essentially a necked down 6mm Lee. It is nearly impossible to find those beautiful round nose bullets, though.

        • Miguel Raton

          220 Swift is based on the Lee case, but is rimmed while the Lee is rimless. So to make ersatz Lee Navy brass, you have to neck up 220 brass, trim off the rim [both easily enough done], and cut an extractor groove [the hardest part to get right.] IIRC, you want to start with basic Swift brass too, since the Lee Navy is I think a little bit longer than the standard trimmed length for 220 Swift? Sorry if I got it wrong, it’s been a decade or more since I read the section on it in the cartridge conversions encyclopedia… As Alex mentioned, it was primarily the problems with losing the extractor in the field coupled with the newly developed double-base powder being a real barrel-burner that led to the rapid demise of the firearm. At least, that’s been the story in every history of the Lee Navy I’ve ever come across. Spiffy & fast bolt-action too; loved the close-up in the video of the action cycling! You can really understand how the Marines who carried them in the Spanish-American War & Boxer Rebellion must have felt they had the best rifle to be had!

          Now, if we can just get Ruger to do a repop in .243Win… ;-D

          • Sam Helm

            The chamber on my Winchester Lee appears to be capable of handling both rimmed and rimless cartridges. I read somewhere that it was an intentional thing, but I cannot remember where that was. I do know that the action will completely close on a necked up .220 Swift with a 105 grain .243 AMAX, and that it will extract them. I have not yet made any firing rounds. Because I want to ensure function first. Now, if I can ever get home to try this thing out. . .

  • Steve Martinovich

    What an odd coincidence: About the same time you were posting this video I was watching Ian from Forgotten Weapons’ three year old book review video that dealt with this very rifle.

    At any rate, a very interesting rifle and it was, as you said, ahead of its time.

  • The_Champ

    Cool rifle and very cool cartridge for it’s day. I wonder how fast it would have pushed a Spitzer bullet with the gun powders of the time.

  • Kevin Harron

    Short, to the point, informative. Well done Vid Alex. 🙂 Today I learned….

  • MrEllis

    Alex is working on his IMDB resume, he’s looking to take Michael Caine down a peg. Nice vid though.

  • Dave

    Great short video. USN and USMC used Colt 1895 “potato digger” in 6mm/.236 Lee.

    Bowman Hendry McCalla, who landed the marines at Gitmo 10 June 1898 reported an injury from, I believe, a failed extractor. Also critical of the practice of firing all the cartridges left in the magazine and then using another clip to reload, a bit like the Garand perhaps. USN supplied some to Cuban insurrectos in the Guantánamo region.

    Does the 6mm lee undercut MacArthur’s veto of the .276 Pedersen in favor of .30-06?

  • UnrepentantLib

    Thanks for posting this. I never understood how the Lee bolt worked before. Interesting design. It’s too bad they didn’t continue development with a less radical (for the time) cartridge. Tweak a few weaknesses and they might have given the Springfield some competition.

  • Boogur T. Wang

    My Father was a ‘China Sailor’ durig the early-to-mid 1920’s. He mentioned this very gun to me several times. It was a sweet shooter and quite accurate out to 200 yards or so. He also said that it hit “like the kick of a gov’t mule.” (Which were still in service at the time)
    The moisture problems were known and ammunition was stored accordingly.
    When I came along he was very fond, as was I, of the .220 Swift. Now I guess I know why.

    Great review and thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  • Lou

    Enjoyed your very informative video, thanks so much.

  • Hickory Stonewall

    cartridge is more in line w/6.5 Carcano

  • Tassiebush

    I’ve read about these and been intrigued so it was wonderful to see. I had no idea the bolt would be so novel in operation. Mr Lee was a truly amazing designer!