M1895 Lee handbook

It was only fairly recently that all the branches of the US armed forces began standardizing their weapons and equipment. It used to be that each branch would adopt whatever firearms it found most useful to its own particular missions. Case in point, the M1895 Lee straight pull rifle. The Navy (and marines, back when they were a force for boarding parties and brief shore expeditions rather than a front-line fighting force) needed a rifle with long range and armor-penetrating potential, but didn’t need the “knockdown” power the Army required to effectively fire on horses. After fairly extensive experimentation, the Navy decided on a 6mm rimless cartridge with a very flat trajectory, and a straight-pull bolt action rifle to fire it quickly.

Lee handbook cover

Thanks to a generous reader, we have a copy of an original Winchester handbook on the Lee – you can download it here, or find it on the Original Manuals page in the Vault. Thanks, Paul!

When I read through this handbook, I noticed some details that I think are pretty interesting, beyond the technical information about the rifle. The booklet is not a military publication, but instead intended for commercial buyers of the rifle in “sporting” dress, and as such it reveals some things about American society at the time.

Consider that when this rifle was put on the market by Winchester, the US Army was still using single-shot, black powder Trapdoor Springfield rifles. The Lee was a design ahead of its time, and was example of bleeding-edge military technology thanks to its fast action, clip loading, smallbore cartridge, and smokeless, rimless ammunition. And anyone could walk into the Winchester store on Broadway in New York on Market Street in San Francisco and buy one. That’s like being able to walk into a Heckler & Koch outlet in Washington DC and buy an OICW off the rack today.

The other interesting thing I saw was in the price list towards the end of this booklet:

Lee handbook price listThe market back then had the same desire for hot new military gear that it does today.  If we inflate the $32 Lee into an $900 AR (in 6.8SPC, another newfangled military cartridge like the 6mm Lee Navy), would would also be looking at $170 for the bayonet and scabbard, $1400/case for the ammo, $85 for the tactical web belt, and $42 for a fancy milspec sling.

That all seems pretty reasonable today. You just can’t buy it on Market Street in San-Fran anymore, alas.