Winchester Lee Navy Safety?

It appears that a fellow in Pennsylvania had an 1895 Lee Navy rifle explode in his hands this past Sunday while out shooting. This sort of thing happens from time to time with all sorts of different guns, and is typically found to be the result of either an accidental overcharged handload (too much powder or the wrong type of powder; occasionally too little powder) or an uncleared squib or other barrel obstruction. The reason I bring up this incident is because it does not appear to be the result of any of those common causes, and because it’s not the first Lee Navy to have done this in a documented manner.

M1895 Lee Navy kaBoom
M1895 Lee Navy kaBoom

The previous case I am aware of occurred on June 29th, 2002 and caused the death of long-time Sarco employee Glenn deRuiter. From the information available, it appears that both rifles behaved almost exactly the same way, which makes me wonder if the root cause might be something liable to happen in other Lee Navy rifles.

There was a knowledgeable fellow on the scene when Mr. deRuiter’s rifle detonated, and he posted a detailed explanation of what he saw. I have not gotten any additional information on the incident (although I’m working on it now), because until now it seemed like isolated tragic event. As far as I know, there was never a formal investigation into what happened beyond that the gun blew up – folks most likely attributed it to the standard causes I mentioned above. Well, deRuiter was by all accounts a meticulous and very experienced handloader, and not the type to inadvertently top up a 6mm Lee Navy cartridge case with Bullseye. Of course, nobody was ever able to ask him what he was using (although the account I linked to says some type if reasonable load with an IMR powder).

Exploded 1895 Lee Navy receiver
The results of a catastrophic ruptured case in a Lee Navy. The receiver has peeled open along the milled relief to house the extractor/ejector. Note that the bolt is still locked in battery.

Let’s start by eliminating a few of the immediate conclusions one might jump to. First, neither of these cases appear to have been an out-of-battery detonation (the most common situation for a gun to “blow up”). Photos of the recent event clearly show the cartridge case thoroughly seated in the chamber, and the bolt remained locked in the receiver after the explosion. Instead, what happened in this case (and presumably in the deRuiter case, although I cannot say with certainty without actually seeing pictures of that rifle) is that the chamber pressure upon firing was high enough to blow out the brass at the extractor (where it is not supported by the chamber) and cause the receiver ring to tear in half. The barrel remained intact; the chamber was not blown open like an overloaded revolver cylinder. The front threads of the receiver were the weak point and they failed at their thinnest point, where the extractor slot was cut. Once the receiver ring failed, the energy involved peeled a whole strip of the receiver up and back, while fracturing the rest of the receiver circumference. The result was literally the barrel separating from the ruined receiver.

The next potential conclusion would be that both shooters were firing over-pressure loads – that could certainly cause this type of damage. However, deRuiter was a very experienced shooter and handloader, and the shooter from this past weekend’s incident insists that he used data published in a recent American Rifleman article (he says he was using 30gr of IMR 4895). His previous shot was not abnormal (he says he noted light recoil, but that would be expected from a light load in 6mm Lee Navy), and the brass did not display signs of pressure. A light load could suggest a squib charge, but the bore was clear after the event. Interestingly, the witness account of deRuiter’s event says that he found a bullet still lodged in that rifle’s barrel, but no bulge or ring indicating it has been fired with the bore obstructed. Presumably, deRuiter’s gun came apart so fast that pressure vented out the rear before the bullet could finish traveling down the barrel.

Still, the photographic evidence shows that the brass clearly failed. Is there an explanation for this that does not involve loading errors? Such an explanation would also have to account for the lack of Navy complaints about the gun’s safety. The Navy complained of reliability issues sometimes, but I have never seen an account of a soldier having one of the rifle blow up in his hands.

Case fired immediately before the one that blew up. Note the .30-40 headstamp.
Case fired immediately before the one that blew up. Note the .30-40 headstamp.

Well, I think there is an explanation, and I think it’s based on the brass. The two commonly understood ways to made 6mm Lee Navy brass (since it hasn’t been factory-made for about a zillion years) are to reform either .220 Swift or .30-40 Krag. The .220 Swift was actually developed from the Lee Navy, and has a pretty thick case web. The .30-40, however,  has a relatively mild maximum pressure. While modified and fireformed .30-40 brass may match the external dimensions of the 6mm Lee Navy, I suspect it has significantly less material around the case head. If our shooters used .30-40 brass that had been fired a couple times already (photos show that the recent shooter was using .30-40 cases, but I don’t know how many firings that had been through), they would have stretched and lost even more case head thickness.

Exploded 1895 Lee Navy barrel
Chamber, with cartridge case still in place. Note that the brass has blown out exactly in line with the unsupported section at the extractor cutout.

Take weak brass already furthered weakened from use, combine it with a relatively higher-pressure load, and you have a recipe for a case head separation. The problem that gets worse when this event occurs in an 1895 Lee Navy rifle, which has a large unsupported extractor cut and no provisions for safely venting gas. If we look at the photos form the recently-destroyed rifle, the ruptured section of the brass exactly corresponds to the extractor cut. Clearly the brass blew out, had no place to safely go, and instead blew the receiver open like a hand grenade. A Mauser 98 would have handled this by venting the gas through the holes in the receiver designed for just this contingency – but the Lee Navy has no such venting capability.

Can I prove this theory? Not yet. I haven’t had the chance to section and measure the cartridges. However, I did converse with the fellow whose rifle blew up this past weekend, and will be getting a couple of his converted .30-40 cases to examine, as well as some original 6mm Lee Navy cases. However, this theory fits all the available facts without requiring error on the part of both shooters, and explains why we would see catastrophic failures today that were not reported when the rifles were in regular service.

The coroner in the earlier case was quoted as saying that the receiver ring of deRuiter’s rifle failed, which is how one would accurately describe this recent incident in a single sentence. In addition, the eyewitness report states that deRuiter suffered a single injury to the center of his forehead – exactly the same type of injury (although greater in severity) suffered by the recent shooter (who was fortunate to escape with a superficial wound). There are guns out there known to fail under specific conditions – like Colt-pattern SAA revolvers loaded too hot or Helwan pistols that will shear locking lugs. Each type generally has an understood point of failure, and they tend to behave in the same general way when they fail. In most cases, this is very frightening to the shooter but does not cause serious injury. While two examples are not a scientific study by any means, it would appear from the available data that when the Lee Navy fails, it will throw shrapnel straight back into the shooter’s head – not good!

I think that for the time being, I will put off my plans to get on the range with a Lee Navy. FWIW, if anyone has a sporterized example of the gun they would be willing to donate to the cause, I would be happy to put it to the test and see if multiple reloadings of converted .30-40 brass lead to catastrophic receiver failure (I will use a very long string to pull the trigger, obviously).

You can see the lucky recent shooter’s full set of photos here on Imgur.

Update

I just got off the phone with a friend of Glenn deRuiter’s, who confirmed that Glenn was using .30-40 brass when his rifle exploded. In addition, this very generous friend is sending me a badly sporterized (but mechanically intact) Lee to use for destructive testing to see if I can recreate the explosion with this type of converted brass. I am not really thrilled with the idea of destroying another rifle, but it will be worth it to make sure people realize the potential danger – much better to blow up a sporter on a controlled range than see another unknowing shooter hurt or kill themselves with one.