Lee Carbine: Gunmaking is not for the Faint of Heart

James Paris Lee is known today as the inventor of the detachable box magazine, and the “Lee” in the “Lee Enfield” rifle system – a very significant contributor to firearms development. His first foray into the business of gun design and manufacture, however, was a rather ignominious failure.

Lee patented a single shot swinging barrel system in 1862, and hoped to win an Army contract for it. In February of 1864 he submitted a rifle version to the Army, and was promptly rejected – the Army was not interested in breechloading rifles. Lee came right back in April 1864 with a carbine pattern, and this was accepted for testing – the Army was indeed looking for breechloading cavalry carbines. It took a full year, but in April 1865 the Army came back and gave Lee a contract for 1,000 carbines at $18 each. Lee rounded up investors and capital, and created the Lee Fire Arms Company in Milwaukee to produce the guns. His first two samples were delivered in January 1866 – in .42 rimfire caliber.

At this point, there is some disagreement. Lee claims that his sample guns in .42 caliber were accepted, and thus his followup delivery of .42 caliber carbines should have been accepted. The government said that the contract specified .44 rimfire caliber, and his delivery of .42 caliber guns was unacceptable, and thus rejected. A court case would ensue, but with the rejection of the first 250 guns and the cancellation of their contract, the company had to look hard and fast for a backup plan. In March 1867 newspaper ads were placed in Milwaukee for sporting rifles and carbines from the Lee company. The parts planned for military production were used instead for civilian guns in a variety of configurations – carbines, light rifles, and heavy rifles in several barrel lengths and several calibers. By 1868 all production had ceased, and the Lee Fire Arms Company dissolved.

James Lee returned to his former profession of watchmaking, but this experience with gun manufacturing would not keep him deterred for long. By 1872 he was back working with Remington, and would go on the produce the designs that we know him for today. The lessons of this rifle? Firearms manufacturing is a risky business, not for the faint of heart. And also, sometimes you can learn from a difficult experience to do better the second time.


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[ Lee Single-Shot Carbine ] Thanks for tuning in to another video on ForgottenWeapons.com. I’m Ian McCollum, and I am here today at the Morphy Auction House taking a look at One of the guns that they are going to be selling In their upcoming April of 2019 Firearms Auction. And this is James Paris Lee’s first venture into firearms manufacturing. He is best known today as being the inventor of the box magazine, As well as a bolt-action system that the British would adopt As the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, the SMLE. … Really, this is a landmark development in firearms, the detachable box mag, As well as an incredibly iconic historical firearm. But this is where he got his start. This is a Lee carbine, patented in 1862, And submitted in the hopes of getting a US military contract With the Union government during the US Civil War. So this was, like I said, patented in 1862, it’s a swing open system, We’ll take a close look at it in just a moment. But it was submitted to the US government in February of 1864 as a rifle. And the US government came back and said, ”We are not interested in a breech-loading rifle, go away.” And Lee then re-submitted it as a carbine in April of 1864. And it was approved then, the US Army was looking for a variety of breech-loading carbines. And this was chambered for .44 or .42 rimfire, we’ll come to that in a moment. Nice little short handy carbine, cheap. In fact Lee offered to sell these to the government, To sell 1,000 of them for $18 apiece. And that was a pretty good price. And they took a year to do it, but in April of 1865 they came back and said, ”Yeah, all right, we’ll do that. Give us 1,000 guns and we’ll give you $18,000 for them.” So Lee went in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and set up the Lee Firearms Manufacturing Company, With a bunch of capital, it only actually employed 4 people, including him. They sourced a lot of their parts from elsewhere, they were getting barrels from Remington. That was really by far the most complicated part of this whole gun, Primarily the rifling, getting the barrels rifled.

So they got those from Remington, and then they started assembling guns themselves. And In the meantime the Civil War ended, but their contract was still valid. And so in … 1866 they presented their first two test guns. And that’s like the basis, ”OK, here’s our two models, If you like those, approve them, and then that will be the standard by which we make all the others.” Now of course, they hadn’t just made two guns, they had tooled up to make guns, They’d ordered big batches of parts for this whole order. And the idea was these first two guns would just be basically rubber stamped, like, ”OK, yes, the first two off the line, those are good. And now bring in the rest.” They had like 255 of them made at this point. Well, the problem was, there was then a little bit of a miscommunication. And the test guns were made in .42 rimfire calibre, and the Army actually wanted .44 rimfire. However, they approved the .42 calibre guns, Or at least Lee thought they did, Lee claimed that they did. So when he delivered the next batch of guns, They were all rejected because they were the wrong calibre. And this became a bit of contention between Lee and the government. Obviously it put Lee in an incredibly difficult financial position because He had put [up] all the money to make these things for the Army, And now they are all just rejected out of hand. And you can’t just change the barrel without incurring a lot of extra expense. So, … I should say, not only did they have like 250 made, They also have a whole lot of parts in the supply chain. To do this economically you get parts in big batches. And so they were tooled up to make a whole 1,000 guns. Well, in 1867 newspaper … advertisements in the area start coming out advertising Lee carbines and rifles in a variety of configurations and calibres. What Lee had done was kind of go, ”Oh, crap. What’s our backup plan?” And the backup plan is sell these on the civilian market. And that was probably the backup plan the whole time. Especially once the Civil War ended, it would become fairly obvious That there weren’t going to be any huge contracts coming for the military. But, if you have a military approved gun, that gives it a lot of cachet on the civilian market. ”Obviously it’s a good gun, it passed military testing. If they like it, you should buy one too.”

So, 1867 advertisements appear, you could buy these in .32, .38 or .44. You could get a carbine like this, and they also had light and heavy barrelled rifle variations. And they appear to have been able to basically go through all of the guns that they had parts for. So, we’ll finish this up in a moment. But first let me show you how this thing actually works, So that you don’t have to just sit back there and look at this thing boring and static. So many of these Civil War breech-loading carbines are in fact tremendously simple guns. It really shows, you don’t have to do much to make a single-shot [breech-loading] rifle, And the Lee here is certainly no exception. The principle of this one is that the barrel pivots on that screw, And in order to open it, what I have to do is pull the hammer back. That’s the safety … notch, and then we put it to that position, And then we can swing the barrel open. This button is an extractor, so a completely manual extractor. Pop out the empty case, put in a new case, push the barrel back over. And then when you cock the hammer fully, it locks the barrel in place. When you fire, the barrel remains locked in place, And that’s done by a little cam that is part of the hammer. So if I open this up, You can see, right here, that this channel is open, which allows the barrel to just swing freely. When I cock that the rest of the way, now this bar lifts up. It’s actually a part of the hammer itself. So when the hammer goes down there is a blocking section there, There is just a little open gap in it, and then another blocking part. Those lock into this open notch in the barrel, So it’s a pretty simple system, but it’s an effective one. Because these were intended as cavalry carbines, they were designed with a sling ring and bar. And as civilian carbines they were sold with this accessory as well. The markings here are fairly heavily worn, but we can still make out what they said. That would be: Lee’s Fire Arms Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And a patent date from July of 1862. That is the only marking. We have a rear sight here that has three positions, 300 and 500 yards on the vertical elevation. And I don’t know if you can make it out, but there is a ”1” on this side of the sight, so 100, 300, 500. Combined with a pretty typical early front post like that.

Pretty ordinary buttstock design there. Metal butt plate. You will of course not find any martial markings on these Because they weren’t actually accepted by the US military. No handguard, just hold it up here, and that’s all there is to it. If you look these up you will normally see numbers like they made 255, And there were another 100, or another 200 in parts. … That is actually a datum from when the guns were rejected. So they had made 250 or 255 for the government, and they had more guns in process, But it looks pretty solidly like they actually made about 1,000 of these total. The recorded serial numbers run from the 1,200 range up to the 2,200 range. And that would make sense. If they had … received A substantial number of the parts in a full lot of 1,000, The only way you are going to recoup any of your money Is to actually convert those … parts into complete guns, and then sell them. So these never actually saw military service because the military never did accept any of them. They were all rejected. The first batch was rejected for being in the wrong calibre, And after that it was only civilian sales. So it is … one of these post-Civil War kind of as the war procurement is tapering off, we have this. Now, Lee would end up in a lawsuit with the US government, Claiming that he was in the right, that they approved the .42 calibre gun, And they should have accepted his .42 calibre carbines that he presented to the government. Eventually he actually did win that court case, But the … judgement he was awarded was not that big. I don’t have the exact number, but it was clearly less than he was hoping for. So in the aftermath of this debacle, the Lee Firearms Company shut down. By 1868 all the production of these things was over and done with. Lee went back to watchmaking, which had been his prior expertise and career. Although it wouldn’t be long before he was back in guns. Apparently this was not a sufficient taste of getting completely screwed by the gun industry. By 1872 he would be working with Remington, and given a second chance (perhaps good motivation to folks out there who are in the firearms industry, or want to be), Given a second chance he went on to become a huge iconic figure in firearms development, With, as I said, the box magazine, and being the guy ultimately behind the Lee-Enfield rifle. So, I think it’s pretty cool to get a chance to take a look at one of these,

His original first attempt at a gun design. It actually seem like a pretty nice gun. The problem is at that point there were a lot of really pretty nice guns out there, And they were all available cheap, surplus from the government, and Just it was a pretty crowded market that he was trying to break into. … If you are interested in Lee, or Civil War carbines, or rimfire carbines, or anything of that ilk, This one of course is coming up for sale here at Morphy’s. If you take a look at the description text below the video, You’ll find a link to ForgottenWeapons.com. And from there you can click over to Morphy’s catalogue page on this guy, Take a look at their pictures, description, their price estimate. And you can place a bid right there on the website if you are so inclined. Or just page through everything else, there’s a lot of cool guns in this sale. Thanks for watching.


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