There is been few blasts like the one that blew up USS Maine in Havana harbor, on 15 February 1898, the forward magazine of the ship blew up at 9:40 PM. A crew of 355 was nearly annihilated; there were only 16 uninjured survivors, and 75 or 80 wounded ones. Because the mishap happened at night, and officers’ country was in the aft end of the ship, the officers survived at a higher rate.
The investigation that ensued ruled that the ship was subject to an attack by a naval mine. It was only the first of many investigations, and there remains to this day no conclusion, although the balance of expert opinion seems to suggest a mishap aboard ship is more likely than Spanish hostile action. The destruction of Maine became a casus belli in the hysteria-induced Spanish-American War of 1898. Indeed, it was probably the most influential cause, or pretext, for the US to have initiated that war.
The Maine was an odd ship, but she was created in the 1880s and 1890s at an odd time in naval affairs. “Armored Cruisers” seemed to be what Navies needed, ships that could combine sail and steam — she was initially designed with three masts — and that would attack headlong. Accordingly, Maine had a ram built into her bow, and her two gun barbettes (mounted in left-front and right-rear sponsons) were arranged so that she could deliver her full “broadside” — four 10-inch guns — only straight ahead or straight behind.
Maine also had advanced armor for her day — Harvey Steel, an early form of face-hardened armor. But it took so long for America to build, launch and commission this pre-Dreadnought battleship (ships characterized by guns in sponsons and coal-fired steam piston engines) that she was, although nearly new at her sinking, soon to be obsoleted by that British revolution in naval arms.
Our interest, of course, is easily led from the 10″ main battery on down through the 1.5″ anti-torpedo-boat armaments to, inevitably, the personal weapons.
Like every Naval vessel, Maine had some small arms lockers, and in February, 1898, they held the unusual M1895 Winchester-Lee 6mm (.236 Navy) rifle. The rifles, at least some of them, were salvaged and were sold by Francis Bannerman of Bannerman’s Island fame. Ian at Forgotten Weapons has an excellent video showcasing one of these rare rifles, now featured in a Julia auction. James Julia expects a five figure knock-down on this. Julia explains his documentation of provenance:
Also accompanied by a copy of pages 34 and 35 of a reprint of The Bannerman Catalog of July 1907. Page 35 lists the serial numbers of 54 6mm Lee Straight Pull Rifles salvaged from the USS Maine, including this exact rifle.
It also lists the SNs of six 45 cal Springfield rifles recovered at the same time. These rifles were sold to Bannermens [sic] through the Navy Yard at New York in Jan. 1900. These 54 Lee rifles and 6 Springfield rifles are the only officially documented small arms recovered from the USS Maine although there have been one or two others that have surfaced in the last few years that were undoubtedly authentic. Regardless there are probably no more than about 60 or so of these relics in existence.
How many guns came by their pitting this honestly? No doubt someone will take great pride in adding this piece of history to his collection.