Great War Rifles (Again)

[Note: please forgive me for re-publishing this old piece. The past week has been absolute hell — I thought I was going to pass out from exhaustion from all the house-clearing-out activity, and a new post just didn’t suggest itself in time for publication. That said: of all the hundreds of posts I’ve written about guns, this is my favorite.]

 

May 19, 2007
2:00 AM CDT
We know all about WWII-era rifles, and of course the more modern ones. But let’s step back just a tad earlier, and consider the ones from my Grandfather’s generation: the bolt-action rifles which functioned, and functioned superbly, in the mud of Flanders and Verdun, in the deserts of Mesopotamia and Palestine, and the snows of Italy, Austria and Russia. I’m not going to look at all the rifles used, just the principal ones.

Germany

Of course, the Mauser K98 needs little introduction to any longtime Reader of these pages, but its precursor, the Gewehr 98 (or Model 98, as it’s sometimes called), was an excellent rifle by any standards, even modern ones.

The Gewehr 98 can be distinguished from its successor by its straight bolt, longer barrel (29”), and in earlier variants, by the “ski-jump” rear sight, which was graduated out to 2,000 meters (!). Add a 17” bayonet to this beauty, and the Imperial German Army had a weapon of outstanding value. Chambered for the fine 7.92x57mm cartridge (aka. 8mm Mauser and 8x57mm Mauser), this is a rifle for the ages.

The Mauser bolt action is still the most reliable ever made, as evidenced by its many copies, some of which we’ll see below.

Austria-Hungary

If the Mauser action is the zenith of bolt-actions, the Mannlicher action would be the next best, and not far behind, either. Imperial Austria-Hungary’s Mannlicher Model 95, chambered for the hard-hitting 8x50mmR cartridge, was characterized by its straight-pull bolt, and the self-contained clip which ejected itself from the magazine when the last round in the clip had been fired. The sights were graduated using the archaic schritt measure (0.75 meter), to a maximum of 2,400 schritten (1,800 meters).

 

If the Austro-Hungarian Army left a lot to be desired, it was certainly no fault of its main battle rifle. The later rework of the Model 95 into the M95 “S” carbine (which paralleled the change of the Mauser Gew. 98 into the K98), and its re-chambering into the 8x56mmR cartridge, simply turned a fine rifle into an excellent one.

Russia

Essentially unchanged since the 19th century, the Mosin-Nagant Model 1891/10 was the perfect rifle for the Russian Army and its unsophisticated soldiers. It was reliable to a fault, used the wonderful 7.62x54mmR cartridge, and while not as smooth an action as the Mauser, the Mosin’s clunky action could not be broken—as evidenced by the number of old “91s” still in action today. Like the abovementioned Austrian M95, the Mosin 91’s sights were graduated in an archiac measure—the Russian rifle sights being measured in arshins, or .71 meters.

The 7.62x54mmR cartridges were loaded with a five-round stripper clip:

…but the WWI-era bullets were not pointed, but roundnosed (top):

Unlike what the Germans and Austrians did with the Gew. 98 and M95 respectively, though, when the Russians improved the 91 into the 91/30, they retrofitted and rebuilt their existing arsenal rather than reissue new rifles, so original 1891 or 1891/10 models are extremely rare today. Not that it matters much. The 91/30 is a fine rifle, and has all the qualities of the old one (and its sights are graduated in meters, withal), and the carbine versions (M38, M44 and the like) are still faithful to the old principles of simplicity and durability.

Great Britain

When the German Army was first repulsed by British defensive fire at the Battle of Mons in 1914, the Germans believed that they were being fired upon with machine-guns. Not so. The withering rapid fire came from professional British soldiers armed with the Short, Magazine, Lee Enfield Mark III Number One rifle (known then and now as the SMLE or “Smelly”), issued to all British and Commonwealth troops from 1907 onwards. Sights were graduated in yards, and the maximum (and optimistic) setting was 2,000 yards.

To work the butter-smooth bolt action of the SMLE is to fall in love with it. Also, unlike all other rifles of the era, which only had four or five rounds in the magazine, the SMLE’s magazine contained ten rounds—hence the volume of fire which a group of experienced soldiers could put down onto the foe before needing to reload. The SMLE’s mag is removable for cleaning purposes, but troops were only issued with one, which meant that reloading was done with stripper clips—and because said stripper clips were five-round clips, the mag had to be reloaded twice. Regardless: chambered for the powerful .303 Enfield cartridge, and with that action, the SMLE hit hard and quickly.

When the SMLE was later “improved” to the No.4 Mk.1, the action was left more or less untouched (thank goodness), but the rear sight was improved, from the barrel-mounted “V” sight to a receiver-mounted peephole, with two settings of 300 and 600 yards, and accuracy (the only knock against the SMLE) improved immensely as a result.

Italy

Amazingly, the Italians in WWI did not have their own bolt-action rifle, using instead a modified Mannlicher action in their Mannlicher-Carcano Model 91, which sported a 31” barrel.

Unlike the Mannlicher, though, the Carcano action was turnbolt (like the Mauser), and not the straight pull of the Steyr-Mannlicher Austrian rifle.

All other European (and American) rifles were chambered to shoot 7mm/.3xx bullets, but the “Carc” fired the smallest diameter bullet in Europe, the 6.5x52mm Carcano round, which was actually not a bad choice. The smaller, lighter bullet meant less recoil and its long, thin dimensions guaranteed excellent penetration.

Like almost all the other European nations, Italy would modify their WWI battle rifle between the world wars: the M38 (as the M91 became) had a shorter (21”) barrel and was re-chambered—I think, needlessly—for the heavier 7.35x52mm cartridge. The sights for the new rifle, instead of being adjustable, were fixed at 300 meters.

France

Of all the Great Powers, France alone came to WWI with an outmoded and obsolete battle rifle. The original 1886 Lebel rifle still fired the 8mm Lebel (8x51mmR) rimmed cartridge. Because the original Lebel had a tubular magazine, not a box, the bullets were roundnosed, not spitzers. Even when the Lebel was later transformed into the Lebel-Berthier Mod 1907/15 (below), with a three-round (!) Mannlicher-style magazine, French military doctrine still insisted that soldiers load cartridges one at a time, and use the magazine only under attack, when heavier volumes of fire were called for. The newer Mod 07/15 was only issued to the Army in large numbers in 1916.

A later version allowed for a five-round clip to be loaded in an extended magazine. Here’s what it looks like:

Only well after WWI did France introduce a brand-new bolt-action rifle, the MAS 36, in the new 7.5x54mm chambering—only to find that it, too, was soon out of date compared to the new wave of semi-automatic battle rifles.

Japan

In 1906, Japan introduced the Type 38 rifle to replace their Murata Type 22 rifles (which fired the 8mm black powder cartridge). The Type 38 was mostly derived from the Mauser bolt action, and had a 31 ” barrel. Called the “Arisaka” after the man (Colonel Nariake Arisaka) who headed the Army’s commission to test and adopt the rifle, the Type 38 was chambered for the rather weak 6.5x50mmSR (semi-rimmed) cartridge.

The Type 38 was known chiefly for its bolt carrier dust cover, which was supposedly added to protect the bolt action’s workings from dust and especially moisture, but which rattled alarmingly in action, and most soldiers simply removed and discarded them.

In the late 1930s, the Japanese would replace the Type 38 and the 6.5x50mm Jap with the shorter Type 99 (26” barrel) and much more powerful 7.7x58mm cartridge (a rimless copy of the British .303 Enfield).

United States

Alone among the Western Allies, the United States issued two rifles to their doughboys: the Springfield M1903 (top), chambered for the fine .30-06 cartridge, based on the Mauser 98 design, and the M1917 Enfield (also known as the Pattern 17 or P17). The latter was based on the Lee-Enfield Pattern 13 (itself a Mauser-like design), and like the ‘03, chambered for the .30-06.

The ‘03 had problems because of inferior metallurgy (later improved) in the receiver—that, and the shortage of ‘03s, resulted in more doughboys using the P17 than the Springfield. Like almost all the WWI battle rifles, the ‘03 was later modified/improved as the ‘03-A1, except that unlike the other rifles, this one saw service as late as the Vietnam War. The P17 pretty much disappeared after the war, but lived on in gun safes and hunting lodges all over the United States. Both are superb rifles, as much for their respective heritages as for their reliability, accuracy and efficiency.

As the saying goes: “In the First World War, the Germans had the best hunting rifle, the Americans the best target rifle, and the British the best battle rifle.”

I think, however, that it also behooves us to look at two European rifles of the same era which saw no combat: the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin K11, and the Swedish M96 Mauser.

First introduced in 1896 and improved in 1911, chambered for the powerful 7.5x55mm Swiss cartridge, the K11 had a straight-pull bolt action, and was unquestionably made to the highest quality standards of any rifle of the time (and higher even than many production rifles of today).

The K11 is a marvel of functionality, its workings intricate and precise, its accuracy outstanding. Interestingly enough, the Swiss would do to the K11 what the Germans would also do to the Gew 98: shorten the action a tad and shorten the barrel to carbine length, but retain the original chambering (7.5x55mm for the new K31, and 8x57mm for the K98). Both rifles were immeasurably improved by what was basically a simple set of changes.

The Swedish Army issued their soldiers with the Model 1896 in that same model year, choosing to chamber it in the superlative 6.5x55mm cartridge (probably my favorite medium-caliber cartridge of all time), and they didn’t change anything about the rifle (other than creating a carbine version) until they changed their entire infantry philosophy and armament to semi-auto rifles in the mid-twentieth century.

If I’d had to go to war in those times, I would have felt quite comfortable being issued with either the Mauser-action Gewehr 98/Springfield ‘03, or the Enfield-action SMLE/P17.

As a “second-tier” choice, I wouldn’t have felt that short-changed with the Steyr M95 or Schmidt-Rubin K11 either.

But of all the rifles issued to soldiers of that era, the one I’d have chosen to go to war with would have been the Swedish Model 1896 Mauser. It has moderate recoil, yet the bullet travels flat and hits hard. The rifle is also fantastically accurate: consistently-placed head shots at 400 meters and torso shots at 600 meters are quite possible even for an average shot like myself.

It’s too bad the rifle itself never saw service, because it would have acquitted itself well against any of the others.

Here’s the interesting thing about these rifles as a group: all performed well in the horrible conditions of First World War trench warfare; all provided their owners with excellent striking power (as witnessed by the millions of soldiers felled by them), and all were, essentially, first-generation bolt-action rifles shooting smokeless powder cartridges. Later on, faced with the next world war, all would be improved, whether in length or (occasionally) in caliber. The WWII generation of these rifles would be better than their forebears—but not that much better.

Only the advent of a revolution in infantry tactics and the introduction of the semi-auto rifle would finally put these fine old bolt-action rifles to rest. But despite all that, most are still capable of working as effectively today, over a hundred years later, as they did on the day they were issued.

We should all be so well-made.

23 comments

  1. If any gun deserves a female name, it’s the Swedish Mauser. Kim got me into the 6.5×55 a long time ago, I haven’t looked back. An M96 was my first, got it in a trade for the equivalent of $170. It even has a matching bayonet. Next was a CZ 550 American, so I could shoot the caliber scoped. Then I got a Husqvarna M38, a gorgeous gun. After that came an AG42B Ljungman, so I could scratch the semi-auto itch. The Ljungman was something of a grail gun for me. While not a Mauser, well, it belongs; it does wear the brass disc on the stock. Last came a CG63 target rifle, also a beautiful gun. Heck, they’re all beautiful, sexy even, and all are great shooters. Oh, the M96’s name? Kate seemed appropriate, so that’s her name.

    1. Yup, they’re addictive and they’re no longer cheap. When I was a kid you couldn’t give an old .303 ‘Smelly’ away; today pristine specimens are well over $1000.00.

      First the ‘young’ milsurps get in your blood… then the older ones do too. I’m besotted with the Sniders and the Martini Henry’s. Just making brass for them is a hobby in itself…

      Hey Kim: you take a break if Ya need to. Sometimes a guy gets all bent out a shape worrying about others, that he forgets to take care of himself! Keep your head on straight and lean on the kids if you must. You’re doing as good as a guy can do and more so than most I imagine. Thanks for the gun post, keep your stick on the ice.

      1. I blame Kim for the fact that I’m not allowed unsupervised at gun shows anymore… I can’t pass a Lee-Enfield without adopting it.

    2. I lucked out, grabbing a Swedish Mauser when the market was flooded with them. Mine was only $80, and a non-matching bayonet for 20 or 25. Then a year or two later, a battle pack of ammo for another $80.

      This post is one of many that I missed from the old blog. Very glad you still have the archives.

  2. Interesting post. Do you have any comment on Canada’s Ross Rifle? (Apparently it wasn’t very good, and the manufacturers the archetypical war profiteers – or at least that’s what they taught us in middle school.)

    1. All I know about the Ross Rifle is that had it been universally adopted by the Canadian Army, it would have killed more Canadians than the Germans’ Maxim machine guns. As I recall, when stripping the thing for cleaning, you could reassemble the bolt action in two ways. One way, the gun would work as advertised; the other would send the bolt straight back into your eye when you pulled the trigger.

  3. Hey Kim! We met at one of your meet and greets a long time ago. I think reading your blog inspired me to go out and buy my very first ‘old’ gun, a nice, well mannered Mosin, that will tenderize your shoulder with every shot, and is to this day probably the most reliable and consistly accurate open site gun I own..

    These old guns are rich in craftsmanship, and as I get older I realize what that really means in today’s world of throw away tools. Just reading this had me wondering over to gun trader to see just how much money I needed to put in the gun fund to acquire one or two of these..

    Thanks for reposting this! Take it easy, and don’t feel afraid to reach out for help.. what you are going through can surprise you, but it does get easier.. The trick is to take it one thing at a time and know that it hits you in cycles, though in e moment, that can be hard as hell to see.

  4. Of all the WWI guns, the only one really ruined (IMHO) by post war changes was the SMLE Mk III. My first “real” rifle was a SMLE Mk4*, and the sights on it were terrible. It had the non-adjustable ‘L’ sight, and it helped me miss my first deer.

      1. At hunting camp later that day, none of us could hit the target with that beast. My uncle insisted that I use his Browning Auto 12 shotgun. I was reluctant due to fears about recoil- yeah, pretty dumb.

  5. Was at a gun show yesterday. All the old military arms where well priced. I would be interested in some discussions of how combine arms that come out of WWII makes for a more effective fighting force. Infantry with armor and artillery support with close are arms is amazingly effective for force projection. But WWI is instructive as well.

    It is your ink after all.

  6. A blast from the past. One of your best posts from the old blog. I too was turned on to the marvelous 6.5×55 Swede by your praise of the cartridge. I’ve picked up a couple of M96s as well as a wonderful CG63. The craftsmanship of these rifles is superb and all three M96 actions look almost new even though the youngest is 102 years old. Thanks for posting this again, and thanks for getting me started with the 6.5×55.

  7. I’m glad you’re back, Kim. Though I wish the reason was not Connie’s passing. But these last several years I’ve lost my sister and step-father so I somewhat know the feeling. Anyhow, now I look forward to reading you regularly once again.

    So let me say that you, Kim are to blame for me getting into guns. When I found your Nation of Riflemen, I wound up buying guns. We met once, briefly, at the Nation of Riflemen meet in Dallas.

    When I bought a P-38 pistol, and then another 9mm, and others, your fault. And when I bought a Mosin and a K31 and a bunch of surplus ammo for them, definitely your fault. And the 2nd, 3rd, and 4 Mosins. The 2nd and 3rd K31, the 1911/16… yep, your fault. The SKS’s too. And the 22s more than a dozen of them, old ones, semi-auto with tube magazines. Do I really need 5 Marlin model 60s? Or three Remington 522 Speedmasters? 22s are like candy bars when I go to a gunshow. And there’s one coming in April and I’m going to it. You got me into this Kim.

    I won’t even tell you how much ammo I have, not online. I will only say that however much it is, it is not enough.

    And yes, I do have a shotgun. One. It’s a cheap one.

    But the best rifle I have, is an old 22 Remington 550. It was my step-father’s bass boat gun, spent 20 years in the bottom of a boat and looked like it. But one time I told Pop that any gun that beat up that still fired every time with accuracy was a rifle I wanted. About a year before he died, he had it refurbished/refinished, the stock, the metal, it all looks good as new and shoots like it too and gave it to me. Never going to sell that gun, not that I would willingly sell any of them.

    1. A whole lot of words, and all I hear is “Wah wah wah, Kim, you’ve made me fill my gun safe.”

      Take responsibility for your actions, man.
      😉

      Love the old Rem 550, by the way.

  8. The great and wonderful YouTube channel C&Rsenal has a continuing series on the history of the weapons of The Great War. They cover quite possibly every small arm used in the war (or at least plan to cover) from pistols to Lewis Guns to the massive T-Gewehr, and oddballs like the French Remington Rolling Block. Great channel for losing an entire weekend… (As an aside, it dovetails nicely with the YouTube channel The Great War which covers the war in a “this is what happened this week 100 years ago” format.)

    C&Rsenal: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClq1dvO44aNovUUy0SiSDOQ

  9. Pardon me Coynel (reference to Loonie Tunes), but the picture of that “Mannlicher Model 95” sure looks a lot like a Mosin-Nagant. 😉

    1. Felix,
      You’re right, and welcome back to Ye Olde Websyte! Thankee for pointing it out, I’ve since put the proper pic in, The two look quite alike in a small pic, hence the mistake.

  10. If you’re interested in unusual surplus, Classic Firearms regularly has Eastern Bloc, and other oddities, rifles, and pistols, available. Some by the crate. Right now featuring the Finnish M39. Last week they took in a shipment of Israeli Koreen 9mm pistols, in good to rough. Sold out at $230.00 before I finished watching the video.

  11. One of my favorite inheritances was an 1898 model .30-40 Krag carbine (cavalry model). Not a very well-designed weapon (the box magazine was particularly unsuited for combat), and unpleasant to shoot, but a very nice conversation piece. And since it was purchased (by my father) in Panama, it was quite likely a Cuban trophy.

    I ended up selling it to the Jackson Armory folks a year or so ago – if anyone wants it they may still have it. 🙂

  12. The Swede 96 is a beautiful weapon indeed. There is a slim grace to them that seems to be missing from some of the later bolt rifles. Although it never served in war, it’s brothers, the Mauser 1893 and 1895 were proven in combat all over the world, and especially in Latin America. IMO, of all the military long arms, the pre WW1 Ludwig Loewe Mausers had the finest fit and finish. A Chileno 1895 is a jewel. And the 7×57 is a nice combination of power and easy recoil. Every once in a while, one will pop up with a bent bolt handle, a square bolt bottom, and an unrecognized provenance to South Africa- the ZAR ordered 4000 from DWM , and the shipment got intercepted by the Brits off the coast and returned to Germany, where the factory stamped the Chilean crest on the receivers and used them to fill out an order. Although marked 1896, they are a true 1893 model. Most of the Boer war mausers that were actually delivered, seem to have ended up as war trophies around the empire. There is a book, “Carvings from the Veldt”, that records the artwork on the stocks of Boer war rifles.

  13. Thanks to Kim and the Nation of Riflemen, I know own 5 or 6 of these rifles or their immediate derivatives (yes, I’ve advanced to the level of gun hoarding – I mean ownership! – where it’s difficult to keep track…). My Swedish Mauser is named Princess Inga. She’s beautiful!

    1. Thanks to Kim and the Nation of Riflemen, I now own 5 or 6 of these rifles or their immediate derivatives (yes, I’ve advanced to the level of gun hoarding – I mean ownership! – where it’s difficult to keep track…). My Swedish Mauser is named Princess Inga. She’s beautiful!

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