Bolt-action rifles were standard during the whole period of World War I, and some served until after World War II, particularly the Lee-Enfield; the Springfield 1903, which was first issued as an infantry rifle and then later as a sniper rifle; the Mauser, although shortened from the Gew 98 to the Kar 98k; and others. Bolt-action magazine rifles were an important type of weapon and represented the high point of manually operated arms, but the effort required to use them over long periods of action was tiring and often meant that after every shot, while reloading, the rifleman came out of the aim, resulting in a reduction of firepower for nations using these rifles. The United States led the way in introducing the first general-issue SLR, the Garand M1, and after World War II all other nations followed the trend, especially as Germany had also introduced the concept of the assault rifle.
LEE AND THE BRITISH
Lee’s Rifle Designs.
The British Army in 1860 was equipped with the Martini-Henry, lever-action, single-shot rifle in .443-inch caliber, but events in the firearms field in Europe led to the establishment of the British Small Arms Committee under General Philip Smith in 1863. Its task was to examine the new bolt-action and other rifles with a view to reequipping British infantry with a bolt-operated magazine rifle.
The committee remit stated that it was to consider “the desirability or otherwise of introducing a magazine rifle for naval or military use, or both.” A large number of rifles were presented for examination, some of them from abroad, but only three weapons were chosen for extensive trials. The three were the Lee magazine rifle, an improved Lee with a Bethel Burton magazine, and the Owen Jones magazine rifle. The Bethel Burton magazine varied from the magazine system of the other two by being mounted high on the upper right side of the receiver.
All rifles were in caliber .45 in the 1855 trials, and the Owen Jones fell at this hurdle. By the time the 1887 trials took place the Lee rifles were both recalibered to .402 inch, in barrels designed by William E. Metford, who had invented the polygonal rifling method. The result was the choice of Lee’s rifle with his own magazine.
On the Continent, however, the Swiss had just reduced the caliber of their service rifle to .295 inch, and suddenly the British caliber looked too big for modern weapons. This led to the decision to reduce the caliber to .303 inch, which was a momentous decision. The problem persisted, however, in the powder used, for the British had no smokeless powder available for the new caliber. Metford came to the rescue and drew up a specification for the rifling and the chamber of the new weapon.
This rifle was to be known as the Lee Metford, and 350 examples were made in 1888 and issued for troop trials. At this time Joseph J. Speed was working at the Royal Small Arms Fa c t o r y, and he designed some magazine refinements that were incorporated into this rifle. (His designs were also marketed commercially as Lee-Speed rifles, made by the Birmingham Small Arms Company.) The trial weapons had a muzzle velocity of 1,850 feet per second (fps), produced by a cartridge charge of 70 grains of compressed black powder, developing a chamber pressure of 18 tons per square inch.
In anticipation perhaps of developments soon to come, the rifle was sighted to 2,000 yards, but with the cartridge powder initially used the accuracy of the weapon was unsatisfactory. Despite this problem the rifle underwent various modifications and after 1891 had a 10-round magazine (approved by the new Small Arms Committee in December 1891); other, less significant changes were made until, in 1899, the Lee-Enfield Mark I appeared. There was little of significant change except for the removal of the cleaning rod, which had been fitted under the barrel in the ramrod style up to that time.
The cartridge propellant problem had persisted for a short time, but by 1891 Hiram S. Maxim, Sir Frederick Abel, and the Nobel firm all and separately arrived at the solution, which was cordite (a compound of 58 percent nitroglycerine, 37 percent guncotton, and 5 percent mineral jelly). The resulting compound was smokeless and left almost no fouling deposits in the weapons firing the new cartridges. The important factor for the soldier was that with the increased power of the cartridge the trajectory of the bullet was flatter, meaning that lower standards of marksmanship would still produce better results than in the black-powder days. Further, increased ranges could be covered, and the concept of rifle fire used against groups of men, horses, and, later, vehicles, was born.
One more improvement was made to produce what was now called the Cartridge SA Ball Magazine Rifle Mark I. In the blackpowder era, lead was quite sufficient for ball ammunition, as it was not subjected to stresses that it was incapable of handling. Lead when fired with cordite propellant, however, was subject to pressures in the rifling that it was incapable of withstanding, and rounds were either “stripping” (going through the barrel without being gripped by the rifling) or deforming when gripped by the rifling.
In 1875 Major Bode of the Swiss Army had invented a design for a jacketed bullet that could cope with the higher pressures, and this was supplemented by another Swiss, Major Eduard Rubin, who designed a copper-jacketed bullet that could not only cope with the pressures in the new rifles but also could withstand the effect of the torque produced in the barrel by the rifling.
As noted above, the British and the Swiss had made drastic reductions in the caliber of their service weapons. As a result of this caliber reduction, to ensure that the round had military efficiency (that is, it would be capable of wounding or killing the target), the bullet had to take on a long profile, with the jacket surrounding a core of lead or other similar heavy filling. Further, bullets had to have ballistic weight, otherwise the long-range performance would be adversely affected by the fact that the velocity of a light bullet falls off very rapidly due to air resistance.
So between 1889 and 1891 the British changed from black powder to cordite in their new .303-inch service rifle. It was with slightly modified versions of the 1899 rifle that the British went to war in 1914, when, during the retreat to the Marne, German troops assumed the British had a lot of machine guns because British infantry rifle fire was so rapid and accurate. The British Army continued to use bolt-action rifles until the late 1950s, when the self-loading rifle (SLR) was issued. British bolt actions were extremely smooth to operate and, despite the fact that they were often criticized for being rear-locking, maintained a reliability for service second to none. In World War I the Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 and its variants did sterling service, not being superseded until the latter half of World War II by the Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 4. The bolt, which was the heart of the system, was, with very minor modifications, the same throughout.
THE UNITED STATES AND THE BOLT-ACTION RIFLE
It is interesting to note that in its history, the U. S. Army has issued only two bolt-action rifles to U. S. troops, the Krag-Jorgenson 8mm and the Springfield Model 1903 caliber .30. The first was an abject failure, the second being a copy of another famous weapon-the German Mauser Gew 98. It is also interesting to note that whereas in Europe the bolt action appeared in the 1840s, the United States persisted in the use of single-shot breech loaders such as the Springfield and the Sharps carbine.
The weapon was issued in small numbers and was spectacularly successful. At Hoover’s Gap on 24 June 1863 during the U. S. Civil War, a mounted brigade of Union infantry was moving toward the gap to clear the area of advanced Confederate pickets. That these infantry were mounted was one fundamental change in tactics; that they were armed with Spencer’s rifle was another. The weapons, however, had been bought by the soldiers themselves, because General James Wolfe Ripley refused to supply Spencer rifles. The troops had each spent $35 on their own rifles, 12 and the effect of this was terrible as far as the Confederate soldiers were concerned.
Both sides in the U. S. Civil War were armed overwhelmingly with breech-loading single-shot muskets or rifles. The refusal by General Ripley to consider Spencer and other similar-action rifles was utterly negligent, causing the deaths of thousands of men whose lives would have been spared by the issue of the decisive repeating rifles. There can be little doubt that if the North had had Spencer rifles and carbines, the South would have surrendered far earlier than it did.
Why the Spencer’s repeating rifle was essentially sidelined is detailed above, but the mind-set toward procurement and that at the Springfield Armory seem to have been almost traitorous as far as the well-being of U. S. infantry was concerned. One can only wonder what would have been the effect had Custer’s troops been armed with the Spencer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The decision was made, albeit delayed, to examine the European fascination with bolt-action rifles, and in 1891 General Daniel W. Flagler was appointed the new chief of ordnance for the U. S. government. Although considered by the conservative General Stephen V. Benét (his predecessor) to be even more conservative, Flagler was looking to the future and to the replacement of the old trapdoor black-powder single-shot rifle then on issue to the U. S. Army. In his first annual report he wrote unequivocally that the United States was years behind the rest of the developed world in that it had not adopted a modern, small-caliber, high-velocity magazine-type rifle, and he added that what remained of the army was seen as underarmed.
General Benét had been obdurate in his refusal to consider rearming the infantry, even though the Hotchkiss, Lee, and Mauser designs were all superior to the trapdoor Springfield in every respect. General Flagler was determined to change this, but he had two problems. One was a Springfield Armory staff totally unwilling to consider new ideas; the other was that he had none of the new smokeless powder, which was only available outside the U. S., to make cartridges for any new weapon. Luckily the second problem was solved by Hiram Maxim, who made his own, and 500 pounds of Wetteren powder was obtained from Belgium.
The designers at Frankford Arsenal were now equipped to design the new caliber .30 cartridge as soon as the rifle and its magazine were decided upon. General Flagler now reassembled the Rifle Board, under Captain Stanhope E. Blunt, to examine all submitted weapons. Fifty-three weapons were submitted, including some of the very best from Europe. There were no U. S. designs for the simple reason that U. S. rifle makers were unable to cope with the new powder.
The board and General Flagler decided it was important that U. S. inventors participate and to this end issued a supply of the new cartridge and some new caliber .30 barrels. By doing this, less financially well-off manufacturers could also participate, and no one could manufacture nonstandard barrels or ammunition for the tests. Having said that the general was a man who looked to the future, it is important to realize the philosophy driving the search for a magazine rifle. The magazine was seen not as a supply of replaceable ammunition but as a safety device, only for use in extremes, when single loading was dangerous. In other words, the army was looking for a rifle that had a reserve of ammunition in the magazine, but this was not to be used while there was time to load each cartridge singly, just as the old Springfield had been operated. The magazine contents were to be used only in the last stages of an operation, when loading single rounds would be too slow. The old principle of accurate long-range shooting was still alive.
The Mauser rifle was the first to run afoul of this particularly arcane train of thought, because it could not be loaded with single cartridges. The German Army wanted rapid-fire weapons, so the weapon was loaded with five rounds in a clip, and German soldiers were issued all their ammunition prepacked in clips. At the time much opinion was against the magazine rifle in principle, and the New York Times reported that an unidentified source claimed that he had
repeatedly put twenty-three shots in one minute from a Springfield rifle into a target two feet square at 200 yards . . . the only gain in labour one obtains with a magazine gun over a single-loader is the handling of cartridges and the time gained in the handling is practically far more than offset by the time lost in shifting magazines and misfires when magazines are emptied.
The Krag Rifle
Despite efforts to encourage U. S. inventors, no weapons were forthcoming, and the board reported in September 1892 that it had made its choice: the Krag-Jorgenson. This rifle was the brainchild of Norwegians Captain Ole Krag and Erik Jorgenson. (Krag was a captain in the Norwegian artillery and superintendent of the Konigsberg Armory; Jorgenson was an engineer.) The rifle was already in service with the Danish Army. The weapons were designed for U. S. use to fire the .30/40 rimmed cartridge, and the first issue was made to troops in October 1894. The weapon weighed 9.35 pounds, was 49.14 inches long, with a 30-inch barrel. Subsequent modifications were introduced as the Models 1896 and 1898, but all suffered in comparison with European magazine rifles from one glaring defect: they were intended to be loaded singly, with the magazine serving as an emergency reservoir only.
U. S. reaction to the choice was predictably one of outrage, and the board was accused of predetermining the outcome. Certainly the Krag failed the Rifle Board tests on a number of occasions, and the weapon was nevertheless reworked at Springfield Armory, sometimes by the inventor himself. Efforts to have U. S. designs considered after the event were determined, but no U. S. design managed to get consideration, in part due to the fact that the same board members sat in judgment of these late entries.
Not only was the Krag doubtful as far as its magazine and loading system was concerned; in comparison with other infantry rifles of the time, it was the longest and heaviest. Interestingly, although the feed mechanism was not really suited to the modern maneuver style of warfare, it did turn out to be quite accurate. The Danish Army used it for some years, and a modified version was bought by the Norwegian Army.
The U. S. Army thus had its first magazine rifle, and it soon appeared that it was not an altogether felicitous choice from the point of view of the troops. Despite some claims to the contrary, the accuracy of the weapon was found wanting and was not as accurate at 600 yards as the old Springfield. Experience in general pointed to the fact that the weapon was not performing well, and accuracy altered as the weapon heated up. Again, parts were prone to fall off (particularly the magazine cutoff, which when in operation forced the rifleman to load single cartridges), weaknesses in metallurgy produced a bolt that jammed, the ramrod head was too big to fit the barrel, and there had been some cartridge accidents as well. The problems were confronted to an extent, but a real test was soon to face the rifle in Cuba.
Spanish rule in Cuba had been a sore point with the U. S. Congress for some time, and in 1898, following a revolt by revolutionaries, Congress recognized the independence of Cuba; an army was raised, to be commanded by U. S. General Nelson A. Miles. Spain then declared war on the United States, and General Miles asked that his troops be armed with Winchester rifles, which had been turned down by the Rifle Board in favour of the Krag. Although Miles got approval to test the Winchester, General Flagler failed the rifle for not meeting the (unspecified) standards of performance of the army, and the United States went to war. The National Guardsmen who formed the main body of General Miles’s army were armed not with the Krag-Jorgenson but with the old black-powder trapdoor Springfield. The number of Krag-Jorgenson rifles available was insufficient for an army of 200,000 men, and production at Springfield Armory could never hope to equip all the men with the new rifle.
The army that finally went to Cuba was a sorry sight; some 150,000 men were still wearing heavy wool uniforms, armed with antiquated rifles, and supported by artillery that also used blackpowder propellant. Furthermore, these ill-equipped troops were to come face-to-face with the Spanish service rifle: the Mauser. One description of the first encounter with this rifle and its effect is very telling. William Hallahan writes in Misfire:
On July 1, 1898, at the Battle of San Juan Hill, ordnance people expected to get their questions about the Krag answered. True, there were too few Krags, only enough for the Regular Army and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, but enough to give measure. As they proceeded through the Cuban countryside, U. S. troops soon encountered a terrifying sound-a terrible buzz that turned into a high shriek as it went whizzing past their heads into tree trunks and branches. A man hit in the arm by the force of it would spin on his heels and be slammed down on the ground. . . . The deadly accuracy of the Mauser stopped the Americans’ advance more than once with a seemingly incredible volume of fire from such a small force of Spaniards.
The Krag could not hack the fighting; its muzzle velocity was too low and thus its range was limited, and the problems of loading single cartridges into a rifle while on the move do not need to be stressed. The Mauser, by contrast, was providing what the Spanish defenders needed against superior numbers: firepower. Although Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Rough Rider charge against the Spanish position on San Juan Hill ended in victory, it was at the cost of 1,300 U. S. casualties out of an attacking force of 5,000. The Krag-Jorgenson was tested against the Mauser after the war ended, and the Mauser penetrated 9 inches farther into a wood block than did the Krag. It was obvious that the Krag rifle was not up to European standards and would have to be rapidly replaced.
General Flagler died in 1899, not the most popular of men with those riflemen who had gone to Cuba armed with the Krag. After his death, certain other disturbing facts emerged about the tests in 1892, one of which was that the Krag had been tested to 30,000 pounds of breech pressure, whereas all other entries were subjected to tests of 40,000 pounds. This indicated once more that the Rifle Board had not been entirely professional in its deliberations.
The Springfield ’03 Rifle.
A new appointment was needed, and the chosen officer was General Adelbert Buffington. This was another passed-over officer for whom the post at Springfield was simply a bookmark until his retirement. He ordered that the Krag be redesigned to take the higher-power powder and cartridge that were needed, and it seems that performance was enhanced so that the rifle was capable of safely firing a 200-grain bullet at 2,300 fps. However, General Buffington was soon to retire, and in his place was appointed Captain William Crozier, inventor of the Springfield M1901 rifle.
It seems rather strange that the inventor of a rifle that was to be considered for service should be put in charge of the very institution that would further his prospects, but that is the system that appointed Crozier. Like many others whose jobs have been the result of favor or even fraud, Crozier stayed put. However, his term of office would only be four years, so like U. S. presidents, his deeds would be limited to a certain extent.