Canada entered WWI with a unique rifle, but it didn’t last.
Few military rifles have stirred up as much public controversy as the straight-pull Mark III Ross rifle the Canadian contingents carried into the initial year of WWI. Stories of the Ross jamming in the midst of combat or blowing the bolt back through the shooter’s face are legion. There is truth to both charges, but it’s a shame the criticism so poisoned popular perception that we forget how well the sporting and target models performed or how sensational the introduction of the .280 Ross cartridge was in the early 1900s. The full story deserves to be told.
Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross was the Ninth Baronet of Balnagown, Scotland. A Knight of the Realm he inherited as estate of 350,000 acres, 3,000 tenants and Balnagown Castle. Being born a privileged nobleman might be considered, in our egalitarian 21st century, to be a detriment and a preordained pathway to idleness and debauchery, but not so in the case of Sir Charles Ross. Over a lifetime, he proved himself to be savvy executive and businessman, a prolific inventor of everything from ship’s propellers to hydro machinery, a soldier, an accomplished sportsman and what was once known as a “bon-vivant.” Interestingly, his last years were spent in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., where he enjoyed deep-sea fishing and venturing forth in “a pith helmet, pajama bottoms and old slippers.”
As a boy, he could be found working away, as often as not, in the well-equipped workshop of the family castle. While attending Eaton College in 1893, he patented his first straight-pull rifle—a design that was considered so complicated that, luckily, it did not see the light of day. If he revealed one fault, it was that he was an impatient soul who had so many varied interests he rarely spent enough time to stick with a design and refine it. Being married three times, he also admitted he didn’t understand women.
Moving to Canada in 1897, he set out and built a hydro-electric company in British Columbia, invested in a trolley company in Vancouver, set up a rifle-making company in Hartford, Conn., and a parallel manufacturing relationship with Charles Lancaster in England. The first straight-pull sporting model to be produced was closely related in design to the 1890 straight-pull Austrian Mannlicher.
For an entrepreneurial rifle builder, Canada was ripe pickings following the Boer War in which Canada was starved for sufficient quantities of Lee rifles and was forced to go up against the Boer’s Mausers with its Sniders and Martini-Henrys. Even after the war, Britain steadfastly refused to set up a Canadian factory to produce the Lee-Enfield so Canada went looking for a rifle of its own. For Sir Charles, who had a few friends in high places, it was the chance of a lifetime. In 1902, the government signed a contract with Ross for the manufacture of an initial lot of 12,000 rifles.
Building a factory in Quebec, Sir Charles’ Mark I Ross was assembled with parts manufactured by the American firms of Billings & Spencer and the Frank Mossberg Co. (not O.F. Mossberg). Delivered in 1905, the Mark I was plagued by faults and was returned to the factory for a new model, the Mark II, also known as the Model 1905.
By Holt Bodinson
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