Seven Main Rifles Clashed 100 Years Ago
On The European Battlefields As The “War
To End All Wars” Began.
Liege, Belgium, on the Meuse River, August 4th 1914. German Pioneer Franz Osing wiped the sweat off his brow as his unit prepared to launch the first boat ferrying the heavy lines across the river to anchor the other end of the pontoon bridge. Ordered forward from the train with horse drawn transport carrying boats and planking, they were shocked to see the Belgians had blown up the bridges crossing the Meuse.
The night before they marched across the Belgian border, the officers assured them the Belgians knew better than to resist the free passage of the German Army through Belgium against France.
As they pushed off from the shore and took up the oars to begin rowing, a sudden crack tore through the air above the crowded boat, followed quickly by the distant report of a rifle. For a split second, everyone froze and stared at the heights above the river as a volley of rifle fire erupted along lines previously unseen in forward trenches above the far bank of the river.
Splinters exploded off of the gunwale and thumped into the hull of the boat. Someone screamed as the Pioneers scrambled to get the oars in the water. With the first stroke of the oar, the soldier in front of Franz slumped backward into his lap, a clean, round hole through his forehead above his lifeless eyes.
The first military casualties had fallen victim to the Belgian M1889 Mausers. During the course of the next 4 years, 3 months and 7 days, an estimated 21,228,813 soldiers were wounded, while another 9,722,620 died in the course of the “War to End All Wars.” While impossible to separate casualties from rifle fire, machineguns, artillery, poison gas, aerial bombardment or close combat weapons, there is little doubt the revolution in firearms development in the decades leading up to the conflict contributed heavily to these ugly statistics. Following is a brief overview of the principal’s rifles.
This rare color photo (above), taken in the opening days of the war, captures the spirit of defiance as displayed by the Belgian Infantry in the face of the Imperial German Army. Remove the M1889 Belgian Mauser rifle and the anachronistic uniforms of the Belgian Army would have been as at home at Waterloo in 1815 as it was at Liege in 1914. The M1889 Belgian Mauser (right) had a mix of nascent technology, some of which had already been discarded in more modern rifles, such as the straight, inline magazine and barrel shroud.
Barrel Length: 30.7 inches
Overall Length: 50 inches
Weight: 8.1 pounds
Paul Mauser’s revolutionary design featured a solid, rear-receiver bridge made possible by a rear-mounted bolt handle. The 1-piece, straight-handled bolt’s dual opposing forward locking lugs engaged precision-machined grooves in the receiver ring. This feature eliminated the need for a split receiver bridge as well as a separate bolt head, both features of other existing designs when the M1889 was initially introduced.
All subsequent Mauser actions incorporated the solid, rear-receiver bridge with bolts sporting a rear mounted handle. The rifle’s sheet metal barrel shroud extended the length of the barrel from the forward edge of the receiver ring all the way to the muzzle, a feature never to appear on any subsequent Mauser designs.
The M1889’s vertically stacked 5-round magazine extended below the bottom line of the stock. In addition to the revolutionary new design features of the action, what was perhaps the simplest, most ingenious and effective feature introduced with the new rifle was the patented 5-round charger (stripper clip). Until the advent of detachable magazines issued fully loaded with ammunition, the Mauser charger remained the most efficient, flexible, cost effective means of loading a bolt-action magazine rifle. In 1914, the Belgian M1889 Mauser was issued to the Infantry with a 9.75-inch bayonet blade.
While there were minor variations in the uniforms worn by each individual German state in the Imperial German Army, this NCO from the 178th Infantry Regiment of the Saxon Army was battle-ready in “Feldgrau.” A beautiful private purchase M1908 greatcoat is the basis of this circa 1914 German display. A cloth cover over the M1895 Pickelhaube, covers the Saxony sunburst behind the Saxon coat-of-arms on the polished brass front-plate of the leather helmet. The M1895 equipment belt has a State coat-of-arms and motto embossed in the brass belt buckle. The cartridge boxes are the M1888 pattern for Pioneers and have the typical metal clips mounted on the backs of the cartridge boxes. The Gew 98 (below) and its variants proved to be the most successful bolt-action military rifle of all time.
Barrel Length: 29.13 inches
Overall Length: 49.2 inches
Weight: 9 pounds
The famous Gew 98 rifles providing covering fire over the Meuse River that sunny August morning were the culmination of years of evolution in Mauser designs. While many features of this amazing rifle were first introduced in earlier export rifle designs—some now fielded by enemy armies—the Gew 98 represented the culmination of all of the various individual elements brought together in a single rifle. It had it all!
The ultimate design included a rear-mounted bolt handle, closed, solid receiver bridge and two forward locking lugs engaged in matching machined grooves in the large-ring receiver when the bolt closed. What set the Gew 98 apart from it’s predecessors included a third safety lug, located just ahead of the bolt handle, which locked in the open bolt way beneath the receiver bridge, a shrouded bolt face and a guide rib that contributed to the smooth cycling of the straight handled bolt. The action cocked on opening. Two large holes were milled in the bottom of the bolt body with the intention of channeling hot gas away from the soldiers face in the event of a blown primer or case failure. A gas-deflecting shield was added to the bolt shroud to provide an additional degree of protection from any escaping gas not vented through the bolt. The floorplate of the 5-round staggered box magazine was flush with the bottom lines of the stock. As per its predecessors, the magazine was loaded from the top of the action with 5-round chargers. The forward edge of the solid rear-receiver bridge had a slot milled in it to accommodate the proper position of the charger in the open action prior to stripping the 5 cartridges into the magazine. A fully formed pistol grip was another prominent development incorporated in the Gew 98 stock, which improved ergonomics lacking in straight-wrist stocks. Germany entered the war with an exceptionally long bayonet, the S1898, and its long thin “pipe-backed” blade measured a full 19.8 inches.
The rarest and most garish, the four regiments of French Army Zouaves went to a modern war dressed in 19th Century uniform (below, right) and stood out as an army full of targets! The Zouaves, dressed in traditional North African style uniforms, were composed entirely of native Frenchmen. The uniform was composed of a vest (sedria), worn underneath the short waist jacket (tombo), atop a pair of triple width baggy trousers (saroul). A 13-foot sash was wrapped around the waist over the vest and trousers to provide additional lower back support while on the march. The entire affair was topped off with a soft red cap with blue tassel (chechia). The gaudy uniform was completely abandoned before the end of 1914 for the obvious reasons!
French tradition was the reason why the color “garance” (above, left) was still present in the lexicon of colors present in the French military uniform of the day, despite having made the decision to clothe the African regiments in khaki years before. The bright red “garance” colored M1897 trousers and M1884 kepi made the individual French soldier highly visible in the age of the modern bolt-action high-velocity infantry rifle. The dark blue M1877 “capote” or greatcoat with the long skirt buttoned back on either side of the hips, was the foundation of the traditional French uniform. In addition to his own equipment, our NCO has also been elected to carry his section’s “boiler” which can be seen strapped to the back of the pack. One soldier out of eight was detailed to carry an extra item for the squad.
France went to war with the most obsolete rifle of the major powers (below). It’s tubular
magazine was difficult to manage in combat, but the long épeé-bladed bayonet was very effective.
Mle 1886 Lebel
Cartridge: 8x50mmR (Lebel)
Barrel Length: 31.5 inches
Overall Length: 51.2 inches
Weight: 9.22 pounds
The French Metropolitan Infantry Regiments of the Line on the field in August of 1914 were armed with the only main battle rifle based on the Kropatchek design, the Mle 1886-93 Lebel. Alfred von Kropatchek had borrowed the tubular magazine made famous by the Henry and Winchester rifles and married it effectively to the bolt-action in the 1870’s. He was not the first firearms designer to do so, as the earliest Kropatchek’s designs were predated by Friedrich Vetterli’s 1868 bolt-action repeating rifle adopted by Switzerland. By the time the French introduced the first small-caliber, high-velocity smokeless powder cartridge—the “Balle M”—its rifle was already a dated design on its way out.
The tubular magazine fell victim first to the introduction of the packet-loading Mannlicher designs, followed very quickly by Mauser’s introduction of the 5-round charger in a vertically stacked magazine, and shortly thereafter by the staggered-box magazine still featured in the vast majority of hunting rifles today. The primary drawback of the Kropatchek design lay in the time required to reload the rifle once empty.
Fully loaded, the Lebel held 8 cartridges, which extended within the entire length of the forearm of the stock. A 9th round could be positioned on the cartridge lifter, supplemented by a 10th round that could be manually chambered if combat was imminent.
While the Mle 1886-93 Lebel held twice the cartridges of the rifles fielded by France’s enemies, when the last round had been fired, the Lebel had to be reloaded one round at a time through the top of the action, rather than inserting a Mannlicher clip or stripper clip in a single stroke. This must have been a nerve-wracking experience in a firefight or while trying to repulse a large-scale enemy attack!
Despite its drawbacks, the Mle 1886-93 Lebel was an extremely well-made, serviceable rifle with a reputation for excellent accuracy. The rifle tips the scales at a hefty 9.22 pounds unloaded. A lot of the weight is to be found in the slab-sided design of the steel receiver with a 2-piece stock, which made the Lebel the most reliable of all the Kropatchek designs. With 10 rounds aboard, the rifle was heavier still at 10.2 pounds. The action featured a split receiver bridge with a simple and robust bolt borrowed to a great degree from the French Mle 1874 Gras rifle. With the introduction of the 8x50mmR “Balle M” cartridge, the higher pressures generated by smokeless powder necessitated the dual opposing locking lugs on a separate bolt head.
When the bolt was opened, the cartridge lifter snapped up in place and the forward motion of the bolt stripped the round into the chamber and depressed the follower downward. The magazine release allowed the magazine spring and follower to push the next cartridge out of the tubular magazine onto the top of the cartridge lifter. When the action was opened and the bolt pulled rearward, the spent cartridge case was extracted from the chamber and ejected. Throughout its long career, the Lebel was issued with the Mle 1886 bayonet, a long 20.5-inch épeé-bladed thrusting bayonet known affectionately by the troops as “Rosalie.”
A front-line Infantry Soldier of the K.u.K. as they appeared on the Serbian Frontier in late July of 1914. The “pike-gray” 1908 field jacket varied in color between a flat, stone gray to the bluish gray color more frequently referred to as French Horizon Blue. With a broad cross section of manufacturers and different grades of wool, the soldiers wore whatever they were issued. The Austro-Hungarian fatigue caps appeared both with and without leather or cloth bills. This particular fatigue cap has no bill at all. The M1908 equipment belt is at the foundation of the set with strap extensions featured on the pack straps of the hair covered M1906 “tornister” that clipped to the back of the M1908 leather cartridge pouches.
The M1895 was the most successful straight-pull used by any army, but had its drawbacks,
the biggest perhaps was the use of the Mannlicher-style loading clip.
Cartridge: 8x50mmR (Mannlicher)
Barrel Length: 30.1 inches
Overall Length: 50.1 inches
Weight: 8.4 pounds
The M1895 is one of the more unusual and ingenious designs of the era with its straight-pull design. The bolt is manipulated by drawing it straight back, then running it briskly forward without having to rotate the bolt handle up or down at all. The dual lugged, separate bolt head rotates in and out of battery based on a cam. While this novel design allows for a more rapid manipulation of the bolt, it reduces the leverage of primary extraction, which is why the bolt requires sharp, forceful movements to function properly when the action is cycled.
The primary drawback of the M95 are the limitations imposed by the packet-loading Mannlicher clip. The magazine couldn’t be topped up with individual cartridges after one or two rounds were fired. This placed the M95 at a slight disadvantage in any situation short of an all-out firefight. The long, thin barrel of the M95 Infantry rifle had a bad tendency to lose accuracy due to heat warping during prolonged firing. The rifle and its carbine variants were chambered for the 8x50mmR cartridge with a 244-grain roundnose jacketed bullet in a rimmed bottleneck case. Ammunition was issued afield in small boxes containing 10 rounds loaded in two, 5-round Mannlicher sheetmetal clips. The M95 bayonet features a 9.625-inch knife blade.
The tough, veteran soldiers of the Serbian 1st Ban Infantry had recently overthrown the Ottoman Turkish yoke and this time it was to be the Hapsburg’s who sought to impose their will. The “Šubara,” the traditional Serbian cap was adopted in its present form along with the introduction of the M1908 uniform. The gray tunic features the distinct Austrian-style pointed pocket flaps in vogue militarily at the turn of the century. Boots and puttees were issued when available as is the case here. Personal effects and issue items are carried in a blanket roll including a shelter-half and woolen blanket, while rations and extra ammunition was carried in the bread-bag. Cartridge boxes and a dagger are worn on the leather equipment belt.
The Serbian rifle was a variation of the Spanish M1893 and
chambered in the proven 7x57mm cartridge.
Cartridge: 7x57mm, Capacity: 5
Barrel Length: 29.13 inches
Overall Length: 48.5 inches
Weight: 8.9 pound
Purchased from Deutsches Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken A-G in 1900, the M1899 was a variation of the Spanish Mauser first introduced in 1893. The salient features of the design included a bolt-action, small-ring receiver with symmetrical dual forward locking lugs. The straight-handled, 90-degree turned bolt cocked on closing with a 3-position flag safety. The floorplate of the staggered box magazine was flush with the profile of the stock and was loaded via the Mauser charger. A slot was machined into the forward edge of the solid rear receiver bridge to properly align the charger over the magazine follower.
Unlike the packet-loading M95 Mannlichers of their enemy, the magazine of the M1899 could be fully loaded with a charger or topped up with loose cartridges from the soldier’s cartridge pouch or pocket. The rifle was chambered for the excellent flat-shooting 7x57mm cartridge. The primary drawback of the M1899 design was the lack of proper venting to channel hot gases away from the face of the soldier in the event of a pierced primer or case failure, both problems more common during the infancy of smokeless powder than today. The Serbian issue knife bayonet had a 9.75-inch blade.
Members of the BEF landing on French soil in support of their treaty obligation to help protect Belgian neutrality, were uniformed and equipped as well or better than any of the other armies answering the call to mobilize in the summer of 1914. The M1902 service uniform (left) accompanied by the M1905 peaked cap were of khaki colored wool, including the spiral wrapped M1902 puttees. Puttees would eventually replace canvas and leather leggings in most armies during the course of the war. The M1908 kit constructed of khaki Mill’s webbing was well designed and superior to the leather accouterments still in use by all of the other European armies of the day. The No.1 Mk III Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) is considered by many to be the finest bolt-action battle rifle of the war. The M1907 bayonet mounted on the SMLE in the display is a rare surviving example retaining the original curved quillion, later eliminated to simplify manufacturing. The Enfield No. 1 Mk III (below) was one of the more successful rifles deployed during the Great War. England was the first country to shorten the rifle and issue the same length rifle to infantry, cavalry and artillery.
British No.1 Mk III
Cartridge: .303 British Mk VII Cartridge (7.7x56mmR)
Barrel Length: 25.2 inches
Overall Length: 44 inches
Weight: 8.8 pounds
The khaki-clad hardcore veterans of the British Expeditionary Force possessed the utmost trust in their rifle, the No. 1 Mk III Lee-Enfield. Judged overall, it is considered by many, myself included, to be the best bolt-action battle rifle fielded by any army in the Great War. The turned down, short-throw 60-degree bolt was extremely fast in the hands of a trained rifleman, so fast in fact the hail of bullets encountered by Germans in early engagements led German intelligence to the mistaken belief the B.E.F. possessed an inordinate number of machineguns. The Enfield bolt features dual rear-locking lugs, and the charger-loading magazine held 10 rounds rapidly loaded with two, 5-round chargers. Another revolutionary feature of the Mk III was its length. It was the first “short rifle” universally adopted by any army since the transition from black to smokeless powder. Early on, even as chemists struggled to develop stable, consistently performing powders, the pressure curve of the new propellants was not fully understood.
Most ordnance boards and weapons designers still believed in the necessity of issuing long-barreled rifles to the infantry and shorter carbines to the cavalry, artillery and specialty units. The 8.8-pound No. 1 Mk III was the first short rifle with a 25.2-inch barrel and an overall length of 44.5 inches issued universally to every unit in the army. The US Army followed the British example with the M1903 Springfield. Eventually Germany would follow. The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk III’s P1907 sword bayonet featured a 17-inch, single-edged fullered blade and leather and steel furnished scabbard.
The M1891 (above) served Russia and the Soviet Union through two world wars. Early rifles had the sling in the most archaic of positions and a socket-style bayonet going back to the flintlock era! The Preobrazhensky Guard Regiment was one of the oldest of the elite Guard Regiments at the core of the Imperial Russian Army. As a guard regiment they received the most modern equipment of the day. The M1912 “gymnastiorka” as worn by Guard Regiments featured red piped pockets as well as the placate closure of the pull-over tunic. The M1907 black semi-breeches with red piping gather at the knee and fit tight to the calf where they are tucked into the tops of the boots. The M1910 “ferashka” bears a cockade painted with the black and orange colors of the ruling Romanov family. The brass buckled M1904 leather equipment belt typically carried two M1893 cartridge boxes. A rare surviving example of the M1910 pack has a shelter half strapped to the side with the M1909 mess kit suspended from one of the straps on the bottom of the pack. The M1909 water bottle, with a form-fitting drinking cup strapped to it, is slung over the right shoulder and worn on the left hip along with the M1910 haversack. Rations and spare ammunition were carried in the haversack, a common practice in armies of the period. The average Russian soldier frequently appears in period photos with half or less of the equipment present in this display. The M1891 socket bayonet was issued without a scabbard as the bayonet was intended to always remain on the rifle. The M1891 rifle was sighted in with the bayonet mounted.
Barrel Length: 31.5 inches
Overall Length: 51.5 inches
Weight: 9.5 pounds
The Russian M1891 Three-Line rifle featured a bolt-action based on a split receiver bridge. The 90-degree bolt’s separate bolt head with dual opposed locking lugs locked in machined slots in the receiver. The 5-round vertically stacked magazine was loaded through the open action with Mauser-type chargers. The M1891 action was a push-feed design rather than controlled feed like the Gew 98. The extractor snapped over the cartridge rim as the bolt was closed on the chambered cartridge.
The magazine sported a rather unusual feature. To avoid potential double feeding of the 7.62x54mmR cartridge’s rimmed cases, a springloaded “interrupter” was mounted in the left sidewall at the junction of the receiver and the magazine. The “interrupter” held the top cartridge of the magazine in place where the next cycling of the bolt would pick up the rim of the cartridge to chamber the round, while at the same time it prevented the case rim of the next round from being drawn forward resulting in a double feed.
The Model 1891 Three-Line rifle was the first smokeless powder rifle introduced by the Russian army. The original 7.62x54mmR cartridge featured a 210-grain, cupro-nickel jacketed, lead-core bullet. The original rear sight was of tangent leaf design, consisting of a stepped base with a flat sight leaf. After extensive testing following the poor performance of the roundnose bullet during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, a new load featuring a lighter 148-grain spitzer bullet was adopted in 1908. The earliest examples of the Model 1891 Three-Line rifle were produced with a “musket-style” sling swivel configuration with the swivels mounted on the upper most barrel band and on the front of the magazine housing. Beginning in 1908, all newly manufactured M1891 Three-Line rifle stocks were equipped with the sling slots, which up until then, had only existed as features on the Dragoon and Cossack rifles and the M1907 carbines. Despite the changes made to the rear sight leaf and the addition of sling slots in the stocks, large numbers of the earlier pattern remained unaltered in combat throughout WWI. Few exist today. The M1891 bayonet was a throwback-designed, socket-bayonet with a 4-sided spiked blade and a traditional locking ring. The bayonets were retained locked in place on the rifle and as such, were issued without a scabbard. The blade of the M91 is 16.75 inches long.
A Truly Transitional War
The seven main battle rifles in combat 100 years ago come August of this year represent a broad cross section of a truly transitional period of the bolt-action military rifle. The Kropatchek’s tubular magazine played it’s swan song as did the Mannlicher en bloc clip. The barrel jacket of the Belgian Mauser disappeared as well, while the first general issue pattern short rifle, the SMLE made its appearance on the battlefield in the capable hands of a truly professional British army.
The Three-Line Rifle, in shortened form, would go on to serve Communism and the Soviet Union through another world war. The seven rifles fired in anger that warm August in 1914 all continued to serve their respective country through the Great War, soon joined by myriad different arms fielded by the succession of additional armies joining the fray.
By John Sheehan
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