Swiss Model 1889 Rifle

Grandpappy of the Schmidt-Rubin clan
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Bigger than average even for its time, the M1889 was 10.7 lbs. empty and 51" long. It was
noteworthy for its straight-pull bolt action and 12-round detachable magazine.

The Swiss Infanterie Repetier Gewehr M1889 (Infantry Repeating Rifle Model 1889) and its M90 (7.5 x 53.5mm) smokeless powder cartridge were the mountainous little nation’s fledging step forward into the post-black-powder era. They were a close third place behind the German 1888 Commission Rifle but years ahead of the British Lee Enfield Mark 1, Russian M1891 Mosin Nagant, Italian M1891 Carcano and numerous Mausers and Mannlichers selected by other nations. It’s notable the German and Swiss rifles, so quickly fielded, were also obsolete the day they were issued and were quickly phased out of production while the later designs stayed in use through World War II.

A New Era In Rifles

it didn’t make it to the troops until 1891. In some ways it was ahead of its time. It featured a fast, straight-pull, bolt-action; a 12-shot detachable magazine with a cut-off to allow single loading; it could be fully loaded in three seconds from a pair of easy-to-use, six-round, disposable, charger clips made of resin impregnated cardboard edged with metal; the muzzle was deeply crowned to protect it from damage, and the full-length stock and handguard was designed to minimize changes to bullet impact due to barrel deflection by generous inletting and fitting a loose brass bushing at the front.

The M1889 rifle and smokeless GP90 cartridge were Swiss born and raised, the products of the imaginative minds of two Swiss Army officers. The rifle was designed by Colonel Rudolf Schmidt. In 1885 it was being tested with the innovative, smallbore (7.5 and 8mm) metal jacketed bullet, black-powder, cartridges developed by Major Eduard Rubin. When the French started a new international small-arms race in 1886 with the smokeless powder 8x50mm Lebel, Schmidt’s rifle looked like the best candidate the Swiss had for adapting to the new type of ammunition.

By 1890, the Swiss settled on Rubin’s new 7.5 x 53.5mm cartridge, designated the Gewehrpatrone 1890 (GP90). It fired a 211-gr. round-nosed, steel-capped, lead bullet with an exposed paper-lubricating patch to minimize barrel wear. Reminiscent of the black-powder era, the GP90 used a heeled bullet, rebated at the base to fit in the case mouth, in the manner of the .22 LR.

Muzzle velocity from the M1889 rifle’s 31.7″ barrel was a respectable 1,970 fps. It doesn’t seem like much today, but black-powder, lead bullet cartridges pretty much topped out at 1,500 FPS and had trajectories rapidly becoming rainbow-like beyond 100 yards. Long range hits were very unlikely without precise range estimation. By comparison, to the Swiss 10.4 x 38mm black-powder, rimfire Vetterli rifles preceding it, the new, flatter shooting, M1889 rifle and M90 cartridge vastly increased the effective range of the average rifleman.

The M1889 was unique in locating the action locking lugs at the rear of the bolt. The large
ring cocking piece/safety was rotated a quarter turn to lock the action.

Talk about one long bolt! The 1889 bolt is about 3" longer than your average military rifle
but its fatal flaw was the rear-mounted locking lugs.

The rear sight was graduated to 2,000 meters while the 1889’s detachable magazine was
also a novelty in its day, featuring an arched release/operating lever.

Shortcomings

Though a great leap forward, both the new rifle and cartridge showed themselves deficient in just a few years. The cartridge was improved and eventually became the modern Swiss 7.5 x 55mm in 1911, but the rifle proved fatally flawed and could not be upgraded to handle higher pressure ammunition. The crux of the problem was an inherent weakness in the unusually long bolt locking up at the rear of the receiver instead of the front like all other contemporary bolt action designs. The 1889’s bolt and action are about 3″ longer than the typical bolt and might be the longest in history for an infantry rifle. With no rigid support at the bolt face and the locking lugs mounted on a rotating collar, weakened by an angled slot cut clean through to engage the external actuating rod, the bolt was susceptible to compression, wobble and excessive headspace.

By 1896 a complete redesign of the action moved the locking lugs to the midpoint of the bolt, improving accuracy and allowing the use of higher pressure ammo. As the new and improved Model 1889/96 rifles came off the production line at Bern, they were issued to active duty units, replacing the antiquated M1889s and were relegated to the reserves. By the 1920s most of the M1889s, like the reservists who possessed them, were retired from service. Some of those men bought their rifles for personal use. This is the case with my rifle. It bears a “P/25” stamp indicating it left government inventory in 1925. Many M1889s just sat in military storage, seeing little use. Aside from a brief emergency issue in World War I, they stayed there until sold off as surplus.

The GP-90 cartridge was Switzerland’s first smokeless powder military rifle chambering.
The rounds feature a paper patched, heeled bullet leftover from blackpowder days.

A Great Bargain

The M1889’s short period of service as Switzerland’s primary military rifle, very limited use in the hands of the reserves and the meticulous care they generally received while in Swiss hands means you can often find these 120+-year-old rifles in extraordinary condition. Like any antique, they should be inspected for safety before shooting. Be warned the M1889 will chamber modern Swiss 7.5×55, but it’s too powerful for the gun! Use the same brass, trimmed to 54mm, for reduced velocity handloads.

Retail prices for a good-looking, good-shooting gun ranges from $400 to $600. I found mine at centuryarms.com’s Surplus Corner. Century Arms started business in 1961 and is among the last of the great old-time military surplus importers. Opportunities to buy century-old military arms are few and far between these days but Century Arms always seems to be a magnet for such stuff and it’s well worth bookmarking their Surplus Corner on your web-browser!

www.centuryarms.com

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