The Bolt-action and Associated Developments of Military Small Arms Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Bolt-action and Associated Developments of Military Small Arms

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While the Union experience in the American Civil War proved a watershed for military small arms development, the repeating rifle didn't benefit very much from that watershed. Ordnance officers typically discounted the benefits of the repeater claiming it was wasteful of ammunition and relatively underpowered compared to the single-shot of the day. It was also relatively expensive, an important consideration for an economy virtually bankrupted by civil war and boom and bust cycles. These criticisms were true of course, but unfortunately the military did nothing to address the problems, electing instead to stay with what they considered the tried and true.

Experiments in Europe continued unabated, however, particularly in Prussia, which became a power to contend with after defeating the French in the Franco-Prussian War. The Prussian experiments eventually culminated with the adoption of the Commission Rifle of 1888. This was a box magazine fed, bolt-action, small-bore rifle adopted to counter the somewhat earlier French adoption of a small-bore, tubular magazine fed bolt-action rifle.

The bolt-action relied on a tubular breechblock with lugs that locked into recesses either in the mouth of the chamber or at the rear of the receiver (the metal part of the rifle that contained the action mechanism and to which the barrel was attached). Early implementations were somewhat fragile, however, eventually further development culminated in the adoption of the Mauser rifle model of 1898. This rifle served the German military through two world wars.

The Innovations of Paul Mauser

Perhaps, one of the most significant innovations that Paul Mauser brought to the bolt-action rifle was the use of the stripper clip reloading system. Typically, the Mauser magazine would hold five cartridges. When these had been exhausted, the shooter could either load cartridges one at a time into the magazine or use a stack of five cartridges secured by a metal strip, called a stripper clip, that attached to the cartridge rims. The strip was inserted into a slot cut at the top rear of the receiver where it was held secure while the stack of cartridges was pressed downward with the thumb reloading the magazine with essentially one action. The empty strip was then discarded.

This system was initially distrusted by the British and Americans due in no small part to their reluctance to adopt any magazine rifle and certainly any magazine rifle that could be reloaded rapidly. They were still largely wedded to the idea that the singleshot was more accurate and less prone to ammunition waste. However, the bitter experience the British endured in South Africa during the Boer War and the equally bitter American experience in Cuba during the Spanish American war, where the opponents were armed with early versions of the Mauser rifle, finally convinced British and American military planners that Paul Mauser's system had merit.

It was partially replicated by the British in their Lee-Enfield series of rifles and by the Americans with their 1903 model Springfield. The Springfield was such a close copy of the Mauser rifle that Paul Mauser secured a patent infringement judgment against the American government, which was forced to pay him over $200,000 for a license to produce the rifle.

The British also pursued the development of an improved version of the Enfield using a .277 calibre cartridge and more closely matching the Mauser pattern, however, this programme was cancelled with the advent of the First World War. The existing inventory was converted to the standard .303 British calibre. Eventually, a contract was let for more .303 British calibre weapons to American firms such as Winchester and Remington. When those contracts were completed in 1916, Winchester decided to convert the weapon to the standard US .30-06 calibre Springfield cartridge in 1917. Some two million US Enfields were built before the war's end and actually armed more 'doughboys'1 than the standard 1903 Springfield rifles.

Smokeless Powder

We should perhaps take a moment to digress concerning so-called smokeless power, also known as nitro powder or propellant. A critical shortage of resources for the production of gunpowder during the 19th Century convinced many European and American military planners that a viable substitute for the charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre compound known as black powder needed to be secured.

The French were the first to adopt a nitrocellulose compound that proved not only a viable substitute for black powder but superior to it in most respects. Nitrocellulose did not foul the weapons like black powder nor give away the shooter's position as readily nor was it as corrosive. Its burning characteristics could be easily controlled using retardants. This in turn made higher working pressures feasible. Thus, the era of the high power small-bore rifle was born in the late 19th Century and is still with us.

At the close of the First World War, the effective range of the infantry rifle was in excess of 400 yards. Rapid-fire, automatic weapons or machine guns had been or were being developed. This essentially doomed such venerable organisations as the European light and heavy cavalry, which would henceforth give up their horses and become mechanised with armoured vehicles and the like.

Massed infantry formations finally gave way to fortified skirmish lines and assault tactics. Trench warfare had replaced firing over fence rails or charging across open fields with banners waving.

20th-Century Innovations - the M-1

The American experience in the First World War convinced military planners that not only was the magazine rifle a good idea but a self-loading, as opposed to a manual turnbolt, rifle was an even better idea. A top secret Pedersen device had been developed during the closing months of the war as a replacement for the standard Springfield rifle bolt and magazine. It fired a pistol type cartridge and reloaded with each pull of the trigger. The Armistice effectively cancelled the project; during the 1920s and 1930s, however, it was revived with the notion that the weapon should be capable of semi-automatic fire with the full power .30-06 cartridge. Eventually in the late 1930s the Garand rifle was adopted to replace the venerable Springfield and the auxiliary US Enfield model of 1917. This rifle is better known as the US Model .30 Calibre M-1.

After the battle of Guadalcanal, it saw service in every theatre of the Second World War and prompted General George Patton to remark that it was the finest battle implement ever devised. To understand why he might have waxed so eloquently, we should observe that the M-1 used propellant gases diverted from the barrel to activate a gas piston and operating rod that in turn unlocked and opened the breechblock or bolt. The recoil of the cartridge then provided sufficient impulse to force the bolt to the rear of the magazine, where it would be pushed forward by a recoil spring to strip the top cartridge off the clip, inserted into the magazine, and loaded it into the chamber relocking the bolt at the same time. One then pulled the trigger again to repeat the sequence.

The M-1 had essentially the same power and levels of accuracy as the older Springfield Mauser clone but with three more cartridges in the magazine for a total of eight held in a double column by a metal clip that would be ejected along with the last cartridge case. A fresh clip would then be inserted in the magazine and the open bolt released allowing the first cartridge to be loaded and locked. This system removed the need for the shooter to manually operate the action except when loading a fresh clip.

20th-Century Innovations - the Assault Rifle

The second development of importance during the Second World War was the German invention of the assault rifle. The theory behind this contrivance was that volume of fire or firepower was a more significant factor in infantry assault success than cartridge power or range. Consequently, the Germans devised a weapon that used a shorter version of their standard 8mm rifle cartridge fed by a high capacity, detachable box magazine. This weapon also provided fully automatic fire as well as semi-automatic fire. Fully automatic means the weapon continues to fire as long as the trigger is depressed until the magazine is exhausted. Semi-automatic fire means the weapon fires a single round with each pull of the trigger.

Such a weapon had an effective range no greater than about 300 yards and in truth 200 yards would have been a more realistic practical limit due to the relatively low-powered cartridge typically utilised so that the weapon would be practically controllable in automatic fire. The Soviets quickly copied this innovation and eventually produced perhaps the most ubiquitous military small arm ever devised, the AK47, which fired a short version of the standard Russian .30 calibre rifle cartridge.

Americans were slow to adopt this design, however, preferring to stick with the M-1 and a carbine or short, light rifle developed during the Second World War firing a version of an old Winchester .30 calibre cartridge having roughly the same power as a magnum pistol cartridge. Ironically, the cartridge used in the M-1 Carbine resembled the old Pedersen Device cartridge and the carbine was intended to replace the .45 calibre pistol in the field.

In 1957, the M-1 was officially replaced with the M-14, a weapon using a 20 round, detachable box magazine loaded with a slightly shorter version of the .30-06 known commercially as the .308 Winchester. It was still somewhat too heavy and overpowered to serve as a practical assault weapon.

In the early 1960s, the US Air Force began development of a weapon utilising a .22 centrefire cartridge that would essentially yield performance comparable to the AK47. This weapon, designed by Eugene Stoner, was eventually designated as the M-16. The weapon, tried under fire in Vietnam, became the standard US military rifle, replacing the M-14, and it is still in use today in a somewhat revised pattern known as the M-16 A-3.

Recently, experiments have been conducted extending the assault rifle concept. These experiments have involved the use of so-called caseless ammunition. This might at first suggest a regression to the era before the invention of the metallic cartridge, but that is not what caseless ammunition is about. The propellant is moulded into a solid in which the bullet and priming compound are inserted.

An example is the 4.7mm (.185 calibre) cartridge associated with the Heckler and Koch G-11 Assault Rifle. The propellant of this cartridge is moulded into a rectangular shape to avoid wasted space in the magazine. The cartridge is lighter than cased cartridges giving similar performance levels and standard magazine capacity is, therefore, greater. The overall cartridge length is also shorter and the G-11 uses a rotary-type bolt to further shorten and simplify the loading path thus allowing higher rates of fire. Stoppages due to jamming are also virtually eliminated because there is no fired case to eject.

This type of weapon is intended to increase hit probability by increasing practical volume of fire while reducing felt recoil. It also employs an optical sight.

This is regarded as a good thing by many military planners due to less time typically being budgeted for marksmanship training. It remains to be seen whether or not this theory can be substantiated in practice.

Historical Trend Analysis and Conclusions

It might be well to engage in a little analysis of the foregoing, and admittedly cursory, examination of small arms evolution. Initially, large, massed infantry formations were dictated both by tradition and by the fact that infantry weapons had a relatively short effective range and were slow to reload. Therefore, massed fire or volleys were more effective than deliberately aimed fire. This is one of the reasons the muzzle loading rifle was not generally adopted until the invention of the Minie bullet allowed manual arms reloading times comparable to smooth-bore muskets.

The advent of these weapons made massed formations somewhat more problematic since such formations were vulnerable over a significantly greater range. We begin, therefore, to see the advent of trench warfare. However, the military's reluctance to adopt the repeater, which in a sense was an early version of the assault rifle, meant that massed formations and bayonet charges were still employed right into the First World War.

By this time, the invention of the heavy machine gun, together with the stripper clip reloading system devised by Paul Mauser, confined troops who wanted to survive to the trenches. For this reason, World War I did not actually have a military resolution. This dictated that the conflict would continue when German military power was rebuilt by the Nazis.

The experience of the Second World War convinced many military planners that close quarter combat by highly mobile forces with superior firepower was more effective than long range aimed fire from trenches or other static fortifications. The era of the hit-and-run guerrilla war further cemented these ideas.

In the contemporary world, the style of warfare continues to follow the evolution of small arms. The assault rifle reigns as king of the field and small unit operations are the order of the day. This situation has persisted now for well over a generation, a longevity not seen perhaps since the career of the flintlock musket centuries ago. Time will tell if this is just a brief hiatus or a continuing trend.

While this sort of analysis is certainly interesting for some, it should be noted that it documents the essential failure of human beings to share this planet in peace. One would hope then that such analysis will eventually be of only historical interest.

1US soldiers who fought in the First World War.

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