Bolt Action Rifles

Almost without exception, every nation embarked upon World War Two equipped with practically the same bolt action rifle it had fielded at the conclusion of World War One.  Even the United States, which was fast converting to a semi automatic rifle, still relied heavily on its bolt action M1903.

The two adjectives which best describe the average bolt action rifle are perhaps sturdy and reliable.  For sturdy, read heavy; for reliable, read unremarkable.  World War One had demonstrated to all armies the need to place a greater volume of fire in the hands of their infantrymen.  Following the conflict though, there was understandably little enthusiasm to search for new designs.  What weapons were demonstrated looked decidedly odd compared to the bolt action rifles in use, and all were untested.  

It is not that surprising there was no great rush to throw out the old, trusted designs.  It is a major step to replace the entire rifle inventory of an army.  It means every man needs to be retrained on the replacement weapon, every armourer updated and familiarised and every manual reviewed and rewritten.  It is quite a mammoth task.  No wonder perhaps that the major European combatants, France aside, simply made do with amendments to the weapons which had proven their worth a quarter century earlier.

Every bolt action rifle shares a commonality of design.  There is a limited capacity, spring fed, internal magazine.  The bolt lever sits on the right hand side of the weapon.  To load, the lever is rotated upwards through 90 degrees then pulled back.  This action cocks the firing mechanism with the rearward movement, and also exposes the internal magazine.  Ammunition issue was universal; a metal strip holding five rounds in a single line.  The charger was positioned over the magazine, and the rounds pushed down into it.  The metal strip was then discarded.  The bolt was now pushed forward, this action stripping the first round from the magazine and pushing it into the chamber.  The bolt lever was then returned through 90 degrees, sealing the chamber from the magazine and locking the action in place.  

A British depiction of the loading procedure for the German G98, produced in 1914

To fire, the trigger was squeezed, releasing the mechanism which had been cocked upon loading.  The chambered round was then fired.  To reload, the bolt was rotated as before and pulled back.  Now, this action not only cocked the firing mechanism, it also stripped and ejected the spent cartridge case from the chamber.  The next round in the magazine was now pushed into line by the spring, and the bolt pushed forward and down to load and lock the mechanism.  The rifle was then ready for its next discharge.

It was a simple and reliable mechanism, easy to impart to even the most challenging recruit.  Yet the drawbacks of such rifles are obvious.  The very disturbance caused by working the bolt action necessitates the rifle be re-aimed after every shot, making it practically impossible to get two on the same target.  There are desperate seconds of vulnerability while the rifle is being reloaded between shots.  These problems were particularly noticeable during street fighting, where the enemy could suddenly appear a few yards away.  The cumbersome nature of the weapon did not lend itself easily to such encounters. 

The next problem to consider is the thorny question of range.  The rounds fired by these weapons were all capable of killing a man at a distance of over a mile away.  Rifles were often sighted to a maximum range of between 1000 and 2000 yards.  However, few soldiers are capable of even seeing a concealed enemy at such extreme distances, let alone actually engaging him.  The power of ammunition designed to be lethal at such lengths produces a dreadful recoil, another factor affecting accuracy.  It was generally agreed that the maximum range of engagement with the rifle was not above 500 yards, snipers aside.  

These then were some of the considerations to be taken into account when going to war with a bolt action rifle.  Listed below are the most important examples of the period. 

The British Army

The Rifle Number 4 (Short Magazine Lee Enfield)

Length 113 cm
Weight 4.1 kg
Calibre 0.303 in   (7.7 mm)
Magazine 10 rounds
Muzzle Velocity 740 metres per second

The Rifle No 4

The Rifle No 5, lower of the two, distinguished by the flash hider and shoulder pad

The Number 4 was the penultimate model in the Lee Enfield series which had first appeared back in 1896.  The reliability and accuracy of the weapon were already legendary, and its service in the hands of British and a host of Commonwealth troops during the Second World War confirmed its reputation.  

At the outbreak of war, the standard rifle remained the Mark III Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) of Great War vintage, which was slightly lighter at 3.7 kg, but the same length as the Number 4.  While the Number 4 was far easier to produce, there were no pronounced differences between the two models, excepting the simplified sights of the latter.

As a basic load, each man armed with the rifle carried fifty rounds of ammunition in ten chargers of five rounds each.  They were carried in one of the two webbing pouches worn by each rifleman.  By 1944 the load had doubled to one hundred rounds, but the additional ammunition was earmarked for the Section Bren Gun.  Bandoliers, each containing five pockets (10 rounds per pocket) were also used.

Somewhat late in the day, the British Army decided it needed a shorter weapon, particularly for the campaign in the Far East.  This was accomplished by sawing the Number 4 down to 100 cm, adding a flash hider, and reducing the weight to 3.25 kg.  The result was named, imaginatively, the Rifle Number 5.  It appeared in 1944, and was not a happy invention, losing the accuracy of the earlier models, and increasing the recoil effect dramatically.  It did not see use outside of the Far East theatre.

The United States Army

The Rifle Model 1903 (Springfield)

Length 110 cm
Weight 3.9 kg
Calibre 0.30 in
Magazine 5 rounds
Muzzle Velocity 850 metres per second

The M1903 Springfield

The M1903A4 sniper rifle, note the removal of the foresight rendered obsolete by the telescopic fitting

Officially, the M1903 was rendered obsolete with the adoption of the M1 Garand.  However, such was the need for rifles as the US Army expanded that the Springfield still had a valuable part to play in World War Two.  

Its most important arena early on was the Pacific, as it was used to equip the burgeoning Marine Corps who came second in line behind the Army for receipt of the M1.  Within the Army itself, it was retained in two very different roles.  Firstly, pending the development of a suitable grenade launcher for the M1 Garand, it was retained at the rate of one per Rifle Squad for antitank grenade use, while from 1943 onwards it became the weapon of the sniper, fitted with a Weaver telescopic sight as the M1903A4.  It could also be found in the hands of certain rear echelon troops in place of the M1 Carbine.

The standard rifleman's belt had ten pockets, each holding a pair of five round clips for a total of one hundred rounds.

The Red Army

Mosin-Nagant Model 1891/30

Length 123 cm
Weight 4 kg
Calibre 7.62 mm
Magazine 5 rounds
Muzzle Velocity 810 metres per second

The M1891/30

The shortened M1944, with it peculiar fixed bayonet

The Mosin-Nagant was another example of a World War One weapon slightly modified to equip the army of World War Two.  The Red Army had intended to rearm itself with the SVT series of semi automatic rifles, but the program was never seriously undertaken.  Instead, the M1891/30 was the weapon which carried the Soviets to Berlin.  Its accuracy was best demonstrated in the sniper role, whose numbers took a heavy toll on the Wehrmacht.

Like the British, and also in 1944, the Russians chopped down the standard rifle to produce a Carbine.  The Model 1944 was actually derived from a pre-war weapon, the M1938.  It reduced length to 101 cm, weight to 3.5 kg and muzzle velocity to 770 mps.  It had the peculiar feature of a permanently attached bayonet which lay along the right hand forestock.  

A plea for information on the general ammunition load of the average Russian riflemen elicited the following suggestion.  The standard issue ammunition pouch held six clips each of five rounds.  Ideally, each riflemen was to have been issued two pouches, plus a third reserve, but in reality most men only received one pouch.  That would mean just thirty rounds, plus whatever could be crammed into his pockets and pack.  A bandolier holding fourteen clips was also produced, but rarely shows up in contemporary pictures.  Any further info will be welcomed!

The German Army

The Karabiner 98k (Mauser Rifle)

Length 111 cm
Weight 3.9 kg
Calibre 7.92 mm
Magazine 5 rounds
Muzzle Velocity 755 metres per second

The German Kar 98k

The Kar 98k was a shortened version of the original 1898 weapon from the Great War, the 'k' standing for kurz or short.  It employed the Mauser bolt action which influenced many other Continental designs.  

Despite the plethora of semi and fully automatic rifles the Germans experimented with and actually deployed, the Kar 98 still provided the bulk of the rifle strength of the Army.  It served as a sniper rifle with a variety of telescopic sights, and proved highly destructive in the role.

As the Germans expanded their war machine evermore, other Mauser type rifles plundered from conquered arsenals were pressed into use.  Even the predecessor Gewehr 98 was returned to service, noticeable by its 125 cm length and 870 mps muzzle velocity, but otherwise the same.

The rifleman was issued sixty rounds, two five round clips carried in each of the six pouches on his belt.

The Japanese Army

Type 38th Year Rifle (Arisaka)

Length 127 cm
Weight 4.2 kg
Calibre 6.5 mm
Magazine 5 rounds
Muzzle Velocity 730 metres per second

Grainy image of one of the Arisaka series rifles.  They all bore the same general appearance whether chambered for the original 6.5 mm round or later 7.7 mm version

A much better scan of the Arisaka, in this instance the Type 99 chambered for the larger 7.7 mm round.  This picture was kindly provided by FX House Associates (thanks Francis)

Another donated scan, this time from Jose Francis.  This shows the monopod fitted to the Type 99, though I don't think the garden furniture was included!

The Arisaka was named after the Colonel who oversaw its adoption in 1897.  The 38th Year designation referred to the uniquely Imperial Japanese practice of basing a calendar on the length of time a particular Emperor had ruled.  When the original model was amended in 1905, the Emperor Meiji had been on the throne for thirty eight years.

The Arisaka was a reliable and popular weapon in the East, its low recoil 6.5 mm round being appreciated for its ease of handling.  It was, however, also its greatest weakness.  The 6.5 mm round was known to be less effective than the 7.62 mm or higher rounds used elsewhere, especially by Japan's foes.  A revised model, the Type 99 was produced in 1939.  It fired the 7.7 mm round used in the Japanese heavy machine gun.  It supplemented the earlier version in service, but production was too limited to replace it.  Its statistics were roughly similar to the Type 38 given above. 

Both models came in a shortened carbine form, the Type 38 at around 87 cm in length and 3.3 kg in weight, while the Type 99 was 112 cm and 3.9 kg.  Ammunition was carried in two pouches, each holding a half dozen five rounds clips for a total of sixty rounds for the average soldier.  

The Italian Army

Fucile Modello 1891

Length 128 cm
Weight 3.8 kg
Calibre 6.5 mm
Magazine 6 rounds
Muzzle Velocity 700 metres per second

Excellent scan of the M1891 kindly donated by Piero Gralia in replacement of the M1895 which previously appeared here.  Many thanks

The M1891 carbine, sporting the fixed bayonet.  It was originally designed for cavalry use

The Italian Army was faced with a critical deficiency in the primary arm of their infantry throughout World War Two, namely their rifle.

The M1891 had seen service during the Great War, when complaints had been made about its ineffective cartridge.  These prompted a post-war shift to a 7.35 mm round, but only a few weapons had been modified before the next conflict began.  As a result, the Italian solider found himself largely outgunned by his allied adversary in a typical firefight, with the terrain of the desert no doubt exacerbating the problem.  An extra round in the magazine was poor recompense for such a major flaw.

Two carbine versions also saw service, the M1891 which was a straight adaptation of its parent.  Length was reduced to 92 cm and weight down to 3 kg.  It featured a fixed bayonet which folded under the barrel and can have been of little use.  The M1938 deleted this and actually increased the dimensions of the weapon to 3.45 kg and 102 cm.  This latter model also appeared in 7.35 mm in limited numbers.  

Ammunition was seemingly carried in just two small pouches on the belt, allowing for perhaps 36 rounds?

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