A conflict fueled by old tactics and new weapons, the “Great War” was brutality incarnate. Here's a look at the rifles that eventually helped the Allies win World War I.
WWI Weapons By Country:
The Great War, now commonly referred to as World War I, began after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in June 1914. By mid-August 1914 most of the major European powers were at war. The United States entered on the side of the British and French in April 1917.
WWI signaled the end of the age in which conflicts were settled with some semblance of chivalry. It was a war of rapidly changing technology, fought using tactics of the Napoleonic era. Companies, even battalions of soldiers, were thrown against squads of men, each squad manning a single machine gun capable of firing 800 rounds a minute. One General responded to the rapid destruction of his entire Division by telling his men to “dig, dig, dig, until you are safe.”
By Christmas 1914 a trench system wound its way from the Belgian coast on the North Sea to the Swiss border some 1500 kilometers away! For four years, until November 1918, the trenches remained in place, virtually unchanged. The word stalemate entered the dictionary to describe a useless situation with no foreseeable conclusion. The result was 8.5 million dead and 21 million maimed and disabled, plus 12.5 million civilian casualties.
The bolt-action rifle was standard armament among the 30 nations involved in this global conflict, with some members of the Allies – countries at war with Germany – paying licensing fees for their rifles to the German firm of Waffenfabrik Mauser. The dominating firearm of the war was the machine gun. Once thought wasteful and expensive, its use ensured that neither side could advance on the other without incurring horrifying losses. The war was brought to an end on November 11, 1918, by the combination of overwhelming Allied offensive action and the spread of revolution throughout Germany that forced the Kaiser's abdication and the replacement of the monarchy with a civilian government willing to surrender.
WWI Allied Rifles
A variety of bolt-action arms were used by the Allied nations in WWI to equip their infantry units. Some countries found that demand for rifles could not keep pace with production so other models for which tooling and machinery already existed were put into service production. Canadian soldiers, for example, were armed with either homegrown Ross rifles the Models 1905 or 1910, the British Enfield SMLE #1 Mk III, or American-made Pattern 14 Enfields!
United States World War I Rifles
U.S. Springfield Model 1903 Bolt-Action Rifle
Bolt-Action-.30-06-circa 1903-1930: The Springfield ‘03 was the American standard service rifle from 1903 to 1936. It first saw service in the Philippines in 1903. Issued in WWI and WWII, it was still in service as a sniper rifle in Korea and Vietnam.
Pedersen Device Mounted On U.S. Springfield Model 1903 Mk I Bolt-Action Rifle
Semi-Automatic-.30 caliber-circa 1918-1920: The top-secret Pedersen device, also known as the “Automatic Pistol Caliber .30 Model of 1918,” was a semi-automatic conversion for the bolt-action Springfield rifle. The 1903 Mk I rifles intended to use the Pedersen device had a small port milled into the left receiver to allow spent cases to be ejected. Approximately 65,000 Pedersen devices were manufactured and were intended to be used in the Spring Offensive of 1919. When World War I came to a close with the Armistice on November 11, 1918, no future need was foreseen for the Pedersen devices and they were destroyed.
U.S. Remington Model 1917
Bolt-Action-.30-06-circa 1917-1919: Over two million M1917s were manufactured by Eddystone, Remington, and Winchester.
U.S. Winchester Prototype Model 1917
Bolt-Action Magazine Rifle-.30-06-circa 1917: U.S. Winchester Prototype Model 1917 Bolt-Action Magazine Rifle – .30-06 – circa 1917 – This unmarked tool room example of a Winchester Model 1917 bolt-action rifle was part of a collection assembled by a former production line superintendent at Winchester.
U.S. Springfield Model 1903
Bolt-Action (relic condition)-.30-06-circa 1903-1907: Buried in a French field, this relic M1903 rifle was recovered in 1963.
U.S. Springfield Model 1903 Sniper Rifle
Bolt-Action Sniper Rifle-.30-06-circa 1907-1919: The U.S. Warner-Swazey-scoped sniper was the first .30-06 bolt-action sniper rifle. Note extended “Air Service” 20-round magazine.
Arm Yourself With More Military Firearms Knowlege:
- American Revolution Guns
- American Civil War Guns
- Spanish-American War Guns
- M1903A4 Sniper Rifle
- M1917 Enfield
British World War I Rifles
British Enfield No. 3 Mk I
Bolt-Action Rifle-.303 British-circa 1914.
British SMLE Mk III
Bolt-Action Rifle-.303 British-circa 1942-1943: The fast-firing SMLE could empty its ten-shot magazine in less than 20 seconds with an adept shooter.
British BSA Sparkbrook Model 1893 Mk II Magazine Lee-Metford
Bolt-Action Rifle-.303 British-circa 1893: In WWI, British forces employed earlier Lee-Enfield models that were updated for issue.
British Farquhar-Hill Model 1909
Experimental Semi-Automatic Rifle-.303 British-circa 1909: The long recoil-operated Farquhar-Hill was intended as a squad automatic rifle and was tested by British Ordnance’s Small Arms Committee in 1908. A 20-round drum magazine was intended as the standard configuration although other magazine capacities were also tested. This example is one of the rarer semi-automatic-only versions.
Russian World War I Rifles
Russian Mosin Nagant Model 1891
Bolt-Action Rifle-7.62mm x 54 Russian-circa 1911: Russia’s standard service rifle in World War I held five cartridges.
Remington Mosin Nagant Model 1891
Bolt-Action Rifle-7.62mm x 54 Russian-circa 1917: This Mosin Nagant rifle was tested by NRA during the WWI period.
Russian Contract Winchester Model 1895
Canadian World World I
Canadian Ross Rifle Co. Model 1910
Straight-Pull Rifle-.280 Ross-circa 1910: Found to have a potentially dangerous bolt design, Ross rifles were sidelined from active service.
Canadian Ross Rifle Co. Model 1905
Straight-Pull Rifle-.303 British-circa 1906: The straight-pull line of Ross rifles had a reputation for being unsafe firearms due to a complicated bolt that could be incorrectly reassembled and would fail to lock the action correctly during firing. During the interwar period and during World War II, the Ross rifles still in inventory were utilized for non-firing training duties.
French World War I Rifles
French Tulle Model 1886/93 Lebel
Bolt-Action Rifle-8mm Lebel-circa 1900-1918: The French Lebel was one of the first rifles to employ both jacketed bullets and smokeless powder.
French Berthier Model 1916/27
Bolt-Action Carbine-8mm Lebel-circa 1892-1920: Shorter carbines were used for cavalry and artillery units.
French St. Etienne French Model 1917
Semi-Automatic Rifle-8mm Lebel-circa 1917-1925: French semi-auto rifle designs did not come into use until late in WWI.
French Lebel Model 1907-15
Bolt-Action Rifle (sectionalized)-8mm Lebel-circa 1907: This cutaway of a military firearm illustrates many of its otherwise hidden internal mechanisms.
French Berthier Model 1907/15
Belgian World War I Rifles
Belgian Hopkins & Allen Contract Mauser Model 1889
Bolt-Action Rifle-7.65mm Mauser-circa 1889-1915: H&A’s contract with Belgian authorities resulted in 180,000 M1889 rifles for WWI.
Editor's Note: The article is an excerpt from The Illustrated History of Firearms, 2nd Edition.