The Swiss Vetterli, so outré in 1869, was beginning to look a little long in the tooth only a few short years later. By the mid-1870s, Switzerland's continental neighbors were fielding bolt-action designs like the Mauser Gew.71 and the Gras Mle.1874 which, while still single shots, fired modern centerfire black powder cartridges with ballistic performance that eclipsed the now-quaint-looking stubby little rimfire round chambered by the Vetterli.
Rifle performance at the time was limited largely by the bullet itself. Above certain velocity and pressure thresholds, the paper-patched lead bullets of the time just left smears of soft lead that quickly filled the rifling. By the early 1880s, Swiss engineers led by a Major Eduard Rubin were investigating the possibilities offered by enclosing the lead bullet in a protective jacket of copper alloy. They soon discovered that a smaller diameter bullet, 7.5mm versus the then-common 11mm, enclosed in a copper/zinc alloy jacket and seated over a compressed black powder charge could offer a much flatter trajectory and longer effective range than any current military round. The limiting factor was now the powder, as the residues from black powder charges would quickly foul such a small bore.
Meanwhile, also in the early 1880s, another Swiss Major by the name of Rudolf Schmidt was hard at work on a rifle design with a straight-pull bolt action, which was submitted to the army for trials. Unlike contemporary Mannlicher straight-pull designs, which used interaction between an inner bolt and outer bolt sleeve to manipulate a vertically-hinged locking wedge, Schmidt's design used a bolt handle connected to an operating rod; a lug on this rod traveled in a helical track on the outer bolt sleeve causing it to rotate the locking lugs in and out of alignment. Spurred by neighboring nations starting to adopt tube-fed repeating rifles, trials commenced using a combination of Major Rubin's cartridge designs, along with an innovative loading system using disposable chargers, and the straight-pull rifle designed by Schmidt. The leisurely pace of the testing was sped up when the French shocked the world by the adoption of the Mle.1886 Lebel, with its small bore smokeless cartridge.
LEFT: Disposable paper and tin charger holding six rounds of 7.5x55 Swiss. Based on the original charger loader designed by Major Rubin in the 1880s. Photo by Oleg Volk.
By 1890, the Swiss equipped their troops with the Schmidt rifle chambered in a stopgap "semi-smokeless" loading and designated the Gew.1889. Unfortunately, the original rifle design turned out to be somewhat of a stopgap, too. Its locking lugs were located at the rear of the bolt sleeve, which necessitated not only a very long receiver, but also severely limited the amount of pressure the rifle could safely stand. The GP90 cartridge (GP = Gewehr Patrone, or rifle cartridge), with its 211gr round-nosed iron jacketed and paper patched bullet pushed by a semi-smokeless propellant, only generated about 37,500psi of chamber pressure; about all the Gew.1889 could take. Improvements were clearly needed, and by 1896 a new variant with an action strengthened by the virtue of moving the locking lugs to the front of the bolt sleeve was put into service and designated the Gew.89/96.
RIGHT: Detail of the action. Clearly visible is the helical track on the bolt sleeve, as well as the rear edge of one of the locking lugs which are at the forward edge of the sleeve. The cocking handle is Bakelite. The grooves atop the receiver are lightening cuts. Photo by Oleg Volk.
Fortified with a stronger rifle, work began on a new cartridge. By 1911, the Swiss army adopted a modern cupro-nickel jacketed spire point 174gr bullet. Fired from a rifle-length barrel the new GP11 round offered an amazing 600 foot-per-second advantage over the old GP90, and while production ramped up on the new Gew.1911 rifles, old Gew.89/96 rifles were converted to the new Gew.96/11 standard. (The original Gew.1889 was, obviously, unsuited for conversion, as the 45k+ chamber pressures of the new round would turn the older design into a clumsily long pipe bomb.)
LEFT: Detail of the muzzle end. Note the upturned stacking rod tip to minimize the chances of snagging on underbrush, and the hinged barrel band secured by a screw so as to keep it from crushing the stock onto the free-floated barrel. Photo by Oleg Volk.
The 96/11, like the example shown here which was originally produced at Solothurn in 1900, exhibits the craftsmanship one would expect from a rifle made by the Swiss. The barrel bands are piano-hinged and tensioned with screws, rather than just being slid on and retained with leaf springs like most rifles. The walnut stock was carefully inlet to float the barrel and was prevented from swelling and touching the barrel at the muzzle end by a metal collar insert that surrounded the barrel. 89/96 rifles being brought up to 96/11 standards had pistol grips expertly inlet into their stocks in a display of woodworking skill rarely found on nice furniture these days.
RIGHT: Closeup showing the ring-type safety/decocker and the exquisite inletting of the pistol grip into the existing stock. Photo by Oleg Volk.
The rear sight, in keeping with the doctrines of the time, was graduated to 2,000 meters. Windage adjustments could be made by an armorer drifting the dovetailed front sight, which was unprotected by wings or a hood. The 96/11 replaced the 12 round magazine of earlier rifles with a 6 round magazine that protruded less and didn't interfere with carrying the rifle at the balance. The magazine cutoff, an archaic device intended to keep troops from "wasting ammunition", was also discarded on the newer rifles. Like all other rifles based on the Schmidt design, the 96/11 used a large ring on the rear of the striker as a combination safety/decocker, and it could also be used to cock the rifle for another try at a hard primer.
Though its length and weight betrayed its 19th Century origins, the Gew.96/11 and Gew.1911 served their country as frontline rifles until the 1930s, when they were relegated to reserve status with the adoption of the K31 carbine. Many remained in the hands of reservists well into the era of the automatic rifle before being sold off as surplus. The older Schmidt-Rubins are not seen anywhere near as often on the US collector scene as the recently-surplussed K31. Whereas older Gew.89 and 89/96 rifles are handloader-only curiosities, the 96/11 can handle modern Swiss 7.5x55, which can be found in surplus GP11 form as well as in commercial loadings from FNM, Wolf, Norma, and others. Prices for a good 96/11 can range anywhere from roughly $100 for an ugly one to as much as $400 for one in outstanding condition. Along with Finnish Mosins, the Swiss Schmidts are some of the most accurate bolt action military rifles ever made, and fortunate is the collector who gets his or her hands on a nice one.