Sunday, October 29, 2006

Remington Model 11: A very belligerent fowling piece.

Unlike most European armies, the American armed forces have always had a place for the shotgun. Used on shipboard, guarding stockades, even seeing irregular use as a cavalry weapon during the Civil War, scatterguns have served with distinction. When the Doughboys went to the trenches of France in the Great War, they brought along the Winchester Model 1897 shotguns that were already serving, and soon pressed them into use as "trench brooms". The Germans filed a complaint in September of 1918 protesting the American use of fowling pieces, and alleging that they contravened the law of war (an odd stance for the inventors of chemical warfare.) The protest was dismissed by Secretary of State Robert Lansing in a formal diplomatic response.

ABOVE: Remington Model 11 riot shotgun, circa 1943. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Meanwhile, the need for shotguns had outstripped the supply of Model 1897's and Model 12's, as well as Remington Model 10's were also pressed into service.

In World War Two, the shotgun was again called to duty, with the Winchesters joined by Ithaca, Stevens, Savage, and the Remington Model 11. The latter shotgun, a John Moses Browning design, was notable for being the first self-loading shotgun.

RIGHT: Detail of Remington 11 receiver. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Browning had shopped the design to Winchester first, as he had all his previous longarm designs, but this time around they declined to pay royalties on the novel weapon and so he next shopped it to Winchester's arch-rival, Remington. Before Remington could enter negotiations their president died, and Browning instead took the gun to Fabrique Nationale, the company originally formed by the Belgian government and Ludwig Loewe to produce Mausers for the Belgian army. Browning had worked with them in the past, selling them several autopistol designs, one of which, a Model 1910, fired the shot that ignited World War One.

FN produced the shotgun as the Auto-Five, and production was licensed to Remington as the Model 11. It was a robust weapon, operating on the long-recoil principle, but was obviously designed as a sporting weapon rather than a military one, requiring tools for disassembly and reassembly. The one pictured above wears the "flaming bomb" U.S. Ordnance mark. Its serial number dates it to 1943, and it was probably used to guard a naval installation, or perhaps as a shipboard weapon.

LEFT: Detail of U.S. Ordnance markings on receiver. Photo by Oleg Volk.

U.S. military use of the scattergun continues to this day, with Remington, Mossberg, and Benelli shotguns being used in a variety of roles, from house-to-house fighting in the Middle East, to its traditional role as a weapon for facilities guards, to specialized short versions used as breaching weapons, for blowing locks and hinges off doors in close-quarters battle in urban settings.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Mannlicher-Schoenauer M1903/14: Revolutionary rotary.

Germany had barely begun issuing the new Gewehr 88 to its troops when it found itself dragged into a courtroom by Osterreichische Waffenfabrik-Gesellschaft, better known here as Steyr. The Austrians took issue with the fact that the German Rifle Testing Commission had more or less pirated the clip loading system invented by Steyr's star designer, Ferdinand von Mannlicher. The resulting settlement allowed Steyr to manufacture Gew.88's for the German army, as well as for foreign sales.

By this time, Mannlicher had a new protege, and Steyr a rising star, in the form of a fortysomething engineer by the name of Otto Schoenauer. He set about making various refinements to the Gew.88 and, when the older rifle began losing ground to Paul Mauser's newer charger-loaded designs, fitted his modified version of the Commission Rifle with a slick new development: A rotary magazine. This magazine had a rotating spindle in it, notched to hold the bullets, and would feed cartidges very smoothly, as it minimized the friction of the cartridges rubbing against one another in the magazine, unlike the staggered box designs common on other rifles of the day. Packaging his new magazine in his latest upgraded rifle, he began shopping it around Europe.

Above: Greek M1903/14 Mannlicher-Schoenauer, Photo by Oleg Volk

The rotary magazine could be charged with a stripper clip like a Mauser, but could be safely unloaded through the ejection port with the press of a button unlike Mauser designs, which needed the magazine floorplate to be hinged down or removed for safe unloading. The rifle itself was slim and graceful, weighing in at only 8.25 pounds even in the full 48" long infantry version.

Left: The rotary magazine, viewed from above. The button on the right-hand receiver wall releases the magazine's contents. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The action was ultra-slick, with a full-length guide rib, and had several safety and reliability tweaks over the Commission rifle, but this didn't help sales. Fearing complications caused by the slightly Rube Goldberg-esque magazine, armies stayed away from the new design in droves, and Schoenauer's baby was flattened by the Mauser juggernaut on the world market.

In the end, the only nation that bought the rifle was Greece, who, in a bizarre twist of fate, found themselves on the wrong side of the trenches from their main rifle supplier when World War One broke out. By the end of that conflict, Greece was badly short on Mannlicher-Schoenauers, and was making up their losses with captured Austro-Hungarian Steyr-Mannlichers and hand-me-downs from their allies. After the war they needed more rifles, but Steyr was located in the new nation of Austria and, as part of the losing side, couldn't sell military arms on the world market under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Relief was to be had in 1926 when Breda, in Italy, was contracted to supply M/S 1903/14 rifles and carbines. The Greeks eventually phased the rifle out of frontline service, replacing it with Mausers, and later, as a part of NATO, with British and American arms. Rumor has it, incidentally, that the Breda contract rifles were actually merely assembled and marked there, and had actually been manufactured at Steyr.

Right: Gew.88-derived action. Used in Greece. Marked in Italy. Made in Austria? Photo by Oleg Volk.

So as a military rifle the Mannlicher-Schoenauer was a flop, but its smoothness made it a very popular sporting rifle. It was successfully marketed and sold as such from 1903 into the 1950's, pretty much unchanged. One reason that original military models are so scarce on the collector's scene today is that most all of them were turned into sporters after they appeared on the surplus market.

Oh, and about that fragile rotary magazine that militaries of the day didn't like? Maybe it's not so bad; it hasn't stopped Ruger from selling a blue million 10/22's...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Filipino blacksmith revolver: Fruit of a ban.

On the island of Cebu in the Philippines, village gunsmiths have been turning out home made firearms for over a century now. Working from factory-built guns as exemplars, these shadetree artisans can manufacture weapons that are often astonishing in their sophistication.

Some years back, a gentleman approached me wanting to sell a Smith & Wesson revolver, having heard I was a collector. From across the room it appeared to be a pre-War I-frame .38 Regulation Police. Closer examination proved it to be nothing of the sort. He was desparate to sell, needing money and not being especially fond of guns, but I was short on cash, and not especially eager to buy. I explained to him that for starters, the gun wasn't even really a S&W, and that even if it was an actual Regulation Police, it would barely be worth the $225 he wanted, given its condition.

He left, but returned a couple days later, having no doubt shopped the gun around, and asked for $200. As we talked, the Tale of the Gun was told:

His dad had fought in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII, and eventually relieved a Japanese fighting man of this handgun. Knowing that Japanese officers were frequently responsible for providing their own sidearms, the story smacked of plausibility. Lord knows that the Imperial Japanese Army had spent some time in the Philippines, where this arm could have been acquired. The soft, fleece-lined leather holster, complete with five cartridge loops on the front, was certainly nicely made enough and, given the prevalence of American and British arms in SE Asia, the .38 S&W-slash-.380/200 chambering also made sense. Where writing would have been on an actual Smith, there was greeking, and the grip medallions had twining crescents and scimitars, shaped into something like the traditional S&W monogram.

In the end, I figured the holster was worth $25, the gun $75, and the story $100, and so I bought it. It sits next to my real pre-War .38 Regulation Police, a cold steel reminder of a dangerous place, a dangerous time, and the skills of the no doubt long-dead craftsman who made it from raw steel with nought but simple tools, his own hands, and lots and lots of talent and ingenuity.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Why old guns?

"Why these old guns, Tam? What do you find so fascinating about them?"

Let me try to explain...

I've always been interested in history. If I could own one science-fiction gizmo, it would be a time machine. I think it would be absolutely fascinating to travel to various places and times in the past and view things firsthand; see how people lived; talk with them and find out how they saw the world. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear likely that this will become a reality in my lifetime.

Fortunately, however, folks in the past have sent stuff forward to the present, via that time machine that travels into the future at sixty seconds every minute, and some of these artifacts are actually affordable. I can hold a Roman coin in my hands and feel the weight of history in it. I can wonder what it's seen and done. How many cups of wine has it bought? Was it part of a legionary's savings? Did he use it to bribe his Centurion to get out of sentry duty? Did the Centurion treat some friends to a night on the town with it? I have a small cube of teak from the orlop deck of the HMS Victory. If I hold it to my ear, I can almost hear the creak of sails, the roar of a 68-pdr. carronade, a voice saying "England expects every man to do his duty."

It's the same with these old rifles; each one is a history lesson, an invitation to a treasure hunt, a physical link to a long-gone time and a far-off place. There are tangible marks on the gun that can be decoded through research, that can let you find out where and when it was made; words evocative of foreign lands: Solothurn, Chatellerault, Koishikawa, La Coruna, Spandau... And then there are the intangible marks... Was this Mauser clutched in the frightened hands of a Bavarian schoolboy, awaiting the order to go "over the top"? Where has this Krag been? Cuba? The Phillipines? What has this Garand seen in the forty years it spent in exile overseas before returning to its homeland? Where did this nick come from? Whence this ding in the stock?

"What do you find so fascinating about those rusty old things?" indeed. What's not fascinating about them? You can heat the cosmoline out of the stock, but the history is soaked in for good. You can own it, you can hold it, you can learn from it, you can shoot it, and then you can pass it and its story on to the next generation, having added your own small chapter. Until they make a time machine, I'll just have to keep using the time machines I already have.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Martini-Henry Mark III: The Arm of Empire

The adoption of the Snider breechloading conversion of the old P.1853 Enfield by the British army in 1866 was never intended to be more than a stopgap. Indeed, the commission to select its replacement was formed in 1867, and soon weeded a field of over 100 entrants down to nine finalists. While bolt-actions were considered, a falling block with an internal striker ignition system designed by Swiss engineer Friedrich von Martini was selected, mated to a barrel with 7-groove, 1-in-22" rifling that had been the brainchild of Scottish gun-maker and rifle marksmanship enthusiast Alexander Henry. From such dry technical details was a legend born.

Martini-Henry Mark III. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The Martini-Henry was the standard issue arm of the British military from 1871 through the early 1890's; twenty tumultuous years, spanning such famous names as Khartoum, Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift. The rifle itself has been the star of Kipling poetry and Hollywood film, with a sword bayonet on one end and Tommy Atkins at the other.

Loading the Martini. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Operation of the rifle is simple: pulling down on the lever behind the triggerguard causes the beechblock to drop at the front, exposing the chamber and automatically cocking the striker. The lever is then raised, closing the chamber and preparing the weapon for firing. There is no safety, but a pivoting indicator on the right side of the action gives visual and tactile confirmation of the weapon's cocked status. After firing, operation of the lever causes twin extractors to eject the spent case. There is a lug for a bayonet on the right side of the first barrel band, and the weapon's sights are graduated to 1,450 yards (experiments in India against screen targets representing massed troops showed that trained riflemen could achieve 6% hits in volley fire out to 1,650 yards!) Recoil was, as they say in the gun mags, "brisk but manageable", and a cutout was placed in the right rear of the receiver to remind one not to wrap one's thumb over the action, which could cause it, upon firing, to meet one's nose with enough force to make one see stars.

RIGHT: .577-450 Martini-Henry round, shown with today's 5.56x45mm NATO round for scale.

The Martini was truly a weapon of transition; a crusty veteran issued one in 1871 may well have received his first marksmanship instruction on a smoothbore flintlock, while the senior NCO's at Mons and First Ypres had undoubtedly cut their teeth on this old black powder warhorse. Ammunition, usually formed from 24ga shotgun brass, is still available from some specialty houses, such as Old Western Scrounger and Rocky Mountain Cartridge, LLC. Be aware that these black powder cartridges are loaded with .451" bullets, and that the bore on a well-used Martini (like mine) can mike out to .458" or more, resulting in keyholing at ranges as close as seven yards. I would encourage any military rifle enthusiast to snag one of these while examples are still available from International Military Antiques and Atlanta Cutlery; there may be no more romantic breechloader to own.

Fabrique Nationale SAFN-49: The proto-FAL

In the 1930's, the day of the bolt-action military service rifle was about to draw to a close. In the Soviet Union, designers were turning out limited-issue weapons like the SVT, while in the US, the American Army was about to adopt the first general-issue military self-loading rifle, the "Rifle, .30 Caliber, M1" (now more widely known by its designers' name: Garand.)

Meanwhile, in little Belgium, Dieudonne Saive and the engineers at Fabrique Nationale were hard at work on their own self-loading design, but were still in the prototype phase when WWII halted work. Skipping town ahead of the advancing Jerries, the FN crew attempted to interest the British in their new weapon, but the Brits preferred to stick with the Enfield rather than change horses in midstream.

After the war, development work resumed, resulting in the weapon being adopted by the Belgian Army as the SAFN-49. It's a well-made rifle, with an intricately-machined steel receiver, a tipping bolt operated by a gas piston over the barrel, and a ten-round magazine that does not detach for reloading, but is topped off through the top of the receiver with stripper clips. Belgian rifles were in .30-'06 to take advantage of NATO largesse, but export rifles were done in other calibers as well, including 8x57mm and 7x57mm.

SAFN-49, Egyptian contract. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The sights consist of a receiver-mounted aperture on tangent adustable for elevation, and a front blade adjustable for windage, protected by beefy wings. The safety is a simple pivoting lever next to the trigger. The gun was remarkably successful on the export market, especially in light of the fact that it was not very simple to manufacture, and the additional fact that the US and USSR were giving rifles away pretty much for the asking. It saw service in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and all over South America. Mine was made at FN Herstal for the Egyptians. It's chambered in 8mm Mauser, and has its sight labeled in Arabic numbers.

Detail of receiver. Photo by Oleg Volk.

In the end, what put paid to the rifle was the move of the world's armies to select-fire weapons using intermediate-length cartridges. While the SAFN itself didn't survive this change, its genes did, as anyone who looks at one of these side-by-side with a certain more famous FN rifle can see.

As a footnote, this is probably the most modern military surplus rifle a US collector can own without NFA paperwork. Most subsequent designs were select-fire, and while parts-kit guns like FALs, CETMEs, and G3s can be fun to own, there's always something different about holding a true milsurp; a gun that was once actually a service arm, and is now honorably retired without having suffered the indignity of being chopped up with a cutting torch.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Argentine Mauser Modelo 1891: The last antique rifle.

The late 19th Century was witness to a frantic global arms race; the introduction of the Mle. 1886 Lebel by the French had, almost overnight, obsoleted every other military rifle in the world. The Germans responded by fielding the Gew. 1888 "Commission Rifle", so called because it was designed by a committee, rather than any independent factory. Mauser, feeling snubbed, set to work designing a rifle that eclipsed the Gew. 88 in every way, and shopped it to the Belgians. Due to the fact that the Mauser works were running nearly at capacity supplying the Turks, Ludwig Loewe & Co. (the owners of Mauser) and the Belgian State arms factory at Liege formed a new syndicate, known as Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre (now known universally as "FN") to manufacture the new rifle. The design was wildly successful and, in 1891 Argentina, who had completed their transition to Remington Rolling Blocks only 11 years earlier, purchased an improved version: the Modelo 1891 rifle, in 7.65x53mm (a caliber now known as "7.65 Argentine.")

Modelo 1891 Argentine Mauser. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The new rifle incorporated a couple of significant advances: First, the bolt was a strong, one-piece unit with dual horizontally-opposed locking lugs at the front, and second, it operated from a box magazine that was loaded from stripper clips (a design first) and unlike most every other military rifle of the day, it had no magazine cutoff; it was intended entirely to be used as a fast-reloading repeater, rather than as a single shot rifle with a magazine held in reserve for "emergencies".

Detail of action; note how ejector assembly forms part of charger guide. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The action, with its dual locking lugs that were part of a one-piece bolt body, and its push-feed, pivoting-extractor design, would be familiar to anyone owning a modern sporting rifle from Remington, Savage, or Winchester, being much closer in mechanics and manner of operation to these current rifles than its later, claw-extractor controlled-feed brethren from Mauser.

The rimless cartidge originally specified by the Belgians, and known (inexplicably) to posterity as the 7.65 Argentine, is modern looking, and a close ballistic cousin to the .308 Winchester/7.62x51 NATO, throwing a 174- or 155-gr bullet at 2460 or 2710 feet per second in its military guise. Commercial hunting ammo is still available from Norma.

L to R: 7.62x51 NATO, 7.65x53 Argentine, and 5.56x45 NATO.

Possibly the most fascinating thing about the rifle, aside from how teriffically modern it appears compared to designs only a few years older, is the fact that, due to its age, it's not considered to be a firearm by the BATF. The example in the photos, built by DWM in Berlin, is remarkably well-preserved for being such a senior citizen, and is still just as fine a rifle today as it was when it was made; maybe a finer rifle now, since the meticulous craftsmanship and all-machined-steel construction harken back to a bygone era. The BATF may think it to be the last antique rifle, but thousands of shooters know better; it's really the first truly modern rifle.

Gew. 71 Vetterli: A 19th Century assault rifle.

The year is 1869. The U.S. military is pondering the cheapest way to convert its overstock of muzzleloading Springfields to single shot breechloaders, and the British are doing likewise with their large supply of P1853 Enfields. For countries whose only real zones of conflict are scattered brushfire wars against primitively-armed opponents, this is a cost-effective move. Continental European armies, however, are driven by a more serious imperative: The Prussians. For twenty years now, the Prussian soldier has been issued a veritable wonder-weapon: a single-shot breechloading bolt-action rifle, the Dreyse "Needle Gun", and has demonstrated its effectiveness against both the Danes and the Austrians. The French, ever anxious of their arch foes across the Rhine, have responded by fielding a similar arm; the Mle. 1866 Chassepot. Both of these rifles used primitive, combustible cases that were vulnerable to damp and mishandling, but the ability to fire from prone or kneeling and still reload rapidly that they granted their users was a large leap forward over the awkward frontstuffers of the day.

Rightly paranoid of the saber-rattling powers on their northern border, and ever-jealous of their independence and neutrality, the tiny nation of Switzerland responded with a weapon that, compared to other standard infantry arms of its time, was pure science fiction: The Gew. 1869 Vetterli.

ABOVE: Gew. 71 Vetterli. Photo by Oleg Volk.

While the Prussians and French had to worry about gasses blowing back into their face from badly-sealed breeches, and fumble with loose rounds after every shot, the Swiss rifleman had a 12-shot breechloading turnbolt that used self-contained metallic cartridges. The 10.4x38R rimfire cartridge was no great shakes ballistically, lobbing a 334gr bullet at a leisurely 1345fps, but magazine capacity can cover a multitude of sins, especially in the hands of of an experienced rifleman, a commodity that the Swiss have never lacked.

ABOVE: 10.43x38R, flanked by 7.62x51 NATO and 5.56x45 NATO.

The mechanism of the Vetterli was simplicity itself, being drawn from the 1866 Winchester; the bolt operated a bellcrank that knocked the cartridge lifter up and down. The bolt cocked itself on opening, and dual firing pins helped mitigate the occasional priming deficiencies of the rimfire cartridge.

ABOVE: Gew. 71 Vetterli action detail. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Never tested in battle, and superceded in only 14 years by the excellent Schmidt-Rubin series of rifles, the Vetterli often draws fire for its anemic cartridge and rear locking lugs, but compared to every other service rifle of the day, the fact remains that the Swiss were issuing the future while everyone else was still fumbling in the past.

The Arms Room.

When I was younger, I had a notion that the house I lived in when I grew up would have a room in it that was just for me. Darkly panelled, richly carpeted, filled with overstuffed furniture, a cozy writing desk, and with a cheerfully crackling fireplace, the walls would be lined with bookshelves. Hanging here and there on the walls between the shelves would be various historic arms: A Roman gladius, a Brown Bess musket, a Garand. Scattered on the shelves, there were other knick-knacks: an old British pith helmet, a bronze sword, a shadowbox with various old bits of military regalia. There was a suit of armor standing in the corner. It would be my own personal little museum and library.

This space on the web will serve much that same purpose for me. Over at my main blog, View From The Porch, I get a fair number of Google hits on "Mannlicher-Schoenauer", "Gew. 88" and the like as a result of my "From The Vault" and "Ask Auntie Gun Nut" posts. I'll be using this space as a repository for those in the future, and seeing where it grows from there. I hope it makes it easier for those trying to do research, being able to access the data without having to wade through my bad jokes, sarcastic political commentary, and day-to-day bloggery.

Welcome to my museum.

Welcome to my library.

Welcome to The Arms Room.