Saturday, November 25, 2006

Future Additions to the Museum...

Although the museum expands in a largely random fashion, I always have a wish list in the back of my mind. In addition to the wish list, I have a more practical one of firearms I'm actually likely to find and be able to afford...

1) The German collection: Kar. 71, Gew. 71/84, Gew. 88/05, Gew. 98 (Transitional), Kar. 98k.
What I'd like to add: A G43 autoloader, or a Dreyse.
What I'll likely get: An intact Gew. 98, complete with the rollercoaster (Lange Vizier) sight.

2) The French collection: Gras Mle. 1874 M80, Berthier-Mannlicher Mle. 1907/15 M16, and Mousqueton d'Artillerie M1916, MAS Mle. 1936, MAS Mle. 1949-56.
What I'd like to add: A Chassepot.
What I'll likely get: An Mle. 1886 Lebel. If I can ever find one.

3) The British collection: Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle (replica), Martini-Henry Mark I, Enfield SMLE Mk.III*, Enfield No.4 Mk.2.
What I'd like to add: A real Tower musket (aka "Brown Bess"), or a Lee-Enfield Mk. V.
What I'll likely get: A replica Brown Bess, or a No.4 Mk.1.

4) The Japanese Collection: Type 38 cavalry carbine, Type 99 short rifle, Type "I" rifle (Beretta marked!).
What I'd like to add: Type 2 paratroop rifle or Arisaka Type 30.
What I'll likely get: Type 38 rifle.

5) The Russian collection(ette): Mosin Nagant M91/30 ('44 Izhevsk), Tokarev SVT-40.
What I'd like to add: An Imperial-era Mosin M1891, un-altered.
What I'll likely get: An M38 carbine.

6) The American collection: M1 Garand, Springfield M1903 Mk.I, Eddystone M1917, M1896 Krag Jorgensen, Remington Model 11 riot gun.
What I'd like to add: Lee straight-pull U.S. Navy musket.
What I'll likely get: M1 carbine or M1873 floptop Springfield.

7) The Swiss collection: Vetterli Gew. 71, Schmidt Gew. 96/11.
What I'd like to add: Kar. 1911
What I'll likely get: The ubiquitous K31.

8) Mauser Miscellania: Spanish FR-8, Chinese Chiang Kai Shek, Siamese M1903, Swedish M1896/38, Argentine Mo. 1891, Venezuelan M24/30 carbine, Chilean M1895 carbine.
What I'd like to add: Argentine M1909 or an OVS M1895.
What I'll likely get: A Swedish M1896 or Yugo M48.

9) Mosin Miscellania: Finnish M39, Hungarian 44.M.
What I'd like to add: Polish M1891.
What I'll likely get: Finnish M28 or M28/30.

10) Miscellaneous Miscellania: Carcano Mo. 1938 carbine, Steyr-Mannlicher M95/30, Mannlicher-Schoenauer M1903/14, FN SAFN-49.
What I'd like to add: A Remington rolling block of some type, or my ultimate holy grail: A Remington Pontificio.
What I'll likely get: A vz. 52 rifle. I feel this is almost a certainty. (ie. I have one on layaway. :) )

Hints, bird-dogging, suggestions and pointers always welcome. Donations will not be turned away, either. ;)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Gewehr 88: A rifle designed by committee.

Between 1871 and 1898, the Germans issued four different bolt action rifles. It started with Mauser's seminal Gew. 71, an 11mm black-powder cartridge breechloader. This rifle was standard issue to the armies of the newly unified Germany for thirteen years, when it was replaced by the Gew. 71/84; essentially the same weapon, but with the addition of a tubular magazine below the barrel. After the shock of the French Lebel, the Germans put the Gewehr Prufungs Kommission (Rifle Testing Commission) at the Spandau Arsenal to work designing a new rifle. Initially, it was suggested to just rework the existing 71/84 to a smaller-caliber smokeless round, but this was overridden by a desire to get a quantum leap ahead of the French and their tubular magazine Lebel.

Mauser wasn't consulted, due to the fact that the contracts he had with the Ottoman Empire contained stipulations that any new rifles he made for Germany would also be used to fill the balance of open orders he had with the Turks. Bereft of the country's premier rifle designer, the committe went to work, and produced a result in a surprisingly short time.

ABOVE: Gewehr 88/05, photo by Oleg Volk.

The committee-designed weapon was a hodgepodge of Mannlicher, Mauser, and other odds & sods. It had a Mauser-esque safety and trigger allied to a new bolt, a magazine system so like that designed by Ferdinand Mannlicher that the Germans lost a patent infringment lawsuit to Steyr, and was most notable for its bizzare tubular sheet steel barrel sleeve that was intended to keep accuracy from being affected by stock warps or swells, while still giving a soldier something to grasp during bayonet work that wouldn't burn his hand. The new arm went into service in 1888 as the Gew. 88, but is better known to us as the "Commission Rifle."

LEFT: The distinctive sheet steel barrel shroud of the Gew.88. Photo by Oleg Volk.

RIGHT: The wing safety was a more-or-less direct copy of Paul Mauser's designs. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Paul Mauser took der Vaterland's acceptance of a non-Mauser rifle as a personal snub and set to work designing a series of rifles that eclipsed it entirely. The culmination of the resulting evolutionary tree was the Gew. 98, which replaced the Commission Rifle after the latter had only been in use for ten years, and is regarded by some (including your humble scribe) to be the pinnacle of the era of the military bolt-action rifle.

Ironically, the Gew. 88's major combat debut with the German armed forces took place after it had already been replaced as the standard rifle by Mauser's Gew.98. German naval infantry in China during the Boxer Rebellion were largely equipped with the Commission Rifle. In an interesting twist, its commercial success made it one of the most common rifles used by their Chinese opponents as well. With the coming of the Gew.98 and its faster spitzer bullet, many old Gew.88s were refurbished to use the new rounds and the stripper clip loading system that came with them. The converted weapons, known as Gewehr 1888/05s, could be identified by the stripper clip guides affixed to the rear of the receiver, the sheet metal block closing off the old clip ejection port on the bottom of the magazine, a notch machined in the receiver ring to clear the longer pointed noses of the new rounds as they were loaded, and an "S" marked above the rifle's chamber. Thus modified, they soldiered on well into WWI, long after their obsolescence.

RIGHT: Detail of the Gew.88/05's magazine floorplate, showing the sheet metal cover closing off the old clip ejection port. This was a major improvement, as the old Mannlicher system could introduce dirt into the magazine when the firer went prone. Photo by Oleg Volk.

LEFT: This rifle, originally made at the Danzig government arsenal in 1890, shows the signs of being upgraded to the 1888/05 standard. Visible are the notch for clearance of spitzer bullets and the "S" mark showing that the rifle had been altered to use the newer round. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Commission Rifles were the red-headed stepchild of German rifle collecting for many years, selling for not much over $100 as recently as four or five years ago, and they're still cheap compared to their more famous Mauser brethren. As has everything else in the world, however, they've become more expensive than yesterday, and a really nice Gew. 88 can set you back more than three hundred dollars now. (As a friend commented: "They're actually wanting money for Commission Rifles these days!") Still, no collection of German military rifles is really complete without at least one example of the only non-Mauser rifle that country issued for almost seventy-five years.

(PS: I am going to avoid getting into the arcana of "J-bore" versus "S-bore" rifles, handloads, pressure levels, lengthened throats, rebarrellings, and whatnot, and say that before you decide to shoot your Commission Rifle, you should have it checked over (complete with chamber casting) by a competent gunsmith. Don't believe what the Jerries may have stamped on it under wartime duress; the eyesight you save may be your own.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Berthier-Mannlicher Mousqueton d'Artillerie M1916

By the early 1890s, the chickens of France's rush to field the first smokeless powder repeater in the world were coming home to roost. The Lebel, a hastily-designed derivative of the tubular-magazine Kropatschek, and its 8x50mmR cartridge, which was based on the case head dimensions of the earlier 11mm Gras round to theoretically allow for emergency conversions of older rifles, were obsoleted almost overnight by Mauser and Mannlicher designs which were loaded with clips or from chargers. Further, the Lebel's slow-to-load tubular magazine made it ineffecient if cut down to carbine length, allowing for a magazine capacity of only three rounds.

ABOVE: Berthier-Mannlicher Mousqueton d'Artillerie Mle. 1916
Photo by Oleg Volk

In 1890, a carbine designed by Mssr. Berthier, a railroad official in French Algeria, was adopted for use by cavalry and the Gendarmerie. It combined a bolt very similar to the Lebel's with a Mannlicher-type clip-fed magazine. Being saddled with the fat, rimmed 8mm Lebel round prevented the use of a Mauser-style staggered box magazine, and with the cartridges stacked vertically, the new carbine could only accommodate three rounds without (it was thought at the time) making the receiver impractically bulky, but it could be reloaded much faster than any shortened Lebel.

RIGHT: 8mm Lebel rounds are wide and heavily tapered when compared with the more modern 8x57mm Mauser.

The carbine used a turned-down bolt handle, to keep it from snagging on things while the cavalry troops went about their business with their weapons slung. The sights were the same as those on the Lebel; a tangent-type rear sight combined with a coarse front blade that had a thin notch in the middle for fine aiming. Soon, rifle-length versions of the weapon were fielded for France's Indo-Chinese and Senegalese colonial troops.

LEFT: The unusual French front sight blade.
Photo by Oleg Volk

As the Great War ground on, supply of the Lebel rifles could not keep up with demand, and the rifle-length Berthier was modified with a straight, Lebel-esque bolt handle and issued generally as the Mle. 1907/15. Production was expanded: Previously only made at the St. Etienne arsenal, production was now taken up by the Tulle and Chattelerault arsenals, and contracts were let to Continsouza and Delaunay in France and the Remington Arms Company in the USA. In 1916, Berthier rifles and carbines were modified further thanks to battlefield feedback. A sheet-metal extension was added to the magazine, bringing capacity to five rounds, and one of the defects of the Mannlicher system was ameliorated by the addition of a hinged cover over the clip ejection port on the bottom of the magazine, which had been liable to collect dirt when a soldier went prone.

ABOVE: Manufactured at the Etablissments Continsouza, a private contractor
Photo by Oleg Volk

The final carbine variant, the Mousqueton d'Artillerie Mle. 1916 was one of the most popular variants with the troops: light and handy, with a snag-resistant turned-down bolt handle and side-mounted sling swivels, it could be carried comfortably slung across the back without getting in the way; it held five rounds, and although it couldn't be "topped-off" like the Mauser, it could be reloaded just as quickly. It had a wooden handguard atop the barrel for a handhold during bayonet work, unlike the previous Berthiers, and was well-recieved by poilus outside the artillery troops it had been intended for.

The Mle. 1916 is undergoing the same gradual increase in collector interest as other French longarms. Tatty examples can still be found for not much over a C-note, while a really nice specimen may nudge the $400 mark. Ammunition can be difficult to find, and without the stamped sheet metal clips it is, like any other Mannlicher-type weapon, a single shot. One other thing to beware of is that most surplus Lebel ammunition you will encounter is the later "Balle N" round, a hotter loading designed for machineguns. Unless your rifle is marked as converted to accept this cartridge and has passed headspace checks and safety tests by a competent gunsmith, it's best to view it as a wall hanger and not a shooter, at least where surplus ammo is concerned.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Webley & Scott Pistol Self-Loading .455 Mk.I N: The "other" .455 Webley

Webley & Scott is a company famous for their revolvers. The top-break Webley is as much an icon of the British Empire as the Colt Peacemaker is of the Old West. What many are not aware of is that Webley also manufactured autoloading pistols, beginning with an attempt to interest the British army in one 'way back in 1905. That attempt failed, and Webley contented themselves with turning out a line of pocket autoloaders before making another attempt at a military contract with a new .455 caliber self-loader in 1913.

ABOVE: Webley & Scott Pistol Self-Loading .455 Mark I N
Photo by Oleg Volk.

Not at all a common find, these pistols were used by the Royal Navy during the Great War, as well as being fielded in small numbers by the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Horse Artillery. The RN discontinued their use shortly after the end of WWII, and many made their way through the usual surplus channels to the US, but their small numbers ensured that they would never be a common sight, even on the collecting scene. When one came into the shop as a box of parts and was revived by Shannon, such a rare beastie naturally caused a bit of a stir. Standing around with my gunsmith and a gentleman from one of the more active firearms importers, with probably sixty years in the gun biz between the three of us, not one of us could recollect having seen one in the steel before.

I had to have it.

Unusually heavy, yet with an awkward grip angle, the pistol points like you're holding a t-square and may be the homeliest non-Japanese handgun I've ever seen. Oddly for a gun so rare, repro grips are available, and Triple-K has catalogued magazines. Cartridge cases can be made by trimming .45 Colt brass to length, turning the rim down somewhat (the .455 Webley Automatic is a semi-rimmed cartridge) and machining an extractor groove. The barrel rides in two angled mortises in the frame, and locks up very much like a SIG: a squared shoulder atop the chamber mating into the ejection port atop the slide. Everything is intricately machined from big chunks of steel and fitted together to a fare-thee-well.

Other odd features abound: The lockwork is assembled to the grip safety, and the whole mechanism pivots when the grip is squeezed. The pistol has dual ejectors, as well as two different methods of disconnecting (should one fail, the gun won't run away.) The recoil spring is a massive v-spring under the right-hand grip panel ("If the recoil spring breaks, you don't know me," said my gunsmith.) The slide stop is activated not by the magazine follower, but by the absence of a cartridge in the feedway. You don't need an empty magazine in the gun for the slide to lock back, it knows when it's empty. (I think that's a little presumptuous of it, but that's just me...) The drift-adjustable rear sight has little micrometer hashmarks to help line things up. All in all, a piece satisfying both in its historical provenance and in its mechanical quirkiness; I couldn't be happier to add one to the museum.

Values on these things are all over the map, but a firing example would seem to be at least an $800-$1000 proposition pretty much regardless of finish. The much rarer Royal Horse Artillery model, with its exotic rear sight and slotted for a shoulder stock, commands prices well north of $2k on the infrequent occasions when one comes up for sale.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Radom ViS wz.35: The last horse pistol.

While it's common to imagine that cavalry went the way of the Eohippus some time in the muddy Spring of 1915, it just isn't true. Most all of the major military powers retained cavalry formations into the WWII years. Russia and Japan both made extensive use of mounted troops, and the last United States Army cavalry charge was made in January 1942 in the Phillipines by three platoons of the 26th Cavalry.

Since the days of the Sixteenth Century caracole, the pistol has been the traditional sidearm of the mounted soldier, and pistols designed as such are frequently easy to tell from their "badge-of-rank" kin. As far back as the days of the percussion revolver, the Colt Navy had a .36" bore, while the Colt Army, a cavalryman's weapon and expected to be able to kill a horse, was a .44. Cavalry pistols tended to be large, accurate, and often slotted to accept a shoulder stock, so as to allow them to double as a pseudo-carbine.

ABOVE: ViS wz.35 Radom, photo by Oleg Volk

Poland's cavalry had long been emulated in Europe, and as the newly-reconstituted nation built up an army after WWI, they searched for a domestically produced sidearm to equip their cavalry troopers. In 1935 a design by Wilniewczyc and Skrzypinski was settled on and, dubbed the ViS wz.35, was adopted by the Army that year. It was made at the Radom plant with the assistance of Fabrique Nationale engineers working under contract, and offered an interesting blend of familiar Colt/Browning features with some new touches.

LEFT: Radom disassembled, showing its Browning heritage.
Photo by Oleg Volk

The trigger was a sliding affair, similar to that used on many Browning designs, and the grip safety would be familiar to any user of Colt pistols. The barrel, while operating on the familiar Browning tilting-barrel short recoil system, used a cammed lug under the breech end to effect unlocking, rather than the more usual swinging link; this feature was shared with the FN GP35 "High Power" pistol that was making its debut the same year, and seems to point to a certain amount of Fabrique Nationale influence. The gun was chambered in the by-now-ubiquitous 9x19mm Parabellum, and was fed from an eight-round single column magazine. It had a butt slotted to accept a shoulder stock, and was provided with a decocker so that the trooper could more safely return it to his holster with one hand than if he was trying to control the fall of the hammer with his thumb while astride a possibly skittish mount.

RIGHT: "S"-rune on barrel lug, indicating contract manufacture for Waffen SS, most likely by inmates at Mauthausen.
Photo by Oleg Volk.

After Poland was overrun by the German and Soviet invasion of 1939, the Radom plant fell in the German -occupied half of the country and the Poles were soon forced to churn out arms for their conquerors, who called it the Pistole 645(p). The wz.35 was a common issue weapon to the Waffen SS, and as that force grew, the pistol was simplified in manufacture so as to keep up with demand. Polished bluing was replaced by a brushed finish that got rougher as the war went on; the slot for the shoulder stock disappeared; finally the frame-mounted takedown catch was deleted. Late-war guns produced by Steyr using slave labor are wretched indeed, with extremely coarse finishes and crude wooden slabs for grips.

In 1945 the Radom plant was destroyed by the invading Russians; it was a sad ending for the last horse pistol. As a footnote, though, a limited run of replica (reissue?) Radoms were produced by a revived Radom in 1997; excellent examples can command price tags of almost four figures; good originals seem to be bringing anywhere from $450 for a sad-looking wartime piece to over $2,000 for a nice pre-war "Polish Eagle" (well over $2k if that Polish Eagle has German Waffenamt proofs.) The pistols are a joy to shoot and spare parts, while difficult to find, are not impossibly so. They make a worthy addition to any collection.