The Rifle in WWI

April 23, 2012 | | Comments Off on The Rifle in WWI

Though significant advancements were made in other areas of weaponry during WWI, the infantryman’s best friend was still the classic rifle. The main reason for this simply had to due with the fact that any other weapon proved either impractical, or unwieldy and cumbersome. Machine guns simply could not be used because the infantry was always moving for an attack, and they required lots of logistical support (either in the form of ammunition, or gun maintenance). This made them better suited for defensive positions, rather than for attacks. Mortars were single shot weapons. This meant that the only two practical weapons open to the infantry were the pistol, and the rifle. Pistols only had limited range, and were often limited to officers. Because of this fact, rifles became the standard weapon of war for the soldier.

These were the standard rifles used by the Allied and Central powers:

German Mauser: The standard weapon in the German army, the 7.92 mm Mauser Gewehr 98 was designed (as its name suggests) in 1898 by Peter Paul Mauser (1838-1914).  Somewhat superior in design to the majority of its contemporaries, it incorporated the clip and magazine into a single detachable mechanism, saving valuable loading time.

It suffered however from the disadvantage of being unsuited to rapid fire (on account of its bolt arrangement), and was limited by a five-cartridge magazine.

Nevertheless it was a thoroughly dependable, well tested and accurate weapon, and with its fitted optical sight, ideal for use in sniping.

British Lee-Enfield: Rivalling the Mauser both in terms of use and reputation was the British Lee-Enfield 0.303-inch rifle, which was issued to virtually all British soldiers on the Western Front (and many elsewhere).  First produced in 1907 and officially titled the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mark III, the name was derived from its designer (James Lee, an American) and its manufacturer (the Royal Small Arms Factory based in Enfield, London).

Unlike the Mauser the Lee-Enfield, with its ten-cartridge magazine, was well suited to rapid fire; a suitably trained soldier could expect to fire twelve well-aimed shots a minute.

The Lee-Enfield proved so sturdy and reliable that its use continued into World War Two.  Its design was also incorporated into both U.S. and Canadian models.

French Lebel: Just as the Germans adopted the Mauser and the British the Lee-Enfield, so the French opted for the Lebel 8 mm weapon (officially titled the Fusil modele, produced in 1886, and which unusually fired smokeless cartridges) as their rifle of choice during the war years.

Despite its wide use it suffered from a marked practical design flaw.  Its eight rounds were loaded, nose to tail fashion, in a tubular magazine placed under the barrel of the rifle.  This resulted in slow loading since the operator had to be wary of one round hitting the primer of the cartridge in front, thereby causing a most unwelcome explosion.

Although a better French model, the Berthier (see below), was available from 1916, the Lebel – despite its flaws – continued to be standard issue.

US Springfield: The Springfield, manufactured in the U.S. (at Springfield, Massachusetts), was the standard wartime rifle of the U.S. army.  It was reliable and produced in a short-barrelled version for issue to the American Expeditionary Force.  In short supply however around half of U.S. soldiers in the field were issued with the M1917 ‘American Enfield’.

The performance of the U.S. rifle was comparable to the British Lee-Enfield, and was also produced in a Mk1 automatic version.  The Springfield utilised a licensed Mauser action.  Derivatives of the Springfield remained in use until the Korean War.


-Chris Macko


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