Rifles of Bolivia 1900-1990

By Dan Reynolds

Bolivia was declared an independent state in 1825.  In 1835, a brief Confederation with Peru was formed, with both retaining independent armies. The confederation broke up in 1839 after a losing war with Argentina and Chile. this was followed by a war with Peru in 1841 which Bolivia won.  In this period the flintlock and caplock muskets were used by Bolivia's Army.

In the early 1870's a conflict was developing with Chile over certain provinces owned by Bolivia and Peru which contained valuable mineral deposits, the exploitation of these resources were, however, controlled by Chilean nationals.  In 1878, Bolivia imposed new and costly taxes on these Chilean interests.  On 14 February 1879, Chile landed 200 troops from a Naval squadron off the cost in one of the Bolivian provinces in question.  Bolivia declared war and Peru came in on her side as a result of a secret treaty of alliance signed in 1873. Obsolete caplock rifles were still the main armament, but some Winchester .44 Largo Muskets and carbines and surplus rifles from the American civil war of 1860-1865 were on hand along with small numbers of European breech loaders.  At the start of the conflict the Bolivian Army was small, consisting of about 2900 men and Peru had about 5,200 men but had greater numbers of modern rifles.  Both were very poorly prepared for war.  Chile had an Army of about 2,800 which was better equipped and trained.  This was known as the War of the Pacific and Chile effectively won the war by taking Lima, capitol of Peru, on 17 January 1881.  As a result, Bolivia lost its Pacific coast and became land locked.

In the late 1880s, Bolivia began rebuilding its army.  Almost 2000 Remington Lee .43 magazine rifles were purchased from the New York City arms dealer Hartley and Graham in 1891.  These were black powder rifles and although box magazine repeaters they were already obsolete.

Rearmament went slowly and the first smokeless magazine rifle adopted was the modern Modelo Argentino 1891 7.65mm Mausers, 15,000 being acquired as the Modelo 1895 in the period 1897-1901.  They had the Bolivian crest on the receiver ring.  The army was still weak and ineffective in 1900 when it faced an insurrection in the ACRE region bordering Brazil. Bolivia had to finally cede the area to Brazil in 1903.

A French military mission was brought in to reorganize and advise the army in 1905.  In 1907-08, 4,000 DWM Modelo 1907 7.65mm Mausers rifles and 1,000 Modelo 1907 carbines were purchased.  These 1907 Mausers were based on the Mauser Model 1904.  In 1909 the regular army strength was around 4,300.

A German training mission arrived in 1911, headed by a Major Hans Kundt, which attempted to reform the army on the German model.  When WW1 started, the mission returned to Germany. After the war, Kundt resumed his work in Bolivia as a general and became Chief of staff of the army in 1921 and retained that post until 1926.

By 1924 the Army had reached a strength of around 6,000.  Additional small arms were acquired including small quantities of 7.65mm FN Modelo 1924 short rifles, Colt Browning and Madsen machine guns.

In the 1920's Standard Oil began developing oil deposits in Bolivia and revenue from the oil concession as well as from the previously developed tin mining concessions allowed Bolivia to obtain financing for a major rearmamament program.  In 1926 Vickers of Britain contracted to supply aircraft, artillery, ammunition, small arms and other equipment, to which end 7.65mm Vickers Berthier Light machine, guns, water cooled 7.65mm Vickers heavy machine guns, and 36,000 ZB Vz24 7.65mm short rifles were purchased.

A dispute with Paraguay over the Chaco region was festering at this time and continued to escalate over the next several years.  Army strength in 1927 was 8,600.  In 1929 the world wide depression caused a major drop in the value of Bolivia's tin and oil exports and in order to gain approval of a new loan from North American bankers, Bolivia had to agree to cut back the army to save money.  The Vickers contract was scaled down and the army was to be reduced to 4000 men, but, in the actual event, army strength was only cut to around 5300 men.

War between Bolivia and Paraguay began during the middle of July 1932.  At this time the Bolivian army had about 5500 effectives on active service.  Around 4000 serviceable older Mausers M1895 and M1908 were on hand along with 39,000 recently acquired modern 7.65mm Mauser rifles and carbines.  These were mainly Czech Vz24 short rifles, along with some Modelo 12/16 carbines, and some Belgian FN Modelo 24/30 short rifles.  Bolivia was slow to mobilize her reserves and deliver arms and ammunition to the front in the Chaco.  The Paraguayan Army had around 3800 effectives on active service, but rapidly mobilized her reserve manpower.  Paraguay had about 4000 older 7.65mm Modelo 1891 and Modelo 1907 Mausers, along with about 10,500 Spanish made 7.65mm Oviedo Modelo 1927 Mauser rifles and 1000 carbines, also 7000 recently acquired Belgian 7.65mm FN M24/30 Mauser short rifles.

The war did not go well for Bolivia and General Hans Kundt was recalled and given overall command.  He failed and was in turn relieved.  Throughout the war large numbers of rifles were lost to the Paraguayans. but during a truce in December 1933, 45000 additional rifles were acquired including ZB Vz24, Mauser Werke Standard Modell 1933, and FN30 types. Continued heavy losses of men and rifles eventually led to an armistice on 12 June 1935. Between July 1932 and July 1935 about 70000 rifles were purchased by Bolivia.

Postwar, in 1937 20,000 more Vz24 rifles were ordered from ZB and in 1938 a peace treaty was signed with Paraguay.  Force levels and organization of the Bolivian army reverted to prewar levels.

During WW2, normal foreign sources of arms and ammunition were cut off to Bolivia. However in 1944 and 1945 the USA supplied limited numbers of .30 M1903 Springfield rifles.

In 1950, Bolivia purchased some new Mauser rifles from ZB in now Communist Czechoslovakia. These were based on a design derived from the wartime German 'Kreigsmodell' Mauser in production at Brno in 1945 when Germany surrendered control of the ZB factory. The rifles were marked 'B-50' and had many stamped parts and a finish quite inferior to the Vz24 Mausers previously purchased from ZB.  These were the last new Mausers that Bolivia purchased.

In 1952 a Revolution defeated the Bolivian Army and it was disbanded.  A new government headed by Victor Paz Estenssoro created a workers and peasants militia system based on the Indian population.  The MNR party workers, the tin mine workers, and the peasants were given Mausers and ZB26 light machine guns.  They were armed from existing stocks of Mauser rifles and light machine guns in Army arsenals.  It was only several weeks before the army was reconstituted after a purge of officers, but subsequent governments have never been able to retrieve all the weapons given out to the Indian peoples.  To this day many Mausers are in the hands to which they were given, or passed on to their sons or grandsons. The ZB26 LMG's seemed to have faded away.  Ammunition has been very hard to obtain for these weapons since the 1960's when rifles of other calibers had replaced the Mausers in the Bolivian Army.  Until then Bolivian army stocks were at times covertly sold or given to the former militias by members of the military.  In the late 1960's there was talk by some leaders of acquiring machinery to convert the rifles to more readily obtainable ammunition but this seems not to have happened.  Recent photos of armed Indian people show mostly Vz24 but some FN M1930 Mausers being carried.

Following the reconstitution of the army, the USA provided aid in the form of .30 M1 Garand rifles and .30 M1 carbines and such aid continued into the 1960's.  The troops that captured Che Guvera in 1964 were armed with 7.65mm Vz24 Mausers, with NCO's armed with .30 M1 carbines.

Argentina provided some licensed made 7.62x51mm FN FAL rifles built at Rosario to the Bolivian Army in 1971 and in 1972 infantry units began receiving Swiss 7.62mm Sig 510 rifles, displacing their .30 M1 rifles which went to replace old Mausers still used by some units and reserves.  Some German G3A3 7.62x51mm rifles were purchased in the later 1970's.

The 5.56mm Israeli Galil rifle was purchased in the 1980's and today remains the standard rifle, but older rifles remain in use by some support, reserve and police units.