The Rifles of Portugal 1880-1980

Revised July 17,2002
By Dan Reynolds, revised with new information and corrections by Rui Aballe Vieira

Portugal aligned itself closely with the British Empire following the Peninsular War in 1814.  The Army generally followed the British pattern in armament selection and had purchased the Snider Rifle (10,000 rifles) and Carbine (1200) in 1874 from BSA in England to replace the older Westley Richards Rifled Muskets as the arms of their first line troops.  This left the rest of their forces equipped with various obsolete or obsolescent rifles.

In 1880, the pattern began to change.  Aware that the armed forces required modern rifles, a new service rifle was called for and the matter was studied.  The British Army Martini Henry .577/.450 provided a starting point and between 1882 and 1884 a new rifle was developed by Lt. Luís Guedes Dias  of the Portuguese Army.  About 50 trial rifles were made at Lisbon Arsenal (Arsenal do Exército.) in 1884, listed as 11mm but probably the same as the British .450 Martini.  Passing acceptance testing, a production contract was given to the huge Austrian arms factory at Steyr (OEWG) for 40,000 rifles in 11mm in 1885.  This was a single shot, dropping block, lever actuated, black powder rifle.  This rifle was obsolete before production began.  As tooling began at Steyr, Portugal directed that a new, modern 8x60mmR black powder round be used in the new rifle and required various changes in the design and tooling.  This delayed production and the new rifle, designated Model 1885 (Mo.885), was not coming off the line until 1886.  The Portuguese dropped the first digit of the year from the official designation, thus, Model 1885 becomes Model 885 or Mo.885 for short.

At this point, tests of pre-production samples of the new small bore version (8x60mmR) had shown that extraction was not as good as on the original 11mm version.  Extraction has always been a weak point on Peabody/Martini type rifles and the British were forced to introduce a new version of the Martini Henry for tropical service, with a longer operating lever to help extraction, in India and other tropical colonial areas.

It is believed that few, if any, Mo.885 Guedes rifles were accepted by Portugal.   In March of 1886, the contract was renegotiated and a new design, the Mo.1886 Kropatschek tubular magazine rifle in 8x60mmR black powder, was ordered instead of the Mo.885.   In 1887, OEWG Steyr assumed ownership of the store of Mo.885 rifles at the factory and attempted to sell them off.  Deliveries of 13,000 Steyr Guedes 8x60mmR rifles began shipping to the Boers in 1888 and continued into 1889.  In 1895, a further order of 5,305 was shipped and in 1896, a final order of 2200 Guedes Rifles was sent to South Africa.  Along with the Mo.885 rifles, 300 Steyr made Norwegian 6.5x55mm Krag Rifles and 20 Krag Carbines were sent to the arms starved Boers.

The Kropatschek M1886 was made in long rifle, short rifle, and carbine form.  The design was a development of the French Marine Model 1878 Kropatschek in 11mm Gras and a police carbine made for the Hungarian Police.  It had elements of the Mauser M71 bolt.  About 49,000 Kropatscheks were delivered to the Army by the end of 1888.  It was a bolt action, tubular magazine shoulder arm with a magazine cutoff firing a black powder cartridge.  The Treasury Guards ordered 4800 Kropatscheks, a short rifle type, in March of 1888 with deliveries continuing into 1889.  The Kropatschek was the inspiration for the French Lebel Model 1886 Rifle which introduced the revolutionary 8x50mmR Lebel smokeless powder cartridge.

Kropatschek M1886 - Cliff Carlisle photo

The Portuguese began modifying their Kropatscheks in 1889 by adding a hand guard.  The modified rifles being the Mo.886/89.  Not all Kropatscheks were  modified.  These rifles were already obsolete as they fired black powder cartridges and since 1886 a revolution was underway with smokeless powder.   France, then Germany and others had adopted new smokeless powder rifles.  Steyr had come up with a new smokeless powder Model 1890 Mannlicher Rifle and was converting its recently made Model 1888 Mannlichers to smokeless powder Model 1888/90 models.  Steyr developed a conversion for Portugal.  A new smokeless 8x60mmR round and modified rear sight for the Kropatschek and the conversion work was undertaken at Lisbon Arsenal (Arsenal do Exército).  Steyr supplied the sights and an Austrian firm the first smokeless ammo.  The date the conversions began is unknown, but they were probably completed sometime in 1896.

By 1896 Portugal realized that the Kropatschek belonged to the past.  It purchased a quantity of turnbolt 6.5x53mmR Mo.896 Rifles from Steyr, which were based on the M1893 Romanian Mannlicher made at Steyr and were virtually identical to the new Dutch Model 1895 Mannlichers.  I can no longer remember the exact numbers. but my best recollection is that they bought about 2500 long rifles and 500 carbines.  These may have been used by the Navy.  Some of the Mo.886 Kropatschek carbines were experimentally converted to this 6.5x53mmR cartridge for evaluation purposes.

In 1900, the Army was looking for a new rifle.  All the currently available types were considered, but in 1902 trials were held among the leading contenders and a new Mannlicher from Steyr, using a rimless 6.5x53mm round was adjudged the best.  One thousand rifles were purchased for extended trials by troops in the field.  Ultimately, it was decided that this rifle, with its rotary spool Spitalsky magazine, was too expensive.  Money was very tight.

Circa 1903, used surplus M1871 Mauser 11mm Rifles were purchased and cut down and rebarreled to 8x60mmR black powder short carbines for use by native constabulary in the African colonies.  There were large stocks of black powder ammo for these and existing obsolete Sniders in service in very bad shape.   The Germans also used the M71 in its original 11mm configuration to arm its African colonial troops right through WW1.

At this time, development of a Portuguese designed rifle by a Captain Vergueiro of the Army was underway.  This was done so as to avoid payment of royalties to foreign patent holders for features of the Mannlicher Schonauer and Mauser rifles.  The bolt of the Mannlicher Schonauer was the basis for developing this new action.  Several improvements were evolved, but the action is a derivative of the Steyr Mannlicher which was adopted by Greece as the Model 1903.  The design was perfected, but as Portugal was lacking production facilities to produce this rifle, arrangements were made with DWM in Germany for the production of this design.   Vergueiro went to Berlin and worked with DWM engineers to engineer the details of the final pattern which included many Mauser features such as the magazine, the bands, sights, bolt release/ejector and bayonet with its mounting lug.  This was the Model 1904 or M904 adopted by Portugal.

Production began in 1904.  The Portuguese liked the 6.5x53mm round, and decided to adopt the more powerful 6.5x58mm cartridge, which enjoyed excellent flat shooting ballistics and outstanding penetration of targets.  A hundred thousand rifles were on order, but only about 75,000 were delivered due to revolution and financial problems circa 1909.  The Crest of King Carlos or his short reigning successor, Manuel the Second, are found on the chamber.  Undelivered rifles were offered for commercial sale in 1910 and 1911 through such firms as Alfa.  Some 5,000 were completed in 7x57mm for the Police of the Federal District of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1910.   In 1915 as WW1 raged, the British arranged the transfer of 20,000 M904 rifles and 12,000,000 rounds of 6.5x58mm ammunition from Portugal to South Africa.  When Portugal entered the war on March 10, 1916, it committed itself to supply a large force for the Western Front, as well as, to fight the German forces in East and West Africa.  The rifles sent to South Africa were issued to the First, Second, Third and Fifth Mounted Brigades in German South West Africa.  The Germans resisting there also used Vergueiros captured from the Portuguese in Angola against the Empire forces in this campaign.  These supplemented the M1871 11mm Mausers and M1888 7.92x57mm Commission Rifles which were in issue to the Kaiser's colonial forces.

The Germans under von Lettow Vorbeck in East Africa captured large amounts of arms and munitions from the Portuguese when they invaded Mozambique.  These included Vergueiro Rifles, which he used these to good effect in his campaigns against the Allies.  Rifles of this type, lost in Africa, continued to be held by farmers and homesteaders until the end of the European colonial period in both East and West Africa as well as South Africa.   In the early sixties, some were imported from Kenya into the U.S.A.  Specimens were reported in Zimbabwe in the 1990's.

“The Portuguese force sent to fight with the British on the Western Front in France were supplied by the British and armed with S.M.L.E. Mk.111 and Mk111* .303 Enfields.  They wore a British style helmet that is readily identified because it has corrugations running from the rim up to the crown peak to give it added strength without adding weight.  The Vickers .303 Water Cooled Machine Gun and the Lewis Gun, a light machine gun, in .303 was also used.  These weapons were used by Portugal post war and Portugal actually produced copies of the Vickers Gun in .303 starting in 1930.  Portugal produced .303 ammunition into the 1950's and today produces it for export.

The Portuguese army never fell short of rifles during peacetime.  The only episode that called for special measures was the arming of the C.E.P. (Corpo Expedicionário Português, Portuguese Expeditionary Force), which fought in the Western Front during the Great War.  The need was fulfilled by the British who supplied huge numbers of S.M.L.E. Mk. III and Mk.III* rifles, plus some P.14s.  The British rifles served  well after the wars end and were very popular among soldiers and civilian shooters alike.  The short Lee-Enfield was the main infantry rifle during the inter-war era and this can be easily confirmed by viewing period photos and newsreels.  The British small arms predominance inherited from Great War times only waned after the big scale purchase of Mausers in the late 1930’s.

When the Army began to receive their new German rifles, the British weapons were passed to the Legião Portuguesa (Portuguese Legion), a fully armed and uniformed paramilitary organization modeled after the Italian Black Skirts (or M.V.S.N.).  The S.M.L.E. remained listed as a regulation rifle in the Portuguese inventory well into the 1950’s.  The habit of not throwing away old rifles is testified to in old manuals.  In 1939, the Army printed a manual covering infantry issue, first-line light weapons, where the venerable M.896 Kropatschek is still included, amongst much more modern guns like the M.931 Vickers-Berthier LMG (another proof of the importance of S.M.L.E. stocks – this machine-gun was also ordered in .303) or the M.936 Steyr SMG, and alongside M.904 (still in original 6,5x58mm calibre), M.917 (the official Portuguese designation for the S.M.L.E.) and M.937 rifles. "

How many Enfield Rifles were ultimately acquired is unknown.  Portuguese troops ultimately reached a force of 60,000 men and sustained over 15,000 casualties in the course of the war.  It is likely that somewhere around 50,000 Enfields would have been required to arm this force.  How many survived into postwar service is not known, but as both Vickers and Madsen .303 MG's were purchased postwar it is likely tens of thousands would not be an unreasonable estimate.

The condition of Portugal’s limited rifle supply, especially in the tropical colonies, declined during the 1920's and 30's.  When the Spanish Civil War began in mid 1936, it was obvious that the Army need rifles.  Portugal recognized the Spanish Nationalist Insurgents and facilitated passage of supplies to that government. The first new rifles acquired were Standard Modell 7.92x57mm Mauser short rifles supplied from Mauser Werke in Germany from stock.  These had a hand guard extending from the receiver ring to beyond the lower band, similar to the Mo.904 Vergueiro.  A contract was let for more rifles, which were  identical with the Karabiner 98K used by the Wehrmact, except they had the new Portuguese Crest was on the receiver ring.  This was the M0.937.  This was superseded by a revised model, the Mo.937A, which had addition alsling swivels under the lower band and butt and a front sight guard.  Deliveries lasted from 1937 to 1939.

In 1939, Portugal began a program to rebuild the remaining stock of 6.5x58mm Mo.904 Vergueiro Rifles into 7.92x57mm short rifles.  This was an easy and inexpensive conversion and it is likely the main reason that the 7.92x57mm Mauser was selected for purchase a few years previously.  The old rifles needed no new parts to make them compatible with the new rifles and their cartridge.  Cost as always was a key factor.

 " I always had a soft spot for the M. 904/37 pattern converted Vergueiros.  They are quite unique rifles and show some interesting variations in blue and wood finish that make for an exciting collecting field of its own.  The conversion job on the majority of remaining M. 904 6,5x58 rifles was done by end of 1940.  The work ranged from partial refurbishment up to almost total rebuild.  I’ve had the chance to inspect closely rifles from different batches and I must say that, whilst the original furniture was used in most, some converted guns were restocked anew using a light colored wood finished in a blonde hue, not dissimilar from the one seen in some Nordic rifles.  The wood finish in those rifles that retained the old stocks can look somewhat crude in some cases, spotting an heavy shellac coat.   Rumor has it that these rifles were intended for colonial duty(the varnish coating might have been done to protect walnut against tropical climate), but I have no proof of this whatsoever.  All reworked rifles must show, as a norm, blued bolts.   The monogram of King Carlos I and the royal crown were retained on every reconditioned M.904.  On some examples, the original front barrel band was refinished in mid grey phosphate.  The reason for this separate treatment in a single part remaining unknown.  Usually, the bluing is of high quality, with a distinctive slightly greenish tone. "

The conversion of these rifles was carried out in this manner.  The worn out, pitted barrels of the 6.5mm Mo.904 rifles were removed from the receiver.  They  would then face off 1 thread turn at the chamber end. They were bored out to .321 and chambered for the 7.92x57mm.  Rear sights were adjusted, barrel was shortened and re-crowned, stocks had forends cut back and existing lug and bands installed to match new configuration.  A new front sight guard was installed and rifles were reblued.  A stock bolt was added to strengthen the wood against splitting from heavy recoil.

After the out break of WW2 in September 1939, Portugal attempted to buy more small arms, but due to the war this was more difficult than before.  Both the Germans and British supplied various small arms, such as the Steyr Slothurn SMG and the STEN Gun, in an attempt to influence events in this key Neutral.  In 1941,  Mauser Werke was directed to divert standard Wehrmact contract 98K carbines in 7.92mm to Portugal.  These had the new style crest as used on the Mo.937 and were finished better than carbines going to German troops.  Deliveries continued for an unknown period and individual carbines reflected changes made from time to time to speed production for the Wehrmact.  After mid 1944, carbines in German service began showing up with Portuguese crested receivers, indicating these carbines could not or would not be sent to Portugal due to conditions arising from defeats on the battlefield.

Following WW2 large numbers of 98k Mausers captured on the Western Front were reworked at the FN factory in Belgium and sold to Nationalist China circa 1947.  Some of these Portuguese marked carbines were in this group.

 " It is an undeniable fact that Portugal joined NATO after World War II, but the Portuguese Army never used American semiautomatic rifles, nor, for that matter any other semiautomatic rifles from other sources.  The .30 M1 Garand and the handy .30 M1 carbine weren’t used at all by the Portuguese armed forces, who relied solely on bolt action Mausers until the advent of the first G.3 and FALs, following the outburst of revolts in Angola in 1961 that eventually developed into war  in 1961, and lasted until April 1974.  I heard some rumors concerning trials with the Garand, but nothing conclusive.  Portugal and Spain were  alone in this respect, because there wasn’t a transition phase between bolt actions and selective fire, modern battle rifle.  Greece, Holland, Denmark, Italy, etc, all used the Garand masterpiece but we, in the Iberian Peninsulan never tasted it, preferring to keep up the old proven Mausers until very late indeed. "

During the period of the wars in Africa , Hemburg built 7.62x51mm NATO AR-10 Armalite Rifles were acquired from Holland as well as FN FAL 7.62x51mm Rifles from Belgium.  The AR-10 was the forerunner of the scaled down AR-15 5.56mm Rifle which led to the M16 series of rifles so widely issued today by many countries.  Portugal and the Sudan were the only nations to use the AR-10 in any quantity.  These saw service in African wars.

In 1961, the Rheinmettal licensed G3 Rifle, derived from the Spanish C.E.T.M.E. Rifle, was placed in production for the West German Bundeswehr at the Fábrica Militar de Braço de Prata in Portugal.  Heckler and Koch took over from Rheinmettal in Germany, but could not produce enough rifles fast enough to meet the demand of the West German Government.  This design was brought to Spain from Germany after 1945, where it had originated as a Mauser project in 7.92x33mm. German engineers working in Spain had developed it into a very successful rifle.

Portugal adopted this rifle as the Mo.961.  When Germany upgraded to the G3A2, Portugal switched to this as the Mo.963.   Many variations of the G3 have been produced in Portugal.  All have been in 7.62x51mm.  Portugal tested several 5.56mm rifles in the 1970's, but none were adopted at that time.  "During the late 1960’s, while a fierce three front war was being fought against Communist-inspired guerrillas in the African possessions of Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, the conservative Portuguese regime arranged a covert way to buy weapons and ammo from one of their archenemies from behind the Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia.  The deal involved an unspecified number of small arms and fair amounts of ammunition to feed them.  Of course, many Soviet Bloc guns were captured from the Freedom fighters, mostly in Angola, and the array included substantial numbers of AK’s assault rifles, and some recent SKS of Chinese or Russian manufacture, but the bulk of these captures was formed by older guns, namely rifles from World War II or even earlier vintage, from mixed provenances.  The Portuguese commandos favored the AK for their special purpose operations, some of which occurred well beyond enemy lines and even outside the borders of Portuguese held territories.   At first, captured AK’s were used, but it highly possible that further on during the conflict newly purchased guns from Czechoslovakia might have been issued on a limited scale.  No guns of this type were purchased or issued after the 1974 military coup which overthrew the government.  The ensuing provisory governments were socialist, but the country never left Western institutions, like NATO for instance.

As for 5,56mm rifles testing, the Army and Navy tested extensively the M16 during the 1980’s.  Normal order returned soon and in the eighties Portugal joined the E.E.C.  The Portuguese military has clung to their trusted G.3 rifles to this day.  Produced in indigenous facilities in fairly large numbers, the old soldier is now destined to be replaced very soon by a well known Austrian bullpup design, although the Swiss SiG family has attracted the attention of the Portuguese Army, who favors conventional configuration.  The new German G.36 rifle, already adopted by neighboring Spain, may be another serious candidate. Let’s see what happens."