Military Self Loading Rifles (SLR) 1908 - 1958
By Cliff Carlisle
Firearm designers started working on self loading rifle (SLR) designs in the 1880s. John M. Browning’s first design appears to have been a Winchester M1873 rifle with a muzzle attachment shaped like a spoon. The bowl was over the muzzle of the rifle with a hole through it for the passage of the bullet. When the rifle was fired, the muzzle blast hit the bowl of the spoon causing it to move forward and through linkage force a connecting rod to the rear working the action. This was probably the first gas operated self loading rifle. Peter Paul Mauser worked with recoil operated designs. One of his first designs was also a lever action rifle. He designed a cup shaped boot to go over the butt of the rifle. It extended past where the butt plate would have been. Linkage from the boot passed through the stock up to the lever action mechanism. When the rifle was fired the recoil forced the stock back into the boot. As the linkage was fixed to the boot and didn't move, the recoiling rifle worked the action.
Self loading rifles designed and made in several countries started appearing at military rifle trials in the late 1800s. Most of these designs were either not robust enough to pass the severe testing or were deemed too complicated to be used by the troops.
Patent drawing of Mondragon rifle.
Photos courtesy of www.collectorfirearms.us
The first SLR adopted by any countries military was the Mexican Mondragon Model 1908. It was a gas operated rifle in 7X57. SIG Neuhausen in Switzerland manufactured the rifles for Mexico. They were issued from 1908 through 1910 when the Diaz Government was overthrown. With the upheaval in the Mexican Government, no additional payments were made to SIG and the completed rifles there were not shipped to Mexico. In 1915 the German Government purchased these rifles for use by aircraft observers and issued as the “Aviators Self Loading Carbine Model 1915”. Some were equipped with a 30 round drum magazine.
By the start of the First World War Mauser had been trying to develop a successful recoil operated self loading military rifle for several years. He had not been successful. In 1916 one of his designs in 7.92X57 was adopted as the M1916. It was used for arming aircraft observers and a limited number were also used as infantry weapons. It was a very bulky and complicated design and didn't function reliability. Some were tried in the trenches but were quickly removed from service.
Also, in 1916, the Russians adopted and issued the first selective fire SLR. The Russian 7.62X54R cartridge had proven to be to powerful for the rifles that they were experimenting with. They had purchased a large quantity of Japanese 6.5X51Sr rifles so ammunition in this smaller caliber was readily available. Vladimir Federov used this round in the design of his selective fire rifle. It was adopted by the Russian military as the Avtomat M1916. The Avtomat was used in combat in WW1 but its life was cut short by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The existing rifles were used in the fighting with the White Russians and another 9000 were ordered by the Red Army. Production was stopped in 1923 with a total of around 6500 rifles completed. It’s an interesting fact that Sergei Simonov (of SKS design fame) worked as a mechanic on the assembly line for the Avtomat.
Photo courtesy of CollectorsFirearms.com.
France had been experimenting with semi auto rifles since 1894. By 1913 they had developed over 20 prototypes. In 1917 a semi auto rifle in 8X50R was adopted for issue to front line troops. This was the Mle 1917. Between April 1917 and Sept. 30, 1918, 85,333 Mle 1917 rifles were produced. According to the book Proud Promise on French auto rifles, “In the units that were equipped with the M1917 rifle, 16 rifles were distributed per company to platoon leaders and to good marksmen, chosen for their aptitude to use auto loading weapons and to carry out the frequent mechanical repairs they required.” This was the first semi auto rifle to be issued to front line troops. For some reason, the 5 round Mannlicher type clip was not the same as the one used in the bolt action rifles and the Mle 1917 could not use the standard clips. This was corrected with the introduction of the Mle 1918. This was a modified Mle 1917 that had a shorter barrel and did use the regular clips.
In the trench warfare of the 1st World War it became evident that something was needed besides the standard bolt action rifle for the assault and defense of the trenches. In the US John D. Pederson designed a semi auto bolt mechanism for the M1903 Springfield. The bolt of the Springfield was removed and the Pederson device was inserted in its place. It was blow back operated and fired a special .30 caliber cartridge from a 40 shot magazine. 60,000 of these devices were produced but the war ended before they reached the combat troops. The devices were destroyed later after it was decided that the changing of the bolts in combat would probably result in the loss of one or the other and that the carrying of two types of ammo was not a good idea. The French adopted the .30 Pederson cartridge as the 7.65mm Long and used it as their pistol and sub machine-gun cartridge from 1935 into the 1970s.
Italy had produced the first full auto firearm firing a pistol cartridge in 1915. This was the Villar Perosa, a twin barreled 9X19 Glisenti caliber weapon that fired from a bipod. This was modified in 1918 to a single barreled wooden stocked sub machine-gun. In 1930 it was re-designed as a Semi auto sub carbine and designated the Model 1918-1930. Like some of the Italian carbines of the period, it had a folding bayonet. They were issued to police and some military units.
Between the world Wars a great deal of development work was carried on in most countries trying to design a satisfactory SLR. None were adopted by a major power until 1936.
In the US John C. Garand had been working on SLR designs since 1910. By 1936 he had a gas operated semi auto perfected to the point that it was adopted by the US Army as the Rifle, Cal. .30 M1.
M1 gas trap design.
The first production rifles had a gas trap threaded onto the end of the barrel. There was a gap between the end of the barrel and the muzzle attachment. As the bullet passed the end of the barrel gas went into the gap and down into the gas piston operating the action. Occasionally early WW2 film footage will be seen on TV showing combat in the Philippines or on Wake Island where you can see the early gas trap Garand in use. The gas trap gave problems with fouling and even had pieces of cleaning patches get into the trap causing malfunctions. Garand redesigned the gas system to use a hole drilled into the bottom of the barrel. The gas went through this hole into the gas cylinder below the barrel and drove the piston back to function the action. This design has withstood the test of time. It was the most successful SLR produced in WW2.
Model 1940 Tokarev.
Also in 1936 the USSR adopted a 7.62X54R selective fire SLR designed by Sergei Simonov. This was the AVS M1936. It was not successful and was replaced in 1938 by a non selective fire SLR designed by Fedor Tokarev. This was the M1938 Tokarev. Again, problems were encountered with the design in use. Tokarev made improvements and the modified rifle was adopted as the M1940 Tokarev. This model saw considerable service in WW2 but suffered from the use of a rimmed cartridge. Self loaders do not function as well with a rimmed cartridge as with a rimless one.
In June 1940 the US Army Ordnance Department commenced a program to develop a rifle that weighed about 5 pounds. The M1 Rifle was to long & heavy to be issued to support troops, gun crew members & Etc. Traditionally, the pistol or sub machine gun had been issued to these men.
Winchester Repeating Arms Company developed a new cartridge (7.62X33) that was designated the “Caliber .30, SR, M1”. The SR was for Short Rifle. Winchester then developed a rifle to fire this cartridge. In October 1941, the Winchester rifle was adopted by the US Army as the “Carbine, Caliber .30, M1”.
There was a need for a short carbine to be used by airborne troops. Springfield Armory, Winchester Repeating Arms Co. and Inland Division of General Motors all submitted folding stock versions of the M1 carbine. The Inland version with a side folding wire stock was chosen. It was adopted in May, 1942 at the “Carbine, Caliber .30 M1A1”.
In May 1944 a development program was instituted to convert the M1 carbine to a selective fire weapon. This model was designated the “Carbine, Caliber .30, M2”. A late war development of the carbine for use as a nighttime sniper weapon led to the adoption of the “Carbine, Caliber .30, M3”. This carbine was equipped with an infrared night vision device known as the “Sniper scope”.
Due to the problems that the US Army was having with the gas trap M1 Garand the army started to evaluate new designs of SLRs. The main contender as a replacement for the Garand was the rifle designed by Marine Corps Maj. Melvin Johnson. His rifle was a recoil operated design. The barrel recoils back inside the extra long receiver to unlock the action. One of the problems with this design is that a conventional bayonet can not be used. The added weight prevents the proper operation of the action. Fortunately for the army, Garand had solved the problems with the M1 and the Johnson was not adopted. The Marine Corps did adopt it as the M1941 but after very limited use it was determined that it did not stand up to combat well and was discontinued. In addition to the US Marine Corps, Argentina, in 30-06, Chile, in 7x57, and the Dutch East Indies also adopted the Johnson.
Germany was behind the US and USSR in the design of a self loading rifle. When they encountered the Tokarev rifle after their invasion of the USSR in 1941 they started a design program to develop a SLR. Both a Mauser and Walther design in 7.92X57 were approved for troop trials in 1941. The Mauser design was rejected but the Walther was adopted as the G41(W).
The G41(W) used a gas system that had a tube around the forward part of the barrel with a hollow round piston inside that was around the barrel. It had a screw on blast cone that trapped the muzzle gas as the bullet left the barrel. This gas forced the piston to the rear operating the action through a sheet metal operating rod. This system fouled rapidly in use causing malfunctions of the rifle.
By 1943 the G41(W) gas system had been modified to a copy of the M1940 Tokarev. The troublesome nose cone and cylindrical gas piston had been eliminated. The modified rifle was adopted as the G43. The G43 was produced in fairly large quantities until the end of WW2.
Photo courtesy WWW.Fg42.net.
In the WW2 German Military, the Air Force was responsible for the Paratroops. The Air Force had requested the development of a select fire SLR to replace the bolt action rifle, submachine and light machine-guns. Rheinmettal-Borsig submitted the successful design. It was designated the Fallschirmjaeger Gewehr 42 (FG42). The magazine (both 10 and 20 round were used) came out the left side of the receiver instead of the bottom. Two versions were produced. The early one had a sheet metal butt stock and a very angled pistol grip while the later model had a wood stock and conventional pistol grip. For an unknown reason, the magazines for the 2 models do not interchange.
Sweden adopted a SLR in 6.5X55 in 1942. It was designated the AG42. This was the first gas operated rifle to eliminate the gas piston. Instead of the gas being ported into a gas cylinder and forcing a piston to the rear, the cylinder had a tube running back to the action. The bolt carrier had an extension on it that went into the gas tube. The gas pressure operated directly against the carrier without a piston.
Sweden helped the Egyptian government set up a plant to produce a 7.92X57 version of the AG42 in the late 1940s. The Egyptians called this the Hakim rifle.
In the mid 1950s Egypt redesigned the Hakim rifle to fire the Soviet 7.62X39 round. They had received a large number of SKS and Czech M52 rifles in 1954. These two rifles influenced the use of a folding bayonet. The Egyptians designated this rifle the Rashid.
Germany had started experimenting with an intermediate length cartridge for self loaders in the early 1930s. By 1938 formal development of a SLR firing an intermediate cartridge was under way. The final cartridge selected was a 7.92X57 that had the case shortened to 33mm. By doing this, most of the existing machinery used to manufacture the 7.92X57 could be utilized for the production of the new 7.92X33. Design of the rifle was awarded to C. G. Haenel. The prototype weapon, made primarily from sheet metal stampings, was known as the Maschinenkarabiner 42 or MK42.
After numerous development changes the rifle was adopted in 1943 as the MP43 (Maschinenpistole 43 or Machine Pistol 43). It had its designation changed several times during its production. Its known as the MP43, MP43/1, MP44 & Stg 44 (Sturmgewhere 44 or Assault Rifle 44).
By 1940 France had a semi auto rifle ready for limited production. In March, the Ministry of War ordered 50 MAS Mle 1940 rifles. The invasion of France in 1940 stopped further development of this rifle. In November 1944, after the Germans were driven from France, the Mle 1940 rifle was modified to use a detachable magazine. This rifle was adopted on January 11, 1945, as the MAS 44.
A total of 6,200 MAS 44 rifles were produced. Most went to the French navy for their Marine Commandos and were used in Indochina. The MAS 44 used the same needle bayonet mounted in a tube under the barrel as the Mle 1936 rifle. A button is pushed; the bayonet is pulled out and reversed then reinserted into the socket under the barrel.
By 1949 several improvements had been made in the MAS 44. Two of the changes were the addition of grenade firing capabilities with a grenade sight on the left side of the front barrel band and the inclusion of a telescope mount on the receiver. A total of 20,600 MAS 49 rifles were produced. The pictured rifle is equipped with the M1953 Telescopic Sight.
In 1956 the MAS 49 was again modified into the MAS 49-56. Among other things, the barrel was shortened, the stock was shortened, a flash suppressor was added and the grenade sight was moved onto the top of the barrel just behind the front sight. From 1957 through 1978, 275,240 MAS 49-56 rifles were produced.
The USSR was impressed with the German assault rifle andintermediate cartridge used in it. Development was started on a 7.62X39 intermediate cartridge and weapons for it before the end of the war. By 1945 Sergei Simonov had developed a SLR that was adopted as the SKS.
Basically, Simonov scaled down his 14.5X114 PTRS Semi auto anti tank rifle. The above photo shows the size difference between the PTRS, SKS bolt, bolt carrier & bolt cover. See the Carbines for Collectors article on the SKS for much more information on the SKS rifles.
During the same time frame that Simonov was developing the SKS, Michael T. Kalashnikov , who was a senior sergeant in the Tank Corps, was working on the design of a selective fire assault rifle. This was adopted in 1947 as the AK 47 or Avtomat Kalashnikov Model 1947. The AK 47 was a composite design using features of existing weapons, both Soviet & foreign. Kalashnikov added no radical design features of his own but his rifle has turned out to be the most used of any assault rifle ever produced.
Belgium had been working on the development of a SLR designed by Dieudonne Saive before WW2 but the German invasion stopped the work. After the war ended the development work on the rifle designed by Saive continued and it was adopted as the M1949.
The FN M1949 was produced in 7X57, 7.65X54, 7.92X57 & 7.62X63 (30-06). Argentina, Belgian Congo, Colombia, Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, Luxembourg, Netherlands East Indies andVenezuela adopted it.
Czechoslovakia has been experimenting with self loading rifles since the early 1920s. The ZH29 was a gas operated semi auto in 7.92X57 with a detachable magazine that was marketed in the 1930s. It was not a commercial success with Ethiopia andThailand buying a few rifles. Immediately after WW2 they produced the ZK420 series of rifles but none were adopted by any country.
By 1952 the Czechs had developed a SLR around the 7.62X45 intermediate cartridge. This was adopted as the CZ52. Like the Soviet SKS, it has a folding bayonet. To bring it into line with the other Communist Block countries, in 1957 it was chambered for the Soviet 7.62X39 round. It was then designated the CZ52/57.
Fabrique National in Belgium had been working on a selective fire rifle since shortly after the end of WW2. Their design was designated the FAL for Fusil Automatique Leger (light automatic rifle). The first model was chambered for the German 7.92X33 and was demonstrated for the Belgian Military in February, 1948. The second model was made in the British .280 caliber for the NATO tests. After the .280 was passed over for the US 7.62X51 FN re-designed the FAL for this round. By 1954 when the 7.62X51 NATO round was officially adopted, FN had the FAL ready for production. It was adopted by at least 35 different countries making it the most used non-Communist Block SLR ever produced.
The US had been looking for a replacement for the M1 Rifle since the mid 1940s. Numerous different design were tested including the T48 which was a US produced FN FAL rifle. In June, 1957 the T44E4 was adopted as the 7.62-mm Rifle M14. It was basically a modified M1 rifle with a shorter receiver for the shorter cartridge and a 20 round detachable magazine. It also had a selector for full auto fire and a flash suppressor that served as a recoil reducer.
CETME 58 S/N 00000 Presented to Captain General Munoz Grandes, Ministry of the Army. The first CETME 58 produced. Note that it is marked ALTO EM under the serial number. All the Spanish CETMEs are marked for what branch of the government they were made for. ET for the Army, FN for the Navy, EA for the Air Force & GC for the Guardia Civil. The ALTO EM marking is for the Joint Defense General Staff.
Early in the 1950s Centro de Estudios Tecnicos de Materiales Especiales (CETME) in Spain started work on an updated version of the experimental WW2 German StG45 assault rifle. Both Spanish and German engineers worked on the project. Initially, the rifle fired an intermediate cartridge. After the adoption of the 7.62X51 by NATO the rifle was redesigned for that cartridge. In 1956 the German Army bought 400 CETME rifles for testing. In 1958 the Spanish Army adopted the CETME as the Assault Rifle Model 58. After extensive testing, the German Army requested numerous changes in the CETME design. After these were incorporated, the German Army adopted the rifle as the G3 in 1958. After Spain and Germany adopted the rifle it’s popularity increased and it was adopted by several other countries.
The Swiss Army had been testing SLRs since the end of WW2. In 1957 they adopted a select fire assault rifle in 7.5X55 based on the WW2 German experimental StG45. It uses a roller locking action similar to the CETME - G3 series of rifles. It was designated the Stgw. 57.
In 1958 Czechoslovakia adopted a selective fire assault rifle designated the CZ 58. It has the same general appearance of the Soviet AK 47 but is completely different in design. Instead of the turning bolt locking system, it uses a dropping block more like the German P-38 pistol.