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The Rifles of the Spanish Civil War

By Dan Reynolds

The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, when elements of the Spanish military rose in revolt against the constituted government of the Spanish Republic.  This was in response to a long period of civil and social unrest during which a coalition of left wing parties had come to power in Spain.  This coalition, known as the "Popular Front,” was formed as a result of Joseph Stalin changing the existing Communist Party line and directing the Comintern to form alliances with other left wing and Liberal group’s world wide to achieve political control of various governments to strengthen the Soviet Union's strategic position.

The Moscow controlled Spanish Communist Party was small, but disciplined.  Key personnel had received up to 18 months of military training in Soviet Russia beginning in 1932-33.   This training was conducted under the supervision of the Fourth Department of the Red Army Command.  GRU (Military Intelligence) which at the time was responsible for foreign espionage work along with the Foreign Intelligence Department of the NKVD (an antecedent of the KGB) and returned home prepared for violent revolution.  Training had included courses in weapons, sabotage, communications, and leadership up to and including staff work.  In July of 1936, however, Stalin did not want a revolution in Spain or anywhere else at this period.  He did not want to scare the Liberals.  He had recently changed the "Party Line" which had previously called for world revolution and had denounced other socialist and revolutionary groups as "Social Fascists".  Now the party line advocated "Socialism in One Country" and an alliance with "all peace loving and progressive" people and groups, the so called "Popular Front".  If a revolution did erupt however, the small but disciplined Communist Party would seize control of it, as the last thing Stalin wanted was for his deadly enemies, Trotskyites, to achieve power.

In France, a Popular Front government was in office at this time.  In Spain, the "Popular Front" had recently come to power, a coalition of liberal and left wing parties.  Unrest increased as the more radical factions pressed their agendas and built militias while the more moderate elements in key positions undertook various "reforms" and attempted to reduce the power of the Army and Church.  Stalin may not have wanted a "Red Revolution" at this time, but other elements certainly did and were preparing.  Under the Popular Front the Army was purged, the officer corp reduced and key remaining rightist officers transferred to fringe commands.  The Assault Guards were formed to give the left an armed shock force to counter the traditional Guardia Civil or paramilitary national police force which was placed under leftist officer where possible.  The Guardia and Assaltos were among the best armed forces in terms of rifle quality.

Civil disorder and assassination were rife, churches were burned, the militias were smuggling in arms and the whiff of revolution was in the air.  Arrayed on the left were the Anarchists/CNT, the Socialists/UGT, the POUM, Left Republicans, Social Democrats, Radicals, Communists and others.  On the right were the Monarchists, Carlists, CEDA/ Catholics, most of the Army and the Falange.  Calvo Sotelo, leader of the Monarchists was murdered by a band of Assault Guards on July 12, 1936, and the Army rose in revolt several days later.  Most of the military and police sided with the insurgents or Nationalists, as they called themselves.  The government forces called themselves the Republicans. Both groups were coalitions of various factions and outlooks.  The Nationalists called the enemy the Reds and the Reds called them the Fascists.  Revolutionary mobs in the streets demanded rifles.  The key liberal members of the government vacillated, fearing to arm the more radical masses.  Three cabinet changes in three days and the armories were opened to the revolutionary elements, leading to massacres.  The government had previously taken steps to frustrate a rising by the Army.  Rifles had been placed in centralized storage with bolts kept at another location on separate control.  Army units were allowed only enough rifles for instruction purposes, mounting guard, etc.  This presented short term problems when it was decided to arm the mobs.  There were about 497,000 serviceable Mausers at the start of the conflict.  Most were stored with their bolts removed and kept at a separate location under alternate control as a security measure by order of the government.  The majority were in areas that initially were under control of the Madrid regime, but this changed rapidly as the Nationalists advanced, capturing large numbers of weapons.  The Spanish Mausers fired the excellent 7x57mm cartridge.

Originally made by Ludwig Loewe (later DWM) in Germany, production was later done under licence at Oviedo Arsenal.  The long Infantry Rifle Modelo 1893, the carbine Modelo 1895, and the short rifle Modelo 1916 were the standard shoulder arms of the Spanish Army.  The former service shoulder weapons, reissued for the war, were the single shot 11mm Rolling Blocks of Remington and Oviedo manufacture and could be found in long rifle, short rifle and carbine form.  Other domestic rifles pressed into use were the 9mm Largo bolt action "Destroyer" carbine and the 11mm Largo (.44-40) "Tigre" carbine made by Garate Anitua y Cie in Eibar which was a copy of the Winchester M1892.

When the government initially opened the armories to the Red mobs, securing the proper bolt proved to be a major problem.  In Madrid, only about 10% of these rifles in the hands of the mobs had bolts at first, and correct head space was an unknown concept to the masses.   Additionally, many rifles, with or without bolts "walked away".  This sent the forces of the left scurrying for more rifles.  During the course of the war, the Nationalists were never as pressed for rifles as were the Red.  They had steady domestic suppliers in the form of the various Red militias and the "Peoples Army".

Stalin initially did not want to directly intervene in the conflict until he could see which way it was developing.  He directed the NKVD to set up a task force to arrange the procurement of foreign arms to shore up the "Popular Front".  A veteran "GRU" operative, Walter Krivitsky, was at this time attached to the NKVD Foreign Department and he was tasked with organizing this operation from The Hague.  Using Comintern, GRU and NKVD resources,  he established a network using various arms dealers to supply weapons and ammunition to the Republic.

When Stalin became convinced, the war would not be quickly won by the insurgents, he ordered deliveries of armaments be sent from the Soviet Union and authorized the formation of the "International Brigades" using the resources of the Comintern and the various member Parties.

Volunteers were recruited from Party cadres, "fellow travelers" and various other leftists.   They were sent to Spain, organized and armed to serve as shock troops for the Republic.   The American Abraham Lincoln Brigade arrived in Spain and were initial clothed in WW1 American surplus uniforms.  Political Commissars were appointed to each unit.  These units and such Spanish Communist units as the 5th Regiment received priority in allocations of arms, ammunition and other supplies controlled by the NKVD.

Rifles used by the Reds in the war were of many types, and origins, requiring several different cartridges.  The Nationalist Ordnance Recovery Unit, which was responsible for collecting, classifying, cleaning, and storing or reissuing captured Red weapons during the war, reported that forty-nine different models of magazine rifle were found to have been issued by Republican units.  The most common rifle at the outbreak of war was the Spanish Mauser in 7x57mm.  Oviedo Arsenal seems to have been the chief producer, but during the war production in the Red Zone was mainly by Industrias De Guerre/Cataluna in Catalonia.  Upon the outbreak of war, it soon became clear that neither side would soon prevail and that a long war was ahead.

The Army of Africa, being based outside Spain, was the only Nationalist force that was well armed at this point.  It was moved by air and sea from Morocco to southern Spain in the first major transport operation of this kind.  It fought north toward Madrid, but was diverted to Toledo, south and west of Madrid, where on high ground overlooking the city stood "El Alcazar", the Spanish West Point.  Sheltered within its castle like walls were the officers and men of the post, cadets, the Guardia Civil from all over the province along with families of the officers and Guardia, besieged by the Reds.  Toledo contained the Spanish equivalent of Frankford Arsenal, producing a large portion of the 7x57mm ammo used by the Spanish Army.  After the rising began, the officers of the Academy went to the arsenal with several trucks and moved several hundred thousand rounds of 7x57mm ammo to the citadel.  Just before the Red militia columns arrived from Madrid to begin the siege, a wagon train column of Civil Guards and their families arrived from all over the province.  It was this force of about 400 riflemen, armed with excellently maintained Mausers and highly skilled in their use, which helped the Alcazar to hold out until it was relieved by the Moors of the Army of Africa and the South.

There were three major sources of rifles for the Spanish republic: Soviet Russia, International Arms Dealers, and Mexico.  The Spanish Republic sent agents abroad to purchase weapons from the earliest days of the war, as did many of the militia groups. Spain had a huge gold reserve, not just in gold bars, but in coins dating back to the 15th Century.  The coins had a worth far exceeding their weight to collectors, with many worth 10, 20 or 100 times their face value.  The Republic had control of this and was willing to spend as much as necessary to win the war.  Ultimately, all this gold was shipped to Soviet Russia.
The Soviet Union controlled most of the arms and ammunition that flowed to Republican Spain.  They used this control to influence and ultimately, along with the many "advisers" and NKVD operatives, to take control of the Republic.  The Russians used their power to merge all the militias and other Republican troops into the so called "Popular" or "Peoples Army".  They took control of the "SIM" or Spanish Military Intelligence and used this against other factions within the Popular Front.  Ammunition supply was always a problem during the war for the Reds.  They had many different types of rifles requiring various cartridges. Their fire discipline was poor.  Allocation was politically biased against the Anarchists and POUM militias.  The Russians helped set up reloading facilities for the "Popular Army," and the POUM.  Anarchists reloaded ammunition with their own resources, but the quality was not good and rifles blowing up was possible.  Several million rounds of 7x57mm were loaded for the Republic by a factory in Greece, which also acted as a "strawman" in transhipping 7.92mm Standard Model Oberndorf Mausers to the Reds in 1937.

Photos taken in Madrid in late summer and fall 1936 show "Chekists"(Red Secret Police) armed with Tigre carbines rounding up suspected "enemies of the people".  According to George Orwell, the POUM's Lenin Division was armed with Mausers and Tigres in 1936-37.   The POUM and Anarchists were strongest in Catalonia and these groups were very short of rifles and the Communists were doing their best to make sure this continued.  A factory was set up to make a simplified M1916 Mauser, but production did not get underway until after the POUM was suppressed in July 1937 by the NKVD run Republican government which at this point had fled to Valencia.  Assault Guards, armed with American M91 Mosin Nagants, were sent to Barcelona to finish the POUM .

At the end of August 1936, the Spanish coastal steamer Atxuri Mendi arrived to load arms at Bordeaux, France for the Republicans, along with field guns and aircraft bombs, 2,000 French Lebel Rifles (may have been Mannlicher Berthier M07/15 as these are confused by ignorance in some reports), seven million rounds of 8mm Lebel and 50 Hotchkiss type machine guns.  In the aftermath of the First World War, the Birmingham Small Arms Company, BSA, acquired the rights to broker sales of all surplus British small arms and ammunition.  The material consisted of what was considered non standard or unserviceable for various reasons or unlikely to be of future operational use.  The biggest single item was the large stock of Pattern 14 rifle in .303 calibre.  Marketing these rifles was difficult as the calibre was in wide use only by the British Empire, Estonia and Latvia.  After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the British supplied Ross and Pattern 14 rifles from Royal Navy stocks to these Baltic nations.  During the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War, they supplied large numbers of rifles to the "White"anti - communist forces.  The Black Sea port of Novorossisk was HQ of the "Denmiss", the British mission sent to supply the White "Armed Forces of South Russia".  From March 1919 onward, they supplied about 200,000 rifles to Deniken's forces including large numbers of Pattern 14, lesser numbers of Ross M10 and fewer numbers of Mk.3 and Mk.3* Lee Enfields in .303.  Pattern 14 rifles from British Army stocks were provided to other White Russian forces elsewhere in the former Russian Empire during this period.

During the 1920's, the surplus German Mausers in 7.92x57mm were the preferred rifles in the international arms trade.  Finland sought to buy or trade for Mosin Nagants and  attempted to standardize on this type.  The warlords in China were always seeking to buy surplus rifles.  The Soley Armament Company was established near Regents Park in London by a former RFC officer, John Ball sometime in the mid 1920's.  At a later date, Ball established a partnership with Edgard Grimard, a dealer located in Liege, Belgium.  They formed the firm of Soley Grimard & Company to convert Pattern 14 rifles to the desirable 7.92x57mm used by many nations in their Mauser rifles.  They believed that these rebuilt rifles would find a place on the market.

In 1930, BSA subcontracted their franchise for War Ministry surplus small arms to Ball. From the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in mid July, officials and agents of the republican government and also of individual factions of the Red coalition attempted to arrange arms deals through various intermediaries and dealers, chiefly from Paris.  They unknowingly competed with one another and sometimes with Krivitsky's operation, driving prices up.

Poland had won its independence following WW1 and established its eastern border after defeating the Red Army in the Russo-Polish War.  She was caught between two major powers, Germany and Soviet Russia, both of whom had territorial claims on her border areas.  She also had a dispute with Lithuania over the city of Vilnius.  She had to maintain strong-armed forces to survive.  Upon establishing independence, Poland was armed with various foreign rifles.  Poles had served in three armies during the Great War. Imperial Russian, Imperial Austro Hungarian and French.  From Germany, she received the machinery from Danzig Arsenal to produce the Mauser Gewehr 98 and Karabiner 98AZ.  From France, she had received M86/93 Lebel and Mannlicher Berthier M07, M07/15 and M16 rifles and carbines.  From Austro Hungary, she had Mannlicher M88/90 and M1895 rifles and carbines, as well as a few M1903/14 6.5mm Mannlicher Schonauer rifles.  From Russia, Imperial and Soviet, she had M1891 Mosin Nagants of all types, including some captured/reissue types in 8x50mm.  She also had some .303 Pattern 14 Enfields, which had either been given as British aid or captured from the Soviets.  The Mauser was selected as the standard rifle type and existing rifles of this type were reworked and copies of the German gew.98 and Kar.98AZ were produced at arsenals established at Radom and Warsaw.  Minor variations were produced, but are beyond the scope of this article.  In 1929, a new short rifle version of the Mauser, seemingly based on the Czechoslovak VZ24 made at the ZB rifle factory in Brno, Moravia, was adopted.  The infantry version had a horizontal bolt handle and the cavalry rifle had a turned down bolt handle.  The Poles used many second hand and refurbished parts in their rifle production.  The Poles traded for and purchased used Mausers on the world arms market.  In the early 1930's, they bought a lot of reworked Mausers in 7.92x57mm from Soley Grimard & Co. in Liege.  The secondary official standard rifle was the Mosin Nagant Model 91/98/25 in 7.92x57mm.  These were made by reworking captured stocks of Mosins in 7.62x54R by commercial firms in Poland in the 1920's.  All the other rifles on hand were considered surplus as soon as new Mausers could replace them.  In 1926, a front company was established by War Ministry to handle sales of surplus war material and later it evolved into a full scale weapons dealership, buying, selling and trading.  It was known as the "Syndicate", SEPEWE for the initials of its Polish name, or in English "War Material Export Organization".

Mexico forwarded a large number of American Remington and N.E. Westinghouse Mosin Nagant 7.62x54mmR Rifles that were produced during WW1 and used by the U.S. Army for various training purposes until sold off in the post war period.  These were among the first foreign aid to the Republic and arrived in early August.  Then, on 2 September 1936, the steamship Magellanes arrived at Cartagena in the Red Zone with 20,000 used Mausers in 7x57mm, mainly the Modelo 1910, along with 20 million rounds of ammo.  The price of the rifles was said to be about $25.00 each.  As a reference point, a new Standard Model Mauser from Oberndorf in this period would cost about $30.00 in quantity, a new WZ29 Mauser from Radom in quantity would be about $22.00, a new FN M24/30 about $28.00, all F.O.B. all U.S. Dollars.

During early August 1936, Stalin approved delivery from existing stocks of Red Army stores of the following rifles of non Soviet origin with the proviso that they be checked and wiped for any marks which could identify as of Russian or Soviet property: 9,000 Winchester Model 1895 Muskets 7.62x54mmR, 6024 Gewehr 98 7.92mm, 3,202 MK.3 and Mk3* Enfields .303, 3658 M88/90 and M95 Mannlichers 8x50mmR, 10,000 French 11mm Gras Rifles, 1821 French M1878 Steyr Kropatchek 11mm Gras, 1242 French Lebel 8mm, 2310 Canadian M10 Ross .303, and 16,000 single shot M1871 Vetterli 10.4mm.  Only a very limited amount of ammunition was provided for each rifle in the shipments and lack of ammo may have been the limiting factor in sending more of these nonstandard rifles to Spain.  The Soviets had large numbers of these rifles and would issue them later during the emergency mobilization in June 1941.

According to official Soviet reports, during the course of the war Soviet Russia provided 497,813 rifles, 20,486 machine guns, and 862,000,000 rounds of small arms ammunition to Republican Spain.  The bulk of the deliveries was sent between October 1936 and August 1937 when 377,793 rifles were supplied.  In the period through August of 1938, another 125,000 rifles were sent.  On January 28, 1939, the last shipment contained 35,000 more rifles.  Over 325,000 of all rifles, sent from Russia, were M91/30 Mosin Nagants.
In order to understand the reasons for the declining support for the Spanish Republic on the part of the Soviet Union, it is necessary to understand the political and strategic motives of Stalin and the Soviet Union.  One reason was money.  The Spanish gold was in Soviet hands by summer 1937.  The chief reason was that Spain was but a pawn in a far greater game. After 1937, Stalin was preparing for another change in the Party line which was to lead to the Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939.  Stalin was not interested in a "Soviet Spain".  The purges were in full swing back in Moscow as Stalin further consolidated his control and prepared for the new line.  Many Communists, who had served Stalin and Socialism in Spain, were to be DOA when they were recalled to Russia.  Two who survived were the NKVD Chief in Spain Orlov and Walter Krivitsky, both of whom defected rather than go home and die.

In 1956, the Spanish Nationalist Government of General Franco sold the rights to the stocks of Red armaments captured during the course of the conflict (1936-39) to the firm "llama". The small arms were acquired by Interarmco and many imported into the USA circa 1959-62.  Generally speaking, the condition of the bores on these rifles was not good due to the poor maintenance and circumstances of their capture.  I examined P14's in .303 and 7.92mm, all sorts of Spanish Mausers, M91's and M91/30's, Tigres, Destroyers, and Standard Model short rifles, as well as various WZ29's, Gew98 and Kar98a during this time.  Many of the Spanish Mausers were obvious battlefield pickups.  M1916 short rifles could be had for $5.00 each.  The remarkable thing was that the number of M91/30 rifles was proportionately low considering the large numbers supplied.  Possibly the bulk of the surviving M91/30's were acquired by some government.

Among the surplus material imported, I examined one Steyr M1895 Mannlicher rifle in 8x50mm with "CCCP" or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" crudely carved in the butt stock.  My guess is this was done by a Red soldier in Spain, as it was popular among the ideologically committed to adopt various improvised Soviet symbols in the form of badges, banners and helmet markings.  It may indicate a knowledge that this rifle was supplied by Soviet Russia on the part of the user.  Helmets from the Red side are often very colorful and have many slogans and emblems painted on or badges attached indicating units.  Helmets used by the Republicans were several, including the French Adrian, Spanish 1926, Soviet 1936, Czech, U.S. M1917 and others.
 
Dealer Type Port  Date Quantity
Grimard, Polish  WZ29Mausers,7.92mm  Danzig   09/09/36    10,000
Grimard, Polish WZ29 BAR, 7.92mm  Danzig  09/09/36         200
Willi Daugs,Polish WZ29 Mausers, 7.92mm  Danzig   09/09/36      9,300
Note: This group believed to have been originally destined for Zionists in Palestine and consisted of unserviceable WZ29 rebuilt at ZB in Moravia, but diverted to Spain.
Soviet Russia  Obsolete foreign rifles  Feodisia 09/26/36   20,350 
Soviet Russia Obsolete foreign rifles Feodisia 10/22/36  15,655
Grimard ? Pattern 14 Enfields .303 Danzig 10/01/36    5,000
?????? P14 and M10 Ross .303 Memel 10/06/26  21,000
Grimard Polish WZ28 BAR 7.92mm Danzig 10/07/36       100
Grimard French CRGS CAR 8mm Lebel Danzig 10/07/36    5,000
Daugs Bergmann LMG M1915 7.92mm  Danzig 10/07/36    1,481
Daugs Mannlicher Carbines M95 
8x50mmR
Danzig 10/29/36  10,000
Krivitsky Front Mannlicher Rifles 8x50mmR Danzig 10/30/36  10,000
Soviet Russia Lee Enfield MK.3* .303 Black Sea 11/06/36    1,000
Soviet Russia French Lebels 8mm Lebel Black Sea 11/06/36       900
Soviet Russia Foreign rifles - various Black Sea 11/15/36    1,920
Grimard Mannlicher Rifles M95
8x50mmR
Danzig 10/07/36  10,000
Grimard Mosin Nagant M91 7.62x53mmR Danzig 01/09/37    2,930
Soviet Russia Mosin Nagant M91 7.62x53mmR Black Sea 01/04/37  25,500
Soviet Russia Mosin Nagant M91/30 
7.62x53mmR
Black Sea 03/06/37  24,580
Marcus Wolf Mannlicher Rifles M95 
8x50mmR
Danzig 01/15/37    7,000
Daugs Mauser KAR98AZ Erfurt 7.92 mm Danzig 01/15/37    2,000
Wolf French M07/15 Berthier 
8mm Lebel
Danzig 03/04/37  14,460
Wolf Mannlicher M88/90 & M95
8x50mmR
Danzig 04/14/37    7,000
Wolf French Mannlicher M07/15
Berthier 8mm Lebel
Danzig 04/14/37    8,040
Wolf Mannlicher M88/90 Rifles
8x50mmR
Danzig 04/08/37    5,000
Soviet Russia Foreign rifles - various Black Sea 04/29/37  10,000
Soviet Russia Mosin Nagant M91 7.62x53mmR Black Sea 04/29/37  15,000
Soviet Russia Mosin Nagant M91/30 
7.62x53 mmR
Black Sea 07/30/37  39,550
Wolf Polish WZ28 BAR 7.92mm Danzig 07/31/37       225
Wolf Polish WZ29 Mausers 7.92mm Danzig 07/31/37    5,800
T. Erich Mixed Mauser M07 M28 7.65mm Tallin 09/27/27    7,119
T. Erich Vickers Berthier AR 7.65mm Tallin 09/27/37       233
Note: Last two entries represent Chaco War surplus bought from Paraguay and include captured Bolivian Mausers as well as the BV's.
Soviet Russia  Mosin Nagant M91/30 7.62x53mmR  Black Sea  02/13/38   40,100 
Soviet Russia Czech VZ24 Mausers 7.92mm ???? 03/01/38   50,000 

There were many other deliveries and several sources and types of rifles and new information is emerging all the time.   If you can add, correct or clarify, please write and let us know.