The 4 Greatest Rifles of WWI


The bolt action was a new invention in 1841 when the Dreyse needle gun was first introduced. It allowed the user to reload much faster than those still using muzzle-loading weapons — almost 5 times faster — and the shooter didn’t need to expose himself (stand up) to reload the weapon.

The basic idea of a bolt action is a manually operated bolt, manipulated by a handle that unlocks the bolt and opens the breech. The magazine has a spring that pushes a cartridge up into the raceway so it can then be pushed into the chamber by the bolt when it is pushed forward. With a new cartridge in the chamber, the handle is moved down to close and lock the bolt.

Mauser Gewehr 98 a hunting rifle, right profile
The Mauser Gewehr 98 a hunting rifle.

When compared to other types of rifle actions, the bolt action has some advantages. It is simple and less expensive to make and can be of lighter weight than other designs. Additionally, it is a strong action, can handle powerful cartridges, and is capable of great accuracy. The only downside is that it doesn’t support a very high rate of fire compared to other alternatives. This mechanism is also used in many hunting rifles, where accuracy and power are highly valued assets.

WWI Considerations

During WWI, millions of men were given rifles and sent into the trenches to fight. Machine-guns and artillery defined the war, but the rifle was a soldier’s constant companion. On the Western Front, what made for a good rifle changed, and the description of the main participants’ rifles was often described this way: “The Germans brought a hunting rifle, the Americans brought a target rifle, the British brought a battle rifle, and the Russians brought a club!” That was a very accurate description in summarizing the attributes of the different designs.

To understand the frame of reference, one must understand the issue facing rifles in World War I. Sitting in the dirty trenches for months at a time, enduring terrible weather, running advances over no man’s land followed by brutal close combat, men needed a rugged weapon that could take the abuse. To offset those conditions, soldiers struggled to keep their weapons clean and properly maintained. Dirt was particularly bad for all the weapons of World War I, because it caused them to jam.

German Gewehr

To understand how each nations’ rifles received its description, let’s look at each one in some detail, starting with Germany. Going into the war, Germany had a strong tradition of superior weaponry. As such, it fielded one of the best rifles of the war, the Gewehr 98. The Gewehr 98, patented by Paul Mauser in 1895, was incredibly sturdy. It was the standard rifle used by the German Army during World War I. With its classic bolt-action system, it set the standard for that type of gun — a standard that is still followed by the arms industry today, making it one of the most successful sporting (as in hunting) firearms ever produced.

Technically, the Gewehr 98 was a manually operated, magazine fed, bolt-action rifle that weighed approximately 9 pounds, and was 49-inches long with a 29-inch barrel. It was fitted with an internal magazine within the receiver holding five 7.92x57mm Gewehr Patrone 1898 cartridges.

A custom .375 H&H Magnum hunting rifle, built on a magnum Mauser action.
A custom .375 H&H Magnum hunting rifle, built on a magnum Mauser action.

The rifle had an open front sight post and a tangent rear sight mounted perpendicular to the line-of-sight. This sight was designed for field use in all levels of light for quick-shooting action against large targets at ranges from 200–2000 meters in 100-meter increments. At the heart of this robust, accurate, and excellent weapon system was the bolt itself with three locking lugs and a larger and stronger receiver.

There are also a couple of gas vent holes built into the bolt. This was to ensure that if there was a rupture of the cartridge case or primer, the hot gases would vent out through the magazine hole instead of near the user’s face. The firing pin was cocked when the bolt was opened by the operator.

Equally impressive was the “controlled round feed” claw extractor cartridge feed system where the rim of the cartridge was grabbed tightly by a non-rotating “claw” when the cartridge left the magazine. This was held in place until the round was ejected from the receiver. Additionally, the two-stage trigger would not operate with the safety on.

Mauser used the two-stage method for two reasons. The first reason was to reduce premature firing under combat conditions. Second, it was to allow a slow pull when firing at distant targets. The Mauser gave the German infantry a slower rate of fire than British Tommies. However, its biggest drawback was its 49.2-inch length.

Why did I say, “The Germans brought a hunting rifle”? Because, in 1905 Mauser introduced the 9.3x62mm cartridge for its bolt-action rifle. The cartridge had a profound and lasting influence on hunters in Africa.

By the turn of the 20th century, four of the major British rifle manufacturers, Holland & Holland, John Rigby & Co., W.J. Jeffery & Co, and Westley Richards designed new cartridges that would operate in the magnum Mauser 98 action. These cartridges could offer big-bore nitro express ballistics and performance in a magazine rifle. An example of this was what the British called its bolt-action rifles. From 1909, the heart of every European gunmakers’ finest bolt-action rifles was a Mauser action, and that worldwide trend continues today. Ergo, A hunting rifle.

M1903 Springfield rifle chambered in the ‘Thirty Ought Six’ with sling and two 5-round stripper clips
The very accurate, M1903 Springfield rifle chambered in the ‘Thirty Ought Six’ with sling and two 5-round stripper clips.

American M1903

America entered the war late. The ‘Dough Boys’ brought a compromise weapon. Unlike other nations, we elected to create a hybrid long gun that could serve as both a service rifle and carbine in one end-product with a Mauser-type mechanism. The M1903 bolt-action service rifle was the standard infantry rifle of the American Army throughout its participation in World War I.

The design had its origins in the tried-and-true German Mauser action of which many other bolt-action rifle designs of the time had adopted or copied. The U.S. went on to adopt the modified “Mauser” system. Later, it was forced to pay a then-hefty sum of $200,000 for the license from Germany for patent infringement and production rights.


The cartridge that would be paired with the Springfield was designated the M1903. The U.S. adopted a pointed-bullet design that was a 150-grain cartridge known as the “Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906” (known as the .30-06 Thirty Ought-Six). With a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second, it was more powerful than the British No.1 Mk III, but not as fast firing.

The bolt handle of the Springfield featured a ball at its end to ensure a firm grip in the heat of battle. The “turn-bolt” design shifted up-and-backward to eject a spent shell casing and introduce a fresh cartridge with a forward-down action. The magazine was internal and fixed in place, requiring the use of cartridge “charger clips” containing five ready-to-fire cartridges. It also had a magazine cut off to allow for loading single cartridges. Excellent iron sights at the front and rear assisted accuracy at range.

Because Springfield Armory designed, developed, and produced the M1903, it acquired the unofficial name of “M1903 Springfield” for its entire operational life. Similarly, the cartridge came to be known as the “.30-06 Springfield” for its relation to the armory. The result was a reliable bolt action that was easy to use and nicely balanced. Additionally, it was more accurate than most rifles of the period, firing to target-shooting standards.

I can’t really tell you why the M1903 Springfield rifle is so accurate. I can only assure you that its accuracy was legendary.

Starting with the U.S. Marine combat marksmanship in WWI at Chateau-Thierry, and Belleau Wood where the Germans could not believe they were being hit at 800 yards (the distance between them and the Marines). One Marine was awarded the DSC for a 1,400-yard shot with a M1903. So, I guess ‘target rifle’ is an accurate description.

OK, it’s time to look at the only battle rifle in the mix and why that is or was.

British Lee Enfield

Going into the war, the British had a weapon that met the requirements and was the latest in the series of Lee-Enfield rifles — one of the most successful bolt-action rifles of all time. The Rifle No.1 Mk III was the latest variation of the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle. It was the standard infantry rifle of the British in WWI. It was brought into service in 1907 and was produced by a variety of manufacturers including the United States, Canada, Australia, and India. It is estimated that some 17 million rifles of this type were produced.

British Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I (SMLE), right profile
The British Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I (SMLE). The only real ‘battle rifle’ in the group.

The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I (SMLE) weighed in at roughly 8.8 pounds. It featured an overall length of 44.5 inches, with a barrel length of 25 inches. As for the design of this rifle, pushing the bolt closed cocks the action. This makes opening the bolt a lot faster and smoother, compared to the cock-on-opening design of the Mauser.

That feature, coupled with its larger capacity 10-round magazine, meant that a user could shoot 20 times in 60 seconds, making it the fastest bolt-action rifle of its day. A high rate of fire was essential, and the effective range was less critical with guns needing only to be accurate to 400 yards. The shorter length of the Mk III was better suited and made it easier to wield in a confined trenches than the other longer rifles.

Although it was criticized for its rear locking lug mechanism that was (in theory) weaker than those of other weapons, it worked smoothly. The system gave users minimal trouble and contributed to its smooth reliability. The design allowed British soldiers to achieve remarkably high rates of fire.

The official cartridge designation was the .303 Mk VII SAA Ball with a muzzle velocity of 2,441 feet per second, although the 0.303-inch bullet actually measures 0.311 in diameter and has an effective range of approximately 2,000 yards. The weapon was loaded with 5-round charger clips through the top of the weapon body. Cartridges could also be loaded individually.

The Lee-Enfield rifle is still used by police in various states in India and is found in ceremonial roles over 100 years since its introduction into service. The higher magazine capacity and faster rate is what qualifies it as the only battle rifle in the parade.

Russian ‘Club’

Now for the ‘club’! Like all other world powers during the late-1800s, the Russian Empire sought modernization in its military inventory. This was particularly important after the disastrous results of the Russian campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the 1877–1878 Russo-Ottoman War. In 1889, several rifles where under consideration, including one from Russian artillery Captain Sergei Ivanovich Mosin and another from the Belgian brothers Emile and Leon Nagant.

It was decided to combine the best features of both rifles into an all-new design. Due to the design work by the Nagant brothers as well as modifications handled by Mosin, this new rifle became known under the hyphenated name of Mosin-Nagant. Because its introduction occurred in 1891, the rifle was assigned the apt designation of Model 1891 or M1891.

Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 commonly referred to as The Club
The unexceptional, but sturdy, Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 commonly referred to as ‘The Club.’

Outwardly, Mosin-Nagant rifles were highly conventional in their approach and action. The receiver held the metal action which consisted of the commonly accepted turn-bolt handle with a knobbed end. To open the bolt, one turned the bolt handle upward, and then rearward. Unlike later bolt-action types, the Mosin-Nagant sported a 90-degree bolt handle that protruded away from the gun body (as opposed to resting against it).

The weapon featured an integral magazine into which five-round clips were fed through the open action. A control latch secured the lower cartridges (those apart from the first cartridge) to alleviate the magazine spring’s pressure causing an issue during the bolt’s movement. This mechanism proved important in feeding the rimmed cartridges in an efficient manner. It also cut down on potential stoppages in the action.

The Mosin-Nagant fired the 7.62x54R Russian rifle cartridge which offered good range and penetration. The M1891 had a 28.8-inch barrel and featured an overall length of 48.75 inches. It was longer, more cumbersome, and heavier than competing rifles of the day.

Infographic showing the parts of a bolt-action rifle.
The parts of a bolt-action rifle.

Imperial Russian troops were issued Mosin-Nagant rifles during World War I along the Eastern Front. It became the standard issue long gun of those Russian troops during the bitter struggle of trench warfare. Millions of M1891s were believed produced from Russian factories to supply the soldiers in need.

The end of Tsarist Russia and the rise of Communism ended Russian participation before it ended in 1918. A short civil war then followed in which communist power became the way of things in the new Soviet Union. The Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 was an unexceptional sturdy weapon that could take a battering in the hands of inexperienced soldiers. And that is why it was referred to as a club.

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