Myth and Reality of the Ross MkIII

This video took a bit longer than planned to put together, but it’s here at last…

There is a long-standing urban legend about the Canadian Ross rifle, a straight-pull bolt action that was used in lieu of the SMLE by Canadian troops early in World War One. The story is that the Ross would sometimes malfunction and blow the bolt back into its shooter’s face, with pretty horrible results. Well, I wanted to learn “the rest of the story” – could this actually happen? What caused it? How could it be prevented? In short, what would a Ross shooter need to know to remain safe? And if I could get some cool footage of a bolt blowing out of a Ross in the process, all the better.

Well, reader Andy very generously provided a sporterized Ross for the experiments, and I started reading into what the issue really was. Turns out that the legend was quite true – you can put a Ross MkIII bolt together the wrong way, and it will allow you to fire without the locking lugs engaged, thus throwing the bolt back out of the gun at high velocity. However, the issue was recognized fairly quickly, and the vast majority of Ross rifles were modified with a safety rivet to prevent this from happening. It is also quite easy to determine if a Ross is assembled correctly, once you know what to look for. So sit back and relax as we examine:

The Myth and Reality of the Ross MkIII

As you see at the end of the video, there are some folks I need to acknowledge for helping out with the experiment:

  • Andy for generously providing the rifle
  • Andrew Tuohy (who runs an excellent site at Vuurwapenblog) for helping out with high-speed footage
  • Aaron and Karl for camera and setup assistance (and the ballistic soap that we tried to use)

Thanks, guys – your help was invaluable!

For what it’s worth, I think the next such investigative project will be a followup on the safety of a .30-06 Bannerman Mosin-Nagant conversion, using strain gages to see if we can get some empirical evidence on the matter. So stay tuned!

40 Comments

  1. First I thought “know it’s safe and just never disassemble it would make me confident in the rifle, but when I saw how easy it is to wiggle the bolthead into the wrong configuration I decided wallhanger.

    • “Never to disassemble” is impossible to practice in field. You really do not have choice, being ‘mechanically inclined’ or not. Soldier has to care for his gun if his life is dear to him. The duty of organization is to give him tool which works under all but impossible circumstances.

      • How very true! Practical overall considerations, especially for a military service rifle, are of paramount importance, and definitely trump any singular or specific considerations.

  2. This is excellent piece of (gun) investigative work. I have heard of Ross story soon after arriving to Canada but never had chance to see it (perhaps with exception of seeing it in War museum in Ottawa) not to mention firing it myself.

    Here comes (that’s the way it goes…) my further questioning. It is notoriously known that next similar weapon of period being Steyr M95 has not had this problem. I watched videos of M95 disassembly and assembly and nothing suggested it could happen with that rifle. Other observation (based on mentioned videos) is that Ross seem to smoother in operation than “ruck-zug”. Also, the Ross seem to be visibly of simpler construction with fewer pieces and I like it.

    Now, I’d like to pose my question to expert, this being Editor in chief. Would it be possible to make perhaps new or additive measure (part of mentioned rivet) to the mechanism to remedy this issue? What I see as a background is perhaps a commercial potential of making ‘antique’ new Ross rifles based on modern manufacturing technology.

    I really like the operation and brilliant demonstration shown in video supports the case for straight pull advantage over traditional cranking.

  3. This safety issue was not the reason the Ross was withdrawn from service. From what I understand, they had a tendency to ‘bind up’ and stop functioning during rapid fire strings. Something about heating made it impossible to cycle the action. Any comments?

    I have fired my Ross Mark III without any excitement or binding. It worked well for over 50 rounds and is very accurate. Can’t find any ammunition for my .280 Ross sporter, which is a very elegant rifle.

    • I also read about that somewhere. Wish I could locate the article – it was a magazine article, that must be buried somewhere in my huge stack of periodicals… Congratulations for your Ross Mark III!

      • Doing some unrelated reading in old copies of “Arms and the Man” (NRA’s magazine) from the 1920s, I found more than a few Dope Bag blurbs explaining how to tell if a Ross bolt was assembled correctly. That would have been in the heyday of surplus Ross rifles, so it would make sense that it would be more common knowledge back then. As supply of the guns dried up, popular gun culture kinda lost track of the details.

        • Thanks for unearthing that detail for us, Ian. Now that you mention it, how much would fetch an excellent to mint Ross, in full military configuration, today? Just curious, because I never thought about getting one. In Europe the Ross rifles are quite a rare sight.

  4. couple things I will say about the Ross, having done research.
    there are two bolt stops, the original, and a second enlarged one, you probably had the enlarged one, as they were installed with the safety rivets.
    as for it jamming, two reasons why they jammed more than the Lee-Enfield, neither one is about dirt or grit.
    1. the chambers were smaller, the Ross’ were manufactured with a very tight chamber, at the insistence of the Standing Small Arms Committee, the government body in charge of procurement, the tight chambers were manufactured for Canadian made, high tolerance .303 Mk VII, when the Canadian Soldiers reached Britain they were Issued British made ammunition, which was not held to the tolerances the Canadian ammunition was, and was in many instances, larger than the chambers would permit, that’s the main reason they jammed.
    2 the boltstop, the boltstops were changed because the original boltstop didn’t have a large enough contact area, in rapid fire the last lug on the bolthead would be battered against and deformed by the boltstop, making it difficult to impossible to close, and then open the gun.

    this based on official reports, and the words of Sir Charles Ross himself.

    • Your comment reminds me of something that Ian Hogg said in his book “Machine Guns” when paraphrasing a certain wisdom of the time among gun designers — that often, “best” is the enemy of “good”, i.e., it is all too tempting to put great emphasis on certain design parameters, eg., tighter bolt tolerances or better extraction, in search of that elusive perfection, all the while forgetting that any firearm is only as good as the sum of its parts. In other words, a firearm that is well-balanced and performs well in all areas of design, manufacture and battlefield performance, even if it is not outstanding in any one area, is far better than one that is tops in one or a few specific areas but which has a merely average or less-than-average performance in others. Practical experience and history will bear this out in nearly every case one might choose to dissect in detail.

      • It’s even worse than “The sum of all parts”, it is more realistically the Root mean squared.

        I was amused a few years ago, reading the two sides of the same story.

        Positive side – a certain popular make of pistols appeared to be very good at feeding all sorts of bullet shapes, weights, hollow points etc.

        negative; there were a number reports of KBs appearing (IIRC they seemed to be chambered for one of the .40 cals)

        It appeared that the design was balancing more toward feed reliability than case head support – and that in combination with certain brass, unpleasant things were (very very occassionally) happening.

      • there’s great truth to that, the reality of the Ross was it was designed for the wrong war, it was designed for the Boer War, where the winner would be the one with the longest reach, and the Ross had it, it would reach out much further than the Lee-Enfield, further even than the 7mm Mausers they faced in the desert.
        but that’s not what they faced, they went into trenches where your a hundred yards or less, not the six hundred the Ross was built for, where quantity of fire trumped quality, and there wasn’t enough Canadian ammunition to feed everyone, and the machine guns got first dibs.

  5. Ian, you never fail to impress. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest firearms pages on the internet. Thank you for Providing it.

  6. Great video! I think it’s great that after years of stories floating around someone actually invested the time and money into doing it and finding out the truth. I have a Mk.II and a Mk.III and shot both and always wondered about the stories, just wasn’t willing to risk one of my expensive original guns to find out. Thanks!

  7. While I am sure there were, and are, certain characteristics of the Ross rifle that one needs to be very aware of ( such as the easy reverse assembly of the bolt in earlier models ), does the sum total of those characteristics actually add up to an impractical rifle that is truly a failure and a constant hazard to its end users? Somehow, when weighing up the pros and cons, the answer is “No”. In the end, I think the Ross was a reasonably successful design that had its quirks ( which users had to be aware of ), but which could still be effective when used correctly. The difference compared to the much-venerated Lee-Enfield was that the latter had fewer of those quirks and was a better-balanced all-around rifle.

      • Well Earl, in a sense, yes. However, I also wonder how ‘unsafe’ the Ross rifle was actually perceived by its end users in the first place, the Canadian servicemen. The Lee-Enfield surely deserves its cult following, on the other hand. Personally speaking, and if I had to choose a single, bolt-action military rifle, I think I would gladly opt for the good old SMLE or perhaps the No.4.

        • Hello, Ruy :

          I certainly agree with you about the steadfast Lee-Enfield and its variations. I was only trying to point out that the Ross may have a much more ( unfairly ) maligned reputation than it truly deserves, and that while it does have its faults, it is far from being the low-quality, badly-designed clunker that it is often made out to be. The Ross was a good rifle for its time, but the Lee-Enfield was simply a better all-round weapon that was technically and mechanically superior in most respects, and which was also better-suited to the infantry tactics of the era.

  8. Ian Great test! There is an interesting variation of the Ross that is marked “U.S Property” that makes it fit in a U.S. rifle collection. I am going to repete my request that you show the ease with which one can remove the barrel of a Ross Rifle. Thanks Bob

  9. An excellent, informative video, Ian. Thanks very much. “Myth NOT [entirely] BUSTED!” Certainly qualified a bit. I liked the Robbie the Robot “Danger! Danger Will Robinson!” sticker on the side!

    Somewhere around here I’ve got a cool photo of an armed fishing trawler crew in WWI with a passel of Ross rifles. Apparently, some are in Russia by way of the Stalin-era invasion of the Baltic States, 1939-1940. I am glad you pointed out that while hardly “soldier proof” the rifle itself was accurate and used by snipers. According to the pop-coffee table-book by Pat Farey and Mark Spicer, _Sniping: An Illustrated History_ (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2008), 110, Corporal Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow (1891-1952)–of the Ojibwa nation from “Parry Island Indian Reserve, Ontario”–may have been the top sniper of WWI. He used a Ross.

  10. 1. Great video – especially the emphasis on explaining what the real hazard is. There are more and more things in life where we need to get people to *understand them* to be safe. Just being afraid isn’t all that helpful.

    2. Even with the bolt not being thrown clear (and comments above suggest earlier ones might have been due to smaller stop) one can easily imagine being hit very hard in the face and thus blinded, or wounded and made subject to infection in a pre-antibiotic era.
    So the “legend” has a real basis in fact.

  11. Well, it didn’t blow up and it didn’t eject the bolt all the way out. But it threw the bolt back far enough that it could put an eye out, which is a very severe injury. So yes, a Ross MkIII with a misassembled bolt is very bad news.

  12. The very first time I operated a Swiss M1911 Schmidt-Rubin 7.5x55mm straight-pull rifle at the range, I just about smashed my nose with the ring-safety/firing pin. The bolt comes back much further than that of the K31, which has a more compact bolt with frontal locking lugs! So familiarization would be the order of the day! Operating the bolt from the shoulder is one thing, but often pivoting the head away from the stock weld is required. This is most especially true of the 19th-century Mosin-Nagant bolt design.

    Ian, sir: There are many articles on straight-pull bolt action designs, but none that offer fruitful comparisons that I am aware of… Perhaps a Mannlicher M95, M1895 6mm Winchester-Lee, Canadian Ross Mk.II or III, Schmidt-Rubin, etc. “shootout” might be interesting, hmm? Just a thought.

  13. Interestingly, the Russians supposedly used re-barreled Rosses for the olympic biathlon…

    Anyway, I have a copy of the 1950something American Rifleman with a multi-page article on the Ross, and it repeatedly hammers home how unsafe these rifles are, and what shoddy construction they supposedly are, even the 1905s.

    Completely contrary to my experience with my 1905 and 1910-B. I think my 1905 is probably my favorite rifle, next to my Winchester 1895.

  14. Bit late to the party here Ian but somehow I missed this first time round. We tried the same experiment here at the NFC a couple of years ago and came to the same conclusion. The other way to look at a myth like this is from the standpoint of evidence – was this a real issue? Who wrote about it at the time?

    The answer in this case is that I have found only one reference to the bolt issue, from ‘A Question of Confidence: The Ross Rifle in the Trenches’ (1999, p.25), which refers to a Lt Col L.J. Lipsett of the 8th Battalion; “one of his men had been killed by the blowing back of a bolt, the only such casualty recorded for the battle”.

    So yes, it was possible, and it happened, but not on a significant scale and it was remedied, but not before it entered firearms folklore. A bit like the tearing off of Martini-Henry case rims in the Zulu War.

    • Interestingly, I ran across a bunch of old issues of “Arms & the Man” (the NRA’s magazine at the time) from the 1920s, and it was pretty common for them to print letters about the Ross and responses describing how to check on the bolt assembly. Back when they were more commonly available, it seems to have been fairly common knowledge, which got lost as the guns became scarcer.

      I found references to “A Question of Confidence”, but haven’t acquired a copy for myself yet… (same with “The Ross Rifle story”).

  15. It is interesting that the rifle survived with little damage except for the one bolt lug. I think that was because there was so little resistance that the case head just blew off and the gas escaped before enough pressure had built up to destroy the rifle. Usually a rifle fired out of battery will end up with the stock split, the receiver bent, the magazine ruined or blown completely out and the bolt broken or damaged.

    Jim

  16. Ian / All

    Thanks every so much for the video and the further comments.

    My maternal grandfather, Alfred William Donald Wilden (otherwise known as Don Wilden) was an English career railwayman who served with the British Royal Army Service Corps in WW1.

    As a railwayman, he did not serve in the front lines, but spent his time keeping supplies moving on the railways (and canals). I think he must have carried a Ross rifle for at least least some of his time in France – he certainly told that he preferred to the Ross to the SMLE, on account of its superior accuracy.

    Derek.

  17. Hey thanks Ian, it was tough finding the answers I needed for the ross rifle. Im gun enthusiast to say in the least but even my interest piqued when I found this gem and I just had to learn and this was probably the most accurate insight I’ve had about this rifle. The commenters too! Guys really great questions and answers!

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