Patrick Ferguson was a British inventor and Army officer who developed a breechloading flintlock rifle in the 1770s (his patent was granted in 1776). He impressed British Army ordnance officials with a remarkable demonstration of the gun’s speed and reliability, and was granted permission to organize an experimental unit of 100 marksmen armed with his rifles to fight in the American colonies. They first saw action at Brandywine, with indifferent results (100 men out of 30,000 redcoats would be hard-pressed to dramatically impact the outcome of a battle no matter how advanced their weapons). Ferguson himself was seriously wounded in the battle, and the unit was disbanded while he convalesced, never to be reformed.
The Ferguson rifle was not the first breechloading flintlock, but it was the first that was made to military standards and formally used in combat. The major innovation of Ferguson’s was to machine his breech threads so that a single revolution of the breech would open it enough to reload (instead of requiring multiple revolutions). A rate of fire of 6 shots per minute or better was easily possible for a well-drilled shooter, and this from a weapon with the accuracy of a rifle. Other weapons at the time required choosing between the accuracy of rifling or the loading speed of a smoothbore. The Ferguson offered both – actually being faster than a smoothbore to reload, and allowing that operation to be done prone, behind cover to boot.
So why did the Ferguson disappear from use after Brandywine? The most immediate reason was the death of Ferguson himself in 1780 at the Battle of King’s Mountain. His direct and personal advocacy was the driving force behind its use, and there was nobody to replace him in that role. In addition, the Ferguson rifles were necessarily much more time consuming and expensive to manufacture. Equipping the entire British Army with such weapons was simply not feasible financially.
The Ferguson I am using in this video is a magnificent museum-grade reproduction made by a man named Ernie Cowan (the same fellow also makes Girardoni air rifles, among other things). It was patterned exactly after one of the intact remaining original Ferguson rifles. There have been other reproductions of these guns made, most notably 250 made by Narragansett Arms of Indianapolis. Judging from the one review I found of that version, I suspect the Cowan guns (and in turn, the originals) are better made. My experience was that after 3 or 4 rounds fired, the breech screw would become sticky, but only insofar as it would require a sharp smack to initially open. The tapered nature of the breech plug (which perhaps Narragansett Arms did not duplicate?) meant that once the breech was opened very slightly, it immediately became completely loose and presented no resistance opening the rest of the way. Certainly any black powder weapon of this design would suffer from fouling fairly quickly, but I believe the action of the Ferguson would have remained functional without cleaning for as long as its barrel.
Usually one uses sandbags or ammo cans for this, but when all else fails…
German soldier using his body weight to stabilize an MG34 on an anti-aircraft tripod.
The Rheinmetall model 1928 (designed by one Karl Heinemann and made in Switzerland) was one of the rifles tested by US Ordnance in trials that eventually settled on the Garand and Pedersen designs (and ultimately chose the Garand). The Rheinmetall rifle had a pretty interesting combination of features…
Heinemann/Rheinmetall 1928 rifle field stripped, Aberdeen photo
It was chambered for the .276 Pedersen cartridge, and used a detachable magazine that mounted horizontally on the left side of the rifle. As you can see in the above photo, it had a toggle-type bolt, but it was neither short recoil like the Luger nor delayed blowback like the Pedersen rifle. Instead, it had a muzzle cup which would capture gas from firing and slide forward (much like the Bang or Liu rifles). This movement was transmitted through a rod under the stock to pull a locking cam out of engagement, thereby unlocking the bolt. Residual pressure in the bore would then throw the bolt backwards to cycle.
Overall weight of the rifle was 4.5kg (9.9 pounds), and magazines were made holding 5, 10, 15, and 25 rounds. It did also have a stripper clip guide on the right side of the action to allow loading by clip. The Ordnance Board like that it was effectively sealed against dirt getting into the action when closed, but disliked several other elements:
- the feed system (they wanted Mannlicher-style clips rather than box mags)
- the sights (it had Mauser-style notch and post sights, and the Board preferred aperture sights)
- the weights (they wanted something under 9 pounds, which the ZH29 proved was possible)
- the number of parts (it had 114)
- the lightweight barrel (which contributed to poor cooling in their opinion)
- unreliable functioning
The Rheinmetall rifle was tested in August of 1929, and removed from further consideration as a result of those problems.
A description of the operation and disassembly of the rifle is available here:
Rheinmetall 1928 description (English)
Many people don’t realize that an extractor is not strictly necessary in many types of pistols – several early blowback models (notably the Bergmann 1896, as well as some later Spanish pistols) did not even have extractors. The residual chamber pressure after the bolt opens is often sufficient to push the case out of the chamber. In 20th century extractor-less pistols, one will usually find a tip-up barrel, to give the shooter a way to manually remove an unfired cartridge.
At any rate, the Schwarzlose 1898 in today’s video does have an extractor, it simply wasn’t working 100% in our shooting session. Two particular shots that seemed to function normally in real time turned out to actually be extractor failures when I reviewed the high-speed footage, and I thought they would make an excellent case study.
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto “Handmitrailleuse”
Ferdinand von Mannlicher’s Model 1885 self-loading rifle design as a failure, never seeing anything even resembling mass production. However, it was a failure which in many way set the stage for a huge number of the machine guns that would follow for the next several decades, including the famous Browning 1917/1919/M2 family. In fact, this 1885 semiauto had influence and impact far beyond its level of recognition today. It was a designed doomed to fail despite Mannlicher’s formidable design talents, simply because the cartridge he based it on was the M1877 11mm Austrian black powder round used in the Werndl rifles. Self-loading weapons would not become truly practical in any form until the invention of smokeless powder, which drastically reduced the amount of fouling and residue from each shot. However, Mannlicher was able to at least make a reasonable attempt despite the use of black powder, and he was the first to do so.
The 1885 design (not to be confused with Mannlicher’s model 1885 straight-pull bolt action rifle) was a recoil mechanism with a separate locking “tong”. As with all recoil-operated designs, the barrel and bolt were locked together at the moment of firing, and remained locked together as they both recoiled rearwards. After a certain amount of travel, in this case about 1.25 inches (32mm) the bolt unlocks and continues rearward which the barrel stops. The locking mechanism in the 1885 Mannlicher is a fork-looking block, labeled #3 in the diagram below. It is pinned to the barrel and able to pivot up and down. When upward, it locks into a cutout in the bottom of the bolt (the bolt is #5 below, and the cutout area is #4). As the bolt and barrel move back, the lower fork of the locking block will eventually hit item #1, an angled projection that forces it downward, unlocking the bolt. Once separated from the barrel, the bolt is able to eject the empty case from the action, and a new cartridge drops down in front of it from the magazine (which is gravity-fed and has no spring). The main recoil spring then pushes the bolt forward, pushing that new cartridge into the chamber. As it moves forward, the hook on the bottom of the bolt (item #2) hits the upper fork of the locking block and forces it into the upward and locked position, thus making the system ready for another shot.
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto cutaway view (ready to fire). Image from WHB Smith, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”.
Another element in this action is the use of an accelerator (item #6). It moves back with the barrel until its bottom leg hits a block in the bottom of the receiver. At that point it stops the barrel, and it rotates around its pivot point, with its upper leg pushing on the bolt. What this effectively does it transfer the remaining momentum in the barrel into the bolt, giving it an extra push to help ensure reliable extraction and ejection.
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto cutaway view (full recoil). Image from WHB Smith, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”
I should also point out that the magazine was offset to the left side of the action, and a loading lever was used to pivot cartridges into the action to feed. The lever was mechanically actuated by a protruding surface on the bolt that would strike it during the ejection cycle:
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto feed view. Image from WHB Smith, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”
Today we thing of short recoil as being a common idea/mechanism that has always existed, but Mannlicher was the man who invented it with this rifle. As such, its principles heavily inform the design of most all the other short recoil machine guns that have been made since (fundamentally, the concept of the bolt and barrel traveling a limited distance locked together before some mechanical actuator separates them). The accelerator concept was also a concept used by Browning in his machine guns. And, of course, short recoil because the dominant mechanism for self loading handguns, by way of Browning’s tipping barrel system. Don’t take this as a suggestion that Browning copied Mannlicher’s ideas, because he didn’t – the two men’s guns differ extensively in detail and simply share basic concepts (and Browning added in a huge does of original thought, such as the concept of a pistol slide). However, it is enlightening to understand where the concepts originated.
For the record, Mannlicher did build the 1885 self-loader in both semiauto and fully automatic versions, and he would go on to refine the design as a rifle in 1891 before turning to other operating systems for his later semiautomatic experiments. He never did explore the concept of a light machine gun, which ultimately proved to be a better role for recoil-operated long guns than the shoulder rifle.
Mannlicher 1885 parts breakdown (image from WHB Smith’s, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”
Parts identification key:
- Bolt assembly
- Bolt assembly (showing detail of locking lug engagement slots)
- Upper trigger plate
- Locking tongs
- Feeder spring
- Trigger assembly
- Striker head
- Magazine holder
- Striker cocking piece
- Trigger spring
- Barrel (details)
In October of 1940, the US proving ground at Aberdeen, Maryland conducted testing of both the Madsen light machine gun (in 7mm caliber) and the Madsen anti-tank/anti-aircraft cannon in 20mm. On November 8th it published a report on the trial (according to its title, the 143rd such report on machine gun testing – I would love to find a full archive of those reports!) which included function testing the LMG, armor penetration testing of the 20mm, and testing the effectiveness of the explosive warhead in the 20mm projectiles. The report is 17 pages of text and a further 35 pages of photos, and should be interesting to anyone interested in the topic.
In particular, the armor penetration testing includes notes on the exact thickness, hardness, slope, etc of the armor plate used. It was noted in the conclusions that the 20mm Madsen was not as effective as the 20mm Solothrun previously tested (which, unlike the Madsen, could pierce 1.5″ face-hardened plate at 100 yards).
You can download the complete report here:
Aberdeen Proving Ground Demonstration and Testing of 7mm and 20mm Madsen Machine Guns (English, 1940)
The model 1898 Schwarzlose was a self loading pistol definitely ahead of its time. It was simple, powerful (for the period; it was chambered for 7.63mm Mauser), and remarkably ergonomic. It used a short recoil, rotating bolt mechanism to operate, and very cleverly had one single spring which did the duties of primary recoil spring, striker spring, trigger spring, and extractor spring. Why it failed to become a commercial success is a question I have not been able to definitively answer – I suspect it must have been due to cost. Edward Ezell theorizes that it was unable to compete with the Borchardt/Luger and Mauser pistols because those were able to be made with much more economy of scale. It is really a shame, because the Schwarzlose 1898 is the best of all the pre-1900 handguns I have encountered.
I decided to bring back my Walther G41 for the April 2-Gun match, this time with a reproduction ZF-41 scope mounted on it. My G41 is a bit unusual in that it was originally made with the pair of rails for a saddle-type mount and also the side rail for a K98k type mount. The saddle mounts appear to have never made it into field use, and some German armorer welded one of the K98k rails to the side of this G41′s rear sight block. This sets it a bit farther back than the saddle mount would have, and as a result it does impede stripper clip loading (you have to angle the clips to the side to clear the scope). This particular rifle also had its stripper clip guides widened at some point for some reason – it will not reliably hold most 8mm stripper clips, but it would wonderfully with Swedish 6.5×55 clips. Those clips are super cheap right now, so I bought a couple boxes of them and I’m just going with it.
Anyway, to make the match interesting, Karl decided to bring his ZF-4 equipped Walther G43 to shoot alongside my G41. This made for an interesting comparison; as both rifles have advantages and disadvantages.
- The fixed magazine and stripper clip loading of the G41, even though the Swedish clip I am using run super smooth, is definitely inferior to the detachable mags of the G43. It is slower in general, and requires two hands to lock the bolt open if you want to load more ammunition before the magazine is empty. The G43 is much easier to reload on the move by just swapping magazines.
- The ZF4 is a more capable scope, but its greater magnification (4x) and smaller field of view are not a benefit when engaging close targets. The ZF-41 (1.5x) was easier to locate targets with, and offered a significant advantage over iron sights. It was still sufficient for the 200 yard targets in this match (although my atrocious trigger control on that stage killed my performance there). A significant part of the challenge of those longer targets in this match is that they are not painted, and blend into the backstop to a significant degree. The ZF-41, even with its low magnification, allowed me to see the targets better, and also to not lose track of them when moving my focus to the front sight.
- The G41 once again had no malfunctions during the match. Its gas system will eventually carbon up and stop working so well, but in my experience so far, it will run flawlessly for at least 250 rounds before that becomes a factor (I am using surplus steel-cased Romanian ammunition, FWIW).
As we mention at the end of the video, Karl and I are planning to take these two rifles to compete in the two-day Tiger Valley practical match in Texas this fall (it’s the same weekend as the Pecos Run-n-Gun, which I unfortunately attempted to enter last year). I am going to be practicing as much as I can with the G41 over the next few months in preparation, and I am really excited to see how these two rifles perform in the closest thing we can realistically get to a combat environment!
Is that a Lanchester mag in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
Canadian Commando with a Lanchester SMG. It wasn’t only the Japanese who put huge bayonets on subguns!
I do wonder how awkward it would get to use Lanchester mags, with their 50-round capacity. Notice the front pouches this fellow is wearing – they are a single continuous piece from the lid above his arm to the bottom of the pouch below it. In addition to putting a lot of of-center weight on an already-heavy gun (2.3 pounds of magazine in a 9.7 pound gun), I expect they also hindered movement and bending at the waist when stored in those pouches.
In 1950, early in the days of AK development, there was some experimentation done with muzzle brakes, in an effort to reduce muzzle climb and improve accuracy (as well as full-auto controllability, I expect). From the Soviet Gun Archives blog, I found this photo of a half dozen different devices tested:
Left to right and top to bottom: similar to stock type, brake-compensator, two chamber, flash suppressor, single chamber, reactive.
It appears that all of these brakes did effectively reduce muzzle climb and increase practical accuracy – but none of them were adopted. Why? According to SGA’s translation:
“The positive effect of the muzzle brake on the accuracy is at odds with the negative result of the sound wave hearing, which is greatly increased to unacceptable levels with most muzzle brakes.
The evaluation of the effect of the sound waves on hearing reveals that all muzzle brakes in the table result in a bothersome or painful sensation in the ears.”
An added reflector like on the DShK was considered as a way to redirect the excessive sound forward, but this was deemed both too bulky and not effect enough to merit serious consideration.
I find it quite interesting that these experimental brakes as a group bear quite a lot of resemblance to the commercial brakes many shooters put on competition or “tactical” rifles today. In particular, I find it entertaining to consider that 1950s Red Army officials were more concerned about shooting comfort and hearing than modern competitors. Of course, this isn’t really a fair comparison; the Red Army was working as a group and not using hearing protection while modern sport and competitive shooters use very effective hearing protection and don’t do anything that requires cooperation or complex communication with other people while shooting. Today’s type of competition shooting simply doesn’t reveal the full consequences that the jarring concussion of modern “tactical” muzzle brakes would have in a more realistic situation.