Firearms Basics: Rifle Length Terminology

If you starting looking carefully at military bolt action rifles, you will find that they generally all fall into one of three categories:

Rifles: 30-32 inches / 760-810mm
Short Rifles: 24-26 inches / 610-660mm
Carbines: 17-20 inches / 430-510mm

How did these different standard lengths come about, and why are the Italians and the Russians different? Let’s have a look…


    • The whole rationale’ for the SA80 was that the L1 rifle was just too long to fit into the then-new Warrior AFV. In fact, it was frankly too long to fit into the older FV432 APC.

      One consideration in development of the AR15 was that at almost exactly 1 meter long, it would fit into the M113 APC a little more conveniently than the 44 inch long M14, let alone the 46.5 inch long M1 Garand.

      The Steyr AUG was a bullpup because the Austrian Army wanted a single rifle that was usable by both ground troops riding in APCs, as well as airmobile troops riding in helicopters. Anyone who has ever tried to maneuver even an M16 in and out of a Huey will heartily agree with their reasoning.



      • And of course, the M2 Bradley IFV is not as spacious as the old, boxy M113 APC, hence the M4 Carbine. The Germans and Russian went for the third option and have a folding stock for mechanized infantry. The Israeli love their heavy APCs for urban warfare, but they tend to be cramped, so the bullpup Tavor is a natural choice for them. They have now completely phased out the M16, which to my knowledge makes the Israeli Army the only army which has gone through and abandoned two distinctly different designs in the same assault rifle caliber and is now using the third design in the same caliber.

        • The M2 is dramatically more spacious inside than the M113 (even with the turret), and the M4 was adopted decades after the US Army’s mechanized forces transitioned to the Bradley.

          The M4 carbine is compact enough for basically any form of transport unless you’re literally trying to fit it into a backpack.

      • The M14 is longer than the M1 by at least a few inches. Have one or two of both and M1s fit in the gun safe just fine but have to break down the M14 to get it in the safe. That super long flash hider is to blame.

        The M14 is even longer than sporting bolt action deer rifles. I like the M14s in general, but they are way too long. Some designer spent a lot of time on a open range and never tried moving around with one.

        • Reminds me of the Smithsoniannwhe the acquired a 9 foot tall stuffed grizzly. The elevator to take it up to the display floor was only 7 and a half feet. In other words, no way was that bear going up in tat elevator.
          After a considerable time burning hyper-smart brain cells (and failing) as a last resort, a very expensive specialist was hired to consult on the matter.
          He arrived, looked exactingly at the offending elevator, then at the formidable bear and said, “Why not try the Grizz diagonally?”
          Need I say more?

  1. As far as different loads for carbines vs. full-length rifles, this was actually fairly common in blackpowder days, going back the custom of giving cadets at service academies lightweight “cadet” rifle versions of the standard (muzzle-loading) rifle firing a lighter bullet with a “bled” charge for target practice.

    Sometimes, though, things got weird. Notably in the case of the French 17.5mm Model 1867 Fusil a’Tabatiere conversion of the rifle-musket to breechloading, the so-called “snuff box” rifle with a breech similar to the contemporary Snider-Enfield.

    The standard rifle round was a copper-headed, coiled-brass case with a paper wrapper (intended to prevent case adhesion in tropical temperatures), with a 555 grain bullet in front of 69 grains of black powder.

    The carbine load, by comparison, had a 679 grain slug backed up by 89 grains of powder.

    One can only assume that the French Army was adhering to the old knightly tradition of cavalry being “the Guild of the Horse Butchers”, i.e. wanting to make certain that the cavalry and dragoons’ carbine had enough punch to take an enemy horseman’s mount out from under him with one hit.

    I doubt the French horsemen were particularly fond of that load, though.



  2. This was an excellent review and it was overdue. In fact who would have thought that length of barrel has something to do with ‘all-burnt-point’ would be utterly wrong. It was, as Ian points out matter of pure practicality; a particular rifle’s purpose.

    One aspect of barrel length is manufacturing; its material cost and time to make, not to mention provision to maintain its straightness. This last point was specifically something to focus on during both production and use. Also, the longer barrel meant heavier weapon with its pros and cons. On the other hand, every recruit soon found out that short barrel carbine was not all that ‘sexy’ as it first seemed.

    It was a delicate balance to make for each single purpose.

  3. Ian, do you have any citations from period documents that barrel length was to enable firing in ranks / bayonet fighting? I was always under the impression that (at least in American & British service) 30″+ barrels were simply a holdover from black powder where the length was needed for ballistic reasons. Once smokeless took off they fairly quickly moved to the shorter M1903 & SMLE despite the tactical situation remaining unchanged.

    Also, was cavalry generally trained to shoot their carbines one-handed? That seems fairly useless given that it would be both highly inaccurate and you would be unable to reload.

    • I can’t comment on US rifles, but Britain went from the Lee Metford (black powder) to the “Long” Lee Enfield (smokeless) and then the SMLE. In other words, there was a generation of long rifles using smokeless powder in between black powder and the SMLE, there wasn’t a direct leap to shorter rifles with the adoption of smokeless powder.

      As for cavalry shooting one handed, I wasn’t under the impression that they did so very often. However, cavalry carbines were often carried in buckets hung from the saddle, and you needed to be able to pull it from the bucket with your right hand, point it in roughly the right direction, and then raise up your left hand at the last moment to support it to aim and fire it. If you look at muzzle loading cavalry carbines they were often very short. Some were even built with detachable stocks.

      Reloading of muzzle loading cavalry carbines wasn’t an issue any more than it was with pistols, as you would ride up, fire one shot at close range, and then ride off again. Staying in one spot to slug it out at close range with infantry was never going to end well for the cavalry. You also weren’t going to fire accurately to long ranges from a moving horse under normal circumstances.

      Something not mentioned by Ian (at least not in detail) was that another factor affecting combined infantry rifle and bayonet length was the need to be long enough to make the infantryman’s forward hand less vulnerable to cavalry sabres. One of the standard techniques for a cavalryman faced by infantry bayonets was to cut at the forward hand.

      Cavalry often had reason to fight dismounted aside from those which were dragoons. Examples would be fighting their way into a town or village, or assaulting fortifications. Since they had their sabres, they didn’t need bayonets, as the sabres were much handier weapons than bayonets anyway.

      Up until the end of the 18th century, infantry often had short swords called “hangers”. In most armies older spike bayonets were replaced by long sword bayonets (an edged blade) to give the infantry a sort of combination weapon to replace the hanger.

      Hangers were retained as side arms through most of the 19th century by many specialist troops such as pioneers. This is why quite a few 19th century hangers are saw backed – so they could be combination side arms and tools.

      • “As for cavalry shooting one handed, I wasn’t under the impression that they did so very often.”
        To be able to do so there was often a stud mounted at front of cuirass/ armour. Horseman’s carbine had a hook at butt which engaged into it. This was used since take off of firearms with wheel lock.

      • “some cavalry carbines had detachable stocks”

        Actually, cavalry and dragoons were sometimes given rather long-barrelled pistols with detachable stocks. The idea was that they would be used one-handed while mounted, but once dismounted they could be used as musketoons.

        The U.S. M1855 Pistol-Carbine, cal. .58, was fairly typical of the breed;

        The British Army had the Pattern 1856 rifled pistol-carbine about the same time;

        For some reason, it’s rare to find one of these with the detachable stock still extant.

        Both may have been inspired by the Swedish Model 1850 flankorpistol;

        Note the stock attaching iron forming the backstrap.

        Similar weapons also showed up in Germany, Russia, and the Low Countries.

        None of them seem to have been particularly popular with the troops. Mostly because when fired off the shoulder, their short barrels made the experience pretty much the same as firing a sawn-off musketoon the same way.

        Having the blast, flash, and powder-throwing of that muzzle out at arm’s length would be one thing; having it a foot from your eyebrows would something else entirely.



        • A major complaint about the Model 1855 carbine-pistol was that it was generally carried muzzle down, which meant that all that jouncing on a horse tended to let the ball creep down the bore. Having a space between the ball and powder led at best to a much bigger than anticipated bang and at worst a burst barrel.

  4. “Russians”
    Imperial-Russian army had tradition name-by-user, dating back to at least Napoleonic Wars, if not times of Peter Great (begin of 18th century), thus Berdan No. 2 existed in such variations as adjective(infantry) rifle, adjective(dragoon) rifle, adjective(cossack) rifle.
    Mosin has similar variants, however when in 1930 it was decided to get upgraded version, following decision were done:
    – adjective(infantry) RIFLE size with 800 mm will be dropped
    – adjective(dragoon) CARBINE size will be default size for both infantry and cavalry, replacing their sizes used until then
    – new weapon designed for fit adjective(dragoon) CARBINE will be RIFLE
    To add some confusion Russian KS-23 shotgun is CARBINE from Russian point-of-view, thus K in KS

    • To further increase confusion ТОЗ-106 is rarely also named carbine, however more often it is less confusingly named shotgun or Ружьё (roughly mean longgun in English).
      ТОЗ-106 photos:
      1st from bottom and 2nd from bottom are joke, but other are serious.
      One of features, which you might find peculiar, if unaware of Russians civilian guns, is that ТОЗ-106 will fire only if stock is fully extended. This is caused by Russian law that require shotgun to be at least 800 mm long WHEN ready to fire.
      ТОЗ-106 was produced in 1993 – 2011 in Tula (as it designation imply), it is bolt-action repeating shotgun for 20 gauge 70 mm. Default magazine capacity is 2. Barrel length is 295 mm, and overall length is 530 mm when stock folded.
      It is also known as “Смерть председателя”, which was applied due to its similarity to Mosin obrez, as used during Russian Civil War, among others against men of old system.

  5. I alwaays thought the BBC’s motto was ‘Educate, inform and entertain.’ Checking on this there internet I cannot find any primary historical source for the quote, so maybe not copyrighted. I doubt Ian will start using it as a ‘free’ slogan (it would be a bit like saber rattling) but I have to say the combination of authoritative knowledge and dry humour fills the 3 parts of the slogan better than the BBC manages now, and with less issues of access.

    Sorry to be numb: but was the Car 98 not adopted in 1898? If not. then when?

    • The “98” referred to the original year of adoption of the Gewehr 98, aka the “Lange Gewehr” (long rifle), 1898. The number actually refers to the 1898 model bolt action, which superseded the earlier 1888, 1892, and 1894 models.

      The original “Commission Rifle” in 7.9 x 57 and other calibers, with the Mannlicher-type en-bloc clip loading system, is the 1888 model. Spanish Mausers in 7 x 57 from the Spanish-American War are 1892s; Swedish Mausers in 6.5 x 55 are 1894s. All three lack the third “safety lug” of the 1898 bolt.

      The first “carbine” variant of the 1898 was the Gew98b, aka K98b (K for “Kurz”- “short”) adopted for artillery troops and etc. in 1913.

      The Karabiner 98k (“Carbine, 98, Kurz”) was adopted in 1935 as the “universal” rifle for all branches of the Wehrmacht.

      In fact, as with most such things, production lagged behind demand (things like MG34s had higher priority) so the older 98b and even “Lange Gewehr” can be seen in photos of German troops in Poland and France up to the summer and fall of 1940.



  6. Short rifles (or muskets) have been around for quite a while. French light infantry in Napoleonic times used the fusil de dragon which was shorter and lighter than the line muskets. Like them, it was smoothbore. The British Army introduced the Enfield Short Rifle in 1856, which was a shorter version of the standard P53 Enfield. It had a shorter barrel (33″ vs. 39″) and was somewhat lighter and handier. It was intended for use by the Rifle regiments and sergeants, and was also a favorite of Confederate sharpshooters. In short, they’re not a recent invention.

      • Forgot to mention that the Austrian army also had a short rifle, the 1854 Jaegerstutzen, which was intended for the jaeger (rifle) regiments and NCOs of the line regiments. They also had the Extra Korps Gewehr intended for support troops which was more of a carbine.

  7. Universal short rifles seem to be the best for reservist training. Handy enough for carrying but massive enough not to buck around if handled correctly during firing. This may seem off topic, but I’m pretty sure there would have been more variants of the Breda PG had it not been for logistical hassles. There was supposedly a PG2 design with a shorter stock and a design for a Breda F.A.1 light machine rifle based on the original PG or something like that. Anyone know anything about those concepts?

    • My impression of Breda PG (and I was able to handle it minus actual firing) was, part of its fancy breech mechanism, its smallish buttstock. I would definitely not use it for any other purpose that shoulder rest. Overall, I’d say it was a dead-end design from start.

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