M1908 Mondragon Semiauto Rifle at RIA

The M1908 Mondragon is widely acknowledged to have been the first self-loading rifle adopted as a standard infantry arm by a national military force. There are a couple earlier designs used by military forces, but the Mondragon was the first really mass-produced example and deserves its place in firearms history. Designed by Mexican general Manuel Mondragon (who has a number of other arms development successes under his belt by this time), the rifles were manufactured by SIG in Switzerland. They are very high quality guns, if a bit clunky in their handling.

The design used a long-action gas piston and a rotating bolt to lock. Interestingly, the bolt had two full sets of locking lugs; one at the front and one at the rear as well as two set of cams for the operating rod and bolt handle to rotate the bolt with. The standard rifle used a 10-round internal magazine fed by stripper clips, but they were also adapted for larger detachable magazines and drums.

Unfortunately, the rifle required relatively high-quality ammunition to function reliably, and Mexico’s domestic production was not up to par. This led to the rifles having many problems in Mexican service, and Mexico refused to pay for them after the first thousand of their 4,000-unit order arrived. The remaining guns were kept by SIG, and ultimately sold to German for use as aircraft observer weapons.

For more information and photos of Mondragons, check the 1908 Mondragon page in the Vault.


  1. Was the Mondragon the first rifle where the barrel was drilled, or “ported”?

    Who at that time would put a hole in a good bore?

    • I don’t know which rifle was first to feature gas-port but the first mass-produced with this feature was probably Colt Potato Digger machine gun.

  2. The Italians.
    With the Cei-Rigotti select fire rifle, which had a gas port to the right (?) side of the barrel, actuating the bolt.
    There is a posting about it around here somewhere, when Ian (partially) disassembled one in the former Pattern Room in England (Leeds? AFAIR).

  3. The bolt, with its two sets of locking lugs, was typical of Mondragon’s design work. His Model 1893 bolt-action service rifle had the same system. It also had a “lockout” button on the bolt handle, but in its case the button worked with an odd “safety-selector” switch over the trigger.

    The “selector” allowed the rifle to be put on safe, switched to fire, or put in a mode in which the rifle would fire when the bolt was closed without touching the trigger. This was a “volley fire” setting intended for close assault and also possibly for long-range volley “by the numbers”.

    Needles to say, any Model 1893 Mondragon needs to be checked very carefully before it is loaded with live ammunition. Both to determine exactly which “mode” it is in and whether or not the mechanism is actually working properly.

    As for the gas cutoff at the front of the M1908’s gas tube, I’m wondering if that might not be intended for grenade launching. The patent drawing shows a different pattern of cutoff, a rotating plug at the front end of the piston tube that ducts gas from the barrel straight out the front. It was to be operated by a small knurled knob, rather than the lever of this version.

    The lever would be easier to operate in adverse conditions, which makes me think it might not be part of Mondragon’s original design.

    Could it be a SiG/Neuhausen modification to make the rifle more useable in trench warfare? It would be in keeping with the German patterns of “rodded” rifle grenades in use at the time, which did not require a discharger spigot or cup.

    The sudden “gas check” where the burning powder met the end of the rod would be just aft of the gas port, and without a cutoff, there would be a good chance of the pressure peak wrecking the piston assembly.

    The lever-operated cutoff would be easier to find and operate, in the dark or in a muddy trench, than the original design’s small knurled knob.



  4. Did I miss it or did you not make mention the fact that rifle is serial number 1 and you had the first of the first in your hands there?

  5. The two sets of everything (four locking lugs and two cams) might look like a good idea on paper but may have been difficult to manufacture. Unless the tolerances were purposely loose on the rear set of everything it must have been a challenge to fit the bolts to the rifle. I suppose an extra set of locking lugs with loose tolerances could be a safety feature (in theory at least), but two cams (if both actually worked at the same time) would only serve to make life interesting for whoever was doing the fitting. It may have been that the Swiss were the only ones who could have done such precise work.

  6. Given a choice between a Mondragon and a Chauchat, which terrible gun would you pick up and clean once you got out of a muddy trench if it were the last thing between you and a bunch of “trench zombies?”

    SOMEBODY RESPOND QUICKLY!!!! [shoots zombies]

  7. Well that really is some rifle, 1908… Who would have thought it, you can see it influencing the Garand.

    And timely eh, Zeppelins etc, Snail magazines apt, though when it was conceived, that lark was pretty much over the horizon. Naval build up’s aside…

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