Swiss ZfK-55 Sniper at RIA

The Swiss military began experimenting with scoped sniper rifle during WWII, with the K31/42 and K31/43. These use periscopic optics permanently mounted to the side of the receiver, and were both found less than ideal. Experiments continued after WWII, and the periscopes were replaced with tradition style scopes on quick-release mountings.

Eventually the idea of making the sniper rifles mostly parts-interchangeable with the standard K31 carbines was also discarded, and the ZfK-55 was adopted. It uses the same basic action as the K31, but only a few small parts can be interchanged between the two types of rifle. The ZfK-55 has a longer and heavier barrel, heavy stock, integral bipod, muzzle brake, and most unusual of all, the action is canted slightly clockwise. This was done to allow the optic to be centered over the barrel but still allow the use of standard 6-round charger clips to reload the rifle.

40 Comments

  1. Swiss engineering never ceases to amaze me. The Swiss had the very first magazine-fed bolt-action rifle to get into service to my knowledge, electrically heated steam locomotives as a stopgap measure while electrical and diesel railway engines were still in development (and while they were short on coal), and possibly the most accurate infantry rifles of the twentieth century. The angled receiver gets points for allowing a centered scope and a quick reload at the same time rather than have a slow reload for accuracy (everyone else) or an offset scope for better reload (made worse by Japanese logistics).

    I would never invade Switzerland. I’d lose all my men and then all my money trying to get my stuff back! NOOOOOOOOOO!

    By the way, the Swiss Air Force had a nasty habit of forcing planes from both Axis and Allied powers to land if they crossed into Swiss airspace (this was after Hitler threatened war on Switzerland if more German planes got shot down). The pilots of the captured planes would be interned, and the Swiss would repaint the planes and put them into service (and also demand cash reparations from the guilty parties if there was property damage).

    Did I flub any information in the text above? SAY SOMETHING!!!!!

    • They also captured the first Me262 intact and everyone was hot for it, so hot, that they dropped it (like it’s hot) into a mountain lake.

    • “Swiss engineering never ceases to amaze me”
      However notice that it has high price tag. For rich and neutral (no combat losses of equipment) Switzerland it was not a problem, but fighting countries can not afford that weapons.

      “Swiss Air Force had a nasty habit of forcing planes”
      I’m not a expert at 1940s aviation international law but can neutral country allow flight of foreign air force aeroplanes if it want to stay neutral?

      • Violation of Swiss airspace was taken really seriously, especially after Goering tried to use “navigational error excuses” to justify He-111’s bombing Swiss targets rather than French targets or for the bombers to cross the Alps rather than risk interception by the French Armee de l’Air at the usual border. Several Luftwaffe flights were decimated by Swiss-marked Bf-109’s, which were commercially purchased from Germany in the time before the Fall of France. You can imagine how pissed Hitler got when he heard that German made planes were shooting down the Luftwaffe right at the border. Also, after the whole “stop downing planes in disputed air space” agreement, the Swiss agreed to this: foreign aircraft would be first warned to leave the area, Swiss fighters would show up as escorts to show the former “the way out the door.” If the intruders came to an area without an air base, flak units would fire “warning shots.” Should the foreign planes ignore the radio call or open fire (shooting Swiss fighters or dropping bombs on Swiss territory), the Swiss would either force the unwelcome guests to land or just shoot them down in anger. In either case, someone does not go home happy.

        Similar to the ME-262 story, a Bf-110 with brand-new night-fighting radar got interned in Switzerland after getting lost and after having run out of fuel (and the pilot certainly didn’t like the idea of getting shot by his superior for losing the aircraft). To prevent the Swiss from checking out the wonderful toys built into the plane or selling the plane to potential British or American customers (not that anyone would just put a recently acquired airplane on the international auction block), the Germans actually promised 12 new Bf-109s if the Swiss just scrapped the plane. The Swiss agreed, but later demanded a refund when it turned out the dozen Bf-109s had plenty of manufacturing shortcuts and defects.

        • Regards 1) ME-110 ( BF for you stitch Nazis ) nightfighter. More than one book on the Air War has suggested that the Swiss allowed the English to examine and take parts from the machine before it was destroyed. 2) Flak- a WWII joke about German radio monitoring a conversation between an American Bomber and Swiss
          Authorities went like this: SWISS “B-17 you are about to violate Swiss airspace.” B-17 “We know that.” SWISS “We shall fire upon you if you do.” B-17 ” We know that.” SWISS “We are opening fire.” B-17 “You are shooting 300 feet too low.” SWISS ” We know that.” 3) So many Allied aircraft landed in Switzerland during the war that a Swiss newspaper ran a cartoon showing a perplexed Swiss pilot vainly seeking a landing space on a Swiss airfield overflowing with B-17 & B-24s.

      • Neutrality rules require enforcing your airspace against all-comers.

        There was an incident when Goering actually deliberately took on the Swiss air force over the Jura as punishment expedition – the Luftwaffe sent a 32 Me110’s into Swiss airspace, where they circled in threes in a tower formation of Lufbery circles, each protecting the other with front-facing and rear-facing guns. 10 Swiss 109’s went up against them.

        Whenever a Swiss 109 neared the tower, one of the German 110’s would break off, go for him, then quickly turn to draw the 109 back into the tower, and one of the 110’s from a higher level of the tower would dive down on him. The Swiss quickly discovered that they could dive away vertically from the 110’s and get away. The Germans lost at least 3 machines, and the Swiss none. Some were damaged, and a pilot was shot in the lungs and the femur, but got his plane down and survived.

        Source: Werner Rings, “Schweiz im Krieg 1933-1945”, pp. 196-199

        • “Me110”
          Proper name is Messerschmitt Bf 110

          “The Germans lost at least 3 machines, and the Swiss none.”
          In fact Bf 110 were rather poor fighter as they were less agile in dogfight against single engine fighters. However they were used until the end of war: it can be fitted with radar equipment, also some problems occurred with Me 210 which has to replace Bf 110.

          • Namely, the development of the tail section in the Me-210. The original twin rudder arrangement didn’t go as planned, so the engineers had to make a single fin tail section to rectify the instability and terrible performance associated with the prototype’s first flight. Eventually, the Me-410 was made, and it still had some quirks, including the tail-gunner’s equipment (two electrically powered gun blisters on the sides of the aircraft, to avoid the “shoot off the tail” scenario).

            For ridiculously overspecialized aircraft, see the Henschel HS-129 B-3 armed with a 7.5 cm Bordkanone. It had terrible performance but could one-shot just about any tank of the period given an ideal attack run. Overall, the HS-129 family was overweight and underpowered, but very tough and likely to give ground targets a run for their money.

          • Specialized aeroplanes excels at intended role but are lackluster at others, aeroplanes designed for attack ground should not fight against fighters, as it is almost sure lose for them, high-altitude pursuit should not be used in ground-attack role: see for example F-104 Starfighter (it was so special hight-altitude that it has downward ejection of pilot seat)

  2. Ian, I would have told anyone that asked that I was not particularly interested in the topic of your videos–until I started watching. In my opinion you are doing a fine job of arousing my interest in this topic and in the firearms you showcase. Thanks for that.

  3. Rotating the action is one of those obvious ideas I never would have thought of. Regarding the muzzle brake, in Philip Sharpe’s book on handloading on page 309 he is pictured with a muzzle brake (on his Springfield) similar to the FG-42 design. That would have placed the muzzle brake having been invented by someone in the 1930’s.

    I was reading about the POWs at Colditz a while back, at the end of the war some of the VIPs had been removed from the castle and were being moved around by the Nazis. Swiss observers followed them and that may well have prevented an atrocity, a last act of revenge by Adolf. The Swiss obviously did not fight for the Allies, but made life a lot better for POWs, on the Western front anyway. Heaven help anyone the Eastern front or in the Pacific.

    • “That would have placed the muzzle brake having been invented by someone in the 1930’s.”
      At least 1930s for hand-held fire-arms – see Soviet AVS-36 automatic rifle
      At least 1900s for artillery piece – see 37mm McLean cannon
      http://ww1.milua.org/R37Macleana.htm (scroll to bottom and click middle image)

  4. If a sniper needs a bayonet, they sure haven’t done their job! That muzzle brake looks like something I should put on my lawnmower…

    • Dragunov SVD also has bayonet lug because designated marksmen are not really safe from opponents who like getting personal. Unlike dedicated snipers, the marksman is expected to be ready for a brawl if things go bad. As such, the ZfK-55 and the SVD both try to address the issue by giving the marksman a bayonet lug and bayonet in order to keep the other team from laying hands upon him should he run out of ammunition… Or am I wrong?

  5. Master Cherndog: Again you are spot-on with your belief that the last thing a sniper/”marksman” wants is to be captured. But for the “Designated Marksman” a bayonet is a useful accouterment to their wardrobe in case they want to take out a wandering oppositional combatant without too much noise, which appears to draw attention to ones self. “Some” have postulated that at least once they were almost urinated upon in such a situation. Long thin bladed for some reason lack much of an acoustic signature. But in reality, an acceptable alternative to being captured was what has been euphemistically called a “Black Cherry.” The “Black” indicates a black marking meaning that it has no delay fuse and the “Cherry” is a reference to a “Chery-Bomb.” The reality is that ti was a fragmentation grenade with a “Zero-Delay” fuse meaning that when the spoon flipped it detonated. The usual use was for hasty booby-traps using just the Black Cherry, a can or spent artillery casing and a length of wire; the trip wire was stretched across a trail and the BC was placed in the holder across from the wire anchor spot and the pin pulled. When a wandering opponent hit the trip wire it pulled the BC out and instant detonation. The use by a wounded sniper was to lay his weapon down, pull the pin on the Black Cherry and lay down across the weapon with his body holding the spoon in place. The “Captor” did three things when he rolled the wounded man over; he destroyed the valued weapon/trophy, negated all chances of capture and torture of the sniper and blew his own stupid backside into very small pieces. I hear that most snipers carried both a bayonet and a Black Cherry into most missions that placed them in close proximity to the enemy. A bayonet was also useful to place into battery and stick into the ground next to you so your weapon was never out of arm’s reach when you got a chance to eat or to make a “head call.”

    • With the Black Cherry, the sniper takes the potential captor with him or at least forces him to retire early. Usually this leads to the other team’s soldiers committing the war crime of shooting or bayoneting every dead body they see just to be sure the bodies are dead. And that leads to the friendly team shooting everyone on the other team dead in retaliation or calling in artillery for overkill revenge. Usually it seems that per the Battle of Stalingrad, the standard procedure for getting rid of snipers is to triangulate their position and then order a 155mm barrage upon that position for at least 10 minutes. Then again, that approach failed to kill Simo Hayha and only tore up his coat, after which I think he probably head-shot more Russians (perhaps 10 per day) in order to find a jacket that was about his size. After all, Finland is really cold at that time of year… I could still be wrong.

  6. A German officer, possibly Hindenberg, speaking to a Swiss diplomat is said to have asked, “You have an army of 250,000. What would you do if you were invaded by an army of 500,000?”

    Answer: “Fire twice and go home.”

    • Another variant: “If you were invaded by an army five times your size, then what?”
      “We empty the magazines and then have dinner.”

  7. Excellent presentation and some interesting comments.
    Firstly, take into account the fact that neither the Schmidt-Rubin family or their predecessor the Vetterli were ever used in war. They never had to cope with the mud of Flanders, the sand of North Africa, the humidity of the jungles in the Far East and the neglect of months of campaigning in the hands of a tired soldier. These are the trials a rifle must pass before it is hoisted up the flagpole as the best of the best. The SMLE, M1917 30-06, 1914 pattern, Springfield 30-06, M1 Garand, Mauser 98K, Arisaka, Mosin-Nagant, all of these passed most of the tests. Specialist rifles like the one in this video usually end up in the hands of specialist soldiers that take extra care and are not involved in all the rough and tumble, for instance the Ross was an excellent sniper’s rifle and a failure as a general issue rifle. In my modest opinion the Swiss rifles are very well made and of excellent quality but strictly for clean environments. As you say they can be found in good condition which is an obvious bonus.
    Regarding invasions of neutral air space, it went on merrily in the Iberian Peninsula, Spain was pro-nazi anyway and allowed the Luftwaffe to overfly its territory on the way from Bordeaux to attacking allied convoys. Portugal also turned a blind eye, except in the Azores and around Lisbon, although when a German aircraft did come down, British experts had a good look at it before it was scrapped. There was an incident in Aljezur when a Condor was shot up by a Beaufighter and flew into a cliff. This was reported as an accident (“a disaster”), and the crew were buried with full military honours (RAF aircrew were also buried with fmh). One of the lighthouse keepers was supposed to be an Axis spy looking out for convoys. Allied aircraft often landed out of fuel and were interned, later incorporated into the PAF, a whole squadron of Airacobras was thus incorporated, but there were permanent problems with maintenance and spares. There was a solitary P-38 Lightning that was known as “The General’s Aircraft” because it was wheeled out during top brass visits, and then pushed back into its hangar. The US kept demanding its return and refusing to supply spares and maintenance data. I’m pretty sure it was scrapped later, an excellent opportunity lost to preserve a historic plane.

    • Only one way to find out if you’re right about Swiss rifles being bad in mud. Use a 19th century Belgian field test. It won’t be pretty.

    • “but strictly for clean environments.”
      Not exactly. Ever heard of the Swiss alps? The reason the stocks are beaver chewed is because they had to kick them out of the frozen ground. These aren’t pocket watches.
      The k31 was designed to survive firing with an obstructed barrel. You’ll see this if you compare a k31 to a k11 or any other bolt action. The barrel dimensions around the breach are monstrous. The ammo is also above par.
      The only weak spot I know of is the nub that goes into bolt on the charging handle. I suspect when these rifles were still in service it wasn’t an issue but fatigue may finally be catching up to them.

      • So if the bolt handle were redesigned, would that make the action virtually indestructible? I suggested an abuse test to prove whether or not that the K31 and its family could deal with the elements.

    • The problem with that is that you are trying to spot someone after he’s already killed you. If the powder charge is just right, there won’t be any muzzle flash to spot.

  8. Pontiaku, I know the Swiss Alps and even spent time there. Very clean in the summer by comparison to some of the environments I’ve seen near the Scottish border. In fact Switzerland is pathologically clean, it’s not just a joke! Spring and Autumn might be a bit wet and muddy but not to Flanders standard. You really have to look out for cowpats, they are the major hazard. I once unrolled my sleeping bag in deepest darkest England in a pitch black night, full tactical conditions, over the mother of all cowpats. I had a comfortable night, too cold or too tired to notice the smell, but none of my buddies wanted to march behind me the next day so I became a permanent tail-end charlie, emanating a rich farmyard aroma. Back at camp I had to clean the wretched thing! The Alps in winter are rigorous, and low temperatures are good for freezing moisture inside rifle barrels which is why you leave them outside to avoid condensation. Unkind on lubricants also. Most of my low temperature experience was in Sweden in the 1990’s, 22ºC negative during the day and 35ºC negative at night. No rifle, just a camera that kept going as long as one took precautions such as putting it in an airtight bag before coming indoors. The film didn’t behave all that well, Kodak Ektar professional, I should have stuck to Fuji.
    Firing from an obstructed barrel, obstructed with what? Snow wouldn’t be too bad, ice or frozen cow-do’s worse, frozen mud very serious, bound to end with an oversize bore or blown out muzzle even if the action stood up to it. Ask the Russians, Finns or Swedes, they probably have more experience with that sort of thing. I agree Swiss ammunition is excellent, the best I’ve used in 9 mm was Belgian, the worst, both in 9 mm and 7.62 Nato was Pakistani, I had 2 stoppages in 6 rounds of 9 mm due to insufficient chamber pressure and failure to eject. My unit suffered two flash eliminators with bars blown out (on FAL’s), one of which on my rifle, luckily I spotted it before firing the next shot. We condemned the ammunition and got rid of it by signing it back into stores and making sure we signed out a British batch next time, classic (and dangerous) passing the buck, but the Sergeant-Majors called the shots (bad pun!).
    In Africa (mainly Guine-Bissau, jungle rather than savannah) it was customary for Portuguese troops to put a condom or small plastic bag over the muzzle of G3’s in the bush, as they did not like firing with a wet barrel. Some rifles are supposed to whistand firing coming straight out from the sea, I have some difficulty figuring that out…

    • Last time I checked, Switzerland could not afford to lose stuff due to attrition. To make matters worse, its army has a tight material budget. So I doubt the troops would be issued weapons that had a nasty tendency to jam for no practical reason. Just how is the K31 fragile, seeing as it’s a mountaineer’s weapon? There are few spare parts in the field, and I don’t think one can improvise parts from scratch.

  9. I cannot see any reference to the K31 being fragile, except for the little plastic bobs in the bolt handle. The issue is that it has never been tried in proper long term battle conditions like the others I mentioned, to which should be added the Lebel and Berthier. The SMLE proved reliable in all possible conditions, from jungle to arctic, and apparently the Canadian unit which was the last military unit to be issued with Nº 4 rifles, has had to exchange them for something else owing to parts shortages. This is a 100 year span of use, including two World Wars and countless minor campaigns, for an action that is not particularly strong or tight. Like we say in the UK, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, these Swiss rifles, beautiful pieces of engineering as they are, have never been “eaten”.

    • Okay, so let’s try a 19th century style endurance test. This involves smashing the rifle into trees and rocks for ten minutes continuously, plugging the barrel with mud, leaving it for say, three days without cleaning and then pulling the trigger.

  10. Going through an endurance test may not prove anything, it would however be very interesting to see what acceptance tests were carried out at the time by the Swiss, they are anything but thorough. The real issue is use in real live battlefield conditions.
    If I may digress a little, the Leopard 2 tank won the Canadian trials for a new MBT, however the Challenger has proved itself to be probably the most effective MBT today. Like the man said, the Challenger was built to win battles, not contests.
    The same may also apply to firearms, you can test them to destruction like in the US pistol trials that rejected the P08 and C96, although these seem to have been effective enough in the hands of Germans, Dutch and Portuguese (and Swiss, but not in combat). It’s different with rifles, you must design for the lowest common denominator, the not too bright but motivated and aggressive squaddie that will render front line service, and will have to learn all the routines by rote and intensive training, rather than an officer or NCO who is supposed to understand why this is done thus and not another way. I was a trainee officer but had to do a complete strip-down and re-assembly of an FAL (SLR in the UK), blindfolded and within a given time. Putting in the gas regulator the other way round earned you 25 push-ups, with no blindfold but an instructor’s boot in the small of your back. Then you had the moral right to demand the same performance from the soldiers under your command.

  11. Corection, what I refer to as the regulator above was officially called the gas plug, as all it did was divert gas from the barrel into the cylinder, regulation was by allowing gas to leak at the head of the cylinder. They could be fitted wrong way round on purpose, thus cutting off the gas supply and making the rifle a straight-pull repeater. This was done when firing Energa grenades (obsolete, dead and buried by the time I got there, thankfully), or if for some reason the gas piston or spring was lost or damaged.

  12. Cherndog, I’m afraid that window of opportunity is closed. One cannot ask a soldier to leave behind his AI in 308 Lappua Magnum or whatever, and state of the art optics, to try out a fifties relic based on an even older rifle. It’s the duty of those in power to ensure that a man risking his life has use of the best equipment the budget can carry. In any case you need a significant number of units in various field conditions, not realistic really. This will just remain another unanswered question, each with his own opinion.

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