Vintage Saturday: Lever Actions in the Trenches

WWI Russians with Winchester M1895 Muskets
I really have no words for how terrible trench warfare must have been…

Russian soldiers in World War One armed with Winchester 1895 lever action rifles chambered for 7.62x54R. In addition to the gas masks and long bayonets, note the fellow at the back left reloading with a 5-round stripped clip. Thanks to Alex A. for sending the photo!



    • According to John Walters’ “Rifle book” there was something of a bayonet and barrel length arms race between the different military bureaucracies in the run up to the World War(act 1).

      Each bunch of Bureautwats tried to have a longer rifle and bayonet adopted than the others – in the hope that their infantrymen wouldn’t be out reached.

      There was probably also an element of pike / halberd tactics creeping in, with regard to cavalry charges with sabre wielding horsemen to be out reached and unseated.

      It all inadvertently gave any opponant with a carbine or a trench club and an understanding of how to apply leverage in a fight, a huge advantage if things got up close and personal.

  1. Trench warfare was very unusual on the Eastern Front in World War I. Neither antagonist had the troops to man the demarcation between forces because the ‘bloodlands’ being fought over was such a vast expanse. This resulted in a lot of gaps in the lines on both sides which were quickly exploited by cavalry manouvers. Thus infantry entrenchments were highly localized and generally occupied for only short periods of time.

    This photo probably shows Russian soldiers defending the Warsaw perimeter in 1915 where trenches were used to some degree by the Russians. Warsaw was the only high value strategic target fought over on the Eastern Front in WW I. It doesn’t look like they are actually wearing gas masks either, rather bandannas to filter out the smoke and dust from conventional artillery strikes. Gas attacks were never successful on the Eastern Front due to the flat topography and ever present winds across the Polish plains.

    • I recall also reading a report that attempts to use tear gas failed due to cold preventing the gas from properly vaporising, instead sitting as an oily ankle deep layer of smoke.

    • I do not want to question your notion of warfare during WWI on Easter front (in truth I was not there either) but from what I read the conduct was quite static as battles were fought for important hills, over and over. In spite of general perception, the density of allocated manpower was quite high from both sides.

      The Russians, for most times until Brest-Litevsk peace treaty, were formidable opponent by any means. The Austro-Hungarians for one, had very hard going with them.

      On subject of infantry arms trading between U.S. and Russia of imperial time it is good to remind ourselves it was as extensive as ever. Lots od rifles, pistols and carbines made in American factories found their way into hands of Russian troops.

      • Yes Denny, the Brusilov offensive of 1916 in Galicia immediately springs to mind. It was a terrible blow for the Austro-Hungarian war effort, to such a point that the double monarchy never recovered. The offensive started with a brief, brutal and deadly accurate artillery barrage that took the Austro-Hungarians completely by surprise. The Russians took 400,000 POWs in a matter of days…

    • I’m currently reading Keegan’s book on WWI. Some points he makes about the eastern front(s):

      1. The trenches were generally MUCH farther apart than in the west. They were also much shallower and less elaborate.
      2. The Russians, at least at the start, were much more competent than they’re usually given credit for.
      3. While the Russians made a lot of mistakes, the Austro-Hungarians made a lot more, of a more dire nature, and ones for which they didn’t have the resources to compensate. After the disasters at Cracow, Przemyśl and elsewhere, the reliable pre-war Austrian and Hungarian units were destroyed as an effective fighting force, leaving the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rely upon increasingly disaffected ethnic minorities (Poles, Czech, Italians, etc.) and borrowed German units.

  2. It’s a pity those Winchester muskets disappeared into Russia and never came back out as surplus. It’s even more of a pity that Winchester isn’t reproducing them.

    • Not entirely true. About twenty years ago, one of the local gunstores here had a Russian Model 1895 Musket for sale. It’s the only one I’ve seen in a store, but then stores around here aren’t exactly known for interesting firearms. They mostly stick to the high volume items, Glocks, AR15s and the like.

      • Some Winchester Model 1895s were sent by Soviets to Spain during the Civil War. I suppose the Spanish government sold some as surplus in the 1950s/1960s.

    • Winchester/Browning did reproductions for the rifle’s centennial, and then a series of commemorative for Teddy Roosevelt. Not sure when they formally discontinued it, tho.

      • IF I’m not mistaken, those repros were made in Japan. I don’t THINK they made any Russian (or standard) style muskets. I know they made sporters, and I THINK some cavalry carbines. The ones I saw were VERY well made, and priced accordingly.

  3. Remember in 1914 horses as well as men were the target for a bayonet attack.. hence the length of the blade.

    Trench warfare conditions varied greatly across the locations and nationalities. For most of the war, the British tried to limit the time in the front line trench to 24 – 48 hrs at a time, and rotated companies between forward and rear locations. Cooking was (supposedly) forbidden in the forward trenches and field hygiene standards strongly enforced. Troops brought up sandwiches and jam fro consumption during the stint.

    Other nations kept their troops constantly in the trenches and even buried their dead in the trench walls. This is well documented.

    You have to remember that this was a time before antibiotics and that armies lost more casualties to disease than enemy action. Strict enforcement of procedures to reduce vermin and the spread of disease were a high priority since the lessons learned (by both sides) in the Crimea.

  4. The two at the forward position are definitely wearing full face masks and the soldier at the left is wearing a half mask with goggles.

  5. I read years ago that 1’000s of the 1895s were sent to Cuba after Castro took over. I don’t know if it was a magazine, book, Gun Digest, etc where I read that. Actually I think is was nearly a 100,000 of them sent there.

    • If that’s the case, there must still be quite a few of them around. Perhaps we’ll find out for sure as and when Cuba opens up.

    • Interesting, do not recall seeing them in pictures from Cuban revolution. Would you have some to show? Besides of some odd FALs here was lot of Dominican made .30cal carbines though. Soon after Russians supplied large amounts of AKs.

      • They didn’t get sent there until after the revolution from what I read. The Russians didn’t really send any thing until after the revolution.

        No pictures nor the source article/book until I happen to run across it again. I have no good idea what it was in. The only reason I remember it was because I hoped that some day they’d come here. If I do find it I’ll post the source.

        The Russians didn’t supply an AKs until about 1970. They sent a lot of submachine guns and machine guns. The Czechs sent most of their 9mm sub guns and a large number of 7.62×45 rifles.

  6. Matthew, the one loading his rifle doesn’t have a bayonet fixed.
    It’s just a piece of lumber in the background.

  7. The soldier on the far left appears to be wearing a commercial dust mask or industrial particulate mask to keep the surrounding dust out of his respiratory tract.

    The caption under the photograph says it all about the nature of trench warfare.

  8. I don’t think commercial dust masks existed at the time..!

    The main war gases of the period were Chlorine and Phosgene which could be neutralised (to some extent)by sodium bicarbonate solution. The other widely used agent was Mustard, which was a liquid and had to be kept off the skin. It could equally be a dust mask..

    I would think that the masks were locally manufactured from cotton sheeting or from first field dressings.

    • At least on the Western front, the initial gas protection was pieces of cloth soaked in water… or urine. Only later did purpose built gas masks come into use.

    • The early purpose made gas masks I’ve seen in the London science museum, were square bags stitched from blanket soaked in sodium hydroxide, with round glazed eye holes.

      I remember chuckling when I read the active ingredient.

      Chlorine reacts with hydroxides to give chlorate.

      I gather that the phosgene gas used later, smelled like new mown hay, and the unsuspecting young soldiers breathed it in deeply.

      • There were several short and longer term attempts at manufacturing “Gas Masks”..

        There is a really good collection at Porton Down, but a bit difficult to get in to see!

        My apologies – I had a minor senior moment with sodium bicarbonate.. but it was not sodium hydroxide – that would burn your face off! – it was sodium thiosulphate, otherwise known as “Hypo” – the same as you use for fixing film. Maybe IWM got the label wrong – It has been known!

        Yes – I can confirm the “new mown hay” smell of Phosgene.. I used to have to “vent” bottles of training Phosgene back in the early 70s before “sensible” cut in!

        • thiosulphate certainly makes far more sense for reacting with halogens.

          it was what I used to use in my mis spent teens – to remove the tell tale stains after playing with nitrogen tri-halides, then rinse the thiosulphate out before it had time to eat my clothes.

        • I was going to say! Much rather take my chances with phosgene than wrapping my face in a cloth soaked in lye 😉

  9. I took a closer and harder look at the photograph again. The soldier on the left is actually using a half mask with goggles, as KellyFrom Mesquite has pointed out. I have to say it looked a lot like a dust mask at first glance ( it was hard to tell due to the graininess of the photograph ). Apologies to all concerned :).

    In addition, the front-mounted filter canister of the mask is also visible if one looks closely enough. It’s more difficult to tell with the second soldier from the left ( the one reloading his rifle with a stripper clip ), but it appears he is using similar equipment but with a side-mounted filter canister, and has also wrapped a scarf around his neck, which obscures the lower side of his head and neck.

    KellyFromMesquite is also correct about the full-face respirators worn by the soldiers on the right. Thanks!

    I noticed that all the troops are not wearing added skin protection ( their hands and parts of their faces and necks are exposed ), so it was at least probably not a mustard gas attack.

    @ Bryden : Commercial dust masks ( the basic types that filter out dust and particulate matter directly through the medium of the mask shell itself and not via attached filters on an impervious shell made of rubber or other similar material, these being properly classified as quarter-face, half-face or full-face passive air-purifying respirators ), have actually been around in one form or the other since the 16th century.

    • I stand corrected Lew..

      But I have to say that all the early British respirators were locally manufactured. There is no evidence of commercial dust masks being used as respirators, and they would have been ineffective. Once the threat was understood, War Department pattern masks were manufactured and then brought into service. This is a matter of record. It would not have been easy for any soldiers on the front line to obtain commercial items, and I doubt if the Tsar/Lenin would have been that bothered to supply them before producing an official pattern.

      As to our Russian friends, you are quite right – on closer examination they do appear to be wearing properly designed respirators – could even be an early version of the later SCHLEM mask (which has to be the most uncomfortable mask ever designed, unless you like that sort of thing..!) This would indicate that the photo was taken relatively late in the conflict!

      • Thanks for the additional information, Bryden. Putting all our heads together on this website is what it’s all about :)! When I first saw the photograph ( before taking the second, closer look after reading KellyFrom Mesquite’s excellent and accurate observations ), it looked as if the soldier on the left was actually using a dust mask just to literally keep out airborne dust, and certainly not gases ( it would have been ineffective in this role, as you say ). Of course, the second examination proved otherwise, as noted in my follow-up comments.

        I have heard something about the SCHLEM mask — apparently reasonably capable of fulfilling its primary intended purpose, but at the cost of ergonomics.

      • By the way, I really enjoyed the discussion between you and Keith — most interesting from a historical standpoint.

      • Possibly, the photo was taken when the earlier batches of the first Russian gas (the Zelinsky-Kummant M 1916) mask were delivered to the troops.

  10. We put collectively together lots of material on WWI trench warfare. Much is read from well funded literature and I do not doubt its value since it was often first-hand account. I also recall tell-tales from personal memories of my maternal side grandfather.

    About bayonet and similar ‘tools’ use he mentioned (more than once actually) that Bosnians/ Bosniaks had “long pokers” on their rifles. This is interesting since Bosnia was part of A-H Empire and therefore Bosniaks were not an enemy, unless they changed sides to join Serbs. The due respect was felt there however.

    Another item and this is from Italian front which was used there and what he called “sturmer” meaning typically oversized kitchen knife. Some cocky individuals had ground score on them in form of notches. They had been in use during hand to hand combat, obviously.

    Finally, one of essential function for fighter just prior to ‘sturm’ was to empty bladder. It bullet hit was taken into full bladder, it was apparently exceedingly painful. Sorry for graphic nature, but that’s the way the “job” was done and is done to this day. The difference is for most part the fact they were conscripts while we have “professionals”.

    • Hi, Denny :

      Thanks for sharing the intimate and detailed information regarding trench warfare and bayonet fighting. I would imagine that most soldiers would feel a pressing need to empty their bladders prior to an assault anyway due to nervousness :).

      • Oh yes, that’s for sure! Interesting was the way how proceedings for action tool place. Commanding officers of platoons (or battalions if there was frontal push) drew toll out of hat to determine order who will be in first, second and third line of assault. This added to sense of ‘fairness’.

        The objective were delivered to officers in sealed envelopes immediately beforehand. NCOs were instructed verbally of shorter version; men did not have this privilege in case they got captured. Officers of common rank up to major were with their men during action.

        • Yes, field-grade officers, even more senior ones, were fully expected to lead by example up-front in those murderous assaults across No-Man’s Land. One sad result was that almost an entire generation of the best and brightest young men was destroyed.

  11. Out of curiosity, where was this photograph found? Where else might I find a good collection of pictures from the eastern front, specifically the Russians? The M1895 in 7.62x54R has always been something I’ve sought after and I’m really glad to see this picture. Thanks!

    • I found it in an internet search one day. I forget where I found it, though. Sorry.

      Big Al


      Alex A.

  12. In the late 1960’sand 1970’s I owned 2 different Win. M1895 Russian Rifles The first was in about 25% condition later I found one in almost 50% condition It was a keeper as it was one of the best I had ever seen Till I saw a Winchester collection at a Kansas City show with an amazing 80% gun. The Russian Win M1895s were and are rare in the USA. Bob.

    • Well, while doing a short web search for images of Russian contract Winchester Model 1895s, I stumbled upon a few pictures of one in amazingly pristine condition, posted by the lucky owner on a Norwegian gun forum. The rifle is probably the best Model 1895 I ever saw, in photos or in “the flesh”, period!

  13. I have a Russian M1895 in quite nice shape – the interesting thing about it is that it shoots several feet low even at 75 yards!

  14. The Russians save everything. I am confident that there are many 1895s packed in grease somewhere in Russia. There was a rumor that a German exporter was negotiating for some, but the asking price was too high.

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