Sunday 15 July 2018

The Birth of the Three-Line Rifle

The history of the Russian model 1891 bolt action rifle, better known as the Mosin rifle or the "mosinka" has spanned over 100 years, but this weapon still fights, and doesn't just collect dust in warehouses. How did the three line rifle come to be, and what came before?

A pause with the Berdan

With the adoption of the Berdan #2 rifle, the Russian army obtained an effective, reliable, and fairly modern weapon. For the time being, the officers responsible for rifle procurement could breathe and continue working at a pace other than "go go go, we needed it yesterday", stopping and thinking.

One of the issues that the Berdan rifle didn't solve is equipping the army with a magazine-fed rifle. On one hand, the solution was clear. The Americans equipped their infantry with Spencer rifles that fed from a seven round tube magazine, about which their enemies, the southerners, said that "the Yankees load their gun on Sunday and shoot all week long".  On the other hand, those Yankees, having won the war, armed their army not with magazine-fed rifles, but with single-shot Springfields.

The mod. 1944 carbine, the last variant of the legendary rifle.

At that point, the advantages of magazine-fed rifles were not so clear cut. Spencer's rifle had a maximum effective range of 500 yards. The Henry repeaters that everyone knows from Westerns were typically chambered in revolver rounds, with the expected consequences for range. Meanwhile, the military wanted a longer range weapon. The experience from the Russo-Turkish war was clear.
"The Krnka rifle had a short range, 600 paces. The Turks can hit you from 1.5 verst (1.6 km) away. His rifle is excellent, the extractor throws the casing out so hard that you have to turn your face away so it doesn't his you in the eye, and quick! Plus their sights are long range."
In addition, the design of many magazine-fed rifles at the time did not allow for reloading with single rounds. Having expended his magazine, the rifleman became weaponless for some time, at the most heated moment.

Of course, nobody argued that the presence of a magazine was not an advantage. Magazine rifles were studied by Russian officers carefully before and after the Berdan rifle was adopted. The conversion of a single shot rifle into a magazine fed one was one of the most promising courses of action. A number of countries selected this option. For instance, the French turned the Gras single shot rifle into the Gras-Kropatschek rifle with the addition of Austrian Major Alfred Kropatschek's under-barrel magazine. 

Trials of the Kvashnevskiy rifle began in Russia in 1883. This was a Berdan rifle with an underbarrel eight round magazine. It looked promising compared to its competitors, both Russian and foreign. The ammunition was fed upon pressing the trigger, and the magazine could be cut off, with the rounds loaded in the usual way, one at a time.

Experimental conversions performed well during trials, but expanded trials of the first 200 rifles came to an explosive end, quite literally. It turned out that a round in the loading tray could impact the primer of a round in the magazine.

A diagram of the modernized Mosin rifle with accessories and various types of scopes.

The delay with the conversion had a positive effect, if not for the army, then at least the treasury. Technical progress in the late 19th century was quick, at least by contemporary measure. If the 4.2  line (10.75 mm) Berdan was considered low caliber compared to the 6 line (15.24 mm) Krnka rifle in the 1860s, 15 years later the military begrudgingly accepted that 7-8 mm calibers are also acceptable. These rounds weighed less and could still punch a hole in a person just as well.

In the mid 1880s the GAU performed a number of experiments with Rogontsev's round, which was a stock Berdan cartridge necked down to accept a 3.15 line (8 mm) bullet. The results were not particularly impressive compared to the regular Berdan rifle. While the Russians looked at Austria and Germany, who were both quickly rearming to small caliber rifles, technical progress stepped forward once more. France adopted the Lebel rifle, which not only had an 8 mm round, but it was propelled with smokeless gunpowder. Russia obtained these rifles in 1889, and immediately formed a "commission to develop a small caliber rifle" led by Lieutenant-General Chagin.

The three line rifle with a three sided spike bayonet became the symbol of Russian infantry in the First World War.

Russia managed to miss several iterations of weapons and several rearmament cycles. Hindsight tells us that waiting a little bit longer would have resulted in rimless ammunition that would have made the lives of domestic automatic weapons designers much easier. However, few people thought about these things in the late 19th century, and the need of a modern magazine fed rifle was more and more pressing.

Birth of the three line rifle

The story of the fight between the "greedy Belgian factory owner" Nagant and Mosin was frequently told even back during the Soviet era. It is more interesting to see what was the end result. As it is commonly said, the foundation was Mosin's, specifically:
  • The overall layout of the bolt components
  • The deflector
  • The safety
  • The clip of the magazine cover and the attachment of the feed operating arm
  • The locking mechanism
  • The ball and socket stock swivel
The "greedy Belgian"'s contribution was much lesser. Nagant claimed the idea of placing the feed operating arm on the magazine door, the indentation for a stripper clip in the receiver, and the clip itself. The other parts of the future three line rifle and the whole system of the rifle and its round had its own contributors. The barrel and the new round were designed by Colonel Petrov and Stabs-Captain Sevastyanov, using the work of the aforementioned Colonel Rogovtsev. Captain Zakharov took part in the completion of the bolt.

The Mosin rifle is also associated with the Red Army in the opening stages of the Great Patriotic War.

If we look at the three line rifle from the point of view of the Soviet era, then it might as well carry the name of Nikolai Ivanovich Chagin, since it was he who headed the design bureau that brought the rifle into its future shape. Sergei Ivanovich Mosin had the role of the lead designer, whose name may or may not have ended up attached to the final product. In reality, the decision on the name of the rifle made "at the top" was the same compromise as what was taken during the design process. The "three line rifle model 1891" had no name attached to it. However, this did not prevent it from becoming the "Mosin rifle" in Soviet years and the "Mosin-Nagant" abroad.

The acceptance of the three line rifle solved the rifle problem for the Russian army, at least for the time being. If they knew how long the rifle would remain in use, it would certainly have been a shock.

Of course, this road was not travelled without changes. The first serious modernization was triggered by the appearance of an improved sharp-tipped bullet with improved ballistics in 1908. Out of the modernizations proposed before WWI, the one proposed by General N.I. Holodovskiy was the most complete. He proposed a whole spectrum of improvements which would decrease the weight of the rifle and increase convenience and reliability. Holodovskiy proposed the use of a rifle stock liner that would allow the rifleman to adjust the weapon for his height and length of arms.

A Red Army border guard with a PE scoped Mosin rifle.

A small party of three line rifles underwent the improvements suggested by Holodovskiy before WWI. The GAU committee established the following after the trials:
"...the following changes can be introduced when the rifles are refurbished: 1. The trigger, for improved safety switching. 2. The spring slot for the ramrod. 3. The long bolt handle. 4. A loading mechanism with an indicator of the number of rounds left. 5. Box magazine with an indentation for a finger on the left side with an altered slope of the slot for the clip."
All other changes proposed by Holodovskiy were considered pointless. However, even the introduction of these changes was postponed until the end of the war, which could "give valuable experience in addition to what has already been gathered for a more correct solution to the issue."

A temporary rifle that became eternal

The experience of war, not just WWI, but the Civil War that followed it, showed that the three line rifle was far from the peak of perfection. A big problem was caused by the new ammunition, which was much pickier when it came to the loading mechanism (and far from all rifles had the new mechanism), as well as the declining quality of both the manufacturing and the training of soldiers.

Nevertheless, a serious modernization of the rifle was not performed, for the reason that putting significant resources into the alteration or even the design of a new bolt action rifle was pointless. The RKKA would get a new automatic or semiautomatic rifle any day now, and the modernization performed in 1930 had more to do with production than improving the design of the rifle itself.

One of the most famous three line rifles. Army Commander Chuikov inspects Zaitsev's sniper rifle. Stalingrad, winter of 1942-43.

The predictions did not come to pass. Even though attempts were taken to rearm the army with the semiautomatic SVT, it was the three line rifle that remained the main weapon of the Soviet infantry, only retreating to the second line after the introduction of the AK. Only sniper variants remained in service. Even at the end of the century, snipers gladly used the sport variant of the rifle, the AV, created for Olympic competitions in the military rifle class.

The rifles hit the civilian market even earlier. Rifles converted into shotguns, the so called "Frolovka", after the designer P.N. Frolov from Tula, were available in the 1920s. In the 1930s, a hunting carbine chambered in the 8.2x66 mm round was developed using the rifle as a foundation. After the Great Patriotic War, hinters began to use regular rifles and carbines used in the war, where the only step of the demobilization process was to remove the bayonet lug.

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