Why full power service rifles were unnecessary by 1915

Gewehr 98; a typical long barrel full power repeating rifle

Gewehr 98; a typical long barrel full power repeating rifle

This guest post is written by German milblogger Sven who blogs at Defense and Freedom.

Assault rifles typically use cartridges which are at most fine for shooting at 250 to 400 metres distant targets. This came into being based on ammunition maker (especially Rheinmetall-Borsig and GECO) experiments during the Interwar Years, and only rarely do demands for the lightweight long range unobtanium rifle flare up again.

The switch from full power rifle cartridges to shorter or smaller calibre rifle cartridges made fully automatic rifles easier to develop, lighter and more gentle in recoil. Ranges at which infantry fought its battles with its basic rifle (instead of with scoped rifles, machineguns, mortars or infantry guns) had been well within the 400 metre range most of the time ever since the First World War.
It’s common to read remarks about how infantry entered (and left) the First World War with unnecessarily heavy and long rifles. Their powerful bullets were supposed to decimate close order (quite parade-like) infantry formations at more than a kilometre distance and were also supposed to stop a horse with a single torso hit. The aforementioned remarks usually conclude that this was unnecessary, as most infantry combat of the First World War happened within 200 metres range, often even in mêlée using bayonets or shovels as weapons.

I’ve never been satisfied with this. There were long-range rifle fights during the Boer Wars with very similar technology, after all. In the meantime, I’ve become so very unsatisfied with these remarks that it’s about time to write my own take on it.

 ——–

The story begins in the 1880s, when inventors finally delivered practical low smoke propellants. (They are often called “smokeless powder“, but they were neither smokeless nor necessarily powders. I’m guilty of calling them “smokeless” at times, too.)

blackpowder smoke

Blackpowder and real rapid fire – not compatible

These ‘smokeless powders’ had several important consequences:

(1) Higher muzzle velocities were achievable thanks to higher gas pressures.

(2) The moderate smoke did not blind the shooter: Rapid fire became practical (unlike with the relatively impractical Mitrailleuses which are often overrated in accounts of the Franco-German War 1870/71).

(3) The weapon wasn’t fouled quickly by blackpowder residue, which again was important for practical rapid fire.

(4) The low smoke characteristic made it difficult to spot hostiles even after they opened fire. This had important consequences for the value of camouflage, for reconnaissance, for ambushes and for distance as an input for survival.

These characteristics allowed Hiram Maxim to develop his initial blackpowder-based machinegun design into the very reliable, very practical Maxim machinegun.

Rifles (and artillery) gained a lot of effective range and power as well (save for projectile weight, which was rather reducing during the move to higher muzzle velocities). Rifle marksmanship training did at times extend to formation targets beyond 1,000 metres range. Such ranges were previously achieved as well, but the technological progress made this capability much more meaningful with much flatter trajectories.

The higher muzzle velocities also allowed for lighter bullets (smaller calibres) and this in turn allowed for much more ammunition carried (though not necessarily by the individual infantryman).

By the 1890s military theorists were thoroughly impressed by the increased firepower of artillery and rifles (even though some did downplay the actual artillery ranges in their publications, apparently because published figures were lower than the secret actual ones).

The great firepower and range allowed for doctrines in which (at the latest after the marksmen-dominated First Boer War) the own infantry was expected to open effective fire at hostiles at more than a kilometer range and was supposed to establish fire superiority at more than 600 metres.

The other side of the coin was that taking such fire while orderly moving over such a distance was unacceptable, of course. The defenders did not have too much trouble with this, as they could use trees, walls and earthworks as cover and could thus reduce their exposure.

Mafikeng_Second_Boer_War

A scene from the Second Boer War

The attackers on the hand – and this was understood before the Boer Wars by some authors – had to avoid such destructive fires by exploiting concealment. They had to close to within short range without being seen, moving behind woodland, buildings, hills and obstructions. The theorists did apparently fail to appreciate that this would require the infantry to break up into quite independently manoeuvring platoons if not sections. Even as late as 1915 important authors still considered the company as the relevant unit of manoeuvre.

Now let’s assume the infantry had been equipped with short cartridge carbines and sights good for a few hundred metres only. What would have happened? Judging by individual weapons alone, the attackers could have moved on open fields up to only 400-600 metres distance again. Short cartridges and long range sights would have made things more difficult to predict, but an inferiority against full power cartridges would have been very much evident.

Infantry armament has never been homogeneous, of course. The Maxim machine gun had arrived, and it was capable of shooting well past a kilometre distance with the benefit of a proper carriage with elevation control. The water (evaporation) cooling, reliability and easier ammunition supply to just a few weapons allowed a few Maxim machinegun sections to substitute for the long range rifle firepower of an entire battalion. They were even better than the riflemen at it, as they were much fewer targets and would thus be even less exposed to long range rifle fires than the battalion’s partially covered riflemen would be.

So basically the machineguns were the better choice in the long range fire role (once available in quantity, that is by 1915). They were so good at it that the firepower of a few Maxim-pattern machineguns doomed a battalion advance over open fields from 1,000 to 400 metres distance without the assistance of rifles.

On top of this there was the light field artillery, which was also good at long-range fires, albeit not without its own difficulties.

This allowed for the individual weapons to be reduced into shorter barrel, lighter weight, shorter cartridge case, lower recoil assault rifles. These didn’t appear in service for four decades after massed rifle fires had become technically unnecessary beyond more than 400 metres.


Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


Advertisement

  • Cymond

    decimate: to reduce by one tenth, leaving nine-tenths intact. This word is often confused with “devastate”.

    unobtanium: a metal or other material that is practically impossible to obtain.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unobtainium

    • Poot

      decimate
      ˈdɛsɪmeɪt/
      verb
      1.
      kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of.
      “the inhabitants of the country had been decimated”

      2.
      historical
      kill one in every ten of (a group of people, originally a mutinous Roman legion) as a punishment for the whole group.
      “the man who is to determine whether it be necessary to decimate a large body of mutineers”

      • tincankilla

        I suggest usage #1 for those who use “literally” in place of “figuratively”, “ironic” in place of “tragic”, and “ambidexTREEus” in place of “ambidextrous”

        • Paul Epstein

          Picturing the proper use of the English language as an unchanging snapshot of it’s usage amongst the rarefied gentry of a specific place in a specific moment in time is a ridiculous affectation. You might as well go around tut-tutting about how no one wears 18th century clothing anymore.

          Languages change. English was different before the invention of the dictionary, it’s different now, it will be different in the future, and you’re attempting to turn back the tide by splashing at it. Attempting to police it is deliberate ignorance of how languages, all languages, actually work.

          • S O

            I’m German anyway, and “dezimieren” translates into “to decimate” and “to deplete” according to dict.leo.org.

          • Cymond

            I understand that language evolves and agree with you in general, but I also think that we should push back against changes that limit rather than expand our expressions. We already have plenty of synonyms for destruction but “decimiate” is a unique concept. Misusing “decimate” doesn’t fill a gap in our language but it does create one.

            Or perhaps we should just start trimming English down. We don’t really need so many words, do we? That much complexity is plus ungood.

  • big daddy

    An army in modern combat has the need for a mixed lot of infantry weapons. No army can properly fight with each soldier armed with a rifle only. It was true 200 years ago and it’s true now. Overlapping weapons are needed in every facet of warfare. An infantryman needs everything at his disposal from a sidearm to a shotgun, to a GPMG to a SMG/PDW to a marksman/sniper rifle and so on up to grenade launchers, LAAW type weapons, light mortars and more. The Garand was a great rifle, it would have been better with a smaller cartridge case and a 20-30 round magazine, that would have eliminated the need for the Carbine. But there still wound have been a need for a long range rifle with a full powered round as there still is as found out by NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan.

    • Esh325

      I think had the US adopted the .280 British, there probably wouldn’t be a .223 or .308 today. The major reason why the US adopted a .223 in the first place is because they were getting their butts kicked in Vietnam by guys with AK-47’s.

      • big daddy

        @esh325:disqus that is somewhat correct, the .280 round might have been a great choice. The FAL was designed for that round. But the switch to the .223 and M16 was happening before the conflict in Vietnam was in full swing. The Army generals were against it and tried to sabotage it, but McNamara wanted it, this was before the whole Vietnam thing was heavy.

        • bucherm

          Truth.

          IIRC, LeMay loved it and had SAC order 10,000 M-16s for security forces. Likewise, while “Big Army” didn’t like it, special forces and the like in the early stages of Vietnam were using(without problems until Big Army got their hands on design modifications).

          Hell, the USSS agents escorting JFKs convoy in Dallas in 1963 were carrying AR-15s. It had already begun to percolate long before it was in full swing(with several hundred thousand servicemen in country, to cut off the “Hurr hurr JFK started Vietnam” pedants).

    • SayWhat?

      It sounds like the sum total of your experience comes from video game? Almost no infantry carry sidearms, shotguns are a rarity as well. And then there is the matter of combined arms that you forgot to even mention.

      • big daddy

        I’m almost 60 years old and served in the CAV, A hole. It’s you that have no experience or if you did you did not pay attention saywhat. Most infantry carry sidearms, they need them to control population now moron. Almost all SOF carry sidearms, we carried sidearms called a M911 the US carries the M9 now WTF ARE YOU TLAKING ABOUT. Shotguns were being issued for breaching and are common in the Marine Corp, the Benelli M4, ever hear of it, now the army is buying M26s. Saywhat you are an idiot.
        Now tell me about combined arms since I know nothing about it having served in the Cav.

        • big daddy

          That’s M1911. But there’s more to it. Do you even understand what combined arms is? Another internet shitbird.

        • S O

          “Most infantry carry sidearms”
          That’s utterly incorrect. Most U.S. forces’ infantry may carry sidearms, though.

          • big daddy

            That’s what I meant the US has a sidearm policy, what other countries do now I don’t know. Most infantry in the past though no matter what country did have sidearms. The NCO and officers carrier sidearms and not light rifles or SMGs. That was in the past things change. Although from the pictures I see of modern forces the NCO and officers do carry sidearms. In the past heavy weapons operators and grenadiers carried sidearms, for instance the M79 operator in Nam carrier a M1911.

        • Squirreltactical

          I’m not jumping in to try starting shit, but from personal experience in the Marine infantry (I can’t speak for how the Army does things.) the only people that carry sidearms are:

          Officers
          Platoon Sergeants (maybe)
          Dog handlers (maybe)
          Machine gunners (almost never)
          Security forces/ PSDs
          Special attachments like HET
          Fucking POGs
          Special forces dudes

          All in all, your average grunt doesn’t know how to even dis and ass an M9. He never gets to touch one.

          • Squirreltactical

            I forgot about EOD.

          • big daddy

            Any barracks duty like CQ in the Army you were armed with a sidearm.

      • Anon

        Watch out, we’ve got an internet badass here.

        • big daddy

          Are you referring to me or Saywahat, what are your credentials? Are you a combat vet? Are you a student of warfare? Do you have a Ph.D in something relating to warfare? Who are you and what have you done? I grow weary of these internet anonymous fools that go on forums and dig at others without correcting them if they are in fact wrong. They just stay anonymous and try to bait others into foolish arguments, they get their rocks off that way. What you do is ruin the web site for those who really want to talk about these things and are interested in them. But my words always fall on deaf ears.

          • allannon

            You might try sounding more like a reasoned individual, rather than a 14-year-old playing Call of Duty.

            That’s far more conducive to constructive discussion than going on insult-laden rants, which will just end up with you being labelled an internet tough guy and ignored.

          • big daddy

            I am not an internet tough guy, I’m just freakin’ tired of these people who just come on these sights and act out. So many years of it and it seems that even though studies have been done to explain why and how f…ked up it is they still do it. You see it on AR15.com and many other places. I just like to have a simple discussion and the trolls get to me sometimes. It never ends…. If anybody is on my side or were SPEAK UP and stop being a coward!!!!! Come right out and say so, that will chase off the trolls, but y’all remain quiet and don’t say anything and now I’m the bad guy, screw you.

          • st4

            The best method is to simply ignore them and continue talks with the constructive posters. On a related note, I had to deal with a noisy cat at night and ignoring it completely (not even retaliating) soon changed its behavior.

          • big daddy

            I’m older, I’m sick, ill…..and I am tired. My time on the planet is coming to an end and I just don’t want to deal with A holes anymore.

          • Brandon

            His comment is tagged as a reply to Saywahat, so I assume he’s referring to him.
            I think pretty much everybody started off on your side, but you managed to get completed derailed by a single troll and go off on an angry rant. If your words fall on deaf ears, this might be why.

    • http://Paterzplace.blogspot.com DonM

      I always figured the best sniper round and counter sniper round came in 155mm: If you respond to a sniper with 155, then there is less incentive for people to snipe, and incentive for people to not permit snipers near them. .

    • zebra dun

      I’m with Big Daddy, The Plt needs one shotgun, at least four handguns and a dedicated submachine gun of pistol caliber.
      Everyone else gets a rifle. M-4 or M-16A4 with a designated shooter and his specialist rifle.
      Some of the rifles will have under slung grenade launchers.

      • big daddy

        I think the Russians had it right as did most units in WWII of the US and German armies.

  • bbmg

    Worth mentioning that the pistol caliber submachinegun was first developed during the First World War, clearly the need for a lightweight manouverable weapon capable of heavy firepower at close range was already appreciated.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/France1918.jpg

  • http://postmodernpulp.com/ Jack Badelaire

    Also, not to diminish the necessity for infantry with accurate, lethal rifle-type weapons, but the casualty information I’ve come across points to mortar fire and artillery fire being the primary infantry killer of the time. The need for a basic infantry rifle lethal to 1,000 yards or more becomes less important when every infantry company has at its disposal belt-fed MMGs and mortars that can hit that far, and at least with the mortars, circumvent cover.

    • bbmg

      Artillery is *the* biggest killer on the battlefield.

      From this fascinating if a bit grim report on wound ballistics: http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwii/woundblstcs/chapter1.htm

      CAUSATIVE AGENTS OF BATTLE CASUALTIES IN WORLD WAR II

      1. Small arms fire accounted for between 14 and 31 percent of the total casualties, depending upon the theater of action: The Mediterranean theater, 14.0 percent; the European theater, 23.4 percent; and the Pacific theaters, 30.7 percent.

      2. Artillery and mortar fire together accounted for 65 percent of the total casualties in the European and Mediterranean theaters, 64.0 and 69.1, respectively. In the Pacific, they accounted for 47.0 percent.

    • claymore

      Unless you are fighting in Afghanistan where there is a BUNCH of overhang cover negating the effectiveness of using a mortar.

      • http://postmodernpulp.com/ Jack Badelaire

        Well, it’s not going to be a universal constant. As shown by those theater statistics, in more heavily overgrown areas (like the Pacific) rifle fire did more killing because so much of it was up close and the enemy was so dug in, along with the difficulty of simply employing heavy weapons in that environment.

        • big daddy

          As I have said you need the availability of overlapping weapons systems because of the different terrains in warfare. Within a theater of operations the terrain might change from one area to another and drastically. Too often the DOD of a country tries the one size fits all to save a few dollars. In the terrain of the Pacific it was very difficult to use heavy weapons, the heavy artillery was from ships were as in Europe and a lot of the Mediterranean it was towed or self-propelled.

        • gunsandrockets

          Remember the study was of USA casualties, not of all combatants. That means the higher proportion of small arms casualties in the Pacific was probably not due to terrain differences so much as it was due to the inferiority of Japanese logistics and artillery.

      • http://postmodernpulp.com/ Jack Badelaire

        Actually, I’d be curious to know if a casualty study on enemy casualties in the Afghanistan theater has been done, to see just how the numbers play out.

        • claymore

          One just has to look at the sniper kills to know long distance aimed fire is still effective in that environment.

          • brainy37

            SF groups use the M110 and SR-25 rifles. Regular line infantry units can request M14’s without an designation requirement or MOS association. In other words you don’t need a Company sniper or Designated Marksman section to order them where as Logi will have shit fits if you so much as beg for an M110.

            Nobody really like the M14 systems. Nobody stands still and let’s enemy belt feds (this is the only real long range capability the Afghani’s have) pour fire onto their heads unless they are in a fixed spot. In any case allied forces will respond with their own belt feds of similar or larger caliber.

  • http://www.thefirearmblog.com/ Alex C.

    Absolutely stellar article! As I side note, I have decided that I need a gewehr 98 as pictured in the featured photo. Man I love those rollercoaster sights!

    • S O

      Thanks.

  • iksnilol

    The short-range/long-range hybrid isn’t as unobtainable any more with cartridges like 6.5 grendel. Can’t really express how much I like that cartridge due to good performance, can be made from 7.62×39 brass and it’s my lucky number.

    PS: No, I am not a shill for the producers of that cartridge.

    • big daddy

      The 6.5 round does not work well from short barrels which is what most armies are going to.

  • Joe Hooker

    If anyone is interested I have posted a copy of the US Army’s combat range study done in 1960, which led to the adoption of the M-16 with the 5.56mm round. Apparently the Germans did a similar study in the interwar years and the Russians just after WWII. The study concluded that the vast majority of rifle engagements took place at 100 yards or less.

    http://www.cfspress.com/sharpshooters/battle-ranges.html

    • S O

      It depends on the environment. Differentiated graph attached.

      • John

        I think a big variable/factor in the Vietnam War wasn’t just the jungle environment, but also the tactic for the VC to get as close as possible so that we couldn’t use artillery without inflicting massive friendly fire casualties. I think they called it “hanging on the belts of Americans”

        • Joe Hooker

          Good point. The Vietnamese “hugged” the Americans to keep them from using their supporting weapons, and it worked. In Afghanistan the Taliban use the opposite approach — to open fire at long range with LMGs and full power rifles, knowing that the US M-4s and Soviet AK-74s are unable to hit back. Both skew the stats a bit.

          • S O

            Combat in Afghanistan appears to be about harassment rather than decisive action: Similar to the Greek rebels against the Ottomans prior to independence.

            This leads to a more costly occupation which nevertheless exercises less control.

      • Joe Hooker

        Thanks for posting that. Do you have a URL for it? I looked at the JSSAP site and could not find it.

        • S O

          I already blogged it in 2009. IIRC I pulled it from an infantry arms conference presentation.

          • Joe Hooker

            I was hoping to get some citable background. Do you mind if I use It?

          • S O

            I don’t have copyright; I just made a screenshot IIRC.

            You may crawl and look if it’s from one of these infantry symposiums, maybe you find the original presentation.
            http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/

            “International Infantry & Joint Services Small Arms Systems Symposium” 2009, 2008 or 2006
            The presentations are worth a look anyway.

          • Joe Hooker

            Thanks. FWIW the British developed a very nice .280 intermediate cartridge just after WWII, but it was veto’d by the Americans who wanted the 7.62/.308. The Americans themselves tried an intermediate cartridge after WWI, the .276 Pedersen, and the M-1 Garand was originally designed to use it. However, General McArthur had other ideas and had them go with the .30-06. I can remember the debate over the M-16 in the 60s — many of the older generation of officers, especially the Marines, were adamant about retaining the full-power cartridge.

          • gunsandrockets

            Considering all the agonies various armed services have suffered searching for the ‘ideal’ rifle cartridge, it amuses me to think the US could probably have settled for the pretty well established .250 Savage cartridge with a 100 grain bullet loading. That could have accomplished 90% of what was desired from various loads ranging from the .276 pedersen to the 6mm SAW to the .30 carbine.

    • gunsandrockets

      Ah, the infamous ORO study which spawned project SALVO, and pointless weapon development projects over many decades from SPIW to the OICW.

      Actually being able to read that study for myself was very enlightening. Even though some (notably James Fallows) have claimed that ORO study justified a spray and pray M-16 over aimed M-14 fire, that study in fact rejected hand held full auto fire as useful. And even though valuable empirical evidence was developed by the study, in my opinion the study conclusions were premature and based on incorrect and untested assumptions. At best the study was a basis for further experiments.

    • 101nomad

      Mostly less. We had what has become termed “Designated Marksmen” for distance. Our first firefight was 20 feet bush to bush. Did not scare me at all, I had to take a dump anyway.

  • Vaarok

    Could you please cite that you’re using my photo? I know I put it on Wikipedia for public use, but I appreciate the acknowledgement. Thanks!

    • S O

      Well, released to public domain without demand for attribution and the author’s name (given as Vaarok) looked clearly like a fantasy alias.

      I think we attributed it now.

  • idahoguy101

    The ballistics of the 7×57 Mauser of 1893 were about perfect then, and now, for a soldier. The 276 Pederson that Douglas McArthur vetoed and the 280 British that the US Army scuttled both similar to what you Mauser engineers designed back in 1892

  • MIKE

    Y’ALL SHOULD READ: “A RIFLEMAN WENT TO WAR” BY HENRY McBRIDE. http://warbooks.com/RWTW.html

  • Winston Buie

    Hindsight is 20-20….wondering why this is remarkable

  • Edward

    Not to comment on a long dead post, but it bears mention that a major consideration of any infantry weapon prior to the 1950’s was its ability to kill not only men but horses. Now, a rifle firing a cartridge in the 30-06/7.62x54r/.303 power range is definitely excessive to take down a human being at any range. But a rifle that can drive a bullet through a horse lengthwise has a lot of merit – especially if said horse is bearing down on you with an irate Cossak or Uhlan waving a sword perched on his back.
    Also keep in mind that all the supplies prior to WW1, most of the supplies in WW1 and a not insignificant amount of the supplies in WW2 made it up to the front line on or behind some sort of equine. The 2000m setting on a Gew 98 might not be terribly effective for sniping at individual soldiers, but a supply column full of plump horses would be a fair target for an infantry company at that range.

  • 101nomad

    The perfect fire arm, is the you got. (I am not an expert, sorry. I was only in the 2nd 503 CBT, 173rd Abn, 1st Brigade 101st Abn. What the hell do I know?).

  • buzzman1

    bbmg – that was for trench warfare. If you have never trained for it yiou can’t appreciate how incredibly dangerous it is. Thats why the trench knife was developed and fielded. And with long range firing at massed attack forces they decimated each other. True the machineguns inflicted massive casualties but they were extremely heavy and difficult to reprosition. The army modified 1903’s into semi auto 9mm’s they found them to be basically not mission capable.
    WW2 was the 1st truly modern warfare with highly mobile units but engagement ranges were still signifigant. Also shooting someone multiple times was not an option. Soldiers were still trained to shoot people and not do supressive fire as they do now. In the 60’s when the military just had to have a full auto weapon like the Soviets did with the AK-47/AKM we somehow got stuck with a round that was deemed worthless 3 times by the army. The euro’s were looking at something in the 6.5 to 6.8 calibar range and thought we were nuts for going to a .224 round (thats its actual diameter). Now we see in afgahnistan we need a bigger calibar weapon. A carbine with greater range and kill power. But now the army is so invested in the 5.56 round they will do anything to keep it just like the M-203.