Ten 20th Century Military Rifles History Has Forgotten

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10. Thorneycroft Carbine

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An image from the Thorneycroft rifle patent. One can see the trigger linkage, as well as the unique double-angle inclined action. Image source: wikipedia.org.

Some of you might be familiar with this gun, but few know that almost all available pictures of it are misleading, at best. The picture below is not of the original Thorneycroft Carbine, but of the later Thorneycroft-Farquhar rifle.

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The Thorneycroft-Farquhar rifle. An improved design, lacking the inclined action of the original. Developed in 1905, it was quickly overshadowed by the SMLE. Image source: militaryimages.net.

The title image is of the original patent, but the image below is an actual photograph of the carbine tested by the British in the years after 1901.

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The Thorneycroft Carbine, proper. Its inclined action is evident, as is the fact that left-handed shooters would have some ergonomic problems when using it. This would later be echoed in another British bullpup, the SA80/L85, which was adopted and remains the standard British infantry weapon. Image source: militaryimages.net.

The Thorneycroft helps illustrate the long history Britain has with bullpup designs. As far as can be determined, the Thorneycroft is the first bullpup rifle design to undergo anything like an extensive trial run. Whether the bullpup layout’s advantages outweigh its disadvantages is still a matter of debate, but the concept has steadily grown in popularity in the 20th Century. Today it sees its greatest level of success yet, with multiple bullpup designs issued as standard arms in numerous countries (Israel, Austria, and France to name just three). The conventional layout rifle continues to make up the majority of standard weapon designs, but it’s clear that the bullpup rifle concept is one to pay close attention to in the coming years.

 

9. The Armalite AR-1

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Ordnance picture of the Remington 722-based AR-1. Note the short, low profile bolt shroud, as well as the lack of a takedown lever on the left side, identifying this as a Remington 722 action. Image source: ar15.com.

Armalite’s “AR” numbers, ending in “AR-18” are sequential corporate designations. The famous AR-15 and AR-10 were the fifteenth and tenth designs, respectively. What was the first? That would be the AR-1 “Parasniper” of 1952, a .308 caliber bolt action rifle, originally based on a Remington 722 action, but later based on an FN Mauser action. It was optimized for light weight, and utilized a steel-lined aluminum barrel of a similar type eventually used on the AR-10 (which famously burst in US military trials), and a foam-filled fiberglass stock. The rifle also sported a compensator for recoil reduction. With all of these features, it weighed in at a then-scant six pounds fully loaded with scope and sling.

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The Mauser-based AR-1. Notice the wing-style safety, as well as the large extractor on the bolt, identifying this as an FN Mauser action. Image source: ar15.com.

The AR-1 was at one point taken on an African safari, participating in which were Richard Boutelle (President of Fairchild, Armalite’s parent company) and General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force (which would later be the first to adopt Armalite’s .223 caliber AR-15 rifle).

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Richard Boutelle on an African safari, holding a Mauser-based AR-1 rifle. The character on the right, against whom Boutelle appears to be bracing the lightweight rifle, is most likely General LeMay.

 

8. The TKB-517

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The TKB-517 in profile. Its inexpensive stamped and riveted construction is evident, as is the greater sophistication of the stampings vs. earlier designs. This rifle out-shot and out-bid the Kalashnikov, but was considered riskier in the long run.

In the late 1950s, the Red Army was looking to modernize her arsenal of small arms by creating a lightweight, easily mass produced automatic carbine that could be issued in lieu of existing SKS and AK carbines, PPSh and PPS sub-machine guns, and RPD squad automatic weapons. The weapons that eventually resulted were the AKM carbine and RPK automatic rifle, but one very promising competitor to the Kalashnikov design was a lever-retarded (Kiraly) blowback rifle designed by one Gherman A. Korobov. Cheaper to make, lighter, and more accurate in full auto than the AKM, the TKB-517 was arguably the superior weapon. Later, the French FAMAS bullpup would resurrect Paul Kiraly’s lever-retarded blowback mechanism.

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A simplified diagram of the lever-delayed blowback mechanism that was the heart of the TKB-517 rifle. Image source: firearmshistory.blogspot.com.

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Three TKB-517 rifles. This image offers a considerably greater level of detail than previous images available in the West; visible are three different stock configurations (folding, fixed, and collapsible a la the US M3 sub-machine gun. Further evident are two different kinds of rear sight, three different kinds of front sight block, and at least two patterns of receiver. Also note the TKB-517’s forward-mounted charging handle, a position that would return to Russian small arms design with the AK-12 rifle.

Korobov was an engineer at the distinguished firearms maker Tula, where he designed numerous other inventive and radical weapons, including the extremely early bullpup TKB-408, and the bizarre TKB-022.

 

7. URZ Weapons System

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The URZ in squad support configuration. The belt-in-box magazine system was common to every variant of the family. Image source: valka.cz.

The “family of weapons” concept pioneered by the French and bushwhacked by the Stoner 63 family was taken to extremes by Jiri Cermak in the late 1960s, who also designed the world-class Vz. 58 rifle. The weapons family – as it truly was that – was called URZ and represented an attempt to replace everything from the sub-machine gun up to the fixed emplacement machine gun.

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The URZ family: a. Rifle configuration, b. Squad support, c. Squad support, field stripped, d. Electrically triggered armored vehicle variant, e. Retarded-blowback operating group. Image source: uchytil.info.

 

This was accomplished by a common receiver, which in all models was belt-fed from a cylindrical container. Most strangely for a Warsaw Pact country, the weapons system was chambered for then-new 7.62×51 NATO caliber, as it was intended for export. While the URZ is now obscure, its patents are available online, showing the design of the rotary roller-retarded blowback mechanism, as well as its belt-in-box feed system and its trigger mechanism.

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The URZ squad support variant in a GPMG configuration, mounted on a tripod, with optic. Image source: valka.cz.

 

 

6. DISA Karabin

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The 7×36 DISA Karabin. Chambered for a shortened, necked-down wildcat of .30-06, this rifle has alternately been called the “Madsen” and “Otterup” carbine. Image source: Unknown, taken from author’s photo collection.

Like other experimental Danish small arms, very little information is available in English regarding this rifle. What is known is that it was developed in the 1960s in Denmark by Dansk Industri Syndikat A/S (DISA), formerly Compagnie Madsen A/S. It was chambered for a short 7mm round formed by cutting down .30-06 cases.

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7×44 Weibel, next to two 7×36 DISA/Otterup/Madsen cases and projectiles. The 7x44mm cartridge was an earlier Danish 7mm development from before World War II. Image source: iaaforum.org.

 

 

5. T28 Light Rifle

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Late version of the T28 rifle. The Army by this point had taken notice of in-line stock design, and both the T25 and T28 rifles were made with in-line wooden stocks. Eventually, though, conservatism won the day and neither the T28 nor the T25 saw service, nor would the in-line stock concept be put into practice until the adoption of the “not invented here” AR-15. Image source: forgottenweapons.com.

The American Light Rifle program of the late 1940s and early-mid 1950s was a storied one. In trying to “have it all”, the Americans were eventually left in the early 1960s with one of the bulkiest, heaviest, and most primitive designs of any nation, despite protracted research and development. Along the way, however, US small arms designers created some fascinating weapons, one of which was the T28 rifle, a direct evolution of German small arms design of the Second World War. Forgotten Weapons has more information on this rifle, but the weapon was a close adaptation of the German Gerat 03, a roller locked, short-stroke piston operated weapon using stamped components, by an engineer named Cyril Moore. This was one of the earliest self-loading weapons to use the .30 T65 rifle cartridge, which at that point was just an unmodified .300 Savage case loaded with the 152gr bullet of the M2 .30-06 round. The T28 would lose out to the T25, itself a very sophisticated rifle based on a European design (in its case Polish), but the T65 rifle cartridge would eventually be developed into first the .308 Winchester sporting cartridge, and then the 7.62x51mm NATO round.

 

4. AR-3/M7 Rifle

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The second Armalite firearm on the list, the AR-3, also designated “M7” was based on Eugene Stoner’s earlier M5 and M6 hunting rifle designs.

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The wood stocked M5 and M6 are shown in this page from Small Arms Review, of January 1998. Both were chambered in .30-06, and featured steel receivers. Image source: ar15.com

While the M5 and M6 both had wooden stocks and steel receivers, the M7 was the first Stoner design to feature the Armalite trademark: Aluminum construction. Further, the M7 had a lightweight foam-filled fiberglass stock, military sights, and was chambered for the experimental .30 Lightweight Rifle T65E3 cartridge (which eventually became the 7.62 NATO), suggesting it was intended as a military – rather than sporting – arm. At some point it was cataloged by Springfield Armory, though whether it was evaluated or tested in any way is unknown to the author.

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The AR-3, originally called the M7 by its designer, Eugene Stoner. Note the fiberglass stock, shorter magazine, and winged military front sight, in contrast with its predecessors. Image source: ar15.com.

The M7/AR-3 used a Garand-style long-stroke gas piston, coupled to the familiar Stoner-Johnson seven lugged rotary bolt via a Lewis-style cam on the operating rod, acting on a cam track machined into the bolt. While no clear pictures of the trigger mechanism are available, it does appear to be similar to the Garand in the shape of the hammer.

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Stoner’s next design, the M8, would use his direct impingement gas system invention, and would lead directly to both the moderately successful AR-10, and extremely successful AR-15 designs.

 

3. Sudaev AS-44

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One of the variations of the Sudaev assault rifle, AS-44, with bipod. Image source: armchairgeneral.com

One of the most interesting forgotten rifles of World War II, the Sudaev AS-44 was a limited production assault rifle that saw service in 1945 in troop trials just after the victory in Europe. The AS-44 was chambered for the new 7.62x41mm cartridge – the predecessor to the highly successful 7.62x39mm Soviet intermediate cartridge, which arose as a modification to allow the design to use steel-cored projectiles. Like the MP.44, Ribeyrolle CM 1918, and many other early assault rifle designs, the AS-44 was heavy, at around 11 pounds unloaded.

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The 7.62x41mm Soviet intermediate power cartridge of World War II. This was the round used in early SKS rifles, and the Sudaev assault rifle. It used a lead-cored bullet and was replaced by the 7.62x39mm cartridge, which was modified to use longer-ogive steel-cored projectiles. Image source: The World’s Assault Rifles, by Gary Paul Johnston.

The AS-44 used the highly successful tilt-locking bolt pioneered by the Czechs in the ZB 26 machine gun, and also used in the MP.44, coupled – also like the MP.44 – to a fixed piston similar to that later used in the AK rifle.

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A later Sudaev rifle with a two-piece stock> Note the tilting bolt and fixed piston, a similar mechanism – though different in form – to that used in the MP.44. Image source: imgur.com.

Sudaev’s rifle was promising, but by 1945 Sudaev himself had fallen severely ill, and he died the next year. While development of his rifle ceased, elements were carried forward in the Kalashnikov assault rifle design, which became the world-famous AK rifle.

 

2. MAS 38

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The MAS 38, along with its offspring, the MAS 44, MAS 49, and MAS 49/56. The autoloading MAS series of rifles are often viewed as post-war technology, but in fact their lineage dates back to before the 20th Century. Image source: surplusrifleforum.com.

 

Perhaps more than any other nation, the French coveted to have a standard-issue semi-automatic weapon; in a cruel twist of fate, they would not achieve that dream until the late 1940s, after many other countries had fielded selfloaders of their own. France’s romance with the autoloading rifle goes back to the 19th century and her rivalry with neighboring Germany. The French continued perfecting the autoloading rifle through World War I and after, until finally the design reached a head with the MAS 38, which was the first autoloader to pass French testing with a higher level of reliability than bolt action rifles. Here the design of the MAS was mature: Present was the durable two-piece stock, the reliable direct-gas system, the simple and inexpensive (and not easily fouled) tilting bolt. Different than its descendants, the MAS 38 used an integral box magazine fed by stripper clips, and a spike bayonet stored within the stock. French efforts to further refine the design with the MAS 40 would leave them caught at the beginning of World War II without a selfloading infantry rifle still, and development cease until after World War II.

The MAS 44, a further refinement of the MAS 40, sporting a detachable magazine (but retaining the spike bayoner) was finally adopted in 1945, just after Allied victory in Europe. Few MAS 44s were produced, but they did see combat with Marine Commandos in Indochina. The deletion of the spike bayonet, the revision of the rear sight, the addition of an integral grenade launcher (heralding the coming of the French “universal grenadier”) and a scope rail machine into the receiver of every rifle produced the MAS 49. A new grenade launcher design, provision for knife bayoner, a gas cutoff allowing the safe firing of 22mm finned rifle grenades, and a shorter forestock resulted in the MAS 49/56, which for many years was synonymous with the French infantryman.

The MAS 38 deserves a special place in history: It was here that the selfloading rifle finally came of age. No one else had more experience with autoloaders to that point than the French, and the MAS 38 was the result of this unparalleled pool of knowledge. Its successors – the MAS 49 and 49/56 – would prove in combat the great reliability of the design: Ready for action in 1938, were it not for the obsessive perfectionism of French rifle procurement.

 

1. Mauser 1918

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The top of the receiver of the Mauser 1918. Note the integral (and very slick-looking) dust cover. Image source: forums.nitroexpress.com.

Despite the stratospheric popularity of the Mauser 98 rifle, the follow-on design, the Mauser Gewehr 1918(?) is barely known. In doing the research for this article, I was only able to find pictures of one of these rifles, but luckily it was a surviving example in good condition (though apparently sporterized).

This rifle was – and still is, really – the ultimate bolt-action rifle. Based on the 98 action, it features a number of improvements that enhance the rifle’s effectiveness, resistance to the elements, and even aesthetics.

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The top of the Mauser 1918 receiver. Note the integral dust cover. Image source: forums.nitroexpress.com.

 

These improvements included:

  • An integral dust cover to protect the action from dirt and dust ingress.
  • A detachable box magazine, with an ergonomic catch.
  • A “slick-side” receiver lacking the characteristic Mauser disassembly lever.
  • A revised and simplified bolt shroud.

What other improvements Mauser might have made are unknown to me. Very little information is available on the weapon at all, either on the Internet or in the library resources I have access to. It remains an enigmatic and thoroughly fascinating missing page from the history of the military bolt action rifle.

 

What rifles do you think are largely forgotten and deserve more recognition? Let use know in the comments!



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • andrey kireev

    Missing is Avtomat Fedorova, one of very first assault rifles, hailing all the way from WW1…. It had detachable box magazine, select fire and intermediate cartridge (under-powered arisaka rifle round) It also had a vertical grip before those were cool… People seem to forget that gun and think that STG44 was the first actual Assault rifle…

    • Steve Martinovich

      the Avtomat Fedorova is criminally underappreciated for what it was.

    • Good suggestion! I did want to avoid redundancy with this article, though.

  • Don Ward

    So what 5 History Channel-esque factors were used to determine the Obscure Top Ten?

    Lack of production
    Eccentricity of designer
    Competition with standard weapons
    Oddity of caliber
    Fear factor.

    Cuz every Top Ten list must include fear factor!

    • schizuki

      “With a bursting aluminum barrel, the AR-1 rates a Fear Factor of 9.”

    • Yellow Devil

      Actually I was quite disappointed they didn’t have fear factor for the top ten combat rifles episode.

    • Zebra Dun

      The British Tommy’s “you have got to be bloody kidding me mate!” observation of the Thornycroft rifle is another factor.
      It could be filed as WTF? under fear.

  • schizuki

    “This rifle was – and still is, really – the penultimate bolt-action rifle.”

    Well, don’t keep us in suspense. If this was the second-best, what is the ultimate bolt-action rifle?

    • Sears .22. 😉

      (It was late when I did my editing, hahah)

  • schizuki

    “The AR-1 was at one point taken on an African safari, participating in which were Richard Boutelle (President of Fairchild, Armalite’s parent company) and General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force (which would later be the first to adopt Armalite’s .223 caliber AR-15 rifle)”

    And there’s government procurement in a nutshell.

    • This was surely a factor. To be fair to Armalite, though, there really wasn’t anything else like the AR-15 at the time.

      • MichaelZWilliamson

        And the AR1 certainly wasn’t like the AR15.

        • That’s right; they were very different lines of development.

      • Zebra Dun

        No one could make up their minds, a lethal Kill-O-Zap space gun or a Mattey Mattel.

        • At the time, the AR-15 was stomping the M14 in tests, so it’s not at all surprising they went that direction.

    • Don’t forget that Lt. Col. Burton Miller helped draw up the USAF’s specifications for the AR-5, supervised the Lackland AFB’s initial testing of the AR-15, and then retired from the service in 1963 to become Vice President at ArmaLite.

    • MichaelZWilliamson

      Indeed. I much prefer when they buy gear from companies they have zero experience or history with. So much better.

      • Zebra Dun

        As in The Ron Popiel assault rifle?

        • MichaelZWilliamson

          Yes. The M14 is a perfect example, actually.

          • Zebra Dun

            Nope, had in mind the Stoner 63 rifle system.
            My view is the M-14 was the best and ultimate modern Battle rifle.
            I had no problems with it when armed with one, ever.

          • MichaelZWilliamson

            Well, they did know Stoner. But yes, the 63 had several serious issues, including that runaway habit. That’s a far more sophisticated exchange than I was expecting on this forum.

            Armalite had a history of great designs, insufficient revision, and then dumping the rights to someone else who went on to make a fortune. Great engineering, atrocious marketing.

            The M14 was a fine rifle. But Springfield billed it as also a squad weapon, carbine and SMG. It was none of those.

          • Zebra Dun

            That’s true, at the time of it’s inception the M-14 was said to be a replacement for the pistol, carbine, submachine gun, the M-1 rifle the BAR and the light to medium Machine guns as well as the sniper rifle.
            In it’s role as a battle rifle it was superb, as a sniper it excelled but wasn’t as good as the Bolt action jobs, as a BAR replacement it was less than a replacement for the auto rifle role and too light a complete failure even with a dedicated AR man and special stock and bipod (M-15) it was all but uncontrollable in full auto except by the most expert of riflemen.
            Submachine gun? Please it was 44 inches long and 11 lbs. that goes for the pistol role also.
            As an LSW Med MG it was a joke.
            Those M-60’s had the runaway gun habit also, mostly due to keeping the barrel in operation for too many rounds and slow cooling of the replacment.
            Indeed The exchanges are more sophisticated with some commenters.

          • MichaelZWilliamson

            Well, the Brits were pushing for a 7mm bullpup, but the US Army insisted on a “full power” cartridge that has been abandoned by pretty much everyone. In an intermediate caliber, it could have done most of what they wanted. FA in a light rifle in .308 is just punishing.

            It was basically an improved Garand, took 20 years to develop from that, and cost 3X per unit. Add in being far too bulky for close combat.

            And it was, as near as I can tell, Springfield’s attempt to make an AR10 that “looked like a rifle” to appease the old timers. Except without modular uppers, that wasn’t going to happen.

            There are pluses and minuses to most fielded weapons. You’re right that the Stoner had a lot of teething problems.

            But it is a shame they shredded them all.

  • Dirt

    Excellent article, I really enjoyed this.

  • iksnilol

    I know you are the history buff and that everyone loves the TKB-517 but what about the TKB-022? Shortest bullpup ever made while retaining a full length barrel (53 cm total length including the 40 cm long barrel).

    • I do mention it. Alas, “10” is a very round number that everyone like, whereas “11” doesn’t get invited to any parties. 😉

  • roguetechie

    I’ll second the tkb-022 I even posted pictures of it’s internals in the tkb-022 article here on TFB…. overall the design of that weapon is oh so tempting to attempt a replication of.

  • UCSPanther

    Another one I can suggest is the ZH 29 and the ZH 39 rifles.

    They were a Czech semi auto rifle in 8mm mauser, and rather rare.

  • The Chauchat-Ribeyrolle is really neat, but as a firing port weapon I’m not sure “rifle” is all that applicable.

    The Ribeyrolle rifle is mentioned in this article, and I didn’t want to be redundant.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

    • wetcorps

      You’re right. What would be applicable though? A stockless carbine? A rifle caliber pistol (quick, someone add a sigbrace on it :D)? A SMG?
      It’s definitely neat.

  • Tassiebush

    Gosh 8x50lebel with no stock would be a handful!

  • claymore

    The URZ Weapons system sure does have a bunch of things in common with the Stoner 65 system. Which came out first?

    • The Stoner 63 is a little earlier, but I don’t know that implies the Czechs got the idea from the American weapon.

  • dan citizen

    Such a fantastic article, so very much eye candy, thank you.

  • Oh yes, that’s one of my favorites!

  • I think that would be a good inclusion into a follow-on article, perhaps!

  • Not to much that it “went wrong” as it evolved, eventually, into the AR-10 and AR-15.

  • They are shockingly similar, actually. The 8mm Ribeyrolle was based on the .351 Winchester, a cartridge for which there is some evidence that it led to the .222 Remington, and thus the .223/5.56mm cartridge. Further, the 8mm Ribeyrolle and .300 AAC Blackout have almost identical case lengths.

    AAC even acknowledges this fact – with a neat side-by-side photo – in one of their .300 AAC Blackout documents.

  • Boogur T. Wang

    Great article. Historical weapon info, and the great links, are always enjoyed

  • Zebra Dun

    The AR-15 was originally designed to be used for Air Base security, never as a full on battle rifle. The main feature was light weigh/recoil in line stock, flat shooting trajectory cartridge designed to hit groundhog or helmet size targets. If the rifle armed Air Police/Commando did his part bullet placement made up for actual lethality being less than desirable.
    I did see at one time Air Force maintenance personnel shooting their M-16 which had no sights front post or rear peep, the idea was to aim down the open handle gutter and the front sight wings and fire automatic bursts using the eye finds the center aim system and volume of fire method of shooting.


    I got to handle a MAS 49/56 at a pawn shop once, I found it to be a sturdy and well built ergonomic design, alas it was being sold cheap because the french ammo was found by the owner either non existent or too costly to shoot. It was a good rifle in the Garand way.
    —–
    That Thornycroft just looks wickedly awkward to shoot and recharge the bolt.

    • Incorrect. The AR-15 was intended to be front-line combat weapon from the beginning. I recommend you read The Black Rifle by R. Blake Stevens and Edward Ezell.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  • jcitizen

    Ahh! Reminds me of my “Small Arms of the World” book! Great simple break down of a complicated subject! Well done!