The ZH-29 Selfloading Rifle: A Forgotten Turning Point

MNH34-Z-CU80-L

The Czech Republic has always been a nation that hits above its weight in the small arms field. Despite being a relatively small country with a somewhat checkered history, it has consistently put out high quality, innovative firearms that compete very well with those offered by much larger and older nations. For having risen from the ashes of the shattered Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs have done quite well.

In fact, they can lay claim to one design in particular that, while obscure, is arguably the most historically significant Czech rifle, the ZH-29. I will talk more about why it was so important below, but first, we can get acquainted with the rifle itself, which is thoroughly unique. Below is embedded a video recorded and uploaded by Ian of Forgotten Weapons, of the field strip of a ZH-29 up for sale at Rock Island Auction Company’s April auction:

Four years ago, FW also recorded and uploaded a shooting video with the ZH-29:

So what makes the ZH-29 so special? Well, it was a combination of weight and timing.

John D. Pedersen was until that point the premier US small arms designer, and by far the one whose ideas influenced the Army’s Ordnance Department. Pedersen asserted – with a considerable degree of evidence at his back – that a military selfloading rifle that met all the requirements could not be designed in the full-power rifle cartridge. It was accepted as fact by the Ordnance Department that a satisfactory full-caliber rifle would weigh at least ten and a half pounds, and development of Pedersen’s knuckle-retarded blowback rifle and his .276 caliber cartridge proceeded in the pursuit of a lighter weapon.

Until August of 1929.

As its name implies, the ZH-29 was designated as such in the year 1929, and was submitted to trials worldwide to try to gain acceptance with nations around the globe. One ZH-29 was sent to the US for testing in July of that year, and was tested a month and a half later.

The ZH-29 tested was chambered for the 7.9mm German round, and weighed in at a mere 8 pounds 13 ounces. Though it did not meet US requirements (being magazine-fed, and a little ungainly), it worked well and impressed the testers. As a result, the myth of “10 1/2 pounds” was shattered. Although John Garand had been commissioned to produce a .30 caliber variant of his design as early as 1926, it was not ready until after the ZH-29 was tested.

MNH34-Z-F2-L MNH34-S-O1-O
Due to misunderstandings of how the development of US selfloading rifles preceded before World War I, the ZH-29 has often been overlooked in its importance to the program. The key idea behind Pedersen’s .276 caliber was that a satisfactory self-loading rifle could not be developed for the larger caliber. Without it, all of the other benefits of the round (lighter weight, lower recoil, lower resource consumption, etc) seemed, to Ordnance, trivial. What was really wanted by those in power was a self-loading replacement for the 1903 in the standard caliber, but Pedersen had cleverly (and not without reason) convinced them that this was impossible.

With the advent of rifles in full-caliber rounds that beat the target weight of nine and a half pounds, Pedersen’s ideas fell out of favor. After the 1929 tests, Garand was given more time to perfect his .30 caliber T1 rifle, which eventually led to the rifle US GIs would use throughout World War II, the M1. Without the ZH-29, Garand might not have been given as much leeway to work on his full-caliber rifle, and it’s not at all clear that the .276 rifle concept could have on its own weathered the coming Great Depression. While we can only speculate as to what might have happened had the ZH-29 not been tested by the Americans in the late Summer of 1929, it came at a critical juncture in the history of selfloading rifles.

Without it, would the US have entered World War II with only bolt-action rifles, like the other nations of the world? Considering the narrow margin by which the M1 rifle was adopted, this is not an outlandish idea.

 

The hypothesis that the ZH-29 rifle was the first to convince the Ordnance Deparment of the feasibility of full caliber selfloading rifles is presented in Bruce Canfield’s fully comprehensive volume The M1 Garand Rifle, and is credited to Robert Seijas. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject.



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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  • Stephen Beat

    LOL…”This bolt closing with the trigger pull is not the safest thing I have seen in my life!” It would terrify me! 🙂

    • Bill

      Yeah, triggers should be limited to one function only

      • iksnilol

        Why? When you drop the bolt on a loaded magazine you presumably have the rifle pointed at the target.

        • Andrew

          That would be a false assumption.

        • Bill

          I would say “safe direction” as opposed to “target,” because I may not have identified my target or made the conscious decision to shoot. I don’t know what normal practice was when this rifle was introduced, but at least in current law enforcement doctrine, as far as I know, when the rifle comes out of the rack for potential use at a call, I chamber a round and put it on “safe.” I don’t want to even be near the trigger until it’s time to fire or unload and store the gun.

          If I press a trigger, I expect, and want, a loud noise. The ONLY exception is when I’m unloading the gun, after visually and physically triple checking that the magazine is removed, the chamber is empty and that it’s pointed in a safe direction, and there is no other way to decock or lower the hammer.

          • CZFan

            for me the trigger bolt release’s safety would depend on the firing pin design, if the pin is spring loaded, whatever, yes obviously keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, you should be doing that anyway, the only thing that could happen is the firing pin sticks out of the bolt and slam fires a round.

            And that type of slam fire would happen with any bolt release type, yes the trigger dropping the bolt is unusual but there is the secondary sear to catch the hammer like always.

            A stuck firing pin on any design could cause a slam fire condition. SKS? anyone

            So using the trigger to release the bolt is a non issue for me personally. its just another battery of arms to become familiar with and train with.

            Frankly I like the idea, you reload in a fight and instead of lots of arm flapping and flailing you stay on target with your hands where they belong and pull the trigger to load and youre on target in your shooting position already. Very streamlined.

            Some people are overly, and possibly neurotically cautious about every little thing, and Ive seen that attitude and disposition, and basically plain fear around firearms cause more unsafe conditions than anything else.

            Have a healthy respect for the gun and its power follow the 4 rules, and you are fine. everything else is just nitpicking.

            Perfect example a few weeks ago i stopped by a little hole in the wall indoor range just to keep my draw and fire from the holster sharp. I carry round in chamber hammer down and as a result of the design of my firearm the safety is off, and can not be engaged unless the hammer is back.

            Its a CZ-85 “B” but its not quite a B it was made in the transition between models, so it has all the B features minus the firing pin block that allows the gun to go on safe with the hammer down.

            You can still buy them with or without the blocks, or remove them for a better trigger.

            The “safety” is the long heavy double action pull for the first shot. 10.5 lbs on double 4.5 on single.
            So I started shooting, 3rds in 2 seconds at 10yds from the holster then 4 then 5 rounds all on an 8″ plate. I set up for another go heard the beep of the shot timer, and drew, as I pushed out to the target to fire, the range operator ran up and tried to grab my gun, because I was “being unsafe” by not having the safety on in my holster. Luckily for him I saw him running at me in my peripheral vision and stopped pulling the double action trigger so when he grabbed my gun, most likely flagging his hand in the process I had my finger off the trigger. Thats a perfect way to have your hand shot off “all in the name of safety”

            Its that kind of overprotective mother hen attitude that we have all seen that causes some serious problems. Usually the range nazi is the guy who is so concerned with the way other people do things he breaks every single rule and piece of etiquette out there all the while telling everyone else what they are doing is “unsafe”

          • Bill

            A: If your arms are flapping and flailing to release a bolt or slide, you’re doing it wrong – that’s a training issue
            B: Having firearms with odd manuals of arms tend to lead to trouble particularly when mixed in with prior experience with “normal guns” or other guns – ask an old New Jersey State Trooper how the transition to the H&K P7 went. Notice if he limps.
            C: I’ve never been to an indoor firing range that didn’t have a hole in the wall. Or ceiling. Or floor.
            D: I can’t speak to the range officer’s behavior, but was your hammer forward or to the rear? Gazillions of people forget to decock SA/DA autoloaders, and the safety on a SA auto should be on if it isn’t on target.

            But that’s just me.

  • Zebra Dun

    The handguard is actually a radiator heat diffuser. The trigger pull to close the bolt is a nightmare! And the open side lock bolt looks to be one helluva KH-29 finger masher.
    I’d shoot it!

  • Riot

    Extremely interesting machine.
    That trigger is amazing from a technical view.

    • Probably the most successful automatic trigger in history.

  • SP mclaughlin

    “…a somewhat checkered history”
    I see what you did there

  • iksnilol

    I like the pull trigger to release the bolt. Economy of motion and all. No need to fumble after bolt release.

    • BearSlayer338

      Yeah thats a pretty cool feature,I wish there was a handgun that would release the slide when the trigger was pulled on a fresh mag.

  • The ZK-420 is truly one of the nicest looking selfloaders ever made.

  • UCSPanther

    I’ll bet the Czechs used this rifle as a reference when they designed the VZ 52 rifle.

  • Lance

    This rifle was passed over for the Czech VZ-24 bolt action rifle. Id say the M-1 would be far better than this using E-clips and automatic ejection of while this rifle used only 8mm stripper clips to feed it.

  • tts

    This has to be one of the oddest and classiest self loading rifles I’ve ever seen. Beautiful machine work on that thing!

  • Sianmink

    I love how the rifle is basically its own cutaway display model.

  • Kivaari

    The trouble with Czechoslovakia is everyone else in Europe decided its future. The Czech Legions of WW1 and WW2 was filled with western leaning fighters. It’s too bad they were screwed over by everyone.

  • Bungameng

    “Having risen from the ashes of Austria-Hungary”…

    Well the Czech lands alone (e.g. without Czechoslovakia) were responsible for 70% of Austria-Hungary’s industrial output, and also vast majority of arms production. That was also one of the reasons why the tiny Czechoslovkia was one of the ten richest countries in the world, an by 1935 the world’s No.1 weapons exporter.

    After all, Czechs were the first ones to start using firearms in the field during the Hussite Wars (starting with 1421 Battle of Kutná Hora), and words pistol and howitzer are of Czech origin.

  • CZFan

    Dude! thats a 1929 AR-15!!!! the two pins that pop hold the upper and lower together!

  • I meant that Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

    Everyone has a history stretching all the way back. 😉

  • Bill

    You’ve got great points. I’ve learned that I don’t know nearly as much about firearms as I’d like, and it sounds like you made a great attempt at educating the RO.

    The HK P7 squeeze cocker issued to the NJSP anecdotally lead to a number of NDs when drawing or holstering the pistol – guys were squeezing EVERYTHING, including the trigger, at the wrong time. It was and is a training issue, and a fantastic weapon, I wish I still had mine.

    I’m an LE firearms instructor, and fortunately have the clear authority to be a safety nazi – it’s always a balancing act between providing street appropriate gunfighting training while keeping an acceptable level of risk management. Regardless, and I can’t find the source, I’ve heard that as an instructor I’m 8x more likely to be shot on the range than on the street. I’ve had to physically intervene when trainees would move to muzzle up someone, turn around on the line with a pistol in their hand or other stupid human tricks, knowing full well that I could wind up making a microsurgeon rich resecting my hands – that’s why I learned to use my non-dominant hand to lead. I’m also a defensive tactics instructor, and have to teach disarms, knowing full well that in reality it will still result in an injury, just a less severe one than a full-on gunshot.

    I can’t allow other trainees or instructors to get hurt or killed due to someone’s negligence, I’m ultimately responsible, professionally and ethically, and that’s why I get the big bucks over my normal pay….no, wait….I volunteered.