The Ambitious Origins of Short-Recoil Operation At Forgotten Weapons

Now that all the guns of Ian’s educational videos have been auctioned off, it is time for a more traditional Forgotten Weapons post, of the kind he’s been doing for several years now. The subject of his latest is the Mannlicher 1885 self-loading rifle, an extremely special example of a semiautomatic hand weapon designed around blackpowder cartridges. Without some practical experience with blackpowder weapons, the ambition of Mannlicher’s goal cannot be fully understood; blackpowder is a nasty, corrosive substance that fouls even simple single-shot weapons to the point of hopeless inaccuracy and uselessness without regular cleaning and attention. To attempt to design a practical self-loading weapon is approaching an exercise in total futility, but it was a challenge that Ferdinand von Mannlicher felt he was nevertheless up to:

Ferdinand von Mannlicher’s Model 1885 self-loading rifle design as a failure, never seeing anything even resembling mass production. However, it was a failure which in many way set the stage for a huge number of the machine guns that would follow for the next several decades, including the famous Browning 1917/1919/M2 family. In fact, this 1885 semiauto had influence and impact far beyond its level of recognition today. It was a designed doomed to fail despite Mannlicher’s formidable design talents, simply because the cartridge he based it on was the M1877 11mm Austrian black powder round used in the Werndl rifles. Self-loading weapons would not become truly practical in any form until the invention of smokeless powder, which drastically reduced the amount of fouling and residue from each shot. However, Mannlicher was able to at least make a reasonable attempt despite the use of black powder, and he was the first to do so.

The 1885 design (not to be confused with Mannlicher’s model 1885 straight-pull bolt action rifle) was a recoil mechanism with a separate locking “tong”. As with all recoil-operated designs, the barrel and bolt were locked together at the moment of firing, and remained locked together as they both recoiled rearwards. After a certain amount of travel, in this case about 1.25 inches (32mm) the bolt unlocks and continues rearward which the barrel stops. The locking mechanism in the 1885 Mannlicher is a fork-looking block, labeled #3 in the diagram below. It is pinned to the barrel and able to pivot up and down. When upward, it locks into a cutout in the bottom of the bolt (the bolt is #5 below, and the cutout area is #4). As the bolt and barrel move back, the lower fork of the locking block will eventually hit item #1, an angled projection that forces it downward, unlocking the bolt. Once separated from the barrel, the bolt is able to eject the empty case from the action, and a new cartridge drops down in front of it from the magazine (which is gravity-fed and has no spring). The main recoil spring then pushes the bolt forward, pushing that new cartridge into the chamber. As it moves forward, the hook on the bottom of the bolt (item #2) hits the upper fork of the locking block and forces it into the upward and locked position, thus making the system ready for another shot.

Mannlicher 1885 semiauto cutaway view (ready to fire)


Smokeless powder, however, was only a year away, though even it and the ammunition and weapons designed for it would need decades of refinement before a true selfloading universal small arm would become practical. Mannlicher would die in 1904, before virtually any practical selfloading rifle of any kind would be designed. The method of short-recoil operation that he pioneered, however, would find its way into automatic and semiautomatic weapons of all kinds, from heavy machine guns like the M2 Browning, to pistols like the M1911, to – of course – self-loading rifles like the Meunier and Johnson.

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 is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at


  • Wolfgar

    This is the first time I have heard of the Mannlicher 1885 self loading rifle in black powder. This just proves how even failed ideas can be utilized with further advances in technology. Great post, thanks.

  • Kivaari

    Fantastic article. I am pretty well read on firearms issues, but I never saw this interesting rifle.

  • roguetechie


    Actually there were successful self loaders before his death. Ian covers them on his site. The rifle version of the madsen was bought and in service well before 1904. Albeit not widely but it was there and it worked.

    Also, whenever Ian posts things like this I feel like certain mysteries of firearms history become much less perplexing. In this case I’m referring to the pathological hatred of gas ports shown by German procurement policies well into the second world war. We forget that by the time of Maxim and Isaac Lewis mass production techniques and methodologies were decades old in the USA. Whereas it was still not the norm on some products into the second world war in much of Europe!

    It’s very odd how the machine gun era essentially came about because of the American civil war starting the era of mass production and at the same time creating an atmosphere in America basically hostile to military innovation. Which is why people like Browning, Maxim, and Lewis all wound up in the land of bespoke construction and Alfred Nobel….

    • “Successful” is a relative term. Only about 60 Madsen-Rasmussens were made. I know of no selfloaders before 1904 that were even made in the low hundreds. Until the Mondragon, Meunier, and RSC Mle 1917, I don’t think any selfloaders were made in the thousands.

      Based on your comment history, we have pretty similar interests. I have subscriptions to a large number of websites, and a bookmarks folder with even more resources. I consider these as part of my professional toolbox, and spend a good amount of time every day going through them to find what I think is the most interesting content. So, I’m bound to post stuff you’ve already read.

  • marathag

    Now the first series of Maxim Machine guns were 45 caliber BP cartridges(both Martini and Gras mle 1874), and were very reliable

    The first smokeless ones were the ones that Maxim made in 8mm Lebel for France

    Thing was, 8mm Lebel broke parts, Maxim hadn’t planned for the higher smokeless pressures. design was beefed up

    Leading in the barrel was a bigger problem than the BP buildup. They really expected the jacketed 8mm rounds with Poudre B powder to work far better.

  • Brian M

    Neat post, Nat! 🙂