Putting Things In Context: The RSC 1917 And The MP.44 Sturmgewehr

    Recently, I ran an article on this site pointing out some of the less impressive aspects of the MP.44 assault rifle’s history. Many people were unhappy with my assessment that the legendary Sturmgewehr was overrated and over-hyped, and therefore I think it’s worth spending some time to examine, by analogy, why I think that. But first, let’s talk about a French rifle.

    One weapon that deserves considerably more recognition than it normally receives is the French RSC Mle. 1917 selfloading infantry rifle. More than 10 years before the completion of the rifle that would become the famous M1 Garand, the same design team responsible for the infamous CSRG 1915 Chauchat machine rifle created what is arguably the first significant service selfloading rifle in the world. Forgotten Weapons recently released an excellent video on the RSC, embedded below:

    In many ways, the RSC Mle. 1917 is comparable in significance to the MP.44. Both are weapons introduced at the end of a World War, and while neither was the first weapon of their kind, both were the first of the type produced in large enough numbers to matter (production for sturmgewehrs of all types during the war was almost 380,000 according to Sturmgewehr!, for the RSC over 85,000, according to Proud Promise) . Both are mildly overweight, somewhat crude incarnations of the concepts they represent. The MP.44 uses a stamped, mild steel shell to save on critical alloy steels, while the RSC Mle. 1917 re-uses many existing components, such as barrels from the Berthier and stocks from the Lebel, to expedite production. Both were produced under the great stress of world war, as their respective home countries were bled dry of men and materiel by a terrible conflict.

    Both weapons influenced future weapons development. For the MP.44, its obvious spiritual progeny are rifles like the FAL, and AK, which were developed by designers who kept the MP.44 keenly in mind as they sat at their drafting tables. The RSC Mle. 1917 itself directly influenced future selfloading rifles, and in fact shares a great deal of its mechanical features with the famous M1 Garand rifle. The M1, while certainly not a copy of the French rifle, is also a rotary bolt, direct gas impingement operating-rod driven weapon lacking a bolt carrier and feeding from an internal magazine loaded via en-bloc clips (although the initial M1 differed in using a gas trap in front of the muzzle, rather than a gas port drilled in the barrel). In 1916, the French, very generously, sent a .30-06 RSC Mle. 1917 to the United States for evaluation during World War I, and it’s possible that at least one of the type was evaluated post-war after John Garand had begun working at Springfield Armory in 1919. It’s an item of some note that John Garand’s initial rifle designs were all primer-actuated types, utilizing the setback of the cartridge’s primer as a piston to operate the mechanism, and were very dissimilar to the later pattern that would become the M1. After the military .30-06 Springfield cartridge was improved via staking of the cartridge’s primer, almost all of Garand’s work to that point was nullified. The resulting T1 rifle incorporated not only a great deal of common DNA with the RSC Mle. 1917, but also the Mondragon. On page 69 of his landmark book The M1 Garand Rifle, Bruce Canfield elaborates:

    The design was very similar to that of the Mondragon. In addition to the striking similarities in the design of the gas systems, the early experimental versions of the Mondragon also utilized the en bloc clip loading feature. Bob Seijas noted the following regarding the similarities between the Mondragon and the Garand rifles: “I knew an Ordnance officer who was at Springfield Armory in 1938-1939 and knew John Garand well – he often told me that he used to kid Garand that he had stolen his ideas from the Mondragon. According to him, John just used to smile at the jibe.”

    It’s not hard to imagine that Garand, frustrated with the sudden irrelevance of most of a decade’s worth of hard work, would turn instead to the most well-proven mechanisms and elements in the field. This is not to say that Garand ripped off either the RSC or the Mondragon; indeed I firmly believe that the M1 is John Garand’s in a way that few other weapons are truly their designer’s children. John Garand labored tirelessly to bringing the M1 to fruition, working as one of the few tooling and production engineers at the recently gutted Depression-era Springfield Armory; his work extends far beyond the engineering of the rifle itself to the extent that he was almost wholly responsible for the tooling needed to make it, and in turn the tools needed to make many of those tools!

    Returning to the comparison between the MP.44 and the RSC 1917, it’s further worth noting that bringing the first assault rifle to production was a much less demanding undertaking than doing the same for the first selfloading rifle. To some this will sound like a baseless assertion, but consider that designing a successful selfloading rifle of reasonable weight is greatly alleviated when using smaller, less powerful ammunition. The primary selling point of John Pedersen’s pitch to Ordnance for his selfloading rifle design in 1923 was that the smaller .27 caliber round he proposed would much more easily facilitate the design of a selfloading rifle. Further, selfloading pistols, which fire very low pressure ammunition of much less power than full size rifle cartridges or even intermediate rounds, became successful before the beginning of the 20th Century. To drive this point home, the selfloading Winchester series of rifles, which include the 1905, 1907, and 1910 selfloaders (and which even spawned a true assault rifle variant with a detachable large-capacity magazine and selector switch), was made in the hundreds of thousands, and is based on patents from 1902. The assault rifle was therefore a feasible weapon for mass production even as early as the first years of the 20th Century; the concept’s primary obstacles to widespread service as a standard issue infantry arm were therefore doctrinal, not technical.

    In stark contrast, almost every major power from the dawn of the 20th Century on desperately coveted their own standard issue selfloading rifle. In 1902, before the Model of 1903 Springfield had even been adopted, US Army Chief of Ordnance William Crozier expressed his desire for a standard issue selfloading arm. The French military had begun multiple projects to produce a standard issue military selfloading rifle in 1900, and even as early as 1897 Paul Mauser had – under the express orders of the Kaiser – begun the long and hard road to developing a selfloading rifle that would win military acceptance (he would never realize that dream, and it would cost him an eye in the process).

    It’s compelling to me that from the time the Wehrmacht first entertained the idea of an assault rifle, to its adoption and fielding in 1942, only three or four years passed, while from France deciding to pursue a selfloading standard issue arm to the adoption of the RSC 1917 in 1916, 16 years passed.  It’s natural that this is the case because, in addition to the relaxed power of intermediate ammunition, the assault rifle concept builds on the selfloader. Much of the work needed to perfect a mechanism that was suitable for war had already been done; improving on it was a matter of reducing the size and power of the ammunition and incorporating a select-fire mechanism.

    None of what I’ve written here is intended to slam the MP.44 for being “bad”, nor is it an attempt to take away credit to the Germans for being the first to embrace the assault rifle concept. It’s my hope, rather, that this puts both the MP.44 and the RSC 1917 into fairer perspectives and better context than they have hitherto been given. France, the RSC 1917 and the team that developed it deserve at least as much credit as Germany, the MP.44, and its development team for changing small arms history – indeed, I hope I have made the case that perhaps the former deserves a good deal more.

    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. He can be reached via email at [email protected]