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Author Topic: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development  (Read 2638 times)

Langenator

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Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
« on: May 28, 2019, 08:49:55 am »
I had an idea, a few years back, about writing a serious academic article on Army institutional culture and how it resulted in the Army missing the boat, at least initially, at two major milestones in firearms (rifle) development: smokeless powder, and the advent of the assault rifle.

With smokeless powder, the Army first adopts the Krag-Jorgenson, and shortly thereafter, ends up fighting the Spanish, who have better rifles (Mausers chambered in 7x57).  The Mauser has a better rate of fire, thanks to stripper clips, and the 7x57 is a much flatter shooting round than the .30-40 Krag.  The Army soon thereafter adopts a Mauser clone, the M1903, chambered in a higher velocity round, the .30-06.

The assault rifle concept comes along in WWII, with the Stg.44.  The Army (specifically, the Ordnance Board) decides they don't want an intermediate round, and ends up adopting the M-14 in 7.62x51.  Shortly after, we encounter the AK-47/AKM family in Vietnam, and discover that the M-14 is big, heavy, and overpowered for the majority of infantry combat.  Which leads to McNamara forcing the M-16 down the throats of the Army and Marines.

As I thought about it a little more, it occurred to me:  how is it that, at both junctures, the supposedly backward Russians are the ones who got it right, or at least good enough, on the first try?  Both times.

When smokeless powder came along, among the major powers the French adopted the Lebel, the Germans the Gew.88 (Commission Rifle), the Brits the Lee-Metford, the Austrians the Steyr-Mannlicher, the Italians the Mannlicher-Carcano, and the Americans the Krag.  The Germans, Brits, and Americans replaced their rifles within a few years, and the French were too slow and were stuck with the Lebel when WWI started.  The Italians and Austrians soldiered on with less than ideal rifles.

The Russians adopted the Mosin-Nagant in 1891, and used it for over half a century, and still use the ammo developed for it, more than 125 years after it was introduced.  (Admittedly, the Russians did have the advantage of adopting the Mosin after the French, Germans, and Brits had introduced their first, sub-optimal designs.  Uncle Sam really had no excuse.)

After WWII, the U.S. forced Western Europe down the battle rifle route with the 7.62x51 round, only to change tack a decade later with the 5.56mm M-16.

The Russians adopted the 7.62x39 round and the AK-47/AKM, probably the most important firearm of the latter half of the 20th century.

I don't know if it's a case of Good Enough beating Exquisite, or what.
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    Kaso

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #1 on: May 28, 2019, 11:09:38 am »
    The Russians adopted the 7.62x39 round and the AK-47/AKM, probably the most important firearm of the latter half of the 20th century.

    I don't know if it's a case of Good Enough beating Exquisite, or what.
    For the AK, yes.  It was designed to be utterly reliable, and to be cave man simple so the People's conscript peasant army could be trained to use them with little instruction.  Those two traits - reliability and simplicity - are what made the Kalashnikov a legend.  Accuracy and ergonomics 'could be better,' but are more than sufficient for battlefield use.


    For the Mosin, I do not have a great base of knowledge, but I will guess that being last to the party allows a good deal of learning from the teething problems of others' designs.
    « Last Edit: May 28, 2019, 12:18:17 pm by Kaso »

    ksuguy

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #2 on: May 28, 2019, 11:43:18 am »
    Arguably the Russians didn't always do it right.  They had the Fedorov at the end of World War 1,  but then the political upheaval and fall of the czar and turn to communism sort of caused it to get lost in the shuffle.  The small number of early rifles that were built were used until they wore out in the various conflicts between the Russian factions, against Finland in the winter war, and the early days of WWII.   There are only a handful of surviving examples today.   Ian from Forgotten Weapons had to travel to a British museum to find one, and it was in somewhat worn and rough condition.   

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fedorov_Avtomat
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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #3 on: May 28, 2019, 12:57:14 pm »
    I think you could argue that the AK design is just an improvement on the heavy Russian use of sub guns in WW2. They were building up the range and power of sub gun instead of building down from a rifle. Which made the AK tend toward handy and robust.

    The US has always had an odd obsession with marksmanship in military use. Which combat has shown is just not as important as other concerns like firepower available, ease of use/carry and reliability. I think Russia has never had that problem and even assumes their overall marksmanship will be poor on average. Which I think was just more realistic to assume in combat.

    It is also pretty easy with hindsight to point out seemingly obvious mistakes. Which are near impossible to see at the time of adoption. I would say the change in combat scenario from the end of WW1 to 1960 is as great as the change in combat scenario from 1700 to WW1. Armored vehicles and aircraft radically changed infantry combat and needs. So it makes perfect sense to miss the mark in that transition.   
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    ksuguy

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #4 on: May 28, 2019, 03:23:58 pm »
    The US has always had an odd obsession with marksmanship in military use. Which combat has shown is just not as important as other concerns like firepower available, ease of use/carry and reliability.

    This has always struck me as weird given the lack of marksmanship training for most people in the military.   If it is so important, you would think they would allow more range time for basic marksmanship.

    Aside from the Marines and some other specialized roles, there isn't much.   Back when I was doing the Appleseed thing, the students that had been in the Marine Corps were usually really good shooters.  For the most part, the ones with time in the other branches told me they got a small amount of range time in basic and that was about it.  Of course there were a few exceptions like the guy that was on the state shooting team in the Kansas National Guard.
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    LowKey

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #5 on: May 28, 2019, 06:32:14 pm »
    This has always struck me as weird given the lack of marksmanship training for most people in the military.   If it is so important, you would think they would allow more range time for basic marksmanship.

    Aside from the Marines and some other specialized roles, there isn't much.   Back when I was doing the Appleseed thing, the students that had been in the Marine Corps were usually really good shooters.  For the most part, the ones with time in the other branches told me they got a small amount of range time in basic and that was about it.  Of course there were a few exceptions like the guy that was on the state shooting team in the Kansas National Guard.
    I suspect the reason is that (a) ammo costs money and they (the commanders) prefer to save the budget for training activities that are more likely to result in better unit evaluations and (b) ranges are a chance for Joe to have an accident/incident and no commander wants to risk holding that hot potato.
    In my case I was in an Armor unit and our training budget seemed to be %99 directed at fuel and enough main gun and MG ammo to get us qualified each year.  In garrison training was of the "hip pocket" variety which used next to nothing in resources.  Application of a battle/pressure dressing was a frequent occurrence <re>using a bandage that may have first come out of the wrapper while McNamara was still around. 
    I'm guessing that even for grunt units maneuver training and CTT was higher up on the priority list over range time.  It's not hard to qualify "expert" and that's as good as the commander needs his people to look on paper for a good OER. 

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #6 on: May 28, 2019, 07:14:18 pm »
    Question on the history of the Krag-Jorgensen. I have a 1898, and a 1899 30-40 Krag. Nowhere is the name Jorgensen on either.  Do mine have any relation to a Krag-Jorgensen, or are they of a different variety?
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    ksuguy

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #7 on: May 28, 2019, 09:57:57 pm »
    Same rifle, Krag is just the shortened version of the name.
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    coelacanth

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #8 on: October 08, 2019, 05:24:41 pm »
    I think you could argue that the AK design is just an improvement on the heavy Russian use of sub guns in WW2. They were building up the range and power of sub gun instead of building down from a rifle. Which made the AK tend toward handy and robust.

    The US has always had an odd obsession with marksmanship in military use. Which combat has shown is just not as important as other concerns like firepower available, ease of use/carry and reliability. I think Russia has never had that problem and even assumes their overall marksmanship will be poor on average. Which I think was just more realistic to assume in combat.

    It is also pretty easy with hindsight to point out seemingly obvious mistakes. Which are near impossible to see at the time of adoption. I would say the change in combat scenario from the end of WW1 to 1960 is as great as the change in combat scenario from 1700 to WW1. Armored vehicles and aircraft radically changed infantry combat and needs. So it makes perfect sense to miss the mark in that transition.   
    I agree with this - especially with the last paragraph.   The armed forces of the world ( ours included ) are always preparing to fight the last war they were in.  Senior officers are almost always in charge of planning, training and procurement and those officers are rarely the youngest and most forward thinking of the bunch.  There have always been a few pioneers in the ranks of career general officers but they have typically excelled on the battlefield - not in the War Dept. or the Pentagon.   The process of weapons development and procurement was handicapped by how it developed over time and the entrenched nature of the command structure of the military and the bureaucracy that oversaw it. 

    The officers who made the selection of the Krag-Jorgensen rifle in 1892 could barely comprehend the impact of smokeless powder repeating rifles in the hands of the average soldier, much less the outbreak of the Spanish-American War or the terrible impact of WWI a scant twenty or so years after they made their decision.  Technology, across a broad front, had overtaken them ( and the rest of the industrialized world ) and almost nobody could have foreseen what that would mean even a single generation into the future.  A situation that persists to this day, IMO.   :hmm
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    Raptor

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #9 on: October 08, 2019, 06:22:58 pm »
    I believe it was Othias over at C&Rsenal who spoke on the US Army's seeming obsession with marksmanship, as well as the reason why we stuck with the Trapdoor Springfield and the Single Action Army long after everyone else had gone over to repeaters and double-action revolvers (and even early automatic pistols).

    Up until the end of the 19th Century, the United States Army was basically a frontier army. Settlements and forts were miles and miles apart, and the actual production centers for ammunition were hundreds - maybe even thousands - of miles away. Supply routes and logistic trails were virtually nonexistent, even with the advent of the transcontinental railroads. So army had to physically carry every single round of ammunition that they needed while on campaign from the outset of said campaign. They could not afford to waste a single round of ammunition since there was literally no chance of resupply. And they were responsible for hunting for their own food if need be, and stuff like elk, moose, and buffalo would laugh at the "intermediate" cartridges of the day.

    And then we get into what coelacanth was saying about senior officers being in charge of planning, logistics, etc. Combine that with a century and a half of institutional thinking and bureaucratic largess, and you've got a nigh-unshakable obsession with marksmanship and full-power rifle cartridges whilst completely forgetting the initial reasons why those qualities were desirable to begin with.

    Also, as far as the adoption of the Krag goes, my understanding is that the Army was looking primarily for a small-bore rifle. Repeating capability (and possibly smokeless powder, I'll have to go back and check) were very distant afterthoughts. See the aforementioned Frontier Armory mindset. And the Krag is actually a fine design... until Army Ordnance got its hands on it decided to loosen up the tolerances while also bumping up the power of the .30-40 cartridge.
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    coelacanth

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    Re: Random thought(s) on the history of firearms development
    « Reply #10 on: October 09, 2019, 02:26:42 am »
    Good points.  Logistics and support functions for the U.S. Army were completely different than most European armies because of exactly the things you listed.  Armories and trained armorers were scarce outside the coastal areas or large cities and spares were worth their weight in gold in many places like the Arizona territory.  It was the last of the contiguous 48 states to join the union and did not do so until 1912.  I had an elderly relative ( one of my grandfather's cousins I think  :hmm ) we used to visit when I was a kid and he was actually a cavalry trooper stationed at the original Fort Apache in eastern Arizona territory when he was a young man.  He used to tell us stories about his experience(s) while he showed us some of his cavalry gear that hung in the tack room out in his barn.  He said it was a good thing they had subdued the Apache when they did ( a bit prior to his arrival apparently ) because they had more rifles and revolvers and other equipment that were broken beyond repair than they had functional weapons during his time there.   

    The original Krag-Jorgensen design that the Danes adopted had three locking lugs which was reduced to two by the time the U.S. adopted the rifle.  The five round "capsule" style magazine was easy to deal with from the standpoint of not needing the ammo to be housed in stripper clips, was user friendly in terms of being fairly impervious to dirt and debris and the rifles also featured a magazine cut-off that allowed single rounds to be loaded and fired while keeping a full magazine in reserve.  Even in military trim they were excellent hunting rifles.  On the battlefield their shortcomings became all too evident.   

    Nothing wrong with marksmanship as far as it goes but even when it was a highly prized skill it was hard to come by in most armies ( ours included ).  The advent of repeating rifles in the hands of every soldier and smokeless powder rounds capable of being lethal at 1000 yards changed strategy and tactics as surely as the internal combustion engine vehicle which replaced the horses and mules that had been the backbone of military transport for a millennium.  Automatic weapons were in widespread use on the battlefields of Europe by the outbreak of WWI which changed things yet again.   Once that genie was out of the bottle ( Hiram Maxim's gun was in service at roughly the same time the U.S. adopted the Krag ) it was just a matter of time before automatic weapons were widespread on the battlefields of the world. 

    The century between 1850 and 1950 saw truly stunning progress in the grim arts of war and the world changed dramatically because of that and other factors.  I think clairvoyance would have been necessary to see clearly how it was all going to play out and what the best course would have been at any point during that span of years.   :coffee
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