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Arming Ivan Part II: the bear begs, borrows and buys guns to stay in the fight.

The Eastern Front, August 1916--The shrill scream of the officer's whistle snapped Sergey back to reality. He was trying to picture Svetlana's face, the way she always smiled when they worked in the little garden outside their hovel near the village of Safonovo. He wondered if he would ever see her again as he braced himself for what might be his last day on earth. He waited for his turn at the ladder as the staccato of Austrian machineguns began to spray the top of the parapet. He could here the bullets passing overhead like so many angry wasps. He squeezed and opened the palms of his hands reflexively and then looked at Sasha in front of him, wishing that he had a rifle, any rifle, even the antiquated French Gras rifles being carried by the majority of his company. The whistle blasted another mournful wail and the packed mass of Russians began to move up and out of the frontline trench.

His NCO, Sergeant Vladimir Nicolaiyivch Ivanov, was screaming and kicking a soldier who was cowering in the bottom of the trench, screaming at him to get up and join the attack. Sergey steeled himself as best he could and scrambled up the ladder behind Sasha, instinctively crouching as he cleared the top of the parapet. A burst of gunfire swept the ground to his left, several rounds zinging off the barb wire entanglement to the left of the path that had been cleared through the wire by the pioneers in preparation for the assault. He followed Sasha through the wire diving for cover in a shell hole, just as a round from a trench mortar obliterated the three men who cleared the wire seconds before them. Another round burst in front of them, as they hugged the earth. Four more rounds tore the air around them and the shrapnel whizzed by just over their heads. Someone screamed, but the sound was blotted out by the next round of incoming shells. The Austrians had the path through the Russian wire bracketed.

Sergey crawled to the edge of the shell hole and peered over the crest. In front of them. writhing in pain, screaming, were several soldiers who were caught in the open by the last round of mortar fire. They were flanked by the lifeless bodies and body parts of four other soldiers who had caught the brunt of the blasts. He remembered Sgt. Ivanov words, "For those of you without rifles, one will become available shortly." Sergey marked the sergeants words as he slithered out of the shell hole to grab the French Mle 1874 Gras rifle that lay in the dirt next to one of the lifeless bodies of his comrades ...

That's right, a French Mle 1874 Gras, one of more than 450,000 sent to Russia by the French Government during 1915 and 1916, to help alleviate the chronic weapons shortage, which plagued the Russians throughout the war. The combatant nations who squared off in 1914 estimated that the fighting would last for somewhere between six weeks and three months. When Christmas had come and gone, it was apparent to everyone that the war was going to last much longer and take a far greater toll than anyone could have imagined. More and more troops were mobilized and, from the very beginning in Russia, there were not enough rifles to arm them all.

If the original accounts are to be believed, an estimated eight percent to as many as 28 percent of Russian troops in any major engagement went into battle without rifles. They were issued ammunition and told that a rifle would "become available" after battle was joined. There are not many soldiers in the world, then or now, who would not have mutinied at the mere suggestion of such a thing. It's not that the Russian Army wanted it this way. It is simply a matter of Russia, along with all of the other major powers of Europe, never having imagined fighting a war on this scale. In addition, the battlefield losses of small arms, due to the advent of high explosive artillery rounds, wets much greater than anyone imagined. The net result was that nearly every breech-loading rifle developed following the end of the American Civil War was eventually used in some capacity during WWI. In Russia, obsolete rifles older than the soldiers who carried them, saw frontline combat service.

The U.S. Connection

With solid contacts already existing within the U.S. small arms market, Russia turned immediately to the United States. Russian Ordnance experts visited Remington and Westinghouse where large contracts were let for American-made M1891 Three-Line rifle. Both companies produced an estimated 1,609,827 million rifles before Russia withdrew in 1917 (Remington made 840,307 and Westinghouse 769,520). The balance of the Remington and Westinghouse orders in process when Russia withdrew were purchased by the U.S. Army and issued as training rifles. Both U.S.-produced Three-Line Rifles are marked with the name of the manufacturer in English atop the barrel in the same location as the Russian-made rifles. U.S.-issued M91s are generally marked with U.S. Ordnance eagle heads or a small flaming bomb surmounted with "US" stamped on the underside of the stock just forward of the magazine.

In addition to the contracts issued to both Remington and Westinghouse, the Russian team placed an order for 300,000 Model 1895 Winchester muskets. These rifles were equipped with charger guides to allow the use of the same five-round stripper clips as the M91. The Model 95 has a five-round inline magazine fully compatible with the use of spitzer bullets. The first deliveries of Winchesters where shipped with knife bayonets with 8 1/2" blades. The Russian tactical doctrine placed a lot of emphasis on the bayonet. They were extremely pleased with the first Winchesters, but immediately requested the blades of the bayonets be increased to 16". The Winchester earned an excellent reputation with the troops, and the rifles saw continued use through the Russian Civil War. There is a slight discrepancy regarding the number of M95 Winchesters that were delivered to Russia. The Russians claim to have received 299,000 rifles, while the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. shows 293,818 rifles shipped. Some historians believe the additional rifles may represent commercial Model 95s purchased out of Winchester's work in progress when the two parties first met.

An unspecified number of U.S. .30-40 Krag-Jorgenson rifles made their way to Russia during WWI. Examples of these rifles exist in Russian museum collections. Since the Krag-Jorgenson was by that time considered a reserve weapon in the U.S., a large number were owned and stored by various state's militias, Who sold the .30-40 Krags to the Russian delegation, as well as the numbers delivered, remains a mystery in the U.S.

The Japanese Arisaka

The Russians cared very little where rifles came from, so long as they were serviceable. With this consideration, the Russians approached the Japanese who had soundly thrashed them over hegemony in the Far East just 10 years before in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Now the Russians sought to buy the very same rifles that had been used against them during that war. Some 600,000 Arisaka rifles were shipped to Russia during 1915 and '16. The vast majority of rifles and carbines were Type 30 Arisakas (1897). A much smaller percentage were Type 35 Naval rifles (1902) and the newer Type 38 infantry rifles (1905). All were shipped complete with Type 30 bayonets, the same pattern used against U.S. forces in the Pacific 30 years later. The Type 30, 35 and 38 rifles were chambered for the 6.5x50mm cartridge, accepted standard chargers and had a five-round magazine capacity.

The Japanese, in an effort to clean up an old mess, included an additional 34,400 Mexican Arisaka Type 38 rifles and carbines. These rifles had been produced on contract for Mexico, but only a very small number had been delivered when the Mexican Revolution interrupted the sale. The Mexican contract Arisakas are identical in every way to their Japanese counterparts with few exceptions. They are marked with Mexican crests on the receiver and are chambered for the 7x57mm Mauser cartridge. These rifles and carbines also used Type 30 bayonets.

Arisakas from Britain?

In late 1915 and through the end of 1916, the Russian Army received an additional 128,000 Type 30 and 38 Arisaka rifles from Great Britain. In 1914, during the dark days before the Marne, the French sought to purchase weapons from Japan, too. France bought 150,000 Arisaka Type 30 and 38 rifles. While the shipment was in transit, the British approached the French and bought all 150,000. The shipment was diverted to Britain and the rifles issued to the reserves and the Royal Marines. In British service, the Arisakas were referred to as the Rifle, Magazine, .256-inch, Pattern 1900 (Type 30) or 1907 (Type 38). As the situation in Russia grew more desperate, the British, who now had large quantities of P14 Enfields from the U.S., decided to ship the bulk of the remaining Arisakas to Russia. Several British companies were already producing 6.5 ammunition for the Russian Army. An estimated 16,000 of the original shipment of 150,000 Arisakas had been shipped to the Middle East for use by the Arab Revolt under Prince Feisal and T.E. Lawrence, and a small number were still aboard ships at sea. Of the original 150,000 Arisakas in British inventory, 128,000 eventually went to Russia.

According to Russian sources, a grand total of 763,000 Arisaka rifles were issued to Russian troops during WWI. When you count the shipments per western sources, there is a discrepancy of only 600 rifles. The discrepancy is small enough to be not much more than a footnote.

French Contributions

The French were prepared to help Russia, too. France, more than any other country, wanted Russia to stay in the war. Without the Eastern Front, Germany would shift the weight of her army to the Western Front and the destruction of France. Beginning in 1915, regular shipments of small arms, ammunition, artillery and shells where made continually to Russia. The first arms sent to Russia were obsolete Mle 1874 French Gras single-shot, black-powder rifles and carbines. The Gras was a later cartridge evolution of the Mle 1866 Chassepot needle rifle. The bolt-action Gras series included a full-length infantry rifle, cavalry carbine, artillery musketoon and two variations of short rifle for the mounted and foot gendarmerie. The Gras was chambered for the 11x59mmR black-powder cartridge. The Gras infantry rifles were issued with the Mle 1874 bayonet, an epee style made solely0 for thrusting. The Mle 74 has a 20 1/2" T-backed blade. Many of the Gras bayonets were inspected at the Sestroryetsk arsenal in Russia and stamped inside the mounting slot with an arrow, the standard small-parts mark of the arsenal. The Mle 1874 Artillery musketoon and the Mle 74 Foot Gendarmerie rifles were generally issued with the Mle 1866 yataghanstyle sword bayonet. By the end of 1916, a total of 450,000 Mle 74 Gras single-shot rifles were delivered.

In addition to the Mle 74 Gras rifles, the French also shipped 150,000 Mle 1878, Mle 1878/84 and Mle 1885 Kropatchek repeating rifles. Western sources list a total of 105,000 Kropatchek rifles delivered to Russian forces. The addition of these rifles made sense, since the Kropatcheks were chambered for the 11x59mmR and the Mle 78/84 was issued with the Mle 74 Gras bayonet. The first Kropatchek rifle in French service, "Le fusil Mle 1878 de Marine, was produced by Steyr of Austria. The total production of the Mle 78 was 25,000 rifles. The next Kropatchek, the Mle 1878/84, was produced entirely in France and was an improved version of the Mle 78. The majority of the rifles shipped to Russia were Mle 78/84s. The last version of the black-powder-chambered Kropatcheks, the Mle 1885, was in fact the forerunner of the Mle 1886 Lebel and incorporated the slab-sided, steel receiver with separate buttstock and forearm, as opposed to the full-length stock of the other two models. These rifles were of Kropatchek design and incorporated an eight-round tubular magazine enclosed in the forearm and running underneath the barrel almost to the muzzle. An additional cartridge could be carried in the lifting mechanism and a 10th round in the chamber. While not exactly a modern weapon, the black-powder Kropatcheks were at least repeaters. Any way you look at it, any repeating rifle is a step up from a black-powder single shot, such as the Berdan II or Gras!

With the inventory of obsolete rifles pretty much exhausted, the French began to ship more modern weapons to Russia, including Mle 1886 Lebel rifles, the French first-line rifle at the outbreak of the war. The Lebel was the last of the Kropatchek designs adopted by a major power. The ground-breaking Mle 1886 Lebel introduced the French 8x51mmR cartridge, the first small-bore, smokeless-powder cartridge adopted by any army in the world. As it was, the rifle itself was outdated almost before it was introduced. As the Lebel was being designed, Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher had already introduced the Mannlicher en bloc clip system for his Model 1885 Mannlicher. Three years later, Paul Mauser would eclipse Mannlicher with the introduction of the Mauser charger loading system. Like the previous French Kropatchek designs, the Mle 1886 Lebel had a tubular magazine that ran the entire length of the forearm. The total number of Mle 1886 Lebels delivered to Russia, is listed by both Russian and Western sources, as 86,000 rifles.

The French also shipped quantities of the Mle 1907/15 Berthiers. These Mannlicher clip-loading rifles were an outgrowth of the Mle 1890 Berthier carbines. The Berthier was originally introduced in three configurations, a special carbine with a combless stock and a leather buttplate for the French heavy armored cavalry--the Cuirassiers--a standard cavalry version and a special model for the Gendarmerie. Two years later, a Berthier artillery musketoon was introduced, the Mle 1892. In 1902, the first Berthier rifle was introduced, a scaled-down Mle 1902 short rifle specially designed for the Annimese colonial troops from French Indo-China. The next addition, and the last before the outbreak of war in 1914, was the Mle 1907 Berthier "Senegalese" Coloniale rifle. It was upon this version of the Berthier that the Mle 1907/15 was designed.

The Mle 1907/15 Berthier was a Mannlicher design with a split receiver bridge that utilized the en bloc Mannlicher clip system. In the case of the Mle 1907/15 Berthier, the clips held a scant three rounds. Since the Mannlicher required an inline magazine to accept the clips, the original cavalry version were designed as three-shot rifles, since it was deemed an extended magazine reaching below the bottom line of the stock might catch on different pieces of the cavalryman's equipment, In addition, the primary weapons of the cavalry were still considered to be the lance and saber in 1907. Whether or not this makes much sense today is certainly debatable, but there was no good reason whatsoever to design a three-round infantry rifle. It wasn't a good idea in 1907, let alone 1915. The French pressed the Mle 1907/15 rifles into production out of desperation and quickly decided in 1916 to add a five-shot magazine that extended well below the stock on both rifles and carbines. Not surprisingly, both new variations were given Mle 16 designations.

However, shipments of Mle 1907/15 to Russia preceded the introduction of the Mle 16. Still, three shots were better than one and the Berthier fired the same 8x51mmR cartridge as the Mle 86 Lebel. Besides, Russia was still short of weapons and anything that slung lead was an improvement over sending a percentage of troops into battle unarmed. Both the Mle 1886 Lebel and the Mle 1907/15 Berthier accepted the same Mle 1886 or Mle 1886/16 epee bayonet. The Poilu's referred the Mle 86 epee bayonet as "Rosalie." There is no reference to the Russian soldiers having applied a nick name of their own.

For reasons unknown, neither the French nor the Russians listed the Mle 1886 Lebel and Mle 1907/15 Berthier shipments separately. As a result, we have a grand total of rifles delivered that both countries agree upon--86,000 rifles. How many of each type made up this number is anyone's guess.

Help from Italy

Although suffering severe supply problems of their own, the Italians wanted to help their Allies because they didn't want the entire weight of the Austro-Hungarian Army descending on the Southern Front across the Isonzo or in the jagged crags and peaks of the Alps. Their contribution to Russia came in the form of 400,000 Model 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali repeating rifles. Like the Berdan II and the Mle 1874 Gras, the Model 1870 Vetterli was originally adopted as a black-powder single shot. In 1887, one year after the French introduced the smokeless powder Mle 86 Lebel, the Italians wanted a new smokeless powder rifle of their own, but needed to extend the life of the Vetterli, The answer came in the form of the Vitali box magazine. The stocks were cut to accommodate a box magazine and a piece of sheet metal reinforcement was added to the bottom of the stock surrounding the magazine. A four-shot magazine, with reinforced side ribs was hen added to the action.

The floor of the boltway was cut away to allow the magazine to be from the top. In this respect, the Vetterli-Vitali is quite different from other rifles of the period that utilized Mannlicher clips. The four-round Vetterli clips had small linen pull tabs to pull the empty clip out of the top of the magazine after the last round. All other Mannlicher rifles of the period were allowed the empty clip to fall or be pushed out of the bottom of the magazine. The M70/87 Vetterli-Vitali's were chambered for the rather anemic 10.4x47mmR cartridge, the ballistics of which just about match a heavy-bullet .44 Magnum fired out of revolver. Not exactly a long-range proposition, but still preferable to a single shot in volume of fire and it was better than no rifle at all! The Vetterli-Vitali was issued to Russian troops with the Model 1870 sword bayonet. The M70 has an extremely long straight blade, measuring 20 3/16" from the cross-guard to the tip of the blade. The Model 1870 Vetterli-Vitali was produced in several carbine and gendarmerie configurations, however, all of the weapons known to have been shipped to Russia were infantry rifles.

Too Little, Too Late?

Despite increased production at each three major Russian arsenals, combined with the issue of more than two million rifles by her allies, the Russian Army never managed to resolve the chronic shortage of small arms throughout the war. It is a testimony to the stubborn character of the individual Russian soldier who continued to fight on under conditions that would have resulted in mutinies in most other armies. To what degree the constant weapons shortages contributed to the Revolution and Civil War may never be known, but the myriad of unusual, obsolete and antiquated weapons seeing frontline service in Russia during WWI is a fascinating small arms collector.

RELATED ARTICLE: The American M1891.

Both the Westinghouse and Remington contract M91s were produced in the United States during the war, marked on the barrel in English rather than Russian. This example is one of the 769,520 Model Westinghouse delivered to Russia during the war. Remington delivered a total of 840,307 M91s before Russia withdrew from the war at the end of 1917 and shipments were halted. Both Remington and Westinghouse had large inventories of work in process and the United States Army bought the remaining inventories from both companies for use in training the millions of new recruits who signed up in droves once America declared war on the Central Powers.


RELATED ARTICLE: Lever actions on the front.

The Russians remembered the drubbing they took from the Turks armed |with Peabody-Martini single shots and Winchester Model 1866 lever actions at the Battle of Plevna in 1877. Their respect for the firepower a lever action delivered led them to purchase 299,000 Model 1895 Winchester Muskets. The Model 1895 was shorter than most WWI era bolt-action infantry rifles due to the shorter barrel length and more compact action. Many ordnance departments rejected the Winchester during field trials, questioning the ruggedness of the Model 95's action under combat conditions. Despite these concerns, the Model 95 performed extremely well on the Eastern Front and proved to be very popular with Russian troops.

The Model 1895 contract rifles are easily identified by the full-length military forearm, upper handguard and bayonet lug on the top barrelband. The clip guides, screwed to either side of the receiver on the Model 1895 Winchester, accommodated the standard Russian 7.62x54mmR five-round chargers. That was small consolation for an ordnance department that had to supply ammunition to the frontlines in more than a dozen different calibers.
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Author:Sheehan, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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