The Rifle That Help Make America a Superpower

By Hmaag - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Rifle That Help Make America a Superpower

It was a game-changer.

In the late 19th century, an arms race was in effect among the nations of Europe. Advances in technology were quickly rendering obsolete the weapons that had served relatively unchanged for decades. The muzzle loader gave way to the breech-loading cartridge rifle, which in turn was outclassed by the repeating rifle firing high-velocity cartridges using smokeless powder. Machine guns were still in their infancy, but growing rapidly. Artillery likewise was evolving from brass muzzle-loading guns to quick-firing breechloaders made of steel. These new weapons were expensive to make, but conferred great advantage to those who had them. Resistance to expenditures generally melted away after success on the battlefield.

The ongoing arms race had an effect on the United States, as well. The U.S. Army’s only opponents in the late 1800s were the various tribes of Native Americans who were resisting the continuing loss of their lands in the West. There were few areas in which a conflict with European powers might occur, and American planners gave little thought to the prospect. Eventually, as the nation’s growing power and status caused its eyes to turn outward, the United States began to recognize that it lagged behind Europe in modern weapons.

New Caliber, New Powder

The standard American rifle in the 1880s was the Springfield .45-caliber “Trapdoor” Model 1873 and its derivatives. This single-shot, breech-loading weapon fired a .45-70 cartridge using black powder. Despite occasional difficulties, it had effectively gotten the job done in the West, but it was now obsolete. Military strategists following advances in Europe feared that the United States was far behind most European nations in adopting repeating rifles. By the late 1880s, the concern had finally grown serious enough for a new board to convene to discuss developing a modern rifle for the U.S. Army.

In 1889, research began on a new cartridge that would use smokeless powder. In line with recent developments in Europe, it would be a smaller caliber than the current round. Most single-shot breechloaders of the period were .45 caliber or larger. The newer cartridges were smaller, mostly around .30 caliber. After experimentation, the United States settled on a .30-caliber cartridge designated the .30-40 (the “-40” part of the designation refers to the cartridge’s load of 40 grains of smokeless gunpowder).

Choosing the Krag-Jorgensen

Now it was time to find a weapon to fire the new ammunition. General Daniel W. Flagler, chief of ordnance for the Army, convened a Rifle Board to deliberate on the adoption of a new rifle. It began work on December 23, 1890, stating that it would test any rifle submitted to it. Fifty-three different rifle designs came in from all the major arsenals in Europe. While the lack of an American design was a sign of how far the United States had fallen behind Europe in weapons development, the board decided to view the situation as an opportunity. Because all the other nations had already selected one or more of the new weapons, the U.S. Army could now choose the best. During this period, repeating rifles of various types were flourishing in the civilian market, and several designers had taken their ideas to Europe after American military interest proved lacking. Flagler extended the deadline for submission of a new American design to June 30, 1892, but had no success. Testing continued with only European entries.

The winning design was a Danish weapon, the Krag-Jorgensen. Its designers were actually Norwegians, Ole Krag and Eric Jorgensen. Krag was a colonel in the Norwegian Army and had been developing his rifle since 1868. He had collaborated with Jorgensen, a superintendent at the Kongsberg Arsenal, on an improved Model 1888 of the weapon, which was adopted by the Danish Army in 1889. The U.S. Army designated its Krag as Model 1892, with production to commence at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, the primary U.S. military armory at the time.

From the start, the board’s decision was steeped in controversy. American gun makers complained that they had not submitted entries because the Rifle Board had already pre-selected the Krag. Eventually Congress, at the urging of gun makers and designers, stepped in and ordered the Army to delay procurement of the Krag for two months, during which time another board would evaluate American designs. This board, whose members were the same as the first, again chose the Krag, causing the gun makers to complain anew of unfair testing. This time, however, the adoption of the Krag went forward. On May 26, 1893, it became the U.S. Army’s first repeating, smokeless-powder rifle. Congress appropriated $400,000 toward production of the new weapon.

The Model 1892 Krag-Jorgensen rifle weighed nine pounds, six ounces. Its overall length was just over 49 inches, with a 30-inch barrel. It was a bolt-action weapon, meaning that after each shot the firer turned the bolt upward, pulled it to the rear to eject the fired cartridge case, pushed it forward to chamber a new round, and locked the action back up by turning the bolt back down. The magazine held five rounds and loaded from the side through a gate that the user flipped down. Unlike contemporary rifles that loaded from the top using a five-round clip, the Krag had to be loaded one round at a time. The idea was that soldiers would fire single shots most of the time and save the magazine’s contents for emergencies. Critics claimed that the single-load design was due to the obsession of the Ordnance Branch with conserving ammunition.

With the final decision made, it was expected that the controversy would die out. Instead, initial field reports on the new rifle were mixed at best. Criticisms included a poor sight, weak magazine spring, and weak parts that broke often. Even worse, some reported that the Krag, as it was being called, could not handle the pressures of the more powerful ammunition the Army was producing. The Springfield Armory reworked the rifle, coming out with two subsequent types, the Model 1896 and Model 1898. The revised Krag was sturdier, with exterior differences that included new sights, modifications to the magazine, and a new cleaning rod. Most of the 1892 models were eventually upgraded to the new configuration. A carbine version for cavalry troops sported a shorter 22-inch barrel.

A Trial by Fire

The new rifle was about to get a trial by fire. War was simmering between the United States and Spain over Spain’s longtime colony, Cuba. With the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, it boiled over into outright conflict. Congress recognized Cuba as an independent nation on April 19; a few days later, the Spanish declared war. The United States was about to step onto the world stage, and its soldiers—some of them, anyway—would be carrying Krags. The Army was about 25,000 men strong. A call went out for volunteers to bolster the number to 125,000. The problem was that there were only 50,000 Krag rifles and another 15,000 carbines in the entire U.S. Army stock. The Springfield Armory could turn out only a paltry 100 rifles a day, although this would increase to 350 by the end of the conflict. This meant that the majority of American soldiers would go into action carrying the single-shot, black-powder Springfield rifle.

By contrast, the Spanish troops in Cuba were mostly equipped with the German-designed Model 1893 Mauser, which critics claimed was superior to the Krag. The two rifles were about to go head to head in a bloody test. American troops poured ashore in mid-June. The regular regiments and the Rough Riders, an elite volunteer unit whose officers included Theodore Roosevelt, carried Krag repeaters, while National Guard units carried Springfields.

n the combat that followed, the Krag proved two things. First, it was superior to the Springfield. The Krag could be fired much faster and without the telltale puff of smoke that the older black-powder weapon belched with each shot. This not only obscured the shooter’s vision but also gave away his position each time he fired. The Krag’s .30-40 round also had a much flatter trajectory than the Springfield, particularly at long range, making it easier to aim and giving it a greater depth of fire when used in volleys against massed enemy formations. Soldiers clamored for it over the obsolete Springfield.

Second, the Krag was inferior to the Mauser. The Mauser outranged the Krag and fired a more powerful cartridge. Perhaps most importantly, it could be loaded by means of a five-round clip that fit into a slot on the rifle. A downward push on the rounds in the clip and the Mauser was reloaded and ready for action in seconds, while Krag users had to load their magazines one cartridge at a time. The Spanish troops could put out a volume of fire that far surpassed what the Americans could achieve, to say nothing of the hapless National Guardsmen with their antique Trapdoors. The disparity was not helped by additional American inferiority in both artillery and machine guns. Despite the obstacles, American troops won a relatively quick victory in Cuba, overrunning the Spanish defenses at San Juan and Kettle Hills and El Caney and taking the crucial city of Santiago after a short siege. Spanish forces in Cuba capitulated in July1898.