Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, February 12, 2024

Weapons of War: The Ross Rifle

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The Mark II Ross Rifle

By James Patton

Scotsman Sir Charles Ross (1872–1942), 9th (and last) Baronet Lockhart-Ross was a colorful character and a prolific inventor, the holder of patents for firearms, agricultural machinery, hydraulic systems, and even ship designs. In 1893 and 1897, he patented a straight-pull bolt-action rifle. Quoting from Wikipedia: "The operating principle of the straight-pull bolt action comprises a sleeve to which the bolt lever or handle is attached. This sleeve is hollow and has spiral grooves or 'teeth' cut into its inner surface in which slide corresponding projections or 'teeth' on the outside of the bolt head or 'body'. As the bolt lever and sleeve are moved, the bolt head is forced to rotate through about 90°, locking or unlocking it in the receiver of the rifle." The simple “back-and-forth” cycling of the bolt was faster than with manually turned bolts. 

Sir Charles Ross in 1921

Having family wealth, Ross started manufacturing his rifles in the UK but moved to Quebec in 1903 to qualify for a contract with the Canadian government for 12,000 military rifles. Ross offered several advantages over the British Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE), including lighter weight (partly due to a smaller magazine), more accurate at longer ranges, a faster rate of fire, and easier disassembly because it required no special tool.

The original Ross rifle was in 7.0x66SR (.280) and used a high-velocity cartridge (2,998 fps). When the Canadian military became his most important customer, he was required to change to the SMLE’s 7.7x56R (.303) cartridge (2,441 fps) to simplify logistics. Ross made three variants, designated Marks I, II and III, plus many sub-variants. Civilian rifles were issued in many different calibers, even .22LR. Between 1903 and 1915, 419,310 Ross rifles were manufactured, of which 342,040 went to the military.

Most of the Canadian army Ross rifles were Mark IIs. It weighed slightly less than 10 pounds, with a 30½- barrel. The overall length of 50¼ inches increased the muzzle velocity (2,460 fps) and improved accuracy. 

Unmodified, the rifle had to be loaded using a stripper clip, and the magazine held one clip load. The barrel-mounted folding-leaf rear sight was similar to the 1898 Mauser. The front sight blade was protected by a removable metal cover.

The bayonet was unusual in shape, with a blade that was 101⁄8-inches long and about 11⁄8-inches - described as a “butcher knife”.  

In 1914 the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) went to France armed with the Ross and were soon in combat. While the rifles had been impressive on the target ranges, problems quickly arose. 

Most serious was the straight-pull rotating bolt became inoperable when even small amounts of dirt or mud worked its way into the screw heads in the sleeve. Plus these could also be damaged by rough handling.

 Another serious flaw was that, after field-stripping, the bolt could be incorrectly assembled, which could cause the rifle to fire without the bolt securely locked, blowing the bolt back into the user’s face.

Also, cartridges were prone to jam when feeding from the magazine, likely due to slightly different tolerances from the various ammunition manufacturers.  

The barrel was nearly 5 inches longer than the SMLE’s, which soldiers found to be unwieldy in close quarters.

Finally, the bayonets would sometimes fall off when the rifle was fired.

Consequently, in July 1916 the Ross rifles were pulled from service with the CEF and replaced with SMLE’s. Records show that 95,674 Ross rifles were sent to storage.

1915: Canadian Force in Bermuda on Temporary
Assignment Prior to Deployment to Western Front
Carrying Ross Rifles

However, several hundred were fitted with American prismatic rifle telescopes and remained in use as highly accurate sniper rifles. These rifles worked well because snipers, unlike average infantrymen, kept their weapons (and ammo) well cleaned and oiled. 

After withdrawal from front-line service, the Ross rifles continued to be used for training. About 67,100 rifles that had been modified to accept single shot loads were used post-WWI by both the British army and marines. A considerable quantity found their way from British stocks into the Russian civil wars of 1919-23 and at least 80,000 saw continuing service with the Baltic states until captured by Soviet forces in 1940. Also in that year the British received 75,000 rifles from Canada for issue to the WWII Home Guardsmen. In 1942 a batch was sent to the USSR. Many of the Soviet rifles were rechambered to their standard 7.62x54R (.30) cartridge. Post-WWII Soviet marksmen used these 7.62 Ross rifles in international competition.

What was the American experience with the Ross? In 1917 the U.S. Army was acutely short of rifles needed for an army of eventually six million. Even diverting American production of British P14 Enfields and Russian Mosin-Nagants was insufficient; some trainees received obsolete .30-40 1892 Krags or even ‘trap door’ .45-70 1873 Springfields, and there are reports of training with broomsticks. 

In 1917 Canada had about 90,000 Ross rifles sitting in inventory. New York tried to buy some of these but hit a snag because the rifles would be subject to an import duty. To avoid this, in November 1917 the federal government purchased 20,000 Mark II Ross rifles, including bayonets, for $12.50 each. These rifles were used for training only.

The Unique Site and "Teeth" of the Ross Rifle

Post-war the American-owned Ross rifles were offered for sale for $5 each. There were few takers, even with a 30% price cut. By 1926, the unsold rifles were in dead storage, and in 1940 they were sent back to Canada under Lend-Lease. 

The Ross rifles never saw combat with American forces, but they enabled more suitable rifles to be available. Although the Ross was entirely satisfactory as a training rifle, history ranks it only slightly better than a broomstick.

Sources include: The American Rifleman; WikiCommons;

1 comment:

  1. Rendered inoperable by small amounts of dirt or mud? Sounds like it didn't get a thorough "field testing" before being issued to the troops. That might sound familiar to anyone who had to use the early version of the M-16.