On paper, at the beginning of World War I, the Russian Army was the most formidable land force in the world. With almost three million men under arms, it was a potential juggernaut that terrified the German general staff. The only problem was, supplies and equipment were woefully short, and over a third of the army didn’t even have guns! A solution was found from a most unlikely source when the Winchester Model 1895 lever-action rifle entered the service of the czar.
The standard-issue Russian infantry rifle at the time was the Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant. It was a very good bolt-action repeater; the only problem was the Russians couldn’t make enough of them. At the Battle of Tannenberg, for instance, half of the Russian infantry went into battle unarmed and had to pick up the rifles of their fallen comrades.
This terrible shortage of arms caused the Russians to turn to the neutral United States for a solution.
As well as contracting with Westinghouse and Remington to make Mosin-Nagants, they went to Winchester and ordered 300,000 long-barreled musket versions of the Winchester Model 95 lever-action, chambered in the service caliber of 7.62 x54Rmm. The 7.62x54Rmm fired a 210-grain .30 caliber bullet with a muzzle velocity of almost 3,000 feet-per-second, pushing it up into the .30-06 class. Despite their rims and thick girth, the cartridge functioned well in the gun, and reliability and accuracy was excellent.
Ultimately more Russian 95s would be manufactured than any other variant of that gun.
Though it may seem unlikely, the Model 95 was an excellent choice. Winchester was already tooled up for it and it was strong enough to handle the stout Russian round. The Model 95 was John Browning’s first lever-action specifically designed for smokeless powder. All that was necessary was to take it from a sporting configuration to a military one was to stretch the barrel and fit it with a bayonet lug and charging bar so the gun could be loaded with a stripper clip.
Actually, the 95 musket was not really a new arm. In 1898, the American secretary of war had ordered 10,000 of them for use during the Spanish American War, but the conflict was so short they never made it to the front. Later on, some were used in the Philippines, though. These guns did not have charging bars, as the issue American rifle of the period, the Krag-Jorgensen, was not clip loaded. Most of these guns ended up being sold of surplus to Caribbean and Central American countries.
Up to this time all lever-action rifles fed from a tubular magazine, but the pointed bullets of the new high-powered smokeless rounds made this hazardous because of the danger of setting off rounds placed nose to primer in the tube. Model 95s eliminated the problem by featuring a five-round box magazine that was loaded through the top of the receiver
The rifle didn’t have a safety catch, relying upon a hammer half cock to do the job. The lever though, had a hinged lower portion that locked into position and prevented the action from being opened unless the shooter’s hand is actually pushing down on the loop.
The entire contract of 300,000 Model 95s were delivered to the Russians in 1915-16.
But with the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution and the withdrawal of Russia from the war, the 95’s fate becomes cloudy. Some have turned up with markings indicated that they were sold to Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War, and many thousands were later re-imported to the U. S. in the 1960s where they were offered at very reasonable prices.
Today, the Russian Winchester 95 remains one of the most romantic and unusual arms of the Great War. They are sought-after collector’s items, and at the same time, sad reminders of a once-proud regime’s unpreparedness for war.