No matter how sophisticated things get, it's always going to be the infantry in a war -- the ground-pounders who get things moving, sort things out, and mop things up.
Now, of course foot soldiers existed well before firearms. The role of the infantryman, for the most part, has pretty much been the same through the ages, and if you read some period accounts, it becomes obvious that they all shared similar experiences. I'm sure that if a Greek Hoplite c. 600 BC, an Augustinian Roman Legionary, a Napoleonic period British infantryman, a World War I French poilu and an American grunt in Vietnam sat down around a campfire swapping a few beakers of Flanernian wine, rum, cognac and Jack Daniels, in short order -- with the help of a translator -- they'd soon all be bitching about their officers, rotten army chow, long hours, bad pay, sore feet and the soldier's sorry lot in general.
Where things would start to get a tad testy would be in the weaponry department. I'll bet the Legionary would think his pilum (spear) was last word in individual armament, while the Brit, crushing Brown Bess to his bosom and stroking her titian-toned stock would proclaim her the "queen of battlefields." The Frenchman and the Yank would shake their heads and launch into animated discussions extolling the merits of the Lebel and M16 -- each probably feeling sorry for the other fellows that they were equipped with such second-rate weaponry. You know what, though, they'd all be right.
Given their frames of reference and taking into account the technologies of the times in which they were fighting, all were equipped with some of the best infantry arms available — arms which would have an effect far beyond their own particular periods. That's what this piece is about — my personal impressions of the world's most important infantry firearms. Some had longer service lives than others, but all had a great influence on history and in the further development of weaponry. I'll present them in chronological order rather than by some subjective merit system, for as I said, in their heyday they were all the best there was.
General George S. Patton called the M1 Garand rifle 'the greatest battle implement ever devised. ' Now Patton might have been a royal pain-in-the-butt, but he was a pretty good commander, and he really knew his guns. He was right on with this one. Canadian designer John C. Garand worked for almost 20 years to come up with a semi-auto action strong enough to handle the powerful .30-06 round, but when he did, it was a real winner. There had been other semi-autos in military service, such as the interesting French Model 1917 St. Etienne, but none had ever been generally issued like the Garand. The action was operated by tapping off propellant gasses, and a special eight-round en-bloc sheet-steel clip actually functioned as part of the gun's feeding system. The Garand came into service in 1936 -- plenty early enough to become America's main battle rifle of World War II. The Yanks were the only ones -- Axis or Allied -- that had a semi-auto as its standard issue arm, and though the Germans tried to emulate its success with their G43, the Hun gun was not produced in numbers even approaching those of the Garand, nor was it even remotely as good. The M1 continued to serve the U.S. in the Korean War and beyond, when it was finally replaced by the M14, which was actually just an upgrading of the Garand to semi/full-auto, removable magazine status.
Being the Luddite that I am, for a long time I resisted the charms of the M16. I'd been issued an M14 in the Army, fell in love with that rifle, and figured that it was just about as good as one could get. Since my callow youth, however, I've had more and more time to get to know the M16 and appreciate it for the world-class piece of hardware that it really is. The M16 got off to a bad start in Vietnam, but once it was serviced properly and slight modifications were made to the design, it worked just fine. Designed by Eugene M. Stoner, this little .223-caliber semi/full-auto rifle is a true wonder. It is adaptable, effective, reliable and lightweight. Unlike its principal adversary, the AK47, the M16 is pretty darned accurate. Like the AK47, it's widely dispersed and popular not only with American troops, but also with many of our friends and allies -- as well as with whatever bad guys can get their hands on them. They've been made in the millions, and if possible, might eventually outlive even the much-vaunted AK.
There were firearms before the matchlock (see above), but they were cumbersome and difficult to fire without using both hands and without taking one's eyes off the target. By the second half of the 15th century, the touchholes of these early 'handgonnes ' were moved from the tops to the sides of the barrels and they were fitted with priming pans and simple S-shaped 'serpentines, ' which could hold a length of slow match -- hemp cord that had been steeped in a potassium nitrate solution -- in their jaws to effect a more efficient ignition. Still, the setup was awkward and needed some work. In fairly short order, it was further refined by the development of true locks -- mechanisms which involved simple springs and were more easily manipulated by long sear bars, or 'trickers. ' The term 'lock, ' by the by, comes from the fact that these early contrivances used some of the same technology as door and casket locks. The matchlock -- there were different sizes ranging from the light arquebus and caliver to the heavy musket -- allowed the infantryman to load, aim and fire with relative ease and speed, and established the preeminence of firearms over bows and arrows and pikes on the battlefield. This ultimately spelled the demise in importance of the elite, heavily armed cavalrymen and democratized the battlefield. It also helped fight a 30-year religious-political war in Europe and helped establish -- for a short time -- an interregnum in England. Warfare would never be the same.
Pattern 1853 Enfield
Back in the 1840s, a Frenchman, Capitaine Claude Etienne Minie, building on the works of others, came up with the ideal muzzle-loading military rifle bullet. It had a hollow base that expanded into the gun's rifling by the force of the propellant charge. This meant that a sub-caliber bullet could be rapidly muzzle-loaded like a smoothbore, but would have the accuracy of a rifle. Sacre bleu. It worked, and worked really well. In no time at all other countries adopted the system, most importantly the Brits, who first used it in a fairly large bore rifle-musket in 1851 and then perfected the system in their 'smallbore ' .577 Pattern 1853 Enfield. This superb arm, at the time, was the military rifle by which all others were measured. It was accurate, employed more-or-less interchangeable parts and was easily mastered by even the most mutton-headed infantryman. At last, every foot soldier was a rifleman. Millions of the things were made in different models. It is perhaps the only firearm to actually be one of the causes of a war -- the Indian Mutiny where Hindu and Muslim troops refused to bite off the tails of the paper cartridges because they were supposedly greased in pig or beef fat, anathemas to one or the other religion. The '53 was the Confederates' most widely used firearm and the North's second most popular rifle-musket in the Civil War. I think probably the U.S. Model 1855/61 Springfield was a slightly better arm, but it wasn't used all over the world like the Enfield, and simply didn't have the influence or the cachet.
A few years ago, I spent an afternoon in his dacha with Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47. He is a voluble, affable, grandfatherly little fellow who likes his vodka -- hardly the sort one would credit with coming up with one of history's most effective killing machines. The AK-47 is a true assault rifle -- that is, it can be fired either semi- or full-auto. Chambering the attenuated 7.62x39 round, which has about the same characteristics as a .30-30, the AK-47 was easy to use, easy to fieldstrip and service, and rugged in the extreme. Initially adopted and produced indigenously by the Soviets, the gun also was produced in Yugoslavia, the PRC, Romania, East Germany, North Korea, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary. The Finnish M60 and M62 and Israeli Galil which are also based on the Kalashnikov design. Americans have come up against the AK time and again in such places as Vietnam, Africa and most recently, the Middle East and Afghanistan. It might not be as accurate as the M16, but man, does it work. It can really spray lead from its 30-round magazine and is particularly adaptable at being held over one's head and fired from behind the carcass of a burned-out automobile. This little sucker is everywhere, and it's going to be with us for a long, long time.
Remington Rolling Block
This wasn't the best or even the first metallic cartridge breechloader, but holy cow -- it's hard to think of one that was used in more places for a longer period of time. Starting life around the latter part of the Civil War, the Remington Rolling Block was simple, strong and effective -- all attributes for countries whose soldiers signed their enlistment forms with X's. To load the gun, one simply half-cocked the hammer, rolled back the breechblock -- Oho! That's where the name comes from -- inserted a cartridge, closed the block, cocked the hammer all the way and fired. The U.S. fiddled around with it, but decided on the Allin 'Trapdoor ' conversion, mainly because it was cheaper to convert Civil War rifles to that system than buy new Remingtons -- of course, later on we made brand new Trapdoors from scratch in .45-70, perhaps the 1870s equivalent of today's $550 government-issue toilet seats? -- but many lands didn't have guns to convert, or didn't need them in the numbers that even a slimmed-down, post-Civil War American Army required. The Remington folks were great salesmen, and their guns were adaptable to many different calibers. Rolling Blocks were used by Yankee civilians, by militia units and in limited numbers by the Navy, but it was overseas that they really came into their own. Rolling Blocks were seen in such disparate places as Egypt, Denmark, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Greece, Spain, Persia, China, Chile, Peru€¦ The list just goes on and on. It familiarized many soldiers with the self-contained metallic cartridge and provided an excellent transition to the more sophisticated repeaters of a later time. All in all, a real class act. One could build a really good collection just accumulating military Rolling Blocks.
Dreyse Needle Gun
By the late 1830s and early 1840s, percussion muskets were becoming pretty much the norm in the arsenals of most major powers, but with the exception of a more reliable ignition system, they really weren't a lot different from the flintlocks and matchlocks that preceded them. Breech-loaders had been around almost from the inception of firearms, but they were often awkward to use and still required some sort of external ignition. In 1848, Prussia became the first nation to adopt a bolt-action breech-loader that fired a self-contained cartridge as its primary infantry arm. Invented by Nicholas von Dreyse, it was called the Zundnadelgewehr, or 'Needle Rifle. ' Ignition of the gun's paper round was effected by a long, slender needle, which passed right through the base of the cartridge and the powder charge to strike an internal percussion cap sited on a sabot at the rear of an egg-shaped bullet. The gun was rifled, unlike most primary infantry arms of the period that were smooth-bore, and it worked pretty darned well. The main problem was erosion of the needle caused by the explosion of the black powder charge. This was remedied by issuing soldiers with spare needles and designing the bolt so they could be easily replaced. It was much studied and lauded by ordnance experts worldwide, but strangely enough, despite the Needle Gun's superiority, it really never caught on much outside of Germany -- though some were actually carried by General Charles Gordon's bodyguard during the Taiping Rebellion in China, of all places. In the late 1860s the French came out with their own needle rifle, the Chassepot, and despite it being more efficient than the by-then outmoded Dreyse, they were soundly tromped by Prussia and her allies during the Franco-Prussian War, resulting in the unification of Germany, which of course ultimately led to two world wars -- but that, as they say, is another story.
Model 1898 Mauser
If this ain't the perfect bolt-action repeater, I don't know what is. There were some other really good Mausers leading up to this one, but when this sucker hit the scene, everything that came before was passé. What made it so good? Well first of all, it was designed by Mauser -- a good start. The company took the best of earlier designs, refined them and added a few new wrinkles -- most notably a third lug to an earlier-style bolt to act as a 'safety ' device if the other two failed, a bigger gas shield, a reinforcing collar machined into the receiver ring to completely enclose the bolt head and screws, etc. The gun fed and extracted like a dream. Originally chambered in 7.9x57mm (8mm Mauser), this five-shooter was strong, reliable and rugged. There was no question at the time that it would be chosen as Germany's principal battle rifle. Seeing action as early as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, it went on to it serve the Fatherland well, in various incarnations, in two world wars. The '98 was also adopted by the militaries of scores of nations, worldwide, becoming a kind of bolt-action, repeating descendant of the Rolling Block. In fact, the U.S. Model 1903 Springfield, one of the most exquisite battle rifles ever produced, was basically nothing more than a Model 98. In sporterized versions, it became the hunting rifle supreme, and is still the system by which all others are measured. As I said earlier, wow!
Model 1886 Lebel
I know I'm going to catch more flak about this choice than the others in this lineup, but hear me out. Despite what many would like to think, in the 19th century, France was in the forefront of many kinds of technology -- aeronautics, automobiles, medicine, recorded sound, photography, etc. They also came up with some pretty good military weapons -- the Model 1873 French revolver is a very under-appreciated handgun -- including the Model 1886 Lebel. Named after Colonnel Lebel, head of the commission that developed it, the Lebel rifle itself was actually just a clunky amalgam of several different firearms -- a slab-sided, tubular-magazine bolt-action repeater that was nothing particularly special, even in 1886. What was exciting, however, was the Lebel's cartridge. It used that new-fangled smokeless powder -- a propellant that was reputed to produce not only no smoke, but no noise. Well, we know better now, but at the time it was a real mystery weapon. German agents even spied on the French trials and sent back glowing reports about the new gun and cartridge. Results were so positive that in pretty short order smokeless powder became the norm. Older rifles were converted and new ones designed. It was a real wave of the future. We're still taking advantage of it. Merci.
No one knows where the name 'Brown Bess ' comes from. The British flintlock musket to which the term refers was originally called the 'King's Arm ' or 'Land Pattern. ' But by around 1785, the reference was in commonplace usage. It has been put forward that the nickname came from the gun's browned metal parts and brown stock. Only problem here is, the steel parts were bright metal, and by 1727, when the gun first appeared, a natural wood-colored stock was nothing special in military arms. Actually, there were several models of the Bess, depending upon the period, from the 46-inch-barrelled 'Long Land Pattern, ' to the 42-inch 'Short Land ' model, to the 39-inch 'India Pattern. ' The gun was a .75-caliber smoothbore that was reasonably accurate up to about 50 yards. Frankly, it was not much better than other French, German or Dutch infantry arms of the period, but it was well made and reliable. Remaining in Crown service for about a century, its real importance lay in the fact that it was the first standardized British military issue arm -- prior to this, commanders of regiments bought pretty much what they pleased, resulting in a logistical nightmare -- and one which would help the English colonize the word, defeat Napoleon and make Britain the preeminent superpower for over 100 years.