January 03, 2022
Today, semiauto rifles and handguns of modern manufacture seem nowhere near as special as those made at the dawn of the 20th century. They still evoke a sense of mystery and awe. To contemporary shooters used to manually-operated firearms, guns that performed loading and ejecting functions on their own were simply magical.
Actually, the premise of a self-loader, even by 1900, was nothing new. Some number of years earlier, inventors were attempting to harness the power of a firearm’s discharge to assist in loading and firing. However, the fouling caused by blackpowder almost universally thwarted their efforts.
Not until the acceptance of relatively clean-burning smokeless powder around the 1880s did the concept of a recoil, blowback, or gas-operated arm become truly feasible. In short order, successful semi- and full-auto longarms and pistols by such pioneers as Ferdinand Mannlicher, Hiram Maxim, Hugo Borchardt, John Browning and Manuel Mondragón popularized the concept of self-loaders with the military and general public.
It didn’t take long for semiautos to hit the sporting market. Technically, the first sporter was the German 7.65mm Parabellum 1902 Luger Carbine, most likely, though it was really just an adaption of a handgun. There was also the Kavallerie-Karabiner version of the 7.63mm Mauser-caliber C.96 “Broomhandle” Mauser pistol, produced in small numbers, which pre-dated the 1902. Though sold commercially, the intent by Mauser was to interest the military in the piece, an endeavor that came to no avail. As far as centerfire purpose-built hunting autoloaders go, the premier examples appear to have originated in the United States. Winchester introduced its centerfire Model 1905 blowback in .32 and .35 Winchester. Its success later spawned a Model 1907 chambered for the more powerful .351 Win. round, and the Model 1910, which handled a stout .401 Win. loading.
Not to be outdone, in 1906 Remington came out with its superlative Model 8 recoil-operated repeater offered in a quartet of calibers: .25 Remington, .30 Rem., .32 Rem. and .35 Rem.
As well, early pump-action sporters were offered by various makers including Colt, Remington, Savage and Winchester. While a large number were .22 rimfires, there was also a reasonable selection of centerfires catalogued. Like autoloaders, they were viable alternatives for those shooters not particularly enamored of bolt actions or lever guns.
Philadelphian Morris F. Smith was no John Browning, but unquestionably he had a considerable mechanical bent. While much of his history is somewhat vague, records show a number of firearms patents, some of which were rolled into the 1906 patent number 314,242 for a unique “automatic gas-operated” rifle.
The salient words here are “gas-operated.” Though also semiautos, the above-mentioned Remington and Winchesters relied on blowback and recoil to work their actions. At this time, gas guns, while not common, were hardly unique, as witnessed by the 1908 Mondragón rifle and Browning’s Model 1896 Colt “Potato-Digger” machine gun. It appears, though, Smith’s contrivance was the first application of gas operation to a dedicated sporting rifle.
After spending some time in further development, in 1909 Smith’s Standard Arms Company, sited in Wilmington, Delaware, introduced its “Model H” rifle, a svelte, well-balanced double-duty semiauto/pump combination repeater. “H” was possibly for “hammerless” as that feature was touted in the firm’s catalog. Almost immediately, the moniker of the rifle was changed to “Model G,” the “G” ostensibly standing for “gas.” Standard Arms also sold a companion pump-only version of the rifle, the “Model M,” “M” meaning “manual.” This allowed the company to provide the shooter with action options while at the same time cutting costs by being able to use many of the same parts in both guns.
Wisely, Standard Arms did not develop proprietary cartridges for the G and M, but chambered them for the readily available, proven Remington .25, .30, .32 and .35 rounds originally developed for the Model 8. Very quickly the .32 was dropped, most likely because its performance was not much greater than that of the .30 Rem., and that if a shooter wanted more oomph, he could opt for the .35.
In operation the Model G was not unlike many later gas guns, providing the requisite power by tapping off pressure when the rifle was fired by way of a small hole near the muzzle. The force operated a piston which, through connecting rods, unlocked the bolt to eject and chamber a round. Ammunition — five rounds for .25 and .30 and four rounds for .35 — were dropped into a magazine incorporated within the receiver. Thus, the rifle did not have a projecting or removable mag. Access to the magazine was provided by means of a swinging cover, which was released by a small button at its front. An internal spring-loaded cartridge tray and carrier was hinged at the forward part of the mag opening.
Likely, the most interesting feature of the gun was its manner of chambering the first round. The rifle was equipped with a slide that was released by a button on the slide handle. Drawing it to the rear against spring pressure cocked the firing pin and prepared a round for chambering, which was accomplished when the slide was allowed to move forward. After firing the first shot, the rifle then operated semiautomatically.
Additionally, by turning a small valve on the front of the gas inlet a few inches behind the muzzle with a combination tool — supplied with the gun in a “little vest-pocket cloth case” along with cleaning brush — it was possible to deactivate the gas system. This would allow the rifle to be fired by, as the company termed it, “hand-action.”
For those shooters who preferred a simpler (and more affordable) version of the gun, in the Model M it was possible to purchase one sans the gas arrangement that operated solely as a pump.
No screws were used in the action, pins and catches serving to hold the rifle together. Standard Arms claimed because of this the rifle could be “readily disassembled,” though anyone essaying the daunting task (including the author) might want to disagree with Standard Arms on this point.
On the other hand, for simple maintenance takedown was slick. One simply pushed in on a recessed catch at the rear of the triggerguard using the combination tool or other pointed implement, pulled the lower frame slightly rearward and separated it from the receiver.
As inferred previously, the Model G (for that is what we will direct most of our attention on from here on in) was a sleek, handsome piece, reflecting some of the style of the period of its inception, but also looking a bit towards the future. It was extremely well balanced, much more so than the Winchester blowbacks that had a tendency to be butt heavy, and the Remington Model 8 that, as good a rifle as it was, always seemed to be a bit weighty in the muzzle. For the record, the Models G and M (Standard ) weighed 7½ and 7 pounds, had 223⁄8-inch barrels, 13¼-inch buttstocks and measured 42 inches overall.
The receiver’s long, slim lines were broken only by a hump about midpoint to accommodate a space for the bolt to lock into. The Standard model was blued and had a plain Circassian walnut buttstock. The rifle’s most rococo features were its buttplate and slide handle that were fashioned out of intricately cast bronze. Both were originally given a japanned finish, which quickly wore off. The plate incorporated the intertwined initials “SAC” for “Standard Arms Company” within an elaborate floral bouquet, and the handle, vignettes of lion and moose heads intertwined with sinuous tree branches.
The sights were like those of most other rival longarms, consisting of a simple V-notch rear leaf with central elevation slide, and a Lyman ivory-tip front blade, drift adjustable for windage. Lyman tang peeps were offered as extras.
It is interesting to follow the fortunes of the Standard Arms Company through its catalogs, which are fortunately available in reprint from Cornell Publications (cornellpubs.com). The 1909 version is a relatively Spartan affair consisting of 12 pages, reasonably well-illustrated, and offering a simple description of the establishment’s wares along with modest declarations of the firearms’ advantages and a listing of features and extras. These embellishments included special stocks and sights as well as “Engraving or Etching, $6.00 and up.” The Model H, as it was then called, sold for $35 in the basic form, with prices rising to $100 through three “special” models.
A year later, with the fortunes of the company obviously on the rise, the catalog evolved into an elaborate affair abounding with grandiloquent hyperbole about the Model G and extolling the virtues of gas operation over those of recoil or blowback. It increased in page count to 24, and was chock full of specially commissioned hunting scenes and photographs of various aspects and details of the Models G and M.
In 1911, a flyer sent to dealers announced some additions to the extras available for the line, describing them as “Standard Art Engraved Rifles.” As well as the $35 and $30, respectively, Standard Grade G and M, depending upon the degree of decoration and style of wood the buyer desired, it was possible to purchase an “Adirondack” for $50, a “Sierra” at $75, the “Selkirk” for $100 and the top-of-the-line “Rocky Mountain” at a whopping $200. (The average annual wage in the U.S. in 1911 was $520). The Rocky Mountain, an example of which may be seen on these pages, exhibited full-coverage, top-quality engraving consisting of scrolls and game scenes as well as a finely checkered walnut pistol-grip buttstock and checkered walnut slide handle. Clearly the company was expecting big things.
When the gun worked, it was a pleasure to shoot as will be seen anon. Recoil was light, accuracy was good and the hybrid mechanism not all that difficult to manage once one got the hang of it. Unfortunately, as clever, attractive, and well-constructed as the Model G was, it incorporated fatal flaws. First, the mechanism was overly complicated with fiddly little parts that were destined to go wrong at some point or other. One of the main problems was that the pin that connected the piston to the bolt extensions was not up to its task. It had a tendency to shear under repeated use. When the gas system fouled, operation was sporadic or ceased altogether. It was then necessary to undertake a laborious and time-consuming disassembly, a task that was too complicated for the average shooter.
Standard Arms was careful in recommending that the Model G be cleaned and regularly oiled with sewing machine oil and gasoline. The piston and cylinder were singled out for regular lubrication, a trio of holes being drilled into the gas tube as oiling ports.
At one point, around 1910, the Model G was tested by the military and found unsuitable. Its evaluation was terminated. Some 7 years later, the U.S. Army would adopt a far more robust and reliable gas-operated shoulder arm: The Browning Automatic Rifle, or “BAR.”
Early brisk sales slowed to a trickle once word got out that the Model G was not living up to expectations. In 1912, Standard Arms declared bankruptcy and ceased operation. A good number of parts were on hand and construction of the arms resumed until 1914 under the name Standard Arms Manufacturing Company (SAMC). Finally, SAMC sold its remaining stock to New York surplus arms dealer Francis Bannerman and others. Today, a wide selection of spare Standard Arms rifle parts are still available from Numrich Arms Corporation (gunpartscorp.com, 866-686-7424).
For a shooting evaluation, I was fortunate enough to obtain a wonderful-condition .35 Rem. Model G with “Rocky Mountain” embellishments, the execution of which would have well served the finest contemporary Marlin, Savage or Winchester. The bore was perfect. Interestingly, the rifle was fitted with a Lyman receiver sight rather than the tang arrangement.
Apparently, this gun had last been fired some 80 years earlier, so it was necessary to take it down and clean the mechanism and lubricate the parts as much as was possible. After considerable labor, the rifle was again apparently in operating condition. I took it to the range and, given the Model G’s spotty reputation, kept my fingers securely crossed.
Four rounds of 150-grain Remington soft-points were dropped into the magazine, the cover closed, and the rifle brought up to the shoulder. As the gun’s recoil spring is a bit on the stout side, it was necessary to get feel for it before I could get a round properly chambered. Once this was accomplished, no further problems — for the moment.
With trepidation, I pulled the trigger. Everything functioned flawlessly. Recoil was very light (affirming one of Standard Arms’ claims) and the trigger pull was later measured at 5 pounds, crisp and sure. The first offhand shot, fired at 25 yards, struck at 11:00 in the 3-ring. The remaining three clustered around it and spread the group to 4 inches. All appeared well, but to be prudent I limited further shooting to a couple more magazines full. The rifle was then retired for the day, taken home and checked over. The following week, having confidence that the Model G was up to the task, we returned to the firing line for a more thorough run-through. This time, employing a rest, the range was increased to 50 yards. Using the same ammunition, groups struck slightly higher than previously, though they tightened up considerably and now measured in the 2- to 3-inch range.
After about four, four-shot strings, disaster struck. The rifle failed to cycle and a pull on the slide merely intensified the problem. The magazine was emptied, and the rifle checked to make sure there was not a round in the chamber. Once the frame was removed from the receiver, the problem became immediately evident. A small pin that held a cap, which retained the mainspring and firing pin within the block, had disintegrated under the force of the mainspring jamming the cap between the rear of the inside of the frame and the block. The mainspring itself was badly mangled. A later forensic analysis showed the offending pin had crystalized. After examining the numerous small, jagged pieces, my shooting companions and I were amazed it held on as long as it did. To be fair, this was not a difficulty that seemed to crop up in any of my research, but was probably just a manifestation of old age. However, improper heat treating cannot be entirely ruled out.
Recoil springs were not available from Numrich but at least the pins were, and one was duly ordered. The spring, it was decided, if not obtainable from other sources, could be fabricated. Unfortunately, in order to replace the pin, it was necessary to virtually disassemble the entire rifle — an onerous task, which, because of other obligations, I am loath to undertake at the present time. An inspection of another Model G revealed a different method of retaining the firing pin/spring that does not rely on a pin. The rifle has a lower serial number than the one we fired, so if the component was indeed intended to be an improvement, I suppose there’s a possibility it could have been retro-fitted later in the gun’s history.
The abbreviated shooting experience I had with the Model G was revealing and, until it broke, extremely pleasant. It was also easy to see how problems could arise, and when they did could be difficult to immediately attend to; certainly a fatal flaw if in the field.
At least, to a degree, the Model G showed the efficacy of gas operation, a system that would eventually be taken up by many other firearms with far greater success.
The author would like to thank Larry Hare, Bob Dillard, Gary Hartzell, Mark Keefe IV, and Phil Schreier for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
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