October 09, 2023
By the third quarter of the 19th century, there was no dearth of repeating rifle designs. Nor was there a scarcity of bolt-action systems. The trick was to get fussy logisticians and penurious war departments to realize the aptness of one entity for the other, and to arrange a suitable marriage. Alas, the courtship, if not a particularly long event, would be a wary one.
Practical percussion bolt guns had appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in time to prove valuable in the European revolutions of the late 1840s, as well as the American Civil War. Multi-shot long- arms, such as the Spencer and Henry, had also shown their worth on the American battlefields.
Due to the numbers available, and general usefulness, the Spencer continued to see limited employment following the cessation of hostilities between the North and South in 1865. Still, as good as the gun was, it was eventually replaced by the single-shot “Trapdoor” Springfield by the early 1870s, reasons for this regression being the greater power of the .45-70 Government cartridge versus that of the .56-56/.56-50 Spencer, and the suspicion of military types that soldiers armed with repeaters would not take careful aim, wasting costly ammunition. Even after ordnance officials had finally resigned themselves to the inevitable and adopted repeating rifles and carbines, the majority were fitted with cutoffs so they could be fired single-shot, extra rounds being held in the magazine in reserve.
The Prussians, with the ground-breaking
Zündnadelgewehr, or “Dreyse needle gun,” were the first to issue the majority of its troops not only with a bolt action, but with a gun that could actually fire self-contained cartridges. Other lands viewed the system from afar until, by the mid-1860s, with the improvements to ammunition, it had become apparent that this setup might not be a bad way to go. The French were the first major power to take the plunge in 1866 with the Chassepot, Fusil modéle 1866, followed five years later, by the Germans with their Mauser Model 1871, Gewehr 1871.
The transition was by no means universal, as many countries, such as the U.S. and Great Britain, preferred to convert existing percussion muskets to breechloaders and eschewed turnbolts in favor of, respectively, the “Trapdoor” Springfield Model 1873, and lever-action Martini-Henry. Even when the merits of the bolt-action repeater had become manifest by the 1880s, the English were still cautiously exploring the use of an awkward, ultimately ill-fated, contrivance that would try and turn the Martini into a repeater.
In the meantime, magazine experimentation continued apace, with the principal competing types, internal and removable box and tubular designs, evolving around roughly the same time. Tube mags, as represented most robustly in the German 71/84 Mauser and France’s 1886 “Lebel,” achieved some prominence, the latter becoming especially important as it was also the first smallbore, smokeless-powder rifle to be officially adopted by a major power.
Depending on the length of a firearm, initially tubular magazines enjoyed a capacity advantage versus box types. Until the acceptance of clip-loading, i.e., Mannlicher-style and “strip” systems, loading per-round really didn’t take all that much longer than a simple box.
As time and technology progressed, it soon became evident that, with the improvement in box mags, under-barrel tubular styles were becoming increasingly passé. By the early 1880s, most modern states decided the advantages of an arrangement that could be loaded more quickly, or easily topped-up, was the wave of the future.
In 1884, Norway adopted the 10.15x61mm blackpowder Jarmann rifle, a bolt-action, tubular-magazine rifle. Looking around at other countries distancing themselves from similar arrangements, Norwegian officials decided that, despite its commitment, it might be a good idea to start thinking about a more up-to-date replacement.
Accordingly, work was undertaken by the directors of Norway’s Kongsberg Våpinfabrikk, Ole Johannes Krag and Erik Jørgensen, for a new arm with which to supply their nation’s forces. It would be bolt-action and incorporate a box magazine that could be easily refreshed.
Simultaneously, Denmark was in the throes of updating its arsenal. Included in arms looked at by the Danes was an early prototype Norwegian Krag-Jørgensen rifle featuring a single locking-lug bolt with an atypical horizontal feed loaded by means of rounds being dropped individually into a box magazine through a side-mounted portal. One accessed the portal by means of a laterally opening cover. This permitted cartridges to be loaded relatively quickly. Adding rounds through the port and into the mag could be done while the bolt was closed and a round chambered. The rifle employed a long extractor mounted on top of its bolt, a holdover from the Jarmann M1884.
After diligent testing, Denmark decided in 1889 to adopt the Krag-Jørgensen — with some modifications. The most salient were a front-hinged magazine cover and a barrel jacket, similar to that seen on the German 1888 “Commission” Rifle and Belgian Model 1889 Mauser.
By this time, the U.S. realized its single-shot .45-70 Trapdoor, which had served faithfully in several incarnations since the close of the Civil War, was getting long in the tooth. Trials were arranged involving evaluations of more than 50 foreign and American designs. Most were eliminated out of hand. The promising of those remaining were the Krag-Jørgensen, Lee, Mannlicher, Mauser and Schmidt-Rubin submissions.
By August 1892, the decision had been made in the favor of Krag-Jørgensen, which was adopted as the “U.S. Magazine Rifle, Model of 1892.” Perhaps the efficient-looking repeater’s bolt, with its single locking lug, was not all that robust by modern standards, but it was still more than adequate for the cartridge it would be handling. The action was smooth and easy to manage. Those evaluating the arm felt it’s downward dropping “receiver gate,” which allowed extra rounds to be added to the magazine while a round was chambered and the bolt closed, was preferable to one employing en-bloc or stripper clips — a decision that would be later regretted and partially doom the Krag to a short service life as a front-line arm.
Quixotically, the Norwegians wouldn’t opt for their home-grown design until 1893, trailing Denmark and the United States. The Danes and Norwegians would retain Krags as front-line arms until the German occupation in World War II.
As implied, the Model 1892 was a prepossessing piece. Beautifully made at Springfield Armory, the rifle was svelte, ergonomic and a delight to use. With practice, the magazine could be filled relatively quickly, the process being slowed down when a soldier had to pull rounds from his waistbelt.
Controls consisted of a flip-style safety mounted on the rear of the bolt, and a receiver-sited magazine cutoff that allowed the user to arrest the feeding of ammunition into the chamber and permitting the rifle to be loaded single-shot. Contemporary military thinking believed this was the most practical setup for a magazine rifle, being convinced shooting rounds one-at-a-time would produce better accuracy and control while saving ammunition. Repetitive bolt-action loading would come into play only in situations where quick firing was deemed necessary.
The ball cartridge developed for the Krag-Jørgensen rifle, known variously as the “.30-40 Krag,” “.30 U.S.” or “.30 “Army,” was a rimmed bottle-necked round with a 220-grain cupro-nickel jacketed bullet backed by 40 grains of nitrocellulose powder. Muzzle velocity was around 2,000 feet-per-second (fps). Trial carbines, only made in prototype, were devised by simply shortening the infantry rifle from 49 to 41 inches. This modification had a full-length stock, saddle ring, and front barrel band with no bayonet lug. Muzzle velocity in the carbine was reckoned at 1,920 fps.
The Model 1892, while a sound arm, did have features that officials felt could be improved. After some tweaking, a new model, the 1896 in rifle, carbine and cadet versions were introduced into American service. The main changes in the rifle involved the alteration of the older-style stepped rear-sight base to one that was more fluid and slightly concave, and the rifle’s one-piece cleaning rod beneath the barrel was replaced by a three-piece style that could be stashed in the butt through a trap in the buttplate.
The carbine — now a full-fledged issue-piece — was half-stock style with 22-inch barrel. Its action was the same as the rifle’s. The carbine butt only contained a two-piece rod. The sight was slightly recalibrated to take into account the mounted arm’s shorter length and was individualized on the ladder with a prominent “C.”
The Spanish-American War (April to August 1898) proved to be the Krag’s major debut, featuring Model 1896 rifles and carbines and some unconverted Model 1892 rifles seeing service. Because of limited production, many state troops and volunteers were still issued the hoary Trapdoor .45-70. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, second-in-command of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, “Rough Riders,” exerted his influence to ensure his men were issued Krag carbines. With these longarms, the unit gained immortality in its famed charge (on foot) up Kettle Hill during the Battle of San Juan Hill.
As well as the Spanish American War, the Krag also saw service during the Philippine Insurrection (1899 to 1902), and in the hands of U.S. Army infantry and cavalry during the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1900) in China. In 1898 and 1899, the Krag was again given a makeover and received several updates, the most noticeable being more sophisticated rear sights that could be adjusted for windage; simplified construction of bolt and loading mechanisms; and the replacement of the knobbed cocking piece with a headless one, which didn’t last long as troops complained that it did not allow them to re-cock the action in the event of a misfire.
Experiences with Krags during the war were mixed. Though reliable and accurate, they were found wanting because of the longer reloading time compared to that of the clip-charged Model 1893 Spanish Mauser. The trend to eliminate purposed carbines, rifles and specialty arms, and to issue all branches a common longarm sealed the Krag’s fate and resulted in the adoption of the famed Springfield Armory Model 1903, a universal bolt-action that featured a stronger system and fired a more powerful, rimless .30-’03 (later .30-’06) round, and clip loading.
Krags continued to be issued, though, because the ’03 Springfield took time to reach U.S. servicemen. Krags remained in the hands of state troops, especially, and served a useful training role when Uncle Sam entered The Great War in 1917. After the cessation of hostilities, Krags that were sold as surplus became popular, inexpensive sporting arms. Some were converted by retailers, others simply used in military configurations or sporterized by civilian owners. The .30-40 round, which is still commercially loaded, was only primarily chambered in Krags and Model 1895 Winchester lever-actions at first. Later, the popularity of the Krag as an inexpensive hunting arm led some makers to offer other options in .30-40.
Shooting the Krag
I have long been a fan of the Krag-Jørgensen, finding it be one of the sweetest handling, smoothest military bolt-actions ever. Recoil is manageable, and accuracy, with rifle or carbine, has been quite good. For this story, in tribute to Col. Roosevelt and his troopers, I took my favorite Model 1896 Carbine and, from a rest, using Remington 180-grain Core-Lokt ammo, was able to achieved five-shot groups hitting at close to point-of-aim. The average was 2¾ inches. Shooting the Krag always results in an entirely enjoyable and rewarding shooting session.
There can be no question that the Krag-Jørgensen, despite some of its limitations, remains a handsome, beautifully made and is a joy to operate. According to some, it may have been only a “one-war rifle,” but as far as I’m concerned, in its class, it remains a bolt-gun for all time.
Enjoy articles like this?
Subscribe to the magazine.
Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine