Much has been said about how the military strategists of 1914 failed to appreciate the effect of the profound developments in weapons technology that came about starting in the 1880’s. Machine guns are most often mentioned, with quick-firing artillery next on the list, but often overlooked are the lowly rifles, a new generation of which were accurate to 1,000 yards and capable of sustained fire in excess of ten rounds per minute, with box magazines and stripper clips for fast loading.
All of the major combatants produced their own modern infantry rifle, but some were better than others. In chronological order by date of introduction, the top three were the Russian Mosin Nagant, the British Lee Enfield and the German Mauser. Each rifle was named after its designer(s).
The Mosin Nagant came out in 1891. Over the long life of this rifle, the variants were minor, just different lengths and calibers. Before WW1 500,000 of these rifles were produced in France under Russian contract, and during the war nearly 750,000 were made in the U.S. under a contract that was dishonored by the Russian revolutionary government. The U.S. Army ended up buying 280,000 Mosin-Nagants to stave off bankruptcies, which were designated M-1916, and were used for marksmanship training. The rifle remained in Soviet service until 1947 and millions have been used in China, Korea, Vietnam and many other countries. The total production is estimated at 37 million.
The Lee Enfield was introduced in 1895, went through numerous models and variants, although retaining the same caliber (.303 inch) until the Indian Army switched it over to 7.62 mm in 1970.
In British service, the Lee Enfield was the standard rifle until 1957 and the long-range rifle until 1993, and it is still in use with para-military forces, including some in Bangladesh and even in Canada. Ironically, after the South African wars it was nearly replaced by a Mauser variant, but an improved cartridge saved the design. With its forestock that extends all the way to the end of the barrel, the Lee Enfield can always be recognized, even at a considerable distance. Approximately 17 million have been manufactured.
The Mauser was the latecomer of these three, dating from 1898.
Many other countries produced Mauser-type rifles under license; all of these were similar except for calibers, until a significant German redesign in 1935. Although discontinued in German service after 1945, Mausers remained the standard rifle in many foreign services up until the 1980’s, and is still used for ceremonial duties. Unlike both the Mosin-Nagant and the Lee Enfield, the Mauser is still in production, at a factory in Serbia set up by the Germans in 1942. German production is reported to be 14.6 million.
The standard U.S. rifle was the M-1903 Springfield, a Mauser variant, but by 1917 American factories were already tooled up and turning out the Lee Enfield P1914 under British contracts, so it was re-badged as the M-1917 Enfield and most Doughboys ending up carrying one of these, including the American hero Sgt. Alvin C. York.
The ‘Mad Minute’ was British army slang for the exercise officially known as the Practice number 22, Rapid Fire, ‘The Musketry Regulations, Part I.
Prior to WW1 all regular British infantrymen were required to take this test annually, in which they were to fire from a prone supported position as many aimed rounds as they could get off in one minute, and in order to pass the test at least 15 of these shots had to hit a target at a distance of 300 yards.
With only five rounds allowed in the rifle at the start, although it had a ten round magazine, this meant that the rifle had to be re-loaded at least twice. The officially recorded record of 36 hits was posted in 1908, although there is good evidence that another soldier posted 38 hits in 1914.
The reason that 300 yards was picked as the distance was that beyond that point the rifleman had to start taking into account wind drift and the trajectory effect.
The Lee Enfield was better suited for this exercise than its contemporaries because it had a short throw bolt, which enabled the shooter to palm it rather than grip it. Also, the Lee Enfield cocked on the up stroke rather than the down stroke.
This level of competency was an important factor at several times in the early months of the war, as British regulars could deliver devastating firepower even without machine guns. Two noteworthy examples of battalions that stopped attacking brigades with rifle fire include the 2nd Suffolks on August 26th, 1914 at Le Cateau, and the 2nd Oxs & Bucks L.I. at Nonne Bosschen on November 11th, 1914.