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U.S. Krag-Jorgensen: The Foreign Rifle

U.S. Krag-Jorgensen: The Foreign Rifle

U.S. Army Photos

By 1890 the United States was lagging behind other industrialized nations in the development of a modern military rifle. Many of these nations had developed—or were in the process of developing—bolt-action, repeating military rifles chambered for “reduced-caliber” smokeless-powder cartridges. By contrast, the standard U.S. service arm at the time was still the single-shot, blackpowder .45-70 Gov’t “Trapdoor Springfield.” In order to address this issue, the U.S. Army Ordnance Board appointed a “Magazine Gun Board” on Nov. 24, 1890 to “consider and recommend a suitable magazine system for rifles and carbines for the military service.”

The Board’s report and recommendations were finalized Aug. 20, 1892, which gave ample time for interested parties to submit examples for consideration. All of the rifles were required to be chambered for a .30-cal. smokeless-powder experimental cartridge developed by Frankford Arsenal. A total of 53 rifles, including the standard service arms from 10 foreign countries, were submitted. The remaining rifles were from various U.S. and foreign inventors or manufacturers.

After the various rifles were thoroughly and exhaustively tested, the consensus was that the bolt-action Danish Krag-Jorgensen had won. The Ordnance Board’s final report stated:“[The] Krag-Jorgensen [is] … vastly superior for use in the United States service to any weapon adapted to single fire loading only,” and urged that the Krag “be adopted forthwith.”

One of the Krag’s salient features was the horizontal box magazine and loading gate on the right side of the action/receiver that enabled it to be loaded and unloaded with the bolt open or closed. Like many of the other repeating military rifles of the era, the Krag was fitted with a magazine cut-off that permitted it to function as a single-loader with the magazine held “in reserve” as required. The bolt locked by means of a single lug at the front. While not the strongest of actions, it was satisfactory given the pressures generated by the .30-cal. smokeless-powder cartridge. Bolt operation was exceptionally smooth, and the Krag soon gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the slickest bolt-action rifles of all time.

With the Ordnance Board’s endorsement, it would seem that the Krag would soon be put into production. As is often the case when dealing with the government, however, politics intervened. The fact that a foreign gun was chosen over the American designs was an unpopular decision with some of the interested parties, and this displeasure was soon voiced to their respective congressional representatives. Surely, it was reasoned, there had to be a home-grown rifle at least as good as the foreign intruder.

Congress mandated that any further development on the Krag be suspended and that a “Board for Testing Magazine Rifles of American Invention” be appointed. The new Board convened on March 1, 1893, and 14 rifles were submitted for testing. After evaluating all 14, none were judged equal or superior to the Krag. The Board’s summary report stated: “[N]o American invention has been recommended,” and the path was finally cleared for the Krag to go into production at Springfield Armory.

U.S. Model 1892 Krag
The new rifle was adopted as the “United States Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1892.” The rifle was 49.1 inches in overall length with a 30-inch barrel and weighed about 9.3 pounds without the bayonet or sling. A one-piece cleaning rod was located under the barrel. The cartridge was designated as the “.30-40,” for its .30 cal. and 40 grains of smokeless propellant. The bullet weighed 220 grains, and the muzzle velocity was approximately 2,000 fps. The knife bayonet selected for the U.S. Krag was similar to the one designed for the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin Model 1889 magazine rifle.

The first Model 1892 Krag rifles were completed by Springfield Armory on Jan. 1, 1894, and by October of that year sufficient numbers had been manufactured to permit limited issuance. To troops accustomed to the ponderous single-shot, smoke-belching, blackpowder .45-70 Gov’t Trapdoors, the trim new bolt-action .30-cal. repeating rifle was eagerly received. A cavalry carbine version of the Krag was envisioned, but delays in getting the rifle into production resulted in a carbine being put on hold and, other than two or three prototypes, no Model 1892 Krag carbines were fabricated.

As the new Krag rifles began to see use, a number of deficiencies came to light, requiring minor redesign of some components. One of the most common complaints was the lack of windage adjustment for the rear sight.

U.S. Model 1896 Krag
By 1896, there were enough changes made in the original design to warrant a new designation, and the “United States Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1896” was adopted. Although the basic Krag action remained relatively unchanged, there were numerous modifications, including the elimination of the under-barrel cleaning rod in favor of a jointed three-piece rod carried in a buttstock recess, the strengthening of the stock, and an improvement to the rear sight—still lacking windage adjustment, however.

The Model 1896 Krag was also manufactured in a cavalry carbine variant with a 22-inch barrel and a shortened stock (with ring and bar attachment). As was the case with their infantry counterparts, the cavalry troopers armed with single-shot Trapdoor carbines looked forward to receiving the new bolt-action repeating carbines with great anticipation. By May 1896, all regular U.S. Army cavalry units were equipped with Model 1896 Krag carbines.

Both Model 1896 Krag carbines and rifles used identical receivers. Early production receivers were marked with the year of manufacture, “1896,” on the left side along with “U.S./Springfield Armory” and the serial number. As production continued, the receivers were marked “Model 1896,” regardless of the actual year of manufacture. As with the Model 1892 rifle, the stocks were marked with an inspection stamp on the left side that contained the initials of Springfield Armory’s master armorer and the year of production. The Model 1896 carbine rear sights, along with all subsequent Krag carbine sights, were marked “C” (to denote “carbine)” but were otherwise identical to the corresponding rifle sights, except for different range graduations to compensate for the shorter carbine barrels.

Soon after the Krag carbines were in service, they saw some use against the remaining renegade Apaches who still terrorized parts of Arizona and New Mexico throughout the late 1890s. During this period some Krag carbines were also carried by cavalry units patrolling Yellowstone Park to prevent game poaching.

Spanish American War
The Krag’s first significant combat use occurred during the Spanish-American War of 1898 when Model 1892 Krag rifles, along with some of the newer Model 1896 rifles and carbines, were used by U.S. troops in Cuba. Because of a shortage of Krags, most of the volunteer units that served in the conflict were armed with the old .45-70 Gov’t Trapdoors. Some of the volunteers noted sardonically that the “regulars,” who were paid to fight, had the new repeating Krags while those who volunteered were stuck with obsolete single-shot guns. Nonetheless, the most famous volunteer outfit of the war, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the “Rough Riders,” was armed with new Model 1896 Krag carbines. It is probable that the political influence of unit’s second-in-command, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, had something to do with the outfit being armed with the new bolt-action carbines rather than Trapdoors.

While the Krag acquitted itself reasonably well during the war, some deficiencies became apparent when it went up against the Model 1893 Mauser rifles used by the Spanish. The Mauser’s clip-loading capability was markedly superior to the Krag’s magazine design, which had to be loaded with individual cartridges. Also, the Mauser’s stronger bolt-action mechanism enabled it to use higher-velocity cartridges having more power and better performance than the .30-40 Krag.

In addition to the fighting in Cuba, the Krags also saw extensive use in the Philippine Islands, which the United States acquired after the Spanish-American War. Krags provided valuable service in numerous small-scale, but brutal and bloody, combat actions against various indigenous insurgent groups. Krag rifles were also in the hands of U.S. Army troops who helped relieve the siege of the International Legation in Peking, China, during the so-called Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Beginning in military Fiscal Year 1897, Model 1892 Krag rifles began to be sent to Springfield Armory for conversion to Model 1896 specifications. These alterations included modifying the stock to fill in the slot required by the under-barrel cleaning rod, replacing the shorter handguard with the longer Model 1896 handguard, modifying the bolt to Model 1896 configuration and crowning the muzzle—along with a number of other changes. This conversion work continued through Fiscal Year 1902. Virtually all of the Model 1892 Krag rifles were eventually altered to 1896 specifications, which accounts for the rarity of unmodified specimens today.

Model 1898 Krag
While the Model 1896 Krag rectified some of the problems encountered with the original pattern Model 1892, further refinements were deemed necessary. These modifications culminated with the adoption of the “United States Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1898.” One of these changes was reversing the operation of the magazine cut-off lever to make it more functional. The most noticeable change found in the Model 1898 Krag was the configuration of the bolt recess, or “bolt handle seat,” which simplified manufacture of the receiver. The configuration of the stock in this area had to be modified to accommodate the change. There were relatively minor changes made to many of the other components, but some of the parts remained interchangeable with the earlier Krags. The receiver of the new model was marked “Model 1898” and serial numbers remained in sequence with the earlier models.

The nonadjustable Model 1896 rear sight continued to be used on the Model 1898s until the “Model 1898” rear sight, which was adjustable for windage, was adopted. An improved rear sight, designated the “Model 1901,” was subsequently developed for the Krag and installed on new production Model 1898 Krag rifles beginning in August 1901. This sight remained in use until superseded by the Model “1902” rear sight very late in production.

Model 1898 Krag Carbine
A carbine version of the new arm was adopted concurrently with the Model 1898 rifle. The Model 1898 Krag carbine was, for all intents and purposes, a Model 1896 carbine with a Model 1898 receiver. With the exception of the bolt recess, the stock was identical to the Model 1896 carbine’s stock. The barrel, handguard, sights, furniture and most of the other features were also the same as the Model 1896 carbine. Production of the Model 1898 carbine began on Aug. 15, 1898. As with the Model 1896, the Model 1898 Krag rifles and carbines had the same receivers, thus serial numbers are intermixed.

Model 1899 Krag Carbine
It was decided to modify the Krag carbine by increasing the length of the stock and handguard. The primary reason for introduction of the longer carbine stock was to better accommodate the Model 1898 rear sight. In addition, the “ring and bar” attachment was also eliminated. This component was seldom used—as cavalrymen routinely carried their carbines in leather saddle scabbards—which made the attachment more of a hindrance than a help. The new pattern carbine was adopted in August 1899 as the “U.S. Magazine Carbine, Caliber .30, Model of 1899.” Initially, most of the Model 1899 carbines were fitted with Model 1898 sights until superseded by the Model 1901. As with the Model 1898 rifles, late in production, the Model 1901 sight was replaced by the “Model 1902” sight on Model 1899 carbines. Virtually all of the Model 1898 carbines were eventually modified to Model 1899 configuration and fitted with the various updated sights.

Other Variants
In addition to the Krag rifles and carbines, there were limited numbers of other variants produced including cadet rifles and .22-cal. gallery practice rifles. Two or three prototype Model 1898 Krag “sniper rifles” fitted with Cataract telescopic sights were assembled for limited testing. Another interesting variant was a slightly modified version of the Model 1899 carbine (along with a few Model 1898 carbines) fitted with a cut-down Model 1898 rifle stock. Some arms of this pattern were intended for issue to the Philippine Constabulary, and others were fabricated for use by some military schools in the United States.

Despite its relative success as a combat arm during the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion, the previously discussed inherent design deficiencies of the Krag resulted in its numbered days as the standard American military service arm. The Krag’s most serious shortcomings were its inability to be clip- or charger-loaded and the fact that its bolt-action was incapable of safely handling cartridges more powerful than the .30-40 Krag. The deficiencies were studied and methods to improve the rifle’s performance were evaluated. One suggestion was to adapt the Krag’s magazine to clip-loading capability. This resulted in development of the “Parkhurst Clip Loading Attachment,” which enabled the Krag magazine to be loaded by means of a five-round charger. In 1901, Springfield Armory fitted 100 Model 1898 Krag rifles and 100 Model 1899 Krag carbines with the Parkhurst Attachment to test the concept. Although marginally helpful, the Parkhurst Attachment was not adopted and, in any event, did nothing to address the other deficiencies of the Krag, especially in regard to its ballistic performance.

The Beginning of the End
In 1900, the U.S. Army Ordnance Dept. began work on a new service rifle prototype that incorporated some of the desirable features of the Mauser along with an improved cartridge that offered significantly better ballistic performance than the .30-40 Krag. While the Ordnance Dept. was developing the new service rifle, production of the Model 1898 Krag rifle and Model 1899 Krag carbine continued at Springfield Armory. The Krag stayed in production until 1903, the same year that the new service rifle was adopted and designated as the “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1903.” As soon as practicable, the Krag production line at Springfield was converted to manufacture the new Model 1903 rifle.

As production of the Model 1903 Springfield rifle began to meet the demand, the Krags in the hands of the regular Army were withdrawn and placed in storage or issued to “state guard” or similar units. By circa 1910, the regular Army was more or less fully equipped with Model 1903 Springfields. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, approximately 160,000 Krag rifles were still in storage, and significant numbers (mainly Model 1898 rifles) were withdrawn and used by the U.S. military during the war. The vast majority remained stateside for training purposes, although some 2,000 Model 1898 Krag rifles were taken to France during the war by the 10th-19th Engineers (Railway). There is no evidence that any were used by front-line combat units.

After being disposed of as surplus after the war, large numbers of Krag rifles were sold on the civilian market at very attractive prices. Many were cut-down or otherwise sporterized for use as low-cost hunting rifles, which partially accounts for the relative scarcity of unmodified examples today.

“NRA Carbine”
In addition to the Krag rifles that were shortened by their civilian owners, there were a number similarly modified under government auspices beginning around 1926. A number of Krag rifles still remaining in the government’s inventory were cut-down, reportedly at Benicia Arsenal, Calif., to approximately carbine length. This was done primarily to provide badly needed funds to the Ordnance Dept. and to keep some of the skilled armory workmen employed. These modified Krags were not intended for use by the U.S. military. The arms were sold primarily to members of the National Rifle Association and are now often colloquially referred to as “NRA Carbines,” even though they were cut-down rifles, not carbines.

It can be impossible to distinguish one of these civilian-made cut-down Krag rifles from one of the rifles modified at Benicia and sold via the NRA. The only definitive method of identifying one of the so-called “NRA Carbines” would be with an original bill of sale from the government—quite rare today.

While its bolt-action mechanism and unique magazine system proved to be somewhat anachronistic soon after its adoption, the U.S. Krag was a well-crafted firearm that, within its limits, served our nation well from the late 19th century and into the 20th. Today, an unmodified U.S. Krag has become a sought-after collector’s item. Although the U.S. military’s standard service arm for less than a decade, the Krag saw a surprising amount of service during the time that the United States was becoming a world power. While sometimes overlooked today when compared to its better-known successor, the Model 1903 Springfield, the Krag remains a historic and interesting relic of a bygone era in our nation’s history.

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