The following information on the self loading rifle comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
It seems a foregone conclusion that the rifle of the future must be automatic in its reloading. Sportsmen and military authorities are so nearly unanimous about this that their very expectations would force the development of the arm. Doubtless the first type of rifle that the automatic will entirely replace will be the army gun of all countries. Sporting rifles will follow gradually, for in the nature of things they cannot be changed so suddenly or radically. The last of our present models to give way should be the single-shot and the double barrel—the one because a self loading rifle cannot improve upon a single-shot where rapidity of fire is useless while the double rifle of large bore will have a special field of its own so long as the great game of Asia and Africa remains.
It is not to be expected that men will continue to pump a gun, yank a lever, or push, pull, and twist a bolt when the rifle can be made to do it all more uniformly and more quickly and surely. Conservatism and caution will of course have an effect for a time, which is the history of firearms from the beginning. Self loading rifles are in their youth; changes will be made and improvements are sure to come. Perhaps in course of time we will come to look upon our present automatics as extremely crude.
However, since the self loading rifle is about the only model of rifle that hasn’t reached full development, we can expect the gun inventive ability of the world to be turned solely in its direction, with certain and gratifying results sure to follow. While the careful man may consider it wise to bide his time and await the gun of the future, I cannot forbear a word of praise for our automatics just as they are.
I am free to admit an honest liking for an automatic. No grizzly ever charged me yet, but if he should I want to hit him once for every jump he makes, and twice while he is falling, all this without a thought to the rifle further than to hold and pull trigger. If a repeating rifle is needed at all, the demand should be for the one that repeats the quickest, with the least effort of mind and muscle on the part of the marksman.
For the novice whose first shot may not mean sudden death, for use in the woods where a vital part of the animal may not even be exposed, for running shots, there is no rifled firearm to compare with an automatic. Critics may complain that this model looks clumsy compared with its highly developed rivals, that its mechanism is complicated with too many springs, pieces, and parts, nevertheless I believe that every make of these rifles is strong, reliable, compact, and exactly adapted to the work required of it. I have yet to hear of the unprejudiced man who was dissatisfied with one of these weapons after giving it a fair trial, or of one of them that failed to give a good account of itself in a hot corner.
There are two or three points wherein I think the rifles could be improved, though for mechanical reasons the changes may be difficult. The barrels are now made twenty and twenty-two inches, while the man who likes a long sighting plane would prefer them longer. Moreover in one of the models the trigger pull is hard and drags, which is of course a detriment to good rifle work. Further there is a demand for higher velocity ammunition than anything now used in an automatic, and this may be expected to have a bearing on future models of the rifles. The three makes of these rifles we now have differ materially in self loading principle, and one or the other will finally prove its superiority, I have little doubt.
The Winchester Company constructed the first of these rifles, a .22 caliber, and their next two larger models were of inferior power, range, and trajectory, giving the impression that under their reloading principle it was impossible to make automatic arms up to modern requirements. However, the latest arm of this company, the .401 proved this conclusion erroneous, for it can be considered a nearly ideal big game cartridge, with an initial velocity approaching 2,200 feet, trajectory of less than six inches, and striking force of more than a ton. Doubtless should there be a demand for it the arm will be adapted to ammunition of still higher power because larger bores with increased bullet energy would entail little if any greater breech pressure than the cartridges now in use.
The ammunition of the Winchester automatic rifles, .351 and .401, is a positive advance in cartridge making. They are loaded with a condensed powder which, while giving full velocity, permits a shorter shell, and in turn a shorter frame, lessened weight of action, and other advantages. I see no reason why this sort of powder should not replace the bulkier kinds in other rifles, because it is compact and cheaper, while giving as regular and high velocity with no increase in breech pressure. If a cartridge two inches long will do the work of one of three inches, what is the use of carrying about the increased amount of metal?
The Remington-U.M.C. Company has chambered their self loading rifle for cartridges that are all good big game loads, calibers being from .25 to .35. The .35 is similar in ballistic properties to the .401 Winchester, though not loaded with the same powder. Sighted and shot at two hundred yards, it has accuracy and flat trajectory sufficient to keep the ball in a six inch circle anywhere along its curve of flight. It strikes nearly a two thousand pound blow, and the diameter of the ball is such as to insure upset on impact and good execution. Other cartridges for which the Remington is bored are the .25- 35,-117, 30-30,-170, and .32 Remington special all being rimless.
The third model of the self loading rifle, the Standard, is novel in that the same gun will function either automatically or by hand with the trombone action—the change necessary being made in a few minutes. This rifle is chambered for the same ammunition as the Remington.
Mechanically our three automatic rifles differ. In the Winchester the barrel is rigid, and the breech bolt is opened by what is known technically as the “blow-back ” action; the bolt is not locked but is held in place by the inertia of a recoil block backed by a heavy spring. The Remington has a barrel which slides inside a steel jacket. Under pressure of the charge the barrel moves back, still locked to the breech bolt, until the bullet is out of the muzzle, then the barrel comes in contact with a lug which stops it while the bolt continues rearward, opening the breech, ejecting the spent shell, and reloading through the action of a compressed spiral spring.
The Standard is known as a “gas-operated” rifle. In it the breech bolt is actuated by the powder gas which is taken into the power-tube, lying under the barrel, through a small port near the muzzle. No gas can be taken into the power tube until the bullet has passed the port, so the action remains locked until the bullet has cleared the gun. In changing the gun to a hand functioned arm the port is closed and some other slight changes made.
All of these rifles in question have box magazines. The Winchester and Remington can be clip loaded or the cartridges forced into the magazine one at a time. The Standard has a hinged lid at the bottom of the magazine and to reload it you have simply to open the lid and drop the cartridges in, the only care needed, being to see that the bullet end is turned in the right direction. Either of the three guns can readily be used as a single loader.
The things that concern a hunter relative to his rifle are that it must be reliable, accurate, speedy, possess killing power, and have a mechanism that can withstand hard usage. Beyond question any self loading rifle is more complicated than a single-shot, and whether any of them will last a lifetime is more than I can say, though I suspect that any one of these guns which receives ordinary care will live long enough to become obsolete through later improvements.
While America seems destined to lead in automatic firearms, rifles, pistols, or shotguns, yet European countries are at present very active in their experiments with weapons of this sort. As is to be expected, nations with large standing armies and little game are more interested in strictly military arms than those intended for sport. Germany now has one regiment armed with automatics, and that is only a hint of what is coming.
The average American is a gun crank from childhood, but it must be confessed that he gives more thought to his own individual plans and to his hunting weapons than to the guns carried by Uncle Sam’s army. As a consequence we find our sporting arms always well to the front with the military trailing the procession. This is not true at this writing, however, and the New Springfield should do very well, until the lads of blue and khaki actually once more need a gun to shoot at somebody with.
Perhaps I may be forgiven for speculating somewhat idly here, at the close of this chapter on the rifle which the immediate future is to bring forth. To begin with, the most of us will readily admit that it is to be auto loading. A majority would vote for a weight of between seven and eight pounds for a hunting arm, with a barrel length of about twenty-six inches.
The caliber will vary between .280 and .350. Cartridges should be loaded with condensed powder and consequently be less bulky than those we have now. Barrels will be made harder, of greater tensile strength, and bullet jackets should be so improved as to do away with metallic fouling. Three thousand feet a second will be accepted as the standard muzzle velocity, and many cartridges will exceed it—even now an experimental rifle has been built which gives a muzzle velocity of 3,500 feet.
Despite the increased velocity, no greater breech pressures will be engendered, for the manufacturers of nitro powder are keeping even step with the procession. Accuracy will be improved over all ranges, and the military marksmen will extend their long range to a mile. In army rifles the short bullet, such as the Springfield .150 and the Ross .139 will be dropped for lack of ranging qualities.
The standard muzzle energy for an American big game rifle will be from 2,500 to 3,000 feet pounds. Steel will be so treated chemically as absolutely to prevent rusting. For a given energy of bullet, recoil will be considerably reduced. Some form of silencer might be built in with the rifle in place of being a separate piece.