The Krag-Jørgensen Rifle
In the decade prior to 1898, the Army debated a number of proposals aimed at modernizing the Army. One of these proposals involved the standard-issue small arm of the infantry, which still utilized the Model 1873 Springfield rifle, a .45-70 caliber single-shot breechloader using cartridges as big as a man’s finger. Furthermore, the cartridges were packed with old-fashioned black powder. Firing the rifle produced a thick cloud of smoke that gave away the position of the shooter. Charles Johnson Post, an illustrator for the New York Journal and private in the 71st New York Regiment, stated that with each discharge, “there burst forth a cloud of white smoke somewhat the size of a cow.” Additionally, the rifle had a strong recoil; Post stated that firing the Springfield “could knock down two men: the one it hit and the one who fired it.”
Since 1877, the Army had been looking to replace the single-shot Model 1873 Springfield with a magazine rifle. In 1893, after a decade of testing by the Ordnance Department, the Infantry and Cavalry received the .30 caliber, five-round Krag-Jørgensen rifle. Designed by Norwegian Army Captain Ole H.J. Krag and Norwegian master gunsmith Erik Jørgensen, the Krag-Jørgensen, or “Krag.” was a bolt-action rifle that fired new smokeless powder ammunition. The extra shots provided an advantage in firepower. In addition, a soldier would be able to carry twice the amount of rounds for the Krag than the heavier .45-70 caliber rounds of theSpringfield. Army fire tactics in the 1890s, however, emphasized accuracy over rapid shooting. The War Department claimed that the average soldier required a minute to aim and shoot. The fourteen shots a minute which could be fired by the Krag were therefore considered to be wasteful. The government wanted its troops to treat the gun as a single-shot weapon, with the magazine acting as a reserve in case of an emergency.
One reason why a magazine rifle had not been adopted by the U.S. Army sooner was the lack of American factories capable of producing the smokeless powder, a crucial element in magazine rifles. Smokeless powder was developed by the French and had been a closely guarded secret. Once theUnited Stateswas able to produce smokeless powder, the way was cleared for the adoption of the rifle.
The first Model 1892 Krag-Jørgensen Rifle was not produced until 1894. Several minor modifications were later made to the rifle such as an improved sight, making the magazine cut-off operate in a down position, and moving the cleaning rod to the butt trap. These changes became the Model 1896 Krag-Jørgensen Rifle. Practically all of the Model 1892 weapons were altered to Model 1896 weapons, including about 25,000 rifles manufactured between 1894 and 1896. The Model 1896 Krag-Jørgensen Rifle was produced between 1897 and 1899, during which time close to 30,000 were built. However, at the outbreak of hostilities withSpainin 1898, production of the rifles and the new smokeless cartridges were not meeting wartime demand, especially with the sudden influx of National Guard and Volunteer units. Supplying Regular Army units with the new rifles became the overall priority. The main problems of supply were attributed to the lack of appropriations and shortage of facilities to accommodate an increase in production of the rifles and ammunition, which differed greatly from its black powder counterparts.
The inadequacy in funding left the National Guard and Volunteers deficient in modern weapons and equipment. As a result, most of the state troops carried the archaic single-shot breech-loader Springfield while the regulars received the Krag. Springfield Arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, the only federal government plant that could manufacture the Krag, expanded its facilities, work force, and output, but it still could not keep up with the tasks of rearming the Volunteers. Private companies were unable to produce the rifle because of the lack of the proper machinery and licenses to use certain patents. An alternative magazine firearm manufactured by foreign or domestic firms to supplement the lack of Krags for the National Guard and Volunteer units was also considered. However, it was decided that foreign weapons risked interception by the Spanish Navy or confiscation by neutral governments at port. Other American rifles, such as the Winchester Model 1894, fell short of the Army standards of accuracy and durability. Even if another magazine rifle had been approved, there would be little or no ammunition that would be available since the supplies would be reserved for the Krags.
Tested in combat for the first time during the fighting in Cuba, the Krag and its new smokeless ammunition proved effective. The carbine equivalent saw action with Theodore Roosevelt and the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the Rough Riders, and received great praise from Roosevelt. The Rough Riders obtained the Krags mainly through Roosevelt’s political connections in Washington, where he had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. While it performed well, soldiers discovered that the slow side-loading magazine was no match to the stripper-clip arrangement of the Spanish Model 1893 Mausers. As a consequence, Spanish soldiers could reload faster than their American counterparts.
Upon conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the Ordnance Department asked officers who served in Cuba for their assessment of the new equipment. Apart from the side magazine issue, the Krag-Jørgensen received almost universal praise from the Army. At the same time, all of the officers condemned the use of black powder and urged that the Krag, with its smokeless ammunition, replace the remaining Springfields still in use as soon as possible.
The Krag saw further action during the Philippine Insurrection. The conflict was long and brutal, and a popular ditty among the soldiers summed up the general attitude:
Damn Damn Damn the Filipinos
Cut throat khakiac ladrones!
Underneath the starry flag,
Civilize them with a Krag,
And return us home to our beloved home.
American soldiers also used the Krag in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Krag received favorable comparisons with the European magazine rifles such as the Enfields, Nagants, Lebels, Carcanos, and Steyrs used by the other allied forces.
Despite its impressive service record, the Krag was soon replaced by the Model 1903 Springfield, which fired a .30-06 caliber round. Ordnance officials wanted to achieve parity with other magazine rifles in terms of firepower and mechanics and felt that a Mauser-style rifle would be able to achieve this goal. The Krag continued to see service in the National Guard and as a training rifle during World War I. After the war, Krags were either sold as surplus to other countries or to civilians as an economical deer hunting rifle. Unquestionably, the Krag-Jørgensen rifle and its smokeless ammunition were major breakthroughs in the Army’s modernization of the late nineteenth century and helped it transition into more advanced weapons in the twentieth century.