During the first week of January, I bought my first official new gun of the year. It’s a model 1898 Krag-Jorgensen chambered in .30-40 Krag, and it’s 111 years old. That’s the same as Bilbo Baggins when he celebrates his eleventy-first birthday in The Lord of the Rings. That’s seven years older than the state of Oklahoma and eight years older than the Model T Ford.
Unlike tens of thousands of its unlucky brethren, my Krag somehow escaped the saws and files of the sporterizers and the choppers who are today snarkily referred to as “Bubba” by internet gunnies. But in the early days of the 20th century, surplus Krags were just old, cheap guns, almost given away by the government–they sold for as little as $1.50 through the CMP and the NRA.
A little extra cash, and a little bit of work by a gunsmith, and voila, the military-trimmed Krags became handy little deer rifles. During the lean years of the Great Depression, a cheap, easily-sporterized surplus rifle could mean the difference between eating meat and potatoes or just potatoes, especially in the rural, hardscrabble parts of America.
The .30-40 Krag cartridge was the very first smokeless cartridge adopted for widespread use by the US military. While considered underpowered today, its .30 caliber bullet traveling at 2000 feet per second meant it could effectively kill anything on four legs likely to be encountered in the lower 48 states.
On my Krag, the words “Springfield Armory” appear on the left side of the receiver, directly under the “U.S.” stamped in a font at least twice as big as the other letters. The stock is worn almost black in places by the natural oils from untold hands and the accumulation of dirt and grime of more than century.
Pressed into the dark wood above the trigger guard is a small rectangle with squared-off corners, containing a cursive script JSA and the number 1900. A little searching revealed that the J, the S and the A are the initials of master armorer J. Sumner Adams, showing the rifle had been accepted for use by the US government.
A quick check of the Krag serial number registry from the National Parks Service, available on-line at many web sites, confirms that my rifle’s serial number is among those accepted into inventory sometime during fiscal year 1900, probably later in the year rather than earlier.
And these numbers are part of the reason why I bought this Krag. My grandfather and namesake, Roy Hale, was himself born near the end of 1900, close to the time when this Krag was made.
I don’t have any reason to believe that my grandfather ever owned or fired a Krag. But this rifle is certainly a thing from his time. And I know he truly appreciated a good rifle.
It didn’t help that right when I was trying to decide if I really wanted the rifle or not, one of my cousins unexpectedly mailed me a photo of my grandfather taken in his youth, framed alongside his hand-written special chili recipe. Like I needed an omen as an excuse to buy yet another gun.
But chronological connections to my grandfather’s birth are not the only reasons why I plunked down my hard won cash (that’s c-a-s-h, R.F…..cough, cough….but ammo is a currency all its own, too) for a military rifle that’s four times more out of date than Beach Boys 8-tracks.
My Krag is four feet of wood and steel, and smells of cosmoline and old dust. The strange, right-side box magazine with its rolling internal feed lever is a contraption from the time when the candlestick telephone was still a magical creation of modern technology. When my rifle was made, nobody outside Ohio had ever heard of either Orville or Wilbur, and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was just another lonely stretch of empty southern beach.
My Krag is graceful and beautiful. For being 49 inches long, it is surprisingly lively and balanced. I was amazed at the difference in feel between it and my Model 96 Swedish Mauser, also made in 1900. The Swede has been my favorite rifle to shoot for several years, and I used to think it was graceful and easy to handle. But compared to the Krag, it hefts like a chunk of oak planking. I think it’s because the extra metal of the Krag’s weird mechanism puts more weight between the shooter’s hands, instead of in front of them, like with the Swede.
The Krag also features a smooth bolt action, albeit a one-lug design that requires the .30-40 cartridge to be loaded at lower pressures than many other modern rifle cartridges. Some have written that the Krag’s bolt is one of the smoothest ever designed. It is certainly smooth and easy to manipulate. Out of all my rifles, only my Remington 700 from D&L Sports in Wyoming has a smoother, easier bolt. The Krag’s bolt is smoother than my Swedish Mauser, my Winchester Model 70, and my Ishapore 2A Enfield. I won’t even mention my Mosin Nagants. If you’ve handled a Mosin, you know why.
The really intriguing part of the Krag is the magazine. I can push my thumb against the angled flange atop the long metal box on the right side, and it flips open. Five cartridges drop neatly into the opening, and a little pressure on the outside of the flange causes the lid to snap shut. On the left side, up near the bolt is the magazine cut-off lever. With the lever down, the five cartridges in the funky magazine are kept in reserve, and the rifle has to be fed one cartridge at a time. Flip the lever up, and the Krag feeds and shoots exactly like any other bolt action rifle.
The magazine cut-off lever is a holdover from an old military doctrine that emphasized single, well-aimed shots instead of firepower for the common infantryman. The belief was that soldiers should load and shoot single shots during most combat, but they could flip up the lever and quickly rattle off five rounds if they were in danger of being overrun.
As soon as I got the Krag home, I took it out to my backyard range, and ran five rounds through it. The operation was smooth and flawless, and the recoil surprisingly light. Four of the shots grouped very tightly around the little dot I stuck onto a target 40 yards distant, and the fifth shot splattered a gallon jug of water in a most satisfying manner.
And those are all the reasons why I bought that old Krag, which was obsolete by the time it first appeared in combat in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Its combination of history, interesting machinery, smooth handling and operation, and personally-significant dates meant that there was simply no way that I could walk away, and leave that Krag in the gun store, all by itself. Besides, a buddy texted me that getting the Krag would give me a real excuse to find a liberated Cuban cigar and some good rum to go with.