By Craig Stockwell
Now that October’s in the rear view mirror, Veterans’ Day will be here soon. Veterans’ Day was originally meant to honor the veterans of the First World War, although today, all men and women who served our nation can take pride on November 11. The First World War and its aftermath was the most catastrophic calamity in human history to that point and I doubt that 21st century people can fathom what life must’ve been like for the men in the trenches. But a number of the rifles they used in the day are timeless and worth a look back . . . .
Today, the average soldier around the world carries a select fire rifle in some 5mm caliber with a detachable 30 round magazine (more or less) and bolt action rifles are relegated to snipers. Designated marksmen typically carry semi-automatic or altered select fire rifles like the SVD or the M21 and M25. Ninety-five years ago, though, soldiers carried much different equipment; bolt action rifles with non-detachable magazines and as many clips as they could stand.
Also, countries tended to design their own calibers rather than having an accepted international standard. America had .30-06, Russia had 7.62x54r, Germany used 7.92×57, Britain liked .303, France had 8x50r (also known as 8mm Lebel rifle), the Ottomans shot 7.65×53, and Italy, Sweden, and Japan all preferred 6.5 caliber rifles.
None of these countries’ calibers were interchangeable; there was no such thing as a PMAG; countries couldn’t even settle on a common bore diameter. Think about in terms of today’s militaries. Every major military power uses either 5.56×45 NATO, 5.45×39, the Chinese 5.8×42 or the 5.7×28 “personal defense” cartridge. Even pistol calibers are standardized with both NATO and the Russians fielding service pistols in 9×19.
I had the opportunity recently to sho0t a 1913 Enfield SMLE, a 1917 St. Etienne Berthier M1916, and – a slightly younger 1940 Kokura Type 38 Arisaka. They belong to a collector from New Hampshire who I met via the Surplus Rifle Forum and they make up his “World War One Selection.”
The Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle was the standard service rifle for British and most Commonwealth forces from about 1904 up to and well beyond 1939 (the British changed over to the No. 4 MkI Lee Enfield in 1939, Australia kept the SMLE until the adoption of the L1A1).
The Berthier M16 was technically a stopgap; the French “official” rifle at the time was the M1886/93, and the Berthier was adopted initially as a cavalry carbine. In 1915, and again in 1916, the carbine was enlarged into a full rifle. The Berthier series of rifles served in the French military officially from 1890 to about the 1950s (for colonial troops and the Foreign Legion), and by the French police into the 1980s.
The Arisaka Type 38 was adopted in the 39th year of the reign of Emperor Meiji. That’s 1905 on our calendars. It was officially replaced in Japanese service by the Type 99 in about 1939, but the Japanese could never fully replace the T38s, so the two served together (like the Berthier and the Lebel).
Two of these rifles, the SMLE and the Arisaka T38, are cock-on-closing designs. The action becomes stiffer and harder to close after the cartridge is chambered and the user is trying to push the bolt handle down. These rifles require a little more practiced technique to throw the bolt, however they’re extremely fast to open and close once the user knows what to do. The Berthier is cock-on-opening, similar to a Mauser, a Mosin, a Savage, and every other modern bolt action gun.
The SMLE and the Arisaka use stripper clips, and the Berthier uses en bloc clips, similar to the Carcano and (to a much lesser extent) M1 Garand. The Berthier M16 and the Arisaka are 5-shot, and the SMLE is 10-shot. The stripper clips of the SMLE and Arisaka must be removed out of the receiver manually or by throwing the bolt, and the Berthier’s en bloc clips eject out of the bottom of the magazine via the floorplate. The SMLE’s detachable magazine is not for reloading, it’s for cleaning. Instead unscrewing the magazine to release it, the magazine release lever is on the top of the trigger guard and the magazine was only dropped for cleaning.
Speaking of trigger guards and floorplates, the T38 has a button on the inside front of the trigger guard that rapidly ejects the floorplate, spring, and follower out of the bottom of the magazine. I was curious as to if anyone was killed because they accidentally hit that button and their entire magazine plus ammo flew onto the ground.
We shot about 35 shots out of each rifle, 20 at 100 yards, 10 at 200 yards, and 5 at water jugs 50 yards away. Truth be told, these rifles are not exceptionally accurate. They can maintain about 3 to 5 MOA at 100 and 200 yards. However, I believe that the ammo had something to do with it. We were shooting 200 grain cast bullets with gas checks traveling at about 1400 fps out of the Berthier, whereas original French ammo was about 2200 or 2300 fps. The SMLE was fed a mix of reloaded soft points, FMJ reloads (some with 7.62x54r silver tip bullets), and South African surplus.
The Arisaka was shooting reloads with Hornady A-Max bullets. One of the main issues I had with all of the rifles was their sights. The SMLE has a minute blade front sight, the Berthier has a fat (1/4” to 1/2” maybe) blade with a tiny notch in the middle, and the Arisaka had a triangular front sight. The rear sights on each rifle were U notch for the SMLE, partridge for the Berthier and V notch for the Arisaka.
In the trigger competition, the Berthier wins hands down. It was a long, two-stage trigger, however the second stage was light enough so I didn’t know exactly when the trigger would break (if we go on the “triggers should be like surprises” theory). The SMLE’s trigger was lighter. In fact the owner thought the trigger was excessively light because the wood of the stock had expanded too much and was throwing it off. The Arisaka’s trigger was also a two-stage design. Initial creep was minimal and the second stage was about six pounds.
Given their size, even with the large rounds they shoot, none of the guns’ recoil presented a problem. All of them are much softer on the shoulder than the faster cartridges of that era, such as .30-06 or 7.62x54r. The Berthier was the best all-round handling rifle by a long shot. Its stock fit me nicely, whereas the SMLE was very uncomfortable and the Arisaka was OK.
These rifles are great collectibles. They aren’t guns you’re going to take out every weekend, simply because of the price and availability of ammo. Neither my new friend nor I could find any factory ammo for the Berthier, and we’re in two different states. Arisaka 6.5 runs about $30 and up for a box and .303 is between $20 and $30 depending on the manufacturer. None of these calibers are cheap, and there are very few companies that produce ammo in these calibers any more with the possible exception of .303. If you want an old rifle to shoot and you don’t reload, I’d suggest a Mosin, an M1903 Springfield, or a P17 Enfield. While 7.92×57 Mausers have a larger ammo supply the surplus for that caliber has effectively dried up in recent years.
If you reload, then you’ve got no problems…as long as you’ve got the cash. Personally, if I were to buy one of these guns it would be the Berthier. It’s got a smooth-but-not-fast action and the trigger is crisp but not too light. It’s also the best looking out of the bunch. It has its limitations, though, such as a lack of ammo and sights that are inadequate for precise target shooting. Lining up and putting the front sight over a feldgrau coat at 100 yards is another story.
These rifles are living, shooting, real history. It’s a great experience to shoot rifles of this vintage, especially since every veteran of the First World War has now met the Spirit in the Sky. We can’t talk to the men who shot these rifles, but we can still hear the rifles’ voices. They still work, they’re still tough and they’ll get the job done.