The Top Infantry Rifles of the 20th Century

By Chuck Hawks

This article is subjective by nature, as "top" is a matter of opinion. There is no objective way to determine the best battle rifle, as the criteria I chose may be different than the criteria you would choose, and this list does not pretend to be inclusive. However, the rifles listed below (in approximate chronological order) have certainly stood the test of time and should, I think, appear on most such lists.

Lee-Enfield, United Kingdom

The famous Lee-Enfield service rifles use the equally famous .303 British cartridge. Originally developed in 1888 for use with a compressed charge of black powder and a 215 grain RN bullet, it was quickly adapted to smokeless powder (Cordite) when that became available in 1892, and later to a 174 grain spitzer bullet at a substantially higher velocity. This spitzer bullet kept the .303's ballistic performance reasonably competitive with the .30-06 and 8x57.

This is a rimmed cartridge with a gentle shoulder and plenty of body taper. Its rimmed design requires a single row, tapered magazine to feed reliability in a bolt action rifle, which the Lee Enfield has.

Unlike the modern appearing (despite their age) rimless cartridges used in the other rifles featured in this article, the .303 looks dated. Yet it was an effective combat cartridge and served the British Empire through two World Wars and into the 1950s.

The home of the .303 British was the Lee-Enfield service rifle, of which there were many variations during its long service life. All were bolt actions with a two-piece stock. The bolt locked at the rear and cocked its massive striker on closing. It was technically an antiquated design by the time of the Great War, let alone the Second World War. Yet the definitive Lee-Enfield, the SMLE (short magazine Lee Enfield) #4 Mark 2 served admirably in that conflict, and the short, handy "Jungle Carbine" version is still sought after today for use as a sporting rifle.

Despite its technical drawbacks, the Lee-Enfield is fast to operate and reliable, sterling virtues in an infantry rifle. And the .303 British cartridge, often compared to the obsolescent but contemporary .30-40 Krag round, was updated to the point where its performance is actually more similar to that of the 7.62mm NATO (.308 Winchester).

Mauser Model 1896, Sweden/Norway

The Mauser Model 1896 (m/96) was adopted by the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway (at the time they were one country) two years after the 6.5x55 cartridge was developed by the joint Swedish/Norwegian commission that met in 1893 and adopted the 6.5x55 in 1894. This was a fortuitous match indeed, a great rifle and a great cartridge.

The m/96 uses a Mauser pattern bolt with twin front locking lugs, a full length extractor, and a fixed ejector, much like the subsequent Model 98. But the Model 1896 cocks on closing like other pre-1898 Mauser bolt actions. This is a drawback, but not serious enough to limit its very long run as a successful army rifle.

The m/96 is a beautifully made and attractive rifle. Sweden remained neutral in both the First and Second World Wars. This means that there were no "wartime production" short cuts taken with Swedish Mausers, unlike the military rifles of almost all major combatants in the great world conflicts. There are no inferior Swedish m/96 rifles.

Early 6.5x55 military loads used a 160 grain RN bullet, but this was changed to a 140 grain spitzer at a MV of when that type became popular. The 6.5x55 went on to become a popular and successful hunting and target rifle cartridge, and is still popular as such today. It combines flat trajectory, good killing power, excellent accuracy and mild recoil, a fine recipe for rifle cartridge success.

The m/96 is a very accurate service rifle, indeed. This was proven during the early years of the 20th Century, when the various powers held international service rifle matches. The host country provided the rifles and ammunition used in these matches to all of the teams so that all competitors used the host nation's service rifle. In the entire history of this series of matches, the best scores across the board were not shot with the U.S. M-1903 Springfield, the British Lee-Enfield, or the vaunted German Model 98 Mauser, but with the Swedish m/96 and the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin rifles. These are the most accurate of the classic bolt action military rifles.

The m/96 was modified in 1938 with a shorter 24" barrel (instead of the previous 29" tube) and an aperture rear sight to become the m/38, but was otherwise largely unchanged. It remained the standard service rifle in Sweden into the 1950s, one of the longest successful runs on record.

Schmidt Rubin Model 1896/11, Switzerland

The 7.5mm Schmidt Rubin cartridge was adopted by the Swiss in 1889 and used in four models of Schmidt Rubin straight pull bolt action rifles, the 1889, 1896/11, 1911, and 31. These remained in service into the 1970s. The 7.5mm Schmidt Rubin Model 11 cartridge is still used today by the Swiss Army in their Model 57 automatic rifle.

The 1896/11 rifle was designed for the higher power Model 11 cartridge, which fires a 174 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2720 fps and became the Swiss service standard from that time on. The straight pull Schmidt Rubin bolt action is faster to operate than the turn bolt actions used by most other countries during the first half of the 20th Century.

Since its design (up to the K31) leaves part of the case head unsupported, it is not as strong as the Mauser 98 bolt action and does not handle escaping gas from a blown primer or burst case well. Thus it is not a good rifle for the reloader or recreational shooter. For that reason, Schmidt Rubin actions are not popular candidates for conversion into high class sporting rifles. However, they are extremely well made and strong enough to operate reliably with virgin military ammunition.

Switzerland remained neutral in both the First and Second World Wars, so no "wartime production" short cuts were ever taken with Schmidt Rubin rifles. There are no inferior Schmidt Rubin rifles floating around to degrade the type's reputation.

Service rifle competition between the various major military powers proved that the Schmidt Rubin, along with the Swedish Mauser, was the most accurate of all of the classic, smokeless powder, bolt action service rifles. That, its fast operation, and its extremely long service life earned it a place in this article.

Mauser Model 98, Germany

Of all the world's military rifles, the Mauser 98 is probably the best action for use in a high quality sporting rifle. Custom gunsmiths have used thousands of surplus military Model 98 actions as the basis of bespoke rifles, a suitable testimony to the quality and desirable features of this ultimate bolt action. The Model 1898 was Paul Mauser's fully developed bolt action rifle design, incorporating all of the improvements gained through his long experience with the type.

The Model 98 was Germany's main battle rifle through both World Wars and also served a number of other countries. The standard German chambering was the 8x57JS cartridge, which drove a .323", 150 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2800 fps, ballistics that compared very favorably with all other battle cartridges of the time, and are still impressive today. I have never heard anyone complain about the long range stopping power of the 8x57JS cartridge!

The Mauser 98 action incorporates two large locking lugs at the front of its one-piece bolt and a safety lug at the rear. It cocks its one-piece firing pin on opening and provides plenty of camming action to remove recalcitrant cases. The full length extractor takes a very large bite on the case rim and provided controlled feeding, and a fixed ejector kicks out the fired case when the bolt is fully withdrawn. There is a bolt guide to control bolt wobble as the action is operated. Two large gas relief ports on the underside of the bolt vent escaping gas into the magazine box, and a large flange at the back of the bolt deflects escaping gas away from the shooter's face in the event of a blown primer or burst case. The trigger guard, bottom iron, and magazine box are machined from one piece of steel. The Mauser 98 has an inherently fast lock time.

No more reliable bolt action rifle has ever been invented. Almost all modern bolt action rifles are based on Mauser 98 principles, and subsequent "improvements" to the Model 98 action seem to invariably be in the area of cutting production costs, not making a superior action.

The vaunted M1903 A3 Springfield rifle used by U.S. troops in WW I and to an extent in WW II, was one of the better "improved" Mausers, and yet was inferior to the original in several ways. For instance, the Springfield is not as strong as the Mauser 98, does not handle escaping gas as well, has a slower lock time, and uses a weaker two-piece firing pin. The Mauser 98 is the King of bolt action rifles; long live the King!

Arisaka Type 38 / Type 99, Japan

The Arisaka Type 38 rifle was introduced in 1905. It served until the end of the Second World War in 1945.

The Model 38 was chambered for the compact but effective 6.5x50mm cartridge. This little semi-rimmed number has the smallest case (and thus powder capacity) of any of the 6.5mm military cartridges of that era, and generated the least recoil. Never the less, it was a flat shooting and effective cartridge, as U.S. Marines discovered to their dismay during the Pacific War.

In 1939 Japan adopted a new, larger, rimless service cartridge, the 7.7x58mm (.303 caliber). At the same time a rimmed version of the new cartridge was designed specifically for machine gun use.

A modified Type 38 rifle, the Type 99 Arisaka, was introduced for the new 7.7x58 cartridge. It was intended that the Type 99 and 7.7mm cartridge would supplant the Type 38 and its 6.5mm cartridge, but the beginning of WW II caught the Japanese with both rifles and calibers in service, and both remained in service for the duration. This proliferation of "standard" service cartridges complicated an already critical Japanese supply problem.

The Arisaka rifles use a rather ugly modified Mauser 98 type action with a convenient but large, rotary safety knob on the rear of the bolt. However, looks can be deceiving. The Arisaka is actually a very strong action. In tests conducted after the end of WW II by U.S. Military ordinance experts, the Arisaka was found to be the strongest service rifle action of the war.

As the war progressed, the Arisaka rifles suffered from accelerated production quotas, manufacturing shortcuts and material shortages. Pre-war Arisaka rifles are well made, but wartime examples, particularly those produced late in the war, can be very rough. As far as I can tell, Arisaka rifles were never produced for civilian use and, unlike the Mauser 98, there are no "commercial" Arisaka actions.

M1 Garand, United States

This is the definitive service rifle of the Second World War and Korean War. The 9.5 pound M1 Garand was the first semi-automatic infantry rifle adopted by any major power, back in 1938. It uses gas operation and is fed by use of 8-round clips, which are inserted into the action from the top.

The Garand is chambered for the .30-06 cartridge, which went on to become the most popular big game hunting cartridge in the world. The most common .30-06 military load drove a 150 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2700 fps. Civilian hunting loads using the same weight bullet are about 200 fps faster, but the U.S. military wanted to keep the recoil down and the rifle's reliability up.

The M14, which replaced the M1 after the Korean War, is basically a short action M1 (it uses the 7.62mm NATO cartridge) with detail improvements and a detachable box magazine. One glance at the two rifles side by side and the family resemblance is clear.

Most American authorities regard the M1 as the best service rifle of the 20th Century. Lots of Marines serving in Iraq today would gladly trade their under powered M16s for an M1. And, indeed, the M14 has been brought back to serve in that conflict in order to gain a much needed increase in stopping power.

AK-47, Soviet Union/Russia

The selective fire Kalashnikov Model 47 (AK-47) was designed around the stubby 7.62x39mm assault rifle cartridge. Despite its designation, this cartridge does not use a 7.62mm (.308") bullet. The AK-47 is actually a .303 caliber (.311") rifle and fires a 123 grain bullet at a nominal MV of 2350 fps. All specifications are, however, approximate due to sub-standard quality control and the great production variations encountered in AK-47 pattern rifles manufactured in dysfunctional Communist arms factories all over the world. It is however, reliable and easy to mass produce. The darn things do work.

The Soviet preference for quantity over quality is nowhere more evident than in the AK-47. Most examples appear to have been fabricated entirely from sheet metal and orange crate wood. A thing of beauty it is not.

Of all the rifles that made it into this article, the AK-47 is by far the cheapest, lowest quality, and least accurate. It was designed for use by semi-skilled conscript troops, and has become the favorite weapon of untrained insurgents and terrorists whose modus operandi is to "spray and pray." This is not a weapon for the rifleman, gun crank, or hunter.

The AK-47 has had a long and gory operational life and is still going strong. I read somewhere that it is the most numerous assault rifle in the world. It is certainly the most infamous.

AR-15 / M16, United States

Opposing AK-47 armed fighters in most post Korean War conflicts have been troops equipped with the 5.56x45mm (.223 caliber) M16 assault rifle. This is the American answer to the AK-47 and, like the Communist rifle, the American AR-15 / M16 has been produced in many variants and sold all over the world. It is generally a good rifle, and very popular.

It is, however, no work of art. This is the prototypical "black rifle," designed by Eugene Stoner and built with a plastic stock and cast or stamped metal parts for inexpensive mass production. Its higher velocity .22 caliber cartridge shoots flatter and out ranges the 7.62x39, but lacks stopping power. The 5.56x45 (.223 Remington) cartridge is capable of extreme accuracy and in super accurate bolt action rifles has become a favorite of varmint hunters in North America.

In its original full automatic form used in Vietnam it was a typical "spray and pray" weapon. More recent versions have replaced full auto fire with the 3-round burst in an attempt to conserve ammunition and increase the soldiers' abysmal hitting percentage. (The latter is not the rifle's fault, or even the soldiers', but rather a matter of training--or the lack of it.)

The M16 has been on active duty since the late 1950s, first being adopted by the USAF to replace their stock of aging M1 Carbines. Later it was adopted by the Army and Marine Corps, forced on the NATO allies, and has been the service standard longer than any previous U.S. rifle. In most respects the later versions of the M16 are better rifles than the AK-47, and Russia has adopted the AK-74 in an attempt to keep up.

The root of most criticism of the M16 is its cartridge. It was realized almost from the beginning that the 5.56x45 lacked stopping power, and rumors of its replacement by something more formidable have been rife for over 45 years. But nothing has been done. The latest candidate to replace the 5.56mm is the 6.8mm (.270) SPC, easily adaptable to the current M16 platform, which so far has been bogged down in a congressional committee from which it is unlikely to emerge.

Some American troops serving in Iraq and desperate for more stopping power are clamoring for reserve M14 rifles (.308 caliber) to be reissued to replace their M16s, and this is being done where possible. Meanwhile, the M16 in 5.56x45 caliber soldiers on, more popular with civilian "wannabe's" than with many of the soldiers and Marines who are forced to rely on a .22 to keep them alive.

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Copyright 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.