By Colin Holmes
It’s hard to believe that the Great War started over 100 years ago, veterans are all gone, and all that remains is letters, videos and history books. The Great War defined Canada as a nation.
Very few militaries used straight pull action rifles. Mexico had their Mondragón rifle straight-pull bolt-action rifles, the M1893 -M1894 which then which laid down the foundations for a self loading rifle the M-1908 . Switzerland had their K-Swiss 31 model Schmidt–Rubin chambered in 7.5x55mm. The Austrian-Hungarian empire would also adopt their own the M-95 (Mannlicher) chambered in 8×50 which saw great success. Even the Americans for a short period had their own Straight Bolt Wedge came rifle for the U.S.M.C; the Winchester- Lee 1895 in 6mm Lee-Navy. And finally Canada would also embrace the straight-bolt rifle, the Ross Rifle.
As a proud Canadian it’s only natural for me to write about the Canadian Ross Rifle. What is it about the Ross, and why does it have a bad reputation? Let’s examine the nasty rumors and find the truth.
If you were a solider in the Canadian Expeditionary force in the first half of WW1, this rifle would have been issued to you, along with the Ross 1910 pattern bayonet Mark II. Many Mark II and Mark III Ross rifles went to the US and Britain for training purposes and to free up more Springfield 1903’ sand SMLE’s for combat use. Although the Ross Mark II was a great service arm, Sir Charles Ross wanted to go in a new direction with his rifle, and so he came out with the Mark III 1910 action. This re-design was to withstand the more potent .280 Ross cartridge. His goal was to persuade the militia officials to have all Mark III’s re-barreled from .303 British to .280 Ross; his request was denied.
The Mark III did keep some Mark II features, but design wise it’s different in comparison to its predecessors Model 1905.
Here are the following modifications.
- A thick hump-back style stock
- A low side receiver with flat, wide bolt track and square cut end
- Lee type magazine housing a slot for charge loading, 5 rounds. The Harris style dumping magazine was dropped
- The receiver bridge which became standard feature on the Mark IIIs
- Open aperture battle site
- 30.5 inch barrel like the Mark II, but the Mark III’s barrel taper at the re-enforce was slightly longer
- Mark III had a triple thread, interrupted screw, double bearing cam bolt head that would rotate and lock into the receiver wells. The Mark II employed a hitherto locking lugs
- The Mark III bolt traveled horizontally unlike the previous Mark II that traveled vertically
- Flag safe was retained, and the bolt stop and the magazine cut off became one piece In the Mark III
- Mark II had a spring loaded plunger in a seating at the left rear of the receiver retained the bolt, however the Mark III had a three position rotatable thumb piece is pivoted parallel to the bore axis in a fl angled raised at the left rear of the receiver
Mark III.1910 Specifications
- Caliber: .303 British
- Barrel: 30.5 inch
- Magazine: Lee type magazine
- housing a slot for charge loading,
- 5 rounds
- Stock: Walnut & Birch
- Sight: Bridge-mounted Ross battle sight
- OAL: 50 1⁄2
- Weight: 9lbs
The Ross rifle definitely had its challenges on both the battlefield and on the political stage. Sir Charles Ross was a big figure who had established a lot of connections in American, British and Canadian social circles. One of his supporters was Sir Samuel Hughes, a Conservative who not only loved the Ross rifle, but also was a close friend of Ross. Sam was a member of the militia committee that judged the rifle. The friendship between Ross and Hughes was a conflict of interest, especially when Hughes was feeding contracts to Ross while in his riding.
In 1915, Ross inflamed the situation further when he tried to negotiate a contract for Mark III’s to be sold to Russia. This stint made Ross very unpopular with the CEF, especially when Canadian and British orders were already falling behind. Ross rifle detractors in the Canadian parliament were now challenging the credibility of the Ross in the early part of the war, and Sir Sam Hughes was there to come to the Ross rifle’s defense. Hughes had confounded his angry critics by saying that the Ross rifle had jammed less than the SMLE, and that there was a report of a Canadian fighting in France ‘who had to sleep on his Ross or the English soldiers will steal it from him’.
Hughes was so obsessed with the Ross that he often employed bullying tactics and fabricated statements, which eventually led to his dismissal. Charles Ross defiantly deserves to be heard. I managed to find a private letter from Ross to Sam Hughes and it’s a very interesting read indeed. It is reproduced here (see Below).
My Dear Sam,
I asked Major Kircadly to dinner, spent the evening with him an up at the factory. I did my best to draw from the true picture. This is what I got –This is on one side.
- Strengthen magazine boxes needed
(note, I did this in October)
- Foresight raised to make battle sight shoot to 300 yrd. Instead of 600.
- Complaints of rifles “jamming”
(working stiffly with English, but not with Canadian ammunition)
Stories of regiments (Canadian) being required to maintain a sustained fire all day long, which was done, and cases recorded of regiments running out of ammunition. Stories of regiments holding back many times their number of Germans for hours and hours and almost for days. No other troubles. Now, let us assume both of these tales are quite true. I cannot diagnose and paraphrase this into anything else than that the troops more than held their own,-indeed, saved the situation, but were troubled with the bad batch of ammunition. The question comes: Were they troubled more than anyone else using other arms? There were no means of comparison. Now, I know that a large percentage of the arms were not clean at Valcartier;[training-camp in Quebec] that they were packed in the rain and shipped without cleaning; that the arrival at Salisbury they were full of rust as to the barrels, and that there were either no, or very inferior means of keeping the arms clean. Then they saw three months’ service in France. These conditions would, of course, tend to accentuate any imperfection in ammunition. Added to this, we must remember the troops had never seen their arms before, and practically no means were available for instruction in the arms.
Strange as it may seem, I have a greater belief in the rifle than ever.
As to the future , I would suggest:-
- That the musketry regulations should be to some extent complied with, and especially sec, 118.
- That bayonets should be sharpened.
- That officers and N.C.Os and men should be impressed with the importance of their arm.
- That certain small numbers of the English pattern Ross should be issued to regiments with the object of ascertaining whether the English type foresight is an improvement.
- That the English practice of issuing breech sticks should be followed and their use explained to and be required of the troops.
I cannot help thinking that the present event may be a blessing in disguise, and that with a little experience of another rifle the troops would be glad enough to go back to their old arms
Sig. C. Ross
It might be a good plan, so that troops would not be prejudiced against the Ross, to give a practical demonstration to officers in Canada of the superiority of the Ross. A short and effective programme could be worked up. What do you think?
Complaints from the soldiers were immediate when the Ross Rifle Mark III made its debut in the second battle of Ypres, in 1915. Firstly, the quality of British ammunition that was issued to the CEF was poor and was often to blame for jamming. The Ross Rifle III chamber dimensions on the other hand were slightly different from the SMLE; they were tighter and more precise. The CEF did in fact go over to France with its own .303 ammunition, but by the time the CEF reached the battlefield it was exhausted.
Secondly the Mark III was prone to suffer in mud, which would get into the receiver wells, preventing proper closure of the bolt.
Thirdly the bolt system was complicated: if reassembled improperly the bolt head doesn’t lock into the receiver, but engages enough to allow the firing pin spring tension to be established and the pressure of the trigger can discharge the primer. Blowbacks with the M.1910 did occur. One incident involved Louis Lavalley of Keith, Alberta, who died as a result of an M-10 bolt tearing away part of his head. When the bolt was recovered, it had been reassembled in the wrong position. To correct the problem Canadian armourers in England pinned bolt sleeves to foolproof the bolt assembly or inserted a pin in the extractor grove to stop the extractor groove from slipping out.
Fourthly, the rifles were heavy at 9 lbs and 14 ounces with a fixed bayonet, making the rifle cumbersome and unwieldy at an overall length of 60 1⁄2 inches.
Finally, the Ross Rifle Mark III had serious jamming issues. Mud and obstructions infiltrating the action was thought to be a cause of the issue, which is not true, the real problem was the bolt stop. Major R.M Blair, Assistant Inspector of the Small Arms for Canadian Ordinance, was the one who discovered the enigma. From his observation the bolt stop was undersized. A small piece of the rear bolt thread was coming into contact with the bolt stop. The constant yanking of the bolt caused the body of the bolt stop to burr, bend and crack the threading edge of the lug. This caused deformation and eventually would jam into the receiver when the soldier slammed the bolt home.
Soldiers loathed this rifle with exasperation, using trench tools to try and open their jammed actions of their Mark III’s. To prevent the jamming problem Ross increased the size of the bolt stops from .01007 square inches to .021607 square inches. Unfortunately it was too late for Sir Charles Ross. Parliament’s blood was boiling, the CEF was fed up, and the bad reputation of the Ross Rifle III was already etched in the minds of Canadian soldiers. By 1916 the CEF was refitted with the SMLE. The only Ross rifles that stayed in service for the remainder of the war were the Ross snipers. The Canadian government commissioned five hundred of these rifles with the Warner Swasey combination scope.
Many of the Mark II pattern 1910 bayonets were decommissioned, however some were made into fighting knives. While the Ross rifle employed many pattern Mrk II bayonets, many were often filed down to a triangular edge, because the round edge was not efficient enough to penetrate the thick winter tunics of the Germans.
The dream was over for Charles Ross and his reputation as an arms manufacturer was tarnished. Ross received a $2,000,000 settlement by the Canadian government and sent on his way, a handsome sum considering he only put $500,000 into the company.
Charles Ross left Canada in 1917. The Ross rifle plant was taken over by the Dominion Government of Canada. By 1919 it was demolished and the machinery sold off. Most decommissioned Mark III’s were kept for drill purposes, home guard rifles, and some were even cut down during WW2 and re-issued to the Canadian Rangers. Others would be sold to countries like Chile and are marked ‘DA’. Some Mark III’s ended up as far as Russia and were re-chambered in 7.62 x 54R and used in shooting championships during the 1950s. Sir Charles Ross would eventually find his way to Washington D.C, where he became a small arms advisor for the US government for a short time. Eventually he settled in St. Petersburg Florida and became an avid deep-sea fisherman.
Charles Henry Augustus Fredrick Lockhart Ross passed away on June 29, 1942, in St. Petersburg Florida at the age of 70.