Fusil M-1908 "Mondragón"
Diagram from original patent, issued to Gen. Manuel Mondragon for his self-loading rifle design.
The development of firearms in the nineteenth century led rifle designers and inventors to conclude that once they had a reliable composite cartridge and a magazine system that worked, the next logical step was to harness the recoil of the weapon, or the gases produced by the fired cartridge, to enable the weapon to reload itself. This step was needed for at least two reasons: automatic reloading saved the user from the continuous physical effort of manual reloading, and it enabled infantry to fire more rapidly, which was of great importance at shorter ranges.
Resistance to the unwarranted expenditure of ammunition was still felt, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, where musket experts and instructors maintained that well-aimed single shots were needed at longer ranges and at battle ranges. U.S. and European rifles were fitted with sights that went up to (on average) over 1,000 yards, and some went out to as far as 2,400 yards. The individual rifleman, it was argued, could be effective up to about 600 yards or even 800 yards, and the rifle group (section, platoon, even company) could, under control and with specific fire orders, lay massed fire out to ranges now considered totally wasteful of ammunition.
The arrival of heavy and medium machine guns took over the supporting and interdictory fire roles previously assumed by the riflemen, for machine guns could range out to even 3,000 yards and deliver concentrated fire with effect. Rifles were now to be used for the ranges at which sight of the enemy was possible. The situation still suffered, however, from the desire of all musketry instructors to save ammunition. The opposite of this argument was, of course, that saving ammunition for its own sake meant that trained riflemen were loathe to fire at fleeting targets, thus allowing the enemy the opportunity to close, at which point the assault final occurred.
There is little doubt that in the United States ammunition expenditure was a prime factor in deciding what type of rifle to issue to troops. The powers at Springfield Armory were still strong, and the issue of the Mauser copy, the Model 1903, happened at the same time as Mexican gun designer Manuel Mondragon was preparing his self-loading rifle for use by the Mexican Army.
Claims for the first SLR go back a long way before this, and in the British official Textbook of Small Arms 1929 there is a note that the principle of the automatic weapon “appears to have been a British invention,” a claim that is based on an entry in the records of the British Royal Society.2 It was informed that “there had come to Prince Rupert a rare mechanician who pretended . . . to make a pistol shooting as fast as could be presented and yet to be stopped at pleasure; and wherein the motion of the fire and bullet within was made to charge the piece with powder and bullet, to prime it and bend the cock.” Either the report was true or the most amazing confidence trick was being perpetrated.
There are other reports of early self-loading devices, and it is clear that the principle, if not the method, of making weapons that reloaded themselves was known. However, until the invention of the composite cartridge and the magazine, little or no progress could be made to realize this dream. Hiram Maxim made a good try at it with his mechanical recoil system, and others had patented designs twenty years before him. Maxim used the recoil of the whole weapon to operate the Winchester lever action by means of a butt plate against which the rifle recoiled, attached by a lever system to the rifle’s actuating lever. The problem with this weapon was that the user had to be very careful of where his fingers were at the moment of firing.
Although almost totally ignored in the United States, the device had considerable success in Europe, and the Turkish Army issued such modified Winchester rifles. Then, in 1884 Maxim patented his locked-breech recoil system. This was an application for machine guns, but the concept was quickly taken on board by other weapons designers, and in 1885 the Mannlicher short-recoil SLR appeared. This was nothing more than an experimental piece, but it laid down the principles upon which such weapons were to be developed.
The period 1885–1900 saw a great deal of work and a number of rifles that were truly self-loading, even though the majority were too unreliable to be issued to troops or even tested by the military. The Mondragon, however, had a different history. Mannlicher had no success in selling his semiautomatics to the military, but the Mondragon came from Mexico, where it had already been tested. Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915), the Mexican dictator (president of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and again from 1884 to 1911), decided that the Mexican Army would be entirely armed with automatic rifles. The rifle chosen was that designed by Mondragon (1858–1922). Progress in developing the weapon was slow, and eventually the rifle was manufactured in Switzerland by Schweizerische Industrie-Gesellschaft (SIG). Only 400 of the rifles were delivered, too late to save Díaz, who was ousted in the revolution of 1911. The new Mexican government reneged on the contract, and SIG stored the 1,000 rifles it had produced but not delivered.
At the start of World War I, SIG decided to cut its losses by offering the Mondragons to any taker. A few went to the United States, but the majority were sold to the Germans for use in aircraft. The weapons only went into action in 1917, with most going to the German Air Force, the rest to the navy. By this time the weapon was known as the FSK-15 (Flieger Selbstladerkarabiner: Airmen’s Self- Loading Carbine, Model 1915). The weapon was not a great success even though the Germans issued it with a 30-round drum magazine. It suffered from stoppages and malfunctions, and most were withdrawn from service before the war ended, due not only to the rifle’s unreliability but also to the fact that fixed machine guns were totally effective following the invention of interrupter gears, which stopped the machine guns from firing when the propeller blades were liable to be hit by the machine gun bullets.
The Germans did not rely solely on the Mondragon, however; Mauser designed an SLR (Flieger-Ballon-und Zeppelin Truppe Model 16), of which 1,000 were made. They had to be kept scrupulously clean, but demand far exceeded supply. Further manufacture was a problem not addressed by Mauser, and the weapons that survive are extremely rare. The idea had caught on, however, and the Germans never stopped experimenting with SLRs. The first of Mauser’s postwar SLRs was the G35, designed as a result of the success of the Czech ZH-29 SLR (designed by Vladimir Holek; hundreds were sold, including at least 500 to Manchuria). The G35 was a short-barrel recoil weapon and was out of favor compared with the gas-operated systems appearing elsewhere, which were more conventional in barrel length. Walther (the firm of Carl Walther in Zella-Mehlis had been making firearms since 1886, and its reputation grew enormously in the twentieth century) designed the A115, which was a gas-operated weapon relying for manufacture on sheetmetal stampings, and from that came the later developments in German weapons manufacture (particularly the MG42, the MP40, and the MP44/StG range of weapons). Once more technical and operational problems arose while the weapon was being tested, and German SLR development faltered in 1938, only to be revived a few years later.