Automatic Rifles of World War I

Early 20th-century infantrymen mostly carried bolt-action rifles. Mausers, Mosin Nagants, Springfields, and Enfields ruled the roost in Europe and the United States. In Asia, the Japanese Arisaka rifle emerged during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, whose conditions and tactics foreshadowed World War I in Europe, including the widespread use of machine guns. Hiram Maxim invented the machine gun in 1884. The gun was used by the colonial powers during the so-called “Scramble for Africa,” and most contemporary armies fielded Maxim Guns by 1900. Technological advancements always spark refinements, and the Maxim Gun was no different. Gunmakers were soon exploring lighter, more portable automatic rifles with which to equip individual soldiers.

Russian stamp featuring the Federov Avtomat Rifle
This Russian stamp features the 1916 Federov Avtomat, which many consider the world’s first assault rifle. (Stamp design by V. Beltyukov)

These early efforts produced many failures and one success. But they all pointed toward a time not too distant in which every modern soldier would carry a select-fire rifle as a matter of course. So, let’s look at the most significant of those early guns, how they were used, and how some pointed the way forward.

The First Automatic Operation Designs

Three decades before Maxim invented his machine gun, someone else was thinking about automatic cannons. Sir Henry Bessemer, inventor of the Bessemer process for manufacturing steel, filed an 1854 patent for what he characterized as an improvement “in constructing guns so that the reactive force of explosive gunpowder is made the agency of mechanism to reload and to discharge the gun.” The patent referred to artillery but shows that people were thinking about how to harness the energy released when guns are fired. Bessemer seems not to have pursued this idea further.

Maxim himself filed 1883 patents for his machine gun and a mechanism to adapt existing rifles to operate automatically. The patent referred to a Winchester rifle (I don’t know which model), a bolt-action rifle, and the Peabody Martini rifle. The mechanism did not make the rifles fire automatically, though. It was limited to automatic extraction and ejection, but those are integral parts of an automatic rifle design. Maxim also patented a crude gas piston system in 1891. Nothing came of it, but we can see that the ideas were there.

The Too Early Automatic Rifle

Austrian gunmaker Ferdinand von Mannlicher’s 1883 design appears to have been the first purpose-built automatic rifle. Mannlicher produced two prototypes designated the M1885. One was a “repeating rifle” (Repetier-Gewehr), and the other a light machine gun (Handmitrailleuse). They featured the same operating system, but Mannlicher’s descriptors show that he intended them for distinct roles. Neither example survives today.

Drawing of the Mannlicher M1885 Rifle
The Mannlicher M1885 rifle was decades ahead of its time. (

But we know that the M1885 shared prominent design features with the Browning 1917/1919/M2/M3 machine gun family, including the short-recoil operating system, an accelerator, a similar locking system, cocking system, and recoil springs. There’s no reason to believe John Moses Browning copied Mannlicher’s ideas. It’s more likely that both men independently recognized certain positive design features. Mannlicher just did it first. The M1885 did influence the German MG34 and MG42 machine guns, as well as the American Johnson M1941 machine gun.

The Mannlicher M1885’s downfall was poor ammunition. The available black powder ammo produced too much fouling to allow reliable operation. Browning benefited from smokeless powder, but Mannlicher didn’t have that option. The M1885 never advanced past the prototype stage. The gun was literally ahead of its time.

The First Production Automatic Rifle…Almost

The Italian Cei-Rigotti Rifle was almost the first automatic rifle to be adopted by a national military. The rifle began as a gas-operated conversion of the Vetterli rifle in 1886. After several refinements, the Italian navy ordered 2,000 Cei-Rigotti’s but they were never delivered. An updated select-fire carbine version appeared in 1900, but jamming problems and inaccurate fire doomed the rifle, despite interest from the Italian Army.

World War I Automatic Rifles

Three major World War I combatants produced and fielded viable automatic rifles in addition to their standard bolt actions and dedicated machine guns. The United States, France, and Russia issued automatic weapons to individual soldiers, though only Russia, unrealistically, ever considered replacing their bolt action rifles. Automatic rifles were far more expensive and time-consuming to produce, and their reliability was still suspect, at least until the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) arrived near the war’s end.

It’s interesting that Russia employed its automatic rifles far differently than the Western Allies of France, Great Britain, and the United States. Contrasting operational environments demanded disparate tactics. Let’s begin in the west and then move east.

French soldiers with the Chauchat automatic rifle in 1918
French soldiers with the Chauchat automatic rifle in 1918. Note the semicircular magazines. (Jacques Ridel/ New York Times)

The French Chauchat and “Walking Fire”

Designed in 1907, the Le Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 “Chauchat” was chambered in the 8mm Lebel cartridge, fed from a semi-circular detachable magazine. Despite essentially being a light machine gun, the French Army used the Chauchat for their “walking fire” doctrine. Walking fire employed a skirmish line of assault troops marching toward an enemy position while firing from the hip.

The idea was to generate enough suppressing fire to keep the enemy from firing back until the assault troops hit their trench. This technique had some inherent flaws, not least of which was that the advancing soldiers were still vulnerable to mortar and artillery fire. The suppressing fire was never heavy enough to keep every German head down, especially as the final stage was a bayonet rush to the trench.

Results were mixed, but that was the nature of Western Front static trench warfare. Only the German Stormtrooper tactics of 1918 broke the stalemate, but the Germans lacked the communications and logistical capability to exploit their breakthroughs. That had to wait for the next war.

But, either way, the automatic Chauchat was better suited for walking fire than the standard bolt action infantry rifles. American troops trained with the Chauchat and adopted this technique when they arrived in mid-1918. The American Expeditionary Force used some 16,000 French Chauchats, though some units were re-equipped with BARs that fall. The Chauchats experienced frequent malfunctions but remained in service until the war’s end.

American troops training with the French Chauchat automatic rifle in 1917
American troops practiced “walking fire” with the Chauchat rifle in 1917. (National Archives)

The Browning Automatic Rifle

The BAR was another great design from John Moses Browning. Browning foresaw America’s involvement in World War I early on. He also saw that the US Army needed a light machine gun. Browning dusted off a design he’d begun in 1910 and built a prototype. He presented it to Colt on February 27, 1917, just over a month before the US declared war on Germany. The Army adopted the M1918 BAR a year later. Winchester got the first 25,000-gun contract.

The BAR was chambered for the US Army’s standard .30-06 Springfield cartridge. It fed from a 20-round box magazine. Browning intended soldiers to fire his rifle from the shoulder, but it was big and heavy. The Army and Marine Corps primarily used it as a light machine gun. The BAR was used for walking fire, but it arrived at the front barely six weeks before the war ended, so that application was limited.

American troops liked the BAR’s reliability compared to the Chauchat, but the Browning’s late arrival precluded its fully replacing the French weapon. The BAR continued development after World War I and the US military deployed it into the 1960s, mostly as a squad automatic weapon. Thousands of BARs remain in service around the world today.

Browning Automatic Rifle 1917 firing demonstration
American troops demonstrate the Browning Automatic Rifle in 1917. (Library of Congress)

 The Federov Avtomat Rifle

Russian gunmaker Vladimir Federov designed the select-fire Federov Avtomat (FA) in 1915. Adopted the next year, the FA was among the first mostly practical automatic rifle designs. The FA saw limited combat in World War I but was produced between 1915 and 1924, seeing extensive use in the Russian Civil War and the 1939-1940 Winter War against Finland.

Eastern Front combat never devolved into trench warfare like the West. The fighting fronts were too far-flung, and opposing armies had more space to maneuver. Thus, the dubious walking fire doctrine never caught on. But Federov served as an observer with the French in 1915, where he saw the Chauchat in action. The French gun’s firepower impressed Federov, but he thought it was too bulky and heavy. He therefore decided to adapt his semi-automatic rifle to select-fire capability.

Russian Federov Avtomat Rifle
The Federov Avtomat Rifle was a philosophical groundbreaker. (

Russian doctrine called for two-man FA teams. The gunner carried and operated the rifle. He was accompanied by an ammo bearer armed with a bolt-action Japanese Arisaka rifle. The ammo bearer also provided security for the gunner during reloads. Federov was among the first to recognize the value of a smaller cartridge to control recoil, especially in automatic fire. He also understood that lighter ammunition increased local firepower by allowing soldiers to carry more of it.

Other nations didn’t grasp this concept until mid-World War II. Even then, some nations, most notably the United States, discounted these advantages until reality forced them to do so. No Russian intermediate caliber existed at the time, so Federov used the Japanese 6.5x50mmSR Type 38 cartridge, which was smaller and lighter than the standard Russian 7.62x54R. The ammo bearer carried the Arisaka rifle so he and the gunner could share ammo. Both men carried their rounds on interchangeable stripper clips, though the FA rifle had a detachable 25-round magazine.

The FA was issued to a specially trained experimental company as part of the development process, but that company was essentially destroyed in heavy fighting on the Romanian Front in early 1917. Russia left the war soon after. Only 3,200 FAs were produced, and the rifle was withdrawn from service in 1925. They were pulled from storage and used in the Winter War, where most were destroyed or lost in combat.

Like most early automatic rifles, the FA had some problems. Each rifle was individually made, so the parts were not interchangeable, including the magazines. It also tended to overheat, so gunners were instructed to use semi-automatic fire except in emergencies.

6.5x50mm Japanese cartridge between a British .303 cartridge and an American .30-06 cartridge
The Japanese 6.5x50mm cartridge (center) wasn’t a true intermediate round, but it was smaller and lighter than other rifle cartridges of the day. (L) British .303 (R) American .30-06. (Ultratone85/Wikipedia)

Technical problems and a volatile political situation limited the FA’s deployment and development. But the rifle is significant not because of what it did, but how it pointed to the future. Many believe its compactness, select-fire capability, and lighter chambering made it the world’s first operational assault rifle. Russia’s apparent intent to issue the FA to entire units instead of relegating it to a support role strengthens this argument. The FA does indeed look like the great uncle of the AK-47 and AR-15, at least in philosophical terms.

Foundations for the Next War

Machine guns and artillery ruled World War I. However, some armies recognized the need for more individual firepower. They addressed that need in different ways, as their perceptions of how the next war would be fought drove their doctrines. Vladimir Federov and John Browning had the right ideas, but they didn’t yet have the technology to implement those ideas. Nor did their nations yet possess the appropriate doctrine in which to place those ideas.

But the Americans, Russians, and Germans understood that the next war would require far more mobility than the just-concluded Great War. They developed their weapons accordingly. The French and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the British, took the opposite view, which also influenced their weapons development.

We’ll address how automatic rifles evolved and operated in that next war soon. So, stay tuned for Automatic Rifles of World War II.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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