I’ve recently been lucky enough to come in to possession of a couple of guns I’ve been coveting for a long time. They are the 1897 Winchester shotgun and the 1896 Krag-Jorgensen. My Krag is actually an 1898 model, but that’s hardly important. Getting hold of both of these guns in a short time period has made it clear to me that my appreciation of the two is similar and that similarity is inextricably tied to the time of their design.
When you work the slide on an 1897 Winchester, all sorts of things happen. A friend once described it to me as “The damned thing sticks out its tongue and bats its eyelashes at you.” The bolt slides out of the receiver and cocks the exposed hammer. The cartridge lifter swings out of the bottom of the action. Parts seem to be sticking out everywhere. If you’re not careful, it’ll take some skin off of your thumb. By comparison, working the slide on almost any pump shotgun designed since seems to do nothing but make noise.
The Krag – Nobody says Jorgensen. It’s like we’re on a first-name basis with the rifle. Poor Jorgensen doesn’t get his share of the design credit. No, it wasn’t Christine. No, I don’t know if there’s any relation. – is exquisitely built. It is known among afficionados of such things to be the smoothest functioning bolt action rifle ever built. It also has a feature that I think is one of the neatest things ever; the magazine is completely wacky.
The Krag magazine runs horizontally under the action. It feeds in to the action on the left side and the magazine is loaded from the right side. To load it, you open the door on the right side that also retracts the magazine follower and dump in a handfull of cartridges and snap the door shut. It’s like a cartoon of how a complex machine is supposed to work; open the door, drop in a large number of improbable items, close the door, ?????, stuff comes out of the other end of the machine! All of those vertical magazines on all of those other bolt actions may be cheaper to manufacture and easier to load with stripper clips, but that will never be this cool. Never.
I won’t explain why I find all of this mechanical intricacy so compelling. If you don’t get that, you just don’t. These things are just beautiful to me. I will, on the other hand talk a little about why all of this stuff happens in the eighteen nineties.
Several factors come in to play at once: There was lots of money around to make these things; the nineties were like the nineties, there was an economic boom not unlike the dot com boom. Smokeless powder was a new technology that allowed/required redesign of firearms to take advantage of its properties. One of the important properties of smokeless powder was that it did not foul the firearm with combustion products the way black powder did; this allowed for much more complex mechanisms to work without being jammed by soot. This was also before Henry Ford (who gets too much credit, but everyone knows who I’m talking about). Designing for ease of manufacture without the use of expensive hand fitting was in its infancy; John Browning had just designed the 1894 Winchester, which was a brilliant simplification of the more complex 1892 Winchester. Minimizing parts count and machining procedures would not come to dominate industry for several years.
All of these factors contributed to a moment when designers went wild with complexity and a manufacturing style that could only be called decadent. Dozens of parts were fitted by hand like those of fine watches. Levers and buttons and pivots and ratchets and latches ruled the day. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the best example I can give of this design style. If that car had been equipped with a rifle, it would have been a Krag.
The Krag was quickly replaced in 1903 with the Springfield, a Mauser style vertical magazine bolt rifle. The 1897 Winchester was replaced in 1912 by the Model 12, although the 97 would continue being made for many years. Both of these replacements are the beginning of firearms technology we readily recognize as modern.
I appreciate the elegance of more minimal design. I appreciate design that maximizes production and reliability and reduces the price of technology and high quality goods for the largest possible number of people. Those are the factors that have ruled manufacturing to a greater and greater extent over the last hundred years. I appreciate how much those priorities have improved the quality of a great many people’s lives. On the other hand, given unlimited resources and no priority other than my own pleasure, I would design things like these guns.