The Ross rifle was a Canadian straight-pull bolt action rifle designed by Sir Charles Ross in 1897 and produced by the Ross Rifle Company from 1903 to 1918. Manufactured and designed as a result of a request for foreign rifle production being refused, the Ross showed initial promise but ultimately was largely retracted from service due to numerous issues with the weapon, ranging from construction to safety issues. Despite these issues, the rifles saw a niche in the sniper role due to its noted accuracy at range.

History[edit | edit source]

Around the time of the second Boer War, the Canadian Army was in need of new rifles, and as so sought help from the British, requesting that the latter license Lee-Enfield production in Canada; this request was ultimately refused. Around the same time, Sir Charles Ross, a Scottish inventor, offered to finance the construction of a factory to produce a new bolt-action rifle he designed; this offer would be accepted by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, seventh prime minister of Canada. The factory that was built would become known as the Ross Rifle Company, and Ross would be awarded his first production contract for the rifles shortly after.[1]

The first rifles were issued to the North-West Mounted Police for testing; the rifles were not well-received, with routine inspections revealing numerous flaws, many of which were severe enough to warrant rejection. The rifles were then returned and the NWMP reverted to using their Winchester Model 1894s and Lee-Metfords shortly after, with their Ross rifles declared to be unfit for service and ordered to be placed into storage.[2]

Hearing the complains of the NWMP, Ross assured them that they would receive a new and highly-improved rifle, and set about to modifying his design to become the Mark II; these new rifles however only arrived in 1909. These were also given to the NWMP, who accepted them, but with past experiences with these rifles, the rifles were kept in storage in Regina until a fire destroyed a vast majority of these rifles in 1912. The NWMP asked the Ross Rifle Company if they could procure an order for the next year, no further orders were placed and the weapon was replaced by Lee-Enfields in NWMP service.[2]

During this period, Ross continued making improvements to his rifle, culminating in the Mark II** (read: Mark II "2 star" or "star star"). During this time, the Ross rifles were also issued to various other Canadian units, such as the Canadian Expeditionary Force and Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. These were used in various battles through France and even in Ypres. It was however in battle that its shortcomings were discovered, with the PPCLI being the first unit to voice their concerns; many other units followed suit shortly after. Most of these divisions ended up switching to Lee-Enfield rifles or intentionally ditched their rifles in the heat of battle to replace them with better rifles;[3] Lt. Chris Scriven of the 10th Battalion even claimed that it took five men to keep one rifle functioning.[4] Major Thomas V. Scudamore wrote of the rifle: "Those in the front line with that rifle will never forget... what it is like to be charged by the flower of the German army... and be unable to fire a shot in return."[5]

Negative comments would quickly reach the rifle's main sponsor, Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence Sam Hughes. Despite the overwhelmingly negative feedback given by troops who used the rifle, he continued to believe that the rifle was actually a good weapon and refused to accept the negative criticism;[6] it would take the intervention of a number of highly influential people to convince him otherwise, and by this stage, few people believed in his defense of the rifle.[7]

By the mid-1910s, the majority of Ross rifles in service were retracted from frontline use, with the majority of units replacing them with Lee-Enfields; after which, these rifles were mainly relegated to training usage. In training usage, many Ross rifles were shipped to the United Kingdom, United States of America and within Canada, to free up more Lee-Enfields and M1903 Springfield rifles for frontline use. Despite its shortcomings, the rifle found its niche with sharpshooters, who found the rifle highly accurate.[7]

Ross rifles were used very sparingly during the interwar years, being used by British Coast Guard units in Ireland[8] and some being supplied to various forces during the Russian Civil War and various other wars of independence.[8] The rifles were used in very limited numbers in World War II, mainly to rearm veterans; post-war, Ross rifles would see service on the competition circuit.

Design Details[edit | edit source]

The Ross is a straight-pull bolt-action rifle feeding from a 5-round internal box magazine. Historians generally accept that the Ross was most likely inspired by the Mannlicher M1895 straight-pull bolt action rifle, as various mechanical features seen on the Ross appear to have been directly borrowed from the Mannlicher design.[1]

The weapon's action uses a hollow sleeve with spiral grooves cut into it which key into protrusions similarly cut outside of the bolt head. The bolt handle is attached to the sleeve. As the bolt is pulled back, the grooves force the bolt to rotate 90°, unlocking it; as such, only a single backward and forward motion is required for the weapon to chamber a round. This action theoretically made the rifle faster to operate and fire compared to a conventional bolt-action rifle.

The rifle's bolt could also be taken apart without the use of special tools; however, this may not have been an advantage depending on the situation as it occasionally encouraged unauthorized disassembly.[1]

The rifle's short service life could also be attributed to the various design faults present with the various iterations of the weapon. Early iterations of the gun featured a poorly-designed bolt lock which, if handled incorrectly, allowed the bolt to fall right out of the gun; another was poorly tempered component springs.

The rifles were also noted as being able to only accept clean ammunition, and failing to provide the weapon such ammunition would cause the gun to not function properly; the weapon was also noted as not being able to function properly with the use of British ammunition as they were manufactured to lower tolerances than Canadian ammunition. Another minor issue was an attached bayonet having the potential to fly off when the weapon was fired.[9]

The biggest issue with the rifle however was attributed to its bolt. Due to the design of its bolt, the rifle was noted as having a poor tolerance to dirt; dirt could enter the spiral grooves cut into the sleeve, jamming the gun open or closed. An even more major issue regarded the assembly of the bolt, which could be taken apart without the use of tools; while helpful with regards to cleaning the bolt itself for maintenance, the bolt could be improperly reassembled in such a way allowing a round to fire, but fail to lock. With an improperly assembled bolt, the rifle's bolt could fly towards the firer when the weapon was fired, potentially injuring or killing its operator;[10] contemporary reports note that while issues of the sort did exist, reports of such incidents were considered relatively minor.[9]

Variants[edit | edit source]

Mark I

First version. 10,500 rifles produced, 1,000 carbines produced.[1]

Mark I*

Designation for Mark Is fitted with Mark II sights.[1]

Mark II

Improved version of the Mark I. Replaced side-mounted magazine cutoff and trigger-mounted cutoff release with a single lever that performed both functions. Fitted with a new sight and stronger bolt. Some fitted with Mark III sights.[1]

Mark II*

Mark II adapted for cadet use.[1]

Mark II**

Mark II* with magazine cutoff removed and a larger extractor.[1]

Mark II***

Mark II* with Sutherland Mark II sight.[1]

Mark II****

Mark II with larger extractor from the Mark II**, but retaining the safety and magazine cutoff from previous iterations.[1]

Mark II*****

Mark II with Sutherland Mark I sight and simplified rear handguard from the Mark II**, but retaining the safety and magazine cutoff from previous iterations.[1]

Mark III

Heavy redesign of the Ross rifle featuring a new single-stack magazine and various other improvements.[1]

Mark IIIB

Mark III with strengthened stock and simplified War Office-pattern sight.[1]

Mark III*

Version that may have existed featuring a strengthened action, new barrel band and different front sight. Designation noted as dubious.[1]

Related weapons[edit | edit source]

"Blish Ross"

Semi-automatic conversion of a Ross rifle featuring a Blish lock. Features no markings.[11]

Huot automatic rifle

Fully automatic self-loading conversion of the Ross designed by Joseph Huot and produced by the Dominion Rifle Factory.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Phillips, Roger Francis; Dupius, Francis; Chadwick, John (2002). The Ross Rifle story. Toronto: Michael W. Leonard.
  2. 2.0 2.1 https://calibremag.ca/the-guns-that-won-the-west-the-firearms-of-the-n-w-m-p/
  3. Dancocks, Daniel G. (1989). Welcome to Flanders Fields: the first Canadian battle of the Great War: Ypres, 1915. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
  4. Dancocks, Daniel G. (1994). Gallant Canadians: the story of the Tenth Canadian Infantry Battalion, 1914-1919. Calgary: Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation.
  5. Scudamore, Thomas Venables (1933). Lighter Episodes in the Life of a Prisoner of War. Gale & Polden. p. 6.
  6. Hayes, Geoffrey; Iarocci, Andrew; Andrew Iarocci, Mike Bechthold, Mike, eds. (2007). Vimy Ridge: a Canadian reassessment. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. p. 38.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Haycock, Ronald G. (1986). Sam Hughes: the public career of a controversial Canadian, 1885-1916. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 250–251.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Foulds, Glenn B. (2006). "Ross Rifle". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation of Canada.
  9. 9.0 9.1 https://archive.org/details/survivingtrenchw0000rawl
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaSui_UqDX8
  11. https://www.forgottenweapons.com/early-semiauto-rifles/anonymous-blishross/
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