My thanks go to Andrew Dixon for allowing me to photograph today’s item from his collection.
In the opening years of the Twentieth Century the Canadian Army wanted to update its rifle to the latest British pattern Lee Enfield. Britain did not have the manufacturing capacity to supply its Dominion and would not agree to the rifle being license produced in Canada. The Canadians therefore turned to a flamboyant local rifle designer called Sir Charles Ross who had designed a very accurate straight pull bolt action rifle that bore his name. There is more than a hint of corruption around the decision to adopt the Ross Rifle for the Canadian Army, however it was duly decided that Ross’s rifle in .303 would be the new service rifle. The rifle went through a bewildering number of updates before the Great War, partly as a result of its designer’s tinkering with his design and partly to fix problems that were becoming apparent as the rifle saw more widespread use. The rifle carried into the First World War was the Mk III that had been introduced in 1910. In form it was an old style long infantry rifle, being a good six inches longer than the British SMLE:
This length helped make the rifle very accurate, along with its complex and highly adjustable rear sight:
Both these features came from Ross’s target shooting background and whilst highly desirable on a target rifle were less welcomed on a combat rifle where they meant extra bulk and extra complexity for little practicable benefit.
The Mk III Ross rifle was also fitted with charger guides and a box magazine for the first time to allow it to be quickly reloaded from charger clips, again following contemporary British practice:
The Ross was very different in its operation to a Lee Enfield, being straight pull. This meant that instead of lifting the bolt handle before pulling it back to unlock the locking lugs, pulling the bolt straight back did this automatically, with a cam track turning the linear motion of the pull into a rotary motion to turn the bolt head. The bolt head itself used two sets of lugs, each with multiple tines:
In theory this mechanism would speed up the firing of the rifle as only one hand motion was needed to open the bolt rather than two. Unfortunately it also required much finer machining and tolerances which meant that when the rifles met the mud of the Western Front they would jam up with dirt much more rapidly than the SMLE and there are stories of the Canadians kicking the bolt handles to open the bolts after the rifle had seized solid.
The Ross had a hooded front sight and a boss for the bayonet which was an elegant knife blade that turned out to be far more popular than the rifle that it accompanied!
The Ross has a profusion of markings, with most details being on the chamber:
Markings were also stamped into the butt stock, much as on the Enfield 1914s produced in the USA:
The Ross was found to be a very accurate rifle, but not suitable for front line combat and it was withdrawn in favour of the SMLE in 1916. They continued in service as sniper rifles and a suprisingly large number of countries acquired Ross rifles (whether they wanted them or not) in the aftermath of the First World War with examples being found in Chile, China and Lithuania amongst others! The rifles also saw limited used in the Second World War including with the Home Guard but it is fair to say few had any love for Canada’s home grown rifle!
There really wasn’t anything much wrong with the rifle itself and in the open plains of the Transvaal it would probably have performed commendably.
The muck and mire of the trenches in those completely unseasonable years could ‘seize up a 2×4’ and virtually no rifle or other arm perfromed flawlessly thanks to the mud, including artillery, this one was just more susceptible to fouling and grime.
It didn’t help that the troops were oftimes a little negligent in keeping the action clean, difficult as it was in those conditions; much like the first entry of the M-16 in Vietnam where troops were led to beileve that it ‘never needed cleaning’ when it in fact needed to be cleaned thoroughly and regularly. The perpetual appearance of a thin patina of carbon from the direct gas impingement system confused some at all levels of command to the extent that a ‘comic book’ had to be published telling how to clean the weapon.
The changing of the powder in the ammunition used from the type used to develop the rifle to a distinctly ‘dirtier’ one and the issuance of a cleaning kit at section level instead of individual soldier didn’t help either.
The Ross was used in a way it was never intended to be and if kept clean would have performed much better, but those years, as winters in WW2, were climactic outliers, almost as if G-d said “you want to fight ? let’s see if you call the game on account of weather”
Back in the 80’s I knew an old gunsmith, in his 80’s then and long gone now, who mated a Ross action to a Bren gun barrel.
It was quite possibly one of the most accurate rifles I’ve ever seen and with iron sights put many a multi-thousand dollar scoped ‘sniper’ rifle to utter shame.
It also had one very nasty design defect: the bolt could be disassembled for cleaning, and this was probably very necessary in the trenches, but it was possible to reassemble it incorrectly – with the outer sleeve reversed – and that disabled the locking mechanism while still permitting a round to be chambered and fired. (At which the bolt came back at high speed and seriously injured the user.) There was something of an uproar when half a dozen Ross rifles were discovered in a cadet force armoury during the 1970s, and everything had to be inspected and checked over for safety (and accuracy of the records).
I missed mentioning that, but I seem to recall that later mods prevented that from being possible, althought it was still removed from front line service.
I remember reading that part of the seizing issue was due to the tolerances of British wartime ammunition versus the tight chamber tolerances of the Ross rifles.
That was a very large part of it, Canadian ammunition was manufactured to much tighter tolerances, as was the Ross itself.
British ammunition and the unavoidable mud, corrosion and dirt on it due to trench conditions had enough trouble in British Lee-Enfields that were supposed to be able to ‘chamber ammunition still in the box’ given their ‘loose’ chambers. That helped them a lot with their legendary reliability but for a more precison instrument like the Ross it was a death sentence…literally.