Schmidt-Rubin: The "Swiss Watch" of Rifles

Some have speculated that the straight-pull action survived in Switzerland only because it was never tested in combat, but no one doubts its accuracy.
The Swiss Karabiner 31 was the ultimate development of the Schmidt-Rubin system. It was the longest-lived of all straight-pulls, lasting in front-line service until 1958.
Note:  This article first appeared in the May 10, 1999  issue of Shotgun News.  It is reprinted here with permission. All the text is as appeared in the original article.  The black&white photographs were provided courtesy of Man at Arms Magazine/Mowbray Publishing. The color photographs were provided by Big L.E.E.

By Paul Scarlata 

When I lived in New York many years ago our neighbor was a doctor who had immigrated from Switzerland shortly after World War II. Being avid shooters, my brothers and I loved to question him about that mountainous "nation of riflemen." He once told us a story which, while I cannot vouch for its veracity, exemplifies the Switzer's pride in his citizen army. 
According to Dr. Steve, Kaiser Wilhelm made a state visit Switzerland shortly before the Great War. After reviewing an honor guard of Swiss soldiers he stopped to compliment their non-com on the men's soldierly appearance. Half-jokingly he asked the old Sergeant-Major what would little Switzerland do if the Imperial German army invaded them with a force twice as strong. The gray-haired Sergeant thought for a moment before answering: "Then Your Excellency, we would all have to fire our rifles twice!"

The Swiss have always been a pragmatic people. They realized early on that their traditional neutrality could only be maintained by making any aggressor realize that the Swiss would offer massive resistance to an invader. This was accomplished by maintaining the best trained and equipped "people's army" in Europe. 
Practically all men between the ages of 18 and 65 were either in the standing army or the reserves and Swiss reservists kept their uniforms, equipment, arms and ammunition at home so they could mobilize immediately. But the Swiss high command also realized that with the small national population, the armed forces would need the most modern weapons to overcome any potential invader's advantage in numbers 

Thus the Swiss were the first European nation to equip their entire army with a repeating rifle, the Gew. 1869 Vetterli--a bolt-action rifle with a 12-shot tubular magazine under the barrel. It was chambered for the 10.4x38 Swiss rimfire cartridge which, while not as ballistically impressive, gave the Swiss soldier an unprecedented rate of fire. 

And the Swiss soldier was a trained marksman. Marksmanship was constantly stressed and the government subsidized target shooting among reservists and civilians to encourage proficiency with the rifle.

But by the 1880s it had become apparent that the Vetterli rifle was quickly becoming obsolete. The Swiss were fortunate in having one of Europe's foremost proponents of smallbore jacketed bullets in their army. In 1881 Major, later Colonel, Eduard Rubin, the director of the state munitions factory in Thurn, proposed the adoption of a cartridge with a copper-jacketed bullet of his design. 

In 1883 he submitted cartridges of 7.5 and 8mm caliber to the Swiss army that used copper jacketed bullets and were loaded with compressed blackpowder. The next year the army had Schweizerische Industrie-Gesellschaft (SIG) convert 130 Vetterli rifles to use the new cartridges for trial purposes. While the cartridges showed promise it was obvious that the Vetterli rifles were not strong enough and the new round-nose bulleted cartridges were not safe to use in a tubular magazine. 
In 1885 Colonel Rudolph Schmidt, a weapons technical officer at the arsenal in Bern, submitted a design that was to become the basic Swiss service rifle for almost 70 years.

I don't know if it's the water or the mountain air but for some reason 19th century Central European gun designers developed a fascination with the straight-pull bolt-action rifle. While the odd straight-pull design had popped up in Canada and the USA in the 1890s, it never achieved the acceptance it did among the Central Europeans, especially the Swiss and Austrians. 

Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher introduced his first straight-pull rifle around 1882 and perfected it by 1886, the same year it was adopted by the Austro-Hungarian empire. Whether or not Schmidt was influenced by Mannlicher (or vice versa) is up to conjecture, although they approached the problem of locking and manipulating the rifle's bolt in different ways. 

While Mannlicher used a tube sliding into the rear of the bolt and a wedge to lock it, Schmidt utilized a bolt handle that was attached to an actuating rod set in a channel on the right side of the receiver. This rod carried a lug which engaged a helical groove in the bolt sleeve that rotated it to unlock two opposed lugs from recesses in the receiver. Then the rod drew the bolt back to eject the empty case.

Schmidt's straight-pull design allowed very rapid bolt manipulation, although it did not provide good initial extraction of the cartridge case. It also had the disadvantage of requiring a rather long, tubular receiver, although the design prevented dirt and debris from entering the action. 

In 1885 the Swiss army tested the Schmidt rifle against a design submitted by SIG. But in 1886 everything came to a sudden halt when the French announced the adoption of a smokeless powder cartridge and rifle, the 8x51R Mle. 1886 "Lebel."
This started all the European armies racing to develop a smallbore smokeless powder cartridge and a new rifle from which to fire it. 

The Swiss, already having a prototype cartridge and rifle, were in advance of most other armies in this matter. Major Rubin and his design team at the Thurn munitions factory quickly began work on a suitable smokeless propellant. In the meanwhile, the army hurriedly adopted the Schmidt rifle, on June 26, 1889, using a modification of Rubin's 7.5mm cartridge. But it was not until 1891 that production got underway at the federal arsenal, Eidgenossische Waffenfabrik in Bern, who would remain the sole manufacturer of all Schmidt-Rubins used by the Swiss armed forces until 1958.

Specifications--Infanterie Repetier Gewehr M1889
Caliber               7.5x53.5
Overall length     51.5 inches
Barrel length      30.75 inches
Weight               10.7 pounds
Magazine           detachable 12 round, charger loaded box
Sights  front:      square blade
            rear: quadrant with U notch adj. from 300 to 2000 meters
Bayonet   sword style with 11.75 inch single edge blade

The new rifle, known as the Infanterie Repetier Gewehr 1889, was by our standards (or by anyone's!) overly long and heavy and its appearance was unique to say the least. The straight grip stock, which ran almost to the muzzle, had a oddly curved buttplate while a one-piece handguard ran from in front of the rear sight base to the muzzle band. 

There was one spring-retained barrel band and the muzzle/bayonet band, with its distinctively shaped stacking rod, was held by a pinch screw. The tubular receiver was 8.5 inches long, about 3 inches longer then a contemporary Mauser receiver, with a bolt handle that stuck out at a 90 degree angle and featured a two-piece composition bolt handle (later they were made from reddish plastic or aluminum). 

The distinctively shaped stacking rod was carried forward all the way through the K31 rifles. The M1889 bayonet stayed in service all the way through the Stgw. 57 rifle. (Photograph by James Walters)

The handle is part of the bolt actuating rod that moves within its own tubular channel on the right side of the receiver. A ring shaped safety/cocking piece was provided on the end of the bolt and was drawn back and rotated clockwise to set the rifle on "safe." The ring could also be used to ease the firing pin forward or recock the rifle for a second try at a recalcitrant primer. 

A 12-round removable box magazine was loaded through the top of the open action by means of unique six-round chargers made from cardboard and brass (later aluminum), while a bolt release lever is positioned directly beneath the bolt handle. 
The new Swiss 7.5mm cartridge, known as the M90, used a rimless case 53.5mm long, and a round-nosed 210-grain paper-patched lead bullet with a steel capped tip. It was loaded with a semi-smokeless powder and achieved a muzzle velocity of approximately 1970 feet per second.

The Swiss concern about the accuracy of the new rifle can best be seen when one removes the handguard. The barrel is completely free floating and that section of barrel under the muzzle band is encircled by an aluminum collar. 

This permitted the barrel to vibrate exactly the same for each shot by preventing pressure being put on the barrel either when it expanded from the heat of firing or if dampness caused the wood of the stock to swell. To my knowledge the only other military rifle to use this unique bedding system was the Finnish M28-30 Moisin-Nagant, another rifle that is famous for its accuracy.

As with most things done it a hurry, the Gew. 1889 rifle had its problems, and extended field use showed several inherent weaknesses. The rear locking lugs allowed the bolt to compress under strain and the long bolt could not take much more pressure then the rather sedate M1890 cartridge generated. 

This became painfully apparent in 1895 when the Swiss attempted to improve the performance of the M1890 cartridge. In 1896 the Vogelsang/Rebholz modification was adopted which relocated the locking lugs to the front of the bolt sleeve, allowing the bolt and receiver to be made slightly shorter and providing improved locking. Manufacture of the improved Gewehr 1889/96 began in 1897 and continued until 1912. 

In 1897 a single-shot, short rifle with a 23-inch barrel, and using a special reduced charge cartridge, was developed for military cadets. Shortly afterwards a similar rifle, with a six-round magazine and using standard ammunition, was adopted as the Kurzgewehr 1900, for cyclists, artillery and fortress troops. In 1905 the first true Schmidt-Rubin carbine, the Kavellerie-Karabiner 1905 with a 21.6 inch barrel, was adopted. 

Specifications -               Gewehr 1911                        Karabiner 1911
Caliber                                       ........................7.5x55..........................
Overall length                         51.25 inches                      43.4 inches
Barrel length                           30.75 inches                     23 inches
Weight                                        10 pounds                      8.6 pounds
Magazine                              ...detachable, 6 round charger loaded box..
Sights  front:                             ..................square blade.....................
rear:       tangent adj. from 100 to 2000 meters    tangent adj. from 100 to 1500 meters
Bayonet                        ..sword style with 11.75 inch single edge blade..
Note: The rear sights in the examples above may not be standard sights for the 1911s.
On most exapmles, the sights graduated are from 300m to 2000m and 300m to 1500m respectively - Big L.E.E.

By 1903 the Swiss had finally developed a suitable smokeless powder, and the new M90/03 cartridge pushed a 190-gr. copper-jacketed bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2050 fps. In 1911 this was updated with a 174-gr. boattail spitzer bullet that had a larger .308 diameter and a muzzle velocity of 2640 fps. 

To prevent it being inadvertently fired in older rifles the M1911's cartridge case was lengthened to 55mm. The Swiss also took this opportunity to update the Schmidt-Rubin once again and the resulting Gewehr 1911 infantry rifle and Karabiner 1911 carbine used stronger receivers, new tangent rear sights and pistol grip stocks. Several lightening holes were drilled in the receiver and this, along with a six-shot magazine, lightened it by more then a half pound. 

The Gewehr 96/11s were older rifles rebarreled for the M1911 cartridge and fitted with new sights, stocks and six-shot magazines. The Gew. 1911 differed only slightly. (Photograph by James Walters)


A redesigned magazine follower held the bolt open after the last shot had been fired. Older rifles and carbines deemed suitable for conversion were updated to Gew. 1911 specs with new barrels, sights, six-shot magazines and a pistol grip inletted into the stock. The most common of these conversions was the Gewehr 1889/96 rifle, which was redesignated the Gewehr 96/11. 

The 96/11 bolt shows the separate bolt actuating rod with lug that travels in the sleeve's helical groove to rotate and unlock the dual lugs. The length of it is amazing.
In spite of their clumsy appearance the Schmidt-Rubins were very pleasant rifles to shoot. The action worked smoothly, fed cartridges easily and had a very crisp trigger pull. Magazines were fast and easy to charger load, the sights provided an excellent sight picture while the rifle's weight kept recoil down to a very controllable level. 
Traditional Swiss quality of manufacture, and the excellent issue ammunition, allowed the Swiss soldier to live up to the traditions of William Tell and he continued to be known for his marksmanship. The only real complaint voiced by the rank and file about the new arms was the inordinate length of the infantry rifle. 

The lessons of World War 1 had shown that the traditional long rifle had many shortcomings, and this was not lost upon the Swiss. In fact, the Kar. 1911 carbine (in reality a short rifle with a 23-inch barrel) eventually became the preferred weapon and production of the infantry rifle was ended in 1919 while that of carbines continued until 1933. 

The difference in length between the Gew. 96/11 receiver (top) and the K31 is immediately apparent when the two are viewed from above. Note K31 thumb cut for clip loading. (Photographs by James Walters)

Between 1930-32 the Swiss attempted once again to update the Schmidt-Rubin with a radically redesigned straight-pull action. The resulting Karabiner 1931's most important change was the relocation of the locking lugs to the bolt head where they locked into the receiver ring. This resulted in a receiver that was not only much stronger but was 2.4 inches shorter then the Gew. 1911's and while the Kar. 1931 had a longer barrel, its overall length was only 4mm greater then the Kar. 1911 carbine.  The bolt actuating rod has a flat cross section and the front sight was protected by a set of sturdy "ears."

Specifications--Karabiner 1931
Caliber               7.5x55
Overall length    43.6 inches
Barrel length     25.7 inches
Weight               8.8 pounds
Magazine          detachable, 6 round charger loaded box
Sights  front:     square blade
              rear:     tangent adj. from 100 to 1500 meters
Bayonet            sword style with 11.75 inch single edge blade

Production of the Kar. 1931 began in 1933 and continued until 1958, eventually replacing all earlier models in service with Swiss active duty units and reserves and it was only in the last decade that it was finally declared obsolete for reservists. 
The Kar. 1931 quickly earned a reputation as the most accurate of the Schmidt-Rubin series and it served as the basis for several sniper rifles (Gew. 1931/42, Gew. 1931/43 and Gew. 1955). A little known bit of firearms history trivia is that only one other sovereign nation's armed forces were equipped with Schmidt-Rubins. In the 1930s Eidgenossische Waffenfabrik produced a special run of 100 Kar. 1931s for the Vatican's famed Swiss Guard ("Papstilche Schweizergarde"). They were also produced for commercial sale to Swiss citizens who wished to purchase their own rifles (in addition to the government supplied one in the bedroom closet!), and served as the basis for a series of target rifles ("Prazisionskarabiner") made for UIT and Biathlon shooting. 
The K31 bolt is much shorter than the 96/11's, and the locking lugs are more conventionally located at the front rather than at the center. Its actuating rod is flat.

Kar. 1931 actions were used to produce sporting rifles by such well known Swiss gunmakers as Hammerli and Grunig & Elmiger, as well as smaller gunsmiths. Many of these were chambered for more popular sporting cartridges.
Upon learning that Century International Arms had recently received a shipment of Karabiner 1931s from somewhere in the Alps, I requested one to test. While Century's catalog listed their condition as "good," the Kar. 1911 I received was mechanically perfect with a pristine bore, about 90% metal finish and a beech stock marred by only minor dings and scratches. 

The quality of manufacture and the fit of parts were excellent and it operated with an oiled smoothness that was a joy to behold. It was built like a...well, like a Swiss watch! Before shooting the rifle I stripped it down to clean and inspect it (a practice that should be followed with ALL surplus firearms!). Underneath the buttplate discovered a plastic card bearing the name and unit number of the last solider it had been issued to: "Mw.Kpl. Dannecker Hch.-Schw. Fus. Kp. IV/80-Reherobelstr. 24-St. Gallen". An absolutely fascinating bit of personalized history if I say so myself!

Up until a decade ago Schmidt-Rubins were common on the U.S. surplus market and surplus 7.5x55 ammunition was easy to come by. Well nowadays they aren't and it isn't! At present the only source of shootable 7.5 Swiss ammunition in the USA is that made by Norma. So I contacted Norma's American distributor, Dynamit Nobel-RWS, Inc., for a couple of boxes of their 7.5x55 cartridges loaded with a 180-gr. soft-point bullet at a velocity of 2651 fps--very close to the specs of the Swiss issue M1911 cartridge. 

Test firing of the Karabiner 1931 was conducted on my gun club's 100-yard range. While the original style charger looked odd and felt flimsy, loading the magazine with it was quick and easy. The trigger had the usual two-stage pull but once the slack was taken up, the letoff was one of the crispest I've ever felt on a military rifle while the excellent sights provided a sharp, clear sight picture. 

All Schmidt-Rubins used an unusual six-round charger, at first made of cardboard and brass and later of aluminum. Norma is about the only regular source of 7.5x55 ammo. (Photograph by James Walters)
In all, I fired eight 5-shot groups, the smallest of which was a very pleasing 1 7/8 inches, while the remainder all came in at under 3 inches! You can say that the Schmidt-Rubin is old fashioned, and you can say that it's funny looking--but don't ever say it isn't accurate! The rifle functioned perfectly, I did not experience a single problem chambering or ejecting any of the 40 rounds of Norma 7.5x55 ammunition I fired in my two-hour shooting session.

It has often been claimed, possibly with some justification, that the only reason the Swiss stuck with the Schmidt-Rubin straight-pull rifle for so long was that its deficiencies were never brought to light by the harsh realities of combat. 
The retention of the complicated Schmidt system is hard to understand when the Swiss had available to them the many other fine designs of the time--most of which would have given them a rifle that was just as effective, but much simpler to produce, use and maintain. 

But in the matter of small arms the Swiss have long held a fascination for complicated designs. Besides the Gew. 1889 they were the first to embrace the complicated Parabellum (Luger) pistol. When simple blowback submachine guns were already available they instead took into service the ridiculously intricate Furrer MP41/44. Their MG25 and MG51 light machine guns were overly complex weapons at a time when simpler designs were already on the market. 

Finally their Stgw. 57 assault rifle--while one of the finest military rifles of this 
century--is a perfect example of an arm that was made much better then was necessary. 

According to reports, the Swiss army's new Stgw. 90 rifle is more expensive to produce than other, more proven designs. This proclivity for adopting native designs, despite their complexity and cost, seems to be ingrained in the Swiss character. They are justifiably proud of their ability to produce finely made arms and in this era of mass production such old fashioned pride in craftsmanship is a unique, and pleasant, thing to see. And- just perhaps--it gives the Swiss infantryman a good feeling to know that his rifle wasn't produced by the lowest bidder.

For further information:
Century International Arms Corp.--1161 Holland Dr., Dept. SGN, Boca Raton, FL 33487. Tel. (800)527-1252.
Dynamit Nobel-RWS, Inc.--81 Ruckman Rd., Dept. SGN, Closter, NJ 07624. Tel. (201)767-7971.
International Military Antiques--Box 256, Dept. SGN, Millington, NJ 07946. Tel. (908)953-9333.
Springfield Sporters-Rt. 1, Dept. SGN, Penn Run, PA 15765. Tel. (412)254-2626.

(Note: the bibliography did not appear in the originalarticle, but is provided here for the readers convenience)

Barnes, Frank C.  CARTRIDGES OF THE WORLD, 7th Edition.  Northbrook, IL:  DBI  Books,  Inc., 1993.. 

Hogg, Ian and Weeks, John.  MILITARY SMALL ARMS OF THE 20th CENTURY.  Northbrook, IL: DBI Books, Inc., 1985. 

Janzen, Jerry.  BAYONETS FROM JANZEN'S NOTEBOOK.  Broken Arrow, OK:  Cedar Ridge Publications, 1991. 

Smith, Joseph. E.  SMALL ARMS OF THE WORLD, 9th Edition.  Harrisburg, PA:  Stackpole Books, 1969. 

Smith, W.H.B. and Smith, Joseph.  BOOK OF RIFLES.  Harisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1972. 

Tanner, Hans.  SWISS MILITARY RIFLES.  Published in Guns of the World.  New York: Bonanza Books, Inc., 1977. 

Walter, John.  RIFLES OF THE WORLD.  Northbrook, IL: DBI Books, Inc., 1993. 

Webster, Donald B.  MILITARY BOLT ACTION RIFLES 1841-1918.  Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1993. 


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