Prototype Springfield Gas-Operated Semi-Automatic Rifle

With the invention of clean burning smokeless powder in 1884 by French Chemist Paul Vieille, a whole new world of small arms technology opened up. With the French military as the first to adopt the smokeless Lebel rifle in 1886, a mad dash started worldwide to convert from black powder to smokeless powder small arms in military service.

The U.S. military adopted the Krag bolt action rifle in military service in 1892 as their first smokeless small arm, then replaced it in 1903 with the M1903 Springfield bolt action rifle as a way to copy features from the German Mauser design (which is a whole story on its own). Although the M1903 had a long and purposeful service life, the idea of replacing it with a semi-automatic rifle was already in motion from the beginning of its service. The problem was that no one knew how to make a reliable operating system in a lightweight small arm using the overly capable smokeless powder .30-06 Springfield cartridge.

Photographed from the IMT collection is an early twentieth century gas-operated semi-automatic bolt action rifle chambered in .30-06 Springfield. This is one inventor’s idea of how to increase the rate of fire in a small arm during a time when the ability to keep your finger on the trigger between every shot was still brand new. The rifle has a typical bolt and handle similar to what is found on the standard service arm of the time. On the left side of the stock is a metal fence and thumb guard to shield the shooter’s face and thumb from the gas-operated bolt that rotates and travels rearward with every trigger pull. There is an optional left side flip out sight position to keep the shooter’s face clear of the rear end of the bolt.

The inventor’s name and/or patent are currently undiscovered, but appears to be the work of Springfield Armory in the search for a reliable semi-automatic small arm to replace the bolt action in service. The in-the-white receiver resembles a M1903 Springfield, the barrel is a standard Springfield barrel wearing a “2-06” date on the top end, it has a five round internal staggered box magazine and the rear sight is from an early Krag rifle.

It took until 1936 for the U.S. military to adopt a semi-automatic rifle in service with the M1 Garand. This rifle serves as the beginning of a long road ahead in semi-automatic rifle development by the U.S. Military Ordnance Department.

By Austin Ellis, IMT Curator
Photography by Michael Fullana