Why full power rifles were unnecessary as standard rifles by 1915

Assault rifles typically use cartridges which are at most fine for shooting at 250 to 400 metres distant targets. This came into being based on ammunition maker (especially Rheinmetall-Borsig and GECO) experiments during the Interwar Years, and only rarely do demands for the lightweight long range unobtanium rifle flare up again.
The switch from full power rifle cartridges to shorter or smaller calibre rifle cartridges made fully automatic rifles easier to develop, lighter and more gentle in recoil. Ranges at which infantry fought its battles with its basic rifle (instead of with scoped rifles, machineguns, mortars or infantry guns) had been well within the 400 metre range most of the time ever since the First World War.

Gewehr 98; a typical long barrel full power repeating rifle
It's common to read remarks about how infantry entered (and left) the First World War with unnecessarily heavy and long rifles. Their powerful bullets were supposed to decimate close order (quite parade-like) infantry formations at more than a kilometre distance and were also supposed to stop a horse with a single torso hit. The aforementioned remarks usually conclude that this was unnecessary, as most infantry combat of the First World War happened within 200 metres range, often even in mêlée using bayonets or shovels as weapons.

I've never been satisfied with this. There were long-range rifle fights during the Boer Wars with very similar technology, after all. In the meantime, I've become so very unsatisfied with these remarks that it's about time to write my own take on it.

The story begins in the 1880s, when inventors finally delivered practical low smoke propellants. (They are often called "smokeless powder", but they were neither smokeless nor necessarily powders. I'm guilty of calling them "smokeless" at times, too.)

Blackpowder and real rapid fire - not compatible
These 'smokeless powders' had several important consequences:
(1) Higher muzzle velocities were achievable thanks to higher gas pressures.
(2) The moderate smoke did not blind the shooter: Rapid fire became practical (unlike with the relatively impractical Mitrailleuses which are often overrated in accounts of the Franco-German War 1870/71).
(3) The weapon wasn't fouled quickly by blackpowder residue, which again was important for practical rapid fire.
(4) The low smoke characteristic made it difficult to spot hostiles even after they opened fire. This had important consequences for the value of camouflage, for reconnaissance, for ambushes and for distance as an input for survival.

These characteristics allowed Hiram Maxim to develop his initial blackpowder-based machinegun design into the very reliable, very practical Maxim machinegun.

Rifles (and artillery) gained a lot of effective range and power as well (save for projectile weight, which was rather reducing during the move to higher muzzle velocities). Rifle marksmanship training did at times extend to formation targets beyond 1,000 metres range. Such ranges were previously achieved as well, but the technological progress made this capability much more meaningful with much flatter trajectories.
The higher muzzle velocities also allowed for lighter bullets (smaller calibres) and this in turn allowed for much more ammunition carried (though not necessarily by the individual infantryman).

By the 1890s military theorists were thoroughly impressed by the increased firepower of artillery and rifles (even though some did downplay the actual artillery ranges in their publications, apparently because published figures were lower than the secret actual ones).
The great firepower and range allowed for doctrines in which (at the latest after the marksmen-dominated First Boer War) the own infantry was expected to open effective fire at hostiles at more than a kilometre range and was supposed to establish fire superiority at more than 600 metres.
The other side of the coin was that taking such fire while orderly moving over such a distance was unacceptable, of course. The defenders did not have too much trouble with this, as they could use trees, walls and earthworks as cover and could thus reduce their exposure.
A scene from the Second Boer War

The attackers on the hand - and this was understood before the Boer Wars by some authors - had to avoid such destructive fires by exploiting concealment. They had to close to within short range without being seen, moving behind woodland, buildings, hills and obstructions. The theorists did apparently fail to appreciate that this would require the infantry to break up into quite independently manoeuvring platoons if not sections. Even as late as 1915 important authors still considered the company as the relevant unit of manoeuvre.

Now let's assume the infantry had been equipped with short cartridge carbines and sights good for a few hundred metres only. What would have happened? Judging by individual weapons alone, the attackers could have moved on open fields up to only 400-600 metres distance again. Short cartridges and long range sights would have made things more difficult to predict, but an inferiority against full power cartridges would have been very much evident.
Infantry armament has never been homogeneous, of course. The Maxim machine gun had arrived, and it was capable of shooting well past a kilometre distance with the benefit of a proper carriage with elevation control. The water (evaporation) cooling, reliability and easier ammunition supply to just a few weapons allowed a few Maxim machinegun sections to substitute for the long range rifle firepower of an entire battalion. They were even better than the riflemen at it, as they were much fewer targets and would thus be even less exposed to long range rifle fires than the battalion's partially covered riflemen would be.
So basically the machineguns were the better choice in the long range fire role (once available in quantity, that is by 1915). They were so good at it that the firepower of a few Maxim-pattern machineguns doomed a battalion advance over open fields from 1,000 to 400 metres distance without the assistance of rifles.
On top of this there was the light field artillery, which was also good at long-range fires, albeit not without its own difficulties.

This allowed for the individual weapons to be reduced into shorter barrel, lighter weight, shorter cartridge case, lower recoil assault rifles. These didn't appear in service for four decades after massed rifle fires had become technically unnecessary beyond more than 400 metres.

Video presentation about the first functional assault rifle
Long-time readers may have a déjà vu now; that's because the underlying reasoning is similar to what I wrote in response to the stupid talk about how we should go back to full power assault rifles because Western troops with 5.56mmx45 weapons were not able to respond to some PKMs in Afghanistan (they sure were not outranged by AKMs!).

The demand for full power rifles only because a handful riflemen had to exercise some patience and could not return effective fire themselves is stupid. It's a failure of insufficient modesty. You don't need to be able to shoot back yourself (even though you probably want it real bad). Most such return fire would be wasteful anyway. 
It's enough if the combat team as a whole can respond effectively (or even only sit out ineffective harassing fires). That's why designated marksmen (few men with scoped full power rifles) and battalion mortars are essential for a fine light combined arms mix.



  1. Could an advantage be gained by speeding up the integration of new technological developments?


    1. The Great Power's armies were almost equally inadequately prepared.
      The French lagged behind with their too colourful uniforms and too much focus on light field guns, the Austrians lagged behind in some details, the Russians still use a rimmed 7.62mmx54R cartridge instead of a rimless one and their artillery was too mixed and dependent on imports.
      The French had also convinced themselves that tactical aggressiveness was a good idea and bled for it.

      It's easy to dream up a 1914 army with many superiorities in tactics, organization and equipment. The problem is that they did not have a war between great powers in Europe for decades and were thus too inexperienced and very much suboptimal.

  2. Mr Ortmann

    In all the history of guns, there was an immutable factor: human sight. Until this century, most shooters used slight variations of mechanical sights, with clear limits: it is not possible to achieve a good hit probability on a moving object beyond 300 mts, and even a 500 mt hit is not very probable for an average shooter with mechanical sights

    This limitation equalizes both a NATO fusilier and his insurgent adversary, as-is. NATO soldier would have plenty of organic resources, but his gun and training don't offer him a meaningful advantage over an insurgent with an AK.

    Modern and near future sights are changing this scenario and are going to change it much more. On the one hand, modern sights offer a capability increase for average soldiers which put them near the limits of 5.56 NATO. As contests such as new New Zealand Army shows, 5.56 is already the bottleneck for range AND effectivity.

    Synthetic sights are closer than they seems, specially if we demise the failure of future combat systems. different computer-aiding resources in the sight are going to increase hit probability at longer distances. AND this kind of resource is going to be out of reach for most of non-NATO combatants

    Returning to 7.62 would be stupid, keeping in mind that it was a bad American decision from the very beginning. But there are different "true intermediate" candidates, from 6 to 7mm, which could take advantage of new sighting capabilities and improve the terminal efficiency of 5.56 at all distances while maintaining the recoil controllable.

    5.56 has shown its limits once and againg. As caseless ammo or another galactic improvement is not going to be adopted on the medium term, it's time to go beyond the compromises of our grandparents at the fifties.

    1. This wasn't meant as a discussion of calibre choices today.

      I did that back in 2009 already:

      The 2009-01 text was also published at TFB.

    2. @ JLC

      The better sights could easily be used with medium MGs, I do not see the need for weapons with 1000 m range for most of the riflemen, especially when artillery or mortars could reduce the view of the enemy with smoke.


    3. Sniping beyond 1,000 metres is fetishism mostly 700 or 800 metres is still relevant for snipers, 600 metres more reasonable. Snipers should expect to do the majority of their shooting at normal infantry combat ranges (and to be first and foremost patient, hiding observers).

      related: Interview with 3 WW2 snipers

    4. Finally I have readed all the posts you mentioned, and I would insist that, in this decade, computer-aided sights are going to change what is considered to be achievable for all the military shooters, either as a suplement for specialist or a multiplier for fusiliers.

      In a lot of situations, company's organic resources can deal with adversaries which are more than 1.000 mts. away from the soldiers. However, it is not always possible to do that:

      1. The reaction time is not enough for dealing with adversaries
      2. a mortar bomb or another similar resource have too much power when collateral damage is adquited.
      3. etc.

      Besides, even the "most organic" of company or brigade resources needs time for being put into action. A .338 weapon could be used as soon as the adversary is identified, and its barrier penetration could deal with a good number of barriers.

      Anyways, present and near future optics are downgraded by present calibers. The SCHV designs were created when iron sights were the (apparent) only way of targetting.

      But this is not the case anymore

    5. Ask yourself why one must deal with fleeting targets at more than 400 metres. You can just vanish and avoid detection or tracking in many if not by far most cases.

      You may give a soldier a computerized sight with an accurate rangefinder and inclinometer (both to compensate bullet drop) and magnetic sensor (to compensate for the coriolis effect), but these are unnecessary at less than 600 metres and of little use beyond. It's very difficult to sense (predict) wind. There are wind sensor gadgets based on lasers but I haven't seen reports about successful tests of these for snipers yet.

    6. The only private company that has offered a functional computer-aided sight is http://tracking-point.com/ AFAIK.

      The question is if such sights are cul-de-sacs or forerunners of the improvements that are going to be achieved in this decade.

      As you remarked, the main difficulty is wind correction. Windage can be corrected only until certain point, but at the same time heavier bullets are less affected by wind. Therefore, a .338 gun could get use of a reliable laser wind correction until... 1.200m?

      Anyways, assault rifles of today are practical to 250m because of 5.56 terminal effects at such distances and velocity drop. Even without very effective wind correction, point fire to 600 m. could be achieved with nowadays sights and a more appropiate caliber between 6.5 and 7mm.

      As with your example, with such systems an adversary beyond 400m (let's say 600m) could receive more casualties and without such sights he would acknowledge his disadvantage.

      My point is that NATO forces should have clear advantages in every aspect and scale of tactical fight.

    7. I remember how someone once mistook "coriolis effect" for a joke of mine, thus as explanation:

  3. If the military would ignore the 1868 banning of soft nosed bullets, then the 5.56x45mm round could be tolerated (although its numerous other weakness' would remain). If you want to talk about replacements, the 7.62x39mm russian is undoubtedly a superior cartridge. Unfortunately, it will NEVER be adopted by the US or its allys. If rational people were in charge of the military, they would have dumped the m-16 in favour of the ak-108 years ago: Give that weapon some revamped ergonomics (in the spirit of the xm-8), and high precision ammo like the VMAX, and you'll yourself have a WORLD CLASS infantry weapon.

    As for infantrymen shooting beyond 300 or 400 meters, sven is right. Using small arms to do this is impractical and wasteful! Having a battery of mortars to shit fury on the OPFOR is almost invariably a better response. If you REALLY want to return fire just with small arms, though, then somebody better get to work on the m56 smartgun, the one weapon which has suppressive fire capabilitys in excess of the mg 42. And with a cumbersome weapon like that, maybe you could justify the existence of the HULC exoskeleton (after all, someones going to have to lug that bitch around!).

  4. I recently re-read parts of Rommel's infantry attacks and made as usual a couple of notes for example the combat ranges in all those actions. They are usually provided by the author and in most other cases it's relative easy to guess them.

    Now Rommel usually tried hard to find the open door or flank and increasingly relied on infiltration but it is still fascinating how close most of them. I still have to put them into excel but the median seems to be by a fair margin under 150m. Long-range fire by infantry is rare and is typically delivered&dominated by machine guns.


    P.S: Binos and in one case a spotting scope played a very important part in finding and observing the enemy as well as planning attack routes. One maxim seems to have been to not disturb the enemy while he is making overt mistakes, for example by revealing his positions...

  5. Until the second campaign in Romania the average range seems to be ~135 yards* and the median a 100.

    Ironically the first firefight happens on a foggy day well below 100m and Rommel even comments how his 400 yard/m(?) zero makes aiming difficult...


    *Read it in English, don't know if they just plugged in yards for meters. As a hundred is the median its quite likely.

    1. http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2009/07/infantry-combat-ranges.html

    2. Yes fits quite well.

      Terrain, vegetation, daytime and weather obviously all have their impact as well as the choice of tactics. Still I didn't imagine that in Romania the combat distances were often that short. To a large extent this is a credit to the troops and their commander which smartly tried hard to suddendly&silently attack from as close-in as possible.

      After looking at Small Unit Actions during the German Campaign in Russia* and Taktik im Russlandkrieg I'm certainly longer surprised that submachineguns were so effective in WWII.


      P.S: One can make the case that the 7.62 short Russian° was the 'best' SMG cartridge of the war.



    3. Well, you need the firepower to make attacks through long lines of sight undesirable in the first place, but once you have this level of firepower (by machineguns preferably, for this exposes the least men) you really need to pay attention to the close range.

      Sadly, nowadays intuitive complaints about not being able to decisively defeat harassing fires from a distant hill seem to impress many people, and much (public) attention is on the longer ranges again despite the inherent weight issue.

    4. AK-108: Minimum 700 grams too heavy with a mere 16" barrel, even before adding a single rail or an ergonomic stock or fully ambidextrous handling.

      The balancing mechanic isn't necessary anyway, and a highly questionable design choice since the barrel isn't even close to being free-floating.