By Vincent J. Curtis
The story of the Ross rifle is of a great Canadian idea that turned into failure because of a lack of experience.
The Ross rifle was the brainchild of Sir Charles Ross and Sir Sam Hughes, who would serve as Minister of Militia and Defence from 1911 to 1916. Both men had served in the Boer War, and came away impressed with the long-range accuracy of the Mauser Model 1895. The Boers’ Mauser outclassed the British long Lee Enfield, which sported a 30-inch barrel. Ross and Hughes had come away from South Africa with the impression that, in the next war, long-range rifle marksmanship would play a crucial role in the control of the battlefield.
Ross was an excellent marksman, and he had an amateur engineer’s interest in rifle design. A wealthy Scottish nobleman, Ross had the money to be able to build a manufacturing plant that could put his engineering ideas into practice. His big idea was to mate a straight-pull bolt action to a long, heavy barrel. Add a sweet trigger, and Kumbaya!
Ross, however, lacked the practical experience and single-mindedness of a John Moses Browning.
At the time of the Boer War, the Canadian militia was armed with the single shot .303 calibre Martini-Henry. The Canadian government determined to re-arm the militia with bolt-action, magazine-fed repeaters. Inexplicably, the British government refused to provide a license to manufacture the Lee Enfield in Canada, and this gave Ross and Hughes their opportunity. Ross was awarded, in 1903, a contract to supply 12,000 rifles to the Canadian government.
The Ross was always an excellent target rifle. But like all really new systems, it had teething problems, some of which were not discovered before its first use in combat. Outside experts had already labelled the Ross as a target rifle masquerading as a military one; but Hughes disagreed and was influential enough to prevent a serious review of the Ross, one that would endanger its quality as a marksman’s rifle. Because of Canada’s meagre defence budget, military exercises were never large or serious enough to test the Ross in realistic battlefield conditions, tests that might have forced attention to the Ross’s shortcomings.
The chronic problem of the Ross was jamming. The Ross was chambered for match-grade Canadian ammunition, made on the small end of the .303-inch cartridge’s specifications. A close-fitting chamber improved accuracy. Hence, when the Ross was fed trooper-grade British ammunition made in a new war factory, hard extractions became inevitable. Reaming out the chambers and drilling out the rear aperture sight for the non-marksman did not solve the other problems of the Ross. Engineering and metallurgical problems led to more jamming issues. The soft steel of the interrupted thread bolt head allowed the left rear thread to bend when struck hard against the bolt stop. Thus, one hard extraction kicked open led to more hard extractions, or a failure to close into battery.
When these were fixed, the Ross, with a 30.5-inch heavy barrel, was heavier, unbalanced, and longer than the British SMLE Mk III, with its shorter 25-inch barrel. But after shortening the heavy barrel by five inches, the Ross became balanced, and lighter, and handier than the Lee Enfield. By this time, however, the damage was done; the Ross’s battlefield reputation was in ruins. Only the snipers stuck with the Ross.
If the Ross of mid-1916 had been the Ross of mid-1914, Canadian infanteers would have carried the Ross rifle all through the First World War, Second World War, and Korea. But because of lack of experience, numerous little problems became showstoppers, until the damage was done.
America’s experience with the revolutionary M-16 was not unlike Canada’s with the Ross. What was fine in America turned out to be problematic in Vietnam. But America stuck with the M-16 and overcame its problems; and now an M-16 design has served as the American infantry rifle for longer than anything else since the revolution.
Canada is preparing to spend $26-billion or more on a new Navy. The plan is to build the ships in Canada. Whatever experience and institutional memory Canada had in building warships disappeared decades ago, through lack of work. Canada is in the same position with respect to warships that she was with the Ross infantry rifle.
Canadian draftsmen can draw anything you ask for, and workmen can build anything drawn for them. But is a combination of great ideas going to work in actual war? What are the hidden pitfalls that have to be looked out for? Lacking experience, neither our shipbuilders nor our naval architects can know.