Rifle: Swiss Schmidt-Rubin Model 1889

Swiss 1889 tilt

Rifle Schmidt-Rubin G.1889 Manufacturer Waffenfabrik Bern
Cartridge 7.5×53.5mm Overall Length 51.3″
Action Straight pull bolt Barrel Length 30.7″
Magazine 12 rnds staggered box Weight 10.7 lb

 

Swiss arms have long shown a unique perspective and ingenuity.  Like the Vetterli before it, the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin rifle was distinct and remarkable in its own ways.  However, like many new ideas, this one had some oversights and faults to be found.

As with so many other nations, the Swiss were inspired to rethink their small arms after the appearance of the smokeless powder French Lebel rifle.  In 1886 the government put together a commission to select a replacement for the aging Vetterli.  The members would ultimately select a rifle combining the efforts of two Swiss men, one a munitions man and the other an apparent rifle inventor.

Since at least 1881, then-Major Eduard Rubin had been at work on a new, more efficient cartridge.  From the position as director of Thun munitions, he had been experimenting with bullets capable of withstanding more extreme pressures for extended range and accurate fire.  These were first successful as 9mm copper jacketed lead bullets projected by compressed black powder.  After further experimentation a range between 6.5-7.5 was found to be best suited and an easier to apply coppery/zinc alloy applied.  Rubin also settled on a boat tailed bullet and these features combined had roughly double the range of the then-standard service cartridge.  His work with jacketed cartridges would be a major influence throughout the world and ultimately prove to be nearly as valuable as smokeless powder itself.

K31-Charger

Rubin charger with later GP11 cartridges

While working on his ammunition, Rubin had also modified the standard Swiss Vetterli rifle, giving it more locking strength and attaching a box magazine instead of the standard tube.  Rubin also developed a charger for his rifle, which could use a pre-loaded ammunition package, made of inexpensive pressed cardboard and tin lips, to quickly refill the magazine.  This particular invention would remain in use through the K31 series of rifles as would his final selection of a 7.5mm cartridge.

While Rubin’s ammunition and magazine system were doing well, his rifle was not especially revolutionary.  During these same years, however, Major Rudolf Schmidt for the Bern Arsenal had been working on a straight pull rifle.  It is often said that the Schmidt rifle was inspired by Mannlicher, but at this time the only straight pull from him was a wedge-locking gun.  It’s uncertain who inspired who when it comes to rotating lock straight pull rifles.  We do know Schmidt’s rifle was tested as early as 1885, so it’s unlikely he would have seen any work on the later Model 1890 and 1895 Mannlicher actions.  We won’t get into the design here as we’ve covered them in greater detail before.

G89 xray bolt

“x-ray” of the G1889 Bolt

During the course of trials between the Schmidt rifle and one provided by SIG, both centering on Rubin’s improved black powder cartridge, the French released the Mle. 1886 with its 8mm smokeless cartridge and stunned the world.  This delayed the adoption of a new Swiss gun by several years as Rubin went back to work to adapt his ammunition to compete.  Mass production can be expensive, so Rubin’s cartridge was simplified to include an iron jacketed paper patched bullet.  This was pushed by a smokeless powder and adopted as GP90.

Swiss 1889 POV smOver the same period the trials ultimately settled on the Schmidt rifle with Rubin’s charger loading system.  The resulting Infantarie Repetier Gewehr 1889 was a long and heavy rifle.  It sported a 12-round box magazine, loaded by two 6-round chargers.  In a nod to doctrine of the time, a magazine cut-off was provided by a simple lever which lowers the whole magazine just out of reach of the bolt as it returns forward.  This feature was eliminated in the next model and it’s common to find G.1889 rifles with metal tabs locking the magazine cut-off to avoid mixing doctrine of fire in later years.  Stocked nearly to the muzzle with a straight wrist and full handguard, the G.1889 also features a floated barrel that rests on an aluminum collar at the forward band.  This guaranteed precision shooting despite changes in heat and moisture.  Sights for the G.1889 were graduated up to 2000 meters and the rifle was paired with a simple, single-edge bayonet that would later be the basis for the U.S. Krag’s.  A stacking hook protrudes under the barrel to allow stacking of arms and is shaped with a slight upward bend to help “lock” the guns together and make snagging in use less likely.

While an overall acceptable rifle that works reliably and accurately, the G.1889 had a number of issues that kept it from being revolutionary.  Its huge size and weight made it cumbersome to field.  The long action forced the magazine a bit too far forward, making the balance poor and allowing it to shift as the gun was emptied.  Prone shooting was made difficult by the over-sized magazine and so it was halved in the next model.  Most importantly, however, the original bolt had the locking lugs all the way at the rear.  This made sense with the original black powder cartridge as it helped prevent fouling.  But rear locking lugs are further from the breech and thus weaker, as they allow more of the bolt body to be forcefully compressed with each shot.  This made adopting an improved cartridge difficult and so the lugs were moved further up on the next model.

Swiss 1889 leftDespite its problems, the Schmidt-Rubin system continued to serve until 1931, when it was completely overhauled and then remained in further service until the late 1950’s.  The original G.1889 rifles, because of their weak actions, were never updated like the next few models.  They served in original condition through WWII as part of the Landsturm, a reserve body of troops for national defense.  They were so common that the GP90 cartridge was updated in 1903 and again in 1923 to give improvements to these 2nd line forces.

Collectors can still acquire these rifles in excellent condition inexpensively but should be warned to treat them with care.  Available GP11 ammo is common, but not compatible with these older rear locking guns and the commercial 7.5 hunting ammo is a big no-no.  Handloading is likely the best solution for these old war horses.

Swiss 1889 top

 

 

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