The charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898, is looked upon as one of the high points of the emotion-charged Spanish American War. But for many American soldiers on the ground, it was a nightmare. American troops faced Spanish forces equipped with one of the finest rifles then available: the Model 1893 Mauser. The charger-loaded 7mm Mauser was the standard weapon for the Spanish Army. It was equipped with a box-magazine holding five cartridges and was highly accurate over long ranges.
American forces were at a disadvantage, as many volunteer units carried old Springfield 1873 trapdoor, single-shot rifles. A number of Regular Army units, though, were equipped with the Springfield Model 1892, a Norwegian designed, bolt action .30 caliber weapon commonly known as the “Krag-Jorgensen.” The Krag, like the Mauser, also used smokeless powder, a distinct advantage over the old trapdoors that advertised their presence to the enemy with large clouds of smoke in every volley. Spanish defenders of San Juan Hill retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Otherwise, their superior weapon might have resulted in a different outcome to the battle that brought fame to Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, who were armed with the Krag carbines.
The Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection includes examples of the German and Norwegian armorers as well as representative weapons from the Springfield Armory. Let’s take a look at the evolution of these rifles that changed the course of infantry weaponry over a period that extended through and beyond World War II.
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Brothers Paul and Wilhelm Mauser, starting in the 1860s, made several major advances in rifle design. In the early 1870s, they were manufacturing a single-shot .11mm caliber rifle (one of which is owned by the Varnum Armory). By 1889, the brothers had introduced the first successful, small-bore smokeless powder weapon, chambered for 7.65mm (.53 caliber) ammunition and incorporating a charger-loaded, 5-shot magazine. Because the magazine protruded below the stock, it was prone to damage. The Model 1892 with additional improvements to the extractor to prevent double feeding and a flush-mounted box magazine, allowed easier, faster loading and feeding of the cartridges. This concept was to influence military and sporting rifles down to the present day. The rifle was chambered for 7x57mm resulting in greater velocity, accuracy, and penetration than any other weapon of its time.
The Spanish government recognized the superior qualities of the new Mauser and ordered large quantities for both Army and Navy use (some 200,000 all told). It was this weapon that faced first guerilla forces in Cuba, then American troops in the Spanish-American War. Many European observers mistakenly discounted the effectiveness of the Mauser in this conflict, a mistake for which they would pay during World War I.
When American forces were mobilized to go to Cuba, they initially relied on equipment that, in some cases, dated back to the Civil War. (Some soldiers actually carried Civil War issue canteens and knapsacks.) The primary weapon of the volunteer infantryman was the Model 1873 Springfield, a trap door rifle using black powder, as noted above. In 1892, the Army had held a competition to select a new infantry rifle, involving more than 40 designers including the Mauser brothers. The Krag-Jorgenson, a .30 caliber, magazine-fed bolt-action weapon firing smokeless ammunition, emerged the winner. Production began in 1894 at the Springfield Armory. Immediate design changes led to an 1896 model that was the Regular Army’s standard weapon in the Spanish-American conflict and the Philippine-American War. Variations of the Krag continued to be used until 1907 when they were replaced by the famed Springfield 1903. Some 500,000 Krags were produced overall.
Nevertheless, the Mauser clearly outclassed the more complex designed Krag in the tropical climates of Cuba and the Philippines. The German rifle was easy to maintain and able to put out more powerful, sustained, and highly effective fire. American soldiers simply couldn’t match the volume and accuracy. That said, according to some historians, the Americans had one unexpected ally on their side: disease. Spanish troops had been ravaged by malaria, dysentery, and other illnesses during the guerilla war. This continued when they faced American troops. Of the estimated 60,000 Spanish deaths between 1895 and 1898, 90% were disease related. American casualties on the battlefield number 332 with another 2,957 coming from disease.
The Americans’ overall negative experience with the Krag and their exposure to the much more effective Mauser led to a reverse-engineering effort after the war. The result was one of the best rifles ever made: the Springfield 1903, a worthy opponent to the Mauser. So much so that the German company wound up suing the American government for patent infringement.
The Mauser continued to be recognized worldwide for its excellence. The Model 1898 was the standard German infantry rifle in World War I. After the war, it became one of the most widely used military rifles in the world and influenced the design of the Japanese Arisaka Type 99 of WWII, arguably one of the finer infantry rifles in that conflict, along with the dependable Mauser 1898, still the standard weapon of the German foot soldier in World War II.
As you look over the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum displays, you will find a number of examples of these weapons. As part of our renewed efforts to preserve and protect our valued collection, Armory VP Patrick Donovan and several member volunteers have been cleaning and restoring these artifacts for viewing in our newly environmentally protected exhibit space.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin
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