Overrated History is replete with stories of failed rifles. Most of these failures disappeared from the marketplace and survive today only in collections or as curiosities. For a select few, however, flaws and shortcomings didn’t end their careers as production models. They exist in the millions. Their owners treasure them. Praise them. Even love them. Consider the 1903 Springfield. At the dawn of the twentieth century the U.S. Army needed a new rifle, and badly. The war with Spain was over. The rifles in production had displayed their weaknesses in engagement after engagement. The “Trapdoor” Springfield fired the .45-70, a cartridge loaded with black powder. Every shot produced billows of smoke, giving away the soldier’s position. The 1892 Krag-Jorgensen was fast to shoot—but slow to reload. Against the Spanish troops armed with German Mauser rifles, U.S. Army units found themselves outmatched. They needed to do something. But what?
The Army being the Army, they established a board to search for, develop, and adopt a suitable rifle. With the fine example of the Mauser before them, the board adopted the 1903 Springfield rifle. It looked just like the Mauser. It also worked just like the Mauser. In the ensuing court battle, the judgment went to Mauser. (Walk like a duck, talk like a duck. . . .) The United States government had to pay Paul Mauser royalties on every Springfield rifle made— right up until our entry into the First World War.
Simply “adopting” the Mauser would have been fine, but the board also “improved” it. Even though Mauser firing pins never broke, the board members required firing pins on their new Springfields that could be easily changed in the case of breakage. The single-piece Mauser pin was changed into a two-piece assembly. Thus improved, the easily changed Springfield firing pin broke regularly.
Nor did the improvements stop there. The Mauser receiver held five rounds. All could be fired in quick succession if necessary. The Springfield had a lever on the side called a “magazine cutoff.” To prevent the troops from panic-firing all five rounds, the cutoff lever restricted the rifle to single shots. The soldier had to push the lever to its off setting to gain firepower. Instead of increasing soldier safety, the cutoff made soldiers vulnerable. It also added moving parts, springs, and machining to the rifle, which created their own headaches.
It was the receiver, however, that gave the Springfield its crown in overrated history. A receiver acts like the frame of the rifle, holding the barrel and allowing the bolt to push cartridges into the chamber. The less friction in the process, the faster the cycling action, and the Army board wanted fast cycling. Fast cycling requires hard steel, because hard steel has less friction. But hard steel can also be more brittle.
The U.S. Army fought World War I with brittle rifles. By the mid-twenties over a million of them had been withdrawn from service and destroyed. The Army bought Springfields until 1945, and to this day the National Rifle Association issues safety warnings on the brittle receivers of these rifles.
Yet no rifle has ever had more praise, attention, and love lavished on it than the 1903 Springfield.
Underrated Every major combatant went into the Second World War issuing bolt-action rifles to its troops. After the war many military establishments decided they needed better tools than those with which they had just fought. Since there was no war imminent and they were changing the rifle, many decided also to look at the cartridge.
The American .30-06, the British .303, and the German 8-mm Mauser were powerful long-range rounds, fully capable of delivering a killing blow at 1,000 yards. Under the circumstances of the recent war, however, long-range effectiveness had proved itself less important than a variety of other factors. It was the Germans fighting on the Eastern Front who first confronted this conundrum: that more could actually be less. Far from killing at 1,000 yards, few soldiers fired at a man even 300 yards away. Even in the vast, wide-open steppes of Russia, the average combat distance was closer to 50 yards. So why carry the five-shot Mauser rifle? Why suffer the recoil its powerful cartridge generated?
A less powerful rifle could weigh less, and a lighter weapon allowed a soldier to carry more ammunition. The more ammo a soldier could carry, the more ammo he could fire. Although it was counterintuitive, a less powerful rifle translated into a more powerful soldier.
The Belgian firm of Fabrique National came out with the 280 FAL. While much the same size and weight as World War II vintage rifles, it fired a smaller cartridge. Still quite powerful and effective, the cartridge weighed less and kicked back less than the conventional M1 Garand’s. This combination—a large, rugged rifle, low recoil, and useful effective range—should have been a winner. It used a 20-round box magazine instead of the 5-or 8-shot clips of earlier rifles. An empty magazine could be replaced in a few seconds. Any combat unit armed with the 280 FAL could carry more ammo, fire, and reload more quickly than a unit carrying older vintage rifles with heavier cartridges. It could dominate the battlefield.
The 280 FAL should have become the rifle of choice for the U.S. Army. Instead, U.S. Army Ordnance would have none of it. They insisted on retaining their 1,000-yard firepower and refused to consider any cartridge that couldn’t deliver at over a half-mile. So they chose the M14, which was in truth just an updated M1 Garand.
Within a few years the United States was embroiled in Vietnam. In the jungle we finally understood what the Germans had learned years earlier on the Eastern Front: that a 1,000-yard rifle is a spectacularly unsuitable weapon for many types of combat. In an overreaction, the Department of Defense quickly recalled the M14 and adopted the M16. A light, handy, low-recoil rifle with an effective range more suited to actual combat distances, the M16 seemed just the tool for the war we were fighting. But it just wasn’t perfected— then or now. The original barrels weren’t hard-chromed and were unreliable in the jungle. Accuracy was less than excellent. The magazines remain fragile to this day.
The worst of it is that none of this had to happen. The 280 FAL was fully capable of combat in the jungles. It could be made lighter, shorter, and with a folding stock for ease of transport. It was extremely durable (magazines are famous for working even after being run over by a car or truck). Had the 280 FAL been adopted when tested in 1950, the U.S. would not have gone down the dead end of the M14 and would not have had to start all over again in the 1960s with the M16. The 280 FAL would have served well in Vietnam and still be serving as well in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 280 FAL—the best rifle that never had a chance.