Don’t stake your life on it

Ken Pratley on a hit-and-miss Canadian curio

After  the Boer War the Canadian Government encountered problems with the British when they wanted to produce Lee-Enfield rifles domestically under licence. To get around those difficulties they accepted an offer by Scottish aristocrat Sir Charles Ross to build a factory producing a straight-pull military rifle of his own design.

Ross had originally produced straight-pull Ross rifles in the Mk.1 and Mk.2 which had conventional two-lug bolts. Both had demonstrated exceptional accuracy on the range and the Mk.1 had seen service with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mk 1s issued had proved unsatisfactory and their replacement Mk.2s only saw limited service, most being destroyed in a warehouse blaze. In both these rifles the magazine follower had to be depressed with an external lever to load the magazine.

The 1910 Mk.3 Canadian Government model was a different design in many ways to those earlier ones, having interrupted thread locking lugs and could be loaded from a stripper clip, unlike the two earlier ones. The Mk.3 had a five-round straight stack magazine located in front of the trigger guard and was the rifle to accompany Dominion forces to the front in WWI.

Sam Hughes, the Canadian Minister of Defence, had known Sir Charles Ross in South Africa during the Boer War, where he’d been well impressed by the long-range marksmanship of the Boers using Mauser rifles. This prompted him to lend enormous support to Ross in his efforts to build an accurate service rifle for Canada, with Hughes’ support of the Scot becoming unwavering to the point of obsession.

As a result the dire failings of the rifle in combat were largely ignored or brushed aside by Hughes. Third Division commander Brigadier General M.S. Mercer even warned the Canadian government that: “To withhold the Lee-Enfield and compel Canadian troops to use the Ross would be criminal in the extreme.” When British First Division commander Lt General Edwin Alderson criticised the rifle and recanted the order to court-martial any Canadian soldier found throwing away his Ross and picking up a Lee-Enfield, he did not endear himself to Hughes.

Later when Alderson was commander in chief of the Canadian forces, Hughes succeeded in having him removed, accusing Alderson of being incapable of holding the Canadian divisions together. Eventually General Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British  Expeditionary Force, stepped in and had the Ross replaced in Canadian service by the SMLE and P14.

So why did the Ross Mk.3 prove so unreliable and unpopular in WWI? Well for a start, at 9.75lb (almost 4.5kg) it’s a heavy rifle and not well balanced, with the centre of gravity too far forward which makes it difficult to steady. The forward weight is caused by an overly-long (30.5”) heavy barrel which seems to date from a time when a longer barrel was considered more accurate. Although it is in fact a highly accurate rifle as military firearms go, it would’ve been far better with a shorter barrel.

Bayonets for the Ross are not commonly encountered today, probably because they were inclined to fall off, especially in action. It was only added as an afterthought as the rifle wasn’t initially designed to carry one. Early on in production an inferior batch of alloy steel was used to make the bolts and as a consequence, burring occurred where the lugs hit the bolt stop/magazine cutoff. This caused resistance problems when the locking lugs on the bolt engaged with the lugs on the receiver.

Another problem with the rifle is it’s possible to fit the bolt into the carrier (sleeve) incorrectly, in which case the bolt won’t rotate sufficiently upon closing. With only marginal lockup the bolt could blow backwards and possibly leave the gun, causing serious injury or even death to the shooter. This problem was solved while the rifle was in service by fitting a pin which prevents the bolt from being screwed too far into the carrier (most Ross’s were modified in this way but the one I own hasn’t).

It’s possible to check visually whether the bolt is properly engaged, by looking along the cutout in the receiver which accommodates the extractor with extractor removed. It can be seen if the bolt lugs haven’t rotated 90 degrees from the open position and aren’t properly engaged (this is clearly visible). If you’re considering using a Ross, this is something that must be checked.

The main problem with the rifle in combat was the bolt was prone to jam in the closed position and there’s been much speculation as to why this was. The cause most often cited is mud and grit encountered in the trenches caused the jamming, especially considering the rifle’s close tolerances. Oversize British ammunition is also regarded as a cause. I’ve tried this oversize round theory as my rifle hasn’t had its chamber reamed to a larger specification, an operation carried out on many Mk.3s when the problem was encountered.

I found it’s possible to jam an oversize .303 case firmly in the chamber, with the interrupted thread locking system being part of the problem. On closing it tends to screw shut on the oversize cartridge case like a vice, aided by momentum of the closing thrust on the bolt, which is absent from the opening pull. I tried various WWII-era .303 rounds from different manufacturers and haven’t encountered jammed cases.

The straight-pull action also reduces the turning force on the bolt, unlike the usual action where the bolt handle manually rotates the bolt when lifted. The extractor is adequately large but primary extraction is weak and the camming effect reduced, as it begins immediately the carrier is drawn back. Many Canadian troops would take Lee-Enfields from fallen British soldiers in desperation just to have a rifle that would work reliably.

In my opinion it’s most likely that oversize British ammunition of the period was the principle cause of jamming, rather than mud and grit. Chambers were re-reamed on many Mk.3 Ross rifles in the field and this apparently reduced the problem in the trenches. Yet enlarged chambers can cause reloading problems for shooters today, and Ross rifles so modified should have the letters LC (large chamber) next to the calibre mark.

Two more issues surface when shooting this rifle. At the rearmost point of travel the bolt carrier can jam if you try to close it carelessly, thereby imparting too much lateral force on the carrier handle. This causes it to move sideways in the receiver guides relative to the rifle’s bore axis, stopping the bolt and carrier moving smoothly in the guideways. This is easily adjusted at the range but would no doubt be a source of panic in the heat of battle when the bolt wouldn’t close.

The other problem is cartridges must go into the magazine with the rim of the topmost one in front of the rim of the one below it. British .303” stripper clips fit very loosely into the clip guides on the Ross, which can cause rounds to enter the magazine often with one seated with the rim behind the rim of the case below. This will cause the round the bolt has picked up to hit the front of the magazine and fail to chamber, though if rounds are fed individually this doesn’t happen.

Having said all this, does the Ross have any good points? Probably not as an issue service one, though accuracy of the Mk.1 in pre-WWI competitions was legendary. The Mk.3 was just as accurate which made it an excellent sniper rifle and in this roll it was used extensively by the Canadians and British. The wooden fore-end was usually cut away in front of the barrel band, leaving the barrel protruding and unsupported.

A US-made Warner and Swazey prismatic scope was mounted on the left of the receiver and Canadian trooper Francis Pegahmagabow, a native American of the Ojibwe tribe, achieved 378 confirmed kills with a Mk.3 Ross equipped with such a scope. Many Ross sniper rifles were also fitted with Winchester A5 scopes. The gun is fast and easy to cycle and performs well with suitable ammunition and has an excellent trigger. It has remarkably good combat sights though possibly somewhat delicate for a service rifle.

It’s a solidly-built rifle, well fitted and finished but poorly blued (it also has a walnut stock). The seven-lug bolt is extremely strong and was originally designed to accommodate the .280 Ross cartridge. This had appeared in the Ross Mk.2 with Sir Charles hoping it would be adopted as a Canadian military round. Basically it was a circa-1906 rimless magnum round, approaching 3000ft/sec muzzle velocity.

When the Ross was deemed unsuitable for military service, the Canadians exchanged them for British SMLEs and the new P14. During WWII the Ross’s which had been in storage were issued to the British Home Guard, and these can be found with HG stamped on the stock. In WWI some of the rifles the British had obtained were issued to the Royal Marines.

At the outbreak of WWI, two battleships were being built by Vickers Armstrong for the Chilean Navy. The Almirante Cochrane and Almirante Latorre were bought by the British to add to the fleet, the latter renamed HMS Canada which saw action at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Ross rifles were issued to the Royal Marine detachment aboard HMS Canada while it was in British service.

After the war the ship was sold back to Chile along with the Ross’s and renamed Almirante Latorre (the Cochrane was converted into the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle). The serial number DA 347 on my Ross is a Chilean Admiralty number, DA being Department de Armada, the Chilean Admiralty. The original Canadian serial number is stamped on the stock, 3710 over a line with the date 1915 below it.

On September 1, 1931 there was a mutiny by Chilean sailors over a reduction in pay, which initially involved the Latorre then several other ships. The mutineers capitulated within a week, after the government initiated an ineffective airstrike (five of the bombers were hit by anti-aircraft fire from the Latorre, which escaped unscathed). At the outset of the mutiny the officers were rounded-up and held prisoner by the crew and it’s quite likely the Ross rifle I have was used in this incident. The rifles stayed with the ship until it was broken up in Japan in 1959 and were then bought by a Canadian company and sold on the civilian market.

Over the years I’ve probably fired a couple of thousand rounds through my Ross and not once had the slightest hint of a round sticking in the chamber (except in the above mentioned experiments.) Headspace and chamber gauges show everything well within tolerance. However, I have encountered occasions when the bolt carrier was not aligned properly in its rearmost position and didn’t slide straight into battery. Furthermore, the case rims hanging up on the cartridge rim below has sometimes jammed the bolt in the open position.

When I bought my Ross it was caked in hardened grease, possibly from the time it spent aboard a battleship. When cleaned up it was revealed to be in excellent original condition, with none of the unwanted wartime modifications. It does, however, have what’s probably a battlefield repair, where a piece of walnut has been carefully inset and pinned in place with small dowels at the front of the comb.

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