Lotta’s rifle

Finland’s fascinating M24 Mosin-Nagant, writes Ivo Dimitrov

The Finnish White Guard or Civil Guard (Suojeluskunta, literally protection corps) was a voluntary militia and part of the Finnish Whites movement which emerged victorious over the socialist Red Guards in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. Finland had been a semi-autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire since 1809 until the 1917 February Revolution in Russia caused the collapse of Russian political and military power in Finland. The Russian-associated Finnish police were effectively disbanded and in the summer of 1917 paramilitary groups were formed for protection and to preserve order.

Although the founding of these units was often done in a non-partisan manner, influenced by events in Russia they split into two opposing factions (aReds pro-socialist and Whites non-socialist) during the autumn of 1917. The Red Guards usually were able to obtain arms from revolutionary Russian military units while the White Guards took theirs from Swedish and German supporters abroad.

Finnish President Pehr Evind Svinhufvud proposed a Declaration of Independence which the Parliament adopted in December 1917, yet declaring independence was different to being able to exercise control over the country with the conservative dominated Senate (Finnish cabinet) having nothing but the White Guards to rely on. There were substantial numbers of Russian soldiers still in Finland at that time and although the Imperial Russian Army was slowly disintegrating and had already started to withdraw its units from Finland, it still posed a real challenge to Finnish authority.

In January 1918 the non-socialist majority gave authorisation to the Senate to ask General Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (who’d served in the Imperial Russian Army) to form a new Finnish Army on the basis of the White Guard militia. During the night of January 27-28, 1918 the White Guards started to disarm and arrest the Russian garrisons in Ostrobothnia while the executive committee of the Red Guards declared the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic in Helsinki, sparking the Finnish Civil War.

Neither the Red nor White Guard had military training so structures had to be built in a hurry by both sides. The White Army held the advantage as it received Finnish Jaeger troops, some 1900 men trained by Germany since 1915 to fight against Russia for independent Finland, these soldiers able to act as instructors and officers, forming the officer and NCO cadre of the new conscript army. Additionally the White side had 1200 volunteers from Sweden (many of them officers) and a significant number of Finnish officers who’d previously served in the Imperial Russian Army but returned home after the revolution.

After four months of bitter fighting the White Guard triumphed and following the civil war the White Guard and Army were split into separate entities with the Civil Guard considered a voluntary part of the Finnish military. After 1921 the Civil Guard organisation consisted of a General Staff, White Guard districts and local Civil Guard chapters, every municipality having at least a single chapter which in part acted as a non-governmental organisation but in military affairs was part of the national chain of command.

In economic terms each chapter was responsible for its own funding, although it received a minor grant from the state budget. The Civil Guard was active in numerous areas of Finnish life and organised sports activities, especially cross-country skiing, shooting, orienteering and Finnish baseball. For fundraising the chapters organised informal events and lotteries with the chief of the Civil Guard and district chiefs selected by the President of Finland. Only able-bodied males aged between 17 and 40 could be full members of the Guard with every member required to attend a specified amount of training. Members were obliged to buy their own uniform, equipment and rifle with help from local chapters and until 1934 the Guard would’ve formed a division on full-scale mobilisation.

In 1934 the Finnish mobilisation system changed to a new one based on military districts acting as local mobilisation centres (in practice the military districts coincided with White Guard districts). In case of mobilisation these two would be unified to act as a single home front district, the aim of the Guard no longer to provide ready fighting units but to act as a voluntary training organisation for reservists, effectively ending the role of the Guard as a separate political armed force.

After the Continuation War the Finnish Civil Guards were disbanded in 1944 as demanded by the Soviet Union though the military district system as the basis for mobilisation was retained, now fully as an army structure. In the Winter War the White Guard was responsible for carrying out mobilisation, a quarter of the manpower of the field army consisting of Guard members which proved important, as these were the best trained and equipped personnel in an army which lacked a lot of basic supplies in 1939.


Focus on the M24

Finland found itself with almost 200,000 M91 Mosin-Nagant rifles in its possession after breaking away from Russian rule in 1917. In addition it bought around 100,000 more M91s primarily from Central Powers countries like Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria who’d captured them in World War One, those rifles forming the basis of Finnish infantry arms until the adoption of a self-loading rifle many decades later.

Initially Russian rifles were simply refurbished but the Army and Civil Guard quickly found the Model 1891 pattern wanting and began developing improvements. The two organisations managed their arm production independently until ultimately the Army and Civil Guard came together to design the apogee of Mosin-Nagant evolution, the M39, but that’s another story.

One of the earliest Finnish arsenal rebuilding programs was undertaken by the Finnish Civil Guard (Suojeluskunta) to refurbish worn-out Russian M91 rifles into the M24 as most M91s had been in continuous use for about 30 years at that stage. The Suojeluskunta sought bids from companies in Switzerland and Germany to produce replacement barrels, the initial contract awarded in 1923 to Swiss firm Schweizerische Industrie-Gesellschaft (SIG) in Neuhausen am Rheinfall.

The Civil Guard-SIG relationship persisted into the future as SIG supplied the first batch of barrels for the M28 which replaced the M24. Another contract to a German arms consortium made up of Venus Waffenfabrik and Romerwerke was awarded in 1924, SIG barrels marked ‘Schweiz-Industrie Gesellschaft Neuhausen’ on the right of the chamber just above the stock with German barrels bearing ‘Böhler-Stahl’ on the underside of the chamber, after the steel manufacturer-barrel blank maker.

The first order of 3000 Swiss SIG barrels were dimensionally identical to those on the M91 with  the remaining SIG barrels and German-made barrels being heavier. The diameter of the barrel was increased by about 1mm to improve accuracy and these were produced with a ‘stepped barrel’ near the muzzle to accommodate the standard Russian Imperial bayonet. The M24 barrels are undated and have the Finnish Civil Guard crest (an S topped with three fir sprigs in a shield) on top of the chamber.

The rifles were fitted with two-piece spliced stocks less prone to warping in cold temperatures while changes were made to deepen the barrel channel in the forestock, a deeper handguard inlet and improved trigger with a coil spring added to take up trigger slack and improve trigger pull, these changes introduced in mid-1925. Many rifles were also fitted with a cross bolt through the forestock just behind the nose cap to retain the front barrel band so the barrel band could be left loose, thereby eliminating a pressure point and increasing accuracy.

Eventually the Finns did away with this modification in favour of using small wood screws to secure the loosened barrel bands. The Konovalov stepped rear sight was retained but renumbered from arshins to meters while the front sight was replaced with an improved notched one for better visibility in lowlight conditions. The Finns didn’t make any receivers or bolts, opting instead to recycle those of their existing stock of M91s.

Assembly of the M24 was at Suojeluskuntain Ase-ja Konepaja Osakeyhtiö, the Finnish Civil Guard workshop that would eventually become better known as SAKO, funds for the refurbishment of the M24s raised by the Civil Guard women’s auxiliary known as the Lotta Svärd, the M24 later nicknamed ‘Lottakivääri’ or ‘Lotta’s rifle’ by troops who carried it into battle in at least three wars.

Production ceased in 1928 but the M24 remained in service until the Guard was disbanded in October 1944 as part of the Armistice conditions with the Soviet Union, Civil Guard guns then turned over to the regular army with most marked SA (Suomen Armeija – Finnish Army). Due to the low number of M24s made and high loss and attrition rates during the Winter War, Continuation War and Lapland War, the M24 is highly sought-after by collectors, production running from 1924-1928 with an estimated 26,000-27,000 rifles made.

One example has a German-made barrel which has been stepped down. On the side of the receiver is the Civil Guard district number (S73678 which corresponds to Suur-Saimaa) to which it was issued but has been crossed out and the rifle reissued to another Civil Guard district with the number 73452 (which corresponds to Lahti). This has also been subsequently crossed out, presumably after the Guard was disbanded.

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