The 1885 Assault Rifle

Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher, who deserves to be better known, was born a bit too early to challenge John M. Browning for the firearms design crown of the 20th Century, but he was fully the American’s equal in ingenuity and productivity in the 19th Century. Mannlicher, an Austrian, who armed Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, and briefly Switzerland with rifles or carbines. He produced an array of interesting early semi-auto experiments on long-recoil, short-recoil, and gas principles; and he made contributions to the design of the German Model 1888 “Commission” rifle (principally a modified version of the magazine; unlike all other Mannlicher en-bloc or packet-loading clips, and like the M1 Garand clip, the Gew. 88 clip can go in either way up). Mannlicher passed away in 1903, while automatic weapons were still in their infancy, but the designs he worked on show an agile mind with a keen grasp of the engineering problems and possibilities.

Today, we’re looking at his Model 85 Automatic Rifle, which was so far ahead of its time it took ammunition about 30 years to catch up. At that, it had some one-off interesting features. At a glance, it looks a bit like a 1941 Johnson, which is not too shabby for 1885. Writing in 1946, WHB Smith had this to say:

In 1885 we find von Mannlicher producing the first of his automatic weapons a light machine gun which, considered in connection with present-day military arms, is a marvel of original design. This arm has been given very little attention by writers on firearms, but within its crude form it houses the origins of many of the basic principles which brought fame and fortune to later designers. Perhaps those designers never saw this Mannlicher of 1885, perhaps they pioneered for themselves the paths the great Austrian inventor trod long before those later men incorporated the principles in their weapons. In any event, von Mannlichees designs show the need for complete and continuing research in the field of all arms developments. Truly there is “nothing new under the sun;” and the inventor of the future may save years of time and work, and fortunes in money, by familiarizing himself with what has been done in his field by the great ones who preceded him.

Consider for a moment this light machine gun of 1885, an arm which was not successful because it was ahead of its time; because psychologically the military was not ready for it, and the metallurgist had not yet perfected the necessary steels for the arm nor the correct brass for the cartridge cases which would give the gun complete field reliability.

We would also say that it was ahead of its ammunition. It was chambered for the big fat (11 mm). blackpowder round of the Werndl rifle. (The rifle was an analog of our Allin-conversion trapdoor Springfield, and the Model 77 cartridge was a near analog of our .45-70 round, firing a .433-inch 370-grain bullet about 1,400 feet per second with 77 grains of black powder). Mannlicher had designed two rifles for this cartridge already, one with a tubular magazine, and one fed by a seven-round detachable gravity-fed magazine.

But the praise above wasn’t all Smith had to say about this gun. Next, he compared it the Browning machine guns. Bear in mind, he is writing all this circa 1945-46, and primarily for an audience that would have had a professional familiarity with the Browning 1917/1919/M2/M3 family of machine guns. .

Comparing the principles found in this arm with corresponding ones embodied in the latest U. S. Browning Machine Gun designs shows some remarkable similarities.

First, both use a short-recoil operating system. Barrel and breechblock recoil locked together until chamber pressure has dropped to safe limits; then the barrel is halted and the breech mechanism continues back to extract, eject and reload.

Second, both employ accelerators. When the barrel is halted, the accelerator is struck a sharp blow to transmit added impetus to the breech mechanism to assure proper functioning.

Third, the essential locking systems are similar. While the locks differ radically in shape and mounting, each arm nevertheless is locked by a wedge cammed up and down from below into a recess cut in the underside of the breechblock, the wedge in each case resting on an abutment in the floor of the receiver when locked.

Fourth, in principle, both use similar cocking systems. In each a pivoted finger lever has one end passing through a cut in the bolt into engagement with the striker pin acting to cock the firing mechanism by leverage during recoil.

Fifth, the positions of the operating (or recoil) springs which are mounted in the receiver to the rear of the breechlock (or bolt), are similar.

There are other resemblances; but these, as indicated in the drawings, serve to establish Mannlicher’s astonishing grasp of fundamental principles quite graphically. Several of the basic principles found in the most modern light machine guns of American and German design—notably the operating system, the action working in an extension of the barrel, mounting and positioning of parts—were originally used in this arm; while the top-mounted magazine which became a favorite in British, Japanese and Czech design in World War II was employed by Mannlicher in 1885 and even earlier.

It is believed that two prototypes of the 1885 rifle were made, one called “repeating rifle” (Repetier-Gewehr) and one “light machine gun” (Handmitrailleuse) and that neither survives today. Indeed, we were unable to find any unretouched photograph of this rifle. These drawings, from Smith, were drawn by the Steyr arsenal’s Konrad von Kromar, probably directly from Mannlicher’s original and since-lost prototypes, and were used in connection with a 1900 World’s Fair display.

Here is Smith’s detail description of the Model 85.

Model 85 Automatic Magazine rifle (and Light Machine Gun) with Recoiling Barrel and Detachable Gravity Magazine

(Automatisches Repetier-Gewehr (Handmitrailleuse) mit rückgehenden Lauf u. aufsteckbaren Magazin M. 85)

Original Caption – 
I. Right side view with gravity magazine loaded and in place.
2. Top view with action closed. This early recoil-operated, locked breech weapon was a forerunner of many of the most successful designs of light machine guns used in World War II; and first utilized basic principles later employed in many medium and heavy machine guns also

This truly remarkable weapon was introduced decades ahead of its time. Originally developed in 1883 by Mannlicher and introduced two years later as the Model 85, it was developed at a time when ammunition did not have the necessary reliability to permit of really fine automatic weapon performance. This arm was designed to handle the original Austrian Model 77 Werndl cartridge of 11-mm (.433) caliber whose characteristics have already been discussed.

This arm however anticipated many of the essential details of the successful recoil operated weapons of today.

Like the later Browning semi-automatic sporting rifles (which we know in the U.S. as the Remington Autoloading Rifle), the German light machine-guns of 1934 and 1942, and the American Johnson rifle and light machine-gun, this arm operated on the principle of a recoiling barrel floating within a barrel casing and being locked securely to the action during the moment of firing and high breech pressure.

A barrel return spring mounted around the barrel within the casing ahead of the firing chamber, and a straight-line action return spring mounted in prolongation of the bore directly behind the bolt, provided the motive power for returning the recoiling parts to firing position after they had been thrust rearward and unlocked by the recoil of the arm when fired.

The striker shaft-collar provided a front compression point for the striker spring.

The rear of the striker head was cut away from below to permit an arm of a pivoted cocking lever to rise inside the striker head much on the basic principle used in current Browning machine-guns.

The lower arm of this pivoted cocking lever rested on a slope in the receiver where it was in contact with the pivoted sear lever.

Original Caption — 1. Right side view cut away to show all details of weapon with firing chamber loaded and arm cocked ready to fire.
Pressure on the trigger will cause the trigger lever to pull down on the sear and withdraw it from the hammer-like cocking-piece within the bolt and striker. The compressed striker spring (or mainspring) will thrust the striker forward within the locked bolt to fire the cartridge. Note that the locking tongs are mounted on top of their block and lock faces on the tong are securely engaged in the corresponding under fates of the bolt. The member directly below the head of the cartridge case is the accelerator.
2. Receiver top view showing action cocked. Note that the feeding is done to the left of the line of sight. Leading finger Is gripping cartridge in feeder ready to pull it into line of forward travel of the bolt as the bolt passes to the rear to eject the cartridge case now in the chamber. This straight line system of recoil locking and operation has many points of similarity with the very latest American and European designs.

The recoil action did prove quite similar to the later Browning designs.

The Recoil Action

When the arm is ready to fire, the barrel and action are securely locked through a special “coupling tong” arrangement located below the breech. Locking recesses on the underside of the bolt are specially shaped to be engaged by the locking tongs and also to permit camming action during forward and rearward movement to unlock and lock.

At the moment of firing, the bottom tong rests on a ledge mounted in the receiver bottom plate, while the upper tong rests in a special lock cut in the underside of the breech block. The forward end of the moveable and slideable tong rests against a pivoted lever below the firing chamber as indicated in the drawings.

As the cartridge in the chamber is fired, the recoil transmitted through the head of the cartridge case to the face of the breech block starts the action to the rear. Since the units are firmly locked together, the barrel starts back against the action of its spring simultaneously with the rearward action of the breech parts.

As the rear of the tongs reaches the cam face on the supporting block, the cam surface in the bolt forces the tongs down out of engagement with the bolt locking recess.

A cam face on the front projection works against the curved lower arm of the accelerator. This pivots the upper end of the accelerator to speed up bolt travel, while the lower arm acts as a barrel stop.

The accelerator passes on its thrust to the bolt in the same general manner as the accelerator later developed by Browning for his famous U.S. .30 and 30 caliber machine-guns.

The rearward motion of the bolt forces the head of the cocking lever within it back and down (the Browning reverses this principle) so that the upper arm may guide the striker back until the sear lever drops into the cocking notch to hold it ready for the next pressure of the trigger. The rearward pull on the striker compresses the striker spring, since the front end of the spring rests on a collar midway along the striker pin. Meanwhile, the lower arm of the sear bar, which is attached to the trigger, has been drawn completely away from sear contact. The extractor in the bolt face draws the empty cartridge case back until the case hits against the ejector and is tossed out of the rifle. Meanwhile the powerful recoil spring mounted directly behind the bolt in prolongation of the bore is compressed against the rear end cap buffer.

Original caption-
1. Right side view at end of recoil stroke. The barrel mounted within its recoil easing is locked to the breech until it travels far enough to permit the locking tong to be cammed down off its block and out of engagement with the
underside of the bolt. At that time the barrel hits its stop and rearward travel Is halted. The bolt continues to the rear carrying the empty cartridge case in its face to strike against the ejector. Impetus transmitted through the pivoting accelerator hurls the bolt to the rear with added force as the barrel travel halts. The cocking fork of the cocking-piece is thrust up as it travels up its cam face; and its upper lever end seated in a notch in the striker draws the striker back to full cock much as in the present U. S. Browning machine gun. The recoil spring directly behind the bolt is compressed. Cartridges feed down the magazine by gravity, but the bolt acts on the feeder to pull a cartridge in line for feeding. Note that the sear under influence of its spring is holding the striker cocking-piece back.
2. Feeding details. The bolt is in full rear position and is pivoting the feeder with a cartridge into the feedway. The cartridge will be picked up and chambered on a forward bolt motion.

A cartridge feeds down through the gravity magazine into the feeding chamber to the left of the line of sight in tht receiver; and the final opening movement of the bolt hits against a rear section of the mechanical feed to lever a cartridge into line with the bolt ready to be picked up by the bolt for chambering as the action closes.

The recoil spring now reacts and drives the bolt assembly forward. The bolt picks up and chambers a cartridge. The cam surface on the underside of the bolt picks up the corresponding surface on the upper locking tong, and the tongs are pushed ahead and thrust up their ramp on to their locking support. The proper bolt surface hitting the accelerator on its upper face drives it forward and pivots the lower end in ready for action on the next recoil movement. The barrel return spring meanwhile has returned the barrel to full forward position. The tongs now resting on their ledge, their locking surfaces are engaged in the underside of the bolt. When the trigger is momentarily released, during semiautomatic fire, the trigger spring moves the trigger and sear lever up into position so the lever can hook into the front of the sear ready to draw it out of contact with the cocking piece to allow the firing pin to go forward for its next firing motion.

In its anticipation of the essential mechanical principles later utilized in practically every successful recoil operated weapon, this arm was a marvel of ingenuity unsurpassed in the field of automatic development. Had suitable ammunition been available and springs rather than gravity depended upon for feed, this arm might have revolutionized warfare long before World War II, at which time arms of this design were first really appreciated,

This arm was also made with a change lever permitting full automatic fire by automatically releasing the sear lever when the trigger was held back.

In this early design, von Mannlicher had solved most of the problems of light automatic weapons design before others had even begun to wrestle with these problems. But he’d invented himself out far ahead of the ammunition of his era. The coming small-caliber smokeless ammunition, more powerful and more reliable than the old Werndl rounds of the original Model 1885, would catalyze a new generation of firearms that would more than fulfill the 1885’s promise.

14 thoughts on “The 1885 Assault Rifle

  1. jim h

    huh…..now that’s just cool. I wonder what barrel temps would’ve done to reliability with those heavy slugs in sustained fire. but geez,can you imagine how a fully automatic black powder 1885 would’ve looked to an enemy when he saw it for the first time?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Colonel: “Where did the Austrians get all those Gatlings?”
      Intelligence officer (deadpan): “Steyr, probably.”

  2. rocketguy

    I can’t help but wonder how much current (and past) firearms innovation has been squashed by NFA regulations.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’ve often wondered about the same thing, but you know, you could probably actually do a study with patents per year pre-1934, 1934-1968, 1968-86, and 1986-up. Then try to come up with some quantifiable way to strip out confounding trends, like the growing maturity of the AW design base.

      Another interesting graph might be automatic weapons development compared to the relative value in constant dollars of transfer and manufacturing taxes, and licenses to pursue innovation. My theory is that when these taxes and license fees are high in constant value, they act as a Pigovian tax, depressing RDT&E activity; and when inflation diminishes their nuisance value in real constant dollars, private sector RDT&E rises. May be easier to work up a hypothesis on that that could be pursued with data readily at hand.

  3. DSM

    Fascinating read. One can only imagine the shape of world affairs had reliable, cased ammunition been available much sooner.

    A shop needs to take on the challenge to build one of these. I’d drop some coin on a crowdfunding effort.

  4. 6pounder

    Very good article. I’m familiar with the man but not with this particular gun. That was fascinating and I agree that it would be great to see one of those built and firing.

  5. Bert

    So, firing ONE large capacity BP rifle round makes a smoke cloud you have to wait for the wind to clear before continuing… What does a BURST do to target acquisition?!

    1. Sommerbiwak

      smoke screen generator and probably a weapon seized up with the residues of black powder. Even the externally powered (hand crank) gatling guns get clogged with dirt I. short time.

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