World War One: A History of Weapons in the Great War

photo of world war one soldiers holding weapons used in the great war

The Weapons Of World War I

It was called the war to end all wars, but rather than signaling an end to future international conflict, World War I merely laid the foundation for the even greater carnage of World War II.

The war, which was unprecedented in the slaughter it caused, raged on from 1914 through 1918 before ending with the Treaty of Versailles. It had been fought between the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey—and the Allies of France, England, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States.

Before it ended with the defeat of the Central Powers., the war had taken the lives of more than 9 million soldiers, with 21 million more having been wounded. There were also close to 10 million civilian casualties. Germany and France had each sent approximately 80 percent of their male populations between the ages of 15 and 49 into battle. 

Much of the death and destruction from World War I can be attributed to technological advancements that had come about just before the war. Tanks, poison gas, and flamethrowers helped raise the death toll, as did aircraft and their sea carriers. But wars are waged mostly on the ground by infantrymen with hand-held firearms. Here are six of the most prominent weapons that were used by both sides during the Great War:

Springfield Model 1903

photo of the M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle
The M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle was carried by the U.S. infantry in World War I.

The M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle was produced at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts and the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. It was carried by the U.S. infantry when the country entered World War I in 1917. And by that time, nearly 850,000 of them had been produced.

Its .30-06 cartridge would become the standard for American rifles, both as weapons and as sporting rifles. The Springfield had a 24” cavalry-style barrel and was lighter than its predecessors, the Krag-Jorgensen rifles, at 8.7 pounds.

When American “doughboys” entered World War I, they were equipped with arguably the best bolt-action military rifle ever manufactured. Many first-hand reports were attesting to the effectiveness of the Springfield ’03 during the war. Some soldiers shared tales of the accuracy of the rifle at great distances. Others were impressed with its ability to absorb dirt and mud and continue operating without jamming.

Lee Enfield Rifle

photo of the Lee-Enfield rifle
The British Lee-Enfield rifle could hold twice the number of cartridges that the U.S. Springfield rifle could hold.

The Lee-Enfield was a British-made rifle that their army had adopted more than ten years before the start of the Great War. It fired .303 caliber ammunition from a rimmed cartridge. While not as accurate at longer ranges as the Springfield rifle, it could hold twice the number of cartridges (ten to the Springfield’s five) and was capable of a faster rate of fire. The British Acceptance Board, however, determined that allowing rapid magazine fire would encourage their troops to waste ammunition, so the rifle was to be used primarily as a single-loader with the magazine in reserve to be used only when necessary.

With about 17 million of them having been produced, the bolt-action Lee-Enfields remained the standard weapons of British infantry troops into World War II. Like the Springfield, it had a short barrel (25 inches) and was light-weight at 8.8 pounds. During the Great War, Australians, British, and New Zealanders were highly-trained in the tactics of rapid fire and accurate shooting, and the Lee-Enfield was the perfect rifle to employ them.

Luger P08

photo of the Luger P08 9mm pistol
The Luger P08 9mm pistol was a favorite of the German army during two world wars.

Named after its inventor, George Luger, the P08 nine-millimeter Luger pistol served the German army during two world wars. It was a recoil-operated, locked breech, semi-automatic handgun that had an eight-round capacity with a distinctive toggle-lock action instead of the slide action used in most other semi-auto pistols.

While the Luger is mostly associated with the Nazis of World War II infamy, it was the handgun of the Kaiser’s soldiers long before Hitler took power. Even before the Luger—also called the Parabellum Pistol—was officially chosen as the standard sidearm of the German Army in 1908, many German officers had already been purchasing the pistols privately, citing their quality, accuracy, and reliability.

Gewehr 98

photo of the Gewehr 98 rifle
The Gewehr 98 rifle was modified to be used by snipers in the trenches during World War I.

The Gewehr 98 was another German-produced weapon, this one a bolt-action Mauser rifle that fired 8.20mm spitzer bullets from a 5-round internal clip-loaded magazine.  Even though the rifle saw service mainly in World War I, it was a long-range weapon that was not suited for the close-quarter fighting of trench warfare. The significant length of the rifle (49”) and the minimum sight setting of 400 meters were particular handicaps for trench fighting.

In 1915, the German command decided to fit 15,000 Gewehr 98 rifles with telescopic sights so they could be used as sniper rifles. Although the Model 98 was not designed for use with aiming optics, changes were made to the bolt and stock to accommodate the scopes.

Winchester Model 1897

photo of the winchester 97 shotgun
The Winchester 97 shotgun was made for trench warfare, it excelled at close-quarters combat.

Maybe the Gewehr 98 was not the perfect weapon for trench warfare, but the Winchester 97 certainly was highly suited for it. The pump-action shotgun—available in 12 or 16 gauge with a 28” or 30” barrel—was the brainchild of prolific gun inventor John Moses Browning.

A tubular magazine under the barrel had a five-round capacity, and there was no disconnector in the fire-control system. The gun could be slam-fired by holding the trigger down and pumping the slide.  It’s no wonder the Winchester Model 1897 was popular in the trenches.

Colt Model 1917

photo of the colt model 1917
The Colt M1917 Revolver took a .45 ACP cartridge and used half-moon clips for faster reloading.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, they needed to ramp up production of all kinds of weapons, including small military arms. One of the companies that the government approached was Colt’s Manufacturing Company. Colt had already been producing a revolver for the U.S. Army called the M1909. It was a .45-caliber handgun that had replaced the old .38-calibers that had been used in the Philippine-American War and didn’t have adequate stopping power.

The Colt M1917 Revolver was not much different than the M1909 with the exception that the cylinder was bored out to take a .45 ACP cartridge, and half-moon clips were added to hold the rimless cartridges in position. At first, the clips were needed to keep the cartridges from slipping into the cylinder and away from the firing pin. Later, however, Colt machined headspacing into the cylinder chambers, and the M1917 could now be fired without the half-moon clips.

Over 300,000 of the Colt Model 1917 were manufactured and remained in active military service until 1954.

Enjoy reading this history of weapons article? Take a look at our Weapons Of WWII article on the Widener’s blog.

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