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“The hasty condemnation by the War Office in 1902 marks the beginning of a controversy which lasted for a quarter of a century; in Canada few topics received so much attention in the press, in Parliament, on the ranges and in the Militia throughout the country.”
Appendix 111, The Ross Rifle Monogram
I have a brief scene in the novel were Count Jaggi overhears Major-General Sam Hughes discuss problems with the Ross rifle. They meet at a Russell House Hotel reception held after the opening of Parliament. The reception was a meet and greet hosted by Grand Trunk Railway executives.
Shortly after the Boer War the Canadian government wanted to re-equip the Canadian Army with a modern rifle. They wanted to buy or build the .303 Lee-Enfield that was just coming into service with the British Army. It would be the British Army’s main infantry weapon until 1957.
When the British government denied Canada’s request, a committee searched for a suitable rifle. Sam Hughes, later the Minister of Militia and Defence, was a member of the committee. Sir Robert Ross, a British aristocrat and rifle designer, offered his new rifle for evaluation.
The rifle went through a serious of trials but failed two of twelve tests. It failed the pressure and the firing 1,000 rounds reliability tests. Ross assured the committee that the problems would be fixed in production.
Ross also promised his rifle would be manufactured in Canada. The Ross Rifle plant was eventually built in Quebec, near the Plains of Abraham.
Two months after the contract was signed the British Government expressed their misgivings about the Ross rifle. They stated that it was vitally important that the “uniformity of pattern in the weapons with which the forces of the Empire are armed” would, in time of war, ensure that the “efficient maintenance of supply in the field can be maintained.”
In 1903 the first 1,000 Mark 1 Ross rifles were delivered to the RNWMP police for trails. Due to mechanical and reliability problems the rifles were returned. A committee was formed, Commissioner Sherwood of the Dominion Police was a member of the committee, to make recommendations for safety and reliability improvements. This resulted in the Mark 11 in 1905. Also, a mount for a bayonet was added which the Mark 1 did not have.
The rifle was under constant development. In 1910 the Mark 111 was introduced. It would become the rifle that the CEF would use for the first half of the war. One of the major changes was the redesign of the magazine, the metal box in front of the trigger guard.
The Ross was a very accurate rifle. Between 1907 to 1913 the rifle won numerous shooting awards at the annual Bisley Service Rifle competitions held in England.
There were reports and complains of the Ross rifle jamming during combat operations. When the Ross was tested they discovered that the Ross fired smoothly with Canadian made ammunition but jammed when British made ammunition was used. The main reason was that the British made .303 cartridge case was slightly larger than the Canadian made ammunition. The British .303 could be used in the Ross but it was a tight fit.
A tight fit can cause a rifle to jam. When a cartridge is fired, the heat from the escaping gases causes the cartridge to expand slightly. A tight fit becomes even tighter. Extracting the spent cartridge then can become difficult.
There were two solutions to the jamming: ensure a sufficient supply of Canadian ammunition or enlarge the chamber in the Ross to accommodate British ammunition. Since the British couldn’t guarantee sufficient supplies of the Canadian .303, and that some Canadian troops were abandoning the Ross for the Lee-Enfield the decision was made to retire the Ross from active service. By September 1916, all Canadian troops were re-equipped with the Lee-Enfield.
The Ross rifle continued to be used as a sniper rifle because of its long range accuracy.
Ross rifles were reused during the WW11. They were issued to home defence units such as the Veteran’s Guard of Canada, the Royal Canadian Navy, and home defence units in Great Britain.
Approximately 420,000 Ross rifles were produced from 1903 to 1916. The bulk of the rifles was for the Canadian Army. About 100,000 went to the British Army.
When the United States entered the war, they bought 20,000 MK11 for training purposes. There were shortages of the Springfield rifle, the US Army’s main infantry weapon. The available Springfields were needed for their front-line troops.
Ross Rifle, The Royal Canadian Regiment
Duguid, A.F., Appendix 111, The Ross Rifle Monogram, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914-1919, Vol I Part 2, 1938.