The Krag-Jorgensen rifle is often seen as the red headed stepchild of American military bolt action rifles. Built in the 1890’s when other countries were adopting robust and easy to use Mauser style actions, and around the same time the British brought out the venerable, fast shooting SMLE, the Krag is neither exceptionally robust, or fast shooting. In fact, when actually used in combat against Mauser armed Spanish troops, American soldiers found themselves at a distinct disadvantage both in terms of ballistics and rate of fire. All this lead to the eventual abandonment of the Krag, and the creation of the Mauser influenced M1903 Springfield. The lack of long term military use, the odd rimmed .30-40 Krag cartridge, and the limited civilian adoption of that round, plus the unusual design of the Krag itself, all combined to ensure the gun, and round would be relegated to obscurity within a couple of generations after the introduction of the rifle. It truly was a technological and evolutionary dead end in American military rifles. However, none of that is to say it is a bad rifle, simply an obsolete one that did not do the job it was intended for very well, but still holds a place in American military and sporting history.
In the early 1890’s the United States decided to modernize their issued rifle, as the Model 1873 Springfield was growing increasingly long in the tooth. The era of single shot blackpowder rifles was over, and bolt action repeaters shooting smokeless powder cartridges were here to stay. After a series of trials which included such famous rifles as the Mauser and Lee-Enfield, the US rather inexplicably settled on the Krag-Jorgensen. It may be most telling that the US Army at that time had always been a bit more conservative than was healthy. During the Civil War, Chief of Ordnance General James Ripley rather famously denounced breech loading rifles as “newfangled gimcracks” and absolutely abhorred repeating rifles. This change resistant culture survived through the 19th century, and lead to the adoption of a rifle that was seen less as a five shot repeating rifle, but rather a single shot rifle with a four round magazine in reserve. You see, the Krag, like the Lee-Enfield (which was also issued by a country coming in from single shot rifles, and again featured a highly conservative military leadership) featured a magazine cutoff, which rendered the magazine unable to feed until the cutoff switch was turned.
Unsurprisingly, the idea was, as during the Civil War, to conserve ammunition and not “waste” rounds. With that in mind, the inconveniences of the peculiar Krag design were trivial against the theory of holding the magazine in reserve for a fierce firefight. However, the strange tactical thinking of the US Army was quickly shown to be flawed during the Spanish American War, when the Mauser armed Spanish used their bolt action rifles as the fast firing repeaters that they were. Faced with troops armed with stripper clip loaded bolt action rifles, the US Army realized the inherent flaws in the Krag’s system, and would of course adopt the 1903 Springfield a few years later.
Now, having given a highly condensed version of the trials and tribulations of the Krag rifle, let’s take a closer look at it. Chambered in the obsolete .30-40 Krag, this rimmed cartridge was named using the old blackpowder nomenclature of caliber and propellant charge. In this case, the Krag was loaded with a .30 caliber bullet over 40 grains of period smokeless powder, making it 25 percent more powerful than the .30-30 Winchester. Because the Krag loads from a box magazine, the modern reloader is blessed with a huge array of bullets to choose from, and are not hampered by the need to avoid pointed bullets like .30-30 shooters are. However, brass is nearly impossible to find, although Graf and Sons does sell new production brass for about a dollar a round, and you can purchase newly loaded ammo from Ammunition to Go. Either way, shooting the Krag is strictly a reloader’s game, as commercial ammo is scarce, and all major US ammo companies have ceased production of this round.
The side loading, gravity fed box magazine which made the Krag such a liability in combat is exactly what endeared it to hunters throughout the early to mid 20th century. Unlike conventional bolt action rifles where the traditional box magazine exerts upward pressure on the bolt as it travels, the Krag’s bolt is free to glide smoothly, making opening or closing the bolt a buttery smooth feeling. In other words, the slick, smooth operation of the Krag is a net positive for the sport shooter who does not have to worry about quickly reloading in combat.
Smooth functioning aside, the other key advantage the Krag had among sporters was the low cost of surplus rifles, and the greater power the .30-40 had over other traditional deer rifles. Popular for decades among hunters of the East Coast, the Krag offered a cost and performance benefit over the .30-30 when hunting deer in thick brush or hilly terrain. Out west, the .30-40 was widely seen in post gold rush Alaska, where it was for a time, the most powerful smokeless cartridge available (several commercial rifles were chambered in .30-40) and after WWI, when surplus Lee-Enfields were available on the US market, many of those were rebarreled to .30-40 by Alaskans as well. Originally issued with a 220 grain bullet moving at about 2000 feet per second, modern bullet choices allow for a greater variety of projectile choices.
Today, as we close the second decade of the 21st century, the Krag is an oddity. Over a century of use has left us with a scattered array of unmodified military Krags, and a great many sporterized Krags of various quality, ranging from skilled conversions to bubba hack jobs. The hunters who once valued this rifle are mostly dead or too hold to take to the hills anymore, and the lack of commercial ammo has retired grandpa’s weird old deer rifle to the back of the gun safe. So while unmodified or restorable Krags are gaining in value, there remain countless more sporter Krags that are worth very little, save as a source of parts, nostalgia or curiosity.
A Brief Rundown of Krag Models
Despite being produced for only a few years, there are a surprising number of Krag variants, which can be readily broken down into two main types- carbines and rifles. Unsurprisingly the carbines are the rarest and most valuable (and also the most faked), while the rifle variants are more common. Both types were regularly rebuilt and updated as changes in sights or other small parts were introduced, so it is not uncommon to find rifles with later model sights- making correct year of manufacture configurations even more desirable.
- M1892 Rifle- the original Krag rifle with a 30” barrel
- M1896 Rifle- updated with different sights, a slightly thicker stock, and other small variations
- M1896 Carbine- similar to the M1896 Rifle, but with a rear sight calibrated for the shorter 22” barrel
- M1898 Rifle- the most common version found, similar to the M1896, only with various small upgrades
- M1898 Carbine- again, a carbine with the various M1898 upgrades
- M1899 Carbine- a minor variant of the M1898, it deleted the saddle ring and had a longer forearm
- M1899 Constabulary Carbine- one of the most desirable Krag variants aside from experimental versions, this carbine was made for use by the Philippine Constabulary, it is essentially an M1899 carbine with a full length stock and bayonet lug.
There were also a number of experimental and test rifles, as well as some that were rebarreled to .22 Hornet for use on indoor firing ranges for National Guard training. These rifles were modified locally, and some variation exists on that basic theme.
The Krag Today
As noted, the Krag is obsolete and outclassed by just about every metric. Commercial ammo is expensive and hard to find, although handloading eliminates this common complaint. The modest power of the rifle is eclipsed by other thirty caliber center fire rounds, and the last Krag rolled off the assembly line in 1903. While some commercial rifles in .30-40 persisted into the 1910’s, and there have been a handful of modern single shots or reissues in .30-40, you are pretty much stuck dealing with wheezing old 19th century bolt action rifles if you want to shoot this round. For the collector, unmodified Krags are a real investment, as the value of US martial arms of all types continues to increase. For the shooter, a modified Krag requires a dedication to the rifle and the round. Barrels may be pitted and corroded, requiring replacement, and accessories for these rifles have not been made for generations (although there are still several scope mounts which can be adapted to these guns). Krags that have not had their receivers drilled and tapped for scopes or peep sights may be restorable with original and reproduction parts, which means that dusty old sporter nobody is buying might be worth picking up if enough of it remains to be rebuilt. Otherwise the Krag remains the rifle of people who fondly remember when it was more common in the woods, or those who appreciate both the unusual and historical.
If you are going to buy an unmodified military Krag, do your homework. There are a number of new and rare books that will help you understand what you are getting into. Brophy’s The Krag Rifle is both sadly out of print, and also the definitive guide to the Krag. Barring that, there are several other great books to choose from, including Poyer’s The American Krag Rifle and Carbine and Skenerton’s .30-40 United States Krag Rifle and Carbine Any of these books will give you a good grounding in understanding the Krag rifle and carbine. Online resources include The Krag Collector’s Association who can also help you research your Krag’s serial number.
If you are buying a sporter, well there are a lot to choose from. During the 1920’s the NRA sold a number of Krag rifles that had been modified to a carbine length at Benicia Arsenal for civilian sales. These were cut down to 22” carbine length, fitted with 1903 Springfield barrel bands, and dropped into a carbine stock. The “NRA carbine” as they are now known are top quality conversions, and if you can find one with original paperwork are very valuable. Otherwise, lacking paperwork, even the best quality carbine sporter conversions are only worth a few hundred bucks. You can also find less skillful carbine length sporters out there, real carbines set in sporter stocks (I have one, and it is also drilled for a scope- a real heartbreaker), cut down rifles, unmodified rifles in cut down and shortened stocks, and just about every other possible thing you might think of. The other Krag in my collection is a cut down M1898 rifle where the original stock was shortened and modified, a peep sight fitted, and a ramp front sight somewhat crudely soldered on. You’ll find many of these functional, but semi-professional modifications out there, and they are a cheap way to get a shooter. You may also find drill rifles, that have been heavily chromed. Many Krags were given to the American Legion, VFW, etc… and used for drill rifles. These will typically have rotted out bores, but may be good candidates for restoration with a new barrel.
Today, 115 years after the last Krag-Jorgensen rifle was made at Springfield, this old warhorse has become a footnote in the history of US rifles. While it managed to make it over to France in WWI in the hands of rear guard troops, most of it’s combat history was in the Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection. It remained in the hands of various state militias and National Guard units longer than the US Army issued it, but by the 1920’s it was quite thoroughly obsolete. While surplus stocks of arms and ammo lasted, it remained popular with civilian shooters due to the low price, and pleasing operation of the rifle. Cut down and modified, it was a classic knockabout rifle that offered handy utility at a low price. But without a constant refreshing of new rifles and replacement parts, this red-headed stepchild of US military arms has quietly faded into the background. Surviving military rifles are too valuable to sporterize, and surviving sporters are too expensive or worn out to shoot regularly. There will never be a Krag renaissance, simply because their time has fully past. If you have an old Krag, take it out, wipe off the dust and look it over. It once was some soldier’s modern combat arm, and probably somebody’s favorite deer rifle. The US Krag is a tangible reminder of decades in American history that shaped the world, and saw the rise of the American 20th Century. Go ahead, get some ammo, put some rounds downrange. Maybe take it hunting. It’s earned one more go round.
Photos by Oleg Volk.
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