Editors’ picks for the rifles that changed the world.
1. M1 Garand: The M1 Garand is at the top of my list because it was the world’s first general-issue semi-automatic service rifle. It is a portrait of America’s industrial wealth. No other Axis or Allied nation could build a gun as complex and expensive to manufacture as the M1 Garand on a grand scale.
2. Mauser 98: The Mauser 98 was the most widely produced and longest-serving bolt-action rifle of the 20th century. Its clip-loading feature was widely copied. Unlike the AK47, Mausers were not given away or sold at a loss. Armies around the world chose it and paid top dollar to buy it or build it under license.
3. AK-47: The AK-47 has a cool rock-star mystique that it hasn’t earned. In terms of performance, it may be the most over-rated military rifle of the last century. It’s less of a rifle than the StG44, the gun it was modeled on. That said, few guns can match its impact on history and politics. It was certainly a significant instrument of Soviet Power.
4. 1853 Enfield: It was not the first rifle-musket, but the 1853 Enfield was certainly the most widely used and copied.
5. M16: Shooters generally love the M16 or hate it. There is no in-between. Put me down in the love column. On road marches I cherished it for its light weight. On the qualification range I cherished it for its accuracy. There is no rifle I feel more confident with.
6. StG 44: The StG44 doubled the firepower of the infantry squad equipped with it. Every soldier in the squad had both a rifle and a submachine gun in his hands. Though its service life was short, the StG44 was the first infantry rifle whose performance matched with 20th century infantry combat doctrine and practice.
7. Enfield SMLE: Though not as durable as the M98, Enfield SMLE was lighter, more compact and thanks to its cock-on-closing striker and turned-down bolt handle, faster to load and cycle.
8. FN-FAL: The FN-FAL was NATO’s standard rifle, as such it was dubbed the “Free World’s Right Arm.” Its heavy trigger makes it hard to shoot well, but then you cannot praise its firepower, durability and reliability too much.
9. Brown Bess: I wanted the Brown Bess on the list because it made the shoulder-fired gun the universal arm of the infantryman, but I had to cancel out my own vote, because the Brown Bess is a smoothbore musket and not a rifle.
10. Spencer: As both a rifle and a carbine, the Spencer was ahead of its time. Not only was it breechloading, it fired a fixed metallic cartridge fed from a removable magazine. Wherever the Spencer was fielded in numbers, it made an impact on the battlefield.