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100 Years Old December 2002
Dan Martinez  

When you have an affinity for rifles, particularly old rifles, it seems that if some old rifle finds itself in need of a new home, such rifle will seek you out and find you. Recently, the father of my wife’s former boss left for the Happy Hunting Grounds. He was an avid outdoorsman, shooter and handloader. My wife’s boss was now in possession of some equipment which needed a new home, and I got the call.

When I got to his house he had 5 old rifles spread out on the bed. There were a couple of Swedish Mausers in various states of sporterization. There was a Marlin lever action in .35 Remington. There was an old Savage autoloading .22 of some sort. But the rifle which caught my eye, and ultimately followed me home, was a sporterized U.S. Krag-Jorgenson carbine, Model of 1899.

I do believe that this was the first Krag that I had actually seen in person. If I ever saw one at a gun show, I don't remember. Of course over the years I had run across the odd gun magazine article about the Krag, so I knew what it was. I had read reloading manual entries about the .30-40 Krag cartridge, so I had a good idea of the ballistic power level involved here. But I had always wondered just exactly how those cartridges fed when it looked like all you did to load the rifle, was “drop them in a drawer” on the side of the action.

I suppose that a dedicated Krag collector would cry to see what had been done to this rifle. I’m still trying to understand the mindset of “Collectors”, with a capital C, who would rather an old rifle traveled through the years completely untouched (but rusting, pitting, and flaking), than to have been reblued, had the stock sanded smooth of dings and scrapes, and have been refinished. Personally, I prefer a good-looking, well-maintained, refinished rifle, to one which had been stuck in a basement or closet somewhere and had been ignored for the last century.

The original military stock on this Krag had been discarded and replaced with a walnut sporter. This stock has a teak forend tip set-off by a white line spacer – the same on the pistol grip cap. The butt-pad was a white line waffle-vented Pachmayr which was fitted very poorly. In fact the back of the stock was not even square. Looking down on the stock from the top, there was a noticeable angle to the interface between the stock and the butt pad. The lower screw hole for the buttpad was stripped, so there was a gap showing between the pad and the stock.

The stock’s finish was some sort of gloss, except that the finish was missing in the area where you rest your cheek. The bare wood here was taking on a sweat stain. Except for two deep gouges, the rest of the stock was in good shape. A cartridge trap had been inlet into the toe-line of the stock. There was definite potential here for someone who loves to tinker with old rifles.

The metalwork had been highly polished and re-blued – a cardinal sin among Collectors! The original military sights were gone. The front sight was replaced by a ramped white bead, and out back, a Lyman micrometer peep had been attached to the right rear receiver wall. The holes on the barrel where the original military rear sight was mounted had been filled-in, poorly. Uneven dimples show clearly under the polished blue.

If the gun had been original, in excellent shape, an 1899 Krag carbine could fetch as much as $1500 to $2500! Thankfully, the market for sporterized Krags is much lower. We came to an agreement on price and I took it home.

The Krag-Jorgenson rifle was adopted as the new standard U.S. service rifle in 1892, though the first ones were not fielded until 1894. Replacing the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield, the Krag was our first bolt action, smokeless powder, “small” bore, magazine-fed rifle. The Krag will forever be associated with Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and San Juan Hill. It also saw action in the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion.

There were various small improvements made to the rifle over the years of production, resulting in model designations of 1892, 1896, 1898, and 1899. Mine is a Model 1899. Though there were both rifles and carbines designated 1892, ’96, and ’98, only carbines were designated as 1899s. The Krag was produced through 1904 when it was replaced by the famous Mauser-based Springfield Model 1903.

I don’t know when mine was actually built – must be somewhere between 1899 and 1904. The receiver shows the model designation, but the actual year of production was normally placed in a stock cartouche. Since my original stock is gone, all I can definitely state is that the odds are good that my rifle is at least 100 years old.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Krag design is that strange but wonderful side loading magazine. Though cartridges are fed into the right side of the rifle, they end up feeding into the bolt from the left receiver wall. When you open the loading door on the right side, a cartridge pusher is retracted. The rounds placed in the loading port get pushed under the receiver, up and around to the left receiver wall area by the cartridge pusher when the door is closed. In the unlikely event of a cartridge jam, all you have to do is open the loading door, which retracts the cartridge pusher, jiggle the action a little, and re-close the door. Chances are that your jam will be cured.

The Krag was also designed with a magazine cutoff switch. The generals, used to the single-shot 1873 Trap-door Springfield, were worried that the troops would waste ammo with a magazine-fed repeater in their hands. So they wanted a way to make the rifle operate as a single shot! The magazine cutoff switch stops rounds from feeding from the magazine when the bolt is retracted. Troops were ordered to operate the rifle as a single shot with the extra rounds in the magazine held in reserve, “in case of emergency.” This feature, and thinking, was later also carried over to the 1903 Springfield.

The Krag is famous for having the smoothest bolt throw of any bolt action ever designed. The downside is that this smoothness is achieved due to a single locking lug design. This limits the Krag to fairly low pressures. The .30-40 Krag cartridge is just a shade more powerful than the .30-30 Winchester.

Actually, the Krag bolt has three locking surfaces. There’s the single lug, but the bolt’s upper guide rib also bears on the back of the receiver ejection port when the bolt is in battery. Plus there’s the root of the bolt handle turned into a recess in the receiver. So while Krag owners are warned to keep an eye on the bolt lug for cracking, they need not worry that the bolt will come flying back into their face should the single locking lug fail while firing, due to the other two safety features on the bolt.

My intention is to leave this fine old piece in the “early sporter” configuration I got it in. Yes, it oozes turn-of-the-last-century military history, but I believe that it’s history as a mid-20th-century hunting rifle is no less significant, and just as worthy of preservation, now that we’re in the 21st century. The rifle just needed some attention to detail.

First I stripped the old finish off the stock. I filed out those two deep gouges, and sanded out the minor dings. I’ve recoated it in Watco Danish oil finish, and may or may not add a shiny top coat. I did square-up the butt-end of the stock and contoured the butt-pad to match the lines of the stock. The rims of the Krag cartridges were a little too wide to fit all the way down into the cartridge trap in the butt, so I relieved the inside sides of the trap so that the door would close all the way. Like I said, details.

If more old rifles keep following me home like this, I’ll soon have to build a room addition to house them all!

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