January 3, 2020
By Danielle Hollembaek
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It is shocking how some of the most brilliant and creative minds in history can be almost completely forgotten. Ferdinand Mannlicher is one of these men whose innovations and historical contributions have been nearly lost in the depths of history. He was highly influential in the development of semi-automatic weaponry and a key founder of the Steyr-Mannlicher company, which was one of Europe's leading firearms manufacturers. Unlike many famed firearm designers that improved upon already invented mechanisms, Mannlicher was a pioneer with his own original innovative designs in the late 19th century. His influence would have immediate impact on firearm designers for years to come.
Mannlicher was of Austrian descent and grew up in a military family. An engineer by trade, he had a perpetual interest in weapons development. He studied at the prestigious Vienna University of Technology in the 1860s, and from 1869 to 1887 worked as a railway engineer for two large transport systems in Austria. Mannlicher was a talented engineer, but he developed a passion for firearm innovation at a young age due to the Austro-Prussian War. The Battle of Königgrätz in 1866 sparked his interest since he was an adamant believer that Austria only lost the battle due to slow and inferior weaponry.
Mannlicher loved his country and wanted to aid his homeland in its fight for political freedom. He foresaw the rising tensions between Russia and Austria and had a strong intuition that when confronted, Russia had the manpower and advanced weaponry to overtake Austria. This deeply seated desire to help his country drove his visionary mind toward firearm design.
Mannlicher's M1888 mechanism
While still working as an engineer, Mannlicher began to draft designs for bolt action rifles. His first design for a turning-bolt action long gun (Model 1880) was too complex and expensive to succeed despite being a significant upgrade over the single-shot Werndl rifles of the time. Several iterations followed, though each failed due to either primitive metallurgy, inadequate cartridge cases, or a military that was either psychologically or financially unwilling to support the designs that were truly ahead of their time. Unfortunately, this would become a common theme for a man working so far ahead of the curve.
Despite the failures, a few breakthrough improvements led to the next incarnation of the gun. The development of his straight pull, revolving-bolt action rifle in 1884, led to the highly popularized straight pull, wedge-lock Model 1886 Austrian service rifle that the country used for around a decade. The improved version of this rifle, the M1888, was similar, but chambered to compete with new smokeless powder rounds seen elsewhere in Europe. The M1888 and the updated M1888-90 enjoyed great longevity and saw military use in numerous countries as late as 1950. By 1888, Ferdinand Mannlicher committed to firearms full-time and began designing more and more guns. He opened his own manufacturing plant in Steyr, Austria to produce his firearms.
Mannlicher is most known for his creation of the en bloc clip loading system used in his later bolt action rifle designs. However, Mannlicher only developed the clip in 1885 because his concept of pre-loaded, detachable magazines was not yet an economically nor industrially feasible solution. You read that right, Ferdinand Mannlicher pioneered the concept that is nearly ubiquitous today in military arms of detachable, reusable magazines. When the idea of magazines was kaboshed, in a stroke of brilliance he came up with en bloc clips, an idea much easier for the government to financially swallow. The en bloc clip was the basis for John Pedersen’s and of course the beloved M1 Garand, each which came decades later.
Another widely popularized firearm by Mannlicher was the Model 1895 rifle. The long gun saw use by Austria-Hungry in World War I and other European countries who took the original design and made their own conversions of the rifle. It was made as a rifle, stutzen, sniper rifle, and several carbine configurations in its almost 50 years of use. The M1895 used the same straight-pull bolt action as the M1888, but did revert back to the rotating lock that Mannlicher had initially used in M1884 (and the more recent M1890 carbine). Some were later converted to semi-automatic rifles by adding a gas port and piston under the barrel attached to the bolt carrier. The operations of the rifle are akin to that of an M1 Garand and the design is strikingly similar. It should come as no surprise that a Mannlicher en bloc clip was used for quick and easy reloading.
Mannlicher made more than just long guns, in the early 1890s he began working on pistol designs. Perhaps his most interesting handgun design was his Model 1901 semi-automatic pistol. Very unique for its time, the pistol operated using a blowback system and its own proprietary ammunition. The gun was originally patented in 1898 and saw production in 1900, before hitting the civilian market in 1901. Mannlicher’s pistol design was manufactured around Europe with Germany taking a particular liking to it, however it wouldn't see any military adoption until the slightly modified and larger Model 1905 was sold to Argentina.
The 1901 semi-automatic pistol was one of Mannlicher’s last firearm designs before he passed away in 1904. He designed an impressive amount of guns over his lifetime, including around 150 different prototype models with over half being semi-automatic in design. Unfortunately for him, he was ahead of his time and many of his ideas were confounded by metallurgy issues, inadequate cases, government resistance to unproven technology, blackpowder fouling, and manufacturing capabilities of the time.
Today, Steyr Arms is still in operations and although Mannlicher has been dropped from the official title, the company has not forgotten where it came from. If not for the continuous genius and designs of Mannlicher, Steyr Arms would not exist, and arguably many other firearms as well. The M1 Garand and M1 carbine have their hallmarks in Mannlicher designs. Numerous design components of the Ma Deuce. 50 caliber machine gun and her predecessors can be found in his firearms. The en bloc clip, the detachable magazine, the Ross rifle, and the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin all owe their origins to his genius. For that matter, so do the rotary magazines of the Savage and Johnson M1941 rifles. How's that for a resumé? Mannlicher’s legend lives on through the arms manufacturer to this day.
At Rock Island Auction Company, we offer Steyr-Mannlicher firearms in all three of our different auctions. From highly embellished and rare varieties to everyday use guns, you will always have a chance to add a firearm from the special company to your collection. Check out our most recent catalog to take a look at the selection we have in our upcoming auction.
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