This page provides a brief overview of some early self-loading rifles.
Photos taken at the National Firearms Center in Leeds.
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The Griffiths & Woodgate automatic rifle was developed by Capt. Herbert Ferdinand Woodgate, a British officer, and William Griffiths, a civil engineer. The original patents were filed in 1891 and the project was funded by a syndicate of private investors who were convinced of the rifle's advantages. It operated on the recoil principle with a reciprocating barrel and fed from a magazine of 10 rounds, .303 caliber. After a working prototype was built, it was submitted to the British Army for testing but, although a new and novel concept, it was found to suffer from poor accuracy and strong recoil. The gun was rejected and the investors lost considerable amounts of money. Capt. Woodgate continued working on several more automatic rifle designs but was unable to find the money to fund their full development, and most of them never came to fruition.
The Rexer self-loading rifle came about through a 1903 deal between the Danish Rifle Syndicate (controllers of the Madsen machine gun) and the London-based Rexer Arms Company, owned and operated by the British industrialist Henry de Morgan Snell. It seems that the arrangement was designed so that Rexer would act as a British outlet for DRS's products to make them more attractive to buyers in the British Commonwealth. In 1904 the Rexer rifle appeared at Bisley where it was compared to the Hallé rifle. It operated on a long recoil mechanism and was chambered in 6.5mm Swedish, .303 British, and 7mm Turkish Mauser. In 1906 the Rexer was tried by the British Army, who raised concerns about the rifle's durability and length of the recoil stroke. Development of the weapon came to a halt when in 1907, Snell and DRS came to a disagreement regarding the patent rights which resulted in a lawsuit and, ultimately, the liquidation of the Rexer company.
The Hallé self-loading rifle was patented in 1902 by Clifford Hallé and Marguerite Ribbentrop. The two were most colourful characters who had met when Ribbentrop's father had hired Hallé to give his daughter singing lessons. As it happened she was rather handy with a rifle. Hallé established the Hallé Automatic Rifle Syndicate as an outlet to fund and promote his invention and it was first unveiled at Bisley in 1904, alongside the Rexer. The Hallé rifle operated on a recoil mechanism using a series of scissor-linked "lazy tongs" actuating the bolt. It was offered in both military and sporting variations and came with an 15-round detachable "emergency magazine" that was designed to be fitted as an extension to the 5-round magazine that was fixed to the gun by standard. In 1905 the Hallé rifle appeared at the World Fair in Liege and a few years later it was tried by the Automatic Rifle Committee in Britain. The ARC were not taken by this design and considered it too fragile and overly complex. Hallé then abandoned this design to develop a simpler gas-operated rifle.
An interesting fact is that there exists another example of the Hallé rifle in a museum in St. Petersburg, apparently obtained from Germany. I have no idea how it ended up there, but if I had to hazard a guess, it is possible that a sample was either sent to Germany for testing, or the Germans possibly looted it from Belgium during World War I.
This was the second iteration of the Hallé rifle and it was of a completely different design to his previous effort, using a less complex gas piston operation. The relevant patent was filed in 1911 but is likely that this gun was never fully developed, as Hallé died in 1915. Only one rough prototype remains.
As previously mentioned, Herbert Woodgate of the Griffiths & Woodgate rifle continued attempting to work a solution to the self-loading rifle in the early 1900s. One of the designs he patented was a toggle-action gun using a series of long toggle links. An unfinished rifle operating on a similar principle exists in the National Firearms Center today, but it is not known for certain whether this is the Woodgate rifle, as there are no markings.
The London Small Arms autoloading rifle,
caliber .276, was developed in 1909 for consideration by the British
Army. The designer was Thomas R. Ashton. It operated on a long recoil
principle and fed from SMLE-type removable box magazines. It did not
hold up against military trials and was promptly rejected in 1910.
Paul Darche, a Parisian engineer, designed this gun in about 1893, making it among the earliest self-loaders. The Darche operated on a recoil action, using the Lebel-style tubular magazine running under the barrel. Interestingly it seems that this gun used a loose bolt and that rocking the bolt handle forward would lock it to the bolt. In this configuration the gun would become a manual repeater. It was an interesting design that ultimately amounted to nothing.
The Pelo self-loading rifle was developed in 1931 by the Finnish officer Carl Tavastehus Pelo. This gun was actually made in Sweden, as Capt. Pelo had fallen out of favour with the Finnish military authorities in the 1920s and could no longer get his designs produced in his own country. It was a recoil-action rifle chambered in the Swedish 6.5x55mm cartridge and marketed for sale during the 1930s. Trial models were tested by the Swedish Army and the Small Arms Committee in Britain also observed the gun, but none of this amounted to any commercial success. Only around 50 - 100 examples are said to have been produced.
No, not that AK-47 - this Swiss self-loading rifle has no connection to Kalashnikov whatsoever, with the "AK" here standing for "Automat Karabin". The designer was Arnold Kipfer. It was produced at the Swiss state armoury Waffenfabrik Bern in 1947 and was derived from the earlier AK44 prototype. This rifle used a gas operation with a detachable box magazine and was somewhat similar in design to the Soviet SVT. It was chambered in the experimental Swiss 7.5mm Kurzpartrone cartridge. Many self-loading rifles were developed in Switzerland during this period, but they all languished when the Swiss Army decided it wanted an assault rifle instead.