Mannlicher 1885 Semiauto Rifle

Mannlicher 1885 semiauto "Handmitrailleuse"
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto “Handmitrailleuse”

Ferdinand von Mannlicher’s Model 1885 self-loading rifle design as a failure, never seeing anything even resembling mass production. However, it was a failure which in many way set the stage for a huge number of the machine guns that would follow for the next several decades, including the famous Browning 1917/1919/M2 family. In fact, this 1885 semiauto had influence and impact far beyond its level of recognition today. It was a designed doomed to fail despite Mannlicher’s formidable design talents, simply because the cartridge he based it on was the M1877 11mm Austrian black powder round used in the Werndl rifles. Self-loading weapons would not become truly practical in any form until the invention of smokeless powder, which drastically reduced the amount of fouling and residue from each shot. However, Mannlicher was able to at least make a reasonable attempt despite the use of black powder, and he was the first to do so.

The 1885 design (not to be confused with Mannlicher’s model 1885 straight-pull bolt action rifle) was a recoil mechanism with a separate locking “tong”. As with all recoil-operated designs, the barrel and bolt were locked together at the moment of firing, and remained locked together as they both recoiled rearwards. After a certain amount of travel, in this case about 1.25 inches (32mm) the bolt unlocks and continues rearward which the barrel stops. The locking mechanism in the 1885 Mannlicher is a fork-looking block, labeled #3 in the diagram below. It is pinned to the barrel and able to pivot up and down. When upward, it locks into a cutout in the bottom of the bolt (the bolt is #5 below, and the cutout area is #4). As the bolt and barrel move back, the lower fork of the locking block will eventually hit item #1, an angled projection that forces it downward, unlocking the bolt. Once separated from the barrel, the bolt is able to eject the empty case from the action, and a new cartridge drops down in front of it from the magazine (which is gravity-fed and has no spring). The main recoil spring then pushes the bolt forward, pushing that new cartridge into the chamber. As it moves forward, the hook on the bottom of the bolt (item #2) hits the upper fork of the locking block and forces it into the upward and locked position, thus making the system ready for another shot.

Mannlicher 1885 semiauto cutaway view (ready to fire)
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto cutaway view (ready to fire). Image from WHB Smith, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”.

Another element in this action is the use of an accelerator (item #6). It moves back with the barrel until its bottom leg hits a block in the bottom of the receiver. At that point it stops the barrel, and it rotates around its pivot point, with its upper leg pushing on the bolt. What this effectively does it transfer the remaining momentum in the barrel into the bolt, giving it an extra push to help ensure reliable extraction and ejection.

Mannlicher 1885 semiauto cutaway view (full recoil)
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto cutaway view (full recoil). Image from WHB Smith, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”

I should also point out that the magazine was offset to the left side of the action, and a loading lever was used to pivot cartridges into the action to feed. The lever was mechanically actuated by a protruding surface on the bolt that would strike it during the ejection cycle:

Mannlicher 1885 semiauto feed view
Mannlicher 1885 semiauto feed view. Image from WHB Smith, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”

Today we thing of short recoil as being a common idea/mechanism that has always existed, but Mannlicher was the man who invented it with this rifle. As such, its principles heavily inform the design of most all the other short recoil machine guns that have been made since (fundamentally, the concept of the bolt and barrel traveling a limited distance locked together before some mechanical actuator separates them). The accelerator concept was also a concept used by Browning in his machine guns. And, of course, short recoil because the dominant mechanism for self loading handguns, by way of Browning’s tipping barrel system. Don’t take this as a suggestion that Browning copied Mannlicher’s ideas, because he didn’t – the two men’s guns differ extensively in detail and simply share basic concepts (and Browning added in a huge does of original thought, such as the concept of a pistol slide). However, it is enlightening to understand where the concepts originated.

For the record, Mannlicher did build the 1885 self-loader in both semiauto and fully automatic versions, and he would go on to refine the design as a rifle in 1891 before turning to other operating systems for his later semiautomatic experiments. He never did explore the concept of a light machine gun, which ultimately proved to be a better role for recoil-operated long guns than the shoulder rifle.

Mannlicher 1885 parts breakdown
Mannlicher 1885 parts breakdown (image from WHB Smith’s, “Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols”

Parts identification key:

  1. Bolt assembly
  2. Bolt assembly (showing detail of locking lug engagement slots)
  3. Feeder
  4. Upper trigger plate
  5. Locking tongs
  6. Feeder spring
  7. Trigger assembly
  8. Striker head
  9. Magazine holder
  10. Striker cocking piece
  11. Sear
  12. Ejector
  13. Trigger spring
  14. Barrel (details)
  15. Magazine