November 2013

Vintage Rifle Test: Ross MKII Versus Remington Pattern 14

These two World War I-era war-horses exhibit different approaches to building military rifles. The lightweight Ross could be considered ‘flimsy’; the P14 is truck-strong and durable

The turn of the 19th to 20th Century saw lots of innovation in the world of firearms. Forty years earlier, the Civil War had been fought largely with muzzle loaders. By the turn of the century metallic cartridges had taken a firm hold, and many were the ways to use them, especially to fight wars. We take a look here at two rifles that had their roots just before the first World War. One is the Canadian Ross 1905 Mark II (about $400), and the other is a Remington-made 303 Pattern 14 rifle, also known as the Rifle No. 3 Mark 1* (about $500), which became our “1917 Enfield” when made up as a 30-06. The Ross and Pattern 14 both take the rimmed 303 British cartridge.

The Remington Pattern 14 rifle, left, and the Ross 1905 Mk. II both saw service in WWI. The Pattern 14s were made in the U.S. to supply British forces. The Ross was made in Canada, and while it was quite accurate, it proved unreliable in the trenches, and ended up serving as a training rifle for Canadian and U.S. forces. Many, like this one, were sporterized into hunting rifles.

Just prior to WWI, Charles Ross designed what was a rather lightweight and somewhat flimsy rifle, and through his connections to people in government power, managed to get a military contract to build a bunch of them. These were found to be lacking in strength, though quite accurate. A second version of the rifle was forthcoming, the Mark II Ross rifle. Though they were also not ideal for military use, they saw lots of service, were used in Canada and in the U.S. for training, and a goodly number survived. These were often cut down to form “sporters” of a somewhat dubious nature, though some were done up very well by various gunsmiths and by the Ross factory.

One of the lesser-quality Ross sporters made its way to our test facility here in Idaho, along with a stout example of the Pattern 14 rifle. We tested both rifles with Remington 174-grain solids, Serbian PPU 150-grain SN, and with mil-spec ball, head stamped HXP with a date of 85, and labeled L1A1. This had a bullet weight of 175 grains. We gave both rifles a good, hard look, and this is what we found.

Ross 1905 Mark II 303 British, about $400
This rifle featured its original 28-inch 303 barrel, with the military stock modified to be devoid of its forward portion and all of the upper wood that used to wrap the barrel. As such, the stock — now rounded off on the forend pleasantly — manages to be a loose fit to the barrel, giving the rifle essentially a free-floated barrel. An old and somewhat hardened trestle-style butt pad was fitted to the stock. The rifle as we received it had no swivels, and the original mil-spec rear sight was missing its original standard, and also its windage-adjustment screw head. The sight was far over to the right side. We wondered if we could even hit the paper with it.

Some of the more interesting points about the Ross include its straight-pull bolt, which has no primary extraction. So if the spent case stuck, or the chamber got dirty, the bolt would not “cam” out the spent round. The shooter would have a tough time getting the fired case out of the chamber. The Ross straight-pull bolt had a safety that was anything but handy. A button located at the root of the bolt lever moved from right to left to lock the bolt in the action. Our sample was full of old oil and somewhat sticky. Once we thought the safety was on and intentionally pulled the trigger. The safety was only halfway across, the bolt-striker dropped, and the rifle would have fired.

On our sample, the bolt head immediately rotated to the just-fired position when we took the bolt out of the rifle. We could tug the bolt head forward and get it to just barely stick in that position, which meant it took careful handling to get the bolt back into the action. We didn’t like that, and with that failing added to the missing windage wheel, we began to have doubts about this particular sample of the storied Ross.
By bore-sighting the rifle, we could tell the sights were off. We could have moved the rear sight to the left by partially disassembling the sight and turning the axle to drive the sight blade to the left, but before we did that, we decided to shoot the rifle to see how far off it really was. We had noticed the front sight appeared to be held on by more of a promise than anything sounder. There was a dovetail into which the sight post was jammed, but the forward end of the dovetail appeared to have broken off long ago, and got stuck back on with a tiny screw. However, on inspection with a strong glass, we found out that is actually the design. The entire front sight area appeared to have been beaten and banged for various reasons for many decades. We made sure to photograph the front sight before firing, to guard against the front blade being blown off and lost in the grass.

We had planned to shoot the rifles from 50 yards, not wanting to press our luck with these ancient guns with what might be questionable accuracy from a century of abuse piled on them both. We tried the Ross first, and as always, we checked its impact point from 25 yards. On pressing the trigger, we found the recoil of the Ross to be non-existent, the report to be very quiet, and to our amazement, we could even reuse the cartridges. The doggoned thing didn’t disappoint our primary inspection fears. It failed to fire, time after time. The cartridges were at first barely impacted by the firing pin, and then the rifle progressed to making no impact whatsoever. We had the option of disassembling the odd bolt to see what was the matter, or we could leave it alone and rate the rifle accordingly.

We found a small cutaway drawing of the Ross bolt that indicated the rearmost protrusion of the bolt was in fact the firing pin. It seemed to be sound, but still the rifle would not fire. We could see the forward part of the firing pin still there and it looked okay, but it never stuck its head out of the bolt far enough to fire a cartridge. We had given up on the rifle, but then the rifle’s owner told us he had fired it shortly before shipping it to us. Well, then, what was wrong? Was the century of dirt betraying the rifle? On looking further into the Ross, we read that this bolt was extremely difficult to get apart, and if you put it back together wrong, it could kill you. Wonderful.

We did a bit more research and decided to look into the supposedly difficult-to-disassemble bolt. We found a few photos that told us all we needed to know. We ripped apart the bolt, which was decidedly easy — for the fellow who is clever with the kinds of machinery found in complex rifles. We don’t recommend an amateur disassemble a Ross bolt. Have someone who knows show you how.

Inside the Ross bolt we found a simple problem, and nothing really wrong at all. The parts were very dirty, which may have instigated the problem and was easy to fix. The firing pin is held into the bolt proper by a threaded collar. This collar is prevented from turning by a passive system that must have been designed by a complete dolt, who also, we thought, made major contributions to the overall design of this rifle. A tiny washer — with a protrusion that prevents it from turning — surrounds the firing pin. The upper surface of that washer has two ears, which hopefully grab two notches on the threaded retainer and, with luck, will prevent it from unscrewing. Without luck, the thing comes loose and gradually unscrews, which lets the firing pin slowly move out of the bolt, reducing its protrusion, resulting in misfires until finally it cannot even mark the primer. The fix was to clean everything and put it back together correctly and tightly. Then the firing pin could do what it was designed to do.

The bolt inner portion connects with the outer portion, or sleeve, by means of interrupted threads. These are cut into the inside of the sleeve and around the outside of bolt itself, and then matching portions of the threads are sliced away from the bolt and inside the sleeve to form channels in a sort of very fast spiral that twists the bolt head into and out of lock as the bolt handle is shoved forward and back. After disassembly and cleaning, the inner and outer portions of the bolt have to be put back together in the correct sequence or alignment, or the inner portion can let go and come back through your skull. We don’t understand how anyone could do this, or how the rifle could be put together in a manner that would be so obviously wrong, but apparently it has happened. To a trained, mechanically inclined person (our Technical Editor), it was blatantly obvious how the rifle had to go back together, and in fact it worked perfectly after its disassembly.

Not wanting to wait for a spare slide for the rear sight, our Technical Editor made a wheel for the end of the windage-adjust screw and stuck in on. The sight’s axle was unfortunately too short, having been broken, and the result could not give perfect service, but it served to let us adjust the windage for our shooting tests.

The rifle was fun to shoot. It was also considerably more accurate than the Pattern 14 rifle. Our best group, converted to 100-yard equivalent, had three of the Remington loads going into 2.4 inches. We shot from 25, 50, and 100 yards, moving back as we gained faith in the sights and the rifle. Our best group from 100 yards off the machine rest was 2.5 inches, again with the Remington ammo. The sights were very poor, the front blade being extremely difficult to see through the tiny U notch at the rear. Given better sights, we’d expect better accuracy. The mil-spec ammo gave vertical grouping at 100 yards of 4.5 inches, but in a line not half an inch wide. The Ross could shoot quite well, we concluded, though it didn’t like the light-bullet Serbian ammo, putting it into 6 to 6.5 inches at 100 yards.

Feeding was pretty good. Loading the magazine was a joy because of a lever on the right side of the rifle that was connected to the follower, so you could dump in the rounds and press that lever and the rounds would align themselves, all ready to go up the spout. Ejection was 100 percent, and though gentle, all the spent rounds left the rifle. We were able to adjust the windage with our modification so the rounds hit dead center at 100 yards, with the ladder stood up and the slide near the bottom.

The rifle’s owner told us the rear standard, which could be used with the ladder folded, was loosely attached and came off to his touch. That about sums up the delicacy of the Ross design, which might have made a great sporting rifle but was a real dud in the trenches. They were just not very strong. There were other things that probably helped doom it as a military rifle. The safety can be removed for cleaning only with the help of a small pin or stiff wire. When the safety lever comes out of the rifle, it leaves a tiny spring and steel cup loose in the bolt. Lose them and you can’t keep the safety in the rifle. By the way, the removal of the upper wood left big holes through which dirt, rain, or other debris could enter the stock. A genuine sporter would of course not have that. We’ve seen some photos of Ross sporters online, and some of them are mighty fine-looking rifles. As noted here, the lightness and balance of the Ross is ideal for a 30-caliber sporting rifle.

Our Team Said: We have been informed that military versions of the Ross that have been sporterized sell for about $400. If they are in good original military condition, the price could easily exceed a grand. Genuine sporters are not common, and we suspect their prices go up from a grand rather steeply. If you want a Ross that you can shoot, we suggest that you make sure the rifle has all its parts and actually functions before you buy it. This one was fun to shoot, and we found the design addictive.

Pattern 14 Rifle 303 British, about $500
A short trip through Hatcher’s Notebook reveals that the Pattern 14, made of nickel steel, was generally considered to be the finest military rifle used in WWI. It was truck-strong, had the best sights (including the best protection for both front and rear units), and its cock-on-closing feature was designed to give easier cocking during rapid fire, as the rifle heated up. Its cartridge was not as smooth feeding as a rimless case, but its ballistics were excellent for a military weapon. Pattern 14 rifles were made largely in the U.S. by Remington at Eddystone, by Remington at Ilion, and by Winchester at New Haven. A great number of rifles were produced in 303 British, but when the U.S. entered the war, the basic rifle was converted to take the 30-06 Springfield cartridge, and that included revamped barrel dimensions that were suited to our cartridge. The U.S. 1917 Enfield did not use British-dimension barrels, as is commonly stated.
Our test rifle was one heavy dude. After the pleasant lightness of the Ross, it took a lot of muscle to get this old warrior up off the bench. It weighed 9 pounds, enough mass for a 375 H&H Magnum let alone a 303.

Yes, we realize that’s less than the usual weight of the Garand M1 as used in WWII. But that’s the old military for you — soldiers just had to hump weight.

The top of the action had RE in an oval. The metal was not in bad shape, retaining most of its Parkerizing. The walnut stock was somewhat scarred, especially around the trigger area, but we’ve seen lots worse. The rifle had all the odd things riflemen in the 1950s, and later, came to know as they got hold of the Enfield 30-06 version and converted the stout but clumsy configuration of the war rifle into a sporter. There were the ears that protected the superb ladder sight, the double-bent bolt that cocked on closing, and one of the trickier parts to sporterize, the two-level floorplate. Then there was the rocking safety lever, an excellent design similar to that on some of today’s Weatherby rifles. There was also a well-protected front sight on the end of the 26-inch barrel. Our test rifle had all the military stuff intact except for the front sling swivel, and these items all worked just like they were supposed to.

The stock had a couple of unusual items on its left side. One was an odd cut into the wood just in front of the action ring. The other was a graduated oval plate set into the wood and retained with a boss. We suspected this was for some sort of grenade-launching add-on sight, but found out it was for a volley sight, a tactic commonly used before the advent of machine guns in trench warfare. When the Maxim and others came along, the volley-fire tactic was abandoned, and the sights were removed, leaving only the graduated plate on the rifle. The butt plate had a trap door that concealed a long hollow for cleaning equipment, which was not present.

The barrel looked plenty good enough inside, though neither this nor the Ross had a pristine bore. Our first two shots from 25 yards offhand were touching, a good indication of what we could expect for accuracy. However, they struck high and somewhat to the left. We chose to shoot the rifle from 100 yards, not 50, and were able to get on the paper from the first shot. One could indeed feel the recoil through the sharp-edged steel butt plate. Accuracy was fine with the mil-spec ammo, averaging about 3.1 inches. The rifle also liked the Serbian ammo, giving 3.4-inch groups, but the Remington went over 4.5 inches on average. There was a huge problem with feeding. The rifle would not feed any of the rounds into the chamber. The cartridges seemed to wad up in the magazine, and we finally figured out the inner sheet metal was not there, giving too wide a space. That would be an easy fix, we suspect. Other than that, the rifle was just fine, with no problems.

The sights were outstanding, easy to see because of the well-proportioned aperture and the flat-top front blade. The heavy rifle was rock-solid on the machine rest, and we believe we got the most out of it. For a century-old warrior, this was a good, solid example of an important historic rifle. We gave it a provisional A grade, with a note to its owner to get the magazine metal. We also suggested he do a good cleaning of the stock without using abrasives, rub on some linseed oil, don’t touch the metalwork, and call it good.

Our Team Said: We thought this was an excellent example of the Pattern 14 rifle. There are undoubtedly better-looking examples out there, but for a representative copy, this one was just fine.

Written and photographed by Ray Ordorica, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers. GT

Ross Mark II 303 British

Remington Pattern 14 303 British

Accuracy and Chronography