The year is 1892. Grover Cleveland is president, Sherlock Holmes is introduced to readers, Ellis Island opens its doors, and the Krag Jorgensen is embraced by America. Krags housed the military’s first smokeless powder repeating rifle round and will forever be known as one of the most collectible, easily recognized and sweetest shooting rifles to pass through Army hands. Yet this gun of foreign design, with the shortest service life of any U.S. military arm, barely gains mention in a sweeping history of American military firearms. What gives?
A slick bolt action, the Krag-Jorgensen is a magazine fed Norwegian-designed rifle. It was adopted in 1892 for use by the U.S. military. Though long and un-romantic, the Krag’s official government designation was United States Magazine Rifle and Carbine, Caliber 30. According to the Blue Book of Gun Values, approximately 475,000 Krags were manufactured by the Springfield Armory from 1892 to 1904.
Krag-Jorgensens are easily recognizable by their side-loading, horizontal box magazine. Though the majority of that era’s rifles were loaded by chargers or stripper clips, the Krag could be charged quickly by feeding single rounds through the right-hand side loading gate, from whence ammo would cycle around and into the action by a spring follower. Not unlike its competition, the Krag had a magazine cut-off, allowing it to function as a single-shot rifle. However, its unusual magazine could be topped off without opening the bolt — a plus for the ever-ready soldier in the field.
With the U.S. military seeking a new long gun to replace the old Springfield M1873 trapdoor single shots, they held a competition in 1892, which drew over 50 submissions including the three (all foreign) finalists — Lee, Mauser, and of course, Krag, who won the contract. American developers were so dismayed, a formal complaint was filed against the act of adopting a foreign arm for U.S. military use. To appease the doubters, a second military review was mandated and the Krag Jorgensen rifle once again emerged victorious, albeit now with a year of delayed production. In the end, the side-loading magazine and butter-smooth action were the rifle’s beloved features. The testers decided that Krags could be charged faster than most comparable box-type magazines of the time. When all was said and done, variants of the Krag rifle, which were many, saw service in the Boxer Rebellion, Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War.
Ironically, while the loading gate design was a major selling point during Army rifle trials, the Krag was quickly outclassed by the enemy’s Spanish M93 Mauser during the Spanish-American War. To compensate for speed in loading, Springfield Armory created the Parkhurst Device attachment, which enabled the Krag to be loaded via 5-round charging strips. Springfield fitted somewhere around 200 1898 rifles and 1899 carbines with the device, though it was never accepted into regular use and is extremely rare to find today. In spite of the Parkhurst Device, the Krag-Jorgensen was replaced in 1903 by the mauser-driven Springfield M1903, which was not only a quick reload, but also ballistically superiour given the military’s needs for higher pressure, higher velocity ammunition.
Given many reworks over its short service life, Krag Jorgensen rifles were nearly obsolete before they hit the front lines of war. That gives the Krag the shortest service life of any standard issue U.S. military rifle. However brief the actual service life though, many Krags lingered around, being used as training arms at stateside military bases and with rear-echelon forces during WWI. Many were issued to veterans organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars for ceremonial use. Others were sold through the Civilian Marksmanship Program, and in fact, there are still some available there for auction.
Aside from the Danish Krag-Jorgensens, which were chambered for 8x58R and Norwegian Krags in 6.5×55, the U.S. Krags were chambered for what the military designated “Caliber 30, U.S. Army.” It has also been known as the .30 U.S., .30 Army, .30 Government, and the name we civilians all know it by today — .30-40 Krag. Despite the name .30-40, the rimmed cartridge was never tied to blackpowder use. A changeover from the previous .45-70, the .30-40 was at the time considered a small-ish caliber. The .30 Army was the first smokeless powder round used by our military, and troops no doubt were pleased to replace the plumes of smoke produced by the trapdoor’s blackpowder loads. The .30-40 round actually gained decent popularity when retired Krag rifles hit the surplus market at dirt-cheap prices (initially) and hunters everywhere launched this cartridge — not terribly ballistically unlike the .300 Savage — around the deer/elk woods of the states.
Variations and values
Despite its military shortcomings, the Krag Jorgensen is a highly valuable rifle oft sought on the collector market. As with any firearm, condition holds the key to cash. According to the Blue Book of Gun Values, “There have been many alterations and conversions of Krag-Jorgensen rifles, some of which are hard to identify. As a rule, these alterations and conversions almost remove any collectibility, and pricing is determined mostly by its competitive shooter value. Since prices for upper condition (+95 percent), original Krag-Jorgensens have increased significantly in recent years, beware of non-original guns, conversion, and in some cases, fakes.”
Because they were so readily available on the surplus market for so many years, countless Krags were sporterized for use as hunting rifles, or otherwise tinkered with because of their initial low cost. Thus, untouched unmodified examples are somewhat rare today, and command the highest prices. Of the few exceptions, numerous cut-down rifles were sold to NRA members via the Ordinance Department and are now referred to as “NRA carbines.” These were initially, and still should be, accompanied by a bill of sale from the government so as to distinguish them from any other pretend-carbine (aka home-cutdown rifle).
Here are some of the more common Krag-Jorgensen .30-40 variants, with Blue Book estimates ranging from 60 to 100 percent condition. Before your heart skips a beat, remember that fakes exist, precious few rifles are in 100 percent condition, and this is a most non-official guide. For most accurate pricing, consult the latest edition Blue Book and balance that with actual gun sales from the large online retailers.
- Model of 1892 Rifle (dated 1894) $1,200-$12,000
- Model 1892/1896 (Arsenal Altered) $350-$1000
- Model 1895/1896 Transition Rifle $450-$4000
- Model 1896 Rifle $450-$4000
- Model 1896 Carbine $900-$5000
- Model 1898 Rifle $350-$3000
- Model 1898 Carbine $700-$5000
- Model 1899 Carbine $800-$5000
A romantic rifle conclusion
Like me, I’m sure you’ll kick yourself when I tell you that Krag Jorgensens once sold for as little as $1.50 on the surplus market. That bumps this gun up to the top of the wish-I’d-bought-sooner list. Those beautiful original untouched Krag versions will remain one of the sweetest shooting gems of the American military with the monetary value and cult following to match. Even those rifles that were chopped, bubba-ed, sporterized and otherwise customized have stories to tell of over a century of marksmanship. Shooters lucky enough to find an old Krag in gunshop racks today rejoice, and maybe even break into song with the verse of a once-loved troop tune:
Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos!
Cut throat kha-ki-ak ladrones!
Underneath our starry flag,
Civilize ’em with a Krag,
And return us to our own beloved homes.