WHEN THE FIRST CANADIAN contingent sailed for Europe in the fall of 1914 it was largely equipped with Canadian kit. Their Oliver webbing was of Canadian design, as was the McAdam shield/shovel they carried. Their boots were also Canadian designed and manufactured. The Canadians carried Ross rifles rather than the British standby, the Lee-Enfield.
All of these uniquely Canadian pieces of kit were found wanting. The pressed cardboard soles of the boots disintegrated in the wet of Salisbury Plain. The McAdam shield/ shovel had a large hole in the blade for sighting the rifle when it was employed as a shield that limited its effectiveness as a shovel, as did the very short handle. It was also impracticably heavy, but not strong enough to stop a German bullet. The Oliver webbing was despised because it compressed the chest uncomfortably making marching or taking a deep breath all but impossible. But none of these failures inspired the vehement public debate and acrimonious disputation that surrounded the Ross rifle.
The Boer War compelled the Canadian government to consider a specifically Canadian rifle as opposed to the British Lee-Enfield: "For all the factories [in England] were working at capacity to equip the British Army and make good the wastage in South Africa," according to Canadian Official Historian, A Fortescu Duguid. He goes on to add, this situation put Laurier's Minister of Militia, Frederick Borden, "in a quandry". The Canadians could purchase Lee-Enfield's during periods of peace and quiet when they were largely unnecessary, but not during crises or wars when they were needed urgently. Thus, an entirely sensible decision was made to develop and source a uniquely Canadian rifle that would be available as needed rather than only when unwanted.
The Minister selected a straight-pull bolt action .303 designed by Sir Charles Ross, 9th Baronet of Balnagown. Ross claimed it was an original and revolutionary design. In fact, it was little more than a copy of the Austrian Mannnlicher (Model 1890). The straight-pull mechanism, theoretically, enhanced the rate of fire by reducing the time required to reload. Orders were placed for 62,000 over six years. Later that same day a committee of notables--including representatives of the government, the opposition (notably Hughes) and the military --was appointed to "enquire into and report upon the merits of a rifle invented and submitted by Sir Charles L. Ross." Bizarrely, were it not typical of Canadian military procurement boondoggles, the rifle was ordered before the committee of experts had had time to consider its relative merits.
In terms of accuracy, particularly at long range, the Ross rifle excelled. It quickly became the weapon of choice of many target shooters throughout the world. Notably, Canadian marksmen had considerable success with the Ross. In 1905 and 1906 the Canadian team, firing Ross rifles won the Kolapore Cup. In 1909 they won the Kolapore, MacKinnon and Jubilee Cups with the Ross. In the decade before 1914 the Ross set the standard for match or target rifles.
However, there were also concerned voices raised about its suitability as a service weapon. During testing head-to-head with the British Lee-Enfield the Ross faired poorly in the tests that simulated combat conditions: When dirty and when fired rapidly it was prone to jamming. It often required that the bolt be struck with a boot heel or entrenching tool to eject the spent cartridge and chamber the next round. The endurance test required the firing of 1,000 rounds in 60 shot sessions. The Ross failed miserably, operating stiffly at the end of each burst of firing, jamming once after two rounds, and at 300 rounds the foresight began melting off the barrel. The inventor blamed shoddy, imprecise British cartridges for the problems and procurement proceeded apace.
However, as the weapon was introduced complaints also came from the field, the first from the Royal North West Mounted Police. They reported numerous complaints all focused on the extractor mechanism and frequent jamming. One cost a shooter his eye. Similar complaints followed from officers commanding Militia and Permanent Force units. In response to this situation the Ross Mk. II was introduced. Despite the ongoing complaints it was this weapon that the First Contingent took overseas. When they arrived in Flanders the Ross would face its first test in actual combat.
Caption: The earlier version (with bayonet afixed) illustrates the long barrel that made the Ross an ideal target rifle. The length proved unwieldy in the trenches, and the later version was much shorter. (THOM GORDON)
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.