Longest-Serving Guns in Military History: A Primer
Firearms technology is unique in that it advanced in waves. The early days of gun powder saw numerous advances, as early “gun designers” sought to improve the range and accuracy of the weapons, as well as to increase the rate of fire. This included the firing systems that evolved from matchlocks to wheel locks to flintlocks.
Yet, the developments also led to technological plateaus, and from the late 17th to early 19th century, many argue that there were almost no major advances in military firearms. Then after another wave of new improvements including cartridge ammunition, smokeless powder, and rapid firing weapons the overall innovations have slowed.
As a result of these plateaus in development, some firearms stayed in service for decades or longer and in a few cases more than a hundred years. Moreover, even with other advances, some firearms were just so well produced they remained in continued use. With that said, please take a look below at the longest-serving guns in military history.
The Soviet AK47 wasn’t the first “assault rifle” as that “honor” (or “horror” depending on your point of view) rightfully goes to the German StG44. And while the AK47 was arguably the first successful assault rifle, a key point often forgotten is that it was chambered for an intermediate cartridge first employed in the SKS.
The Soviet SKS was developed as a semi-automatic carbine chambered for the 7.62x39mm round, which Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov designed in 1943. While it is often stated the new intermediate cartridge came as a response to the German 7.62×33 Kurz cartridge, developed in conjunction with the StG44, in fact it was already likely being considered before the Soviets ever encountered the experimental prototypes of the German weapon.
The SKS – Self-Loading Carbine of the Simonov System – was also a response to the Soviet’s need to replace its aging bolt action Mosin-Nagant, and it was determined that while the rifle and its 7.62x54mmR cartridge were effective in ranges up to 1,000 meters, most firefights on the Russian Front took place at ranges between 100 and 300 meters. A few SKS prototypes were produced in time to be tested in the final stages of the war. It proved reliable enough that in the early post-war era the SKS then briefly became the standard infantry weapon for front-line units in the Red Army.
However, as it was semi-automatic only and held just 10 rounds, the SKS was quickly replaced by the more ubiquitous AK47. Yet, the Soviets still produced some 2.7 million carbines, and during the Cold War millions were produced throughout the Communist Bloc. Even as it has been largely overshadowed by the Kalashnikov family of firearms, 76 years after it was introduced, the SKS serves in militaries throughout the world.
Legendary John Browning developed his M1917 water-cooled machine gun during the First World War, and it was a marked improvement on the Maxim/Vickers machine guns that the armies of Europe were using to happily kill one another. Then Browning went and made it even better by developing the air-cooled M1919 .30 caliber machine gun just after the war ended.
If that wasn’t enough, Browning began to work on a truly heavy machine gun, and he went on to develop the .50 caliber BMG round. While Browning died before the M2 .50 was perfected, a lasting legacy to the prolific designer is that his M1919 medium machine gun is still used in a secondary role with militaries around the world, while the M2 – introduced in 1933 – shows no signs of retiring anytime soon.
It was even reported last year that an M2 with the serial number 324 arrived from active duty for maintenance and to upgrade it to the M2A1 configuration. That particular weapon would have been made back in 1933, making it truly one of the oldest firearms still in service in the world.
The British Army first used the Magazine Lee-Enfield in combat soon after it was introduced in 1895 in its campaign in the Sudan the following year. The bolt-action, magazine-fed repeating rifle was actually a redesign of the Lee-Metford that had only been adopted in 1888. Chambered in the new .303 British cartridge, the Lee-Enfield became the first British rifle to fire a “smokeless” cartridge.
Over the next several decades, the Lee-Enfield was refined – the weapon shorted by several inches to the more common Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE), which saw widespread use in the First World War, and then “updated” as the Rifle, No. 4 MkI in time for the Second World War. A sniper variant re-chambered in the 1950s for the 7.62 NATO round and re-designated the L42A1 was used until the mid 1990s. Members of the Canadian Rangers even used the rifle until 2015 – and in parts of the world, the Lee-Enfield remains in service more than 125 years since it was introduced!
There is one bolt action rifle that has endured longer even than the Lee-Enfield, the Russian Mosin Nagant. It was first introduced in 1890 for the Imperial Russian Army, was used in the First World War, then employed by both sides in the Russian Civil War, and updated by the Soviet Red Army in 1930.
The Mosin Nagant was the most widely used small arm in the Second World War. Despite Soviet efforts to replace the bolt action rifle with the semi-automatic SVT-40, production of the Mosin Nagant actually increased by war’s end. Nearly 38 million were produced and during the Cold War, the rifle was supplied to Communist insurgents and Soviet allies around the world. It remains in ceremonial use in Russia while it has been seen in use in the recent Syria Civil War.
Officially known as the British Land Pattern musket, but more commonly known as the “Brown Bess,” it has the distinction of being the longest serving military pattern rifle in history. The smoothbore, flint lock, muzzle loading muzzle was introduced in 1722 when King George I ruled over Great Britain and it remained in use until 1838 by which time Queen Victoria sat on the throne.
The musket and its derivatives were the standard infantry weapon of the British military, and it was arguably the weapon that built the empire. It was among the first weapons to truly see use throughout the world, where it was used in conflicts in Europe, North America, India, Africa and South East Asia. The Brown Bess was at the Battles of Yorktown and Waterloo, and even after it was removed from frontline British service, it saw use with other militaries including the Empire of Mexico and Texas Republic and was used by both sides as the Alamo.
Some Brown Bess muskets were used in the American Civil War, and historians have noted that in an ironic twist it may have last been used in the Anglo-Zulu War – and instead of being carried by men in red coats, it was among those weapons to shoot at them!
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.