In the early 20th Century, the Ross rifle, a Canadian-made infantry weapon, was produced as an alternative to the British-made Lee-Enfield rifle. But in the First World War, the Ross earned a bad reputation among Canadian soldiers as an unreliable weapon, and was withdrawn from service by 1916.
During the South African War of 1899–1902, Canada asked Britain to supply Canadian soldiers with the British Lee-Enfield rifle commonly used by British troops. Britain refused, due to Lee-Enfield supply shortages. The Birmingham Small Arms Company, which made the Lee-Enfield, would also not license the rifle for production in Canada. A new, Canadian-made weapon would have to be designed.
Sir Charles Ross, a British aristocrat and inventor, offered to build a small-arms factory in Canada. He developed a rifle model for the Canadian militia in August 1901, and this became the Mark 1 Ross rifle. Production on the Mark 1 began in 1903. Although the war in South African was now over, in 1903 the Canadian government signed a contract with Ross for 12,000 rifles to be supplied by the end of the year.
The first supplies of the Mark 1 were not delivered until 1905, when 1,000 rifles were supplied to the North-West Mounted Police. Various problems plagued this model, and it was eventually recalled in 1906. Changes were made until 1910, when several models of the Mark 2 were finally produced.
By this time, Britain was strongly urging Canada to adopt the Lee-Enfield rifle, so that Canadian troops would have consistency with other soldiers from the British Empire. However, Canada refused to stop production of the Ross rifle, creating strains between London and Ottawa over imperial defence.
First World War
The Mark 2 Ross rifle was adopted by the Canadian military in 1911, and in that year work began on the Mark 3. Tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium in the early years of the First World War carried the Ross rifle into battle – and many hated the weapon for its unreliability in combat.
With its long barrel, the Ross was an excellent hunting rifle, and a fine sniper weapon. But it wasn't tough enough for the hardships and demands of the Western Front, including the dirt and mud of the trenches, and the robust requirements of fighting with bayonets. The Ross also had a tendency to jam when firing – partly a result of the poorly-made British ammunition that worked fine in the more forgiving Lee-Enfields, but was unsuited to the Ross. Many Canadian troops threw away their Ross rifles in disgust and went searching for Lee-Enfield replacements.
Sir Sam Hughes, Canada's minister of Militia and Defence during the early years of the war, was a staunch supporter of the Ross rifle, insisting that Canadian troops carry the weapon. However, the rifle's failure in battle caused an embarrassment for the Conservative government of Prime Minister Robert Borden. This, and other issues of administrative incompetence, eventually led to Hughes being fired from Cabinet in 1916.
Withdrawn From Service
The cause of the jamming in the Ross was eventually corrected, but this came too late for the rifle to be maintained in use. By the fall of 1916 – along with Hughes's departure – the rifle had been officially withdrawn from service, and Canadians were re-armed with the Lee-Enfield.
The Canadian government expropriated the Ross Rifle Company in March 1917 after paying Sir Ross $2 million. In total, approximately 420,000 Ross rifles were produced, with 342,040 eventually being purchased by the British. During the Second World War, the Mark 3 Ross rifle was given to members of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Veteran's Guard of Canada, various coastal patrol units, military training depôts, the British Home Guard and the Soviet Union.