The Long Version
Manuel Mondragon was born in 1858 in the town of Ixtlahuaca, Mexico. As a teenager, he attended the Military College of Mexico at Chapultepec Castle. His aim at the time was to be an artillery officer in service of his country. During this period in history Mexico was under French influence. Like most of the colonies in the Americas, Mexico also wanted complete freedom from European influences. In 1867 the French withdrew support for Maximillian and Mexico gained its complete independence. Even though France was no longer pulling the strings there were still strong ties with Europe. Not surprisingly Manuel Mondragon went to France to further his military education.
During his time in France, Mondragon helped design an artillery piece for Mexico which bears his name. This piece of artillery eventually became the famous French 75mm of the Great War.
Upon returning to Mexico, Mondragon quickly rose to Commander in Chief of artillery under Porfirio Diaz, then the President of Mexico.
After the success of his 75mm field gun, President Diaz directed him to the then impossible task of creating a self-loading rifle for the Mexican armed forces. Apparently President Dias was a gun nut.
Mondragon’s first attempt at a rifle was a manual loading, straight pull bolt action design rifle, the series of 1890. His first guns and ammunition were of a design no doubt heavily influenced by the European powers which capitalized on the then new smokeless powders. This new powder allowed for guns with higher chamber pressures and smaller diameter jacketed bullets. This equates to faster bullet velocities and longer range. The average soldier could now carry triple the ammunition load for the same weight of the previous larger calibers. The 6.5 Swedish and 6.5 Mannlicher were two of the top choices at the time. Mondragon decided to invent his own…… the 6.5 mm Mondragon.
It’s his gun, his cartridge, he can call it what he wants!
Mondragon’s time spent in Europe, particularly Switzerland, brought him into contact with the famous cartridge designer, Colonel Rubin of the Swiss army. Rubin created and patented the “piston powered” cartridge for the early Mondragon rifles. This interesting cartridge design kept chamber pressure low without losing velocity and because of the lower pressures it allowed for a thinner barrel that kept down the overall weight of the gun. This cartridge became the then revolutionary 5.2 x 68mm Mondragon. This is a .208 caliber, 90 grain bullet with a velocity of 2900 fps. This is pretty hot stuff for the late 1800’s. (Pity it didn’t work in the military application! see “ammunition” chapter)
Late in the 1890’s his straight-pull rifle evolved into his idea for a Self Loading Rifle. A self loading or auto-loading rifle that could be used by the average infantry soldier. This rifle became the Model 1900, his first attempt at a self-loading battle rifle.
After a thorough review by the Mexican military, the Model 1900 was modified and re-designated, once accepted it went into production as the Model of 1908. The first production order for the Mexican army was for 4,000 units. A smaller number, 400, were sent immediately to Mexico for evaluation. This small number of rifles issued to the 18th Infantry Battalion of the Mexican Army in 1910, became the first Self Loading Rifle issued to a military organization.
Below are pictures of Mexican infantry, of the 18th Infantry Battalion, during what appears to be “publicity shots” during a celebration of the independence of Mexico. This is a live fire demonstration at Campo Balbuena on September 5th, 1910. I say a “publicity shots” because of the posed and casual attitudes of the officers and soldiers in this formation. The soldiers equipment is way too shiny, too complete, the moustaches are trimmed, there are full bandoliers of ammunition and complete backpacks. There is also the telltale white bags for policing up the brass after the demonstration.
What appears to be a live fire demonstration of a squad of soldiers equipped with the Mondragon rifle. The formations are standard infantry and would be familiar to any grunt of any war.
The pictures above appear to be a squad of Federal soldiers in mock battle array. It is interesting to speculate as to their effectiveness on the battle field with the self loading Mondragon rifle.
A single, 10 man, squad in the defense would be able to lay down a very impressive rate of fire.
From the above pictures I estimated that each soldier has a bandolier of 50 rounds of 7mm Mauser ammunition. Ten soldiers each with the 10 round Mondragon rifle could empty their weapon in about 5 seconds. Let’s take another 10 seconds to reload. The soldier could reload another 3 times in a minute. Firing 40 rounds per soldier per minute would allow the squad to lay down 400 rounds downrange in a one minute period. A 10 minute firefight engagement could result in an impressive 2000 rounds sent downrange by only 10 men.
With a company sized unit ( A Mexican infantry company is described as 165 men and officers according to Mexican Military Arms, 1866-1967) this number increases to the possibility of a withering 60,000+ rounds. Logistics would make this rather improbable but you get the idea?
The revolutionaries on the other hand, were using single shot rolling block Remington rifles, bolt action Mausers and US made Winchester lever action rifles.
After the demonstration the 18th Infantry Battalion unit was returned to its home in Chihuahua. On March 06, 1911 they were involved in the battle of Casas Grandes. The commanding officer, Colonel Valdez, of the government forces under Diaz stood off an attacking army of Francisco Maderas revolutionaries. The battle was won by the Federales. If proved this would be the first battle in which an infantry unit issued with semi-automatic rifles was used in combat. Definitive proof, however, of the rifle being used in this battle is lacking.
After the initial batch of 400 rifles, shipped from SIG, the Mexican government decided it didn’t want the rest of the 4,000 rifles they ordered. There is speculation that the Mexican Government, because of the revolution, did not have the cash to pay for the remaining rifles. After all, you could buy three bolt action Mauser’s for the price of a single Mondragon. Perhaps the Mexican military could not depend on the quality of the ammunition being made in Mexico. Semi-automatic weapons in general are finnicky. A high-performance car engine needs quality gasoline, and the autoloading rifle needs the same consistent clean quality ammunition for each firing cycle. Bolt action rifles don’t really care because they rely on manual loading and extraction. The driving force behind the Mondragon rifle was General Mondragon himself and his mentor President Diaz. Diaz was forced to leave the country and Mondragon was probably on the outs, so perhaps the new governments interest waned. For whatever the reason, SIG got stuck with approximately 3,500 weapons which went into storage.
Lucky for SIG, a certain Arch Duke was assassinated in Sarajevo in June of 1914. The Great War was coming!
The German army bought all of the remaining Mondragon rifles from the Swiss arms manufacturer. Did Germany really want them or was it a matter of purchasing all weapons they could find to prevent the British and the French armies from obtaining them? There is a good argument for both.
Once the rifles reached the front they quickly realized the dirty trenches were no place for such a finely machined piece of equipment. The Canadian Ross rifle, another finely made rifle with very close tolerances, was handed the same fate.
Much cleaner conditions were required. The best candidate was Germany’s Flying Corp where it was issued to airship, balloon and airplane observers until the Maxim machine guns became available in greater numbers. This modified air service rifle was called the FSK15 by the Germans. (see Model 1915/FSK15)
Around 1917, Switzerland took the same approach and modified 50 guns for use in their aircraft. The Swiss appropriately called theirs the “Model 1917”. (see Model 1917)
Where Are They now?
Of the original 400 issued rifles sent to Mexico, I have yet to see one. I hope they are in a storage facility deep in a dusty Mexican armory somewhere waiting for me to discover them.
There is a single Model 1908 in a museum, presented to General Joaquin Amaro, but I don’t really count this one because it is a presentation piece.
So… what happened to the known rifles that went to Germany? Of the 3,500 Mondragon rifles battle losses probably accounted for many. Normal wear and tear of any weapon during wartime use would have also ruined many. I have read that most likely they were destroyed after the hostilities ceased. However, it’s been my observation that after any war money is tight. Then, why would you destroy an asset even if it is obsolete? Considering the vast war reparations the allies demanded from Germany it would certainly make sense that Britain and France would sell off whatever they could.
This is when American capitalism kicked in. Founded in 1865, Francis Bannerman & Sons., the New York based purchaser of surplus military items, bought all the surplus weapons and war accouterments they could get their hands on. This would included the few leftover Mondragon rifles. Although there are no official sales contracts or letters from which I can draw information, there is the 1925 Bannerman Catalog, page 66, that lists the Mondragon rifle for sale. It is erroneously advertised as one of the “principal weapons of the World War”. It is listed in the 1925 catalog all the way through to the 1966 catalog. Almost of the Mondragon rifles found today are FSK15 conversions which lends credence to my war surplus theory.
Today, any Mondragon rifle is extremely rare. If you have one, it is probably worth the price of a new pickup truck or SUV. A really bad one, missing parts, will go for about $6k, a presentation piece will go as high as $100k+
So, what happened to our General Mondragon? The General was part of the old Mexican order under Diaz. When President Madero took charge he made the fateful decision of not changing the military hierarchy. The head of the army was General Huerta, a Diaz loyalist, and not a fan of the new president. In 1913 General Huerta arranged Madero’s assassination and became president. Soon after, Huerta was deposed by another general. It might have been suggested that Mondragon leave Mexico because of these old affiliations? He moved to Spain and died there in 1922. Below is the telegram announcing his death.
I am not interested in his politics, I just appreciate his contribution to firearms history and a seriously cool moustache.
Misinformation About the Mondragon
No sniper rifles were ever made (not even this one)
Courtesy of BattleField 1, an online war game
Light Machine Gun Version
No Mondragon LMG was ever made.
No full auto version has ever been seen. No full auto version of a full power military cartridge (i.e. 7X57, 8X57, 30-06, .303, 7.62X54, etc.) was ever adopted by the military for the line soldier. (I know someone will jump in and say “no, that’s not true the US had a full auto M14!.”……They didn’t last long did they?)
These cartridges are much too powerful to keep under control in full auto and they cause excessive breakages to the weapon. Not until the end of WWII did the full auto weapons become part of the standard infantryman’s kit. Examples would be in the form of the German, MP44 Sturmgewehr in 7.9 Kurz and later on the Russian, AK47 in 7.62x39mm and the USA’s own M-16 in 5.56 Nato. All of which have significantly reduced power compared the earlier cartridges.
Over 1,000,000 rifles made
Only around 4000 were made, as evidenced by the highest serial number that I am aware of, serial# 3692. I think some of this misinformation stems from the website cruffler.com that cross references the Mondragon with the Degtyarev LMG. This may also be the source of confusion about the LMG version.
Used in WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam
The Mondragon was only used by Mexico for a short while and by Germany during “The Great War”.
Manufactured in Mexico
The Mondragon rifle was only produced by the SIG factory in Switzerland.
Pancho Villa was assassinated by soldiers wielding Mondragon rifles.
The autopsy report noted that all of the holes in Mr Villa were .30 caliber, not 7mm, indicating Winchester rifles. There were also some bullet holes to the head in .44 and .45 which were most likely the “coup de grace” .