Manuel Mondragon was born in 1858 in the town of Ixtlahuaca, Mexico. Manuel’s ambition was to be an artillery officer in service of his country. In 1876 he became a cadet in the Military College at Chapultepec Castle. He graduated in 1880 as an officer in the Mexican artillery corp. During this period in history Mexico was under French colonial influence and like most of the colonies in the Americas, they wanted their complete freedom from any 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 the French. Not surprisingly Manuel Mondragon went to France to further his military education.
During his time in France, Mondragon helped design an artillery piece for the Mexican army 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 Mondragon to the then impossible task of creating a self-loading rifle for the average infantry soldier of 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 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, flatter trajectory 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 Eduard Rubin, inventor of the Full Metal Jacket bullet, the famous .303 British and 7.5 x 55mm Swiss cartridges. Rubin created and patented the “piston powered” cartridge for the early Mondragon rifles. This interesting cartridge design kept chamber pressure low without losing bullet velocity. Because of lower chamber pressure 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 the “ammunition” chapter)
Late in the 1890’s his straight-pull rifle evolved into his idea for a Self Loading Rifle. This self loading or auto-loading rifle could be used by the average infantry soldier. This rifle became the Model 1900, his first attempt at a self-loading rifle.
After a thorough review by the Mexican military, the Model 1900 was modified and 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 in northern Mexico. On March 06, 1911 the 18th Battalion was 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 Madera’s revolutionaries. The battle was won by the Federales. If it could be 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. Most likely the Mexican military could not depend on the quality of the ammunition being produced 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. Once President Diaz was forced to leave the country interest in this new expensive rifle waned, you can buy 3 Mausers for one Mondragon. For whatever the reason, SIG got stuck with approximately 3,500 weapons which went into storage.
Luckily for SIG, a certain Arch Duke was assassinated in Sarajevo in June of 1914………..The Great War was coming! (That would be WW1)
The German army bought all of the remaining Mondragon rifles from the Swiss arms manufacturer. You have to ask…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 theories. Once the rifles reached the front lines, 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 machining tolerances, was also handed the same fate. Much cleaner conditions were required for this rifle to work properly. The best candidate was the German navy and 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 approximately 3,500 Mondragon rifles that went to Germany battle losses probably accounted for many. Normal wear and tear 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 rather tight. Then, why would you destroy an asset even if it is obsolete? Considering the extreme war reparations, the allies demanded from Germany it would certainly make sense that Britain and France would sell off whatever they could.
This is where 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. This 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+
What happened to our General Mondragon? The General was part of the old Mexican order under President Diaz. When the new President, Francisco Ignacio Madero González, took charge he made the fateful decision of not changing the former military hierarchy, he kept the old guard to include Mondragon! The head of the Mexican army was General Huerta, a Diaz loyalist, and not a fan of the new president Madero. In 1913 General Huerta arranged Madero’s assassination and became president of Mexico. Not long afterwards Huerta was then deposed by another general. It might have been suggested that Mondragon leave Mexico because of these old affiliations with Huerta. He resigned his commission in 1911 and moved to Spain, he 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 rifle
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 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 adopted 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 very 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 Federal soldiers wielding Mondragon rifles.
The autopsy report noted that all of the holes in Mr Villa were .30 caliber, not 7mm, this would indicate Winchester rifles. There were also some bullet holes to the head in .44 and .45 which were most likely the “coup de grace” .