The Krag-Jorgensen rifle was the first smokeless rifle officially used by the US Army. It is a five-shot bolt-action rifle that was first adopted in 1892 and was made obsolete by the famous Model 1903 Springfield.
The Krag saw use in the Spanish-American War, where its slow reload time and lower pressure cartridge was shown to be inferior against the Mauser rifle, and it soldiered on through World War I in the hands of the National Guard and as a rear-line weapon. Some even made it to France in the hands of railway troops, and there is one case of it actually being used in WWI combat. In a nutshell, the Krag served the US in two wars, and was a National Guard staple in the early 20th Century, yet this peculiar rifle has faded out of common memory.
So why bother? For one, Krags are classified as antiques and all are Curio and Relics, making them very low on the gun-grabbing agenda. My own personal Krag was made in 1896, making it an antique that is nearly unregulated by the ATF, yet it shoots a pretty effective .30 caliber round. The Krag also is a marvelous hunting rifle.
The Krag itself is a strange firearm, loading from a side-mounted box magazine that has to be flipped open to drop individual rounds into it. However, since the ammo feeds from the side, the Krag has a buttery-smooth action that isn’t hampered by dragging on rounds pushing up from a box magazine, but we’ll touch on that again in a bit.
The round itself is a very interesting round. Loaded with 40 grains of period smokeless powder and using a .30-caliber bullet, it is commonly sold as .30-40 Krag, although before the advent of the 1903 Springfield, it was sold as .30 Government. More powerful than the ubiquitous .30-30, the .30-40 Krag is still weaker than the 7mm Mauser it faced during the Spanish-American War, leading the Army to develop a high-pressure round that turned out to crack Krag receivers.
Today, the .30-40 is a rather obsolete round. While commercial lever-action and single-shot rifles were made in that round well into the 20th Century, and some modern guns have been made in it, it remains obscure due to the age of most guns firing it. We are long past the glory days when surplus Krags were dirt-cheap, and what remains are sporterized guns made when they had little value, or valuable unaltered military issued guns. The unusually smooth action of the Krag made them very popular as a hunting rifle, and even today you can find a sporterized Krag for about $200-$300 depending on the quality of the work and if the gun can be readily restored.
Perhaps you have a dusty old Krag that belonged to your father or grandfather, or you found one cheap at a pawnshop with a cut-down stock and barrel, or maybe you just like weird guns. Either way, the Krag has an awful lot going for it, as long as you can feed it ammo. The best thing about it is that it uses a standard 7.62mm bullet. As long as you load in acceptable pressure range, you can take advantage of the incredible array of .30-caliber bullets available to the reloader. You can load the .30-40 to velocities approaching 3000 FPS with a light 100-grain bullet, or develop energy of about 2,200 foot pounds with a 150-grain bullet moving at about 2,500 feet per second. Either way, it isn’t a shabby round, although a modern .308 can do all that and more.
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As mentioned earlier, it also is a great hunting rifle. The round is capable of taking almost any game in North America (.30-40 lever-action rifles were very popular in Alaska before the development of more powerful smokeless hunting rounds, and were popular purchases for those taking part in the Klondike Gold Rush). While the round is decent, it’s the action that is amazing. The first time I cycled my Krag’s action I fell in love. Never have I handled such an amazingly smooth bolt-action. There is almost no drag, and the bold glides in the action like a fine piece of machinery. If you can find a sporterized Krag beyond restoration, or a complete action, it can serve as the basis of a fine hunting rifle.
Ammo itself is expensive — nearly $2 per round retail when you can find it, but more readily is made from shaping .303 British brass, or buying regular .30-40 brass on the rare moments it is sold. I built up my brass supply the painfully expensive way by buying factory ammo, but unless you are going crazy with your loads, or want to shoot thousands of rounds a year through your rifle, you don’t need a lot of brass.
In correct military form, the Krag can be a valuable rifle, especially a correct carbine. In unsalvageable sporter form, it is a strange rifle shooting a strange round that can become a workhorse hunting rifle if you are willing to invest the time and effort to keep it shooting. These rifles served the United States for a long time, and then became classic hunting rifles. They are obscure, but a joy to shoot, and their extreme age makes them legally advantageous in the face of growing attacks on our right to keep and bear arms, while the handy 7.62mm bore gives them a utility far beyond their age. If you have a Krag, it is worth the bother to make it shoot again, and if you like playing with something different, hunt down an old sporter to play with. No matter what, though, this forgotten rifle can once again give excellent service if you let it.