Antique rifle tells an American tale

GEORGE ROSENBAUM stands at attention with a 112-year-old rifle that traveled from Massachussetts to Cuba, the U.S., the Philippines and back again before the antique gun collector tracked it down in Front Royal.alex
GEORGE ROSENBAUM stands at attention with a 112-year-old rifle that traveled from Massachussetts to Cuba, the U.S., the Philippines and back again before the antique gun collector tracked it down in Front Royal.

A snapshot of American history can come from one old gun.

Sperryville resident and antique weapons enthusiast George Rosenbaum beamed as he fastened a 20th-century bayonet to his 1899 Philippine Constabulary Krag Carbine, which actually is a cut-down, refurbished 1898 Krag-Jorgensen .30-40-caliber bolt action rifle best known for its service in the Spanish American War. The Norwegian-made Krag was the first small-caliber smokeless repeating rifle adopted by the U.S. government – smokeless powder replacing messy black powder and repeating rifles replacing single-shots.

“After the Civil War, they switched from muzzleloaders to cartridge rounds, and that’s what I’m into,” Rosenbaum said, noting that the Krag .30-40 replaced the larger and slower Springfield “Trapdoor” .45-70, a single-shot adaptation of the millions of surplus muzzleloaders held over from the Civil War. Some say the Trapdoor .45-70 could be to blame for the fall of Custer and his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, since they used them against Sitting Bull’s Sioux, who were armed with faster, lighter Winchester repeating rifles that emerged in the 1860s.

“The U.S. military was very slow to change,” said Rosenbaum, a longtime county resident who has been collecting old weapons since the ’60s, and plans to open a shop featuring antique weapons and collectibles in Sperryville next year.

The weapon

This particular U.S. Carbine Model 1899 “Philippine Constabulary” .30-40 traveled tens of thousands of miles before the 65-year-old Rosenbaum found it in the late John Appleton’s Gun Shop at Front Royal.

According to Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms, this rifle was built in the Springfield Armory in Massachussetts in 1898 – and named the Krag-Jorgensen .30-40 caliber bolt action rifle – and was used in Cuba and the Philippines during the the Spanish American War. After the U.S. “purchased” the Philippine Islands from Spain through the Treaty of Paris (ending the war), some 8,000 Krags were modified to the specifications of the Philippine constabulary, who were native police charged with keeping the peace in the hectic postwar U.S. territory. The barrel was cut down eight inches to reduce weight and allow for a bayonet, thus creating the 1899 Philippine Constabulary Krag Carbine. The refurbished firearm was then shipped back to the Philippines for use by the Philippine constabulary between 1906 and 1916.

When the Model 1903 Magazine Rifle replaced the Krag in the Philippines, some of the modified Krags returned to the U.S., where they were packed in cosmoline (a type of grease the military uses to preserve weapons) and stored, before a few dozen were purchased by the late John Handley – as in John Handley High School in Winchester – for ROTC training, according to Rosenbaum.

The reduced size and weight of the modified Krags was ideal for the high school cadets, as it was for the smaller-statured Filipinos. When Handley High School released the Krags in the ’50s, Appleton bought one.

According to the Springfield Armory Museum Collection Record, although about 330,000 of the Krag-Jorgensen .30-40 bolt action rifles were built at the Springfield Armory in 1898, only about 8,000 were modified to the specifications of the Philippine constabulary, making Rosenbaum’s a highly sought-after antique cartidge weapon.

The collector

Rosenbaum has been collecting old weapons since he was a student at the University of Virginia, when he often drove past Clark Brothers gun shop on U.S. 29 south of Warrenton, and became friends with Johnny and Jimmy Clark.

“Johnny was collecting old Winchesters at that point, and he got me interested,” Rosenbaum said, adding that his interests in old cartridge rifles have evolved over 45 years of collecting. “For a long time it was just the Winchesters, then the Colts, then the Smith & Wessons. But recently – I’d say within the last five years – I’ve gotten interested in old military weapons. They’re interesting because they tell tales of American history.”

Teddy Roosevelt and his Dakota cowboy Rough Riders, for example, did not use the Krag .30-40s, because they believed a bolt-action rifle was not suitable for horseback riders. Instead they charged up San Juan Hill armed with lever-action Winchester 1895s that used the same caliber bullet. Rosenbaum has a reproduction Winchester 1895 – and was more than happy to show it off.

Rosenbaum plans to open a store in Sperryville that will feature antique weapons and collectibles. He has acquired a space, he says, and will open in the spring.

Rosenbaum’s father first sparked his interest in firearms. Rosenbaum recalls hunting trips with his father in Africa and in Mexico, though he said he hasn’t hunted again since childhood.

He’s more into hunting for history now.