EPU Gun of the Week

Roth-Krnka M.7 ("Roth-Steyr")

Originally posted March 6, 2017

Today in Gun of the Week, I have a very special treat for you!

Roth-Krnka M.7 pistol, left side

Gaze upon the mighty DeLameter Mark IV atomic beam pistol, standard-issue sidearm of Galactic Patrol officers starting in 3470. The most powerful hand-held weapon ever developed by Civilization, it is capable of annihilating virtually anything made of normal matter, though like most beam weapons it has problems with energy shields.

I'm kidding, of course. It's an early-twentieth-century cavalry sidearm. But doesn't it look the part? All it's missing are some gratuitous cooling fins, and maybe a random radio antenna somewhere.

What we have here is a firearm I mentioned a few entries ago as one of my personal unicorn guns. You may recognize it from the video I linked in the article about the Steyr M1912 as that pistol's predecessor, the Roth-Krnka M.7 (more widely, if a bit unjustly, known as the Roth-Steyr M1907). I mentioned in the M1912 article that I'd wanted one of these for ages, but the right one for the right price hadn't come along. Well, a little while ago, it finally did.

This pistol's history is convoluted and has already been covered better than I could probably do it by the gang at C&Rsenal, so I'll just hit the highlights here. Basically, the M.7 was the last in a series of pistols developed by Karel Krnka, a Bohemian¹ arms designer, in collaboration with Georg Roth, an Austrian ammunition manufacturer. It was adopted by the Austro-Hungarian military as an official sidearm in 1907, making it one of the earliest automatic pistols in military service (the Luger, probably the most famous of its contemporaries, was adopted by the Swiss in 1900, but not in Germany until 1908).

The reason it's customarily known as the Roth-Steyr nowadays has to do with how the Austro-Hungarian government handled the manufacturing. Roth's factory made ammunition, not firearms; he had a machine shop suitable for making prototypes, but had to farm out mass production to others. In the case of the M.7, the government required so many of them that it provided the designs to the two biggest arms factories in the dual kingdom: ŒWG in Steyr, Upper Austria, and FÉG in Budapest, Hungary. The products of these two concerns were marked with the name of the factory that had made them, and evidently Steyr made more than FÉG; thus, poor Krnka's name disappeared from it in the public imagination, and the pistol came to be popularly known by the name of the financier and the region where one of the factories that made it was. Such is fate, particularly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In terms of its design, the M.7 is certainly visually distinctive, but it's also mechanically notable, both for the features that it has and, in a way, for some of the features it doesn't.

For instance: When you start studying Austro-Hungarian firearms of the early 20th century, Krnka's name and Roth's are two of the ones that turn up most often. Another is Rudolf Frommer, who seems to have worked with them and/or borrowed from them. The long-recoil system that appears in some of the early "Roth-Krnka"-branded pistols was eerily similar to that later patented by Frommer as the operating system of the Frommer Stop.

Be that as it may, by the time he came to designing what became the M.7, Krnka had turned away from the long-recoil concept and started working with short-recoil instead. In a long-recoil system, the barrel recoils for the complete length of a cartridge; short-recoil, as its name suggests, is less ambitious than that. In a short-recoil system, the barrel only moves back as far as it needs to in the length of time it takes the bullet to clear the muzzle; then, some mechanical system or another will unlock the breech and the bolt/breechblock/slide/whatever moving part will continue on without the barrel. In the M.7's case, it's a bolt, moving within the fixed upper frame, not entirely unlike the working bit of a Nambu or Ruger automatic.

M.7, left side, locked open

In the Browning version of the short recoil locking system, the unlocking movement is to tilt the barrel down until the locking lugs on it disengage from the slide. This is the most common variant of short-recoil system to be had nowadays, but there are others. In the M.7, Krnka used a system that rotates the barrel to unlock it. A similar principle would turn up again in the M.7's successor, the M1912, as the clearest indication that Krnka was one of its designers; it also appears on some modern pistols, for instance, the Beretta Px4 Storm.

The M.7's operating system was thus both robust and modern by the standards of its time. As already noted, it was one of the earliest automatics to be adopted for military issue. The first decade of the twentieth century was still the infancy of self-loading pistols, which had only started coming onto the market in the decade before (with Hugo Borchardt's C.93 and the Mauser C/96, both German, as early commercial notables), and there was still much experimentation to be done.

Another feature that the M.7 is interesting for not having is a magazine release, because like many of its contemporaries, the M.7 has a captive magazine. It locks open when empty, so that it can be fed by stripper clip.² These clips were surprisingly elaborate for the purpose; Roth-Krnka stripper clips are the only ones I've heard of that had a moving part, in the form of a thumb button that enabled pushing the cartridges into the pistol without directly touching them. (The pistol then closes automatically when the shooter pulls the stripper clip out of its guide, because the magazine follower is no longer in the way.)

Here's a top view of the open action, with the magazine follower and stripper clip guide plain to see:

detail, M.7 action, top view, open

In fact, the M.7 has very few external controls at all. Apart from the cocking knob and trigger, there are only two, both to be seen on the left side in the photo above. There's nothing at all on the right:

M.7, right side

Just a big ol' metal plate covering that side of the action.

On the left, there's a button positioned for the (right-handed) operator's thumb. Like the similar control on the M.7's successor, the "Steyr-Hahn" M1912, this has two functions. If the pistol is empty, it depresses the magazine follower and lets the bolt close. If the pistol is loaded and the slide is locked open (which can be done on a loaded magazine using the other control, that square button up high on the side), it invokes Bullet Fountain mode, releasing whatever rounds are in the magazine to spew out in an amusing fashion.

And... that's it. Sharp-eyed viewers will have picked up already on another common feature that means the M.7 is missing: It has no external safety whatsoever. However, it doesn't really need one. The pistol's ignition system is specifically designed to serve the same principal function, that is, preventing accidental discharges.

You see, though it was ultimately adopted by the entire Austrian Army (actually both of them, and the Hungarian one, but we'll get into that in a moment), the M.7 was originally developed as a sidearm for cavalry. Cavalry officers of the day had specific requirements of their handguns, one of which was that that they be as difficult as possible to fire accidentally in a situation where one is being jostled around a great deal with the weapon in hand—say, on the back of a galloping horse. You didn't want a pistol with a hair trigger in a situation like that, because if you had one, you might well find yourself inadvertently shooting something you didn't want to be shooting, like the man on the next horse over, or yourself in the leg, or even your own horse.

(This is a legitimate concern. T.E. Lawrence, during the phase of his life where he was earning his fame as "Lawrence of Arabia", was notorious for having once accidentally shot his own camel in the head during a charge, something which his Arab allies found very funny after the battle was over and the dust had cleared.)

Earlier efforts at developing a cavalry sidearm had dealt with this problem by requiring an extra step before shooting (single-action revolvers), or by having an extremely heavy trigger pull (the 1895 Nagant revolver wasn't designed for this, but would have been admirably suited for the purpose). Krnka figured there was a better way. His M.7 is striker-fired—it has a spring-loaded firing pin that is directly acted on by the lockwork rather than being struck by a hammer—and it's designed so that after the action cycles, it's sort of half-cocked. It's under spring tension, so some of the heavy lifting has been done, but it's not all the way back where all the trigger has to do is release the sear (the bit of the lockwork responsible for holding and releasing the hammer or striker depending on trigger position) and it'll fire. Instead, the trigger pull has to finish "cocking" it, and then it releases and fires at the end of travel.

You can actually see this working in the M.7, because the striker's back end protrudes from the middle of the cocking knob. After the bolt cycles, it's sticking out a bit, and when you pull the trigger, you can see it come back a little bit more and then disappear forward. This makes the trigger heavy enough to require a decisive action to pull it, but not so heavy that you'll hurt yourself or mess up your aim doing it (looking at you, Nagant). It also means that in its "ready" state, the striker can't come forward of its own volition (for instance, by coming off the sear if the pistol is struck or dropped, as is a common danger with regular actions on full cock). Even if it did somehow disengage from the lockwork (so the theory goes), it wouldn't be under enough spring pressure to detonate a cartridge.

In the late 1970s, another Austrian arms designer would market a pistol with an ignition system remarkably like this, to worldwide fanfare about the innovative, safety-conscious nature of its design. Gaston Glock's company actually goes so far as to call its version of the system by the trade name "Safe Action". The only real difference, apart from the fact that it's all hidden away inside a slide in the newer gun, is that Glock uses a two-piece trigger design to make Extra Sure that the trigger being pulled was what the operator meant to have happen. The underlying principle of the system is very much the same as Krnka's 1907 design.

(I should note that the rest of a Glock doesn't work like the Roth-Krnka; they use a regular old tilting-barrel Browning locked breech system, which is why they have a slide to hide the striker system inside instead of a bolt. Which is not to say that the original Glock 17 wasn't innovative! But its innovativeness had a lot more to do with what automobile marketing people call "packaging" than the actual engineering involved.)

So, that's the history and the engineering. I'm not going to take mine apart for this article, because it's a bit of a hassle and anyway, Othais does it on camera in the C&Rsenal video I linked earlier. Let's take a closer look at some of the external details, though.

These pistols don't have many markings on them. There's nothing on either side plate except the serial number on the righthand side; no year, no model number, no patent declarations, nothing at all. The only lettering is on the top of the barrel, where they were marked with the name of the factory that made them. In my example's case, this reveals that it was made in Austria.

detail, M.7 barrel top rib with marking: WAFFENFABRIK STEYR

If it had been made in Hungary, it would say "FEGYVERGYAR BUDAPEST" there instead. (In the Steyr pistols' case, that is literally where they were made, too; the name of the company was ŒWG at the time.)

The only other marking to be found is a military acceptance mark on the back of the frame, just below the cocking knob.

detail, M.7 proof mark: Lw 13

That says "Lw" followed by a tiny version of the Austro-Hungarian double eagle crest and the number 13, which indicates that this particular pistol was proofed and accepted by the Austrian Landwehr in 1913. The Landwehr, or to give it its full name the kaiserlich-königliche Landwehr ("Imperial-Royal Landwehr"), was one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's three standing armies at the time, the other two being the Royal Hungarian Landwehr and the Imperial Army.

"Landwehr" is one of those German words that doesn't really translate easily. It's usually rendered as something like "territorial army" or "militia" or "home guard", the idea being that they were national defense forces rather than expeditionary armies. This can give the false impression that they were something like the modern National Guard, but in Austria-Hungary, at least, this was far from the case. Other countries had territorial armies that worked that way, being mostly made up of reservists or "citizen soldier" types, but Austria's and Hungary's were both standing professional armies by the early twentieth century, only their principal loyalties lay with their specific half of the dual monarchy rather than the empire as a whole (whatever that meant in a system where the same ruler was at the top of all three). Like everything else in that weird, weird empire, the Austro-Hungarian armed forces were a mass of confusing, often redundant, occasionally outright competing priorities.

detail, M.7 unit disc: 26LFK 77

Most M.7s were fitted with a brass or aluminum unit disc³ on the right grip; this one's is aluminum and appears to be marked "26 LFK 77". I think that means this pistol once belonged to Landwehr-Feldkanonendivision No. 26, i.e., the 26th Field Artillery Division of the Austrian Landwehr. The "77" is the individual pistol's "asset number", if you will.

Operationally, despite its unusual profile and considerable weight, I suspect this was a pleasant gun to shoot. It's a big, imposing pistol with a very sturdy lockup that its 8mm Roth cartridge did not strictly require, and that grip is actually one of the most comfortable I've handled. Something about it fits my hand, at least, very naturally and well. It does have quite a high bore axis (that is, the axis of the barrel is well above that of the shooter's arm), so it probably does have a pretty significant penchant for muzzle flip, but the weight should help with that, and it's not so heavy as to be difficult to handle. Nicely balanced, too.

The one area where it falls down, and this is a failing that was hardly unique to the M.7, is in the sights. They're fixed, rudimentary, and quite small.

detail, very blurry M.7 sight picture

I was surprised that I was able to get a photo even that decent of the sight picture, given the limitations of the equipment. Here's a better view of the front sight, just to give you an indication of what you're working with looking through that little rear notch:

detail, M.7 front sight

(That crosspin at the base of the front sight is part of the very fiddly disassembly procedure; removing it enables the barrel bushing to be unscrewed so that the barrel can be removed.)

Tiny sights and fixed magazine notwithstanding, this is an incredibly well-made piece of equipment. The one I have is 104 years old and, though the finish is a bit beat, it feels as mechanically tight and solid as it must ever have done. All the parts were machined out of solid steel forgings in a meticulous, incredibly labor-intensive way that would be ridiculous to attempt in a mass-produced piece of military equipment today, much less a consumer product. It makes the M1912 that succeeded it—itself a high-quality piece of Austrian workmanship, produced by the same people in the same factory a mere year or two later—feel a bit crude by comparison. Not shoddy, but as if the finish work was just a little bit less pathological.

Of course, that's why the M.7 was replaced, and why the Luger would eventually be replaced by the Walther P38, and on and on; there's no shortage of early military automatics that were superseded not because something more capable came along, but because they were too expensive and/or tricky to make.

As for the ones that had already been manufactured, they stayed in service for decades, first with the postwar armed forces of various places that had until recently been part of the old Habsburg empire, and later the police. In World War II, some even turned up in service of the Italian army, having been handed over by Austria as reparations at the end of the Great War. The survivors were finally retired at the latter war's end (all of their remaining users having ended up on the losing side), dispersing to the hands of collectors around the world and in other centuries... including, as of late, my own.

I first read about this pistol, and its slightly more conventional successor the M1912 "Steyr-Hahn", back when I was in high school and fairly regularly read magazines like Guns & Ammo and American Handgunner. I don't read them any more, partly because I find their politics offputting, but mainly because they're so repetitive that after you've read such publications for a year or so, you're pretty much set for life. :) However, in those days at least, there was the occasional feature article about something old and odd and interesting, and the one about the Austrian pistols of the Great War era stuck with me over the following years.

Unfortunately, by the time I bestirred myself to take a serious interest in collecting this kind of thing, I was out of work and the guns themselves had become rare enough to warrant pause for serious thought on the part of even someone who wasn't out of work, so I put the idea aside for a number of years. They didn't get any more common or any cheaper over the intervening time, but with patience and a bit of luck, I was finally able to score first one, then the other, at costs that wouldn't leave visible wounds in the household economy.

Of course, the problem with achieving a long-standing goal like that is that it opens visibility to some more distant and difficult one that could safely be ignored while this one was in the way. That's the trouble with being a collector. There's always another unicorn to chase...


¹ This does not mean he was a hipster, although for all I know he may have been. Bohemia was the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now the western half, give or take, of the Czech Republic; so Krnka is often described as a Czech nowadays for convenience's sake, though in his lifetime it was true only in an ethnic sense, not a politico-legal one. I did it myself in the GotW on the Steyr M1912. Otherwise, you end up having to make a big parenthetical statement like this one. This happens a lot when talking about things having to do with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though. You just get used to it after a while.

² Roth-Krnka stripper clips are idiotically rare these days. Like most stripper clips, they were considered disposable items at the time, but unlike most, they are non-trivial to reproduce, so nobody is bothering to do so nowadays. This makes them very scarce and capable of commanding ridiculous prices, upward of $200, on the rare occasions when they turn up on eBay or one of its more-gun-related counterparts. Consequently, I do not have one.

³ Unit discs used to be a fairly common thing in European arms, back in the days when armies were composed of units that were mostly independent from each other for administrative purposes. The practice seems to have gone out of style by World War II, possibly because it finally occurred to someone that marking weapons with what unit they belong to provides valuable intelligence to the enemy if said enemy happens to find them lying around, which happens quite a lot.