My Dad's Mauser Model 98: Brought Home From Vietnam

Find out how a young solider from Ohio discovered what began as a German rifle issued at the end of WWII hidden in a cave in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam war Mauser Model 98 rifle.
The Mauser 98 today, brought back legally from the Vietnam War. Before that, its parts were likely seized by the Soviets from the Nazis as crates of rifles during WWII.M.D. Johnson

He didn’t offer, and I didn’t ask. For details, that is; details about his 13 months in Vietnam during 1965 and ’66. My Old Man never talked about his time in Southeast Asia. Oh, he might say a word here and there, maybe after a handful of 55-cent drafts at Johnny Shafer’s Tavern. But not much. No pictures. No stories. No conversations. And no trophies—no souvenirs, save one. In a dark corner of the closest, in an olive-drab soft case stenciled with his name—Michael Johnson—rank, I/LT, and serial number, was a rifle. It wasn't something one would necessarily associate with the Vietnam Conflict; at least not based on what was being televised on the networks each evening back at home. This was a Mauser Model 98; German in origin. The rifle itself was a mystery. For me, when I was still in my teens, it was a matter of how. How did it get to this sleepy little village in northeast Ohio? What was a WWII-era German rifle doing in Vietnam in the first place? For the Old Man, the question then, as it is today, centered more on what. What was the Mauser doing in a cave in Southeast Asia? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Old Man working the bolt on the Mauser 98.
The Old Man working the bolt on the Mauser 98.M.D. Johnson

A German in Vietnam

The Mauser’s story, as I see it, began in 1962, though it truthfully began some 18 years prior in Weimar, Germany.

In ’62, the Old Man had just graduated from Ohio University in Athens, with an ROTC commission. The next two years would be spent in grad school getting a PhD in mycology. From Athens, he went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma; from there, to Fort Lewis, Washington, where in August of ’65, he boarded the troop ship, USS General J.C. Breckinridge, bound for Southeast Asia.

He landed in Cam Rahn Bay, an S-1 staff officer with the 5/27th – 5th Howitzer Battalion, 27th Artillery.

Over the next few weeks, he moved up the coast of the South China Sea, eventually landing at Tuy Hòa Airbase. His responsibility? Guard two airfields known as the North and South Fields.

“We had three firing batteries that alternated between the two fields, with one battery in reserve at the south field,” he wrote.

Flash-forward to the present and a few weeks ago when I asked him for notes on how he came to be owner of the Mauser.

“We had a South Korean marine unit stationed next to us,” he recalled…

One evening, his orders were to fire an H&I (Harassment & Interdiction) mission on suspected Vietcong positions in the hills surrounding Tuy Hòa. These H&I missions were directed on areas determined by intelligence to be locations of concern, e.g. enemy troop concentrations, trails, or stores of men and materials. Any place the enemy might be getting too comfortable.

Michael Johnson on laundry day, Tuy Hòa, Vietnam - April 1966.
Michael Johnson on laundry day, Tuy Hòa, Vietnam - April 1966.author photo

“After,” he wrote, “I led a Korean patrol into the hills to evaluate the effects of the fire mission.”

There, in the hills north of town, one of the Korean servicemen, a second lieutenant who spoke English quite well, discovered a small cave; a cut-out in a low range of hills.

“You couldn’t walk in standing up,” he remembers. Further inspection revealed a weapons cache. “Wooden crates,” he wrote, “with eight to 10 Mauser rifles. All wrapped in paper and covered in cosmoline."

There were other items in the cache, too: “Grenades, shoulder packs, ammunition, bayonets, slings.”

Everything was taken, including the rifles, one of which the Korean second lieutenant offered to the Old Man.

“It was their show,” he said. “I didn’t think it was my place to scarf it up, but I was glad he offered it to me.”

Back at the airbase, the Old Man had a case—the same OD soft case I remembered as a kid—made for the rifle by at local Vietnamese tailor. A legitimate export permit from the Republic of Vietnam got the Mauser into the U.S. and, eventually, back to northeast Ohio.

Receiving the Army Commendation Medal while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. From there, he went to Fort Lewis, Washington, and then on to his all-expenses paid tour of SE Asia.
Michael Johnson receiving the Army Commendation Medal while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. From there, he went to Fort Lewis, Washington, and then on to his all-expenses paid tour of SE Asia.author photo

Research and a Russian Capture

Setting out to clarify the history of this particular Mauser, that story and the rifle itself were what I had to work with.

So, where to begin? Immediately, I went to a gentleman well-known to all Field & Stream readers, Mr. David E. Petzal.

Petzal, who has forgotten more about guns than most will ever know, I assumed, would know something about this particular piece.

His first observation addressed the Vietnam component of the equation.

“God almighty,” he wrote. “My guess is that this was a case of Mausers that was sold to Chiang Kai-Shek’s army during World War II, and captured by Mao Tse-tung. During the Vietnam War, the Chinese had a large part in arming the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong.”

His next, a bit of advice: "As for interpreting (the marks and codes), the standard work on the subject is Mauser Military Rifle Markings, 2nd Edition, by Terence W. Lapin. You can get it in paperback for $20 or so. Then start digging."

I did, and I did.

Stamps and Marks

As mentioned earlier, the Mauser technically has a born-on date of 1944 based on stampings "bcd 4" atop the receiver. Also, based on those markings, the piece was manufactured by the Gustloff Werke Weimar facility in Weimar, Germany, a town today of roughly 64,000 and located approximately 100 miles north of Nuremburg.

That year, 1944, some 348,000 Karabiner 98 kurz, aka Kar98k or, as called by Americans, the Model 98, were made at Gustloff Werke Weimar. The rifle is chambered for 8mm, or technically, 8x57mm.

This particular M98 is covered with stamps and marks. Almost everything has been assigned a number: the barrel, barrel band, floor plate, sliding rear sight elevator, rear sight, receiver, bolt, and safety—none of which match.

Tuy Hoa, Republic of Vietnam - 26 April 1966. “What the well-dressed LT wears."
Michael Johnson in Tuy Hòa, Republic of Vietnam - 26 April 1966. “What the well-dressed LT wears."M.D. Johnson

Petzal addressed this as well, writing, “The fact that hardly any of the numbers or codes match indicates wartime production; pre-war, and a great deal of it would match.”

Some of the numbers are three digits, others four, and still others five. The right side of the barrel, just ahead of the action, is stamped "avk (space) Bw," which translates to a barrel manufactured by a sub-contractor for Gustloff Werke Weimar known as Ruhrstahl AG, Brackwede-Bielefeld.

Emblems, notably the eagle, the federal insignia of Germany, are represented over much of the piece as stampings or proof marks, and serve as indicators as to where the various components were fabricated.

Two of the eagles—one on top of the receiver; the other on the left side of the barrel behind the rear sight—are holding what appears to be an indented or recessed ball. More on these later.

In several locations, a skeletal eagle, i.e. lines only representing wings and talons, and in some cases, head and neck, along with a number or combination of numbers and letters can be seen. These, according to Lapin’s guide, are typical Waffenamt marks, often written simply as WaA.

The Waffenamt was the German Weapons Agency during WWII, responsible for research and development of arms, ammunition, and military equipment.

Waffenamt code, e.g. the skeletal eagle/number combination, is an inspection code or proof mark. On this particular piece, there is a "WaA 221d" stamp above the magazine floorplate, indicative of a part made at the Gebruder Brehmer fabricating facility in Leipzig-Plagwitz in eastern Germany.

Another stamp, also the skeletal eagle but with the code "WaA655," lies on the magazine floorplate. This denotes that element coming from the J.P. Sauer & Sohn, which at the time was in the town of Suhl.

Eagle stamping showing the circle where a swastika was once stamped, later peened out by the Soviets.
Eagle stamping showing the circle where a swastika was once stamped, later peened out by the Soviets.author photo

As a note, the Sauer & Sohn name and trademark were sold in 1950 but were used until 1970. In ’76, the former Sauer & Sohn partnered with Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft (SIG) to design and manufacture a line of semi-automatic handguns, which firearms enthusiasts today know as SIG Sauer.

But it’s the ‘X’ stamped on the left side of the receiver ahead of the bolt that makes this particular Mauser even more interesting.

A Rifle's Journey

During the latter stages of WWII, the Soviets captured thousands upon thousands of German small arms, Mausers included. These rifles were taken back to the Soviet Union, broken down into components, refurbished, reassembled, and maintained in arsenal throughout the 1950s and into the early ‘60s as the USSR prepared itself for the imagined inevitable during the Cold War.

These M98s, today known as Russian Captures (RC), can often be identified by the “crossed rifles” stamp, which, in many pieces appears simply as the aforementioned “X” on the receiver.

Many RCs are stamped as such; however, many are not. The fact that the Old Man’s rifle is indeed an RC would explain the hodge-podge of stamps, marks, and serial numbers.

Typically, the Soviets lumped parts into piles during the remanufacturing phase. Reassembly, then, was a matter of taking a part from Pile A and Pile B and Pile C and so on until such a time as the armorer had a complete Mauser.

Other possible identifiers that a M98 is an RC include swastikas that had been peened or ground smooth; missing parts, e.g. cleaning rods, trigger guard assembly locking screws; shellac finished stocks; and a serial number matching that of the receiver stamped into the stock behind the large takedown disc.

If you’ll recall earlier I mentioned an eagle grasping an indented ball stamped on the receiver and left side of the barrel. Originally, the “ball” was a swastika; however, the Soviets often peened or punched the notorious Nazi insignia smooth, essentially removing it.

The Old Man with the Mauser 98 while on a visit to SW Washington state.
The Old Man, Michael Johnson, with the Mauser 98 while on a visit to SW Washington state.M.D. Johnson

Some Final Research Notes

Ballistically, the 8x57 runs roughly side-by-side with the more familiar .30-30 Winchester and .308 Winchester, and not too far removed from some of the numbers posted by the venerable .30-06, making it an excellent choice for whitetails, mulies, blacktails, and black bear.

Hundreds of thousands of Model 98s are and have been circulating around the planet since the fall of the Third Reich in 1945. Many of these military rifles have been sporterized; that is, modified and customized, often radically.

Many, however, have been left in their original form, and more than a few of these see hours upon hours both at the range, as well as in the field.

Epilogue

In all my years in Ohio—28 in all, if memory serves me—I never once saw the Old Man shoot the Mauser. He never even took it out of the closet, save at my request—and that no more than every great once in a while—leaving the ghosts of Southeast Asia be, I reckon. He had his reasons then; has them today, too, I’m guessing.

The Old Man, politically incorrect with his Camel Light, on a squirrel hunt in southeastern Ohio.
The Old Man, politically incorrect with his Camel Light, on a squirrel hunt in southeastern Ohio. The possibles/gear bag he carries was issued in SE Asia; which he still carries today. The guns are a Winchester M9422 .22LR lever action (left), and a Mossberg M500 pump actionM.D. Johnson

Me? I used the M98 a time or two; groundhogs mostly, as deer were a shotgun-only deal in the Buckeye State.

“Your Dzedo (Slovak for grandfather) shot a deer with that old rifle,” I remember the Old Man telling me many, many moons ago. “He was hauling chickens between Youngstown and somewhere in Pennsylvania, and he took that Mauser with him. Buck. Doe. I don’t know. I can’t even recall seeing the deer, but that’s what I’d heard tell.”

For the most part, the Mauser stood, swaddled in its OD case; not forgotten, only relegated to a corner, psychologically and otherwise.

How it made its way from Weimar, Germany, to a cave in Southeast Asia will forever be little more than a guess. An assumption based on history, serial numbers, and cryptic markings on metal.

Regardless, it was there and now it's here. The piece has stood the proverbial test of time, just as so many servicemen and women have done since returning from their own small corner of the world, a dark corner known simply as Vietnam.

In front of the Orderly Room of the 5/27th in Tuy Hoa, Republic of Vietnam.
Michael Johnson in front of the Orderly Room of the 5/27th in Tuy Hòa, Republic of Vietnam.M.D. Johnson