The Mauser 98K was the standard service rifle of the German military. It was one of the most-produced rifles in the history of the world—some 12 million of them were made between 1935 and 1945 alone, and millions more have been made in subsequent years.
That’s impressive, but more important is how this rifle set a standard for bolt-action rifles that is often copied and has yet to be equaled.
The Mauser was developed by Wilhelm (1834-1882) and Paul (1838-1914) Mauser, from the town of Oberndorf in Germany’s third largest state of Wuerttemburg. The Mauser brothers revolutionized the firearms industry with their famous bolt-action, magazine-fed firing mechanism that came close on the heels of the end of the blackpowder muzzleloading era.
The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) was primarily fought with muzzle-loading military muskets that required a soldier to run through eleven separate steps within 20 seconds to load and fire his rifle. The introduction of self-contained metallic cartridges enabled the shooter not only greater speed in loading and reloading, but the ability to load from the breech of the gun, foregoing the tiresome process of trying to force a Minie ball down a bore filled with increasing levels of black-powder fouling.
Single-shot rifles became the new rage, and arms makers the world over were trying to find easier ways of delivering a metallic cartridge into a breech that was strong enough not to blow back or fail during firing.
While Erskine S. Allin was working out the details of what would become the Trapdoor Springfield, and while Remington was designing its Rolling Block action, Franz and Paul Mauser were quietly working away improving the bolt-action design of the French Chassepot rifle that had been introduced in 1866.
To be sure, bolt-action designs were nothing new by 1866. Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse had designed his first bolt-action in 1836, the year the Alamo fell. The Linder, Greene, Palmer, and Calisher & Terry carbines were all forms of bolt-action designs that saw service during our own war between the states. What the two Mauser brothers did, though, while working studiously away in Ilion, New York, was to make the bolt-action design not only stronger and safer, but also able to function with metallic cartridges.
While working at Remington, their designs came to the attention of Remington’s European sales agent Samuel Norris. Norris, in what must be one of history’s more flagrant conflicts of interest, agreed to represent the new Mauser designed rifle on the European continent. (Norris, thankfully, kept many of his Mauser prototypes and saved them at the Remington factory. Today they are the earliest known Mauser rifles ever made and are on display at NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va.)
The initial contracts to convert Chassepot rifles in 1871 put the Mauser brothers on the map. Paul, who was then leading the company in design and plant operations, continued to revise and refine the Mauser action. The two-lug, bolt-lock design had a self-cocking bolt and eventually, using James Paris Lee’s design, a box-fed magazine that put the Mauser in the forefront of rifle technology. With Norris’s help, orders for new Mauser rifles were flowing in from all points of the globe.
The introduction of the Model 1893 Spanish Mauser had a significant impact on rifle technology as well as on military history. The M1893 as adopted by the Spanish military brought all of the Mauser innovations into one very sleek and effective rifle. An internal five-round staggered box magazine did not extend beyond the lines of the rifle’s stock and frame. The bolt was a self-cocking action with twin locking lugs and its 7x57mm smokeless-powder cartridge was fed from the top of the receiver with stripper clips.
The new smokeless powder cartridge was able to fire a projectile with far greater speed, range, and accuracy than its black-powder predecessor. During the battles for Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. troops were at a severe disadvantage having been primarily armed with the black-powder Trapdoor Springfield rifles of 1873.
One unit, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, were armed with the new smokeless .30-40 Krag-Jorgensen carbines, but their executive officer, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, felt the Spanish Mausers were more effective and deadlier than the Krags would prove to be. Although Roosevelt’s Rough Riders would carry the day atop San Juan Hill, Roosevelt was very impressed with the effectiveness of the Mauser during the subsequent two weeks his men fell under their constant fire before the operations outside of Santiago concluded.
Meanwhile, back in Oberndorf, Germany, the Mauser Gewher 1898 was adopted by the German military and marked the final enhancement of the Mauser system that would become the pedigree for the shortened, or carbine version 98K, that would become world famous during the second World War–or at least that’s how this story is usually told.
The reality is that when Theodore Roosevelt assumed office as the 26th president of the United States, he advocated the adoption of a rifle similar to the Spanish M1893 that he had run up against in Cuba. Thinking it best to have one rifle that served the needs of both the infantry and the cavalry, the U.S. Model 1903 Springfield was adopted.
This featured all of the standard Mauser design improvements to the action and magazine feed, but it was much shorter than the Gew 98. Although the design was similar, the only patents the U.S. 1903 copied was the use of the stripper clip to introduce the five .30-03 (later .30-06) cartridges into the internal magazine. (The U.S. paid Mauser royalties on the manufacture of each stripper clip until 1917 and then again following World War I.)
There is a massive amount of American influence in the Mauser success story. Much of the initial development work was done while one of the brothers was working here at the Remington factory. An American named Norris helped find the financing and sales market for the first designs laying the foundation for the Mauser company and the penultimate Mauser, the 98K, was more than just a tip of the hat to our own U.S. Model 1903, which was seen as a shorter improvement of the Mauser Gew 98.
The design and patents of the Mauser are still clearly evident in the Winchester Model 70, the Remington Model 700, and countless other bolt-action rifles commercially available to this very day. The Mauser legacy lives on with more than a little help from its American friends.