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Paul Mauser’s Epic Brainchild

The Influence His Rifle Action Had on Sporting Arms Development Cannot Be Overstated

By Jon R. Sundra

Back in the Jurassic when I was a budding rifle weenie, the 98 Mauser dominated the world of centerfire rifles. I’m talking a period beginning in the late 1940s until the mid-’70s. Back then, there were four major manufacturers producing commercial versions of the 98:

  1. Santa Barbara, which was made in the La Coruna factory in Spain and imported primarily by Golden State Arms;
  2. Mark X, produced at the Zastava arsenal in what is now Serbia and imported by Interarms;
  3. FN Supreme from Belgium, imported by Firearms International and the basis for Browning’s High Power line; and
  4. Husqvarna Mausers made in Sweden. If memory serves, Husqvarnas were imported here only as complete rifles under the Husqvarna name, but the others pitched up here as actions and barreled actions distributed to the gunsmithing trade, and as complete rifles under various names.

At one time or another, several American firearm manufacturers had a line of private labeled Mauser-based rifles. I’m talking Marlin, H&R, Remington, Browning, Weatherby, Colt, and Smith & Wesson to name some. The last of these companies to market a rifle based on a commercial 98 was Remington. In 2007, they introduced the Model 798. They imported Zastava barreled actions from Serbia and stocked them in a wood laminated in their facility in Mayfield, Kentucky. To say the line was short-lived would be understatement, for it was discontinued in 2009. However, I did have a chance to use one chambered in .30-06 to take a very large black bear in Alberta in 2008. As I look back, I shouldn’t have sent that rifle back to Remington, but how was I to know they’d drop the line just a few months later?

Anyway, all the aforementioned commercial 98s combined were easily matched by the number of sporterized military rifles and custom rifles based on military actions. For the benefit of those who might not be familiar with this epochal bolt action, allow me to begin with a question.

Can you name anything that has been in continuous production for 124 years? And its basic design hasn’t changed and is still considered by many to have never been improved upon? I can’t.

The `50 and `60s saw tens of thousands of surplus rifles being imported and “sporterized.” The better examples were cannibalized for their actions and used as the basis for custom rifles.

It is estimated that around 100 million 98s were produced between 1898 and the end of WWII. A good chunk were produced by Mauser and under license by other companies and arsenals in Germany, but also in other countries around the world. All told, some 30 countries adopted various iterations of the 98 Mauser as their martial arm. 

When I said the 98’s basic design hasn’t changed, that’s not to say that none were made. However, those that were, did not alter the basic design. Those features that were either added or changed could be considered as being accessory-like, if you will. 

So, just what are the differences between the military and commercial versions of the Mauser? The military version has what was called a clip seat at the front of the receiver bridge that anchored and aligned the five cartridges for easy insertion into the magazine. It also has a cut-out on the left side receiver wall, which made it easier for the thumb to push the stacked cartridges into the magazine to free them from the clip. It has a three-position wing safety on the bolt sleeve that rotates in a 180-degree arc perpendicular to the bore. The 9 o’clock position is “fire,” 12 o’clock is “safe” and it withdrew the firing pin from the sear and blocked the iron sights to alert the soldier that the safety was engaged — a handy feature in war. With the wing at 3 o’clock, the safety was engaged and the bolt sleeve and firing pin assembly could be removed without tools for cleaning or replacement. Also on military actions, you’ll find a two-stage trigger with lengthy take-up — another good idea for a martial arm. It made firing the gun more deliberate. All these features were designed with the soldier in mind under the stress of battle.

 The commercial Mausers began appearing in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Gone were the thumb slot and the clip seat, for there was no need to clip feed a hunting rifle. Gone too was the sleeve-mounted wing safety. In its place was a streamlined bolt cap, and the safety was now incorporated into the trigger assembly, the thumb piece of which was behind the bolt handle. And speaking of the bolt handle, on military actions it jutted straight out at 3 o’clock and precluded mounting a scope, so it had to be “turned down” to clear the scope’s eyepiece upon withdrawing the bolt. Mounting a scope of course required the drilling and tapping of the receiver ring and bridge to accommodate scope-ring bases. 

The Mauser extractor is what makes controlled-round feeding possible. It doesn’t rotate with the bolt, and a flush bolt face allows the rim of the feeding cartridge to slide up behind the claw as it clears the magazine’s feed rails.

And lastly, the fixed floorplate and its recessed locking button found on military actions were changed to a hinged floorplate arrangement. (One exception was the ’09 Argentine, which had a hinged floorplate.) 

Again, despite all these changes, there is absolutely no difference in the basic design between the military and commercial 98. 

Consider this: When I reviewed the Remington 798 back in 2008, I took the bolt of my 1909 Argentine Mauser and it slid into the 798 and locked like it had been made for it, and vice-versa with the 798’s bolt in the Argentine. And, except for a minor alteration in the inletting to accommodate a side safety, the footprint of a military 98 is the same as that of any commercial Mauser. 

If I may digress a moment, when you consider how many hundreds of thousands of military Mausers were built in Germany before the start of the Great War, one is inclined to assume that the quality of such guns couldn’t compare to what today’s CNC and EDM machining processes are capable of, but you’d never know it if you could examine, say, a pristine 1909 Argentine manufactured at the DWM factory in Berlin, or the Brazilian Model 1908 made in Oberndorf. I own virtually unfired examples of each, and I can tell you that the machining, fit and finish on these rifles is nothing short of astounding. And they were produced over 120 years ago!

This is not possible with plunger ejection.

Sad to say, to my knowledge the last remaining source of production-grade commercial Mausers is made in Serbia at the Zastava Armory. It’s the old Interarms Mark X, but now being imported by Zastava Arms USA and identified as the Zastava LK M70 which has an MSRP of $795. I stressed “production-grade” because the Mauser people are actually producing a commercial 98 rifle, but the last time I checked they started at $10,600. There are also a few custom houses here and in Europe that do the same, but they are all bespoke guns, made one at a time, and very expensive.

The influence Peter Paul Mauser’s rifle action had on both military and sporting arms development cannot be overstated. Our own 1903 Springfield and ’17 Enfield rifles, which saw us through the Great War, were basically Mausers, enough so that our government had to pay hefty royalties to the Mauser folks. Among our domestic makers, Winchester’s iconic Model 70 and, after 1994, Ruger’s Hawkeye are basically Mausers. So too are the Dakota 76 and the Kimber 84 and 8400. 

But all good things eventually run their course. Oddly enough, it was the European manufacturers who were the first to abandon the hallmarks of the 98, that is, controlled-round feeding, non-rotating extractor and inertia ejection. Some, like Blaser and Merkel, went to the straight-pull exclusively, while Heym and Browning (Europe sales only) added a straight-pull to their bolt-action line, but they’re a bit pricey for the mass market. Instead, most adopted the fat bolt, tri-lug concept characterized by having three locking lugs oriented on 120-degree centers that do not protrude beyond the diameter of a fatter-than-normal bolt, which allows for a shorter  60-degree rather than a 90-degree bolt rotation. It is a design that lends itself to far less costly production. Interestingly enough, it was Roy Weatherby who first adopted the concept with his Mark V Magnum of 1957. Though the Mark V’s bolt has three rows of three locking lugs, it is still a tri-lug action. The same holds true for bolts with two rows of three. 

Two examples of the evolution of the `98 Mauser are the Montana Model 1999 (top), and the Winchester Model 70.

Since the Millennium, there have been some 13 tri-lug rifles introduced, mostly European in origin — the Benelli Lupo, Merkel 16, Sauer 100, Franchi Momentum, Sabatti Saphire, Mauser M18, Sauer 202 and Steyr’s SM12 to name just some. American manufacturers to have embraced the tri-lug are Ruger with the American and Winchester with their XPR, both of which carry MSRPs almost half of what’s asked for their flagship rifles, the Hawkeye and Model 70. Thompson-Center is also aboard the tri-lug train with its Icon, Venture and Dimension.

Yep, I’m afraid the dominance of Paul Mauser’s epic brainchild has run its course, but what a run it’s been! I can think of only two men who have had as much influence on modern small arms development, and that would be Mikhail Kalashnikov and John Moses Browning. Pretty good company.