© 2015 Alexandria Kincaid (published in the American Shooting Journal, February 2016)
“I’ll take any semi-automatic rifle any day of the week over a bolt action and twice on Sunday”. That’s what my husband told me when I confessed my love to him of the Mauser M98 bolt action. The discussion ensued, and we were not discussing hunting. We were discussing war. Our passion for rifles and history leads to much studying, research, and conversation. Neither of us has served in war, but the conversation, thankfully, extends beyond the theoretics of our living room to those who have the first-hand experience to tell it how it is, or was. Speaking with veterans is an opportunity neither of us will ever turn down. Our veterans, after all, are our heroes.
It has been my honor to personally listen to tales of heroism and horror from World War II vets with experiences ranging from retrieving the bodies of their fallen comrades on Utah Beach to fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. I have watched one of the Chosin Few wipe tears from his face as he divulged to me a small part of his experience in Korea. My friend and firearms instructor, a Vietnam Marine, shared with me the day he almost died (and now celebrates annually). Purple Heart recipients from our recent wars in the Middle East have revealed acts of horror impossible to comprehend without experiencing them firsthand. And in addition to Americans heroes, I have also heard first-hand from those who served in the Axis militaries.
In all these conversations, I have never heard how any particular rifle was more responsible than another for saving or taking human life, or for winning or losing a battle. These surviving storytellers instead focus their successes on much more important phenomena: battle strategy, bravery, and luck. Statistical history suggests that many soldiers never even fired their rifles in combat during World War II (some data suggests as little as 12%, with arguments to the contrary, and at least one expert suggests soldiers purposefully missed their human targets). Similar studies suggest that small arms were only responsible for an estimated 10%-20% of the total World War II casualties.
Statistics, however, do not stop the debates. Historians and gun enthusiasts continue to credit or blame particular rifles with winning or losing battles. Competitors challenge one another to long-distance matches with antiques. Well-known shooters film their time on the range, allegedly staging a direct comparison of era rifles to prove one is better than the other.
While these feats are interesting and provide direct comparisons of a specific rifle feature, a complete analysis of any war rifle must take into account much more than test fires of speed and accuracy on a range. Battle rifles deserve a comparison that includes details of their intended purpose and the battle strategy for implementing that purpose. After all, isn’t a perfect rifle one that reliably performs as it was intended in an effective and efficient manner?
The German Mauser Karabiner 98 kurz (K98k) is a true phoenix from the ashes of World War I. And despite the challenges faced by its creators, it fulfilled its purpose during WWII, is respected by gun enthusiasts around the world, and has served as a stable platform for the development of modern rifles for almost 100 years.
After the First World War, nations around the world realized the need to improve standard military rifles. American military planners studied the effectiveness of bolt-action repeating rifles and concluded there was a need to develop a semi-automatic infantry rifle. The Germans, on the other hand, were saddled with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The signing of the Treaty on June 28, 1919, not only officially ended World War I, but restricted the German army to 100,000 men and forbade Germany from producing military weaponry. Those determined to re-arm a German infantry would have to do so secretly while outsmarting the “Inter-Allied Military Control Commission” inspectors tasked with ensuring the Treaty’s terms were followed.
The Germans worked to improve upon their World War I Mauser Gewehr für Deutsche Reichspost (the Gew 98) bolt-action rifles by creating the K98k in secret manufacturing plants. The resulting, surreptitious rifles were fully assembled under two floors of underwear manufacturing in Switzerland.
By June 21, 1935, the K98k was officially adopted as the German service rifle.
It’s 24” barrel and overall 43” length is much shorter than the Gew 98. Without bayonet, ammunition, or sling, the K98k weighs 8.38 pounds. With iron sights, it has a 550 yard effective firing range, increased to over 1000 yards when fitted with a telescopic sight. The rifle holds five 7.92 x 57mm Mauser cartridges (originally 197.5 grain), which can be loaded from a stripper clip or one-by-one.
Like a Porsche, the K98k is German perfection in design and engineering. The K98k carries this perfection through multiple features, but its heart and soul is its Mauser M98 action. Why is the Mauser action so much better than other bolt action systems? It exemplifies two words: strength and reliability.
One reason for the Mauser’s strength is that the bolt’s two main locking lugs were moved to the front, just behind the bolt head, unlike early repeaters with only one lug or their lugs positioned at the back of the bolt. These lugs allow for higher pressure cartridges to be fired safely, and are the reason that the Mauser system is stronger than that of the Lee-Enfield and Mosin-Nagant actions, which require some strengthening to handle the same pressure. Backing up the two front lugs, the Mauser action also includes a third “safety” lug at the rear of the bolt.
Not only does the Mauser action deliver the power to handle the higher caliber rounds, it also has the strength via its extractor to eject fully-loaded, heavy dud rounds every time. Not all bolt-actions are capable of this feat, and can leave duds dancing around in the ejection port causing jams.
As for reliability, the Mauser action eliminates operator-caused malfunctions that other bolt actions cannot, including jams due to double-loading, failures to load (due to short-stroking or otherwise), and failure to eject duds and casings. It is the Mauser’s large, nearly indestructible, claw extractor which gives the action its control feed operation, keeping the round under the control of the bolt from the moment it is stripped from the magazine. The control feed, as opposed to push-on-open feed type bolt actions, ensures that each cartridge is held to the bolt face until achieving a positive insertion into the chamber, regardless of rifle position. The Mauser action also prevents double feeds, because it is impossible to have a round in the chamber and grab a second round. Keeping the cartridge on the bolt face until ejected also allows the shooter to reliably extract a round even if the bolt is never fully closed. If you fail to lock the bolt with a push-on-feed action, you can leave the round seated in the chamber, and you will have to get it to fall out or even pick it out with your fingers – not a good situation for a soldier (or hunter). This task may not even be possible, depending on what is causing the malfunction in the first place.
As a primary goal for improvement to their battle rifle, the Germans sought to ensure that soldiers always loaded a new round. To enhance this feature, they developed the follower at the magazine into a “bolt catch”. The bolt on a Mauser action cannot be pushed forward unloaded, because the follower in the magazine pops up and blocks the bolt from going forward until it is reloaded (ie pushed down by another round).
Also, due to the ejector’s location, it is impossible to short-stroke a Mauser action and close the bolt without ejecting the casing and without loading another round. By the time the bolt is far enough back to eject the empty shell, it is far enough back to grab another round while cycling it forward.
Following the original German production criteria, it was impossible to cheaply mass-produce K98ks. Each K98k went through an elaborate, on average, 25 hour process before it was considered “perfect”. The manufacture of a barrel was entrusted only to graduates of a special “Barrel Straightener’s School”. It’s no wonder Germany’s unemployment rates dropped substantially after Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations (now United Nations).
The painstaking measures required to ensure every part of each rifle was manufactured to perfection also required a special army of inspectors. Each of these inspectors had his own stamp of approval called an Absnahmestempel (acceptance stamps), aka Waffenamt stamp. These stamps appear on multiple K98k parts as either Weimar or Nazi eagles, depending on the manufacturer and year of manufacture. Each rifle was test fired (as opposed to spot-checking and testing one rifle per batch). A test round was even pushed backwards through the barrel and then forensically examined for any imperfections. Only after passing this arduous testing did the rifle receive the Beschußstempel (firing proof). Highly accurate rifles were fitted with telescopic sights as sniper rifles. Despite the elaborate manufacturing and inspection process, over 2,000,000 Germans were armed with K98ks by the time German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The cost of this rearmament was not cheap: over 90 billion RM were spent between 1933 and 1937 alone.
Of course, times change, and towards the end of 1943, the German standards gave way to the greater need for mass production. Production time per rifle was reduced to as little as 14 hours. If you compare only the bolt of an early production K98k with one from a 1944 rifle, you will see that the Porsche is now compromised for production purposes and offered as a Volkswagon. The earlier bolt is beautiful and polished; the latter, simple but functional.
The Germans also turned to alternative manufacturers later in the war – namely, their prisoners. Albert Speer implemented the supposed plenipotentiary Heinrich Himmler’s earlier request to produce arms in concentration camps. It is estimated that the camp at Buchenwald produced over 340,000 K98ks on behalf of the manufacturer Gustloff Werke. Old photographs depict prisoners at the original concentration camp, Dachau, repairing and assembling K98k rifles from components. During my visit to Dachau, there were no obvious signs of the manufacture of K98ks that once took place there. In fact, it wasn’t until after our visit that I learned Dachau prisoners had produced the means to empower their enslavers.
Due to the Germans attempting to outsmart the Control Commission, deciphering the origins of a K98k can be a puzzle-solving process. Special K98ks, such as those issued to the SS, bear unique markings. Among the 14 million K98ks produced, over 100 combinations of manufacturer code and date markings are known to exist, with new variations still being discovered.
To me and many other collectors, this is all part of the fun of collecting historic rifles: I have been able to determine that my first K98k has a combination of Weimar Beschussstempel and Nazi eagles. The number coding, the date, and the combination of eagle styles tell the rifle’s tale…and clearly identify it as one manufactured by Sauer & Sohn in 1939. Also part of the fun is telling a rifle’s tale post-war. K98ks were reconditioned and put to use all over the world. The Norwegian armed forces continued to use recycled K98k actions in military and civilian sniper and target rifles into the 2000s. U.S. soldiers encountered K98ks in Iraq. Some K98ks, ironically, were employed by the Israeli army, but only after stamping Israeli markings on top of the Nazi symbols.
By far the greatest critique of the K98k is its rate of fire. As with any other bolt-action rifle, soldiers could only fire as quickly as they could operate the bolt. Critics of the German’s bolt action-armed infantry blame Hitler for losing World War II because he refused to arm his infantry with faster, semi-automatic rifles. This critique, however, must be addressed in light of the German strategy for implementing the K98k in the battle.
When World War II began, the German infantry was not unlike other armies – armed with a mix of bolt-action rifles and some form of machine gun. But Germany’s strategy for implementing these weapons differed.
Germans emphasized the machine gun, usually an MG-34 or an MG-42 (Maschinengewehr 34 / 42, or “machine gun 34 / 42”), as their primary infantry weapon. A German squad early in the war would serve 4 machine guns, and after 1944, six machine guns. The K98k was only intended as the backup support to the more ominous weapon and for sniping. German battle strategy did not intend for individual soldiers to engage the enemy.
In contrast, the Allies employed machine guns as support and point-defense weapons. The American’s squad based weapons, usually BARs (Browning Automatic Rifles), were not comparable to the German’s belt-fed or saddle-drum magazine that could fire faster (1,200 rounds per minute) and longer. This opposite strategy left the American soldiers relying upon their individual firepower. In that situation, the U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1 Garand was the “greatest battle implement ever devised” (per General Patton), because it, at a minimum, equalized the American’s firepower with that of the Germans’.
Both military doctrines had advantages and disadvantages. If you arm one squad with K98ks and one with M1s or submachine guns at less than 500 yards, the soldiers with the M1s or submachine guns have the advantage. But when you add the use of the machine gun to the mix, per the German strategy, the Germans can take that advantage. Even in urban combat, the K98k still had benefits, including that its powerful ammunition was able to better penetrate walls and other cover. The Germans recognized the importance of a submachine gun and married its advantages with a higher caliber round towards the end of the war (creating the Sturmgewehr 44), but mass production of these new rifles was not fully accomplished before the end of the war.
Today, the Mauser M98 action remains the precision instrument in the world of bolt actions. Almost every centerfire bolt gun today uses a Mauser M98 action and operating principles, with minor differences. Quite an astounding fact, given that Peter Paul Mauser patented the M98 bolt action design in 1895. Not only does the action live on as the “old faithful and reliable” of bolt-actions, it carries on as a top-of-the-line luxury action as well. For a mere $12,495, the new Mauser M98 Magnum combines the strength of the ‘98 action with modernized features. The Mauser action is also appreciated by elite snipers who value the first shot, guaranteed hit over faster repeat fire.
Although German WWII K98ks, due to their unique history, are highly sought after by collectors, they can still be found as foreign capture rifles imported to the U.S. I found mine a couple of years ago on the shelf at a Big Five Sporting Goods store for a few hundred dollars. These war relics live on as inspiration, history, and as platforms for the next leap forward.
And yes, dear husband, I see your points about the semi-automatics. They certainly hold their place in both war and hunting. Finding one that provides the powerful, first-shot, reliable tack of a Mauser action is indeed possible. For three to four times the price, I might find a one to match the power and precision of a M98.