Story and Photographs by Alex Kincaid
“I‘ll take a semiautomatic 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 of the Mauser M98 bolt-action. A discussion ensued, and we were not talking hunting – we were discussing war. Our passion for riﬂes and history often leads to a great deal of research and conversation. Neither of us has served in the military, but the conversation thankfully extends beyond the theoretics of our living room to those who have 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 who have experiences ranging from retrieving the bodies of their fallen comrades on Utah Beach to ﬁghting in the Battle of the Bulge, the ﬁnal Nazi Germany oﬀensive. I have watched one of the Chosin Few, a US Marine Corps division who fought in the Chosin Reservoir, wipe tears from his face as he divulged only a small part of his experience in Korea; a friend and ﬁrearms instructor who is 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 America’s heroes, I have also heard ﬁrsthand from those who served in the Axis military.
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 WWII. Some data suggests as few as 12 percent, 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 to 20 percent of the total WWII 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, and 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, or K98k, is a true phoenix from the ashes of WWI, 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 Great 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 semiautomatic 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 the country 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 WWI Mauser Gewehr für Deutsche Reichspost, or 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. Its 24-inch barrel and overall 43-inch length is much shorter than the Gew 98. Without a bayonet, ammunition or a sling the K98k weighs 8.38 pounds. With iron sights it has a 550-yard eﬀective ﬁring range, which is increased to over 1,000 yards when ﬁtted with a telescopic sight. The riﬂe holds ﬁve 7.92x57mm 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, and carries this ideal 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 and 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-open-feed 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-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 while unloaded because the follower in the magazine pops up and blocks the bolt from going forward until it is actually reloaded (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 25-hour process before it was considered perfect. The barrel was entrusted only to graduates from 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 known as the United Nations) in 1933.
The painstaking measures required to ensure that every part of each riﬂe was manufactured to perfection also required a special army of inspectors. Each had their 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 just spot checking and testing a single 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, and riﬂes that were deemed highly accurate were ﬁtted with telescopic sights and became sniper riﬂes. Despite the elaborate manufacturing and inspection process, over 2 million German soldiers 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 Reichsmarks 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 Volkswagen. The earlier bolt is beautiful and polished; the latter, simple but functional.
THE GERMANS 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 of 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 Treaty of Versailles’ Control Commission, deciphering the origins of a K98k can be a puzzle-solving process. Special K98ks, such as those issued to the Waffen-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 challenge 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 identiﬁes 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. US soldiers even encountered K98ks in Iraq. Some of them, 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, 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 WWII because he refused to arm his infantry with faster, semiautomatic riﬂes.
When WWII began, the German infantry was not unlike other armies – armed with a mix of bolt-action riﬂes and some form of machine gun. Germany’s strategy for implementing these weapons diﬀered.
They emphasized the machine gun, usually an MG-34 or an MG-42 (Maschinengewehr 34/42) as their primary infantry weapon. A German squad early in the war would have four machine guns, and after 1944 six. 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 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 on their individual firepower.
In that situation the US rifle caliber. 30 M1 Garand was the “greatest battle implement ever devised,”according to General Patton, because at a minimum it equalized the American’s firepower with that of the Nazis.
Both military doctrines had advantages and disadvantages. If you arm one squad with K98ks and the other 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 a machine gun to the mix, per the German strategy, that system takes the advantage. Even in urban combat the K98k still had beneﬁts including its powerful ammunition that was better able to 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 are highly sought after by collectors, they can still be found as foreign capture riﬂes imported to the US. 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 semiautomatics. 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. AmSJ