The Mauser K98k: a Commando’s View

These days, the venerable 98 Mauser has been elevated to a mythical position among the world’s firearms. It is, many writers say, the ne plus ultra of the military turnbolt repeater. To these fans, this position is demonstrated not only by its decades of service in every corner of the world, but also by its impact on every subsequent turnbolt, from the 03 Springfield and the Arisaka Type 38 (1905), to the Remington 700, Winchester Model 70, and Weatherby Mark V, all of which took something from the German original.

Mauser K98k from world-guns-ru

Yet there is an interesting fact about the Mauser’s history: while many nations were impressed by it and adopted it, the only major one to do so was the United States, who found its Krag-Jorgensen rifles and .30-40 Government rifle cartridge woefully outclassed by the Spaniards’ 1893 Mausers in the Spanish-American War. Superior rifles didn’t save the Spanish cause, but nobody who was on those battlefields had any doubt as to who had the best rifles.

The elevation of one of the volunteer regiments’ colonels, and an avid shooter and hunter, to the Presidency (that promotion itself the product of gunshots) might have had something to do with it. The British had a similar Mauser experience in the Boer War, and were close to the adoption of a rifle with numerous Mauser features (the Pattern 13 and ’14 Enfields) when war intervened and someone in the War Office thought it the wrong time to change. So they entered the Great War wedded to the SMLE Mk. I.

Lee enfield Mk1

After the war ended, though, the British were satisfied with their SMLE. The French also didn’t think the Germans had a better rifle (even though most arms historians are pretty sure they did). Like the Americans and Russians, they were thinking about semi-autos for the future (France would later adopt an odd but serviceable turnbolt, the M1936). None of those nations came out of World War One thinking the Germans had better rifles.

And they didn’t enter — or exit — World War II thinking that, either.

Here’s a opinion worth noting from Peter Young. Who’s that? Well, to lay the whole thing out, it’s Brigadier Peter Young, DSO, MC, MA, FSA, retired. Or it was, when the wartime officer turned historian wrote the Foreword for John Weeks’s World War II Small Arms. In it, Young records being less than impressed with German rifles and riflery, even when it had its very best chance to make an impression on him:

It is interesting to see that the Germans, whose military skill is so much admired, were also capable of making mistakes. The production of the Model 98 Karabiner is a case in point. Having been missed by numerous German riflemen between 1940 and 1945, I have often wondered why the Germans, so skillful with mortar and light machine gun, we’re such rotten shots with the rifle. Well, now I know:

“Unfortunately,” the author writes (without considering my feelings!), “It was a relatively awkward rifle to shoot, and the bolt action was most disappointing. The sight radius was short, which did not make for good shooting.”

MP40_German_Stalingrad_illustration

In Nº.3 Commando, which I commanded in Italy and Normandy, we were always glad to acquire Lugers or “Schmeissers”, and sometimes used the MG 34. Nobody ever bothered to keep a German rifle. The firepower of the platoon is a decisive factor in infantry combat, and by giving their men a rifle that was so much less effective than the Garand, or even the old Lee Enfield, the Germans were making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves at section level.

Now, that should put the cat among the chickens. Neither Glock nor H&K fanboys can hope to equal the shining, white-hot ardor of German WWII armament fanboys. But this is the word of one who most assuredly Was There™.

Weeks, in the book, does note the German attempts to leapfrog the 19th Century rifle: the G43, which was never built in large numbers, the MP.44, which he’s remarkably (and we think, unfairly) dismissive of, and the daddy of all German techno-fantasies, the FG.42: Weeks loves it as much as any other writer, but recognizes that its production in Wehrmacht-sized quantities was never a possibility. Even the much simpler K.98k with its decades of production engineering could never be built in quantities enough to arm Germany’s mass levies.

FG42-Right

To some extent, what Young is describing is simply “the-devil-you-know effect”; not many Germans picked up M1s, either (although photographs indicate that it did happen). His Commandos’ taste for Lugers and MP.38/40 submachine guns may be partly explained by the British practice of being fairly stingy with the issue of the British analogues of these arms, especially the pistols.

The problem with the K.98k is, quite simply, that at the outbreak of of WWII its basic action was 40 years old, and based upon a design that was about a decade older than that. The many German experiments with upping their combat firepower at section level shows that the German Wehrmacht did indeed recognize that the shortened version of their World War I Gewehr 98 was only a stopgap when they introduced it amidst their rearmament program of 1935.

17 thoughts on “The Mauser K98k: a Commando’s View

  1. robroysimmons

    Sights are woeful, and the stock seems to do what Euros appreciate most, send the recoil into the cheek. From what one of your posters wrote about German tactics some months ago the riflemen of a squad existed to support the MG teams, bear the ammo, provide covering fire while the MG team moved and that made the riflemen second in consideration as compared to American tactical dogma.

    In a way that is Germans for you, having grown up in a German dominated area of America I can say this if they have a good idea its great if they have a bad idea they grab a bigger hammer.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Among the things that the US copied when we copied the Mauser was the short sight radius. The lengthened sight radius and peep sight of the M1903A3 is quite superior to the M1903. (Yet the older gun is more popular among “gun guys” and was once in high demand among sporterizers, because of its machined parts where the wartime A3 has stamped ones).

    2. Hognose Post author

      “that is Germans”…

      I once heard the Porsche 911 described as the triumph of dogged German engineering over inept German design.” Having driven some 1960s 911s, that would just as soon trade ends as look at you, and some more recent ones I have to agree. Make mine a 904….

      1. Y.

        Are 911’s too notorious for spinning out of control?

        The best, unintended weapon of the Czech Resistance was the Tatra 77/87. With it’s rear-mounted air cooled engine it was dangerous to drive around curves and it was fast for it’s day too (100 mph with a 85 hp v8). The designers was an Austrian though.

        Killed so many officers that supposedly there was an order banning it’s use. Though, possibly apocryphal, but rear-engined cars are a bitch to handle, as every Škoda owner knew..

  2. Y.

    These days, the venerable 98 Mauser has been elevated to a mythical position among the world’s firearms. It is, many writers say, the ne plus ultra of the military turnbolt repeater

    But why?

    As I understand it, SMLE can be fired faster and has a larger magazine..

  3. TRX

    I’ve spent many hours studying Colvin & Viall’s “US Rifles & Machine Guns” and looking at the tooling and setups. The ’03 Springfield was a very expensive rifle to make… and it was basically a 98 Mauser. The P-14 and P-17 look similar, but they’re enormously simplified, without the many tedious cuts and tweaks of the Springfield; indeed, Colvin makes many comments about unnecessary and complex machining on the ’03.

    The Springfield took so much equipment and tooling that the arsenals didn’t bother with building more capacity to make Springfields; all the new equipment was made for building P-14s and 17s, and some spare Springfield equipment was repurposed for the new rifles. And by WWII the situation hadn’t changed; the Springfield had been a dead end while the endless development and debugging of the Garand took place, and instead of upgrading the creaky old Springfield production line, we tooled up for P17s again.

  4. dave spears

    No doubt that the once swashbuckling Brigadier young and his merry band of Commandos did view the 10 shot Enfield rifle as more suitable for their shorter range needs and tactics than the 98K. And also no doubt that a P’08 was better for them than any Webley or Enfield revolver and that Beretta and MP40 smgs were better than Sten guns. Horses for courses as they say in the racing world.

    Enfields cycle more quickly than a 98, but are not as accurate. Enfields though are known to produce tighter groups when fired at 300yds than at 100 and 200 yards, but still know where near what a Mauser can do a those distances or beyond. 9k8 accuracy is consistent but the Enfield’s 303 round makes a way nastier exit wound. The 98 however is the stronger and better built rifle, shoot both side by side and its patently obvious.

    If the need is accuracy, the 98K wins hands down, but the Enfield is the better tool for killing at shorter distances and doing it more quickly than a 98K can.

    As for the post war German rifles, the G3 and the G36, you could call them both failures. The G3 although epically reliable is ungainly balanced when loaded and to chamber a round in the prone position requires almost ridiculous contortions for a combat rifle. The G36 has proven to be dis accurate and really more suited for aggressive camping than for use in a war zone.

    Nice blog and cheers to you!

  5. James

    I frequent VIMBAR (VIntage Bolt Action Rifle) competitions that use WW2 surplus rifles. Course of fire includes 200m offhand, 300m sitting, 400 through 800 meters prone sand-bag supported. Metallic targets get a little larger at each position past 500m. Then there is a “walkabout” portion with multiple targets at unknown ranges and stages are timed, usually requiring a reload.
    Anyway, the results are somewhat predictable: The Swiss K31 straight-pull pretty much dominates (especially the walkabout portion) in the hands of the average shooter. However, a great shooter can win with almost anything. Enfields, Mausers (German, Yugo, Persian, Swedish,etc.), and Springfields (especially the A4 variety with the rear peep) have all won the match at one time or another. Finnish M39s do quite well. Swedish Mausers have won because of exceptional accuracy and the 6.5 seems to buck the varying cross winds a bit better than the larger bores. Again though, it really comes down to the shooter- unless they have an M91. No one has ever even entered the top 5 with a Mosin M91 that I can recall.

    I have always found it interesting that the two countries with arguably the best (in different ways) rifles of WWII never had to fire them in anger (Sweden and Switzerland). Unsure if that helped secure their neutrality in even in any small way. Likely just a coincidence.

  6. obsidian

    The old saying, Of Bolt action combat arms, The German’s built the best hunting rifle of world war two, the British the best military rifle.
    I’ve read where the PPSH was a favored submachine gun among German troops over their MP-40 but it was against orders to carry one on pain of a severe punishment.
    Why I don’t know but I bet the same Order from High Command came down about the Garand.
    The rifle was there to support and guard the MG-42 which was considered the real killing weapon of the Germans. It did not need to be more than that.

    1. Hognose Post author

      That’s not true, about any order not to use the PPSh.
      http://www.ww2incolor.com/forum/showthread.php/9069-PPSh-41-Submachine-Gun-in-Use-by-Germans
      The Germans actually printed a PPSh manual. I think Forgotten Weapons has a copy.

      ETA: from time to time there were orders not to use captured ammunition due to accidents stemming from sabotaged ammo stocks. The Germans did rebarrel some PPSh’s to 9mm, and even made a magazine well to use MP38/40 mags for the converted guns (you can also use 9mm in a 7.62mm drum).

      1. Stefan van der Borght

        Did the re-barreling involve any changes to bolt weight or recoil spring strength? How did it compare to the original? I went and read up a bit on the two different rounds, but can’t imagine the effect. Also, one thing sprang out at me about the 7.62×25 round; when the brass is made from re-purposed 5.56×45, the “new” case has to be reamed, to avoid excess chamber pressure. Why is that, is it like a short load, or is it something else? Say, that 7.62×25 is a nice piece of kit, btw, kind of a tame big brother to the 5.7×28….

        1. Miles

          The 5.56mm/.223 case has to be reamed because the walls of the case are thicker nearer to the base so as to help contain rifle cartridge level pressure.
          If loaded without reaming, the case, as it is crimped to hold the bullet, will actually crush into the bullet jacket instead of just firmly holding it.
          During firing, the thicker case, contained by the chamber walls, can’t expand easily to release the bullet.
          The pressure inside the case is raised to dangerous levels before the case can expand enough to release the bullet.
          In most instances, the case ruptures and the shooter has a small fragmentation grenade in their hands

  7. Stefan van der Borght

    Aaah, Soooo. (Cue Bill Holden in Stalag 17). Thanks Miles, you’re a champ.

    IIRC, the M17 has forward locking lugs but cocks on opening….so, it’s a fast shooter like the Lee action. What would the ideal early 20th C bolt battle rifle look like, if one were to shamelessly plagiarise all the best ideas? A No. 4 LE (heavy floated barrel, receiver peep sight, 10rd det box) in 6.5×55 Swedish (or 7×64 for the LR boys) with the M17 action, the positive feed and workmanship of the K98k, and the ZF41 optic?

    The (only) local gunshop has a rack of K98k actions ready for customising; and a lonely No. 5 Lee Enfield (the “jungle” carbine) sitting brashly nearby, thumbing its uncouth snubby nose at them. Love to learn how that anachronism got there….via the Netherlands campaign late 1944?

  8. looserounds.com

    never thought the K93 action was all that great even much as I love the pre 64 Model 70 ( the mauser perfected in my opinion) hands down I have always considered the Lee-Enfield MK 4 to be the best bolt action combat rifle of WW2 the MK4T was in my opinion the most practical and best sniper variant of the war and would still be very effective in the rights hands even today

  9. Stefan van der Borght

    At the end of it all, you know what the K98k can do and can’t….but what it does, it does, and it does it better than just about anything else. My old SMLE, it was fast, and it hit where I wanted it, but I could never be really sure she wouldn’t eat my face off, especially if I fed her with milsurp ammo, or even self-jiggered ammo. At least she had a nice long bayonet. The Mauser felt solider, ok, slower, but when you’re counting single shots, isn’t that better? At times, one has to accommodate tactics to tech, when tech can’t be done anymore; even for a WM, let alone a noob like me. Get the “why” right, the how will come….and that’s when you really appreciate a “how” man. These days, there’s too much “how”….which will evaporate quickly whereas “why” never will, if it were there to begin with. Lots of tacticool tricked out skeletons, with flabby networked masses of swine jubilating over them. Curse them. Might isn’t right, and the story isn’t over with anyone’s death.

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