Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rifles of the Old World: The 1893 and 1895 Mausers

Modern firearms manufacturing is an amazing thing. Fancy processes like metal injection molding, investment casting, and computer numerical controlled machining have allowed manufacturers to mass-produce high quality firearms. High strength, space-age polymer materials have become all the rage, replacing parts that were previously made of expensive metal or wood. These manufacturing processes have helped keep prices relatively low, allowing even the most frugal customer access to hunting and self-defense weapons. Cheap, available, reliable, effective...yes, there’s much to be admired about these processes and materials.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me just say that most modern guns bore me to tears. Don't get me wrong: I am all for progress and advancing technology.  But, when I pick up a GLOCK (which is the correct way to spell it, with all caps), wonderful tool and reliable firearm though it is, I just can’t help but feel that it’s missing…..something. One hundred years ago, CNC machines didn’t exist, metal was forged rather than injection-molded, and the only ‘polymer’ on the scene was a very new, early type of brittle plastic called Bakelite.  Manufacturing a firearm meant the investment of an enormous number of man hours. Parts were laboriously made, hand-fitted, and finished.  There just wasn't another way of doing things back then.

Gun shops being bombarded with GLOCKs. I'm pretty sure this is how authorized resellers get their shipments.

The late 19th century and early 20th century was an exciting time in firearms development. The invention of smokeless gun powder, and the weapons and cartridges that used it were pivotal. The giant clouds of smoke that enveloped entire regiments and made command and control difficult disappeared, much to the relief of the generals.  More importantly, though, smokeless powder generated higher pressures, which meant increased velocity, which in turn meant a flatter trajectory and increased effective range. Instead of relying on large caliber, heavy projectiles moving at relatively slow speeds, smokeless powder allowed for the first “small bore” cartridges with lighter bullets moving upwards of 2,000 fps.   The Spaniards illustrated this advantage (along with others) in the battle of San Juan Hill, where a mere 760 soldiers inflicted 5:1 casualties against a force of 15,000 Americans armed with inferior weapons, including single shot blackpowder rifles and the obsolete-as-issued Krag-Jorgensen.  The Americans won a costly victory (thanks in part to Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders) and learned an important lesson the hard way, but they learned it well…well enough that they decided to commission a new military rifle and cartridge. More on that in a later entry.

Teddy "Rough Rider" Roosevelt. Enough said.

Another astounding development was the bolt-action repeating rifle.  The 1893 Mauser rifles used by the Spaniards were arguably the finest infantry rifles of their day. The brainchild of Paul Mauser, the Model 1893 sported a double column, internal five round magazine. Unlike previous Mauser designs, this double column magazine was flush with the bottom of the rifle, which contributed to sleek lines and easy handling. The two-piece bolt and non-rotating claw extractor allowed controlled feeding (the extractor maintained positive control of the cartridge through the chambering, firing, and unloading process, a feature that improved reliability). A guide was machined into the top of the receiver that allowed the entire magazine to be reloaded in a second with five round stripper clips, a significant advantage over the Americans' Krags.

Like so.

The action cocked on closing and was as slick as goose shit.  These features allowed a decently-trained soldier to fire 40 rounds of aimed fire per minute without breaking a sweat.  Except for maybe in the hot, humid swamps of Cuba.

Spanish soldiers as depicted in the film "Rough Riders" with their Mauser rifles

The 1893 Mauser fired a new, smokeless, rimless cartridge designated  as the 7 x 57mm Mauser (hereto known as the 7mm Mauser). That’s right, folks. Paul Mauser was designing 7mm cartridges and rifles a good 75 years or so before 7mm was the cool caliber to have.  Everything old is new again, eh? The original loading of for the 7mm Mauser was a 173 grain full metal jacket round nose bullet moving at about 2,300 fps. This may not sound too impressive today, but in the late 19th century, it was the bee’s knees.  Renowned hunter W.D.M Bell  killed 1,011 elephants with this loading (all headshots), which illustrates the accuracy and penetration of the round. The 7mm Mauser’s performance was even further improved with the invention of Spitzer bullets.

Modern loadings of the 7 x 57mm Mauser (left) and the .30-06 (right), both inspired by the 8mm Mauser.

Spain contracted for 200,000 of these wonderful rifles from Germany, and soon after began producing additional rifles via license in Spain. They liked the rifle and cartridge so much, they continued to make it until 1943. The newly independent countries of South America saw the appeal of the rifle and cartridge as well. Brazil and Chile both ordered variations of the 1893 type rifle.  The Chilean version was known as the Modelo 1895, and sported a few minor differences from the 1893, not the least of which was the addition of a “safety lug” which supposedly prevented the bolt from going through a rifleman’s face in the event of a catastrophic failure due to an overpressure situation.

The 1895 Chilean Mauser, very similar to the 1893 Mauser in most respects

More than a few Modelo 1895s have appeared on the market in recent years, varying in condition from "near-mint" to "dragged through the Chilean highlands behind a mule cart". As I mentioned earlier, the craftsmanship on these rifles is something to be admired. Oil finished walnut stocks, nitre-blued small parts with acceptance marks, gorgeous rust-blued barrel and receiver, and a polished steel bolt left “in the white”. If you were to make a rifle today the way Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken and Ludwig Loewe made them in the 19th century, it would likely cost several thousand dollars.

Near mint examples go for north of $800, but you can get a beater for a couple hundred bucks. I was fortunate enough two years back to find an excellent example for about $350. Mine certainly isn’t a mint, unissued piece, but other than dings and dents in the stock, and finish wear on the buttplate, my rifle is in fantastic shape. The bore is bright and unblemished, the metal finish is intact, and the rifle has all matching serial numbers…with the exception of the cleaning rod. Given the human attention and hand-fitting that went into these rifles, numbering major parts made sense. Mismatching parts like bolts can result in chambering and headspace issues, which aren't good. As for cleaning rods…well, I am unsure why Mauser felt it was necessary to number something like that, but there you go. I'm not so much of a collector that I'll turn my nose up at a mismatched cleaning rod.

My 1895 Chilean Mauser. Thing of beauty.

Shooting the 1895 Mauser is like traveling back in time. The first thing you notice is how long it is. I am about 5’ 9”, and with the butt of the rifle on the ground, as would be if standing at attention with it, the muzzle of the rifle touches my armpit. The barrel alone is 29”. Back in the day, rifle manufacturers felt that very long barrels were needed to get the most performance out of their cartridges. They were mostly right. Longer barrels allowed powder to burn more completely and pressure to be maintained longer, which in turn delivered greater velocity. However, there is a point of diminishing returns, and with improved propellants and cartridge design, super long barrels aren’t needed. Regardless, the 1895 Mauser weighs less than 9 pounds, so though it's long, it's not unwieldy by any stretch of the imagination.

Unless you're a member of the Lollipop Guild, that is.

The next thing you might notice is the sights. Let’s just say if you have bad eyes, Mauser type rifles may not be for you. The rear sight is a V notch, and the front sight is a ^.  This can make precision shooting a bit tough, but remember, that’s not what this rifle was designed for. In addition to the sight picture, the Mauser 1895 is battlesight zeroed at 300 meters. As in, that’s the lowest elevation setting you can sight the rifle in for. This is another reflection of the common wisdom of the time and the way that battles were fought.  On the other hand, if you want to shoot at distances greater than 300 meters, no problem: the rear sight flips up 90 degrees and has a slider which goes all the way to a rather optimistic 2,000 meters.  

Two thousand meters. Yeah, good luck with that.

The 300 meter zero means that when shooting at 100 yards, you’re going to be hitting 10-12” high. I’ve read that soldiers of the day were trained to aim for the enemy’s belt buckle when shooting at less than 300 meters. This makes sense, given the location of the vitals and the uniforms of the day which would have provided that easy reference point. Since most paper targets don’t wear belts, though, you’ll have to eyeball the hold-under distance when shooting on the range. I also find it just a little humorous that 19th century soldiers were essentially trained to make crotch shots. But I digress.
I handload for every firearm I own, and the 1895 Mauser is no exception. Since these rifles are old friends, I treat mine gently, and feed it only minimum loads using data published in reputable manuals.  I have no doubt that it could handle full power loads, but I see no reason to shoot them and put additional wear on an antique rilfe. An added bonus to loading to minimum loads is reduced recoil. The 7mm Mauser is a gentle cartridge anyway, but light loads fired from that 29” barrel are downright pleasant to shoot. According to the books, my current load has a 140 grain FMJBT moving at around 2,200 fps, which is plenty fine for putting holes in paper.  And speaking of putting holes in paper, the 1895 does that quite well. Once you figure out the hold-under at 100 yards, you might be surprised what it can do. I’ve shot ~2.5” groups with mine on the bench, and I have a feeling it could do a bit better with the right shooter/powder/bullet combination.  Not bad for a 117 year old rifle.

You can see how it printed high, in the 8 ring at 100 yards.

One really cool thing about the 1895 Mauser is that almost all of them were made before 1899. This means, according to our friends at the BATF, that it’s not a technically a firearm (don’t tell the soldiers who were at San Juan Hill, they might not appreciate that). But yes, it’s true. Guns made before this arbitrary date are considered to be “antiques”, not regulated firearms, and therefore you don’t have to fill out any paperwork to own one. In fact, you can mail order one like you would anything else, and it will be shipped straight to your door. Another possible upside to this is that it is the last gun an overzealous government would ever try to confiscate, on account of they don't really consider it a firearm.  Just a thought.
When I pick up my 1895 Mauser, I think of all the hands it’s passed through in its 117 years, from the German craftsmen who manufactured it at the Ludwig Loewe factory in Berlin, to the Chilean soldiers who were issued it, and all the things it has seen and done in its travels. “If it could talk” is something you hear people say about old things, and I think it applies here. This rifle has been halfway around the world in a hundred years and has wound up in my hands. It’s a piece of living history that functions just as well today as it did the day it was uncrated in Chile. Call me a romantic, but there’s something about that you just can’t get with one of those ubiquitous, plastic, black guns you see at every shop you walk into. Thanks for that, Paul Mauser.

Truly one of the greatest firearms designers ever