Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Last Mauser: The Yugoslavian M48

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Mauser rifles, and for good reason. Paul Mauser's designs were some of the most influential and lasting contributions to firearms development in the late 19th and early 20th century, and indeed, many of these contributions live on today in modern hunting and target rifles (like the Winchester Model 70). Millions of Mauser and Mauser pattern rifles (I'll explain the difference later) were produced, and to this day, you can bet that someone, somewhere has one of Paul Mauser's progeny in his hands, ready to do violence to those who would oppose him. I don't say this to glorify war, but merely to state a fact: Mauser rifles were and remain very effective weapons.

Thousands of Russian captured Mauser rifles in stacks during WWII, awaiting refurbishment.

The Mauser design reached its zenith in 1898 with the appropriately named Mauser Model 98. The new rifle was adopted as Germany's battle rifle, and variants of the '98 were sold to countries around the world This design was a signficant departure from the earlier 1893/1895 design I wrote about here. It had a new, stronger bolt with no less than three lugs that locked into the receiver at different points. As such, the '98 action could handle whatever cartridge you threw at it, and Paul Mauser provided that cartridge in the form of the 8 x 57mm Mauser. The grand daddy of modern cartridges, the 8mm Mauser pushed a heavier, larger diameter bullet at higher velocities than the 7mm Mauser used in the 1893 designed action. The cartridge was originally designed with a .318" diameter projectile; this was later changed to a .323" bullet which remains the current diameter to this day. The 8mm Mauser cartridge served admirably in two World Wars and was chambered in everything from bolt action rifles to crew-served machine guns. The Germans even used it in their fighter planes. The standard loading was a ~150 gr bullet at 2,900 fps, making it the most powerful battle rifle cartridge of its day.

A Gewehr 98 with bayonet and ammunition.

I mentioned earlier that there are Mauser rifles, and Mauser pattern rifles. Paul Mauser's first successful repeating bolt action rifle, the Model 1889, was oddly enough not adopted by the German military. Instead, it was Belgium who placed the first orders for the new rifle. Belgium also got the rights to manufacture the Model 1889 themselves, in their own country. This of course made sense for various reasons, not the least of which is that you don't want a powerful rival like Germany being the sole source of your military hardware. At any rate, this stipulation resulted in the creation of Belgium's state run firearms company, Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre, otherwise known as FN. FN had a long relationship with Mauser, and produced its own variants of Mauser designs for export around the world. I consider the rifles produced by FN and other manufacturers (licensed and unlicensed) to be Mauser pattern rifles, while the rifles produced in Germany by Ludwig Loewe and DWM (who both owned Mauser) are properly referred to as Mauser rifles. The difference amounts to little other than semantics in most cases, but there are some Mauser inspired designs that are unique to these licensees. The M24 was one such design.

Not to be confused with the M249 SAW, also a FN design. This picture is of a Soldier I served with in Iraq in 2004.

FN was a bit ahead of the curve on some things, and they made good use of their license to use Mauser actions. In 1924 FN released the appropriately named Model 24. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia purchased these rifles to equip its military. The M24 was based on the Mauser 1898 action, but it sported a barrel that was about 7" shorter than the Gewehr 98 rifle. Additionally, the action was shorter by about 1/4" of an inch. This took a total half inch of travel off of the bolt, which in theory meant that the action could be manipulated a bit faster. This shorter length action is known as the "intermediate length" receiver. The M24 was a beautifully built short rifle in its own right, a good 11 years before Germany would officially adopt the legendary K98k that was the mainstay battle rifle of the Werhmacht in WWII. Some very nice variants of the the M24 were made, such as the so-called M24/30 Venezuelan contract rifles, one of which I am fortunate enough to own.

Top: My M48B Yugoslavian Mauser. Bottom: M24/30 Venezuelan Contract Mauser. Generally, the Venezuelan is worth about three times the Yugoslavian. I prefer the Venezuelan for its superior fit, finish, and 7mm Mauser chambering.

World War II was the bolt action rifle's last hurrah, and as the Cold War loomed, millions of Mauser and Mauser-pattern rifles sat in armories throughout Europe. Some stayed in storage, some were relegated to second and third line civil defense forces, and some were sold as surplus to poorer countries. By the 1950s, the major powers in Europe had fielded semiautomatic and select-fire weapons for their militaries. It looked as if the bolt-action was dead and gone, but there was some life in the old girl yet.

After the war, Yugoslavia went Red along with the rest of Eastern Europe, and the new Communist regime went about preparing itself for the inevitable WWIII. Bolt action rifles were better than nothing, and Yugoslavia wasn't exactly overflowing with cash, so the old M24s were arsenal refurbished, often given new barrels, and stamped with the new Yugoslavian crest. The "new" rifles are known as the M24/47, with the 47 indicating the year of the refurbishment program. Alongside the 24/47, Yugoslavia produced new rifles built on FN tooling. These new bolt action rifles are known as the M48. Yugoslavia made them from 1950 to the early 1960's, and mechanically they were the same as the 24/47. They did receive a couple of minor upgrades from the 24/47 that were inspired by the German K98k (of which the Yugos captured many and also refurbished). Like the K98k, the M48 featured a turned-down bolt which supposedly made it easier to manipulate from certain positions, as well as a new stock with a sling cutout instead of sling swivels.  A cup-style steel buttplate was also adopted. The M48 would accept the K98k sling and bayonet, but most other parts were incompatible as the M48 had an intermediate-length receiver, like the M24 before it. Most of the M48s that were made were put into storage soon after manufacture. I speculate that this is because the Yugos were fielding their variant of the semiautomatic SKS at about the same time. That's not to say that the M48 just collected dust: some saw combat during the recent unpleasantness in the late 20th century that saw the dissolution of Yugoslavia, indeed, variants of these with custom stock carvings are sought after by some collectors.

A Yugoslavian M48 with stock art. Soldiers do all kinds of things (ranging from constructive to disgusting) to stave off boredom during war.

Yugoslavia made at least three variants of the M48. The first rifles featured all-forged steel parts. To cut costs, the M48A was developed, which substituted stamped steel for the magazine floor plate. The M48B (which was still marked the M48A for some reason) featured more stamped parts, such as the magazine follower, trigger guard, trigger, and upper barrel band. A variant of the M48B known as the M48BO was also made, without crests or markings of any kind. Some speculate that these rifles were made with the intent to fulfill contracts to somewhat, er, unpopular nations, and the Yugos wanted to retain a degree of anonymity. I don't know if I believe that. From what I've seen, the later rifles have a nicer fit and finish to them, despite the stamped parts, but all variants are tough as nails.

A pristine M48. These are getting harder and harder to find as the years go by.

In the late 90's, the M48s were surplused and sold, with a great many reaching American shores. As I mentioned, a good number of them arrived in nearly new condition, coated in a thick layer of preservative grease. Often these rifles came with accessories such as slings, ammo pouches, and bayonets. When they first hit the market, you could snap up greasy, unissued specimens for under $100. Alas, those days are long gone. Believe it or not, these rifles stirred up a bit of controversy when they were imported. The turned down bolt and stock cut-out of the M48 made it resemble the K98k to the untrained eye, and some unscrupulous individuals have used this to their advantage over the years to deceive the ignorant. These folks have stretched the truth in advertising, often referring to these rifles as 98ks, which is inaccurate. Mitchell's Mausers, a company of somewhate ill repute in collector's circles, also advertised these rifles as having teakwood stocks. Because everyone knows about the vast, lush teak forests of Yugoslavia, right?  It would be most unusual for a country that was making bolt action rifles to spend money to acquire teak stocks for them. Most collectors now agree that the M48 is stocked from elm, not teak, so don't be deceived. They're also sometimes advertised as "Serbian" Mausers, which is probably done to make the rifle sound "fancier", as many people don't equate the word "Yugoslavian" with quality.

I can't imagine why.

Fortunately, Yugoslavian guns and Yugoslavian cars are two different animals. Nowadays, unissued examples of the M48 without accessories go for $350 and up, depending on the variant. I acquired a M48B model about a year ago in that range, but mine came with a sling. It was coated in Grade A Communist Cosmoline, and it was a flat out pain in the ass to get it all out. Especially the stock. The grease hasn't improved the wood's integrity the last half century, and though elm is reasonably hard, it splinters fairly easily. Therefore I wanted to treat the stock as gently as possible. I wiped the stock down with odorless mineral spirits, but the cosmo had soaked in over the years. So, I placed the stock in a black trash bag, and during the hottest days of summer I put the bag in the back window of my car. After a half hour, I pulled out the very hot stock and wiped off all the cosmoline that had sweated out. I repeated this five or six times, until finally it was as good as it was going to get. Some folks will tell you to sand the stock, or use EZ-Off oven cleaner, or even a dishwasher. I'll pass on those methods. Sanding affects collector value and changes the shape and character of the wood, and the latter two methods can cause lasting damage to the wood fibers themselves. Those methods may give you a "cleaner" looking stock, but the potential cost is too high in my opinion. I would advise you stay away from Mitchell's Mausers if you're looking for a collectible M48; they have been known to heavily refinish the stocks on the rifles they sell. They look nice, but authentic they ain't.

Shooting the M48 is good fun. Out of all the Mauser and Mauser pattern rifles I own, it's the roughest in the fit and finish department. That's not to say it isn't well made, it's just not quite as refined as some of the pre-war, German or FN made variants. The bolt on the M48 is stiff but reasonably smooth, and the trigger is somewhat heavy. It's zeroed for 200 meters but with the right handloads, it shoots to point of aim at 100 yards. With the typically crummy Mauser style sights and practice, I can shoot 3-4" groups. Your mileage may vary. The sights and trigger really limit the potential of the rifle in my opinion. If you're a masochist, full power Yugoslavian surplus rounds are available for sale. Yugo cartridges are topped with 196 grain FMJ bullets that move at 2,600 fps, and they kick like a pissed-off Clydesdale. I recommend a butt pad such as Pachmayr's excellent slip-on Decelerator when shooting this ammo, unless you think a bruised and sore shoulder makes you more of a man (hint: it doesn't). This surplus ammo is corrosively primed, so clean your rifle immediately after shooting with a solvent that's designed to dissolve caustic salts. I rarely shoot corrosive ammo, but when I do I use a 1:10 Simple Green solution to dissolve the salts, spray the parts with WD-40 to remove any water (did you know the 'WD' stands for 'water displacer'?), then clean as normal with Hoppe's #9, and lastly follow up with a light coat of Break Free CLP. I haven't had any rust yet.

Even at $350, the M48 is still a bargain in my opinion. If that's too much for you, Very Good to Excellent examples can be found for $250-$300 if you shop around. It's a piece of Cold War history with a long and interesting pedigree, and no serious collection is complete without one.The M24/47 is very similar and usually a bit cheaper, but they're much harder to find in excellent condition with all matching parts. This is the last military issue Mauser pattern rifle that was ever made. These rifles are rugged, reliable, and reasonably accurate, and therefore worthy to bear the legendary name of Mauser.

As the Boers would put it, keep "Vertroue in God en die Mauser" or, "Faith in God and the Mauser."