Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Franken-Mauser: Spain's FR-8

Recently, I blogged about the last production Mauser rifle made, the Yugoslavian M48. When I wrote that article, I was a bit torn about the title, for a couple of reasons. First, the last "true" Mauser made was the German K98k, made in Germany, by Germans. Secondly, the M48 wasn't the last Mauser-type rifle fielded to military and police forces. Yes, it was the last newly manufactured military Mauser-type rifle, but if you want to get technical (and I do), there was at least one other Mauser design that was fielded after the M48: the Spanish FR-8.

Our subject at hand: the Spanish FR-8

The FR-8 has an interesting history. As I mentioned in my blog about the M48, after WWII there were literally thousands and thousands of Mauser and Mauser-type rifles scattered about Europe. During the war, all the major powers had fielded semi-automatic rifles with varying degrees of success, and after the war bolt-action rifles were old news. Spain had emerged from a bloody civil war in 1939, with a new fascist government under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Franco and his fascists were brutal, but not stupid. He managed to keep Spain "neutral" during WWII, which was a smart move because there was no way Spain could have held off either the Axis or the Allies when Franco took power. As a result, his was the only fascist government to survive WWII. The Generalissimo went about rebuilding his country, one step at a time, while also taking steps to "normalize" things. Well, as normal as a fascist dictator can get, anyway.

Our top story tonight: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Franco was keen to modernize Spain's military, and that meant semi-automatic rifles like the rest of the world. In the 1950's, his goverment commissioned the development and fielding of the famous CETME battle rifle. The CETME was actually designed by a German (most good things in the '50s were), and as such it became the basis of sorts for the even more famous Fabrique Nationale FAL, also known as "the right hand of free world". The CETME, after all the bugs were worked out, was chambered in the "new" 7.62 x 51mm NATO cartridge. It went into production in 1957 and remained Spain's main battle rifle (in various forms) until 1999.

The CETME "C" model, considered the definitive version, chambered in 7.62 x 51mm NATO, was fielded in 1964

It took Spain a while to perfect and field the CETME in significant numbers. This posed somewhat of a problem, as the most modern rifle in Spain's inventory was the M43. The M43 was essentially a clone of the German K98k Mauser that Spain had produced under license. Like the K98k, it was chambered in 8 x 57mm Mauser, which didn't match up with the new 7.62mm NATO chambering of the CETME. Now, the M43 was a fine rifle in its own right, but this was the 1950s, dang it. Nineteenth century firearms technology just wasn't going to cut it anymore. That being said, Spain did have thousands of M43s, and it would have been a crying shame just to throw them all away. So what to do?

Pragmatism prevailed. Spain selected the best of its M43 rifles and began a rebuilding and refurbishment program that would make efficiency experts smile. The old 8mm Mauser barrels were removed, and new 18.5" CETME barrels chambered in 7.62mm NATO were installed. These were actual CETME barrels, complete with flash hider and front sight post. The magazine follower was modified to facilitate chambering the shorter7.62mm NATO cartridge, stocks were cut down and modified, and a new aperture style rear sight was welded to the old M43 receiver. Provisions were made for CETME bayonets, and all metal parts were freshly Parkerized. A nip here, a tuck there, a few thousand volts of electricity, (not really) and when it was all said and done, Spain breathed new life into the M43. It was reborn as the FR-8.

Top: FR-8. Bottom: M43. I like to think the "FR" is an abbreviation for "Frankenstein".

The looks of the FR-8 can perhaps best be described as "ugly, but in a cool sort of way". It's kind of like it doesn't know what era it belongs in. It's bolt-action, but it has a peep site, a flash hider, an abbreviated stock, and a funny looking tube under the barrel that resembles a gas tube for a semi-auto rifle. Some have called it "a bolt-action assault rifle", which considering its CETME parts, is probably another fairly decent description.

The "gas tube" pops out with a spring button, and the front cap (which doubles as the bayonet lug) unscrews.

The "new" FR-8s were primarily issued to the Spanish Guardia Civil, which is the equivalent of a federal police force, and some made their way to reserve military units as well. Obviously, the FR-8 was far from a new rifle. There was alot of Mauser left in the old girl: the five round internal magazine, the bolt, and the trigger system were essentially straight out of 1898. Still, the FR-8 had some interesting characteristics due to its CETME heritage. The sights were one of them. The rear sight had three apertures, for 200, 300, and 400 meters. It also had a more traditional Mauser style notch sight for 100 meters. These four options allowed a rifleman to adjust for elevation by simply rotating the rear sight to the correct pre-set aperture for the desired range. The front sight, also a CETME part, was also simultaneously adjustable for both elevation and windage, but this required a special tool. The tube under the barrel actually served as a mount for the CETME bayonet. This tube could also be used to store small cleaning supplies for maintaining the rifle. Lastly, the flash hider had notches to accept 22mm NATO rifle grenades, further extending the versatility of the weapon. The FR-8 saw light peacetime duty into the 1970s, at which point the old Mausers were finally put out to pasture.

Left: 100 meter notch sight. Right: 200 meter aperture sight. Apertures were changed by rotating the sight.

Alongside the FR-8, Spain also manufactured the FR-7*. Functionally identical the FR-8, the FR-7 was built from older, weaker Model 93 Mauser actions. Because of this, there's a bit controversy and debate in shooting circles about whether or not the FR-7 is safe to shoot. If you remember, the 1893 Mauser was originally chambered in 7 x 57mm, which generatated pressures of about 46,000 psi. The 7.62mm NATO round generates at least 50,000 psi of pressure, and depending on what you read, possibly more. I *personally* believe that the Spanish would not field a rifle that would immediately blow up in your face, but that it's entirely possible that lug setback and resultant headspace issues could occur from sustained firing, which could eventually cause a catastrophic failure. Considering the role of this rifle, they wouldn't see much use, so they were probably "safe enough". There's few, if any such concerns with the FR-8, as it was based on the stronger, more modern 1898 Mauser action.

Top of my FR-8's receiver, complete with crest.

I was fortunate enough to acquire a FR-8 from a local gun shop about a year and a half ago. Based on the overall condition of the piece, I don't believe it had been fired since being re-built in 1957. It had a sharp, pristine mirror bore, matching numbers, and it came with a nice CETME bayonet.. I took one look at the $350 price tag on it and snapped it up immediately. Shooting the FR-8 is familiar and different at the same time. The action works like any other Mauser, but the light weight, short barrel, and chopped stock give it a different balance and recoil. One point of note: it's easy to cut up your pinky on the rear sight when cycling the bolt, so pay attention to your technique.

My FR-8 shoots very well. Though it's a strong weapon, it's also old, so I feed it mild reloads. It seems to really like 150 grain FMJBT rounds moving at about 2,200 fps. This is a nice, accurate loading that is plenty good for punching holes in paper, and it saves wear and tear on both the rifle and my shoulder. FR-8s have become somewhat more collectible as of late. Like all mil-surp firearms, there's initially what seems like a huge supply, and then they disappear and the price goes up. If you're fortunate to come across one, keep it!

My FR-8 with bayonet. The green canvas bag is an action cover I found at a gun show that fits FR-8s and CETMEs

The FR-8 is unique weapon that efficiently filled a gap in Spain's military. By re-using old Mauser rifles and retrofitting them with new CETME parts, the Spaniards were able to field a cost-effective second line battle rifle that was similar enough to the CETME so as to make as smooth a transition as possible. In a sense, the FR-8 is the Frankenstien of Mauser rifles: it's a dead thing that was chopped up and rebuilt with new parts, and ultimately reborn as something both familar and new. Personally, I get a kick out of the fact that Paul Mauser's design just refused to die quietly.

The original designer of the FR-8

*For additional information about the FR-7 and FR-8, check out this excellent webpage::