Sunday, December 7, 2014

El Rifle de La Guardia Civil: The M1916 Spanish Mauser

Spain’s history with weapons manufacture is a long one. Since pre-Roman times, the Iberian peninsula has been known for its production of high quality steel swords. Indeed, an especially hard, durable type of steel produced in Spain for bladed weapons became known as Toledo Steel. Over the years, the sword gave way to the firearm, and Spain continued its tradition of fine weaponry. Even during the dark years of the Franco dictatorship, Spain developed the excellent the CETME rifle, which influenced other countries firearms designs. Firms like Astra, Star, and Llama produced interesting, affordable, and reliable firearms that were exported around the world. Smaller companies (like Ugartechea) made high end, double barrel shotguns that were works of art. Yes, a mere quarter century ago, Spain was a major player in the industry. Alas for Spain's firearms industry: today, it is but a pale shadow of its formal self. But once upon a time....

A battered M1916 Mauser. If only it could talk.

Our subject today is a Spanish workhorse, an example of a firearm that started with a then-remarkable 19th century design, and ended up as a...well, 19th century design. The M1916 Mauser wasn’t a revolutionary rifle, and it’s not a very valuable or sought-after collector piece today. It didn’t fire a shot in World War I, or World War II (as Spain was neutral in both conflicts), and to my knowledge, there aren’t any cool Sergeant York-esque stories about its use in combat. It didn’t boast amazing fit and finish or exceptional accuracy. Actually, as far as bolt action Mauser pattern rifles go, it’s pretty Plain Jane. So why bother owning one, let alone writing about it? Simple: this rifle has character, longevity, and yes, an interesting history in its own right.

I enjoy both history and The Princess Bride. Sadly, the "History Channel" features neither.

I've blogged about two Spanish Mausers before: the very important M1893, and the interesting FR-8. Think of the M1916 as the M1893's little brother, so to speak. Its action is pure M1893, which to refresh your memory, is a "small ring" Mauser design that cocks on closing (which I prefer to the later, stronger 98 action which cocked on opening). Originally chambered in the hot-for-its-day 7x57mm Mauser cartridge, the M1893 wasn't the strongest bolt action on the block, but it didn't really need to be. It was smooth and fast, and worked great with moderately powerful cartridges. At the beginning of the 20th century it was still formidable if not cutting edge. The M1893 rifle had been developed before the advent of Spitzer bullets, and like most rifles of its day it had a very long (29”!) barrel to take full advantage of early smokeless propellants to generate maximum velocity and therefore range.  In the late 19th century, many armies issued rifles, short rifles, and carbines, with the latter two types going to cavalry, engineer, and artillery troops who (it was thought) wouldn't need the range of an infantryman, and whose duties meant that a cumbersome long rifle would just get in the way. As powder technology improved, militaries realized they could standardize on one rifle type with a shorter barrel length for all troops, without having performance suffer.

Enter the M1916. Spain had long since had a license to produce the M1893, a German design, at its famous Oviedo arsenal. So, it wasn't hard to start churning out shorter rifles based on that design, but with a 21” barrel, a turned down bolt, and a few other minor changes. Many aging M1893s were re-arsenaled, and had their barrels cut down to size, but Spain produced new rifles as well.
My Chilean 1895 Mauser standing in for a M1893 (top,) compared to my Spanish M1916. Note the turned down bolt, sight ears, and sling attachments as key differences.
The M1916 was born during a rather tumultuous time in Spanish history. The country had been steadily losing standing as a world power for decades, something that started slowly with Napoleon’s invasion, and ultimately culminated in the Spanish American War in 1898. Defeated and humiliated, Spain ceded the last major pieces of its once vast empire. The loss of its colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines left a profound mark on Spain. Spaniards struggled to find a sense of identity amidst the change, and reflected on their decline. In the aftermath, Spanish government changed hands multiple times, alternating between monarchy, republic, and dictatorship. These governments were either ineffective or brutally repressive, and sometimes both. Spanish nationalist thought competed with regional separatism, and as the 20th century dawned, the ideals of communism, socialism, and fascism further divided the Spanish people. Poor economic conditions, ineffective government, a lack of national unity, and a host of other factors all brought this situation to head in 1936, and Spain went to war against itself as elements of the Spanish military revolted against the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic.

Franco's Nationalists in a machine gun position. At least one Nationalist has a M1916  (rear).

At the outbreak of war, both the M1893 and M1916 were standard issue, and Spain had roughly 497,000 serviceable rifles on hand. Prior to the war, the leftist government feared a military coup (smart). As a result, the army was only given enough rifles for routine things like guard duty and some training (smart). The Spanish government stored the remaining rifles with their bolts removed, and then in turn stored those bolts in a separate location (not smart). This backfired spectacularly when the government decided to arm the Red mob as a defense against the advancing Fascist Nationalists, and then realized they had no functioning weapons. Only about 10% of the rifles in the hands of the Reds had bolts, and dear God, think of the headspace issues! Needless to say the Fascists were able to quickly over run the storage areas and seize many rifles and bolts while the Reds struggled to arm themselves, chamber rounds effectively, and to not have rifles blow up in their faces when fired.*

Republican soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. The rifle with bayonet is a M1916 Mauser. This photo was likely staged after the fact.

The M1916 saw extensive service on both sides during the war. Of course, we all know that the forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who is still dead) ultimately prevailed, and this instituted nearly forty years of fascist rule in the country. Despite Franco’s militarism, he did keep Spain out of WWII, and like all good dictators, he quickly busied himself with securing his seat of power and rebuilding Spain’s military. Spain’s arsenals took to building newer Mauser type rifles, patterned after the German K98k, and chambered in the more powerful 8x57mm Mauser cartridge. The M1916 was relegated to second line work, and issued to La Guardia Civil, the quasi-military national police force of Spain. The Guardia Civil was instrumental in bringing peace and stability to Spain, and indeed the time from 1939 to the early 1950s is known as Spain's "silent war". The M1916 served on, seeing judicious use against both common criminals and remnants of the Republican forces. The rifles were stamped with the Guard's crest: a crossed sword and fasces.

These, um, ladies are modeling the crest of La Guardia Civil. I'm pretty sure those uniforms aren't regulation.

So the M1916 found a second lease on life. As time went on, Spain began working on the CETME rifle and standardizing on the 7.62mm NATO cartridge (though the country wouldn't officially join NATO until 1982). A great many M1916 Mausers (some of which, you remember, were converted M1893s) were converted to fire the 7.62x51mm NATO round. So the M1916 now had a *third* lease on life. The conversion process of these rifles is interesting. Instead of fitting new barrels to the rifles, Spain did something a little different. The existing 7mm barrels were removed from the receivers. Approximately 6mm was cut off the back end of the chamber so it could accommodate the shorter NATO round vs. the 7mm.  Then, the entire barrel was bored out, rechambered, and recut with .308 rifling. These barrels were then reinstalled and headspaced. This method required no new parts to be made, and no waste, but resulted in an effectively new barrel. Spain both converted existing M1916’s to 7.62mm NATO, and rumors persist that it made new ones as well. Serial number records are sketchy, and many serial numbers were wiped all together in the rebuild process, so it's difficult to say.

Converted M1916s were stamped "Cal 7.62" on the receiver. The "6" often came through weak, making it look like a "5".  Also, note the hole drilled through receiver and bolt. This bled off gas in the event of a case failure.

Eventually, like all surplus rifles, the M1916s were sold off. A great many arrived in the US in the late 1980s, and almost immediately generated controversy among collectors. The brew-ha-ha focused mainly around whether or not the converted rifles were safe to shoot. Much ado has been made over the years about the quality of Spanish steel/metallurgy, small ring Mausers, the difference between 7.62mm NATO, .308 Winchester, 7.62 CETME, etc. Google it, if you want to go crazy. I will not go into it, except to say I shoot mild handloaded 7.62 NATO rounds through mine, and it has not blown up in my face or shown any signs of lug setback. Speaking of mine, it’s the nicest one I’ve ever seen. The numbers all match, the bluing is 100%, the bore is mirror bright and razor sharp, and the stock is arsenal-refinished perfect. It looks as close to brand new as you can get, but the bolt face does show wear, so it was obviously converted from an existing M1916 at some point. I paid $370 for mine three years ago, which some people will say is flat crazy. Good for them. These days, I see beat-up, mismatched examples with worn bores selling for $170 on up, but I don’t see pristine M1916s selling at any price. It’s light, it’s handy, the recoil isn’t that bad with handloads, and it can hold 2” groups at 50 yards all day long with the crummy Mauser sights. Frankly, I love it.

The crest on my M1916. It's not the least bit fascist at all.

A last word on these neat little rifles: Spain converted the M1916 through the 1960s, but that wasn't it for the durable little rifle. Remember the FR-8? It had a sibling, the FR-7. As I mentioned, the FR-8 was made from Spanish M43 Mausers. Well, the FR-7 was made from M1916 Mausers in much the same fashion. So, if you’re paying attention now, it was theoretically possible for an M1893 Mauser to have been converted to a M1916, then converted to fire 7.62 NATO, and then chopped up and re-made into a FR-7. Longevity, thy name is Mauser.
*For more on the Spanish Civil War and the weapons that were used, I recommend this article by Dan Reynolds at this excellent site: 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

When Revolvers Ruled: The Colt Official Police/Colt Commando

It’s a fact of life: we live in the Age of the Plastic Fantastic, the ubiquitous black polymer semi-auto . I’ve complained about this before and won’t bore you all with doing it again, but things weren’t always this way. No sir, for most of the 20th century, indeed up until the mid 1980s, it was rare to see anything but a traditional double-action revolver in the holster of a law enforcement officer.  I have a certain appreciation for the revolver, one that goes past mere romanticism and nostalgia. A revolver, and a man who trains with one, is worthy of respect. It takes determination, skill and practice to shoot one well, and to reload it under stress. Those who take the time to really master the revolver can do some pretty amazing things with it, and you'd be a fool not to consider them well-armed men.

Jerry Miculek does things with a revolver that most folks can't do with a machine gun.

Back in the day, if you wanted the best American made revolver, that meant you wanted a Colt. Colt's Manufacturing had a long history of supplying the US military with revolvers, going back to the mid 19th Century. The arrival of John Moses Browning’s immortal M1911 cooled the military’s demand for wheel guns, so in the aftermath of WWI Colt was looking for an alternative market for its excellent revolvers. Fortunately, this was nothing a little creative marketing and re-badging couldn't fix. Colt already had a solid medium frame revolver it had released in 1908, known as the Army Special (which the Army didn't use and didn't want). So, in 1927, the Army Special was slightly modified and renamed the Colt Official Police.

A pre-war Colt Official Police in its original box.

Obviously targeted at law enforcement (no pun intended), the Official Police was a traditional, medium frame, six shot double action revolver with fixed sights. It could be had in several calibers, finishes, and barrel lengths, but the most common configuration was a blued model with a four inch barrel chambered in .38 Special.  In this chambering, the 4" Official Police launched a 158 grain lead round nose bullet at about 780 fps.  That’s considered a bit pokey today, but at the time it was considered more than adequate firepower for the average constable. Law enforcement quickly took to the "new" revolver, and as its name suggested, the Official Police became the de facto standard issue sidearm for police departments across the nation. Even J. Edgar Hoover’s boys adopted it. Colt produced over 400,000 Official Police revolvers, almost edging out donuts as the nation’s most popular cop accessory.

Stereotypes. They exist for a reason, folks.

Like all guns produced in the early twentieth century, the Official Police was a looker. Checkered walnut grips with Colt Medallions and high polished blue finishes (the famous Colt “royal” blue) were factory standard.  Nickel was an option as well. It’s unheard of for a cop gun to get that kind of treatment these days, and I suppose it was really kind of superfluous even then, but the pre-war Colts are really beautifully made pieces. This beauty was matched, if not exceeded, by its functionality.  In the days before Jeff Cooper’s Modern Technique, police officers were trained  to shoot one handed, single action, “bullseye” style. Here, Colt was king. Its single action trigger pull was peerless, as its firing mechanism was hand-fitted and honed to perfection by skilled craftsmen.  

Andy Garcia (aka George Stone, The Untouchables) demonstrates a 1930's style police officer shooting stance with a Colt Official Police

In addition to having great accuracy, the Official Police was strong, being +P rated before there was such a thing as +P rating. In 1930, a good 5 years before anybody had heard of a “magnum” revolver cartridge, Remington introduced the .38 Special High Speed (or .38/44). This was nothing more than a souped up .38 Special with increased velocity, ostensibly to give police better penetration against barriers like car doors. Smith and Wesson’s Military and Police revolver (Colt’s main competitor) couldn’t handle the pressures generated by the new round, so they only approved its use in their heavier N frame revolvers. Colt, on the other hand, tested the round and simply announced that all Official Police revolvers were good to go with the new cartridge…no new gun needed.  Score another point for the Colt.

Smith and Wesson's 38/44 Heavy Duty. Pretty, but Colt didn't need no stinkin' N frame. Further tweaking of the .38 Special would bring about the .357 Magnum in 1935.

At the outbreak of WWII, the Official Police had been in production for 14 years and was still going strong. The advent of the war was about to change things, though. As the country geared up for conflict, the US Government identified a need for revolvers to arm security personnel at critical factories, warehouses, and defense installations.  Colt was contacted to supply these guns. The Official Police was perfectly suited for this role, but it had a problem: all that hand fitting and spit and polish required skilled labor, and lots of it. This made the revolver rather expensive and slow to produce. The Army Ordnance Department balked at this, so Colt made some cosmetic changes to the gun for economy’s sake. The high-polish blue was eschewed in favor of a matte Parkerized finish, checkering on the trigger and cylinder catch was removed, and the nice walnut grips with medallions were replaced with brown checkered plastic stocks. Colt's marketing department creatively referred to these stocks as “Coltwood” (which I liken to me painting a hunk of lead yellow and calling it “Jimgold”, but I digress). The end result of these changes was that Uncle Sam's cost for an Official Police dropped from $28 to under $25 (that’s $410 vs.  $365 respectively in today’s dollars).  At a roughly 11% discount, the savings added up quickly. Given its military intent, Colt christened the “new” revolver the Commando, and began shipping orders in late 1942. After two new names, the old 1908 "Army Special" had finally made the big time.

My Colt Commando. It's in remarkably good shape, with only minor finish wear on the high points.

There aren’t any cool Sergeant York stories about the Colt Commando. To my knowledge, nobody ever earned a Congressional Medal of Honor using it. It was never used to kill 20+ Germans at close range, and nobody stormed the Atlantic Wall on D-Day with one.  That’s not to say they didn’t see any action: General Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly carried one in Europe, and Colt made 2” and 4" barreled Commandos that were issued to the OSS.  But it’s true that most of the Commandos that were produced served out the war quietly at home, in the holsters of security guards at various defense plants, or on merchant marine vessels.  In total, Colt produced about 50,000 Commandos, ending production in late 1945.

For many years, the Commando was overlooked in collector circles, and could be had for a song. With the surge in demand for pretty much anything WWII related, that’s since changed, and prices have gone up. Since most Commandos spent more time being carried than actually shot, they tend to be in pretty good shape. I’ve seen decent examples go for north of $700 at gun shows. I picked up my Commando in an online auction years ago for considerably less than that. My Commando appears to have had an easy life: it has about 97% of its original Parkerized finish, a sharp mirror-like bore, tight lock-up, and yes, the “Coltwood” grips are in mint condition. I don’t often shoot it as I find the grip to be a bit small for my hand, but the last time I had it out, it shot some 158 grain lead semi-wad cutters quite well. The single action trigger breaks like glass. The double-action is smooth and quite serviceable, but the pull gets heavier toward the end, which can contribute to diminished accuracy.

Note the GHD and "Flaming Bomb" Ordnance acceptance stamps. GHD stands for Guy H. Drewry.

After the war, Colt resumed production of the Official Police with the high polish blue finish and some minor tweaks, but for some reason they kept the Coltwood grips until the mid 1950s. Regardless, the revolver never recaptured the same success in the post-war period. Smith and Wesson’s Model 10 was making inroads with law enforcement due to its lower cost and better double action trigger. By the 1950s, combat pistol training was coming into vogue, with Weaver stances and two handed grips, and the Colt’s excellent single action trigger was rendered irrelevant. In 1969, Colt discontinued production of the Official Police, citing rising production costs and sagging sales. The good news is that these guns are still readily available on the secondary market, and are some of the more affordable Colt double action revolvers out there. More than just an “old cop gun”, the Official Police is one of the quintessential revolvers of the 20th century, and is sure to delight history buffs, firearms enthusiasts, and yes, cranky old men who sigh wistfully about the days when craftsmanship meant something. And frankly, I love that.

Part of the old Colt factory in Hartsford, CT, where American craftsmanship helped win wars.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Better than an AK: the Czechoslovakian Vz.58

"What kind of AK-47 is that?" said some guy at the range. I picked up my rifle and showed it to him. "Actually, it's not an AK at all. It's a Vz.58".  The guy grunted and walked away. I guess he didn't want to hear about one of the finest military rifles to come out of Eastern Europe since, well, the AK-47. That was fine with me...I go to the range to shoot guns, not to talk about them. When I want to talk guns, I do it here.

Czech soldiers practicing with this month's subject: the Vz.58. Note the different stock configurations.

As I mentioned in my article about the Vz.52 pistol, Czechoslovakia never really warmed up to Soviet hardware (or Soviet politics for that matter). The Vz.58 is just another example of the Czechoslovakians doing it their way, and a fine example it is. The Soviet Union had standardized on the M43 cartridge, also known as the 7.62x39mm Soviet, in the aftermath of WWII. The first Soviet rifle chambered for the new cartridge was the excellent SKS. I've not yet written about the SKS, but I will: it's a fine weapon in its own right, though some would argue it was obsolete the day it was fielded. Regardless, the USSR wanted all of its "buddies" to use the same ammo. Czechoslovakia, being Czechoslovakia, didn't adopt the SKS. It had its own rifle with its own cartridge: the Vz.52.

The Vz.52 rifle, not to be confused with the pistol of the same designation, was similar to the Soviet SKS in form and function, but unlike the SKS it accepted detachable box magazines, and it was chambered in the unique 7.62x45mm cartridge rather than the M43. The 7.62x45mm round had slightly better ballistics than the 7.62x39mm, owing to increased case capacity, but the Soviets were having none of that crap. If the M43 was good enough for Russia, it should be good enough for *everybody*, so, the Vz.52 was modified in 1957 to shoot the 7.62mm Soviet cartridge. This made everyone happy, except the Czechoslovakians.

A mint condition Vz.52/57. These are in high demand amongst collectors and routinely fetch over $1k at auction.

The Vz.52/57 was in front line service for only a short while, as by this time the Soviet Union was fast replacing its semi-automatic SKS carbines with Kalashnikov's amazing assault rifle. As the Vz.52/57 was a stop-gap weapon, not many of them were made, and of those, most saw little if any use. The real focus was on the next big thing, which had been in development since 1956. Produced at the famous plant in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the Vz.58 was a true assault rifle. When it was issued in 1958, the major Western powers were still years away from having anything equivalent to it, despite the fact that the AK-47 had been in production for a decade. Please don't argue with me about the FAL, or M-14, or G3: they are not assault rifles.

To the layman, the Vz.58 and AK-47 appear nearly identical, right down to the 30 round "banana" clip magazine. Looks are where the actual similarities between the two weapons end, as internally and mechanically, they are totally different designs. I would not dare to impugn the late, great Mikhail Kalashnikov's accomplishments, but the Vz.58 improved upon his AK-47 in many ways. For starters, all Vz.58s were built with a milled receiver. Early Kalashnikov carbines had milled receivers, but were soon replaced by the AKM variant with a cheaper, stamped sheet metal receiver. Milling receivers slowed production and increased cost, but made for a more rigid firing platform, which translates to better practical accuracy. Another difference was the Vz.58's gas system. It was a short stroke system, a la the SKS. This system was easier to maintain and with less movement, contributed to greater accuracy. The Vz also had a modular stock system allowing quick changes, a more ergonomic safety/selector switch and charging handle, a last round bolt hold-open feature, and a two-pin tool-less take down system. Fully loaded it was about a pound lighter than the AKM, thanks in part to its aluminum magazines, which offset the increased weight of a milled receiver, and these magazines could be charged via standard stripper clips, unlike the AK.

"I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense about how great the Vz.58 is. This interview is over!"

The Czechoslovakians had a real winner on their hands with the Vz.58. They made about a million of them, which in the grand scheme of things, isn't really that many. Early rifles had beech wood furniture, but soon that was switched over to the cheaper (and in my opinion, better looking) wood-impregnated plastic stocks. This furniture is known (affectionately?) as "beaver barf" by Vz.58 enthusiasts and collectors. It's durable, lightweight, and in keeping with communist tradition, economical. The Vz.58 served both the Czechs and the Slovaks through the Cold War and beyond, with the Slovakian military only just starting to phase out the weapon in 2011.

A Slovakian soldier with a folding stock Vz.58 in Iraq. I served alongside them in 2003-2004.

As a select-fire, foreign made weapon, mortal men are prohibited from owning true Vz.58s in the United States. However, it's still legal to own the next best thing. For some time, a company called Czechpoint USA has been importing semi-automatic versions of the Vz.58 to our shores. Known as the SA Vz.58, these rifles start as 100% Czech made weapons, with milled semi-automatic only receivers and new hammer-forged, chrome-lined barrels, along with original parts. Due to ridiculous 18 USC 922r legislation, the rifles have to be modified and a certain number of parts must be replaced with US made equivalents so that the rifle is legal to sell. For the Czechpoints, those parts are the sear, disconnector, trigger, magazine follower, and magazine floorplate. Everything else is Czech made. The Czechpoint SA Vz.58s are finished in a charcoal black semi-gloss coating (the originals had a battleship grey paint), have had their bayonet lugs ground off (due to dumb laws, see above), and the barrels have a permanently attached muzzle extension to make them compliant with the National Firearms Act of 1934. This gives the Czechpoint version a 16" barrel vs. the ~15.5" originals. The end result is a close, but not exact copy of the original design.

Top: My Czechpoint Vz.58, versus my new JRA Polish AKM. Both are beautiful, functional firearms built with original and new parts.

I purchased my Vz.58 before the "assault rifle" scare of 2013, and I'm glad I did. It's a beautiful piece, and it shoots very well. I've not tested it for 100 yard accuracy, but at 50 yards it's dead to nuts with 1-2" groups. The rifle has eaten steel cased ammo, my reloads, and soft point round nose hunting ammo without a hiccup.  Frankly, I'd prefer a metal trigger (the US part is made of polymer), but since it's a striker fired (rather than hammer fired) weapon, it's not a big deal. Speaking of polymer, lately Czechpoint has been importing rifles without the traditional beaver barf stocks, because the supply of good quality, matching colored originals has dried up. The more recent imports have  black plastic hardware in the shape of the originals. I was lucky to get my rifle before this switch happened. I like the beaver barf, it's got a neat commie look and feel to it.

A close up of the wood-impregnated plastic, AKA "beaver barf".

You may have also heard about the "Vz.2008" rifle. These have been offered at ~$500 by many dealers lately. It's important to note the difference between these and the Vz.58: the Vz.2008s are Century Arms International builds, using some original Vz.58 kits. They feature new, US made receivers and non-chrome lined button rifled barrels, and are entirely assembled in the US. Though they're reportedly decent guns for the money, they are not quite as "authentic" as the Czechpoint rifles. The upside is they cost about half as much, and they do feature the beaver barf forestock and handguard, though most all recent builds feature the folding steel buttstock.

Let's just say that CAI has a checkered reputation for quality among military gun enthusiasts.

The Vz.58 is an interesting piece of Cold War history, and a fine example of a Warsaw Pact nation thumbing its nose at the USSR. I truly admire the Czechoslovakians for doing it their way. Though not nearly as famous as the weapon it's often mistaken for, the Vz.58 is seeing somewhat of a popularity surge these days as surplus rifle parts are turned into "new" semi-automatic weapons. I'd encourage any firearms and/or history enthusiast to czech check one out, and soon...before they're all gone.