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: 


  1. I own one rifle like your serial number 2Z8734 with the same crest in good condition the bolt shows wear now starting to shoot it

  2. My M1916 Guardia Civil crested short rifle is all matching with serial number Z5125 with the #23003 on the right side of rec. and is in super nice condition as well. never had a problem with this rifle shooting 7.62X51 nato rounds. have always wondered in what year it was made but have never seen any info. about production year

  3. great read! answered all of my questions after being given one of these from a family member!

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