Most original specification rifles from about 1898 through World War II used what are today considered rather primitive ordnance steels, but carefully heat-treated so that while the core remained very soft, the surface was often as high as 62 on the Rockwell C scale. FN rifles and many from Eastern Europe used tighter dimensional tolerances overall, used far more sophisticated metallurgy, and show lower hardness figures. However, this latter group comprises generally superior actions, far more durable.
I am often compelled to repeat to shooters and collectors that hardness very decidedly is not strength; most materials in use today develop their strengths at hardness levels way below the vogue of forty years ago, and are, in fact, dangerous at high hardness levels. Hardness is relevant in any respect only to a given material in a given application and lately, more often than not, optimum strengths are obtained at levels far below what was popular thirty to forty years ago. When someone in a gun store begins to talk hardness level as some kind of quality determinant, your best response is to turn on your heel and leave. The very strongest bolt actions in the world, the Japanese Arisakas, are quite soft. Dimensions, design, venting and strength determine the overall safety and quality of a rifle action; hardness alone as a factor is bunk. Read Hatcher’s Notes to get a more specific idea of how these matters translate to reality.
The engineering factors which made the M98 a landmark were simple progressions from the M1892–1896 designs, but they were significant enough that few countries could avoid discarding whatever they had been using to adopt the new system. Rifles just three to ten years old in military service became second-line materiel in most of the world. The third or “emergency” locking lug, the inside receiver ring collar, and the vastly improved, safer, more reliable firing mechanism with its lockout to prevent premature ignition with a broken firing pin, combined with a conglomerate of earlier Mauser evolutionary features and improved metallurgy to produce a rifle which looked and worked very much like its predecessors. In terms of safety under rough conditions and rapid-fire, though, the Model 98 stood alone.
It surprises many collectors and shooters that relatively few Mausers were actually built by the designing firm. “Few” is, of course, a relative term: The Oberndorf factory produced millions. But almost from the beginning, demand was so vast and deep that firms in Europe and elsewhere were licensed to produce the guns. Loewe, DWM, Steyr, Sauer and Son, Fabrique Nationale, the Czech works at BRNO, Radom in Poland, all the German government arsenals and all their subcontractors, and as many as a hundred small factories in Central Europe were producing actions and/or complete rifles by the mid-1920s.
If one wishes to analyze the impact Paul Mauser had on the world, he should dig through the cartridge specifications in one of the better reloading manuals and refer back to Paul Mauser’s 1880s and 1890s cartridges. He’ll find almost every currently popular medium-power rifle cartridge owes much to the compatible cartridges Mauser designed from their inception to be quickly and cheaply adapted to standard rifle actions. The Mauser originals — 7.92×57, 7×57, 7.65×53 (sometimes called 7.65×54) — and the Brenneke cartridges developed in direct consultation with the Mauser firm do not resemble the 308, 30/06, 270 and others by accident; from case heads to bottlenecks, modern cartridge configurations are virtually all derived from original Mauser ideas.
This article first appeared in the 1994 edition of the Gun Digest, and is an excerpt from the new book, Greatest Guns of Gun Digest. Click here to get your copy.