Greatness in firearms is a pretty subjective judgement. But when a gun is nearing its hundredth birthday, hasn’t been out of production for much longer than somebody’s coffeebreak, and is still a favorite of hunters and precision shooters everywhere, calling it great may be an understatement. About the closest estimate one can acquire of the quantities of the Mauser Model 98 produced thus far is somewhere between 91 million and 125 million. It’s hard to come up with a firmer figure, for the rifle was produced in twenty or more countries, most of which used it as a military rifle, and another large group of nations produced clones, copies and ripoffs of the original, often in quantities so vast they couldn’t give a production figure if they wanted, and they don’t want.
Only the Russian AK-47 design comes anywhere close to the production figures of the Model 98. It’s probably not that close, but no one knows for sure. The Chinese and Japanese produced Model 98 rifles and copies in vast quantities, both for themselves and for client states. The Belgians, Poles, Austrians, Czechs, Iranians, Yugoslavs, Turks, Spaniards, Argentines, Brazilians, Mexicans and others produced military M98s in quantity; others produced near-copies and “improvements” for military use like the U.S. M1903 and ‘03A3. (Yes, the Mauser firm was paid at least $400,000 in royalties until at least 1914.) There were also the U.S/British P17/P14 “Enfields” and the late French MAS derivatives in this category.
And that’s just the military rifles. Handmade Model 98s in calibers up to 50 Browning are still being turned out by builders like Fred Wells of Prescott, Arizona. French, Dutch, British and Italian sporting rifles and actions have been made in standard, miniature and magnum lengths. The Finnish Sakos and the Swedish Carl Gustaf and Husqvarna are all 98-type actions. Many of the countries which used the 98 as a military rifle produced and most still produce the action as a hunting piece. The famous Swiss annual Waffen Digest recently (1992 edition) carried a couple of unusual announcements: One was descriptive of a “new” product called Mauser Jagdrepetierer Modell 98, a rather familiar model introduced by the mother firm, Mauser-Werke, Oberndorf-am-Neckar, absent from the thriving market for their most famous product for 46 years. Waffen Frankonia also introduced their new K98k military rifle, actually a reworked and specification updated military rifle with new parts and stocks, as and where necessary.
So why introduce — at fairly high prices, incidentally — technology almost a century old as a new product at a time of worldwide economic recession? Simply put: demand. The Mauser 98 is closer to a true basic product than nearly any other firearm, and though the analogy seems strained, it occupies a market position similar to eggs, flour or rice.
If one needs an accurate rifle for hunting, sniping, experimenting or target shooting, the ancient three-lug “safety” action is a fine place to start. Indeed, structurally, there’s little to choose between any M98 and the latest bolt guns from, say, Weatherby or Remington; there have been refinements, but the nuts and bolts have been very similar for a long time, and almost anything in the way of doo-dads one can imagine or concoct for a Model 70 Winchester can be acquired, built or purchased for the Mauser.
Of course, for civilians, even purchasing an old military action for very little money and doing the full custom job on it doesn’t save a penny over a top-of-the-line commercial product. The main difference is, when the consumer reworks his own Model 98, he gets exactly what he wants — no more, no less — and if he can do some or all of the work, he really can save a few bucks. What is unique about this time-honored process is that such rifles can be built up slowly, on a sort of self-regulating installment plan, adding a new trigger in January, scope or mount in March, stock in June or July, total refinish some other year. That you cannot do with a new rifle which comes in a fancy box.
But there’s more to the Mauser 98 saga. From 1898 to about 1962, military Mausers were built in considerable variety. All specifications called for minimum vise-secured accuracy level under two minutes of angle. Most performed better. Of course, given the limitations of a broad V rear sight and skinny front blade, or pyramidal “barleycorn” post, shooter-limited factors meant such a level of accuracy was seldom maintained in the field. There were no mystery alloys used in Model 98 Mausers, and if the odd stamped or roughly soldered or welded part found its way onto a wartime K98k, it was always someplace where it bore little stress. The 98s were made for so long that whole metallurgical techniques changed, but, surprisingly, this had almost no impact on the rifle’s quality or durability. Even the military finishes of the rifles generally exceeded the workaday qualities of most of today’s civilian firearms.
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.