The Gewehr 98 Mauser rifle is one of the most historically significant and technically influential firearms in history. In one variant or another, it armed men on both sides of two world wars and continues to be seen in conflicts around the world to this day. Rifle actions are still being based on it or using its features.
The Gewehr 98 was the first Mauser rifle to feature the famous large ring action. It had some changes from earlier designs. It proved to be a very rugged action, and some commercial actions today are still being based upon it. The Model 98 introduced cock on opening, which was considered to be preferable. The idea being that it would not require as much effort to chamber a round as the shooter wouldn’t have to cock the action when closing the bolt. In dirty conditions, as battlefields tend to be, it was thought that this would be advantageous. It also had some extra safety features in the event of a pierced primer, which was not an infrequent event at that point in time.
These ideas seem rather insignificant with regard to how we look at firearms technology today. But at the time, these were considered to be state of the art. If you take a look at your favorite modern bolt action rifle, the chances are pretty good that you’ll see some of these features. The 1903 Springfield was close enough to the Mauser design that the US Government had to pay royalties to Mauser for each rifle produced until WWI.
The rear sight on the Gewehr 98 is rather elaborate. It is something of a roller-coaster arrangement. It has settings from 400 to a rather optimistic 2000 meters. Honestly, I think it’s surprising that they didn’t simplify it during the war. However, it is very smooth to operate. The barrel was a rather long 29”, but this was pretty typical of the day for military rifles and some were even longer.
The model 1898 was chambered in 7.92×57 Mauser. Originally, like most military rifle cartridges in service at that time, the 7.92 cartridge was loaded with a round nose bullet. In 1905 this was changed to a new “spitzer”, or pointed bullet. At the time, this was another major development in small arms ammunition, as it made the bullets much more aerodynamic which gave them greater range. Prior to this, Mausers chambered in 7.92×57 had .318 diameter bores. With the new bullet, the .323” bore diameter began to be used, with the idea that the larger bore would give longer barrel life. Most Gew 98 rifles that had been produced were re-barreled, but the earlier 1888 “Commission” rifles were not. They were, however, re-chambered and otherwise modified to accommodate the new ammunition and clips. This is something of a controversial topic. So if you own one of these older model rifles, make sure to do some research before you attempt to fire it.
At any rate, the loading used by the rifles of the German Army in the Great War was a 154gr FMJ, also known as the “S” cartridge. Unlike the 198gr loading developed for machine guns (which later became the standard 7.92mm load), this bullet was flat based. If you shoot WWI era German rifles, it is important to note this difference in ammunition. Most of the available commercial ammunition I have seen use the later loading (or some equivalent thereof). The sights on the WWI rifles and carbines are all calibrated for the 154gr round, so the point of impact will be at least a little different. Of course, the lowest range setting on the GEW 98 is 400 meters. So if you’re shooting at 100 yards, you will find the point of impact to be a fair bit high anyway.
The Gewehr 98 rifle was the standard infantry arm of the Imperial German army during the First World War. It saw lots of action on both the Eastern and Western front of the war. It was popular with their soldiers. It wasn’t perfect for sure. And there were a bunch of accessories and modifications tried during WWI to address these issues. For example, “grasping” grooves were added to the forend. A metal disk was added to the stock to assist in disassembling the bolt, a feature that became a permanent addition to military Mausers. One of the more interesting ideas tried was a 25 round extension magazine. Not exactly something you’d expect to see on a bolt action rifle from 100 years ago.
The lack of a close range sight on the Mauser 98 was also a fairly common complaint. It was not uncommon for the enemy trenches to be closer than 100 meters away, whereas the closest range setting was 400. This obviously was an issue for German soldiers firing at a small opening in a machine gun position or someone poking their head up for a peek. Having to hold low made it difficult to hit such targets, particularly under the stress of combat. There was a close-range auxiliary sight developed to assist with this, but I don’t know how many were actually issued.
There were also carbine variants produced. The WWI era carbine was the Karbiner 98a or Kar 98a. These were intended for cavalry units (when those were still being used) and for second-line troops such as artillery, at least initially. Most armies of that time had similar weapons for the same purposes. Then history takes an interesting turn.
In 1915 the German army began to form “Strosstruppen” or “Storm Troops” units (not to be confused with Nazi political elements who used the same name a couple of decades later) on the Western Front. These elements developed small unit fire and maneuver tactics as we know them today. The idea was these Strosstruppen would attack a particular point in the line, breakthrough, and hold in until relieved by regular forces. They used a lot of handguns and grenades. These weapons were far better suited to clearing trenches and bunkers than the long and awkward (at least in this role) Gewehr 98s. However, they still needed rifles to hold the trenches they just took until relieved by regular infantry units. So they used the Kar 98a. It featured a shorter 23” barrel and a simpler tangent sight. It also had a bent bolt handle, as opposed to the straight handle on the rifle, a common feature on cavalry carbines. The WWII K98 was very similar to this model.
These tactics were very effective and were widely used in the 1918 spring offensive. Some other armies followed also followed suit. The Germans assisted in the formation of similar Austrian units. The French also formed some similar elements, and I’ve even seen a few references to Ottoman units as well. To a much lesser extent, the British dabbled with this as well, but the idea never seemed to have caught on with them. From a weapons perspective, it’s an interesting coincidence that the armies that made more serious attempts at forming Strosstruppen type units all had short carbine variants of their service rifles in their inventories. With all of the different specialty weapons being used by special operations units today, it’s kind of neat to look back at this situation from 100 years ago. An interesting read, if you’re interested in the Strosstruppen, is Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger.
There were different bayonets for the Gewehr 98 rifle. Primarily, the M1898/05 model was used in WWI. It was called the “butcher” because of its rather distinctive blade shape. There was also a saw-backed model. This was intended for “Pioneers”, who were basically combat engineers. Of course, the idea was to provide these troops two tools in one. However, this model was thought to produce a nastier wound by the British and French. German soldiers captured with one tended to have rather nasty things happen to them. So, the Germans decided to grind off the saw-back side of those bayonets, as that feature had been of limited utility anyway. As the war went on, Germany converted older bayonets for use with the Gew 98. There were also some non-standard, or “Erstatz” bayonets used as well that were issued later in the war.
My particular Model 98 was produced in 1917 at the Oberndorf factory. For test firing, I obtained some Prvi Partizan 198gr FMJ BT ammunition. This load is an approximation of the later loading, and as I mentioned previously had a different point of impact than the 154gr ammunition the sights were designed for. However, in tracking down ammunition for this article I found myself in the same situation many WWI Mauser owners often do: I couldn’t locate any 154gr ammunition. But I thought it would be helpful to give other shooters an idea of how different the point of impact would be, and hopefully, this information will get them on target faster.
I fired the rifle at 50 yards. Due to the longer barrel, the recoil was not as disagreeable as it typically is with the carbine variants. I had to hold about 6” low with this ammunition to hit the center of the target. I’d say the German soldiers’ complaints were justified! The best group was about 4”. I suspect having to hold low, and the lowest setting being 400 meters probably contributed to this. I also suspect a little handloading would greatly increase the accuracy potential of this rifle, which I intend to do. Accuracy notwithstanding, there is something neat about spending some range time with a 101-year-old war veteran.