Paul Mauser may have made his name in building sporting rifles but it was his Military rifles that first grabbed the attention in Africa. The two Boer republics (Orange Free State and Transvaal) had seen trouble with Britain was only a matter of time. Both republics strove to re-arm and secure independence from British rifles and particularly ammunition supply (Martini Henries and the boxer 577/450 ammunition) that formed the bulk of the arms in both countries. Since both were true republics, every male over the age of 15 was considered a soldier in time of need and neither republic maintained a standing army. Having watched as the developed world struggled with the new small bore rifles and smokless powders the republics were galvinised into action by the attempted coup in the Transvaal instigated by Cecil Rhodes (Prime Minister of the Cape Colony) and backed by the police from Rhodesia. The coup attempt fizzeled out very quickly after one brief battle but the total blockade on fresh ammunition supplies for their Martin Henry rifles and the obvious advantages of the magazine fed Lee Metford and Winchester rifles carried by the Rhodesian police could not be ignored. After a brief trial, the Mauser Model 1895 in 7x57 was accepted as the standard arm for both republics and orders placed for 70,000 military rifles and several thousand high grade sporting rifles and sufficient ammunition – enough to arm the entire citizen population.
In the Orange Free State, citizens were encouraged to purchase the new rifles and ammunition, but in the Transvaal, every eligible male was sent a note that his rifle was available from the local commando office and that he owed the government £5 – weather he wanted a new rifle or not. His only option was, if he wished he could pay more and get a higher grade sporting model or one with a turned down bolt handle to facilitate use on horseback. Consequently when the Boer war finally did break out in 1899 the majority of the men in the commandos who rode out to meet the British were armed with Mausers. Like the American troops in Cuba the year before, the British received a nasty shock being on the receiving end of the clip fed 7mm Mausers- and unlike the Americans, the war started with a series of nasty, humiliating defeats for the British and it served to imbed the Mauser as a symbol of freedom in the minds of the Boers. ‘God and the Mauser’ was a common sentiment regarding the Boer understanding of priorities in life. The fact that the British ultimately won the war had little effect on the Mausers popularity. Given the crude sight pictures given by the ‘barleycorn’ sights on the military and sporting rifles of the day, the Mausers were more accurate and flatter shooting. In fact, the new British Lee Enfield No 1 rifles (long Lee Enfield) was particularly badly sighted. The regular British troops got on as best they could with their issue rifles but the Colonial troops were soon ordering sporting rifles for operational use and various British firms leap forward to meet the demand, either with rifles based on the Lee Speed design or the new model 98 Mauser.
Initially the Mauser faced competition from the Guedes and Mannlicher designs as well as the Lee, especially for the civilian market. The 7x57 cartridge was Mausers initial selling point. This mild recoiling cartridge was very flat shooting by the standards of the day and the long 173grn bullets gave better penetration than the sundry 8mm, 303 and 6,5 rounds that were offered in competition. In 1905 Mauser introduced a double blow to the competition. They bought out the Mauser Model A and the Mauser Afrika Model and offered both in the new 9,3x62 as well as the established 7x57. For those who fancied light, fast handling rifles, the Model A, built on the intermediate action length (in 7x57 only) offered a more accurate, but longer and slightly less slick alternative to the Mannlicher M1903 (in 6,5x54 MS). For those living in areas where dangerous game occurred (most of Africa at that time) the 9,3x62 was the first ‘general purpose’ cartridge suitable for all round use that could be used in a standard action magazine fed repeater. The nearest rivals were the British falling block and double rifles chambered for the more powerful .450/400, the .400/350 Rigby in the big (and expensive) magnum actions or the Winchester ’86 in .45-90. The 9,3 beat the American offerings in terms of penetration on dangerous game and beat the British offering in terms of firepower and price.
For a man living alone in a remote location, be he a farmer or miner or even a travelling salesman, a lot was demanded of his rifle. It needed to keep him fed, and provide protection- against both people and animals. One of the most common disasters that overtook travellers in much of Africa was that they, or more usually, their horse, got eaten by lions. Lion attacks occur almost invariably at night, and are seldom the work of a lone animal. One of the great attractions of the big Winchesters was ample magazine capacity for cartridges that were effective on lion, in a fast shooting package. Considering torches were 30 years in the future, the ‘light’ that men carried to try and deal with lions after their horses was all too often a single candle in a brass ‘reflector’ lamp- so a man grabbed his rifle and walked out of his house or away from the camp fire to deal with a pride carrying a one candle power light. Little wonder that the exquisite workmanship on even the working grade British falling blocks or double rifles failed to sustain their popularity in the face of the competition from Mauser. The Big Winchesters had their devotee’s but the .45-90 offered ‘black power’ performance, even in it’s smokeless nitro loads. Men who had bought them as alternatives to the early black powder .303’s or even the single shot Martini Henry’s and who had learned to appreciate their strengths stuck to their ’86 until the Great Depression killed American imports to Africa. Unfortunately they failed to compare well with the 9,3 Mauser in terms of general usefulness. In almost every respect except perhaps speed of a follow up shot, the Mauser was ahead of the game. The 9,3 shot flatter than the 45-90 (or the .405 for that matter) and they were generally a lot more accurate; The Model A particularly (but the Africa model wasn’t too shabby) possessed the best sights of any repeater; it possessed enough penetration to kill even bull elephant with a frontal brain shot (the ..45-90 was fine for chest shots but marginal even on side brain shots with its lead bullets); With soft point bullets the 9,3 gave away nothing to the .45-90 in terms of effectiveness on lion and as a final consideration the Mauser could be reloaded quicker using stripper clips- the Winchesters were no better than single shot rifles once the magazine was empty.
Considering most men up until the 1940’s belonged to the local militia or commando and the rifle they bought with them when they were called out was the one they would have to fight with – be it a native uprising (the last two big ones were both in 1911 - in Natal and Mocambique), a rebellion (South Africa 1914) a general strike trying to turn into a revolution (Johannesberg in 1923) or a band of desperado’s who had robbed a bullion shipment (still occurs but the one of the biggest was the Killarney robbery in 1905) it paid a man to give some thought as to the military qualities of the rifle he was buying as well as it’s usefulness as a hunting or self defence weapon. Few men other than working professional ivory or meat hunters could justify owning a couple of quality specialised rifles. The wealthy gentry obviously could also, but for 90% of men buying a rifle it had to do all things and the ‘military service’ angle was a real consideration- and that took care of the competition from Mannlicher. The Mannlicher 1903 was a very successful design. It was by far and away the slickest bolt action on the market and the feed from it’s rotary magazine was flawless- I would venture to say that most men could get off accurate repeat shots quicker from the Mannlicher than they could from a lever action. The rifles were very light (about 6 ½ lbs), short and very handy to use. However….they were never noted for fine accuracy, and the men in much of South Africa, Botswana or Namibia who had no need of a powerful rifle for dangerous game, needed a long range rifle as they were hunting in the desert or open veld. The sweetest handling little carbine in the world that was limited to 150 yard shots by its inherent accuracy, more primitive sights, and short barrel that robbed the cartridges of velocity found little appeal in places where 250 yard shots were increasingly common if you wanted to bring home the venison. And from a military standpoint, militia forces the world over have always appreciated keeping the fight at longest possible range and leaving the close quarter, down and dirty stuff with the bayonet to the professionals. The very handiness of the Mannlicher won them a small but loyal following, particularly in British territories where the rifles could be ‘reworked’ (and often rebarrelled) by some of the worlds finest gunsmiths – greatly improved sights and accuracy at least on a par with the various Lee based designs: good enough for all work in the days before telescopic sights became common and chambered for more powerful cartridges in an attempt to compete with the 9,3.
The two best cartridges (7x57 for open country where there was no dangerous game, and the 9,3x62 for everywhere else) packaged in well balanced , accurate rifles fitted with good sights and facility for clip loading, simply stream rolled the opposition. Unless you could afford more than one rifle, or had a very strong personal preference for something else (eg a few left handed men stayed with the Winchester or even Colt lightning designs) there was precious little reason to buy anything other than a Mauser. By 1905 even the top British gun making firms had come to realise this. John Rigby had been appointed the UK agents for Mauser in 1902 and sold the standard sized M’98 actions to the trade, but worked with Mauser to develop a wedge shaped magazine box so the rimmed .303 service cartridge would work smoothly, and most famously, an oversized Magnum action for their ..400/350 cartridge. By 1903 Rigby’s agents in Johannesburg and Rhodesia were offering ‘Best British quality’ Sporting rifles based on the Mauser action. This was of some importance. Rhodesia (modern day Zambia and Zimbabwe) required by law that every man in the country posses a repeating rifle chambered in .303. All the Winchester ‘95’s I have ever seen in Africa were in .303 British entirely due to this regulation. Obviously the Lee actions had been designed specifically for the .303 cartridge and sporters based on them were perfectly acceptable, but compared to a Rigby Mauser in .303…They were just not in the same class. The .400/350 Rigby not only predated the 9,3x62 but was a better cartridge for dangerous game. The main limitation to it totally dominating the trade was the price of Rigby rifles and the equally high price of Rigby’s ammunition (Steel jacketed solids and the first decent soft points with a steel jacket and the core ‘locked’ into the jacket with two deep groves which also served to limit expansion). Westley Richards and Jeffery simply bought standard length actions via Rigby and developed their own cartridges for them. Holland and Holland tried to stay with the slicker and trimmer Mannlicher action developing the world first Belted cartridge ( The ..400/375 Belted Express) in 1905 as direct competition to the new 9,3x62 and already established 400/350 Rigby. BSA alone tried to stay with variations of the Lee and develop suitable low pressure cartridges for it.
By 1910 it was clear who had won the rifle race. Even Holland and Holland caved in, bought Mauser actions and then set about creating some of the finest hunting rounds ever to suit- the .375 H&H Magnum and the ‘Super 30’ (aka .300 H&H magnum). Westley Richards’ .318 soon eclipsed all other rounds as the working mans’s cartridge- due to a large part in letting other manufacturers (including Mauser) chamber rifle for this round and offering the rifles in both fancy and working grades. This was partnered with their .425 for use against dangerous game. Jeffery bought out their .404 which became the standard issue cartridge for game rangers and professional meat hunters across the continent. This was partnered to the two original ‘Short magnums’ The .333 Jeffery (almost identical to today’s .338 Blaser magnum) and the high speed 280 Jeffery which competed with the .280 Ross and 7x64 Brenneke as the ideal round for open country hunting of smaller antelope. Rigby realised that, although their .400/350 was by far the best ‘medium bore’ on the market, the much cheaper Mauser Model A and cheaper still Africa Modesl in 9,3x62 was what the majority of folk were buying. The 9,3 Mausers were all built on civilian version of the standard military ’98 Mauser action, while the .400/350 needed not only the bigger (and semi custom) Magnum action, it also needed the wedge shaped magazine and careful fitting to cope with the rim. Consequently they went the same route as the other top British makers, offering the best medium bore cartridge (the .350 Rigby magnum) and the best of the dangerous game rounds – the .416 Rigby, frequently as matched sets.
Following WWI Rhodesia dropped the ‘must own’ .303 law and thousands of cheap surplus Mauser actions came onto the market. Not only that, but in 1913 the British had formally adopted a mauser based rifle and a new magnum 7mm round as their new Service rifle/cartridge. The realities of impending war had caused the P13 to be re-designed to take the .303 cartridge and produced as the P14 and subsequently put into production in America as a substitute standard rifle. When America joined the war, they too found themselves short of rifles and the P14 was redesigned to take the .30-06 cartridge and the P17 issued by the million as substitute standard to US troops. The P14’s and P17’s never did find much popularity with the troops but they offered a longer than standard Mauser action that with a bit of machining to tidy up the lines and fitting to a well designed sporting stock made for an all together perfectly satisfactory hunting rifle. The .404’s issued to Africa’s game departments from the 1920’s until finally replaced by the .458 Win in the 1980’s were almost all built on war surplus P14 actions. So were most of the .375 H&H built between the wars.
Mauser was rebuilt following destruction in WWI but sadly dropped the intermediate length action for the 7x57 and also the short actions for the 6,5x54 and 8x51. The high value business on the custom actions from Rigby ensured that the double square bridge magnum action was, in fact, the first back into production.
In the aftermath of WW I the Mauser legend grew. More and more makers started using the action- either new production or war surplus or minor variations of it like Winchester’s legendary pre ’64 M70. WWII may have shut down production of Mauser actions in Germany but by then enough other countries were in licensed production (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and most of all, F.N. in Belgium). The high end manufacturers switched to buying from F.N. (I owned a 1950’s vintage H&H built on an F.N. action) but there was nothing wrong with some of the cheaper models either. My first centrefire rifle was a 1950 vintage Bruno in 7x57 built on a war surplus action. In recent years there have been many minor modifications of the M 98 design, principally to the cocking shroud and safety catch but they are still essentially Mausers And the parting word is, if it isn’t a double rifle and you are hunting dangerous game in Africa I would venture that 19 out of 20 rifles are still some derivative of Paul Mausers M 98.