The Best Bolt Action Ever Invented: The Mauser 98

I’ve written elsewhere that the Mauser 98 action is probably the apex of bolt action design, despite being 125 years old. But that idea is hardly original. While I have many years of experience behind Mauser rifles, entire books have been written extolling the 98 action’s virtues. German master gunmaker Paul Mauser’s masterpiece remains the bolt action by which all others are judged. So, let’s look at why the 98 action is so beloved and why I think it has no peer.

M1908 Brazilian Mauser action
The 98 action on my M1908 Brazilian Mauser is the slickest bolt action I’ve ever run, bar none. (Author’s Photo)

Paul and Wilhelm Mauser

The Mauser brothers’ story is told in detail elsewhere, but briefly, they were two of five sons of master gunsmith Franz Mauser, who worked at the Royal Rifle Factory in Oberndorf, which was then in the German Kingdom of Württemberg. All five brothers became gunsmiths, but Paul and Wilhelm were the most notable, starting their own company and eventually purchasing the Royal Rifle Factory from the government.

Paul, the youngest brother, was the primary designer, while Wilhelm managed the business and negotiated contracts. Wilhelm died unexpectedly in 1872 at age 47, but not before the German Army adopted the Mauser Model 1871 rifle to replace the aging Dreyse Needle Gun.

The Model 1871 was influenced by the Dreyse, whose earliest incarnation had been the first bolt action rifle back in 1841. The Model 1871 rifle’s success led to further development as Paul Mauser carried on without his brother.

Paul and Wilhelm Mauser
Paul and Wilhelm Mauser (Public Domain)

Building to 1898

The Mauser 98 action didn’t bloom suddenly in Paul Mauser’s mind. Rather, it resulted from nearly three decades of gradual development. The single-shot breechloading Model 1871 design, for example, was eventually upgraded in 1884 with a tube magazine, making it a repeating rifle. It was designated the Model 71/84.

Perhaps the signature element of the 98 action is the non-rotating claw extractor, which first appeared in the Mauser Model 1892. The staggered column box magazine was introduced in the 1893 Spanish Mauser, which made the rifle sleeker and protected the magazine better than previous models. 1894 saw the advent of a rear shoulder on the receiver to engage the bolt handle as a safety lug in addition to the two already strong forward locking lugs.

The still well-regarded 7x57mm Mauser cartridge first appeared in the Model 1895 Chilean Mauser. The 1896 Swedish Mauser introduced the improved Swedish steel alloy, further strengthening the already robust Mauser system. It also included gas ports and an integral rib guide on the bolt’s body.

The Final Product

Paul Mauser’s masterpiece emerged in 1898, with the iconic Gewehr 98 (Rifle 98) that was adopted by the German Army. It was chambered for the hard-hitting 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge which Paul Mauser had patented in 1895. That cartridge is more commonly referred to as 8mm Mauser, and it directly influenced the American military’s .30 caliber service cartridges.

World War I German Soldier
A World War I German soldier of the 119th Regiment. He carries a Mauser Gewehr 98. (pinterest.com/daveolinyk/ww1-imperial-german-army)

The new action took the best of previous models and added a larger, over-engineered forward receiver ring, making it even stronger. A new larger porting system bled gas more efficiently, reducing the potential damage from a ruptured case or primer. The 98 action also cocked on opening, shortened the firing pin’s travel to ½ inch, and locking screws to prevent loosening as the rifle was fired.

The action was also simple, with fewer parts than its contemporaries, and could be disassembled without tools. The system was overengineered, using enough steel to resist wear and encourage hard use. Aggressive use actually makes the Mauser 98 action smoother. No need to baby it.

The three-position flag safety is another famous Mauser feature. The left position is fire; straight up locks the trigger but allows the action to cycle for emptying the magazine; and the right position locks the bolt and the trigger. Positioned right in front of the shooter’s nose, it’s easy to see and intuitive to operate. Moving from safe to fire merely requires a flip of the thumb as the firing hand grips the rifle.

Mauser 98 3-position safety
The Mauser 98’s 3-position safety. (Author’s Photo)

In the 98 action, Paul Mauser created the safest, most reliable, and most robust bolt action ever created. It has often been imitated, but it has never been bested. In his well-regarded book “Bolt Action Rifles,” author Frank de Haas wrote that “Without question, the M98 Mauser is the best, strongest, and most foolproof military turnbolt action ever made.”

As proof, standard German World War II ammunition loads exerted approximately 45,000 psi of energy when fired. The Mauser 98 action could handle up to 100,000 psi and keep firing. It couldn’t keep that up for long, of course, but it shows how strong and safe the action was and still is when made from quality components.

Legacy

The Gewehr 98 was Germany’s standard infantry rifle in the First World War. The rifle was shortened and trimmed to produce World War II’s Karabiner 98, which many consider the pinnacle of Mauser military rifles. The only change to the action was a turned-down bolt handle. The K98 was a fantastic rifle, but it was obsolete by 1940 or so, as nations moved toward semi-automatic infantry rifles. But rifle development was a low priority during Germany’s rapid rearmament and the K98 was standard throughout the war, despite innovations like the semi-auto G43 and the Sturmgewehr assault rifle.

Mauser 98 bolts
These bolts are from my Yugoslavian M48 Mauser variant (top) and my M1908 Brazilian Mauser (bottom.) The M48 is chambered for 8mm Mauser and the M1908 for 7mm Mauser. Note that the bolt and bolt handle are machined from a single block of steel. (Author’s Photo)

Notably, the American M1903 Springfield Rifle is essentially a Mauser 98. So much so that Mauser sued the US government for patent infringement and the Army actually agreed they should pay royalties. Unfortunately for the Mauser company, World War I came along and ended all that.

Surplus Mausers served the world over in the post-World War II years, most notably, and ironically, with the Israelis in their 1948-49 War of Independence. Yugoslavia, as part of reparations paid by Germany, received Mauser tools and equipment and manufactured their own excellent Mauser variant, the M48.

But the Mauser action’s greatest contribution, postwar, was its emergence as the basis of perhaps the finest hunting rifles in the world. Big game hunters the world over prized Mauser-based rifles for their unsurpassed safety and rugged reliability. The powerful claw extractor meant the cartridge was always under the shooter’s control, all but eliminating jams and ensuring fast follow-up shots on dangerous game animals.

The Mauser 98 action was the core of the classic Winchester Model 70 rifles through 1963. That “the Rifleman’s Rifle” took a step back beginning in 1964 is a matter of record. That’s because they went to a push feed system to compete with the Remington Model 700’s lower retail price. There’s nothing wrong with the Remington 700 action. But it’s not the Mauser 98. Modern Model 70s once again feature the 98 action, and some folks claim they are better than the pre-’64 models. I have no basis for comparison, so I can’t say whether that’s true. Weatherby, Ruger, Rigby, and others have also made good use of the Mauser 98 action in their hunting rifles.

Mauser 98 claw extractor
The Mauser 98’s massive claw extractor allows the shooter to control the cartridge from start to finish, making it extremely reliable. (Author’s Photo)

The Mauser Company still produces higher-end hunting rifles. But strangely, only their top-tier models have the 98 action. And by “top tier,” I mean they cost $10,000 or more apiece. The others have a push feed system. When I decided to special order a new bolt action hunting rifle last year, I immediately looked at the Mausers. There’s no way I can afford the big dogs, but I learned that I could get a tricked-out FN-built Winchester Model 70 with the 98 action for the same price as an entry-level Mauser with a push feed system. I chose the Winchester without a second thought because of the action. The Mausers are nice, but if the core isn’t there, it’s not a real Mauser to me.

Just My Opinion

Of course, that’s my opinion, but it’s an opinion based on 36 years of Mauser 98 experience. I bought my first Mauser, an M1908 Brazilian chambered in 7×57 Mauser, in 1987. It has the slickest bolt that I’ve ever run. I’ve never experienced another bolt that approaches it. I’ve added others over the years, and I haven’t found any system that equals rifles equipped with the 98 action.

Mauser 98 action internals
This Mauser 98 sporting rifle cutaway shows the actions internals. Sporting rifle or no, it’s the same action. (Mauser Photo)

But any internet search will reveal similar stories going back for decades. Military surplus rifle values have gone through the roof as YouTube exposed gun owners to these cool old weapons. None are prized more highly than the Mausers. And if you go read 20th-century safari accounts, there’s a good chance that a custom Mauser rifle will be there somewhere.

That I can make those claims 125 years after the Mauser 98 appeared, especially considering the advances in firearms technology, is nothing short of amazing. Paul Mauser’s creation may never be surpassed, though there are some very fine bolt action rifles out there. But none are better than the Mauser 98. That’s my opinion. Change my mind.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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