The Kar 98 Mauser: Development and Doctrine

The story of Karabiner 98 Mauser rifle is the penultimate chapter of one of the most copied firearms in all of small arms. In general, the history is told chronologically. It starts with Peter and Paul Mauser getting their foot in German arms sales with their 1871 infantry rifle, whose basic design was improved and remade over the decades. The evolution ultimately ends in the adoption of the perfected Gewehr 98 Mauser adopted by the German Empire in 1898. That history is important but it is not the end of the line. The Mauser 98 saw continuous improvement to fit changing doctrines which made the design even more compatible for military use in yesteryear and inspiration for hunting rifle designs today.

A Mauser K98 rifle (top) paired with a Mosin Nagant rifle (bottom).
Two potential nemeses on the Eastern Front: A German Kar 98 Mauser produced in 1939 and a Russian Mosin-Nagant M91/30 produced in 1941.

From the Beginning

The first rifle that we would recognize as fundamentally Mauser is the Belgian Model 1889. The M1889, like the old 1871, was bolt-action and had the same ambidextrous flag safety on the back of the bolt striker. Aside from that, there are no similarities. This new bolt action could be disassembled without tools and used dual-forward locking lugs that locked into a robust receiver ring that was blind to grit and residue.

The 1889 held five rounds of a modern smokeless and rimless 7.65x53mm round that was fed into the fixed box magazine with a disposable stripper clip. Sight adjustments, a flush fit box magazine, new cartridges, and emergency gas ports came along in the Model 1891 Argentine, Model 1893 Spanish, and Model 1896 Swede, among others.

The receiver of a Swedish Model 1896 Mauser rifle.
A top view of a 1901 produced M96 Swede. The 98 design is functionally similar save for the larger receiver ring where the maker’s roll mark is located.

The Model 98 was perhaps the most soldier-friendly of them all. Instead of pushing the bolt forward to cock the striker, thus disturbing your sights, a user of the Model 98 could keep his sight picture as the bolt now cocks on opening. The receiver ring is beefed up and the bolt now has three locking lugs—two in the front, and one near the bolt handle. The base Model 98 in 8x57mm was adopted by the German Army as the Gewehr (or rifle) 98 that year and demand for the latest of Mauser’s wares was ordered by the likes of Brazil, China, and Serbia, among many others.

1930 version of All Quiet, soldier carrying Gewehr 98 bolt-action rifle
This still image from the 1930 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” could be easily mistaken for a photo from the actual conflict. The soldier is correctly equipped and armed with the Gewehr 98 bolt-action rifle.

The Gewehr 98 at the End of the Great War

Most of the world that participated in the First World War did so against Germany, but the bulk of the combatants used a Mauser or Mauser-like design. The German Army fielded the Gewehr 98 as their standard long arm during the conflict. It acquitted itself well but as the war dragged on, some aspects were found wanting.

The Gewehr 98 uses a Lange Vizier or “rollercoaster” rear sight notch. This sight is bulkier than what is found on other Mausers and at its lowest setting was set at four hundred meters. This sight made sense with large formations of men and horses in the open, but opponents in the Great War presented very small targets at much closer distances—if you saw him at all.

It was also a long rifle when all major powers had not started taking short rifles seriously. It used a 29-inch barrel and a long sword bayonet that was useful for fending off cavalry. That extra reach could be of use against an opponent trying to bayonet you with a similarly sized rifle. But the Great War saw the disbandment of cavalry formations and the long rifle that gave so much reach also gave more for an opponent to grab as he closed the distance with a pistol, dagger, or sharpened spade.

The need for a short rifle materialized in the Karabiner 98A, to differentiate it from the short cavalry carbine. It had better tangent sights, a turn-down bolt handle, and a barrel length that was a handy 23 inches. It was most of what the Karabiner 98K would be in all but name. The 98A offered a rifle punch for German stormtroopers who utilized it on trench raids, although the emphasis in those penetrations was given to grenades and pistols—as well as light machine guns when they could be had.  Germany’s late-war experience would be built upon in interwar doctrine even though the nation lost her right to make military rifles after the Armistice.


There is plenty that is known about the Versailles Treaty that simply is not true. Germany was not subject to crushing reparations nor did they pay them.  It did not lead to the Weimar hyperinflation or the rise of the Nazis. But it did have consequences for the arms industry. Germany was restricted from developing tanks and optics. She got around those restrictions by working with the Soviet Union. Germany’s ability to produce military rifles for domestic use was also restricted. Her arms industry responded by slights of hand and selling production rights to others.

While rifles were largely prohibited, carbines were allowed. But carbines could be produced and the Karabiner 98B debuted in 1923. It was merely a long rifle designed as a carbine to fool outside inspectors. Likewise, keeping stockpiles of these new rifles would look an awful lot like rearmament to the Entente, so the carbines and “carbines” would instead be earmarked for police, postal, or customs service—and later toward paramilitary groups like the SA and the SS. But few of these rifles would come off the line as the majority of rifle tooling at Mauser-Obendorf would be given to BRNO in the new nation of Czechoslovakia. Immediately, the Czechs dispensed with the Gewehr 98 and started producing a short rifle instead. The Belgians also had the right to produce Mausers and they followed the same line of thinking. The VZ 24 and FN Model 1924 were short rifles that saw great international export in the interwar years.

By 1933, the winds began to change. In Germany, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor and he began the implementation of a war economy. Simultaneously, the Entente attempted to improve relations with the Germans as a bulwark against the Soviets. They did so by ignoring aspects of the military buildup and later the annexation of German-speaking territories into the Reich. The transition to autarky freed the German arms industry, who dropped finally dropped the long rifle idea.  The Czech VZ 24 in the German 8x57mm round was a hot item and sold widely to Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, and China, among others. The Reich essentially incorporated the VZ 24 design and gave it a relief cut for a bent bolt handle. The Karabiner 98k was born and adopted as Hitler publicly announced rearmament in 1935.

The Second World War: A Bolt Gun in an Autoloading World

Two World War II-era German soldiers stand together. The one on the left is armed with a Mauser 98, the other an MP40 machine pistol.
Two Wehrmacht soldiers: The one on the left is armed with a Mauser 98, the other an MP40 machine pistol. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-009-0869-12A / Schröter / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

The Karabiner 98k was Germany’s standard long arm when the Nazi war machine raced into Poland, triggering the start of the Second World War in September 1939. The Kar 98 might be said to be the best version of the Mauser rifle and perhaps the best bolt action rifle of the Second World War. But given Germany’s technical know-how, the choice of the Kar 98 was puzzling. This was 1939. Not 1919. Semi-automatic rifles like the American M1 Garand and the Soviet SVT-38 were out there.

The French Army fielded the RSC 1917/18 rifles at the end of the First World War. These rifles did not operate like our modern rifles do, but they were game-changers in their own time.  Clearly, the same Germans that would go on to invent the world’s first operational jet, the ballistic missile, and the first assault rifle, would have seen the writing on the wall early on? The answer to that question is both yes and no. But Germany lacked today’s hindsight on the effectiveness of autoloading rifles, the means to equip and supply a winning army with one, and a different mindset on employing the bolt action rifle in combat.

The OKW that planned Germany’s wars of aggression knew auto-loading rifles existed but there were logistical limits that made issuance impractical early on. The first issue was a matter of training. The US Army in 1939 numbered less than 200,000 men and had M1 Garands to spare. The Wehrmacht alone had some 4.2 million men under arms. To retrain these men would have taken time, if they had been able to arm them with a new rifle. Funds and materiel were private only if used for the ends of the Party, which favored heavy industry. The state’s mismanagement of oil and coal resources were made worse as the war expanded. As soon as the end of 1940, industry slowed due to the war rationing of fuel.

What does fuel have to do with rifles? Everything from production to moving new rifles and new ammunition into training environments and finally to the front. The German war machine rapidly de-motorized due to fuel shortages and only as the war went south did the Reich have both the battlefield experience against semi-auto rifles and the sorted interior lines to make production of the G41/43 and STG 44 rifles possible. Even with all of this, the simplest reason for keeping the Kar 98 around was because change was not seen as necessary.

German infantry advances past an abandoned American Jeep during the Battle of the Bulge.
German infantry advances past an abandoned American Jeep during the Battle of the Bulge. (

We know, in hindsight, that a general-issue autoloading rifle is a good idea. Post-war studies of the combat confirmed that volume of fire dictated the outcome of a given engagement. The American perspective for the rifleman is as an individual who alone can take matters into his own hands. In the 1930s, there was hesitation to adopt the M1 rifle because it was thought that the soldier would not take destiny into his hands and take careful, accurate aim. World War II showed that the M1 could be used accurately but it gave the soldier faster follow-up shots, and more rounds on board, so he could shoot more targets. The German rifleman wasn’t quite trained in either the old or new schools.

In “Heeres-Dienstvorschrift,” a 1942 infantry field training manual, the rifleman works not as an individual but in support of the light machine gun. One Gruppe, which consisted of 3-4 rifle platoons, was specially organized with the GruppenFuhrer (like a Sergeant) positioning and directing the light machine gun to give maximum fire to targets that most hazard the riflemen. He provides close-range protection of the machine gun with an MP40 submachine gun. The light machine gun, in turn, destroys or otherwise pins down the enemy.

On the attack, the riflemen were to move and fire at all times, ensuring a continuous field of suppressive fire in conjunction with the machine gun. Within 100 meters, the unit as a whole goes on the attack. The riflemen begin with grenades and advance in a protective field around the machine gun that would come forward, delivering suppressive fire at hip level. In a defensive position, the rifleman was expected to lay down fire with the machine gun used only in an emergency.

The manual for study is an interesting mix of 1918 storm-trooper tactics and modern suppressive fire. Small wonder that US training aids of the day emphasized the elimination of the light machine gun. But in other ways, the US with its M1 rifle in the hands of the individual rifleman could split the difference between protecting their own machine gun and laying down suppressive fire on their own. The same was true on the Eastern Front. Soviet forces were mostly armed with the Mosin-Nagant M91/30 rifle, but the SVT 38 and 40 were making inroads. The Red Army also gave out PPSH 41 and 43 submachine guns liberally to their rifle units to increase their short-range firepower.

The Germans responded with the G41/43, a semi-automatic rifle firing the same 8x57mm Mauser round, and finally, the select-fire MP43/STG 44 chambered in an intermediate 8x33mm round. But neither rifle could fully replace the Kar 98, nor could they hope to reverse the fortunes of the war that were being dictated by bigger-picture events.

After the end of the Second World War, the Kar 98k remained in German police service and was taken into service by France, Norway, Israel, and Yugoslavia, as a stopgap on the way to autoloading rifles of their own.

Kar 98 — On The Range

The vast array of Arisakas and Springfields (Mauser copies) along with multiple generations of Mausers including the Kar 98k inspired the next generation of wildcatters and gun manufacturers to develop hunting rifles that could reach further and more accurately than what had come before. From its internal magazine, three-lug design, and controlled round feed, the Mauser 98 is still alive and well in a number of modern bolt-action hunting rifles. But there is nothing wrong with dragging out the old guns for a whirl.

Terril fires the Kar 98 Mauser
Firing the Kar 98 from the bench.

My particular Karabiner 98k was produced in 1939 and is in excellent condition, considering it managed to survive six years in a world war intact. Most of my experience with Mauser rifles comes from pre-98 models like the Spanish 1893 and the Swedish 1896. Both of those rifles fire the efficient and pleasant 7×57 and 6.5 Swede cartridges and both are smooth to shoot. The Kar 98k fires the 8mm Mauser round, which is every bit as capable as the American 30-06—and you feel it in your shoulder. But between those old long rifles and the squat cavalry carbines then available, the short rifle that is the Kar 98 strikes the right balance of weight for recoil control, enough barrel length for a good sight radius, and not too much to be ungainly.

As with previous models, the safety, bolt manipulation, and disassembly are instinctive. The Kar 98 is loaded through the same stripper clip arrangement. All you have to do is retract the bolt, drop the clip into the guide, thumb the five rounds in with one deliberate motion, and then close the bolt. The clip falls away and your first round is chambered and ready to go.

Cycling the action on the 98k isn’t as smooth as the old pre-98 rifles, but it largely comes down to perspective. Once the striker drops, opening the bolt re-cocks it before you run the bolt rearward. It is a snag that disturbs your sights when the gun hasn’t been reloaded. The older 89s, 93s, and 96s, cock on close. With those guns, you get the snag as the striker cocks as you push the bolt forward. The older guns can be worked a little faster, but you are disturbing your sights in the moment before you need to fire. With the Kar 98, the return to chamber a round is smooth and you are right on the sights for your next shot.

Although the Kar 98k was starting to become out of place not long after it was adopted by the Wehrmacht in 1935, the design remained useful in Germany’s combined arms philosophy going into World War II—and it remains a hoot to shoot today!

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

Sign Up for Newsletter

Let us know what topics you would be interested:
© 2023 GunMag Warehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap