Paul Mauser
1838 - 1914

In the world of small arms design and manufacturing, a small number of individuals have had a disproportionately large impact on the aesthetics, philosophy, and engineering of the world's various guns. Some names are more familiar than others: Mikhail Kalashnikov, John Moses Browning, and Samuel Colt all come to mind. Less known by name (but no less significant) are Eugene Stoner, Dieudonné Saive, and the main subject of this write-up, Paul Mauser. Along with his older brother Wilhelm (1834-1882), Paul Mauser essentially created the idea of the bolt action rifle, and the basic bolt design they formulated in 1871 remains the standard for guns of that type even to this day; there are very few mechanisms in existence that have stayed more or less unchanged for more than 140 years, but the Mauser-style bolt is one of them.

The Mauser brothers were born in Oberndorf am Neckar in what was then the Kingdom of Württemberg, a constituent part of the German Confederation. Their father was a gunsmith at the Royal Rifle Factory in Oberndorf and he made it a point to teach his children his skill. One reason for this was purely economical: the senior Mauser supplemented his income by hand-making bullets and paper cartridges and needed the help of his sons to produce them in sufficient quantities to make a profit. At the age of 14 (the youngest of 13 children), Paul Mauser became an apprentice at the Royal Rifle Factory, following in his brother's footsteps. By 1860, Paul and Wilhelm had their first working prototype of a weapon: a breech loading cannon that would go on to be sold to King of Württemberg for his own personal collection. While not adopted for service or produced in quantity, this initial (and very prestigious) sale gave the Mauser brothers the confidence they needed to begin serious work on their next weapons.

In the middle of the 19th century, most infantry rifles in Europe fell into one of two categories: muzzle loaders or needle guns. By this time, it was recognized that muzzle-loaders were somewhat antiquated: they're basically small cannons where the gunpowder and the bullet are loaded into the gun through the front of the barrel and then ejected out. Generally speaking, these types of rifles take an enormous amount of time and precision to load since too much powder can cause the weapon to violently explode and too little can cause the projectile to either get stuck in the barrel or simply fall out onto the ground. Needle guns were something of an improvement since they were breech-loaders, meaning that the projectile would be loaded into the rear of the barrel. The projectiles in question were bullets like the type Paul Mauser's father made at home: metal bullets wrapped in paper cartridges with gunpowder and an explosive primer packed tightly in the middle. The reason they were called "needle guns" was because once they were loaded and cocked, pulling the trigger of the gun would cause the sharp firing pin to pierce the paper cartridge and strike the primer, causing the bullet to fly out. While this design was certainly a step above the muzzle loader, it was not without problems.

While it took significantly less time to load and fire a needle gun, they were prone to failure. It's not hard to see why: the mechanism that made the gun work was constantly being subjected to and surrounded by explosions. Over time, the firing pin would either corrode from the constant presence of the gunpowder around it or simply blow up after repeated strikes to the primers. While the needle gun was a huge step forward in the development of the bolt-action rifle, its primitive bolt had no forward safety feature, meaning that there was little more than a complex system of hopes and dreams holding it in place; an over-packed cartridge could theoretically cause a backfiring of the bolt into the user's face. While it's doubtful that this in itself could have killed anyone, it would certainly have been uncomfortable and could have exposed the shooter to enemy fire. Paul Mauser would write in his diary in 1858 that after having handled a needle gun for the first time during his mandatory military service, he knew almost immediately that he could make a better and safer rifle.

In 1865, the Mauser brothers created a somewhat improved version of the standard-issue Prussian needle gun (called the Dreyse after its inventor) but met with no success in selling it to any of Europe's military forces. By a strange stroke of luck, one of Paul's older brothers had taken a job at a Remington factory and had told his supervisor, Samuel Norris, about his brother's design. Seeing the potential in the Mauser needle gun, Norris in 1868 acquired an American patent for the weapon and was given exclusive rights to sell the gun worldwide. The main advantage that the Mauser-Norris (as it is called since Norris added his own name to the patent application) had over other needle guns was that it used metallic cartridges rather than paper ones. While the rounds were initially more expensive to produce, they reduced the almost constant need to replace the firing pin of other needle guns and the brass casings from the spent bullets could be reused to make new rounds. Obviously, metallic cartridges are also more reliable and safer than paper ones.

While the Mauser-Norris was ahead of its time, it was not a huge success. Samuel Norris had Paul Mauser demonstrate the rifle to the Prussian military in 1870, and while it was positively received, it was not purchased at that time since the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War didn't exactly permit the sudden and widespread manufacture and adoption of a new standard-issue infantry rifle. After the end of the war in 1871, the Prussian military leadership realized that the needle gun was obsolete and inefficient, and so trials were again held for a replacement weapon. Paul Mauser tweaked the earlier design, reducing the bullet caliber from 14mm to 11mm (as an aside, this is still huge compared to modern military rounds) and installed a locking lug at the front of the casing of the firing pin to hold it in place once the gun was cocked, preventing both corrosion to the pin and unintended blowback of the bolt.

In 1872, Paul Mauser's redesigned gun was finally accepted by the military of the new German Empire, the production rights for which were purchased for a fairly nice sum: 12,000 thaler, which in today's currency would be roughly $1.3 million. Unfortunately, due to the agreement with Norris, Paul and Wilhelm only received about 15% of this as the remaining 85% went directly to their American partner. As if that weren't bad enough, the new rifle -- called the Gewehr 71, meaning Rifle Model 1871 -- was determined to be a state secret for the next ten years and therefore could not be sold to any entity other than the military of the German Empire. Finally, and perhaps most discouraging, the contract to produce the rifle was not awarded to the fledgling Mauser company, but rather to the official government armory. As a small concession, the Mauser company was contracted to continue producing the rifle's sights, but this was far from the huge monetary success that Paul Mauser had been hoping for.

Fortuitously, an order for 100,000 Gewehr 71 sights was placed, and the Mauser brothers were able to use the money from the order to build their own factory and increase production. By this time, Paul and Wilhelm had fallen into fairly consistent roles in the organization, with Paul acting as the chief designer and Wilhelm playing the part of the traveling salesman. While Wilhelm was by no means an incompetent gunsmith, Paul was certainly the more capable of the two. Likewise, Wilhelm was a significantly more gifted businessman, as events would prove later on.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and 1878, the importance of fast reloading was demonstrated when a group of Ottoman soldiers -- who were outnumbered more than two-to-one -- annihilated their Russian opponents at Pleven, Bulgaria, with their Winchester lever action repeating rifles. Up to that point, these guns had been primarily used by Americans for hunting, but the military application soon became evident. Even though the Russians and their allies eventually proved victorious in the war, the bar had been raised, and Mauser was required to rise to the occasion and meet the expectations of their patrons in this rapidly-evolving arms race. Like all non-repeating rifles, the Gewehr 71 was a single-shot gun (meaning that only one round could be in the gun at any time) and it was due for an update. In 1881, the exclusivity provision (as well as Samuel Norris' royalty agreement) for the rights to the Gewehr 71 expired and Paul Mauser redesigned it to accomodate eight rounds in a tubular magazine similar to the one utilized by most Winchester repeating rifles. In 1882, however, tragedy struck and Wilhelm Mauser died unexpectedly.

Paul Mauser was now both the head engineer and the public face of the Mauser company, and although it was difficult balancing the two jobs, he did well for himself at first. His redesigned Gewehr 71 was accepted for use by the German military in 1884 and was now called the Gewehr 71/84. Things took an unfortunate turn for Paul Mauser, however, with the advent of smokeless powder in cartridge design. The main advantage of smokeless powder compared to the older style black powder utilized by all previous guns was that it took less of it to propel a smaller projectile an equivalent distance with an equal amount of force. Mauser lost the contract for the Gewehr 71/84 after only 4 years to Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken (German Weapons and Munitions Manufacturer, usually abbreviated as DWM), the largest weapons conglomerate in Germany, and the company with the closest thing to a monopoly on the arms industry in that country. DWM was like the Microsoft of German small arms manufacturing at the time: they would copy existing designs and claim them as their own and buy out other companies for the sole purpose of rendering them unable to compete. Indeed, the 71/84 was produced largely by DWM, something which galled Paul Mauser greatly, since he had by that time been able to purchase the Royal Rifle Factory at which he and his brother and father had worked.

DWM produced the Gewehr 88, which was smaller and lighter than the 71/84 and was capable of firing the newly created smokeless powder rounds. There were, however, two main problems with the Gewehr 88. First, it was proven to be significantly less reliable than the 71/84 and many soldiers in turn refused to use the new weapon, preferring instead the superficially less efficient Mauser design. Second, the design for the Gewehr 88 was basically stolen from the Austrian weapons manufacturer Stey Mannlicher, which resulted in an embarrassing lawsuit with the main outcome being the lion's share of production contracts being sold to the foreign company. This was especially precarious because German-Austrian relations were not particularly warm at this time.

With no German contracts forthcoming, Paul Mauser went to the workbench and designed a handful of rifles meant for the foreign market. Contracts were established with Belgium in 1889, the Ottoman Empire in 1890, and Argentina in 1891 for localized versions of a new carbine-style 71/84. Basically, this involved licensing the gun out and rechambering it for the locally-preferred cartridge. In 1893, Paul Mauser designed a new bullet, the 7x57mm, for use in a carbine ordered by the government of Spain known as the Modelo 93 or the Spanish Mauser. The main advantage of this smaller round was that it accomodated the new magazine for the Modelo 93, which used a staggered configuration to ensure easier loading. The Ottomans ordered a similar gun the same year with a slightly larger round also developed by Paul Mauser, the 7.65x53mm. Another innovation he created around this time was the stripper clip, a ridiculously simple idea that sped up reloading immensely. The stripper clip is nothing more than a thin piece of metal with bent edges that holds five bullets by the end of their cartridges. All of these rifles had a small indention in the top of the receiver where the stripper clip would fit in. Once in place, the user would simply press down on the top bullet to load all five at once and then remove the clip. Major contracts were signed with countries such as Mexico, Sweden, and the Orange Free State not long afterwards. In the latter case, the Model 95 was used with such effectiveness by the Boers against the British that Ben Viljoen, the leader of the rebel Boer army, implored his countrymen to "put your faith in God and the Mauser." There was even talk of a Mauser rifle becoming the main infantry weapon for the United States Army, and a version of the Modelo 93 (which US soldiers would encounter during the Spanish-American War) was entered into a trial for the replacement of the outdated Krag rifle. Paul was finally seeing the success that his father had wanted for him and that even his immensely talented brother had failed to gain.

Unfortunately, in 1896, he made a mistake that would have major ramifications on his company. He and his assistant Friedrich Feederle designed a semi-automatic pistol called the C96, popularly known as the "broomhandle Mauser" because of its unique grip that resembles, well, a broomhandle. It was a 10-round pistol, which was significantly better than the standard six-round revolvers of the day. It was ugly as hell, too, but it worked. Both Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence would use C96s in combat in the Middle East. He even presented the gun to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had a problem firing it because of his withered left arm. Without thinking, Feederle grabbed the Kaiser's good hand and repositioned his fingers around the grip to the horror of both Paul Mauser and the Emperor's retinue. However, he graciously accepted this help and enjoyed shooting it. Since militaries were at this time did not really see a need to replace their revolvers, he decided to sell it directly to the civilian market. DWM, which had a significantly wider distribution network, offered to help him in this endeavor. Apprently, he thought he was getting a really favorable business loan, but it actually amounted to a takeover and the Mauser company inadvertantly became a subsidiary of DWM. He was left in place as chief engineer, but he was no longer his own boss. As an amusing aside, a painted and modified C96 would also go on to be the gun that Han Solo used in the Star Wars films.

The culmination of Paul Mauser's life work came in 1898 with his best and most revered design, the Gewehr 98. This elegant rifle fired the 8x57mm round and represented the perfected Mauser action. The bolt for the Gewehr 98 featured two locking lugs at the front of the bolt to reinforce it as well as a redesigned safety selector. It outperformed DWM's Gewehr 88 in every way and was accepted for use as the standard issue German infantry rifle that year. This gun is significant because this is the one from which almost all modern bolt action weapons derive their design and is what is meant by the term "Mauser action." Both licensed and unlicensed copies of the Gewehr 98 were produced in almost every country in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a testament to the ubiquity of the design that when Nazi Germany invaded countries like Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia during World War II, the weapons factories were filled with presses and tools for the Gewehr 98 and its somewhat shortened successor, the Karabiner 98k to the extent that the Germans were able to rearm themselves as they advanced with almost zero difficulty. The fact that the Gewehr 98 was in service from 1898 to 1945 -- almost half a century -- should also say something about the regard in which it was held.

In 1903, the United States introduced the M1903 Springfield as its standard issue infantry rifle. It bears such a remarkable resemblance both physically and in its method of operation to the Gewehr 98 that upon seeing it for the first time, Mauser demanded that the Springfield Armory pay him for the licensing of it. He was informed that he was welcome to try to take the matter to court, but other events would prevent this from occurring.

At some point, Paul Mauser realized that semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons were the way of the future. He created several designs for automatic rifles, but he could never get it right. One prototype he built actually exploded in his hands, sending shrapnel into his left eye and requiring him to wear a glass one for the rest of his life. Ironically, Mauser died in May of 1914, less than two months before his crowning achievement of design would be sent into the field on the largest possible scale in World War I. While perhaps Paul Mauser was not as prolific a designer as John Browning, the impact of his rifles on gun design is still being felt to this day. Properly maintained Mausers (especially 98s and their variants) are as accurate and reliable today as they were when they were originally made. They can command a princely sum as well, especially pre-WWI Gewehrs. After World War II, 98s were brought back to the US in such large quantities that they were routinely sold for $10 to $20 a piece and modified into effective hunting rifles. All major commercial gun manufacturers still use Mauser style bolts in their bolt action rifles; no other design has proven itself to be as reliable and effective as this one that has been around for more than a century.

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