The German 98K shown above its English Rival, the Lee Enfield. Both weapons saw extensive use during and after the Second World War (Photo: Francis Borek)
I once wrote an article on the Finnish M39 Mosin rifle’s supremacy among front line bolt action rifles. After I wrote that article, I noticed a string of angry German profanity coming from my gun collection. I investigated the matter only to discovered my beloved Mauser Karabiner 98 Kurz cursing up a storm, determined to prove me wrong.
For the uninitiated, the Kar98k is a Mauser-made bolt-action, controlled-feed infantry rifle chambered in 8x57mm and is the basis for most bolt-action rifles in use today. Prior to World War I, the German Empire fielded the "Mauser 98 (Gewehr 98)", or rifle of 1898 until the harsh lessons of trench warfare lead them to develop a short or ‘kurz’ mode, hence its primogeniture, the Kar98k.
The Kar98k rifle went on to become the standard infantry rifle for the German military from 1935 to 1945, though it never fully replaced the full-sized Gewehr during the war, especially during the final days when the Volkssturm equipped themselves with anything that slung lead.
Modern hunting rifles heritage evidence by this Yugoslavian Mauser’s hinged floor-plate and disassembly lever. (Photo: Jim Grant)
The hard-hitting Karabiner rifles saw service in countless conflicts including World War II, the Spanish Civil War and the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, among others. Battlefield pickup rifles captured by Soviet troops were refurbished, stored away and later sent overseas to communist groups and socialist revolutions as war aid. Many rifles were taken home by American servicemen, cut down and turned into sporting rifles. While others were used by the Allies to re-arm European nations like Norway and France, whose military-industrial infrastructures were shattered by the war. Many of these nations chose to stay with these rifles for many years after the war, like France, who even built new 98k rifles with captured German machinery for their occupation forces.
Many nations who were victims of horrendous Nazi war crimes sought out these weapons as a form of both restitution and insurance they would never fall prey to such barbarity again. War-torn countries like Yugoslavia saw the vital importance of an armed resistance after partisans helped oust Axis invaders in 1944. Ironically, the very rifle design that Axis forces had used to invade barely a decade earlier, now safeguarded against it.
Newly formed Israel wound up sanitizing their rifles by removing old Nazi-era markings stamping over them with a defiant Star of David. Eventually they rechambered them to 7.62x51mm to conform to NATO standards, but not before burning up millions of surplus rounds bought from the previously occupied countries of Europe. Today several nations including Germany and Chile use the 98k for ceremonial purposes, though veteran models still find their way into global conflicts, not unlike the ubiquitous AK47.
If your Kar98K rifle includes a bayonet with these characters on it, return it if you can – it’s a Yugoslavian copy. (Photo: Jim Grant)
The Kar98k’s meticulous, quality construction betrays its old-world heritage. The semi-pistol grip laminate stock is attractively finished with boiled linseed oil and perfectly proportionate to its 24 inch barrel. Unlike its Soviet counterpart, the Mauser bolt handle is bent downward for ease of use and to minimize its silhouette. The rifle’s receiver and bolt are both machined from steel billets, and the weapon feels like it could survive another World War. Though this over-built design comes at a price, weight. The hefty Karabiner tips the scales at nine pounds, making it a poor choice for a hunting or hiking rifle.
This rifle is known as a Russian capture rifle. Meaning that sometime during or after WWII, the Soviets got their hands on this rifle. Since the quality of German rifles declined as men and materials grew scare, the Soviets undertook a massive refurbishment campaign to standardize these rifles. This is why capture models consist of a mix of mismatched serialized parts. The Soviets also refinished the rifle, originally bluing the bolt, barreled action and stock hardware – though some stock hardware was left unfinished.
One way to distinguish authentic Kar98K rifles from facsimiles is the rear leaf sight. Here a Yugoslavian M48 sight shows that, unlike a true 98k, its minimum range is 200 meters as opposed to 100. (Photo: Jim Grant)
When Soviet armorers refinished captured weapons they utilized their own domestic recipes for both metal bluing and stock finish. Leaving the barreled action and bolt with a plum-colored look and the stock an oily red shellac. This stained the already red Mauser stocks to an even deeper, almost comical color of red. Although the stock on this rifle is a laminate, solid wood examples were also used. This example was restored by removing the shellac finish and black paint from the stock’s hardware.
The front sight hood and cleaning rod shown here, are two of the most-discarded items by Russian armorers working on captured Kar98k rifles. (Photo: Jim Grant)
The mantra of Soviet Fleet Admiral, Sergey Georgiyevich Gorshkov, “Better is the enemy of good enough” was apparently not lost of Russian armorers, who discarded cleaning rods, front sight hoods and capture screws. Considered worthless by the armorers, these parts melted for scrap. It was reasoned that these rifles would be issued to emergency civilian militia whose purpose was to act as a speed bump against invading NATO forces. Thus they wouldn’t last long enough to have the need to clean their rifle, or benefit from the use of a front sight hood.
On the range the 98k is a very good shooter. The rear sight is graduated from 100-2000 meters, unlike most combat rifles of the era whose shortest sight setting is either 200 or 300 meters. This is helpful if the range you shoot at only goes out to 100 yards. The bolt is smooth to operate, and locks open on an empty magazine unless equipped with a special Yugoslavian magazine follower.
The steel buttplate featured on these rifles actually increases recoil, while the smooth, untextured surface makes it difficult to maintain control when firing. (Photo: Jim Grant)
The trigger is a heavy two-stage affair with some creep, but a crisp break. I would estimate the pull to be around eight pounds. As with most general issue infantry rifles, the triggers are made intentionally heavy to prevent accidental discharges. Using surplus 197 grain Yugoslav ammo, the Kar98k groups around two and a half inches at 100 yards. The biggest limiting factor to accuracy are the miniscule sights. Like almost all Mausers, the sights are very fine and consist of a rear sight ‘v’-notch paired with a pyramid front sight post.
As a precaution, don’t use this rifle with 197 grain Yugoslav surplus to teach a new shooter, especially if firing from a bench. The Yugo-made ammo kicks terrible and will likely turn off new shooters from returning for more, unless they’re total masochists. When introducing a shooter to Mauser rifles, try finding a softer shooting 7x57mm Spanish, or 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser. Alternatively if you handload, then whip up some mild gallery loads to get them accustomed to the sights without having to distraction of recoil.
Although these rifles have been climbing in price for the past five decades, shoppers with a keen eye will find good deals if they’re patient enough. (Photo: Francis Borek)
The Mauser 98k is one of the most famous rifles in history. Its design was the pinnacle of military bolt-action rifle development, used in thousands of conflicts across the world. It has an incredibly strong action, an attractive appearance and tac-driving performance when bedded correctly. It has been coveted the world over from German soldats on the Eastern Front to Yugoslav partisans in the Balkans and Israeli volunteers in 1948. While I still think the M39 Finnish Mosin-Nagant has the edge with iron sights, the two rifles are nearly equal in every aspect of mechanical performance.
The Kar98k loads quicker from stripper clips and has a smoother action than Finland’s Mosin rifles, but isn’t quite as accurate because each M39 features a match-grade barrel made by SAKO and comes free-floated from the factory. Now I must rethink my position on the matter, perhaps the 98k is equal to the M39 Mosin on different terms.. Every gun collection needs some sort of Mauser rifle, and you’ll do great with a 98k. After all; the only thing that can beat a fluttering heart straight, is a Mauser 98k.