The Traditional German Rifle – A Mountain Rifle Ahead of Its Time
“I can’t believe I walked away from that rifle”, I muttered as I hung my head in shame. “What was I thinking?” My dad’s only response was a long drawn out, “yup…it was sure nice”, as he pilfered around in the gun vault, his back to mine. This meeting of the minds was our typical post gun show debriefing, taking place in his gunsmithing shop on a Sunday afternoon. We discussed the various merits of items we had seen, purchased, sold, or traded at the show. Or in my case… walked away from.
The object of my self-loathing (and complete brain-fart) was a svelte little vintage German rifle. It had everything I liked in a rifle. A Mauser 98 adorned in blued steel and fine walnut. Its stock had an open and trim grip with an English style cheekpiece. No sling swivel hung from its forearm – instead, it hung gracefully from the barrel, a couple of inches ahead of the stylized stock schnabel. The front sight was gracefully hooded. Light in weight, but with a full length 24” barrel of minimal profile, its balance could best be described as perfection. To add salt to my wound, I should mention that it was also topped with a 1960s-era Hensoldt. The 4X optic had a simple post reticle, and was mated to the rifle by claw mounts. It was completely devoid of engraving – its beauty lied instead with its handling qualities. Just like so many vintage sporting rifles that were made for something besides just shooting off the bench, this rifle handled amazingly well. This was a gun that begged to be taken out and put to use.
I was just out of college when I stumbled across it at a gun show in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had the $650 for the asking price, but I also had an engagement ring purchased for my fiancée and an upcoming marriage to attend to. I deliberated (on the rifle, not my marriage) for more than a little while before walking away from that rifle. As is usually the case, over-thinking will get you in trouble.
Luckily for me, my much wiser father (and still married to the same woman I might add) came out of the gun vault with the results of his pilfering. “You’re right, it was too good to pass up”, as he smiled and handed me the rifle. “Don’t worry, you can pay me later… and the guy took a lot less that then asking price!”
A Little History
"What was I thinking?!"
Made during the early 50s its caliber is, oddly, .30-06 rather than one of the typical Bavarian metric options. Also, some of the styling cues are more subdued than what may be found on other Teutonic rifles. It is marked “WAFFEN-BENNEWITZ – KAISERSLAUTERN”. Waffen-Bennewitz would be the maker, or more likely the retailer. Kaiserslautern would be the town in southwest Germany it called home. It’s actually quite fitting that such an elegant hunting rifle would call a city near one of the largest contiguous forests in Central Europe home – the Palatinate Forest (Pfälzer Wald)
. In fact, this town received its name from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who had a favorite hunting retreat in the area. Needless to say, the locals probably knew a thing or two about the merits that make a good firearm.
Now, fast forward to 1952 when post-war construction of garrisons for American troops began near Kaiserslautern and we may have an explanation for the .30-06 chambering and the subdued Teutonic styling. It would have been a much more interesting purchase for an American GI stationed there than a metric chamber, and no doubt the local craftsmen wanted to capitalize in the post-war economics of the day.
I grew up handloading for “one rifle, one load”, but when it comes to the .30-06 something had to give. Many years ago we decided to standardize our load for this cartridge due to the many rifles we have lying around in the chambering. The approach was simple really: find a load that would function flawlessly in the majority of our .30-06 rifles and deliver something more than satisfactory accuracy. We eventually landed on 165-grain Remington Core-Lokts, pushed along at 2,600 fps by 49.5 grains of IMR 4064. Cases are Remington and the load is ignited by Remington large rifle primers. The projectile was chosen as a balance of performance and cost. While I am certainly an advocate of premium bullets, the relative low cost of cup and core bullets means that I tend to get out and practice a lot more. This load continues to provide more than satisfactory results in every “ought six” we’ve tried it in, both on paper and on whitetails.
A typical 3-shot group
Typical accuracy from this gun hovers around 2.5 to 3 inches at 100 yards. Now that may not sound like much to write home about, but let me discuss this a bit further. First, that’s 3 shots, back-to-back out of a very thin contoured barrel. Keep in mind, overall weight of this rifle is 6 3/4 lbs with the optic mounted and the sling attached. Second, that 4x Hensoldt simply wasn’t designed for shooting nice little cloverleaf groups on paper. A post reticle just wasn’t made for precision work. It prefers targets with fur, rather than paper. None of this is to infer an excuse of any type; it’s quite the opposite. Where a low power post shines; however, is making rapid first shot hits on targets – which just so happens to be a quality I find highly desirable in a hunting rifle. There are also the low light advantages offered by that big bold post. It’s quite easy to pick out during the early morning, late evening, and in heavily wooded areas. And finally, there is the advantage of easily locating and placing the reticle on a running target.
Now, I enjoy accurate rifles that shoot 3 shots touching as much as the next gun guy. I enjoy testing my reloading skills to determine the most accurate load. I enjoy and appreciate the necessary skill and the work it takes to wring that out of a rifle, but there is so much more to rifles and shooting than punching closely spaced holes in paper from a bench. This gun seems to call you away from the comforts of the bench and the sandbags… and I obliged…
After shooting for groups and sighting in I abandoned the bench (and won’t be looking back). From a standing position it was quite easy to place hits on the 11.5”x 8” steel plate hanging at 100 yards. In fact, it was quite mundane. Backing up to 200 yards and sitting down with my elbows stretched out properly in front of my knees I was consistently rewarded with the pleasing gong sound from the steel plate. The results were the same for the shots I took leaning up against a tree or over my pack duplicating various field positions. The combination of low magnification and a post reticle eliminated the wobble effect associated with the all too common tendency to turn up variable power scopes to their highest magnification, and also allowed for rapid follow-up shots. It appears that the rifle didn’t care a thing about the fact it couldn’t punch tiny holes on paper. This rifle delivered.
Meat in the Freezer
More at home in the woods than at the bench
Recently, this rifle accompanied me for the first hunt of our deer season. I was positioned at the edge of a large field atop a high ridge. It was does only during this early hunt, and I spotted a group of 8 running up the side of the clearing on the ridge. As they slowed, I placed the post on the lead doe and waited, hoping she would slow down a bit more – but it was apparent that something had already spooked them, and they had no intentions of slowing their gait. At 225 yards, I took up the slack on the original two-stage Mauser trigger. Placing the top of the post reticle right on her shoulder and 1/3 up from the bottom, I squeezed off the shot. The sharp crack of the rifle prompted the doe to shift gears into warp speed. I had already worked the bolt back as I absorbed the recoil of the rifle. Keeping both eyes open to track my now faster moving target, I simply continued to return the bolt home, replaced my cheek to the stock and superimposed the post about a hands width in front of her shoulder. I squeezed the trigger for a second time a fraction of a second before she entered the wood line. From start to finish, it couldn’t have been over 2.5 seconds.
I walked to the place where I saw her enter the wood line, and I couldn’t help but let those negative thoughts creep into my head. The way she had picked up speed it was like I had cleanly missed her. As I reached the edge of the field, however, my fears were relieved. I found her about 30 yards into the woods with two holes, 5 inches apart, both bisecting the vitals.
Light weight. Impressive handling qualities. Practical accuracy. This is all typical of what you will likely find in these so called German “guild guns”. If you look around at gun shows you can typically find them ranging in price from $450 to $1500, with examples from the better known makers such as Mauser, J.P. Sauer, or Otto Geyger going for much higher. Still, they represent a bargain in the realm of custom rifles these days.
These rifles usually show outstanding quality and craftsmanship. They were built by men who not only knew how to make a quality sporting rifle, but who also knew a lot about the necessary qualities to be found in a gun that would be carried afield, often in mountainous or alpine terrain. I find it odd that today’s makers of “mountain rifles” exhort the use of titanium, synthetic materials, and the latest technology to build rifles of similar weight and accuracy. Light weight, accurate rifles were made out of steel and walnut for well over 100 years before the concept of the modern mountain rifle was born.