Ultima Ratio Regum: My Gewehr 88

The manufacture of weapons is Man’s oldest occupation.  It is even older than Man himself, really.  The mystique and arcana of weaponry go back to our earliest beginnings: the very fact that we are the only species to develop, use, and continually refine weapons is one thing that partially qualifies us as “human” in the first place.  Other species do use tools, but no others, so far as I know, have developed a special sub-class of tools that are specifically intended as weapons.  One can argue whether this is good or bad, but an undeniable fact is that one definition of “human” could be "the animal that makes and uses weapons," and it will always be so.

I like most old technological artifacts; and I particularly like old rifles. The evolution of the rifle as a tool of fighting and hunting is intensely interesting.  The rifle is a personal weapon, unlike a bomb. It’s used by an individual or, over time, a few individuals. In the course of its working life it takes on some of the qualities of the men who designed and used it.  A rifle thus is an emblem, a symbol of something much greater. Is it possible to see a M1898 Mauser without thinking of the countless men who shivered alongside one in the trenches of the Western Front?  Of an AK-47 without having mental images of  pajama-clad VC, or turbaned mujaheddin?  Of a Garand without thinking about the Normandy landing?  Of a Winchester lever action and not a cowboy?

Current factory production rifles, even inexpensive ones, are technological marvels.  They’re fantastically accurate by any reasonable standard, outstanding examples of how a product for the mass market can embody precision manufacture and modern materials at remarkably low prices.  Custom-made guns are often works of art as well as supremely efficient weapons.

But while there are certainly many fine rifles made today, and while defining the line between “old” and “new” in a technological sense isn’t easy (most modern rifles are based on designs a century old or more) it’s undeniable that any brand-new rifle, whether it’s from the rack at Wal-Mart or a bespoke gunmaker, naturally lacks what (for want of a better word) I have to call “character.”  It has no history. It can’t have one: it’s been nowhere, done nothing, and has no memories embedded  inside its substance.  With time, any rifle can acquire a patina of age and experience, and a halo of remembrance and emotional significance: but an old rifle comes with all of that the day you bring it home.

I'll freely admit that I'm something of a mystic in this matter of what shooting and weapons represent to me, but as the horizon of my own life gets nearer, I’ve come to understand that my ownership and use of a weapon is really only part of its history.  Most of the rifles I own existed before I did; and will in time pass into other hands, taking with them a little bit of me.  Conversely, when I hold an old rifle in my hands, I am temporarily in the shadow of those who’ve handled and used it before.

The “Repetier Gewehr 1888,” is one of the significant mileposts in the development of the modern rifle.  It was designed by a committee, a German military commission seeking a replacement for their obsolescent issue rifle. It has some odd features reminiscent of other designs, and is often (quite incorrectly) called a “Model 1888 Mauser.”  It isn’t a Mauser at all and shares more features with Mannlicher’s rifles than anything else.

The Germans had been victorious in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 partly due to superior weapons, mainly the famous Dreyse “Needle Gun,” a bolt action black-powder breechloader that used a rudimentary form of self-contained ammunition.  In the 1870’s they had adopted the Mauser Model 1871, a single-shot rifle firing a large-caliber black-powder round.

Big-bore black powder rifles were the order of the day: the French used the 11mm Gras, the British the .577/.450, the Italians the 10.4x47R Vetterli, and the Americans the .45-70. The M1871 was upgraded somewhat to a repeating rifle by the addition of a tubular magazine, but the M71/84 used the same round as its predecessor.

But in 1886 the French Army upped the ante in the European arms race by introducing smokeless powder and “small bore” rifles with greater range, power, and penetration than the fat-bullet black powder rifles of the early breech-loading period.  Once the truly revolutionary 8mm Lebel cartridge was put into service, every other nation in Europe was faced with the fact that their troops would be at a serious disadvantage should a war develop.  The Germans saw the horrifying prospect of their hereditary enemies regaining the territory lost in 1871, and decided they had to do something about it.

A scramble ensued as every European nation sought to develop smokeless-powder cartridges comparable in performance to the 8mm Lebel.  The years 1886-1892 saw the birth of dozens of rounds still in use today: Italy’s 6.5x52 Carcano (1891), the .303 British (1888), the 7.5x55 Swiss (1889), and the .30-40 Krag (1892), plus many more. 

Among these developments was the famous round that the Germans introduced in the Gewehr 88: the famous “Patronen 7.92x57mm” that today we call the “8mm Mauser.”  This is one of the most successful cartridge designs in history, and is still in production 118 years after it first saw use.  It has been produced for military and sporting use in dozens of countries, used by armies on nearly every continent, and used by hunters on game of all sizes. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that someone, somewhere, has killed a whale with an 8x57mm round.

At the time of its introduction the Gew 88 was about as modern as a rifle could be, greatly superior in every way to the clunky French Lebel.  It embodied the considered thought of men who had personally “seen the elephant” and demanded the most technologically advanced weapon that could be had for their troops. 

The Gew 88 is a repeating rifle, originally designed to employ the “packet loading” system invented by Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher.  The five rounds were held together in a clip which was inserted into the top of the rifle.  When the last round was fired, the empty clip fell through a hole in the bottom of the action.  This feature made it very fast to reload, thus increasing the volume of fire an individual soldier could generate.  This was an important tactical consideration: “barrage fire” into a large area (say, an artillery park or supply train) by a large number of men firing as fast as they could served much the same tactical role as the machine gun was to play in a few more years.  Nevertheless, experience proved that the packet loading system was sub-optimal: the hole in the bottom of the action was an entry point for dirt.  This shortcoming was corrected later in the Gew 88’s development to eliminate the packet system in favor of “stripper” clips (chargers) as used by Mauser’s rifles (see below).

The bolt is more or less pure Mannlicher, with a few minor changes.  It has front locking lugs, but instead of the non-rotating extractor employed by the post 1871 Mausers, it has a rotating bolt head set forward of the locking lugs that contains the extractor.  The root of the bolt handle turns down in front of the rear portion of the receiver, hence it has a split receiver bridge, another typically Mannlicher feature.

When the Gew 88 was first introduced, the “Patronen 7.92x57mm” fired a bullet 0.318” in diameter.  In about 1903-1905 the decision was made to increase the diameter of the bullet slightly, to 0.323”, concurrent with the adoption of a new bullet shape intended for greater range and better velocity retention.  The earlier diameter came to be referred to as the “J” bore (from the German Infanterie, the J and the I being interchangeable in the German alphabet) and the larger 0.323” as the “S” bore (for Spitzgeschoss, the pointed spitzer style bullet).  Nearly all Gew 88’s were rebarreled or re-bored to accept the larger bullet and are usually marked with an “S” on the breech to indicate this conversion.

The French Lebel, whatever the virtues of the cartridge it fired, was a large, clumsy, and awkward rifle, not much more than an upgrade of the older Gras.  The Gew 88 by contrast is a sleek and well-balanced arm that carries well at the trail or on the shoulder and points naturally.  It is short enough to be used by mounted troops and later a carbine version was introduced. It has a slim and well-contoured one-piece stock, and instead of a wooden handguard, a full-length sheet metal tube that encloses the barrel. This barrel shroud gives the Gew 88 a distinctive profile, and makes it look even shorter than it really is.  In some later modifications of these rifles the barrel shroud was dispensed with, as it tended to trap moisture and cause rust, but most extant Gew 88’s in the US still have them.

The Gew 88 had a short life as a front-line issue rifle.  The Mauser M1898 replaced it less than a decade later, but Gew 88’s did see considerable combat use.  They were used by Imperial German troops in the Boxer Rebellion, and many of them were retained in inventory well after the M1898 had supplanted them as general issue; reserve units often were issued Gew 88’s instead of the newer rifles.  Many thousands of Gew 88’s were given to Germany’s World War One ally, Turkey, and almost all of the Gew 88’s seen in the USA are “Turks” with appropriate markings and some minor modifications to make them compatible with the “S” bore ammunition and stripper clips the Germans issued with the M1898 Mauser.

The modifications consisted of adding to the rear of the receiver two metal blocks in which grooves are milled to use with 5-round chargers; filling in part of the space in the magazine well with sheet steel to narrow it, and inletting a spring-loaded retainer clip to hold the cartridges against the magazine spring’s pressure.  A notch was milled in the breech face to provide clearance for the nose of the spitzer bullet. Rifles with an “S” bore and these changes were designated as “Gewehr 88/05,” to indicate the year of the conversion.  A later variant, the “88/14” differs in that the magazine well is modified by riveting a metal stripper clip into it.  In both variants the hole in the bottom of the magazine is covered, usually with a sheet metal cap that snaps into place.

Some years ago I had come into possession of a “Turk” 88/14, and liked it; but it didn’t quite fit in with my collecting interests of that time, and I swapped it off for a couple of Lee-Enfield rifles.  I got much the better end of that deal but somehow I always regretted having done it.  A couple of months back a Gew 88 in good condition popped up on Auction Arms, and I took a long hard look at it.

Now, the Gew 88 has one significant advantage to a US shooter and collector: any gun made before the arbitrary date of 1 January 1899, is not covered by the Gun Control Act of 1968 and its administrative regulations.  It is specifically defined as an “antique” and exempt from all controls at the Federal level and in almost all states.  Such guns are legally non-“firearms” as the law defines the latter and can be freely sent to anyone across state lines.  Since an on-line purchase usually requires a dealer to take possession and do the miscellaneous paperwork for the transfer, being able to legally avoid the dealer’s charge would save me about $25.00 on the deal.

Unfortunately the seller was insisting on shipping to a dealer.  There are some people like that: sometimes they’re ignorant of the law, and sometimes they know it, but still insist on having a licensee receive an exempt gun because they are so intimidated by the BATF and its Gestapo tactics that they don’t want to risk having their business shut down, their door kicked in, and their dog shot by goon squads in body armor.

I contacted the seller and explained the law to him; and told him that I was interested enough in the rifle to buy it, but that I categorically refused to do needless paperwork on a legal antique that he knew quite well didn’t require it.  Fortunately this seller was a gentleman, and immediately changed the wording in his auction.  I promptly hit the “Buy It Now!” button, and the deed was done.

I had a pretty good impression of the condition from the pictures and description he’d posted, and based on his actions I figured I was dealing with an honest man.  But when the gun arrived I realized that I got far more than I had bargained for.  For one thing, he sent it in a padded hard gun case worth half of what I paid him as a shipping charge; the postage was greater than the other half, so he took a loss on shipping.  But the real surprise was the gun itself.

Most Gew 88’s have been “rode hard and put up wet”  during their long lives.  This one was a bit dusty, and had clearly seen service, but it had been well cared for. It was made at the Imperial German Arsenal in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) in 1890, and modified to the 88/05 configuration at Spandau in 1905 or so.  It’s a “Turk,” and has the Crescent of the Prophet and a few Arabic numerals on it, but far fewer such markings than most “Turks” I’ve seen have carried.

I stripped it down and found to my delight that aside from a few bits of hardened crud in the barrel channel and the recesses of the action inletting, it had been properly degreased, and the stock was completely sound.  No wormholes, no cracks, no repairs, nothing but honest wear at the high points.  It had a beautiful tiger-striped piece of wood that would have been suitable for a high-grade sporter, let alone a military rifle.  The barrel shroud was not only possessed of 100% of its bluing (probably an arsenal job at overhaul, but it might be original) inside it there was nary a speck of rust.  The shrouds are almost always dented from rough handling and pitted inside, but this one was in perfect shape.  The barrel underneath had tool marks but no rust.  The  perfectly fitted charger guides and magazine well fill-in indicated the work was done by a real craftsman who wasn’t in a hurry:  the modifications show a far higher level of craftsmanship than the sometimes rough work done during the Great War.  The rear sight is a beautiful piece of machining, with an elegant knurled spring-loaded elevation slider.  Markings on the barrel band indicate this was Rifle #199 issued to Company 6 of the 65th Infantry Regiment.  This was the Rheinisches Infanterie-Regiment (Rhine Infantry Regiment) from the city of Cöln (Cologne), part of the IX Army Corps. This unit was created on May 5, 1860, along with several others.

The bore isn’t pristine, but nearly so: no pitting, no frosting, sharp and clear rifling.  The toolmarks on the outside prove it’s a replacement barrel, not an old 0.318” barrel that had been re-rifled.  It has the correct “S” stamp on the breech and I slugged the barrel at exactly 0.323” groove diameter.  For a 116-year old military rifle, it was in remarkably good condition, far better than my old one had been; and after a thorough disassembly and cleaning, and a quick coat of oil on the stock, it was even better.  Needless to say I was itching to shoot it.

The Gew 88 was a thoroughbred in its day, but it’s a far weaker action than the M1898 Mauser is, and it isn’t advisable to shoot really hot loads in it.  The post-WW Two military surplus ammunition sold on the US market is loaded to pressure levels that approach the proof pressure for these guns, and I was reluctant to risk damage to it from shooting any of that.  Luckily, although 8x57mm Mauser sporting ammunition isn’t very common in southwestern Virginia, I was able to snaffle the last two boxes at Blacksburg Feed & Seed.  These were Remington’s Express brand, with a 170-grain Core-Lokt bullet.  It was pricey, but I can reload it, which lessened the pain somewhat.  The Remington load is about like a .303 British or a .30-40 Krag, perfectly adequate for hunting anything around here should I choose to do so.  In Europe the 8x57 is loaded more to the level of the .30-06, too stiff for the Gew 88.

I had it out at the club range on Memorial Day.  I wasn’t expecting much: military issue rifles at the turn of the 20th Century were considered accurate if they could hold 5 MOA.  My Gew 88 can do a little bit better than that with the Remington ammunition.  After checking the sight alignment (windage was dead center, after more than a century!) I found it no trick to hit rocks the size of a deer’s chest 200 yards off using the battle sights.  In the future I’ll likely load cast bullets at moderate velocities for it: no need to stress the old lady unduly.  I don’t think I’ll hunt with it much, if at all.  I’ll put  a few hundred rounds through it and it will then go into semi-retirement (again) as part of my collection.

When this rifle was made my great-grandfather was in his 20’s, the Republic of Italy in which he lived had existed less than 40 years, Kaiser Wilhelm II was on the Imperial German throne, and Otto von Bismarck was directing the German ship of state.  The French were still seething over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and the vast bloodletting of the Great War was a quarter century in the future.  Every man who designed it, built it, modified it, and used it in anger is now dust; but some part of them all live in its soul, if an inanimate machine can be said to have such a thing. 

It was the pinnacle of the engineer’s profession and the machinist’s craftsmanship when it first saw the light of day. Many people would be horrified at the notion, but a macabre beauty and some very human qualities are inherent in an object such as this, thanks to the intelligence and intent with which iron ore and lumber were transmuted into a graceful, elegant, and supremely efficient killing machine.  Only men—moreover, only brilliant, dedicated men, men with both aggression and pride in their species’ heritage—could have fashioned a tool so precise as to intentionally fling Death over a quarter-mile distance at the touch of a finger.  Today we have the technology to do that en masse, but it’s worth remembering that far, far, more people have been killed with rifles than ever were (and perhaps ever will be) killed with “weapons of mass destruction.”

Ultima ratio regis: where my rifle was used, and against whom, and why, of course I have no idea. But I have no doubt that in its long life it has been used to “make a point” more than once.  Perhaps it sent some Englishman home from Gallipoli with a “Blighty wound,” or in a coffin.  Perhaps it spat death through the flames that consumed Musa Dagh.  Maybe it was used to defend the German “special enclave” in Peking against the howling hordes of Boxer rebels.  Who knows?  Not I: but I do know that the thread of its existence is still strong, and barring some catastrophe (natural or political) it will, after my death, continue to delight, frighten, kill, or—more gently, now that it’s old—provide sustenance to someone else.  Whatever came with it into my hands will be passed along; and some little piece of me will go with it.  This Gew 88 isn’t going to get away from me.