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8mm Mauser ... Europe's .30-06.

The 8mm Mauser is to Germany what the .30-06 Springfield is to the United States; namely, the transitional caliber that not only brought our respective countries into the smokeless powder age, but saw both nations through two world wars. Also, each became the sporting cartridge of its country, the one against which all newcomers were judged. Understandably, much has been written here regarding our own .30-06 but only rarely is the 8mm Mauser and the tremendous influence it had on the development of our martial cartridges ever given its just due.

The 8mm is but one of several cartridges designed by the reown firearms genius, Peter Paul Mauser. Most of the other Mauser-designed cartridges were devised to satisfy specific requirements of the many countries which contracted the famous manufacturing firm to supply them with shoulder arms in the late 19th century. It was a time of such rapid advancement in firearms technology that at least a nodding familiarity with it is vital to the understanding of how the smokeless powder era came to be and how it so greatly influenced world politics. It was a time when the quantum leap from muzzle-loading black powder arms to modern repeating rifles spanned a mere three decades.

Imagine the anxiety and frustration of the military minds of the day as the world entered the 1870s. Here in America we had just gotten over a bloody civil war, so the usual incentive for rapid firearms development was lacking. Yet our progress was no less rapid or spectacular than in Europe. But "over there" the atmosphere was quite different; it was a simmering cauldron of feverish nationalism, arbitrary alliances and bickering monarchies glaring across borders at one another. Advancements in arms technology were coming so fast as to nurture indecision. Each country wanted the state-of-the-art rifle for its army, yet the prospect of waiting perhaps 6 months might allow some new design to surface that would provide that critical performance edge.

The 1870s, then, saw every European power, and would-be power, rush to adopt some form of breech-loading rifle firing a self-contained metallic cartridge. Enter the Mauser brothers of the German state of Wurttemberg. Paul was the gunsmith/inventor, Wilhelm the businessman.

Paul's energy was directed toward developing a cartridge rifle loosely based on the bolt-action principle of the Dreyse needle gun which, at the time, was the standard arm of the German states. His work culminated in the form of the Model 1871 Mauser, a single-shot turnbolt rifle that was adopted first by Prussia, then soon by the other German states.

The 11mm cartridge Mauser designed for the '71 was the first of many he would father over the next 35 until his death in 1914. The 11mm Mauser (or 11.15 x 60R, or .43 Mauser) was a Berdan-primed centerfire. Loaded with 77 grains of black powder it propelled its 386-grain paper-patched lead bullet at approximately 1,435 feet per second (fps) from the 33-1/2-inch barrel of the standard issue rifle. As such, the 11mm Mauser cartridge was similar in size and performance to that of other weapons of the day: the 11mm Dutch Beaumont, France's 11mm Chassepot, Italy's 10.4mm Vetterli, Russian and Bulgarian Berdan .42s, and so on.

By the early 1880s many of Europe's military powers had repeating rifles. Mauser answered the challenge by refining a practical conversion of the Model 71 single shot into an under-barrel eight-shot tubular-magazine repeater. Designated the model 71/84, the action was updated but remained the basic '71 firing the same 11mm cartridge.

But even before the rearming of the German Army with the 71/84 rifle was completed, in 1886 France stunned the world with its 8mm Lebel. Suddenly, every other army on earth was holding obsolete ordnance. The three-phase rush from breech-loaders, to cartridge rifles, to repeaters that had occurred over the previous quarter century had been all for naught.

The 8mm Lebel was the first bottle-necked, smallbore smokeless powder cartridge to be adopted by a major power. It was physically smaller and lighter than its contemporaries, allowing the soldier to carry more ammo in less space. Its charge of smokeless powder sent a more streamlined jacketed bullet of 232 grains roughly 600 fps faster than anything else beng used at the time. The trajectory was decidedly flatter, hence the effective, was well as maximum ranges, were greatly increased. Gone were the plumes of smoke to betray positions and obscure targets.

By 1887 Waffenfabrik Mauser was an extremely successful company, but that success came primarily from building rifles for sale to other countries, not to the German States. Relatively few of the Model 71s and 71/84s were produced at Oberndorf; most were manufactured at the German government arsenals at Erfurt, Danzig, Spandau and Amburg. So busy were the Mauser brothers with foreign contracts--including a huge 500,000 gun order from Turkey in 1887--Paul Mauser was largely ignored when the Rifle Testing Commission at Spandau began work on a new smokeless powder rifle to replace the 71/84 arm. The Commission wanted the "packet loading" magazine developed by the Austrian, Ritter Ferdinand von Mannlicher. The result was the Commission Model 88, a rifle combining the basic trigger, firing mechanism and safety of the early Mauser black powder designs, but with dual-opposed locking lugs at the front of the bolt a la Lebel, and a Mannlicher-style, clip-fed magazine.

Another item borrowed from Mauser for the 88 Commission rifle was the small matter of the cartridge itself: the 7.9mm Model 88, also known as the 7.9x57, or 8x57, or 8mm Mauser. Gone was the rim and peculiar beveled base characteristic of earlier Nauser black powder cartridges; in its place, a rimless one with an extraction groove cut into the head. Instead of head-spacing on the protruding rim, the abrupt 20-degree shoulder angle provided the forward surface for this critical dimension. Mauser popularized but was not the originator of the rimless case; he borrowed the idea from the same Swiss Army officer who had perfected the metal-jacketed bullet that was no necessary with the higher velocities imparted by smokeless powder--Colonel Rubin.

For all intents and purposes the 7.9mm as used in the '88 Commission rifle typified the rimless centerfire cartridges that have endured to the present day. Having no protruding rim it would provide smoother, more reliable feeding in the box magazine rifles that soon appeared after 1888. As Paul Mauser saw it, the Mannlicher clip system adopted in the Commission rifle had another serious drawback: the sheet metal clip that held the five-round group of cartridge was actually inserted into, and became part of, the rifle. It was only after the last, or fifth cartridge, was stripped that the clip fell out through the open bottom of the magazine mortise allowing the rifle to be reloaded with a fresh clip. In the military-rifle context, the inability to fill or "top-up" a magazine at any time was considered a critical disadvantage.

It is ironic that, having been pretty much ignored by the German government in the development of his country's first modern-era rifle, Paul Mauser's latest design, the Model 1889, was adopted by Belgium the following year. Without question the '89 was superior to the rifle adopted by his own country. Not only was the basic design simpler and stronger, it incorporated Mauser's alternative to the Mannlicher clip system. Instead of a clip, per se, which became part of the magazine, the '89 used a "charger", a metal strip which held the five cartridges together in a line. With either end of the clip placed into the slot atop the receiver bridge, downward thumb pressure pushed the five cartridges out of the stripper and into the single-column magazine. The protruding stripper was then tossed clear when the bolt was pushed forward to load the first round. Moreover, a partially full magazine could be topped up at any time by thumbing in individual rounds. For the 1889, Mauser developed a .60 caliber version of his 8mm cartridge. Like all Mauser cartridges, it was based on the 8x57 case but shortened by 4mm to 53mm and necked down a bit to 7.65 or roughly .30 caliber (.311-.312). Belgium was the first of several nations to adopt the 7.65x53 Mauser, the others being Turkey, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru. The 7.65's 211-grain round-nosed bullet at approximately 2,400 fps closely approximated performance of our own .30-40 Krag adopted in 1892.

The Model 89 represented the first modenr-era rifle of Mauser design. Yet upon its adoption by Belgium, the manufacturing rights were also purchased. Consequently, no 1889s were ever manufactured at Oberndorf. The basic design was so good that Mauser kept modifying and improving it over the next 9 years and selling the result to many countries around the world. Simply stated, it was a period during which Germany watched one of its most illustrious native sons designing, building and selling to other nations guns superior to its own '88 Commission rifle. Finally, in 1898, after seeing Paul Mauser's ultimate, definitive development of the manual turnbolt action in the form of the Model 98, it was adopted by the German government, along with the same 7.9x57 round used previously in the '88 Commission rifle. During the transition, the 8mm Mauser cartridge remained virtually the same as when first adopted 10 years earlier, i.e., it retained the same .318 diameter, 227-grain round-nosed bullet. Nominal muzzle velocity was 2,035 fps from a 29-inch barrel.

The only substantive change in the original 8mm cartridge came in 1904. The new 98' action proved so strong and safe that ballistics could be improved upon by loading to higher pressures than the nominal 39,000 psi established for the Commission rifle. However, raising pressure reduced barrel life substantially because the relatively shallow rifling grooves in the '88s and early '98s did not grip the bullet firmly enough which, in turn, caused slurring and gas blow-by. To remedy the situtation, the groove depth was increased by about .002 inch to .0065. The bore (land) diameter remained .311 but bullet (groove) diameter was increased from a nominal .318 to .323. Concurrent with the adoption of the larger .323 diameter bullet was a drastic reduction in not only the weight of the new bullet, but its shape as well. Technology now made possible the mass production of spitzer-shaped bullets so the old 227-grain round-nosed slug was scrapped and in its place a sharply-pointed projectile of 154 grains was substituted.

The resultant ballistics for the new "S" cartridge (for Spitzgeschos, or "pointed bullet"), was very impressive--so much so that the world powers again found themselves scrambling to catch up with Mauser. Loaded to approximately 44,000 pounds per square inch, the 8mm Mauser propelled its 154-grain bullet at 2,935 fps from its 29.3-inch barrel. (In later "98 Kar." rifles having barrels of 23.6 inches this same load would clock about 2,850 fps). As one can well imagine, the trajectory of the new "S" cartridge was substantially flatter than anything else around.

Anticipating the confusion that would arise in the commercial market over the change in bullet and barrel specs, somewhere along the line it was decided to assign a "J" suffix to the original .318 bore, and "JS" to the newer .323.

By 1905 all military Mausers were manufactured with the new .323 bore for the "S" cartridge. Since the only physical difference between this new round and the 1888 version was the .005-inch increase in the bullet, hence neck diameter, a good number of '88s simply ahd their chamber throats opened up to accept the new cartridges. Most of these conversions, however, did not include the deepening of the rifling grooves. In such cases the use of 8x57JS similar ammo in an 8X57J bore is a no-no; dangerously high pressures could result. With there being such a small difference in neck diameter, JS ammo can be coaxed into an unmodified J-chamber, especially if some throat erosion has occurred.

The best rule of thumb is as follows: unless the letter "S" appears somewhere on the chamber-portion of the barrel on any '88 Commission Rifle (or the Model 91 Carbine version of the same gun), do not attempt to use any S-type military ammo.

Most '98s manufactured prior to the adoption of the spitzer-bulleted cartridge in 1904 were properly converted, both chamber and bore-wise, and carry the "S" stamping on the barrel, as well as the land diameter, such a 7.91 or 7.92.

The great influx of surplus '88s and '98s appearing on these shores in the 1920s and 1930s posed a real problem for Remington and Winchester who naturally wanted to provide sporting ammo. According to Book of Rifles (Smith & Smith, Stackpole), the ammo makers got around the potential problem by loading commercial 8mm Mauser ammo with bullets of a compromise diameter, presumably around .320 inch, and to pressures of 37,000 psi. In that way commercial ammo could be used in any 8x57 rifle, whether bored and chambered to the 1888 or the "S" version. Checking current Remington ammo, however, I found bullet diameter to be .323 inch, so if a compromise was ever used, it's not being used today. Apparently, the ammo makers feel that the anemic nature of factory fodder is such that it won't cause problems even in the J bore. Another source, Ludwig Olson's Mauser Bolt Rifles, (Brownell & Son) states that commercial ammo was loaded with softer-jacketed bullets of .323 that would swage down in the smaller bore without causing pressure problems.

It took our own military establishment just a short time to acknowledge the undeniable superiority of Germany's spitzer-bulleted martial cartridge. In 1906, just three years after the adoptions of the new Model 1903 Springfield rifle and the equally new .30 caliber cartridge, the original 220-grain round-nosed bullet specification was changed to a 150-grain spitzer. Muzzle velocity went from a nominal 2,300 fps to 2,700 with an appropriately flatter trajectory. As such it was not quite as good as the 8mm's 154-grain bullet at 2,850 fps, even though the .30-06's larger case always made it capable of besting anything the 8x57 could do. Attesting to that fact is the 2,910 fps to which today's .30-06 sporting ammo is loaded in the 150-grain weight.

Again referring to Olson's Mauser Bolt Rifles, experience gained by the Germans in World War I showed the 154-grain "S" bullet to be too light for machine gun applications where maximum effective ranges are measured in thousands, rather than hundreds of yards. A 198-grain spitzer boat-tail bullet was therefore adopted in the early 1920s. Though muzzle velocity was reduced, the better aerodynamics and heavier weight proved superior to the lighter bullet out beyond 400 or so yards. The boat-tail design helped even more out at extreme ranges after velocity had fallen below the speed of sound--about 1,100 fps. Though developed for machine gun use, the "sS" load (for schweres Spitzgeschoss or "heavy pointed bullet"), had become the standard load for the foot soldier's '98 by the time WWII was underway. From the standard 23.6-inch barrel of the Kar. 98, muzzle velocity for the heavier sS bullet was 2,475 fps.

Again, America quickly followed suit and in 1926 switched to a 172-grain BT bullet in the Springfield. At 2,540 fps it was again comparable to the 8x57 sS but, according to Barnes' Cartridge of the World (DBI Books), problems with that bullet in the Garand forced the re-adoption of the 150-grain loading during the war.

That pretty much brings us up to date on the 8x57, at least as far as the highlights go with regard to its long military history is concerned. As for its "sporting life" as a hunting cartridge, that too is rich and lengthy.

From its inception by Paul Mauser and its adoption by Germany in 1888, the 8x57J became the sporting cartridge in Europe. Infortunately, German sportsmen proved just as quirky as those anywhere else and when the "S" loading was adopted by the military, many refused to accept it based on the erroneous belief that the J-bore was more accurate. As a result, sporting rifles in 8x57J continued to be made by Mauser, as well as virtually every sporting arms manufacturer and gunsmith in Germany and Austria. They went so far as to try to abolish the "S" bore after WWII (which probably outnumbered the "J" 10,000 to one!), and RWS actually stopped producing S-Type 8x57 ammunition. Again referring to Mauser Bolt Rifles, the Association of German Gunsmiths realized, in 1952, such attempts were futile and resigned themselves to the fact that after 49 years, the .323 S-bore was here to stay!

Here in the U.S. we've got few such problems. Oh, there's few '88 and '98 J-bores around but not many are being used. Those who have Commission '88 or '91s and want to press them into service can use the mildly-loaded Remington, Federal or Winchester factory loads which send a 170-grain bullet out at 2,360 fps with 2,100 foot pounds of muzzle energy. Zeroed 2 inches high at 100 yards puts it 4 inches low at 200 and 10 inches low at 250. That's plenty potent enough for eastern whitetail and black bear.

For the mere handful of '98 Mauser J-bores out there, Norma offers a load specifically for it: it's marked "8x57J (.318)" and, typical of Norma ammo, it's a hot performer. It sends a 196-grain bullet out at 2,525 fps and with nearly 2,800 foot pounds of energy. Norma claims a 20-yard zero will put its semi-pointed load 12 inches low at 300 yards so we're looking at an honest elk and moose rifle out to about 225 to 250 yards.

Norma offers an identical load for the S-bore; it's marked "8mm Mauser (8x57JS)," the only difference being that the 196-grain bullet mikes .323 instead of .318.

It's really a shame but that for the existence of a few oddball guns around, the 8mm Mauser has suffered all these years. The fact is, all 8x57s based on the '98 action stamped 1905 or later are the .323 or 8x57S bore. And virtually all '98s made during the previous 5 years were recalled and properly converted at the original factories and stamped with the "S" marking on the receiver.

The 8x57 JS can only attain its true potential through handloading . . . but then that's been the case with several other cartridges--the .257 Roberts and 7x57 to name two. Assuming a good, sound '98 action, loading the 8x57 to the same 50-52,000 CUP levels as one would a .270 or .30-06 offers impressive performance.

Considering its moderate-sized case, the 8x57 does its best work with bullets in the 170- to 200-grain weight range. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of bullets in that range to choose from, and of them most are round-nose or semi-spitzer. Best among the lighter game bullets is Sierra's 175-grain spitzer with a ballistic coefficient of .477. Sierra data shows a load of 51 grains of IMR-4320 as giving 2,700 fps. A 200-yard zero puts it 8.5 inches low at 300 where it still has almost 1,800 foot pounds of energy left. With this load one could take on any non-dangerous game on this continent.

An even better load of my way of thinking is with the highly efficient 200-grain bullets of Speer or Nosler. Nosler shows three loads that provide 2,650 to 2,700 fps from a 26-inch test barrel; a muzzle velocity of 2,600 fps would be reasonable from the 23.6-inch military barrel. Nosler data shows a 200-yard zero would put this load just over 9 inches low at 300 yards where it would still have 1,870 foot pouunds of remaining energy. This particular load virtually duplicates the .30-06 180-grain bullet exiting at 2,750 fps.

Just as our .30-40 Krag and .30-06 prompted the development of many other .30 caliber cartridges here, so too did the 8mm Mauser over in Europe. In addition to influencing the adoption of 8mm martial cartridges by a number of other countries, the 8x57 Mauser had a profound effect on sporting cartridge development as well. Cartridges of the World shows 18 8mm sporting cartridges ranging from the modest 8x48R Sauer (similar to our .32-40 WCF), to the big 8x68S, a true magnum cartridge, sans belt, but with an internal capacity greater than that of a .338 Winchester Magnum. Loaded by RWS, the 196-grain factory load clocks 3,050 fps and churns up 4,050 foot pounds of energy--enough for any soft-skinned beastie, including lion and the biggest bears. Hornady shows 8x58S loads in their current manual that produce 2,800 fps with their excellent 220-grain spire point Interlock bullet.

It would be unfair to judge a cartridge by its acceptance by other countries but if that were the case, the .30-06 would win over the 8mm Mauser, hands down. The '06 is one of the most popular sporting rounds throughout Europe, yet the 8x57 has never made appreciable inroads among U.S. hunters. If any .323 ever had a chance here it was Remington's excellent 8mm Magnum introduced in 1977 but it was dropped from the line just this past year.

Like I said though, the 8mm Mauser must be judged on its own merits, of which it has plenty. It must also be recognized from the historical perspective as being the first minimum-tapered, sharp-shouldered, rimless case which has remained the standard to this day. And it is yet another testimonial to the fertile genius for one Peter Paul Mauser.
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Author:Sundra, Jon R.
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Aug 1, 1984
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