Mauser-based actions are still the best choice for a traditional, tailor-made hunting rifle, for many good reasons.
There are outstanding actions available for creating a modern precision rifle, right up to the new Weatherby 307 action, but after more than 125 years, Mauser’s brilliantly designed action can’t be beaten in a serious hunting rifle.
The three main aspects of a custom rifle project are selecting a cartridge, choosing a gunsmith to do the work and, most important of all, choosing which bolt action to use.
The action is the heart of any rifle — the mechanism which secures the cartridge in the rear of the barrel, fires it when the trigger is pressed, contains the chamber pressure generated by expanding gas and then extracts the fired shell after firing.
The action chosen for a hunting rifle should be strong, light, compact and smooth in operation. It should have a safety which locks the firing pin rather than the trigger.
A commercial action would incorporate a trigger mechanism that is adjustable for weight of pull, although an ex-military action would require the addition of an aftermarket unit such as a Timney.
No matter what kind of trigger is employed, it should be capable of the finest possible release action.
Most ex-military actions suitable for a custom rifle trace a heritage to the Mauser 98 pattern. Most modern actions, however, have moved pretty far in the other direction.
Many shooters building a custom rifle prefer a Mauser-type action of some kind, but some derivatives of the Mauser vary in strength and appearance.
The most obvious features of the Mauser are its massive twin locking lugs, and its long non-rotating claw extractor that engages the rim of the cartridge as it is fed from the magazine and holds it under control as it is fed into the chamber. Most serious hunters demand an action which has controlled round feed.
THE UGLY, THE BAD AND THE GOOD
In discussing actions for custom rifles, we won’t consider them all, only those fit to serve as the heart of a truly fine musket.
There are many which may be found with excellent guns built up around them, like the Arisaka, for example, which has great strength. It seats its cartridge very deeply and solidly into the breech and has not one, but two port-side head lugs, the forward slotted for the ejector but the after one solid.
However, the Arisaka is a poor choice since it doesn’t convert to a very attractive sporter rifle.
The ’03 Springfield is another poor choice, probably the least efficient and weakest of all the Mauser derivatives.
The M17 Enfield was made for the .30-06, but it is long enough to handle cartridges based on the .300 H&H magnum case. It’s as strong as the Mauser despite its slotted head lug, coned breech and cock-on-closing feature, and it has one of the best bolt-action safeties ever developed.
As the basis for a custom rifle, the M17 needs more work than almost any other military action, not least of which is milling off the sight ears, profiling the receiver and bridge, straightening the floor plate, and fitting a cock-on-opening kit and an adjustable trigger.
The Enfield was a government arsenal item and was produced only during a limited period during World War I, so today these actions are practically unprocurable.
True Mauser actions come in a bewildering variety of types and sizes. The original Mauser-Werke at Oberndorf no longer makes rifles, but there are several sources of Mauser actions as well as complete rifles from western Europe which are of quality comparable to the original product, and include a number of design improvements as well.
Excellent modern Mauser 98 actions are found on Rigby’s 21st Century line of sporting rifles and those from the Blaser factory in Isny, Germany.
The commercial Zastava Mauser actions from Serbia are not only affordable, but have excellent metallurgy and are of equal quality to the commercial FN Mausers made in Belgium after World War II. Very little work is needed to make them acceptable for a custom rifle.
The only drawback is its two-position safety with a thumb-piece moving fore-and-aft on the right side of the receiver. It not only looks cheap, but does not retract the firing pin and is best replaced with a Model 70-type wing safety.
FN and Mark X Mausers have the port-side head lug slotted for the ejector, which is considered a point of weakness in those actions as well as in the Springfield and Enfield actions, but whether it really matters is problematical. Ex-military Mausers avoided slotting the port-side head lug by locating the ejector beneath it.
Mausers also have a safety lug at the rear of the bolt which could be of value in the almost unheard of event of double simultaneous failure of the head lugs.
After the Second World War, military Mauser actions were easy to come by but are now becoming harder to find.
The majority of Mauser actions come in four lengths: short, military, standard and magnum. The short action is for the .22-250 and members of the .308 family. It cannot be altered to take cartridges of .270 and .30-06 length.
The military length suits the .284 Winchester as well as all the shorties but, with some effort, it can be made to take ’06 length rounds.
The standard length will take anything up to the .270, .280 and .30-06 as well as short magnums like the .264 Win and 7mm Rem Mag.
Standard length Mauser actions have been opened up to handle long belted magnum cartridges like the .300 H&H, .300 Weatherby and the .375 H&H magnum, but considerable metal has to be milled away below the lower locking lug. This makes the M17 Enfield a better choice for the big magnums.
A-Square used M17 actions to build rifles chambered for some monstrous cartridges including the .450 Assegai, the .500 A-Square and the .577 Tyrannosaur.
The safety on the M17 Enfield rocks back and forth on the right side of the receiver. It locks the bolt back and positively cams the cocking piece back. It’s an excellent safety.
The small-ring Mexican Mauser is at the other end of the equation, made especially for the 7x57mm cartridge. It makes a particularly neat rifle for cartridges in the .308 family. Being a pure military type, however, it must be extensively worked over to make it respectable.
The Turkish Mauser is standard length but most unusually has a large diameter ring with a small-ring diameter thread. It’s a good action, but one that needs considerable modification before it is acceptable for a custom rifle.
One of the most sought after Mauser actions is the Argentinian, but with the steel being rather soft it needs heat treating for high intensity cartridges.
For a custom mountain rifle, one of the most sought after actions is the Czech G33-40 which was designed for use by Alpine troops. The G33-40 action had lightening cuts on both sides of the receiver, a small-diameter receiver ring, thin receiver walls and a hollowed-out bolt handle, making it the lightest of the Model 98s.
The Mauser wing safety that swings through 180 degrees is one of the safest. Fully applied, it cams the cocking piece back out of contact with the sear, and locks the bolt. It won’t work under a low-mounted scope, but commercial versions are available that do.
WINCHESTER MODEL 70
The classic Model 70 Winchester action is a Mauser derivative with unslotted lugs, a gas deflector bolt, very fast lock time, a single-stage adjustable trigger and, being a modern design, it naturally carries its bolt handle low and out of the way of a scope tube.
The Model 70 has been criticised because of its coned breech and not having a ‘safety’ lug for emergencies, but it is a strong, rugged action that rarely lets go.
The Model 70-style three-position bolt-sleeve-mounted safety lever that moves in a horizontal arc on the right side also locks back the cocking piece and firing pin, and is compatible with a scope.
125 YEARS OF EXCELLENCE
As the basic Mauser action has been with us for almost 125 years, it is not surprising that we wonder why no major improvements have appeared, and why no entirely new action has superseded it.
In an era which regards quick obsolescence as an economic necessity, it is gratifying to find something designed with a little stability.
Actually, there is not much that can be done to improve the Mauser outside of a few changes in detail and there are factories in Europe today that are doing just that.
Superior modern versions of the Mauser 98 being made in standard and magnum lengths to suit various sized cartridges offer the option of single or double square bridges.
In custom form they are offered with a choice of triggers, engraving, high-quality figured walnut stocks — all the bells and whistles you can afford.
These actions are seen on Rigby rifles and the original Mausers distributed by Outdoor Sporting Agencies, but can be purchased for building a custom rifle.
Obviously, they are expensive, but no better rifle action has ever been designed.