The Boer republics of the Orange Free State (Oranje Vrij Staat) and the South African Republic (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, more commonly known as the “Transvaal”) had been at odds with the British Empire for decades. The discovery of gold and diamond deposits in the Transvaal proved the final argument for imperial expansionists in London, and the foreign office set in motion events that led to open hostilities. Knowing war with the British empire was imminent, the Boers rushed to purchase firearms to arm their citizen-soldier commandos.
All Boers between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to join commandos of mounted rifleman from their district. Each man supplied his own horse, rifle, ammunition, and rations sufficient for two weeks. For over 200 years this system had defeated large and well-organized Bantu armies, such as the Zulus, and had thoroughly embarrassed the British army in the First Anglo-Boer War of 1881.
Many of the rifles the Boers obtained were the popular, if obsolete, .450 Martini-Henry along with a mixed batch of smokeless powder Austro-Hungarian M.88/90 and M.95 Mannlichers, Norwegian M/1894 Krag-Jorgensens, and Portugese Mo. 1885 Guedes.
But Germany was the primary supplier of guns to the Boers, and Kaiser Wilhem’s government, always anxious to cause problems for its British rivals, arranged for the two Republics to purchase tens of thousands of modern Mauser rifles.
The most common of these, and the one that was to become a symbol of the Boer struggle against British imperialism, was the Model 1893/1895 Mauser chambered for the 7×57 cartridge. With this rifle the Boers would show the military authorities of the day the true potential of the new small-bore, smokeless powder rifle.
Paul Mauser’s first smokeless powder, charger-loaded magazine rifle–the Belgian Mle. 1889–featured a tubular receiver with a one-piece bolt with dual front locking lugs, and it utilized a detachable, five-round, charger-loaded magazine.
Mauser’s R&D work resulted in the development of an improved bolt and new-style magazine that held cartridges in a staggered, flush-mounted box. But just as important as the improved rifle would become, the cartridge it was chambered for would become even better known.
The 7×57 cartridge was one of the many smokeless powder rounds developed by the Mauser company during the 1890s. The original load consisted of a rimless, bottlenecked case 57mm in length with a roundnosed, 173-grain FMJ bullet traveling at 2,300 fps. The bullet had a high sectional density that gave it a flat trajectory, long-range accuracy, deep penetration, and light recoil.
The first Mauser chambered for the 7×57 was the Mo. 1892 Spanish rifle. It had a new-style nonrotating extractor that prevented double feeding of cartridges and made bolt manipulation much smoother. Very few were made as it was superseded by an improved rifle within a few months.
The Mo. 1893 was the first Mauser to use a staggered-row magazine, which permitted the magazine to be charged with less effort, fed cartridges more smoothly, and since it was completely enclosed by the stock, was almost impervious to damage.
This first major modification of the Mo. 1893 is referred to as the “Model 1895,” and it differed from the Mo. 1893 in that the boltface was circular because it was discovered that the square face was unnecessary for reliable feeding. In addition, late-production Model 1895s had a shoulder behind the bolt handle to provide additional locking in case of bolt failure, and the rear of the magazine follower was beveled to allow closing the bolt on an empty chamber.
Like Mauser’s earlier rifles, the Model 1895′s bolt cocked on closing, and there was no provision for venting gas from a pierced primer or ruptured case away from the shooter’s face.
Model 1895s were produced by Mauser Waffenfabrik; the Ludwig Loewe Company (the corporate owners of Mauser); and arsenals in Austria, Belgium, and Sweden.
In 1896 the Boers ordered 70,000 Mauser rifles and carbines from Ludwig Loewe, later known as Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionfabriken (DWM), about 55,000 of which were delivered. Despite being called the “Model 1895″ by most sources, the vast majority of these used the earlier 1893-style receiver and bolt, and in official documents they are often referred to as “Model 93/95 Mausers.” They differed from the Spanish model primarily in the style of the rear sight.
Rifles ordered by the Orange Free State were marked “O.V.S” above the serial number and directly below it on the stock, while those delivered by the Transvaal had an A, B, or C letter prefix preceding their serial number. Because of manufacturing dates stamped on their receivers, South African sources often refer to them as “Model 1896″ or “Model 1897″ Mausers.
Some of the last Mauser rifles delivered to the Boers were equipped with turned-down bolt handles to make them more suitable for use by mounted men. DWM remarked many undelivered rifles and sold them to Chile.
Many Boers personalized their rifles with carvings on the buttstocks. These might include the owner’s initials, full name, dates, home district, wives’ or girlfriends’ names, or decorative patterns.
The Boer governments sold Mausers at slightly above cost to anyone who wished to purchase one. The Boer governments and private dealers also imported sporting rifles, known in Afrikaans as “Plezier Mausers.” These 7×57 sporters, which varied in style and ornamentation, were quite popular with the more affluent Boers.
While all Boer Mausers were chambered for the 7×57 cartridge, there is some controversy over the little-known 7×53 cartridge, referred to in Afrikaans as the “Kortnek” (short neck). The Kortnek was apparently made by the Ludwig
Loewe firm from stockpiles of 7.65×53 cartridge cases necked down and loaded with 7mm bullets whose crimping cannelure was closer to the bullet’s base than was usual. In most cases they functioned as expected, but there were enough reports of burst barrels that some Boers refused to use them.
Burst barrels were apparently caused when the lower portion of the bullet’s brittle steel jacket separated behind the crimping cannelure while the projectile was moving across the unsupported 4mm section of the chamber and remained in the barrel. Firing another round led to the expected results.
Shooting A Boer Mauser
For this report I test-fired a Chilean Mo. 1895 rifle made by DWM that bears a Transvaal contract C prefix serial number and the turned-down bolt handle common to late-production Boer rifles. It is in excellent condition with a bright, shiny bore, and all major parts except the bolt bear matching numbers.
The Mauser was fired on my club’s 100-yard range using Remington 7mm Mauser ammunition loaded with 140-grain softpoint bullets. The narrow rear sight notch required care when aiming, but aside from that the Mauser’s handling qualities were excellent. Loading with chargers was quick and effortless, and rounds were chambered and spent cases were extracted smoothly. With a minimum rear sight setting of 400 meters, it took me a few shots to figure where to hold to put rounds on the target. Once I had the measure of that, I fired four targets, with my best having a well-centered 2.75-inch group. Running five rounds of ammo across my PACT chronograph gave an average velocity of 2,728 fps.
I found the Model 1895 Mauser to be a well-made, excellent-handling rifle. They were rugged, accurate, and reliable guns, and I know why “die slim kerels” (the crafty fellows) of the Boer commandos thought so highly of them. The reputation they earned on the South African veldt over a century ago would seem well deserved.