The late 1950s and early 1960s are often referred to as the “Golden Age” for the gunsmith hobbyist. Older issues of Shooting Times from this period contain numerous articles about various gunsmithing projects. One of the most popular was the conversion of the common and relatively inexpensive military surplus bolt-action rifle into a civilian sporter. These conversions ranged from extremely simple and basic to very complex and involved. The bottom line was that these projects were very popular and had great appeal to readers.
It seems fitting as part of ST’s celebration of 50 years of publishing to build a sporter on a Mauser 98 action. While many things have changed, the appeal of a good, solid bolt-action rifle is still just as strong as ever, and in many ways we can now do a much better job. There are products currently available that the hobbyist of the ’60s would never have even imagined. For example, we have short-chambered, or partially chambered, commercial barrels in an amazing variety of calibers, contours, and even materials. Unlike most hobbyists of the ’50s and ’60s, we’re not stuck with the original military barrel and caliber. Stocks are available in both wood and various synthetic materials, ranging from fiberglass to high-tech polymers. More and better aftermarket triggers are on the market. Companies such as Brownells offer an incredible variety of aftermarket accessories. Just maybe–in terms of available components–right now is really the golden age!
In fact, I can even make the argument that in many respects, rifles and actions are even less expensive today. Yeah, I remember the $35 Mausers. I’m old enough to have bought quite a few of ‘em. However, those $35 rifles really weren’t that cheap. A lot of us back in the early ’60s were only making a buck an hour, and $35 in 1964 is equivalent to about $240 in 2009. That makes those “cheap” rifles you see in old ads a lot more expensive.
With a little work you can still find suitable actions and even complete guns for a very modest price. The action I’m using for this Mauser build came off a well-used and abused rifle from Century International Arms that sells for about $100. Compared to the cost of a similar rifle in 1964 or so, that’s not bad at all.
Choose An Action
The first step in this project is to choose an action. When choosing an action or rifle, I would urge you to stick with a standard large ring 98 Mauser made in central Europe. I would avoid Spanish-made actions, as many of the ones I’ve seen have been “soft” and not heat-treated or hardened to the degree I think is appropriate. In his excellent book, The Mauser Bolt Actions, A Shop Manual, Jerry Kuhnhausen also discourages the use of Spanish-made Mauser actions. I’d also stay away from the earlier small ring Models 91, 93, and 95. They’re not as strong, and accessories aren’t nearly as readily available.
Once you have found a suitable 98 action, there are several things you’ll want to check. First, look at the face of the bolt. If there is erosion or pitting around the firing pin hole, that’s usually an indication of extensive use. While you can replace the bolt, you might just want to pass on that action. If the barrel has been removed from the action, check the locking lug seats. They should be even and level. If you can detect a dip or impression of the lugs in the seats, that rifle has been subjected to some high-pressure loads or it’s soft and was not heat-treated properly. Again, you’ll want to pass on that action. Finally, avoid actions that are cracked, deeply pitted, or show obvious signs of abuse. There are lots of good actions available, and there’s no need to waste your time with paperweights!
Putting together a sporter like this can give you an opportunity to add a rifle to your collection that has a very personal touch. You can determine the caliber, barrel length, type of sights, configuration and style of stock, as well as a hundred and one other details. You’re not limited to just what some gun company thinks you ought to have. Nor are you forced to wait literally months or years and pay top dollar for a custom gunmaker to put your rifle together. You will have total control over the process.
As to the quality of the finished product, well, that will be entirely up to you. If you take your time, work carefully and thoughtfully, and pay close attention to the details, you can build a rifle that is just as good and just as functional as any commercial equivalent. Sure, it may not be a work of art, but it can be something you can be proud of and enjoy showing to your friends and taking into the field. Over the years, I’ve seen many absolutely knockout, beautiful rifles built by ordinary, average folks who were not gunmakers or gunsmiths. You don’t have to be super knowledgeable or a gifted artist to do a darn good job.
This project will take some time, and I will be spreading it over a number of future issues. Each month I’ll take on a different part of the project. Next month, for example, I’ll install, chamber, and headspace the barrel. By doing just a bit each month, I’ll keep the project from becoming overwhelming.
For additional and more detailed information on sporterizing a military rifle, I recommend these two indispensable sources: The NRA Gunsmithing Guide–Updated and Shotgun News Building A 98 Mauser Sporter/Carbine That Never Was.
The NRA Gunsmithing Guide–Updated was originally published and sold by the NRA, and this soft-cover book is just packed with great gunsmithing articles and information. While it’s currently out of print, you can often find used copies on the Internet. The Shotgun News Building A 98 Mauser Sporter/Carbine That Never Was is a CD that contains reprints of a series of lengthy articles I did several years ago on building a German-style Mauser sporter. It’s very detailed and extensively illustrated. You can obtain it by going to www.shootingtimes.com, clicking on the “Store” icon, and then clicking on “CDs.” The cost is $9.95.
Building a sporter on a Mauser action is a really neat project, and I think you’ll want to join me. So start gathering your components; I’ll get into the nuts and bolts in the very next issue. Until then, good luck and good gunsmithing!