November 22, 2003

Rifles of the Combatants, skipped rifles division.

Mark R. has just acquired a German Gewehr 88 (or Commission 88) rifle and while out searching the 'net came upon Castle Argghhh! and the Arsenal of Doom. He's asked for some assistance in his quest to better understand (and maybe do some restoration work) on his new metal & wood friend.

I'm not that busy this weekend, so I thought I'd make a production of it and share it with you guys. Yes, I do take requests (remember - the Arsenal is almost exclusively military firearms. You want informed opinions about sporting arms, go visit Kim du Toit and Jed and Owen at Boots and Sabers, or Smallest Minority, to name a few.)

The Gewehr 1888 was a product of the arms race in the late 19th century between Germany and France, and followed by others. The period from 1860 to 1898 saw the demise of the muzzle loaded black powder percussion musket and the emergence of the small-bore, smokeless powder, magazine fed bolt-action rifle. This rifle is the penultimate rifle in German service to the arrival of the Mauser Gewehr 98, which would soldier through WWI and beyond.

After their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, France nursed her wounds and wounded pride (much like today, less the wounds - the pride has never recovered. And btw - I lived in Paris and vicinity for 18 months, so it's not a wholly uninformed opinion - with over 13 years overall in Europe). Virtually everything military the French did was aimed at recapturing Alsace and Lorraine, and restoring her military honor.

At the end of the war in 1870 both nations were equipped with similar weapons. Single-shot bolt action rifles. The Gew 1871 Mauser and the Mle 1874 Gras - the Gras itself being a cartridge development of the pinfire Chassepot. However, the adoption of the Mle 1878 Kropatschek rifle by the French navy caused the Germans to get uneasy.

As the Kropatschek was a magazine fed repeater, the Great General Staff was concerned that France was intending to rearm with a magazine rifle. In response to the perceived threat, the Germans took Mauser's Gew 71 and added a tubular magazine to it, resulting in the Gew71/84 - and rearmed the entire army, while the French only armed their Marines with the Kropatschek. All was peachy in Potsdam. Well, for two years.


In 1886 the Lebel committee introduced a new rifle. The Mle 1886 Lebel. Small bore, smokeless powder. Suddenly everything the Germans had was horribly obsolete. What to do, what to do? Establish a committee, of course! The Gewehr Prüfungs Kommission, the GPK. In english, the Rifle Testing Commission. It's charter - develop a smokeless powder and a rifle to shoot it. ASAP.

Not surprisingly, given the investment in existing stocks, the first alternative considered was rebarreling the Gew 71/84 for a small-bore smokeless powder cartridge and strengthen the breech/bolt to handle the new, much higher pressures. While the powder was being developed and the re-engineering of the GEW 71/84 being examined, the commission turned it's attention to developments outside of Germany and France, particularly Austria, Great Britain, Switzerland and the United States. Looking at what those nations were doing led the Germans to realize that staying with the tubular magazine was not a good idea - the box magazine was appearing, and rimless cartridges were being introduced, and bullet shapes were slowly morphing from round nose to spitzers (pointy), all of which argued against tube magazines.

The Germans decided to not just match the French, but to go ahead and build a new rifle that was state-of-the-ever-changing-art. First item up for consideration was the new magazine developed by an Austrian nobleman, Ritter von Mannlicher. Mannlicher's contribution (still used today in many forms) was his clip-loaded magazine, which enabled a soldier to rapidly load his magazine 3, 4, 5, 8 rounds at a time (depending on which rifle we're talking about) greatly increasing his rate of fire - as well as reducing the number of dropped rounds and the need to fumble with single rounds at all. They did improve on Mannlicher’s original design, wherein the clip had an up and down – and could only be inserted one-way. The GPK redesigned the clip and magazine so that the clip would feed whichever way it was inserted (this does assume the bullets go forward, in case you were ready to snipe). However, the magazine design was so obviously Mannlicher’s that the patent holder, OWG (Osterreichische Waffenfabriks-Gesellschaft – Austrian Weapons Manufacturing, Inc) of Steyr sued for infringement and won. Just as Mauser sued the US over the M1903 Springfield bolt during WWI, and won. But Mauser won right before we entered the war and never saw a penny of the $3 per rifle award.

[Pet Peeve Diversion] Popular culture will win this fight, as it always does on issues of language... but! You do not, for example, load your automatic pistol with a clip. You load it with a magazine. There are clip-fed automatic pistols - The Mauser Broomhandle and Steyr 1911 come to mind. Both have FIXED magazines. You don't drop the clip in your AK clone and insert a new one. You drop a magazine. Huh? What's this bozo babbling about? Of course I drop my clip and reach for a new one - just like on TV! Yes, you can reload your magazine with a clip – in or out of the weapon. The US Army provides clip guides for M-16 magazines for just that purpose – pre-battle magazine loading.

[rant] Clips feed magazines. Magazines feed bullets to the chamber. Got it? Didn't ya ever think that 'clip' didn't make much sense for loading a bullet into the breech (you can be excused by the M1 Garand, where you insert a clip into the magazine and it stays there)? I know, I'm just being pissy. But words do matter. Of course, anymore, clip is interchangeable with magazine, but the pedant in me hates it.] [/rant]

So, first item on the list for the new rifle – a Mannlicher style magazine. Next, a new bolt. What they decided on was a two piece bolt that operated inside a split-bridge receiver. On the front part was the bolt handle, two locking lugs which held the extractor and ejector. The bolt handle, on closing, rests against the bridge of the receiver, acting as a third lug, which is why they chose the split bridge – so you could get the bolt handle forward of the bridge – like a Lee Enfield rifle, for example, which uses a very similar bolt.

I don’t know who copied who, if anyone. James Lee and Louis Schlegelmilch could have arrived at the same conclusion independently. The trigger and safety were lifted directly from the Gew 71. Lastly, we need to design a new barrel (especially the rifling) for the new bullet and powder. And in that, too, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. They copied the rifling from a Lebel rifle thoughtfully provided by a French deserter.

What went into that chamber and out that barrel? The cartridge that was the Daddy of the current 8mm Mauser. But the differences between the two are enough to make even shooting rechambered rifles dangerous with milsurp ammo). The nomenclature was Patrone 88J, and it was 7.92x57 and was designed at the Spandau Arsenal – Germany’s Springfield Arsenal/RSAF Enfield equivalent.

This rifle, while incorporating many Mauser features, was not a Mauser. Mauser wasn’t even consulted it it’s design, and was so busy making rifles for Turkey that they didn’t make any Gew 88s. He is rumored to have been so annoyed at not being consulted, he started designing a new rifle – the GEW 98.

The other odd feature of the rifle (and it’s a feature of other rifles of the era, such as the Dutch Krag-Jorgensen M89 and Belgian M1889 Mauser) is that it had a metal barrel shroud. The intent of the designer of the shroud is that it would ‘free-float’ the barrel, removing contact with the stock, so that the barrel would vibrate the same way each time the rifle was fired – improving accuracy. While a nice idea, it didn’t take into account that it was a nice holding area for dirt and water, making maintenance a real pain in the field. Possibly even worse in storage, as many surplus rifles amply demonstrate today. Especially those rifles that came out of storage in Ecuador a few years ago. Of course, setting the sights on the metal jacket, which got distorted by the dings of service use, wasn’t all that helpful either. All in all maybe a good idea for a sporting rifle (but hey, just don’t stock it to the muzzle and you don’t need to worry about that, eh) but not a good idea in military practice.

The rifle was produced in the greatest numbers by the Spandau, Danzig, Erfurt, Amberg arsenals and the Ludwig Loewe company. With the exception of the Chinese made models, called the Hanyang, those are generally the markings you are going to find on the receivers. Haenel, Schilling, and Steyr also made them, along with a Belgian company, Schriever et Cie.. If you find one of those, you’ve made a find in terms of rarity (if not in price, GEW 88s aren’t worth that much). Loewe made a fortune making the rifle for China.

As is not untypical of rifles that are produced during periods of great flux in technology, the first combat use of the GEW 88 was after it was already obsolescent in German service. What makes it interesting is that it was in combat against itself – as the German far eastern colonial troops found themselves fighting the Boxers – both armed with GEW 88s! The ’88 did see second line service with the Landwehr and Landsturm during WWI, mostly in LOC (Line of Communications) units, such as telegraph, supply, transport, and railway units, as well as the state government militias (the Landsturm). They were sold in huge numbers to China, Turkey and other Balkan nations, and to Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador. In my experience, you most often run across Turkish and Chinese rifles, followed by the others in no particular order. The most recent importation that I am aware of came out of Ecuador in the 90’s and are generally pretty ratty rifles. But – I have one – because it’s a pure GEW 88, and not one of the subsequent modifications.

As is typical of most militaries that produce their own weapons in one form or another, the GEW 88 went through several changes, and previous version of the rifle were brought in and upgraded to the new standard, making unaltered versions the premium finds.

Most rare, are German rifles that are not rebored for the new cartridge (no ‘S’ on the receiver), do not have the charger guides added, and do not have their regimental markings (generally on the stock bands) lined or “X’d” out. After that come “non-Turked” (no crescent moon) in all versions, then the Chinese, and finally the South American. All matching numbers in any configuration is rare, too. Most countries either stored the bolts separate from the rifles (so revolting citizens wouldn’t get useable weapons, or the importers, either by rules or preference, shipped the bolts separately from the rifles. There are even websites/listserv’s dedicated to sharing bolt/receiver numbers for people who just have to have matching numbers.

The rifles are usually found without their cleaning rods, and most of the rifles have straight bolts. There is also a KAR 88 and GEW 91 carbines for mounted troops that have bent bolts which will command a premium. I don’t have one yet!

If you check your magazine, you see a hole in front of it. That is for mounting the rear sling swivel, either for mounted troops (who don’t want their rifles caught by branches when riding under trees, or, in some cases, Parade Order, where the rifles are slung lower on the body.

The major variations in terms of modifications you’ll find are the 88’s, 88-05’s and 88-14’s.

The 88’s are straight up basic, but usually have been converted to the new cartridge (they have the “S” on the receiver).

The 88-05 have riveted charger guides, and the thumb cut-out on the receiver is pretty shallow.


The 88-14 (most common) have welded charger guides. Depending on who did the conversion, they may also have a very deep thumb cut-out in the receiver wall to aid in seating the clip.

Steyr, as a part of it’s settlement over the patent infringement, got the right to manufacture the GEW 88 on it’s own – and produced the M1904, which is a GEW 88 without the metal shroud over the barrel. This rifle was simply adored by the Chinese, and was produced by them as the Type 88 Hangyang rifle. The Chinese rifles are not considered safe to shoot by anyone. If you have one and want to shoot it, I recommend light handloads, and keep an eye on the receiver for cracks – but they probably ought to be treated as wall hangers.

The best source I have found for parts is Numrich, now known as Gun Parts Corporation, http://www.e-gunparts.com/search.asp. They have a good search engine and can help you figure out what you need directly by email. They aren’t always fast, but they are almost always right. And if you get the wrong part – it’s usually your fault! They also have downloadeable schematics of many weapons, including the GEW 88.

Ladies and Gentlemen, subject to your questions, that concludes my briefing.


Comments on Rifles of the Combatants, skipped rifles division.
Dr_Funk briefed on November 22, 2003 09:20 PM

Further to your mini-rant about clips and magazines. The Mannlicher M1896 Cavalry carbine is also clip loaded, like the Garand. The Mannlicher is a straight pull bolt action. It loads with a 5-round clip that remains in the magazine until you've fired all 5 rounds. Then the clip drops through a hole at the bottom of the magazine. I have one. Fine weapon, though it kicks like a mule and its darned hard to find ammunition sources for.