The Commission Rifle Part VI — The Gewehr 88/05
In previous parts of this series I mentioned how the jilted firearms designer Paul Mauser dejectedly skulked off to create his own designs after being refused a seat at the table of the German Rifle Commission. Basically the Commission told Mauser, “hey, were gonna be creating this new design for a bolt action rifle. We’re gonna use your action for the design, but you will have no say in what we are gonna create.” As the German Rifle Commission designed the Gewehr 88, Paul Mauser designed and entered into production a number of bolt action models that were far superior to the Gewehr 88. In fact, by the time it was adopted by the German military, it had already been made outclassed and obsolete by Mauser’s designs. In 1898 the German military adopted the Gewehr 98, a Mauser design considered one of the greatest bolt actions ever created, it’s action serving as a basis for most bolt action designs up to this day. The poor Gewehr 88 had been in service barely ten years before being replaced, Paul Mauser’s ultimate comeuppance to the Rifle Commission.
While Germany was rearming with its new ultra modern Mauser rifle, Germany didn’t want to simply scrap or sell as surplus it’s stock of hundreds of thousands of Gewehr 88′s. Thus in 1905 began a program to modify the Gewehr 88 into an appropriate reserve arm. The first major modification was to rechamber the rifle to fire spitzer cartridges. Spitzer cartridges featured pointed bullets which had greater velocity, better ballistics, and more accuracy.
The Gewehr 88 was adopted before the invention of the spitzer bullet, and thus used round nosed bullets.
The other major modification was to the Mannlicher magazine. Whereas the Gewehr 88 used en bloc clips the new Gewehr 98 used stripper clips. It was decided that the German Army couldn’t have two separate forms of ammunition, which would make logistics and supply more difficult. Rather, the Gewehr 88 was modified to accept Gew 98 stripper clips, with a clip holder machined directly into the receiver of the rifle. In addition, the opening on the bottom of the magazine, which originally was the opening through which the empty en bloc clip dropped through, was capped off as it was no longer needed and only provided an opening through which dust, moisture, and dirt could enter the action. Thus the new Gew 88/05 was born.
It was a good idea Germany held on to the Gew 88. The first few years of World War I exacted heavy demands on Germany for small arms, and dangerous shortages of almost every weapon occurred. Specifically there weren’t enough Gewehr 98′s to arm everyone, so Germany had to dig in to it’s old stocks of Gew 88/05′s to shore up the numbers. Originally the Gew 88/05 was only intended to be used by reserve units, guards, messengers, supply personnel, and other rear echelon units, however due to the severity of arms shortages in 1914 it was not uncommon for Gewehr 88′s to be used at the front. The Gew 88/05 had many problems. The new stripper clip system was very finicky, as the conversion wasn’t really tested much to see if it worked adequately. Loading of the Gew 88/05 required meticulous care to ensure the cartridges were seated right in the magazine. It was also discovered that after a few dozen shots, the action and magazine tended to overheat, causing the magazine the lock up and cause the bolt to lock in place when closed. The rifle would continue to function again once the action cooled down.
The Gewehr 88/05 was far from a perfect rifle, in fact it downright sucked big time. However a sucky rifle is better than no rifle at all, and the Gewehr 88 was a necessary stopgap until Gewehr 98 production could catch up with the war. By 1916 German production of the Gewehr 98 increased to the point that every soldier and sailor of the German military could be armed with a Gewehr 98. Thus the Gewehr 88/05 was not longer needed. Some went back into storage, however most would be donated to Germany’s allies, such as Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, both of whom were in desperate need of working rifles.