By Steve Nelson
I have to begin this story by dedicating it to my cherished friend and mentor, the late Fred Wells. Without his encouragement, I wouldn’t have had the courage to begin the project, much less the technical insight to complete it.
For years shooters have argued over the technical merits of the Mauser Model 98 and the Steyr Mannlicher-Schoenaeur actions. The Mauser has a strong locking system and keeps the cartridge under control from the time it’s stripped from the magazine until it’s locked in the chamber. The large claw of the Mauser extractor maintains a powerful grip on the cartridge case as it’s pulled from the chamber and ejected. The Mauser is easily adapted to a low scope mount centered over the bore. In contrast, the Mannlicher action has a Schoenauer rotary magazine – similar to the Savage M99 – that cradles each round in its own little pocket. Part of what makes the Mannlicher operate so smoothly is its bolt handle, which is mounted in the center of the bolt rather than on the back end as with the Mauser. However, this feature requires the rear bridge to be split so the bolt handle can pass through it. Because of the split bridge, a scope has to be mounted offset to one side.
In 1994 Fred Wells and I were discussing a custom Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifle that I had recently completed and was displaying on my table at the American Custom Gunmakers Guild Exhibition in Reno, Nev. We were musing about the possibility of merging the Schoenauer rotary magazine with a Mauser M98 bolt, which would be the ultimate in controlled-round feeding. With Fred’s vast experience in machining and making actions, he figured out how the Mannlicher-Schoenauer could be modified to accept the Mauser M98 bolt. Neither of us could leave the idea alone, and we soon began actual work on it. Since we were both full-time gunmakers, that work had to be done in our “spare” time, but eventually we both completed prototype actions. Since I worked mine into a finished rifle in 1999, it’s been my preferred hunting arm.
Fred’s wife, Rachel, dubbed the new action the “Mauserlicher.” Sadly, Fred is no longer around to encourage some of my wilder notions, but he left me with a couple of improvements that I will incorporate into any new versions of the Mauserlicher. These include an improved trigger guard/floor plate mechanism that would attach the rotary magazine to a hinged floor plate. Fred also suggested making a left-handed version of the Mauserlicher, and that’s now under development. Since the extractor on a left-handed Mauser bolt is on the left side, this version of the action will not require broaching the raceway of the Model 1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer. Broaching adds considerably to the work required to produce a right-handed version of the rifle. As evidenced by the photos, the rifle looks superficially like a Mauser M98 You have to look closely to notice the subtle features of the Mannlicher-Schoenauer M1903, which formed the basis of the action. Along the right bolt raceway you can see the small button in the loading platform that allows the shooter to release cartridges from the rotary magazine without running them through the action. Turn the rifle upside down and the Mannlicher floor plate is a dead giveaway. Fred Wells’ action is designated Mauserlicher No. 1. My personal rifle is Mauserlicher No. 2. The new right-hand version will be No. 3 and the left-hand No. 4.
On the original project, the difficult part for me was broaching the right bolt raceway to accept the Mauser extractor. I had no prior experience with broaching operations, and the machinery at my disposal consisted of an old lathe with a milling attachment. The extractor on a Mannlicher-Schoenauer is on the left side of the bolt, so I had to remove 0.050 inch of metal from the right raceway. Fred came to the rescue by showing me how to make a special cutter similar to a rifling cutter. I set the cutter up between centers on the lathe and then mounted the receiver in the milling attachment. I hand-fed the action across the cutter, removing from 0.0003 to 0.0005 inch with each pass. Tedious, yes, but not terribly difficult once I perfected the tooling. Fred simply modified his rifling tooling to hold the action, and he used a modified rifling head to accept the larger cutter for the raceway. I now mount the actions similarly on the cross slide and cut away the excess metal. On a left-handed action, it is not necessary to remove so much metal since the extractor is on the left-hand side of the bolt. However, I have had to take out some metal to make room for the bow of the Mauser extractor.
At the time I was doing this work, I didn’t have a TIG welding system, so I had a friend weld a square bridge over the original split rear bridge. I soldered a sleeve over the front ring to allow a larger recoil lug and material for a front scope base. I could then machine dovetails on the front and rear bridges to accept Dave Talley’s older-style scope rings. For actions No. 3 and No. 4, I’m welding both the front and rear bridges myself. When all the machining is completed, I plan to have the entire action and the scope rings color case-hardened, which will add a new dimension to the overall project.
When I created Mauserlicher No. 2, I had only a Grizzly lathe with a milling attachment. In order to remove the primary extractor cam, which sits inside the front receiver ring of the M1903 action, I had to set up the action in the milling attachment and make a boring bar to machine out this metal. I can now install a fixture which is a tight fit in the bolt raceway, dial it in between centers in the lathe with the four-jaw chuck in place, lock the action with the four-jaw, set up the steady rest on the front receiver ring, remove the center fixture, and machine out the cam with a boring bar. That sounds complicated, but it’s a much more rigid system for performing a step that’s necessary for both the left and right-handed actions.
It’s also necessary to machine the rear of the action to accept the M98 bolt shroud. Originally, I set up the action in the milling attachment on the lathe and used different end mills to machine the back of the rear receiver bridge to accept the M98 bolt flanges. Since then, I’ve made up a single cutter to do this cut. A bearing in the bolt raceway centers the cut in the bolt ways. Hopefully, this will streamline the machining process.
On the prototype project, I modified the existing Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt stop bracket to accept a Mauser bolt stop and modified the original trigger pivot to accept a Blackburn adjustable trigger. On the left-hand version, I will have to weld on a new hanger on the right-hand side for the bolt stop. The original square hole for the Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt stop will almost exactly coincide with the new cut-out for the root of the left-hand bolt. For a right-hand action, I manufacture a new bracket for the M98 bolt stop and weld it into the original square hole for the Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt stop, then cut out a new square hole for the new location of the bolt stop. At the same time I would need to machine a clearance in the magazine shoulder on the left side of the receiver to accept the M98 bolt stop/ejector box. On the left-hand version, I would have to do this on the right side of the action.
Due to changes in the geometry on the original project, I had to make a new sear for the Blackburn trigger. However, if the original hanger for the trigger is cut off and a new hanger welded on, the factory sear can be made to function just fine. On the latest right-hand version, I used a M98 bolt from an intermediate action. Because of the sear arrangement, I have had to open up the sear slot in the bottom of the rear tang and then weld a small plate into the front part of the original slot to move the whole opening to the rear. On this rifle I plan to use an original Mauser 98 trigger modified for an adjustable, single-stage pull, and that requires adding a bit of length to the sear. The left-hand action uses a Granite Mountain Kurtz-length bolt. This one will require a custom trigger to locate the sear correctly.
The original safety on the bolt of the first Mauserlicher was replaced with a modified Jim Wisner side-swing safety, and the original Mauser bolt handle was replaced – as a fanciful personal choice – with a custom-made, checkered, hollow knob. On the left-hand version, I have a Granite Mountain left-hand safety. For the new right-hand action, I’m making a two-position safety on an original Mauser shroud that will swing on the left side of the shroud.
Just to add a little extra challenge to the original project, I opened up the rotary magazine enough to accept my favorite cartridge, the 7×57 Mauser, instead of the original 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer. This isn’t a difficult conversion. All it requires is opening the sides of the rotary magazine bracket to allow the larger diameter cases to fit. The conversion also works for the .257 Roberts, the 6mm Remington and any other cartridge based on the 7×57 case. The new right and left-hand versions are still set up for the original 6.5×54 cartridge, but they can be modified to feed the 7×57 family of cartridges if that’s what their new owners want.
The original rifle was fitted up with a Half Moon .284 barrel and a custom front-sight ramp and sling-swivel base. Because this was a personal rifle and somewhat out of the ordinary, I decided it needed some engraving. Ed Peugh of Ukiah, Calif., agreed to add a bit of scroll and gold work to the floor plate and grip cap. While rust bluing the metalwork and nitre bluing the screws and small parts, I shipped the scope rings, grip cap and bolt shroud to Doug Turnbull for color case-hardening.
Since I had stocked a couple of Mannlicher-Schoenaeur rifles before, the stock work was fairly straightforward. The English walnut came from Gilbert “Slim” Swenson many years ago and had been thoroughly aged in my storage room. In order to avoid the awkward bottom line of most Mannlicher-Schoenaeur stocks, I kept the wood line even with the upper edge of the floor plate and let the bottom portions of the magazine retaining mechanism extend down below the wood line. The Biesen trap butt plate houses a Talley peep sight that slips into the same dovetail as the rear scope ring. With several coats of Waterlox and a bit of hand rubbing to bring out the beauty already in the wood, the rifle was ready for checkering and, finally, for shooting.
After I’d finished my first Mauserlicher, Fred Wells called to discuss floor-plate options. He suggested that it should be possible to remove the flanges which retain the rotating floor plate on the original action and substitute a hinged floor plate/trigger guard arrangement similar to the Oberndorf system that’s often copied by modern-day manufacturers. If the floor plate were made flat with no recesses for a follower spring, it would hold the rotary spool magazine in its housing quite handily. I’m incorporating this feature into the right-handed version of the Mauserlicher, but for the left-handed version, I’m going a step further and making it with a blind magazine and no floor plate. By adding a couple of set screws into the ends of the magazine support structure, I can hold the magazine box together as one piece. Since the rotary magazine can be emptied by simply depressing the retaining button, there really is no need for a hinged floor plate of any kind. But if the magazine rotor ever lets go, I will be in trouble.
My Mauserlicher No. 2 now sports a Leupold Vari-X III scope, which helps the rifle place three 175-grain Hornady bullets in a cloverleaf that’s only three-fourths of an inch in diameter. The rifle does almost as well with 160-grain loads but seems to like the round-nosed, 175-grainer better. Just last season I found a load for the 140-grain Hornady GMX that groups almost as tightly as the 175-grain Hornadys. Each year that I carry this rifle in the field makes it more valuable to me. I joke with one of my clients that the price of my rifle goes up every time I take it hunting.
As is the case with most experimental work, this rifle represents quite a lot of starts and stops and reinvention. No doubt the next ones will be easier … and better. However, the excitement of new territory is hard to beat or at least that’s what I tell myself now that it’s finished. As Tom Turpin said in his review of this rifle in the 2005 Gun Digest, “No doubt it would have been far easier to have started with a Mauser action … but … it wouldn’t have been as much fun.” The new actions are giving me a chance to work out better, more efficient tools and techniques. I am negotiating for a small shaper that should really speed up the machining of the bolt-lug raceways. The same tooling would streamline machining of the shortened Kurtz actions that I occasionally make or the magnum-length actions I have welded together. Ah well, boys and their tools are inseparable.
This Mauserlicher project is the quintessential definition of “custom” gun-making: Two gunmakers saw a void in a nearly perfect design and sought to fill it. Peter Paul Mauser’s controlled-round feeding system was and is an excellent bolt action. The addition of the Schoenauer spool magazine takes that controlled-round concept to a whole new level. Each cartridge is cradled in its own pocket in the magazine and fed one by one up under the bolt face. Fred Wells recognized the improvement and infected me with his enthusiasm. Many of my custom projects operate the same way. A client will have an idea for a rifle or shotgun. Then he piques my interest, and I have to design a project that is both technically functional and aesthetically pleasing to both of us. Between us, we tweak out the bugs until the client’s needs and dreams are satisfied. Along the way I get to be a part of a creative process that nurtures my soul. I also get to own, if only for a short while, many unique and beautiful guns. What a life, eh?