“The best way to make a little money in the gun business is to start with a lot of money.” This saying describes how hard it is to be successful in the gun business. For every Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester there have been men whose involvement in firearms was filled with disappointment. It can be said that the story of Paul and Wilhem Mauser fits into the latter group . . .
Mauser is best known for its bolt action rifle. In fact many people still consider the Mauser bolt design to be one of the best, if not THE best bolt action design. It’s certainly been proven throughout history, as the Germans used the Mauser bolt design in both WW1 and WW2 on their main battle rifles. Even the Americans adopted the Mauser bolt for the Springfield 1903. Some small design changes were made, but Mauser sued and won over $3M in royalties for patent infringement. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; let’s go back to the beginning….
Wilhelm Mauser (born 1834) and Paul Mauser (born 1838) were two of thirteen children born to Franz and Agathe Mauser. The two brothers joined their two other brothers and father working in the Royal Wurttemberg Rifle Factory. Early on Paul showed aptitude for designing firearms. The family would work at the factory from 5:00AM until late in the evening (7:00-10:00PM). Afterwards Paul would find some time to work on his firearm ideas. One idea that started to take shape was the design of a bolt action. In 1869 the brothers travelled to Prussia to demonstrate their new bolt action rifle. The Prussians were impressed. Unfortunately they also designated the design as a “state secret” which prevented the brothers from finding business elsewhere. To add insult to injury, Prussia only paid the brothers 8,000 Talers. In contrast the middleman who introduced the Mausers to Prussia received 40,000 Talers!
When the Mausers returned home they decided not to return to the Royal Rifle Factory. Instead they decided to make a go of it and established Waffenfabrik Mauser in their home of Oberndorf. At their newly established company the Mausers worked on both rifles and pistols. Since Mauser rifles are widely known, for the rest of this article I will primarily focus on the lesser known Mauser pistols. Please also note that I will not cover all of the Mauser pistol designs – just the main ones.
The Mauser C78 “Zig Zag” Revolver
The Construktion of 1878 (C78) was one of Mauser’s first attempts to improve upon a firearm. If you think about it, the mechanism of a revolver is actually quite complex. Not only must the cylinder align with the barrel, but the rotation must come to a complete stop before the hammer hits the primer. To accomplish this, lots of little mechanical parts must work together. For example, there is typically a “hand” that turns the cylinder. In addition, a bolt stop must engage and disengage to lock the cylinder. It’s possible for all of this to get misaligned – when this happens the revolver is said to be “out of time”.
Paul Mauser saw this as an opportunity for improvement. The C78 revolver is nicknamed the “Zig Zag” because of the grooves cut into the cylinder. Instead of using a delicate hand and bolt stop, the grooves act as both an actuating mechanism as well as a cylinder lock.
The design of the C78 was pretty advanced for its time. There is only a single coil spring used to tension the hammer and actuate the trigger/revolving mechanism. As you can see, a single cam lug moves back and forth along the bottom of the frame. This cam fits into machined grooves in the cylinder.
As the hammer is pulled back, the cam moves forward along the diagonal groove, which rotates the cylinder. The cam then fits into the front of the straight groove (towards the barrel end), which acts as a cylinder lock. As the trigger is pulled, the cam moves backwards, falling into the deeper grove (towards the rear of the gun), so that the next time the hammer is pulled back it will follow the diagonal groove again.
As with other guns of this era it is a break open design which aids in ejection of the spent shells. The frame release mechanism also acts as an ejection lever.
Not many Zig Zag revolvers were sold, and just a few hundred were produced in its final year of 1884. While the Zig Zag mechanism is indeed unique, it turned out to be expensive to manufacture requiring a fair number of machining steps. However, the ingenuity of the design should be recognized. In fact, both the Americans and Germans utilized this design in some of their aircraft cannons.
Success Brings Hardship
Around this time the brothers traveled to Serbia to demonstrate their firearm designs. However, the Serb government was slow to make a decision. The trip turned into an extended three year stay. Finally in 1881 a contract was signed for 120,000 Mauser rifles. Success at last! Unfortunately the pressure of trying to close the deal and the extended stay away from home took their toll on Wilhelm. He passed away in January of 1882.
A few years later Paul travelled alone to Constantinople. This trip lead to the largest order Mauser ever received up to that point – 500,000 rifles and 50,000 carbines. However, two important details of the contract would come back to haunt Mauser. The first was that Mauser was not allowed to manufacture for any other country while they fulfilled the contract. The second was a manufacturing rate of 500 rifles per day. There was no way to meet this rate of production at the small factory the Mausers had established. They needed to greatly expand the plant, but did not have the funds to do so. Ironically it was this huge contract that led Paul Mauser to lose control of the company he started. Since no bank was willing to loan him the money, he ultimately had to sell the company to Ludwig Loewe & Company. Paul Mauser lost his status as an owner/partner and instead became merely an employee.
To make matters worse, many other countries were now interested in the Mauser rifle. However his contract prohibited manufacturing for other countries until the order was complete. Therefore the orders for China, Brazil, Congo, Chile, Mexico, Orange Free State, Serbia, Transvaal, Uruguay, and Luxembourg were all transferred to Ludwig Loewe instead of being manufactured by the Mauser company.
The Mauser C96 “Broomhandle”
At the turn of the century the race was on to see who could develop a self-loading “automatic” pistol. Fidel, Freidrich, and Josef Feederle were all Mauser employees who had worked at one time in the company’s research and development group. They started working on a new design in their spare time (much like Paul and Wilhelm had done when they worked for the Royal Rifle Factory). However, Fidel could not resist the temptation to work on the design during the day. When Paul Mauser found out he was furious. The brothers reverted back to only working on the design in their spare time. Of course progress slowed at this point.
In 1893 Hugo Borchardt patented the first locked-breech self-loading pistol. The following year Theodor Bergmann introduced a self-loading blowback pistol. Paul Mauser realized that he was behind in getting a self-loading pistol to market. Paul remembered the work of the Feederle brothers and directed them to present their design as a formal project at Mauser. Paul approved it and work began in earnest to improve and finish the design. It was designated as the Construktion 1896, or C96. The market quickly gave it a nickname, the “Broomhandle Mauser” because the grips resemble the handle of a broom.
The C96 is really a showcase of precise machining. The entire gun is made up of precisely machined parts that are held together using only tension. In fact, only one screw is present on the entire gun – to hold the grips on. No screws or pins are used for the entire operating mechanism of the gun.
To disassemble the gun a lever is lowered which allows the entire operating mechanism to be removed.
All of the parts are held together only using precise fitting and tension. It is kind of like a metal jigsaw puzzle.
The C96 turned out to be Mauser’s most successful pistol. Many variations were made over time including a fully automatic (machine gun) version! The C96 was very popular worldwide, specifically in China and Russia. The short barreled version was popular in Russia and is now nicknamed the “Bolo”, short for Bolsheviks. Perhaps the most famous admirer of the C96 was none other than Winston Churchill himself. Churchill used the C96 in the Boer Wars. He is rumored to have said that the Mauser is the “best thing in the world.”
P08 Luger Crashes the Party
Unfortunately the adoption of the P08 Luger by the German Military meant that the C96 Mauser would never be sold in the quantities that Paul had hoped for. However, during WW1 a severe lack of small arms did mean that a fair quantity of C96 pistols entered military service. Today these are known as “Red 9” pistols because they have a large red number 9 painted on the grips. This is so that troops would know they could be loaded with the standard 9mm Luger ammunition.
Paul Mauser’s Last Direction
After the loss to the P08 Luger, Paul Mauser realized that the company needed to head in a new direction. The C96 was a product of 1890s technology, where each piece was hand machined and fitted. A new design was needed that was cheaper and faster to produce. As the world headed towards WW1, Paul instructed his firm to work on an innovative new concept called the “pistol family”. The idea was to produce a single design capable of different calibers simply by manufacturing the components to different sizes. For example, a 6.35mm pistol could be made into a 9mm pistol simply by producing each component 30% larger. As Paul was getting on in years, he directed Josef Nickl to lead this effort. Nickl decided to start with a hammerless, fixed barrel, blowback design. He felt that these features could be adopted to all calibers.
What was eventually produced was a small and simple pistol chambered in 7.65mm (or .32ACP). The first design is known as the Model 1910. Subsequently the design was enhanced resulting in the Model 1914.
(Model of 1910 Right, Model of 1914 Left)
The design is simple and reliable. The barrel is fixed in place by a long pin. The trigger actuates a spring fired striker. The slide is operated by direct blowback.
Right around the time the Model 1914 was released Paul Mauser passed away from an embolism. The entire town of Oberndorf turned up to participate in his funeral procession and pay their last respects.
Josef Nickl took over product development at Mauser and continued evolving the pistol family concept. Unfortunately Mauser did not have the funds to put Nickl’s designs into production. As a result most of Nickl’s designs were only made in small, experimental numbers.
Ironic Twist: Mauser Instructed to Produce the P08 Luger
While alive, Paul Mauser was no fan of Georg Luger. Not only had the P08 Luger been chosen over the C96 Broomhandle, but Georg Luger had tried to patent some of Mauser’s inventions. So it’s a little ironic that Mauser’s parent company instructed the factory to start production of the P08 Luger. On May 1, 1930 all of the machinery and tooling for producing Lugers were transported by rail to Oberndorf. In addition, approximately 800 technicians were relocated. Mauser began producing Lugers in secrecy.
The Treaty of Versailles allowed only the single firm of Simson & Company to produce a small quantity of small arms for internal domestic police use by Germany. When Mauser was instructed to start production, it marked the guns with the Simson “S” designation, along with a secret number code which identified the true source of origin. Mauser used the code “42”, thus all of its guns were marked S/42. Of course “S/42” did not represent Simson at all, but rather Mauser.
In addition the treaty limited the number of small arms that could be manufactured. In an effort to hide the manufacture date, letter codes were used instead. The earliest code was “K” representing 1934. Next was “G” representing 1935. By 1936 all pretense at following the Treaty was dropped and Mauser started marking the true production date on the chamber.
The “G” here represents 1936 and the S/42 represents Mauser.
During WW2 Germany switched to using a 3 letter code to represent manufacturers. Mauser was assigned the code “byf”. Luger production continued until 1942 when it was phased out in favor of the Walther designed P38. The last of the Mauser Lugers incorporated a few changes that reduced the cost of the pistol. Most notably, Black Bakelite (plastic) grips and magazine bottoms were used. In the past these late war Lugers were less desirable to collectors than Lugers with wood grips. However an enterprising vendor starting calling them “Black Widow” Lugers and their demand has been high ever since! The power of marketing.
The “Black Widow” Luger with black plastic grips. It is marked “byf” representing Mauser and was made in 1942 (the last year of production).
In total, Mauser produced over 1,000,000 P08 Luger pistols between 1930 and 1942. I wonder what Paul Mauser would have thought about his firm producing the most of his “arch nemesis” Luger?
Walther Takes Over as the Premiere Small Arms Manufacturer
The firm of Carl Walther Waffenfabrik caused a lot of distress for Mauser. The Model 1910/1914/1934 pistol family had helped to keep Mauser afloat. However, Carl Walther made those pistols obsolete with the introduction of his famous PP and PPK pistols. While both the Mauser and Walther designs were direct blowback, the Walther had the advantage of a double action trigger. That means that the gun could be carried with the hammer down. The first pull of the trigger would cock the hammer and then release it. Subsequent firings would be single action. In addition, in the case of a light primer hit or misfire the trigger could be pulled again.
Mauser realized that it needed its own double action design. That responsibility was put onto Mauser engineer Alex Seidel. Alex had a tough job ahead of him as Walther had taken out patents on the double action mechanism. Working closely with Mauser lawyers, Alex eventually came up with a design that achieved the double action properties without violating the Walther patents. He called this pistol the HSc, short for Hahn Selbstspanner or “self-cocking hammer”).
The Mauser HSc along with its rival the Walther PPK
Mauser was all set to produce the HSc in 1938, however the military did not give them approval to go ahead. Some people believe that Walther had something to do with it as they enjoyed a very close relationship with the HWaA (Army Weapons Office). Because of this delay the PPK became the weapon of choice for police and Nazi party officials.
Finally at the outbreak of WW2 in 1940, Mauser was allowed to proceed with HSc production. Overall the gun performed well and was a worthy competitor to the PPK.
Walther Changes the Game Again
Even as Mauser had its hands full producing the Luger (which they had become quite adept at!) and new HSc, Walther was about to disrupt Mauser yet again. The German Army was seeking ways to simplify and increase production of small arms. Starting with the double action trigger system of his PP, Walther designed a new gun that was much simpler to produce. The new gun required much less steel and was designed around mass production. As a result it was about half as expensive as the P08 Luger to manufacture. The German army officially adopted it as the Pistole of 1938 or P38.
In yet another blow to the pride of Mauser, it was again ordered to start producing its competitor’s pistol design! Mauser had no interest in producing the P38 and engaged in various stalling tactics. Finally by 1940 Mauser was given an ultimatum – start producing P38s or else! Even then it took a good two years for Mauser to fully switch production from the Luger to the P38. In 1942 the last of the Lugers was produced (the so-called “black widow” that I talked about earlier) and the first P38s were made by Mauser. They kept the same “byf” code they were using to identify Mauser manufacture.
The Last of the Mauser Pistols
By late 1944 the war in Europe was nearly over. The Germans ordered Mauser to switch from their “byf” code to “svw”. Nobody is sure why this order was issued – perhaps the military thought that the allies had cracked the code. It took Mauser until 1945 to change the stampings. The “SVW 45” P38 is Mauser’s last mass produced pistol.
The Mauser factory in Oberndorf was targeted and bombed by the Allies on February 22, 1945. Production was halted for nearly a month to repair damage. Just as the factory began production again, it was captured by French troops on April 20, 1945. The French kept the factory in operation for a short while, now producing P38s for French police/army. The German waffenampt (acceptance stamp) was replaced by a French star. This practice continued until the next year, with the slide marked “SVW 46”.
The Spirit of Mauser Lives On
Unfortunately much to the frustration of modern day collectors, the Mauser factory and all records were destroyed. To this day some collectors will say that the French occupation force did it, while others will say that an American commander ordered it. Regardless of who is to blame, the company that Paul and Wilhelm Mauser started had come to a close.
In the final days of Mauser, three engineers tried to save what they could to ensure the legacy of the company. You could say that the spirit of Mauser lives on through their efforts. One of the engineers was Alex Seidel, designer of the HSc pistol. The other two? Edmund Heckler and Theodore Koch.
Much of what I just wrote is a retelling of the detailed and comprehensive information as presented in the book Mauser Pistolen by Weaver, Speed, and Schmid.
About the author: Beetle is an amateur collector, writer, and photographer. His favorite FFL had this to say to him: “you like all the weird stuff.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.