Because of my involvement in the Civilian Marksmanship Program sports and similar hobbies surrounding old military rifles I often find myself in an ethical debate with my fellow competitors and enthusiasts. In a loud world of dime-a-dozen AR clones and wannabe snipers assembling parts builds out of multi-thousand dollar actions, the (relatively) quiet debate over the restoration of military antiques rages on among those who consider themselves purists and those who see themselves as preservers of history, both in spirit and practice.
I know a fair amount of people who fall into both camps. I dare say the purists are mostly made up of collectors and modern-day treasure hunters. These individuals will likely never fire their weapons, instead storing them away in their own private museums as sacred objects and physical pieces of history.
The other camp is made up of those who actively use their old weapons. These are the people in the CMP competitions and reenactments. I fall into that category for the most part, as my rifles are used heavily and see thousands of rounds a year along with the attendant abuse, dirt, and rain. Many collectors I know cringe at the rugged treatment I give my pristine Swedish Mauser. The 1914 vintage rifle sees more rounds annually than most IDPA pistols and has been dropped and kicked around regularly.
To the uninformed, the debate seems fairly insignificant. Who really cares about what you do with your old gun? The argument that there are no more being made, so extra care should be taken to preserve what’s left. Therefore these rifles are curios shouldn’t be fired or otherwise altered. I know many people who won’t mess with a single part of a rifle. And I know others who’ll tear down and rebuild anything from Garands to Mosins.
When I was a kid I got hooked early. The very first article I read on the subject was by David Fortier, a comparison between said Mosin and Mauser. I knew from the start that I wanted to have a Mauser like the one in the article: a real Nazi K98k.
Like many young boys in the early 2000’s, I got to witness the popularity of surplus rifles soar due to movies like Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates. With the popularity came increases in price and at 14 years old, a real K98k was out of my price range at over $250. A Mosin could be had for only $60, so I had my first rifle.
Fast forward over fourteen years to my beautiful bride and me on our weekly mall crawl and shopping excursion. Somehow I found myself standing in front of a rack loaded with Yugo Mausers…with one exception. In the midst of the bulky, hardwood-stocked M48s was a slim rifle with a laminated stock and turned-down bolt handle. It was a K98k.
I could hardly believe my eyes as I snatched it from the rack. I scanned the weapon and instantly determined that it was indeed a WW2 vintage Yugo capture of German manufacture. A glance at several of the parts revealed small stamp marks featuring the Nazi eagle over various numbers. I haggled a bit with my friend at the counter and took it home for a paltry $240.
I was proud of the fact that I had somehow managed to get a rifle I wanted as a boy for less than what they were going for back when I first read that article. There was just one problem with my rifle — it was a gigantic piece of grease-covered shit.
I had several healthy debates with my peers over what I intended to do with the rifle. One friend of mine pulled $400 out of his wallet and offered to stock my fridge with beer if I gave it to him to save it from my sandpaper and files. I declined.
Over the course of a week or so, I received many more offers for the rifle, all of them motivated by the fear that the gun would be ruined in my hands. It made me feel bad, as I would never butcher a rifle by “sporterizing” it. There’s a very special place in hell for anyone who would knowingly do that a genuine K98k or the like. Sporterizing is a crime against history and would make Wilhelm Mauser roll over in his grave. Restoring his creations, though, brings you good fortune. Or so I hoped.
It took me the better part of five hours and untold numbers of shop towels to fully degrease the beast. There was so much cosmoline inside the bolt that the firing pin would only move in slow-motion when the trigger was pulled. The bare rifle I was left with wasn’t much to look at. It was a rather sad looking piece with raised grain, poor bluing, and a variety of obscene tool marks from its time in Communist lockup.
The restoration I had in mind wasn’t to bring the gun into new condition. I wanted to show its age, but at the same time regain some of its original character. You have to be selective about what you restore and how when it comes to these things. The bluing can’t be too dark and the wood can’t be too shiny. This was a combat rifle likely captured close to its time of manufacture on the battlefield and I wanted to make it hold up to that reputation as best I could.
My first task was restoring the stock. The wood was in poor condition, but showed no cracks and fit tight to the action. The handguard was slightly oversized and hung over the stock. Much of the wood near the barrel band was caked with cosmoline and appeared almost rotten. The recoil lug was also oversized and protruded past the lock disc.
Normally I’d soak the stock in Purple Power to get the cosmoline out. I determined that that may be dangerous to the epoxy used in the lamination process, so I opted to simply sand the surface of the stock and let the oils present in the wood act as a surface finish. This is important because no varnish would work with cosmoline still in the wood.
My initial pass with 400 grit paper revealed a lovely color. The gooey wood choked the sandpaper quickly, so I went through a lot of it. Instead of simply sanding the handguard flush to the stock, I decided to let it keep its character and rounded it out while letting it still have its own shape. The finished piece blends well with the stock.
Sanding the stock took several hours and I finished it out with a 600 grit polish. Sure enough, the oils in the wood emerged and gave the rifle a natural appearance rather than a shiny one. I loved that my hands again smelled of cosmoline. It evokes special memories in those who grew up walking the rows in gun shows dreaming of finding that special rifle.
The next task was the metal. This was more difficult, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t deal with. The bluing on many of the metal parts was gone or in poor condition. The rear barrel band was nearly in the white, just like the upper barrel surface and sight hood.
Of greater concern was the magazine floorplate and bolt handle. The Commies force-matched the rifle and stamped their own serial number after crudely grinding the original markings off. That could not be allowed to stand. I carefully removed the serial number from the bolt handle and set it aside for recoloration.
The floorplate was a bit harder. I used all my filing skills and managed to smooth the entire thing out. There was still a bit of divot left, but given the thickness of the plate it was the best I could do without risking damage.
The rest of the metal was fully degreased and any rust or corrosion removed. That’s when I soaked the bore and chamber. The rifling was crisp and sharp.
The metal parts in need of a reblue were sanded and hit with steel wool before being heated with a propane torch and dunked into cold blue solution. This impromptu hot blue process has worked over many projects for me. A bit of heat causes the bluing to work faster and more evenly, while at the same time allowing flexibility for an artificial patina later on.
With the parts reblued and the wood done, I reassembled the rifle and checked function. As a final small project, I reworked the trigger to be a crisp two-stage and gave Hornady a call. In the mean time, I ordered a reproduction sling and set about fitting it.
Hornady sent me two varieties of their excellent ammunition, the first being their 8mm JS 196gr Vintage Match load and the other a 195gr Soft Point Custom International. My first trip to the range with the rifle proved that Hornady knows a thing or two about accurate ammunition.
Both Hornady offerings grouped well. My average for the Match load was five shots into 2.5” at 100 yards and 3” with the Custom loads in the same conditions off the bench. There was just one problem.
The excellent CMP-quality groups were low and left by more windage than I had available to me in the front sight dovetail. WARNING: this is where the purists should turn their heads. I’m about to sweat off a front sight and reposition it, so avert your eyes now.
I wrapped the barrel in tin foil to act as a heat shield and took the front sight apart before introducing it to Mr. Propane Torch. The process was pretty easy. Solder ran out and I popped the sight base off. I found that the small lock screw was badly stripped and I opted to retap the sight base and install a hardened steel lock screw in its place. After I made the necessary modifications, I reassembled the sight and headed back to the range.
The result: I was thrilled to see groups printing dead center. I made the final adjustments and backed out to 200 yards. Sure enough, I was ringing steel shot after shot.
I gave pause for a moment and mused about the journey I made getting here. I wondered if there would be some young man who would read the article I was going to write and be inspired to get into old rifles just as the Fortier article did for me all those years ago. If so, I hope that when he shoots his old Mauser, he feels what I felt the day I made a boyhood dream real.
A note on Yugo-captured K98k rifles:
WW2 was a crazy time, as was the aftermath. I know a lot about old rifles, especially Mausers, but getting a definitive date on this one is next to impossible. Based on the features of the rifle, I determined that the barrel is indeed of German production, as many had Yugo barrels installed while being rearsenaled post-war. The Yugoslavian barrels are slightly different and require a modification to the stock. The Yugos also never, to my knowledge, manufactured laminated stocks for the K98k and, combined with the sanding marks where the original stamps would’ve been, allows me to say that the stock is of German manufacture.
Based on the features of the rifle and the markings I can find, I can narrow down the date of production to sometime in 1944. I can reasonably assume that this rifle was likely captured or surrendered shortly after being made, was scrubbed of markings and then immediately put into storage until it was imported. The fact that it still has capture screws and a sight hood says that it was likely found to be in serviceable condition from the get-go and simply remarked.
If you’re in the market for a K98k and want one for less than the ludicrous prices being asked today — sometimes in excess of $2000 — you’d do well to search for a Yugo capture, as they’re about the closest thing you can get to an original condition rifle that was used in the war. The Russian capture rifles are often in poor condition and have a thick black finish with an ‘X’ on the receiver over the original markings. Then again, they’re also real war rifles that have their own unique history.