“Vertrou in God en die Mauser!” was the battle cry of citizen soldiers as they protected their democracies against the Evil Empire of the age–and they had little else to trust in besides God and their Mauser rifles.
At the turn of the last century, the pink spots checkering schoolroom globes represented Britain’s ever-expanding acquisitions. In southern Africa two small republics, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal), had unfortunately found new mineral wealth while being sandwiched between several British colonies.
The tough, Afrikaans-speaking residents of these two fledgling republics had fended off the larcenous Brits less than two decades before and saw that they were going to have to do it again. Unable to afford a single mass purchase, the governments bought state-of-the-art Mausers at a discount rate and then resold them to members of the militias at cost.
A Boer farmer could buy a standard 1895 Mauser, identical to the ones used by Spain to flog U.S. troops in Cuba, at a cost of three pounds, Sterling. A thousand rounds of 174-grain ammo went for just over six pounds.
For the wealthy burghers in the booming mining towns, the 1895 service rifle was rather pedestrian. Since war hadn’t yet been declared, they wanted something that could be used for sporting purposes as well. Private and small-volume purchases were made, and the special sporting rifles were made available for about five quid.
The result was one of the most beautiful military rifles ever, the Pleasure Mauser. Based on the same 1895 small-ring action and superb 7x57mm cartridge, the Plezier Mausers were fitted with a precision, tapered 28-inch octagonal barrel. The rear sight is a short ladder and the front winged and windage adjustable. The stock is clearly a sporting design, with a semi-pistol grip, fine checkering, cheekpiece and Schnabel fore-end. The front sling swivel is silver-soldered to the barrel in the manner of African hunting rifles. Alongside the receiver are distinctive flats standing out from the gentle curves.
When war broke out in the fall of 1899, coarse Boers left their farms and bourgeois Burghers the comfort of their townhomes, both to go “on commando.” British-held towns were sieged and relief columns introduced to some harsh realities.
Poor men hunting meat for their families become efficient marksmen, by learning either to stalk close or to stretch their ability with a rifle. In the case of the Boers, they did both. It is appalling to think of the carnage at such places as Colenso and Spion Kop, where men with such talents used rapid-firing rifles to fire at massed bodies of troops–with what is still arguably the most effective cartridge ever.
Gradually, however, the British pressed (as they do) stubbornly on, and the Boers fell back. By this point, unit commanders had learned who could shoot and who could not and which rifles shot more accurately. Many egos were wounded and humiliations doled out as the leaders of the increasingly fragmented commandoes ordered the Burghers to “temporarily” trade their beautiful, accurate Pleziers with the better marksmen.
If, say, the Minutemen were to make a group purchase of Colt M-16s and the wealthier members opted for Les Baer Varminters, the effective difference between them would have been the same.
Boer marksmanship during the guerrilla phase entered the status of legend, and British sentries’ worst nightmare was the specter of the lone, hungry Boer with his Mauser.
Kipling wrote both prose and verse in honor of Boer marksmanship. His poem “Two Kopjes” laments the frustration of British troops in trying to move through the small flat-topped hills that dot the veldt. The Boers used mutually supporting, highly accurate enfilade fire to consume columns of British light horse. Kipling helped nurture the legend of Boer marksmanship in Piet, writing:
An’ when there wasn’t aught to do
But camp and cattle-guards,
I’ve fought with ‘im the ‘ole day through,
At fifteen ‘undred yards;
Long afternoons o’ lyin’ still,
An’ ‘earin’ as you lay,
The bullets swish from ‘ill to ‘ill
Like scythes among the ‘ay.
I was fortunate to be in Africa recently and privileged to evaluate current state-of-the-art technology: Trijicon’s superb AccuPoint scope. After a wonderful hunt in the Kalahari, I went to visi
t old friends and was offered a restored Mauser with a weird name for a farm cull (a growing blesbok herd lives on the farm, and the larder was low on biltong).
South Africa, long cut off from western sources, developed its own firearms industry, and its standards are second to none. My host provided me with top-flight reloads: 140-grain Sierra GameKing BTPSPs seated over 40 grains of Somchem S335 (equal to 3031) in Pretoria Metal Printing casings. These were ignited with PMP magnum rifle primers to produce 2,711 fps. A slower-burning powder might grab some more V out of the long tube, but when in Rome…
A cardboard box, self-adhesive Orange Peel targets and a set of Leupy rangefinder binos turn any pasture into a surveyed range. We set up so on a fallow field, and the Plezier Mauser gave me minute-of-emu head. The clarity of the 8x32s was such that we could easily see impacts on the targets at 100 meters.
After a reconnaissance by ultralight, we landed and took a closer look at several groups of farm blesbok. Spotting a dozen gleaning a recently harvested field, we left the truck and stalked through waist-high grass to within 60 meters.
“Ah there, Piet!—be’ind ‘is stony kop. With ‘is Boer bread an’ biltong, an’ ‘is flask of awful Dop;
‘Is Mauser for amusement an’ ‘is pony for retreat,
I’ve known a lot o’ fellers shoot a dam’ sight worse than Piet.” — Rudyard Kipling
My host spotted a representative buck, and I popped up out of the grass and took him just above the shoulder. He hunched, sagged and then gave one last effort to catch up with his brethren. I Hemingwayed him again on the sprint, and he plowed into the yellow grass of Africa.
On a rocky berg in Natal, well over a century after its manufacture, this beautiful Plezier Mauser and the cartridge Frank Barnes described as “one of the best all-around sporting rounds ever developed” are still bringing in biltong.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, most of these rare, beautiful rifles are in private collections. Sadly, too, those few that were brought back to England after the war are probably languishing on the floor of the Atlantic–courtesy of the British government.
Ron Bester, in his academic treasure Boer Rifles and Carbines of the Anglo-Boer War, wrote that some Plezier Mausers were equipped with a thumb cutout on the left wall of the receiver, à la the 98. The actions of most Plezier Mausers are nearly identical to those used on Chilean 1895s, except that the bolt handles are turned down. In fact, many of the rifles sent to South Africa wore Chilean crests and, after the war, vice versa.
Which drives one to thinking…Chilean 1895s are as common now as trails across the border, and Dan Pedersen (928/772-4060, www.cutrifle.com) broach-cuts beautiful tapered octagonal barrels in his Prescott smithy. Perhaps there’s a machine shop that would build replica sights. And for a stock…