January 01, 2009
An old military rifle is still a good starting point for a custom sporter.
Between World War I and the 1960s, one of the most popular methods of obtaining a sporter-style hunting rifle was by converting a military surplus bolt action. Outfits like New York's Griffin & Howe made classy sporters from 1903 Springfields and 98 Mausers as did others who also used the German military action as the basis of a conversion, although not all of these conversions were things of beauty.
Many post-war Mausers were attacked by would-be gunsmiths who merely shortened the fore-end, cut the barrel to a shorter length and mounted all manner of open sights and the occasional tip-off-mounted scope. Still, it is difficult to make a bad rifle on a 98 Mauser action, and if emulation is any indication, then the Mauser action must be rated as the very best turn-bolt action of all time.
Virtually every London Best magazine rifle turned out by Holland & Holland, Purdey, Rigby and others is built on a Mauser 98-type action, and recent custom actions like the Dakota follow the controlled feed, claw extractor style of these classic actions.
When I came by a virtually new 1909 Argentine Mauser, I became intrigued with converting it to a nice, light sporter; a mountain rifle for the hills and valleys of Virginia's Blue Ridge. My 1909 Argentine Mauser was manufactured in Berlin by Deutsche Waffen- und Munitionsfabriken, better known as DWM, under contract from the Argentine government and was originally chambered for the 7.65 military round. The 1909 action is a 98 Mauser with a unique exception to Mauser military rifles and military rifles in general; the 1909 Argentine has a hinged floor plate, with a sporter-style release in the front of the trigger guard.
To convert the rather ungainly military rifle to a sleek sporter, I turned to custom gunsmith Greg Wolf who shares quarters with Albright's Gun Shop and who is perhaps the best custom gunsmith on the East Coast. He works fast, and incorporates many small modifications into conversions that really make the job superb. But in doing this conversion, I also kept in mind that not everyone is the Aga Khan, so I collected the various parts with an eye for economy. The barrel came from MidwayUSA, the trigger and wing-style Chapman safety came from Brownells Inc. and the stock from Butler Creek. (There are advantages and drawbacks to economy shopping, and these will be addressed as we proceed.) In terms of ease, simply making a sporterized rifle is not difficult. The new barrel is screwed in and headspaced, the stock replaced and that's about it. But in the case of this sporter, Wolf did a number of things that make it special. First, he reshaped the bolt release and checkered the recessed edge for ease of gripping. Furthermore, he cut a small notch into the receiver just under the bolt release, so that one's finger can get a secure purchase on the checkered release.
Similarly, the floorplate release on the military rifle is hard to operate. Wolf took care to carefully rework the release lever in the front of the trigger guard so that the floorplate locks positively into place with a reassuring snap, yet can be opened without having fingers of steel. Along the way, he also reshaped the trigger guard, giving it a pleasing profile.
One of the most striking features of Wolf's conversion is the butter-smooth bolt. No rifle in my collection comes close. There's no hint of binding. Too, Wolf reshaped the bolt handle, not by forging or turning the curved handle over and rewelding it, but by cutting off the straight military handle, then welding on a new handle. While he welded on the new handle, Wolf took care to build up the new welded area so he could then shape the new handle in a sleek, eye-pleasing line.
Many Mauser conversions come up short because of the wing-style safety. The original Mauser safety is an excellent one, provided one chooses not to mount a conventional scope. I have a Husquvarna 9.3x57mm Swedish moose rifle built on a Mauser 98 action that retains the original three-position Mauser safety. I mounted a Swedish-made Aimpoint red-dot-style scope that has infinite eye relief on that rifle and left the bolt handle and safety untouched. The original Mauser safety, when rotated fully to the right, locks both the bolt and striker. With the safety in the upright, 12 o'clock position, the bolt is unlocked but the striker is not, enabling one to unload the rifle or to be in readiness to shoot. When the safety is rotated completely to the left, the rifle is ready to be fired.
British-made express rifles (such as Harry Selby's famous .416 Rigby that I recently had the pleasure of firing) with open, express-style sights retain the Mauser safety, but for a modern rifle with a scope, the original safety is out. I chose to substitute a two-position Chapman safety.
The Chapman two-position safety is less costly than the parts for the Winchester Model 70-style three- position type. In the rear position, the Chapman locks both bolt and striker, and in the forward position the rifle is ready to fire. It is necessary for the gunsmith to have a jig to correctly cut a slot in the Mauser bolt shroud to install the safety conversion. Brownells loaned me a Chapman jig, but being the complete gunsmith, Wolf already had one. Larry Weeks, Brownells' press relations man, pointed out that since virtually all conversions included replacing the military trigger with an adjustable one, the least expensive approach would be to buy one of Brownells' replacement bolt shrouds and install a trigger that had its own safety.
In this setup, the safety is located at the right top of the stock in the same place as the safety on a Remington Model 700. I used an adjustable Bold trigger from Brownells and had the safety altered, but certainly installing a trigger with a built-in safety and the plain bolt shroud is the most economical way to go.
Because I wanted to make this rifle as light as I could--it ended up at six pounds, less scope and mounts--I sought out a synthetic stock. Butler Creek makes a drop-in synthetic stock for the Mauser 98, of which the 1909 Argentine is a derivative. Wolf had to do some minor fitting of the floorplate and trigger guard. The only drawback to synthetic stocks is that many, such as the Butler Creek, will not take bedding compound; it won't stick to the stock. Therefore, Wolf felt that maximum accuracy might be compromised.
I chose to chamber this rifle in .260 Remington. For my money, it's an almost perfect whitetail cartridge. I've shot several deer and a big bull caribou with a Briley Trans Pecos chambered for the .260, and in each case it was as close to a death ray as any caliber I've ever shot. The recoil is mild--an obvious plus in a lightweight rifle--and accuracy seems an inherent trait of this particular caliber. Add to this the sectional density, and hence the lethality, of the long 6.5mm bullets, and the choice was easy.
MidwayUSA sent a pre-chambered heavy sporter barrel in .260 Rem., but it was just too heavy for this project. By accident, they had also sent a 6.5x55mm light sporter barrel. Rather than turn the heavy barrel to a light contour, Wolf chose to cut the 6.5mm barrel back, retread it and chamber it to .260. The resulting 20-inch barrel looks a little stubby, and because it is so light, it walks vertically as it heats up. That would spell doom in a target rifle, but a hunting rifle is a one- or two-shot proposition, so it really doesn't matter. For a hunter, the first shot is the one that counts, and that shot flies true time after time.
Wolf completed the whole package with a fine, glass beadÃ‚ — blasted Parkerized finish. With the black Butler Creek stock, this rifle looks all business. Wolf also blasted and finished the scope mounting rings and bases to match the rifle. Unfortunately, I had to change the bases to accommodate Weaver's brand-new Grand Slam 3-10x40mm scope. The Grand Slam is a bright scope, and I found it to be a good match for this rifle, except for the fact that its objective bell is long and tapered. Because of this, I opted to use a Redfield extended front mount, turned rearward so that the scope could be mounted sufficiently to the rear to allow proper eye relief. These rings don't quite match Wolf's fine finish, but c'est la vie.
In the field, the results were superb. After all, the intent of any hunting firearm is to bag game, and this rifle performed admirably. I was posted in a tree stand in the fringe of a large tract of pine trees that bordered an immense harvested rice field. Around 3:30 p.m., deer began leaving the pines and ambling into a collar of milo and into the rice.
I could see several bucks at about 400 yards going into the milo, but nothing I would risk a shot on. Then a doe trotted from the pines at about 100 yards from my stand. She crossed the 40 yards of milo and stood in the harvested rice, looking back into the pines. Sure enough, a nice six-point buck came out of the trees and stood looking at the doe. He stood long enough for me to glass him with a pair of 8x Weaver binoculars that gave me a good clear view of his antlers, and I quickly decide he was the best buck I'd seen in several years, and further decided he'd look good on my wall.
Holding about four inches forward of the shoulder--there was a relatively stiff breeze blowing right to left--I squeezed off the shot. The buck was knocked off his feet as the Federal Premium 140-grain Sierra GameKing struck home, and all I could see through the scope was four hooves in the air. He struggled to his feet and staggered into the pines where I found him less than 30 feet from the point of the shot.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, I had a scoutmaster who had a sporterized Mauser. In memory, it was an ungainly, blocky looking thing. In contrast, my Mauser has a sleek look and feel, and it has an air of purpose to it that even some of the Griffin & Howe conversions from that era lack. It's a pleasure to work that smooth bolt, and I think I've got a new hunting buddy to lug up and down the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in search of that monster buck.