September 23, 2010
Or, the Curse of the Custom Mauser
By Dan C. Johnson
I have been in on the building of more than a few custom rifles. I've had some built for me, shared in the work occasionally, even done all the work myself when I had access to good tools or sometimes when I just lacked access to hard cash. Some of these rifles turned out exactly as planned. Some turned out better. The majority were good rifles, but there were usually some things I would have done differently if I had it to do over, which I often did.
Jeff Cooper conceived the Scout rifle as a general-purpose rifle for hunting and self-defense. The author's custom rifle does not quite meet all the specifications for a Scout, but it meets his needs well.
The subject of this article is a custom Mauser I had built a few years back. The result is a very nice rifle of the Scout configuration, but it didn't turn out as planned. In fact, I didn't plan on building it at all. In spite of considerable experience with custom guns, I stumbled along blindly to the siren's song of the low-cost surplus rifle. It is a common affliction with these guns.
The finished rifle is not a true Scout, as the weight is more than the ideal 61?2 pounds specified and it does not have a retractable bipod or Ching sling. However, I am very happy with the results, and it remains one of my favorite rifles. It is just that I could have built it more efficiently and not sacrificed a potential collectable in the process. One must learn from one's mistakes.
The birth of this custom pseudo-Scout began innocently enough about five years ago with a deal on an FR-8 Spanish Mauser I just couldn't pass up. I didn't need the rifle, but I was in the mood to tinker with something noisy and liked the looks of this surplus rifle. Examples like it were plentiful and economical at the time, but prices have gone up considerably since then. It looked like it would be a handy little carbine for rough duty. The action was smooth for a Spaniard, and the bore looked nice. It shot pretty well considering that the sights were crude and harder to adjust than a teenager's attitude.
The FR-8 is a hybrid built by Spain in the early 1950s. The Mauser 98 action was mated with a new barrel, sights and flash suppressor that give the carbine a unique appearance.
Speaking of attitude, the FR-8 is undoubtedly the meanest-looking surplus Mauser you're likely to run across. It looks like the love child of an M98 and an AK-47. Back in the early 1950s the Spanish government was tight on money, and though it had officially replaced the Mauser turnbolt with the more modern CETME assault rifle, Spain was not able to supply its troops fully with the select-fire guns. The solution was to rebarrel some of the many 1916 and 1943 Mausers that were on hand to fire the new 7.62 NATO cartridge. Those rifles built on the 1916 Mauser were designated as FR-7 carbines and, since the action is of the Mauser 93 design, are not as strong as the FR-8 carbines built on the Mauser 98 action.
In the process of modifying the Mausers, the Spanish armorers added an aperture rear sight, protected front sight, flash suppressor and even a fake gas tube that served as storage for a cleaning kit. I guess they thought modernizing the looks of the Mausers would keep the boys who had to carry them instead of the new assault rifles from getting picked on too much by their better-armed comrades.
I kept the FR-8 as is for a time, and while it was a fun gun, it had its shortcomings. I tinkered with the sights until I had them pretty close, but I was still not happy with the groups I was getting. I reasoned that a scope might help, so I called the people at what was then Ashley Sight Company, now XS Sight Systems, and requested one of their Scout scope mounts.
They also sent along a set of ghost-ring rear sights for the Mauser and a front sight with a highly visible white line just for me to have a look at. They were nice-looking sights, but I was not ready to customize the rifle to that point just yet.
While handgun scopes will usually work on forward mounts, the ideal setup is an intermediate-eye-relief scope like this Burris 2.75X designed specifically for Scout rifles.
I removed the handguard, installed the mount and slapped on a Weaver 4X handgun scope. Groups shrunk down to about two inches at 100 yards, sometimes a bit less. Not bad for an old military clunker, and I was happy for a few weeks. But I'd pull out those Ashley ghost-ring sights occasionally and admire them. They sure would look nice on that Mauser. Trouble was, I'd have to strip down the barrel, remove the existing sights and muzzlebrake and turn the barrel down to make them work right. I eventually decided to send the rifle off to Matthew Brant in Texas to have that done. He also agreed to weld on a classy new bolt handle and give the rifle a nice matte blue finish.
By now, of course, I was well along a path that many who purchase surplus rifles eventually go down. The metalwork was now going to be too pretty for that old chunk of oil-soaked wood, so I called MPI and ordered a synthetic stock blank of slender Scout-like proportions. MPI can make about any stock configuration a person needs, so I had the company shorten the forearm to look right with the short barrel. I also decided that, since we were going this far, I might as well get one of Power Custom's excellent aftermarket Mauser triggers and a 2.75X Scout scope from Burris.
I called Matt after a few weeks to see how the work was progressing, and he said the barrel was OK — not great, but OK. Time to order a new barrel; I could not have a nice-looking Scout rifle that didn't deliver top-notch accuracy. So there I was, looking through the Brownells catalog for a suitable .308 barrel for the rifle. I decided on a Brownells/Shilen barrel in the lightest contour they offered, which was still fairly stout when cut to 18 inches.
Many gunsmiths simply reshape the existing bolt handle on Mauser rifles, but Matthew Brant prefers to add a new aftermarket handle. This makes for a more elegant look, and the longer handle provides exce
I could have gone direct to Shilen and ordered a more slender barrel to reduce weight, but this is one decision that turned out to be a good one. The contour is stout enough so that the rifle is not finicky when the barrel gets hot. The added weight concerns me a little, but even with a light barrel it is difficult to meet the ideal weight for a Scout rifle with the robust all-steel Model 98 Mauser action. I was not overly concerned with meeting all of Jeff Cooper's well-known Scout-rifle specifications. I just wanted a handy general-purpose rifle.
The white-line front sight from XS Sight Systems works well in dim light and provides a defined aiming point for more precise work.
When the metalwork was completed, I bedded the barreled action to the stock, installed a recoil pad and sling swivels, and finished it off with the ugliest color of green paint most folks have ever seen — at least that is what my friends tell me (they ragged me so hard that I finally repainted it with a pebble-gray finish, and I have to admit it does look nicer).
XS Sight Systems offers a threaded aperture that accepts standard discs. The Merit disc offers instant adjustability of aperture size from .022 to .156 inch.
The steel used in Spanish Mausers is known to sometimes be on the soft side. It is not really a major problem, in spite of some misinformation you might read on the Internet, and there is plenty of misinformation available on the FR-8. The finer points of these Internet discussions are too complicated to cover here, but the FR-8 is a Model 98 Mauser, and the strength of this action is due to the design, not the metallurgy.
It is, of course, strongly advised that any surplus rifle be thoroughly checked by a qualified gunsmith before firing any load. It is important with any surplus rifle to be sure it is properly chambered, headspaced and throated for the ammo you plan to use.
A notable advantage to using a military Mauser action for building a Scout rifle is the ability to use stripper clips for quick loading.
If you do come into possession of a 98 Mauser with soft steel, the likely problem will be eventual setback of the locking lugs into the receiver. This will increase headspace. When the rifle is fired, the bolt handle will be difficult to lift because the fired case is pressing the lugs into this recess and some force is required to break it free. I had no such problem with the original FR-8, and since the customization the headspace has remained constant through several thousand rounds. Results with other Spanish Mausers may vary.
Regardless of the shortcomings of Spanish Mausers, my completed pseudo-Scout rifle is very smooth, reliable and accurate. With scope and sling attached, the rifle weighs seven pounds, 12 ounces. Like I said, it's a little heavy for a Scout. There is nothing heavy about the Power Custom trigger. It breaks cleanly at a shade over three pounds. All the metalwork done on the rifle is flawless in execution. Matthew Brant may not be as well known as some other gunsmiths, but his work is top notch.
Other than paint, the only modifications I've made to the rifle since it was built was to replace the ghost-ring aperture on the rear sight with a threaded aperture from XS Sight Systems and add an adjustable disk from Merit. The aperture is instantly adjustable from .022 to .125 inch in diameter. Ghost-ring sights work great for fast shooting, but I like using the iron sights and wanted to be able to dial down to a smaller aperture for more precise work.
We have to relearn lessons occasionally, and the lesson brought home to me by this project was that it is best not to have any modifications made to potentially collectable Mausers. The only thing left of the original FR-8 is the action, and at the time I could have bought a solid surplus Mauser action for about 60 bucks and had the same work done. I would have protected a piece of history; if I had kept the FR-8 in original condition it would now be worth roughly twice what I paid for it.
| Brant Gunsmith Shop|
6062 East Lancaster Ave
Fort Worth, Texas 76112
200 South Front St.
Montezuma, Iowa 50171
| Burris Sports Optics|
331 East 8th Street
Greely, CO 80631
| MPI Stocks|
PO Box 83266
| Power Custom|
29739 Hwy. J
Gravois Mill, MO 65037
| XS Sight Systems|
Fort Worth, Texas 76105
It is not about money, though. Serious collectors of military surplus rifles cringe at the thought of customizing these pieces of history, and I am sure some will resent me for it. I hereby apologize for my short-sightedness and am writing this in repentance with the hope that I can guide others from making the same mistake.
We who enjoy tinkering with firearms almost as much as we enjoy shooting them have long had a ready source of economical surplus rifles available for our projects. The supply is not inexhaustible, however, and it behooves us to give some thought to using the remaining quantity wisely. Do it for the children.