September 08, 2023
There was a time when the ’98 Mauser was king. I’m not talking about the period between 1898 and 1945 when the ’98 Mauser was the martial arm not only of German forces but of 29 other countries around the world—a time period when it’s estimated that as many as 100 million ’98s were manufactured.
No, I’m talking about the 25 or so years following World War II, and especially prior to the 1968 passage of our Gun Control Act. It was a time when individuals could purchase firearms directly through interstate commerce, no FFL needed. Literally millions of surplus arms of all kinds were imported, but it was the Mauser that was the most sought-after.
There have been many importers over the years (see sidebar), but to my knowledge, Zastava is the only remaining source for production-grade commercial ’98 Mauser sporting rifles here in the US. I stress “production-grade” because there are some small custom shops here and in Europe that actually produce ’98 actions and/or complete rifles based on it. They command prices that take one’s breath away.
The guns are being imported exclusively by the parent company’s subsidiary, Zastava Arms USA, which opened its doors in 2018. The company was in the process of establishing a distribution network when Covid hit, and as with so many businesses, things came pretty much to a standstill.
Once I learned that guns were actually coming in, I contacted Zastava USA and requested an example for evaluation. I didn’t specify caliber, but I expected to see a Mauser chambered in a vanilla caliber like .243, .270, 30-06 or .308. Imagine my surprise, then, when upon opening the box, I was looking at a miniature version of a ’98 Mauser chambered in 7.62x39. It was a delightful little thing, measuring just 40 inches long and weighing a scant six pounds, two ounces.
Turns out the real Mauser, what’s designated by Zastava as the LK-70, was out of stock, so Zastava USA’s director of sales and marketing, Ben Vannerson, took the initiative and sent me the one Zastava rifle he did have on hand. And in retrospect, I’m glad he did, because this gun, which is designated LK-85, is in many ways more newsworthy.
Upon cursory glance the action does seem to be a miniature ’98. The hinged floorplate bottom metal, the receiver contours, the bolt stop/release, the trigger and slide safety and the bolt sleeve all appear to approximate those corresponding features of its big brother.
However, what looks like a Mauser extractor isn’t. Rather, it’s a non-rotating guide rib designed to minimize annular play in the bolt when it’s fully withdrawn and reduce the tendency to bind on the closing stroke. It’s one concession that’s understandable, because a true ’98 action is expensive to manufacture, and a lot of it has to do with the Mauser extraction system.
The Mauser extractor itself, which I’ve often seen described as “rotating,” may indeed rotate when you’re holding the bolt in your hand. But when it’s where it belongs—in the receiver—it does not rotate, which is what makes controlled-round feeding possible. Even by today’s CNC and EDM machining technology, a Mauser extractor is expensive to produce, requires critical heat treating and often requires hand fitting.
The receiver is a machined forging, as is the bolt, which has an integral handle. These two highly commendable features are becoming increasingly rare in bolt-action rifle manufacturing.
The LK-85 employs an M16-type extractor and a recessed bolt face, which precludes controlled-round cartridge feeding. Ejection, however, is true Mauser in that the left-side locking lug is split to allow a static ejector blade housed in the left side of the receiver bridge to provide inertia ejection of spent cases when the bolt reaches its last half-inch of rearward movement. Stopping the bolt short of that, spent cases can be plucked from the ejection port by hand.
The trigger unit is the same as that used on the grown-up ’98 version, and it’s fully adjustable for sear engagement, tension and overtravel. The two-position side-positioned sliding safety blocks trigger movement when engaged, but the safety does not lock the bolt.
Another commendable feature is the bottom metal unit. The trigger guard and floorplate frame are one piece and of nicely machined blued steel. The hinged floorplate is locked by a lateral-moving button at the front of the guard bow. It’s foolproof and among the best locking systems of its type I’ve seen.
The magazine, however, is a separate sheet metal affair that’s affixed to the frame by a small machine bolt. It’s a perfectly acceptable solution because having the magazine box integral with the trigger guard bow/floorplate frame like on a ’98 Mauser would be prohibitively expensive to produce. The magazine follower is machined steel.
The 20-inch barrel is of a pleasing contour, starting out at 1.19 inches in diameter at the receiver, tapering to .550 inch at the muzzle. Iron sights are standard, consisting of a folding rear leaf that’s adjustable for windage by drifting the base left or right within its dovetail. The front sight is a ramp affair, hooded, and with a white bead.
As for the stock, it’s of walnut and pretty much mainstream in that it looks like a svelte version of a Remington 700, complete with Monte Carlo comb. Cut checkering in a classic point pattern adorns the grip and fore-end, and the finish is oil. The Monte Carlo dip notwithstanding, the combination of an oil-finished walnut stock and a surprisingly deep-blued metal finish evokes a visual impression of a traditional classic rifle, one that is refreshingly out of step with the current trend toward synthetic and laminated stocks, and matte or raw stainless metal finishes.
Zastava USA did not have bases for its little Mauser, so I ordered some from Talley and installed a Nikon 6X scope on the rifle. Range-ready, the little Mauser weighed seven pounds, three ounces.
Ammo was difficult to come by at the time, but I managed to round up enough loads to test. Over the course of firing an admittedly brief session of some 70 rounds, there were no problems in feeding or extraction. A spirited withdrawal of the bolt saw ejected cases landing some two feet away.
The trigger is adjustable from three to six pounds, and you have to remove the barreled action to adjust it. The sample on mine broke at 4.5 pounds and had considerable creep, but it was smooth enough that I left it alone.
As for accuracy, I had hoped for better, but the 7.62x39 has never been known for gilt-edge accuracy. Handloading would surely help, but I don’t think this lightweight little carbine is a handloader’s kind of rifle. In .223 Rem. and .22-250, the other chamberings offered in the LK-85, it would be a different story. In fact, back in 2007 when Remington briefly imported this rifle as its Model 799, I tested an example of this exact same gun chambered in .223, and it shot very well indeed.
I like this rifle. It harkens back to the time when oil-finished walnut stocks and blued steel defined the “big game” rifle. If you can relate to that place in time, this rifle will appeal to you as well. And with a suggested retail of $750, that should make it even more appealing.
Zastava LK-85 Specifications
- Type: Twin lug bolt-action centerfire
- Caliber: .223 Rem., .22-250 Rem., 7.62x39 (tested)
- Capacity: 4+1
- Barrel: 20 in.
- Overall Length: 40 in.
- Weight: 6 lbs., 2 oz.
- Finish: High-luster blue
- Stock: Oil-finished walnut
- Trigger: Adjustable; 4.5 lb. pull (measured, as received)
- Sights: Adjustable folding leaf rear, hooded ramp front
- Safety: Two-position slider
- Price: $750
- Importer: Zastava USA, ZastavaarmsUsa.com
The King of Sporter Platforms
In the late 1940s, commercial versions of the military ’98 began to appear as actions only, barreled actions and complete rifles. There was the Mark X, made at the Zastava arsenal in Yugoslavia (now Serbia) and imported by Interarms; the Spanish-made Santa Barbara from the La Coruna arsenal, imported by Golden State Arms; the Belgian-made FN Supreme, which was the basis of the Browning High Power line of rifles; and the Swedish Husqvarna.
Some of these imports were later sold as complete guns under brand names like Parker-Hale, Smith & Wesson, Marlin, Colt, Remington, Fajen, H&R and J.C. Higgins to name a few. However, many were sporterized to varying degrees. At one end of the spectrum it meant staying with the military caliber and keeping the original stock and barreled action—but getting rid of the handguard and shortening the full-length stock in an attempt to make it look as much like a sporting rifle as possible.
The more progressive folks had the receiver drilled and tapped for scopes, and the bolt handle altered to accommodate optics. And if the gun was of World War I vintage with a super-long barrel that needed bobbing, many gunsmiths made a comfortable living doing nothing but those few alterations.
If you were really gun savvy, you shipped the barreled action to places like Douglas, Federal Firearms, Flaig’s and similar outfits, to have a new barrel fitted in a popular caliber. And then you ordered a sexy-looking Weatherby-style semi-inletted stock from Fajen, Bishop or Herters, which you finished yourself or had it done. Such machinations were also done to ’03 Springfields and ’17 Enfields, but it was the Mauser that was most sought after as a basis for all levels of customization.