No names in the entire history of firearms are more imbued with magic and glory than Peter Paul Mauser and Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher, and few in more recent history could be considered as deserving to walk in their company as Fred Wells.
Paul Mauser, in Germany around the turn of the last century, perfected his quintessential bolt-action rifle. The 1898 Mauser has never been equaled for reliable life-and-death performance under all conditions, strength to handle the most powerful cartridges ever devised, and elegant simplicity of operation. Unless, of course, you count successful copies of the original Mauser design.
At about the same time, a few miles away in Austria, Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher was designing some very elegant rifles of his own. With Otto Schoenauer, Mannlicher devised a radical new rotary magazine with cartridge feeding characteristics that were clearly superior to the straight box magazines of competitors.
One would hope that Mr. Mauser and Mr. Mannlicher were friends, but history is silent on the subject. Whether or not these two contemporary giants of firearms design rubbed elbows and shared a German or Austrian lager in the beginning of the 20th century or not, they would have been perfectly comfortable doing so a hundred years later at Fred Wells’ workshop in Prescott, Arizona.
Up until his death in 2006, Fred Wells was known all over the planet as one of the finest custom riflemakers who ever lived. He’d built rifles for kings, elegant big-bore dangerous-game guns with that long, powerful Mauser extractor that controls each round from beginning to end and will rip a piece of brass out of the chamber no matter what whenever a hunter’s bloodline is at stake. The Mauser feeding, extraction and ejection system will beat a charging king-of-beasts every time if the shooter keeps his royal wits about him.
Some people also know that Fred’s apparently chaotic little shop contained what is perhaps the most extensive collection of Mauser sporting rifles in the world. Mauser experts and authorities would come over from Germany just to stand and drool.
I was there when his most recent acquisition arrived, dug up from its temporary burial ground in Sweden where it was carefully preserved since the days preceding World War II. It was a specially made sporting ‘98 in 6.5x55mm Swedish, as pristine as the morning it shipped out from Oberndorf. Fred, well into his eighties then, was like a kid at Christmastime.
Fred would sometimes work on vintage Mauser military and commercial actions and decent Mauser copies such as the pre-’64 Winchester Model 70, though he built his very finest custom rifles primarily on his own hand-built Mauser actions or those copied from them by CNC machines and then hand-worked such as those produced by Granite Mountain Arms. And, like every living, breathing firearms aficionado, he had a soft spot in his heart for Mannlichers. In Fred’s case, the Mannlicher passion was partially because of sweet childhood memories and his possession of a very special Mannlicher-Schoenauer M1903 in 6.5x54mm which was given to him by his father.
What’s a man to do when he knows that only a turnbolt action with the heart and soul of a Mauser is worthy to inspire the life of a fine rifle, and yet is drawn for reasons both emotional and practical to a pretty cousin from just across the border? There’s only one course of action I could think of, and Fred thought of it first.
There are two basic parts to a turnbolt action. The top – receiver and bolt; and bottom – magazine box with floorplate and triggerguard. What if ... ?
“The Mauser’s bolt system is the best there is,” Fred says, meaning it’s the only system worth talking about. “And the Mannlicher’s rotary magazine is the ultimate system for feeding cartridges,” meaning it’s the only enhancement possible to a Mauser action. “So I just took the best of the two worlds.” Fred’s model for world peace, at least between the Germans and the Austrians, rests there in its walnut cradle on its sheepskin rug staring back at me. “You get the controlled round feed of the Mauser with the smooth operation of the Mannlicher’s rotary magazine. The magazine works because it’s set up like the cylinder of a six-shooter, but it’s got to be made for a particular cartridge, you can’t be changing barrels and calibers.” Which may explain why Mr. Mauser and Mr. Mannlicher didn’t get together in the first place.
The Mauser/Mannlicher action Fred built just sat there waiting for someone to call and say, Make me a rifle out of that. But with his backlog of work, Fred was not just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. I can’t help thinking what a shame it is how most people spend the money they win in the lottery.
Bet Your Life It’s A Mauser
The depth of Paul Mauser’s genius is to be found in his rifle’s controlled-round feeding system. The long claw extractor of the Mauser rifle holds and controls each individual cartridge from the moment the bolt is moved forward to strip a cartridge from a loaded magazine until the spent case is thrown clear by the Mauser fixed-blade ejector. Dreaded double-feeds are impossible with a Mauser, cartridges cannot be jostled from the action during common reload-on-the-run scenarios, a sticky case will not resist the powerful extractor claw that encloses its rim, and Mauser actions eat dust and dirt that would choke a lesser action to death.
The Mauser was designed for war. And, if you’ve ever seen a hunter stand and pump lead into a Cape buffalo as it continues to charge, you know how serious that war can get.
The alternative to controlled-round-feed is a push-feed action, whose only advantage is that it’s cheaper to make. With a push-feed action, you are allowed to jam one cartridge into the rear of another one already in the chamber in the heat of a hunting moment. Because the operation of a push-feed is entirely dependent on gravity, a cartridge can be deflected from its feed path, knocked out of the rifle or simply fall out onto the ground long before it reaches the safety of the chamber. Since a push-feed has to force its extractor (normally a flimsy little device in any case) over the rim of a cartridge after it’s chambered, imperfect headspacing can easily lead to misfires.
While the Mauser controlled-round-feed may mean little to plinkers, target shooters, benchresters, varmint and small-game hunters, it may mean a lot to exotic trophy hunters, and it may mean literally everything to hunters of dangerous game. Professional hunters who carry a stopping rifle with any but a Mauser action are few, far between and foolish.
The Extraordinary 6.5s
There are plenty of knowledgeable Americans who swear by the 6.5, but there are a lot more who never heard of it. Both the 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser and the 6.5x54mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer were designed as military cartridges, in 1894 and 1900 respectively, but proved so effective they quickly moved into the game fields of Europe and Africa and, to a lesser degree, North America.
Loaded with long, heavy bullets for their caliber, with excellent sectional density, high ballistic coefficient, and remarkable straight-line penetration, both the Swedish and the Mannlicher have always been noted for killing power far beyond the predictions of paper ballistics, and accuracy second to none. Both have been widely used on the largest and most dangerous game, including African elephants as well as enemy soldiers, with consummate success throughout their long careers. The versatile Swede has easily moved from battleground to target range to varmint and big-game fields all over the world.
The 6.5x64 saw its highest use in the 1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifle and its descendants. The 6.5x65 has been chambered in sporting rifles of virtually every make, remains a highly popular caliber in Europe and continues to expand its hard-core base of admirers in the United States as well.
Piece Of Cake
Imagine for a moment if Paul Mauser, Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher and Fred Wells sat down together for a glass of beer and a piece of German chocolate cake. The conversation might go something like this:
MAUSER: Fred, I hear you’ve been fooling around with my bottom-metal.
MANNLICHER: That’s my bottom-metal, Paul.
WELLS: Well, I thought you two should get together after a hundred years. It’s a new century, you know. Why not combine your talents?
MAUSER: I have no interest in screwball magazines. Amuse yourself all you want, Ferdie and Fred. Just don’t mess with my action.
MANNLICHER: We wouldn’t dare mess with your action, Paul. But, with my rotary magazine, you can be sure when that big claw comes sliding down the rails, it always has something to grab hold of and deliver into the chamber.
MAUSER: My actions have never had a problem with that before.
WELLS: Shooters today are more sophisticated than they were in the days when you two actually had jobs. They want the best system for everything.
MAUSER: I’ve seen the so-called “improved” versions of my action. In my day, “improved” and “cheaper” were two entirely two different words. If you think machines do better work than human beings, well, it’s your century, not mine.
MANNLICHER: All the more reason to use my magazine with your action, Paul. Together, we can overcome any imperfections that might be made by all those mindless machines.
MAUSER: You might have a point, Ferdie. Fred here is one of the few gunsmiths left who knows how to use his hands and he’s damn near as old as we are.
WELLS: Both of you guys were way ahead of your time. You and John Browning. Nobody’s improved on any of your designs yet.
MAUSER: Who’s John Browning?
MANNLICHER: Never heard of him.
WELLS: Okay, I promised not to mention that name. Sorry.
WELLS: Yes, Paul.
MAUSER: You have an awful lot of guns with my name on them. I guess I’m still pretty popular, huh?
WELLS: Paul, there’s not a decent rifle turned out today that doesn’t have the heart and soul of a Mauser whether it has your name on it or not.
WELLS: Yes, Ferdie.
MANNLICHER: Don’t forget that ’03 your daddy gave you has my name on it. And Otto’s, of course. But that beautiful long stock that goes all the way to the end of the muzzle and gives you something more friendly than a hot barrel to wrap your hand around, that was entirely my idea.
WELLS: Would you two like another beer? We have plenty of time.