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Scandinavian Mauser: Up Close With The Swedish M96

ONE OF THE FINEST WEAPONS OF WAR EVER MADE

The Mauser rifle isn’t one that needs much introduction, even these days. For many countries, the rifle was a first taste of what the civilized world could provide in terms of technology, and for those being “civilized” it was a truly menacing weapon to face. 

Much focus in today’s media and film is centered on what could be called the ultimate and final Mauser variant of consequence, the Model 98. However, in the years immediately leading up to that design, the Mauser company already had many very successful designs, among them the Swedish M96. 

THE MAUSER IN CONTEXT

Something that must be understood about the Mauser rifle was that it was a nation-maker as well as a nation-breaker. The rifle was such an advanced product in its day that, much like the presence of the AK-47 in the latter half of the 20th century, it could facilitate the destabilization of a region and even create problems for the biggest empires of the day, such as Great Britain. 

The most notable example of Mauser superiority was in the Boer Wars in modern-day South Africa. 

Like many precursor and proxy wars leading up to the First World War, the Boers, descents of Dutch settlers fiercely resisted the British Empire using little more than Mauser rifles and guerrilla tactics after they were unable to resist the numeric strength of the British Army. While there’s simply too much ground to cover on this topic (entire volumes have been written), so fearsome was the Boer fighter and so effective was the Mauser that the British ended up resorting to war crimes, including placing civilians and natives in concentration camps and destroying farms and livestock. 

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The full-length M96 is not especially heavy; when equipped with a modern match sling from Brownells, it’s arguably the choice rifle for CMP Vintage competition. A long sight radius and low recoil? What’s not to like?

In the end, the savage tactics resulted in a British victory, but not before the Boers inflicted nearly 8,000 casualties on the British — though at the price of their independence. 

The Mauser rifle commonly used by the Boers was the 7x57mm Model 1893. Tens of thousands were ordered from Germany and delivered in time to inflict terrible losses. Likewise, the American battles against the Spanish in the same years as the Boers fought the British, circa 1898 to 1900, the Mauser was again used by defending forces in Cuba and across the globe. Despite both the British and Americans winning those wars, it was not without blood spilled and hard-learned lessons. 

The Americans facing the Mauser nicknamed it the “Spanish Hornet.” It was at the time somewhat disregarded by the Americans and their allies as too small and not necessarily a powerful cartridge. Americans had carried the .45-70 for around 40 years at this point and the U.S. was adamantly a big-bore nation. 

The first “small-bore” in common use was the .30-40 Krag, the rifle carried by the majority of American forces in the Spanish-American War. Suffice to say, it had a short service life; not only was it not very powerful or flat shooting, it was also slow-loading compared to the Mauser. The Spanish, despite being outnumbered by about 20 to 1, caused nearly 1,500 casualties to American forces in mere minutes at long range. 

Despite an American victory during the battle of San Juan Hill (think Teddy Roosevelt yelling “Charge the blockhouse!”), the Mauser made a lasting impression. 

In head-to-head fighting, the Mauser was seen as the superior rifle, and the U.S. Army knew it. Instead of buying the Mauser direct from Germany as most nations did, America simply ripped off the design, turning it into the 1903 Springfield. 

Uncle Sam still fielded round-nose bullets until pressure again mounted and the final spitzer-style (pointy) load was introduced as a modification in 1906, now commonly called the .30-06 Springfield. 

THE SWEDISH M96 ARRIVES

Having observed a number of these designs and their results, Sweden and Norway set about looking for a rifle and cartridge with which to leave the black powder era and be competitive on the world stage. Norway ended up with the Krag and Sweden the Mauser. 

The initial Swedish Mauser, the Model 1894, closely resembled the standard Model 1893, and was for all intent and purpose just a variant … except that it was very modern, even by our standards. With a 17-inch barrel and carbine-style sling setup, it was chambered in 6.5×55 (even smaller than 7×57) and was what we would call a saddle carbine. 

Despite hardly seeing military use, the M94 carbine was state of the art and Mauser delivered over 12,000 in just around six months. The Swedish orders only increased, and a new, full-size rifle was designed, despite offering no real-world ballistic gain over the M94, just a longer sight radius and greater reach with a bayonet. 

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The M96 utilized a 90- degree lift, two-lug rotating bolt. The extractor was typical Mauser and extremely reliable. Unlike later designs, this was a cock-on-closing action, easily on par in terms of speed with the British Enfield and faster loading at that. Unfortunately, it was issued with a five-round internal box magazine instead of a 10-round detachable box.

Of course, at the time, the utility of the bayonet was long past, and the trenches of WWI would again spur a trend away from full-length military rifles. 

The final design, and one that would remain standard for the Swedish military until WWII, was the M96 with a 28.5-inch barrel and a total length a hair under 50 inches. It was a fashionable rifle at the time and what most would call a “trench rifle,” being as long as a musket and just as unwieldy. 

Much of this design had to do with the SOPs and ideals of the time, stemming from a general rejection of dishonorable tactics with a preference toward massed infantry volleys. Because that always worked so well. 

With final designs ready, the Swedish military wanted deliveries immediately, but had no licensed factories in their state to make the Mauser. The Mauser company frowned on countries that started making their designs without consent, such to the point that they sued the ever-loving sh*t out of the U.S. government for their, “I swear it’s totally not a Mauser” M1903 … and won. A $250,000 settlement was awarded — a fortune in the day. 

While Sweden paid for the right to make their own and the U.S. simply stole the design, what was apparent was that for a country to be modern they needed the Mauser rifle. It’d be a further couple years before Sweden began to produce their own domestic Mauser rifles at the Carl Gustaf factory, named after the Swedish king. 

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Of note is that, while the M96 was a very advanced product of its day, it was handicapped by some very rudimentary sights. European doctrine didn’t put significant emphasis on the individual marksman, unlike Americans. What’s particularly baffling about this is that the American M1903 had an incredibly advanced rear sight adjustable for elevation and windage; how it didn’t become a worldwide standard in the era is a real head-scratcher.

This brings us to at rather curious point in history where Mauser was at the very center of civilization and that one company held the keys to being competitive on the battlefield. Since Sweden had no tooling to make the Mauser, the initial 38,000 or so Swedish M96 rifles were in fact made in Germany. 

It was the intent of the Swedes to completely take over production of the design domestically, and for a brief time there were rifles being made in both locations. 

RARE AMONG THE RARE

The subject of this article was one such rifle made in 1900 at Mauser Waffenfabrik Oberndorf. It’d be among the last of the 38,000 German-made Swedish rifles and has a unique feature that differentiates it from Swedish-made models. It has a rare, turned bolt handle that was unique to perhaps 50 to 300 rifles. 

No source was available to designate just how many displayed this trait, and it’s debated if these were part of a special order for diplomatic guards or for experimental use with scopes. The fact that nobody really knows makes it all the more interesting. It’s also been rumored that they were bent by shooting clubs, but the angle and geometry of the handle body doesn’t support that theory. 

It’s not uncommon to see non-matching bent carbine bolts placed in the full-length rifles, but it’s exceedingly rare that a factory-matched rifle has this type of down-swept bolt. The handle is matched to the rifle’s serial number and has the proper stamps, so there’s no doubt that it’s correct to the rifle. It also displays a different curve and external shape than the carbine bolts, which have a flat area where the handle joins the bolt body. 

An interesting theory about this rifle is that it was intended as a prototype for sport or competition use. Sweden’s Carl Gustaf Gevarfaktori produced sporting rifles and military competition rifles for use by civilians and service rifle teams. Some of these were intended for what would end up being a biathlon-type competition and when using skis, a more compact profile was desired. 

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The M96 was issued with a rather short, hollow-handled knife bayonet that mounted over the cleaning rod and 6.5×55 cartridges on stripper clips. The bayonet was of questionable utility — even as a camp knife, it’s exceedingly fragile but the old 160-grain round-nose bullets earned a reputation as the quintessential Scandinavian moose-killer you hear so much about around the campfire or bar stool.

This is, of course, speculation, but it’s curious that such a small, seemly easily overlooked feature could reveal a much wider branch of this design’s history … or what was intended to be history. 

THE 6.5×55 CARTRIDGE 

Another amazing part of the design incorporated into the M96 Mauser was the 6.5×55 cartridge. Unlike the 7mm and 8mm bores fashionable in most of Europe, the 6.5mm was seen to be dramatically smaller and less powerful, though this wasn’t really true. 

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While not free-floated like a modern rifle, the M96 is exceptionally accurate and even boasted a threaded muzzle under a flush-fitting thread protector. Putting a can on one of these babies would be interesting …

It was exceedingly flat shooting for the day, offered a significant reduction in recoil, and no decrease in lethality. Of note is that soldiers could carry 25- to 35-percent more ammo weight, allowing them to tote more around as opposed to soldiers with equipped with 8×57 and 7×57 Mausers or 303 Enfields. 

So far advanced was this round that it does exactly what the 6.5 Creedmoor does today. Many loads up to the 1940s were ballistically identical to what we consider to be state-of-the-art, launching a 140-grain bullet at about 2,600 to 2,800 fps depending on barrel length, though the longer rifles didn’t gain all that much velocity. 

The joint Swedish-Norwegian effort somewhat handicapped the service cartridges in the year that the rifle here was made; the Krag action wasn’t as strong as that of the Mauser, and the standard load was a roughly 156- to 160-grain bullet at 2,400 fps, clearly not even coming close to what could be done with the 6.5 bore and a spacious case. 

Firing this rifle is perfectly safe and very enjoyable. Replica loads aren’t hard to make using Hornady 160-grain round-nose bullets and Varget (if you can find it), and the 2,400-fps mark is exceedingly easy to achieve. It’s purely a joy to shoot, and targets inside 300 yards were as simple as point-and-click thanks to the long sight radius. 

Finding accurate M96 Mauser rifles isn’t that hard if you know where to look, and they can be had for about $500 to $1,000 today. 6.5×55 ammo? Don’t get your hopes up.

LOOSE ROUNDS

The rifle and ammo, while so ahead of their time, were likely never used in combat. Unlike many countries with Axis ties, Sweden maintained its neutrality while supporting Finland against the USSR and allowing the Nazis to move troops through their borders, as well as trade with them. 

Sweden’s lopsided stance basically allowed them to profit from the Germans and help Finland, while appearing to offer refugee status to peoples displaced by the very countries they were friendly with. Sweden largely avoided criticism in the post-war years, though many believe that if push came to shove they would have joined the Axis and put the 6.5×55 and M96 rifles to use against the Russians at the very least. 

During the Winter War of 1939, almost 9,000 Swedes fought against the Red Army’s invasion of Finland, as part of an international brigade. Sound familiar? 

Swedish M96 

  • Make: Mauser controlled-feed bolt-action service rifle
  • Model: 6.5mm Gevär m/1896
  • Caliber: 6.5mm patron m/94 “6.5×55 Swedish”
  • Barrel length: 29 inches
  • Overall length: 50 inches
  • Weight: 8.75 pounds
  • Capacity: Five rounds

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2 responses to “Scandinavian Mauser: Up Close With The Swedish M96”

  1. Shawn says:

    My Dad has a 1904 Swedish Mauser. I have looked up some info about it and everything i found says it’s chambered in 6.5 but my dad says it’s a .308. I’ve read that they have conversion kits for them but all the serial numbers match up so it wasn’t swapped out. What chamber did it come in?

    • M. Grant says:

      If I were you, I would slug the barrel and measure it. Mine is made in 1920, has very little wear, and the barrel measures .2556 at the throat, that’s 6.487 mm, and .2554 at the muzzle or 6.492 mm. If you can cast the chamber, measure it and that will tell you exactly what it is chambered for. Be aware the Swedish M96’s are known for LONG freebore between the chamber and the throat/lands. Unless you are loading the 155 – 160 gr round nose bullets, you will have a significant jump from the cartridge to the throat, particularly with lighter bullets.

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  • My Dad has a 1904 Swedish Mauser. I have looked up some info about it and everything i found says it's chambered in 6.5 but my dad says it's a .308. I've read that they have conversion kits for them but all the serial numbers match up so it wasn't swapped out. What chamber did it come in?

    • If I were you, I would slug the barrel and measure it. Mine is made in 1920, has very little wear, and the barrel measures .2556 at the throat, that's 6.487 mm, and .2554 at the muzzle or 6.492 mm. If you can cast the chamber, measure it and that will tell you exactly what it is chambered for. Be aware the Swedish M96's are known for LONG freebore between the chamber and the throat/lands. Unless you are loading the 155 - 160 gr round nose bullets, you will have a significant jump from the cartridge to the throat, particularly with lighter bullets.

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