A “Commission” Got It Right?
Almost! The Imperial German Army’s GEW 88 Part 1.
The term “commission” carries a certain connotation nowadays based on our expectations, or lack thereof, every time some branch of our government decides a special investigation is required. The bottom line is, most commissions over the years have been judged to have been ineffective at best, or certainly politically prejudiced in the extreme. In light of the modern take on “commissions,” it is that much more amazing the German Army, in the heart of a potential technical military crisis, formed a special armaments “commission,” which, under the bright light of historical analysis, got it right! Well, perhaps they got it right. It is important to remember success may be measured incrementally.
The advent of stable, balanced, consistently performing smokeless powder generating improved velocities with smallbore jacketed bullets was a transformational technological advancement in the military arts, often greatly underestimated today. Regardless of the uniform colors worn on the battlefield, whether forest green or bright red, the minute rifle fire commenced on the battlefield in the age of black powder, clouds of grayish white smoke arose with each round of fire.
This further reduced visibility of the enemy while pinpointing the location of each unit engaged in combat for all to see.
Long before the single Frenchman went AWOL “Benedict-Arnold style” with a newly issued Mle 1886 Lebel and a combat load of French Mle 86 Balle M smokeless ammunition, the Germans had already been working on the development of a stable, consistently burning nitro-cellulose-based smokeless propellant. That the French efforts paid off first was more than a little embarrassing for the German firearms industry as well as the Prussian military leadership.
A beautiful, all-matching Kar 88 (top) was the diminutive version of the “Commission” rifle designed for issue to the cavalry. An excellent all-matching example of the Gew 91 (below) is different only because of the stacking hook just below and behind the muzzle for use in the field by units on foot to stack their weapons. Both the Kar 88 and Gew 91 were issued extensively during the war to rear echelon units to free up the favored Kar 98 for issue to combat units serving at the front. A large percentage of surviving Kar 88’s will display the original pre-WWI cavalry unit markings along with a second set of unit markings to wartime supply units.
The Gew 88 as it appeared early in 1890. The original, matching example is pictured along with a brass-pommeled French Mle 1874 Gras bayonet, one of many foreign bayonets altered and issued early in the war due to production shortages. This example of the Gew 88 somehow managed to escape the numerous upgrades and alterations that befell the large majority of these rifles during the war.
This a rare example of one of the few Gew 88/05’s not shipped to Turkey in the last years of the war. These rifles were converted to load via Mauser’s patented charger system and fire the 8x57mmS cartridge. The 88/05 was intended to serve as a stopgap issue for the Landwehr, then to the Landsturm, as the Imperial German Army was reequipped with the Gew 98 and Kar 98. The Gew 88/05 saw frontline service with German units early in the war, after which the majority of surviving rifles were shipped to Turkey in an effort to help keep the Ottoman Army in the war.
As a result, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck weighed in with his personal assessment of the situation. If France or Russia possessed weapons with a decided tactical advantage over those of Germany, they would ultimately take offensive action and fall upon a weakened homeland. By the time the new rimless cartridge case was “borrowed” from the Swiss and the decision was reached to adopt an 8mm-diameter bullet as the best compromise between ballistic coefficient, sectional density, accuracy and terminal effectiveness, the scharfe Patrone 88 was born. The pressure to develop the proper rifle in which to introduce the new cartridge was ratcheted up several notches.
The Ministry of War empowered the Rifle Testing Commission to follow two different protocols. The first effort was to develop an updated version of the current standard-issue German service rifle—the 71/84 Mauser—to chamber a new small-caliber, high-velocity cartridge featuring a smokeless propellant. The second simultaneous effort entrusted to the Commission was to develop an entirely new rifle for the new smokeless cartridge. With the introduction of the M1886 Mannlicher and the M1884 Remington-Lee, the box magazine had already spelled the end of the Kropatchek tubular magazine featured in both the French Mle1886 Lebel as well as the M71/84 Mauser.
Based on the various trial rifles submitted to the Commission, the resulting pattern had to a large degree “borrowed” features from existing designs. The bolt was patterned after a slightly altered variation of the cock-on-opening 1871 Mauser bolt and had a removable bolt head with a claw extractor fully enclosing the case head. The locking lugs were integral with the bolt body and were located at the foremost point of the body directly behind the bolt head. The dual opposing locking lugs engaged recesses in the receiver ring. The bolt stop, located to the rear left of the split receiver bridge, doubled as a means of retaining the bolt in the receiver as well as to activate the ejector to kick cases clear when the bolt was cycled.
While the Gew 88 bolt lacked a traditional guide rib as featured on the earlier Gew 71 Mauser bolt, the bolt handle and root were located at the mid-point of the bolt body and closed ahead of the sidewall of the split receiver bridge. This design provided additional emergency support in the event of a failure of the bolt heads. The trigger mechanism from the 1871 Mauser was also duplicated in the Commission’s design.
Without a doubt, the rarest of all of the variations of the “Commission” rifle today is the Gew 88/14. These rifles were converted during the early years of the war to approximate the Gew 88/05 with charger loading. Shortcuts and quality of workmanship led to complaints regarding the effectiveness of this variation when compared to the peacetime-altered 88/05’s. Only a handful of 88/14’s are known to have survived destruction at the end of the war, this example being one of five known examples in museums and private collections.
This is a beautiful matching example of the wartime-altered Gew 88S, shown here with a brass handled S1871 sawback bayonet. The 88S was a true wartime conversion intended to fire the 8x57mmS cartridge. The alterations included a change in the rear sight markings to match the ballistics of the lighter spitzer bullet. The pre-war, chamber-reamed “S” marked rifles were intended for issue with the earlier 8x57mmJ cartridge (with 0.318-inch bullet) and only under emergency circumstances were they to be issued with the later 8x57mmS ammunition (with 0.323-inch bullet).
The action featured an improved 5-round single-stack Mannlicher magazine. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian M1886 and M1888, the symmetrical 5-round, clips of rimless cartridges allowed them to be inserted with either side up vs. the single orientation of the slanted Austro-Hungarian 8x50mmR clips. A spring-powered follower arm mounted in the bottom of the forward section of the magazine well exerted upward pressure on the lowest cartridge in the magazine, subsequently placing each successive cartridge in place to be picked up and chambered by the next stroke of the bolt.
When the last cartridge was stripped from the magazine, the empty sheet metal clip was designed to fall out of the opening in the magazine floorplate, or in the event gravity, didn’t get the job done, the next clip inserted in the magazine would force the empty out of the opening in the bottom of the floorplate. A clip release button positioned in the front of the triggerguard provided the soldier with a quick means of unloading a full or partial clip of ammunition from the magazine. Of course the single greatest drawback of the Mannlicher clip system was the inability of the soldier to “top off” the magazine with individual cartridges. If a partial clip was ejected from the magazine, the remaining ammunition in the clip had to be combined with other loose cartridges to completely fill a 5-round clip, or loose rounds loaded one at a time and fired singly. It has been discovered time and again by modern-day battlefield archaeologists excavating positions occupied by Mannlicher-armed troops engaged in heavy firefights that a lot of partially loaded, unfired cartridges and clips tend to litter the bottom of the trench or rifle pit!
The single most novel feature actually introduced with the design of the Gew 88 was the sheet metal barrel jacket. This unusual feature was born of the accuracy problems encountered particularly with the Gew 71 and, to a lesser degree, with its successor, the Gew 71/84. Both of the early Mauser designs featured side-mounted bayonets, each of which incorporated attachment systems typical of the bayonets during this period.
Both issue bayonets featured muzzle rings and pommel slots to engage the bayonet lug mounted on the right side of the top barrel band of the rifle. In both cases, but to a greater degree with the Gew 71’s brass-gripped sword bayonet, when the rifle was fired with the bayonet mounted, the point of impact of the bullet shifted dramatically. This was caused by the change in barrel harmonics created by the weight of the bayonet exerting rotational pressure on the top barrel band in combination with the actual contact of the muzzle ring with the barrel. The barrel jacket was an effective means of reducing or eliminating this problem.
The Prussian soldier (above) in this photo appears to be a member of the regular Imperial Army rather than one of the reserve units. He wears a 1907/10-pattern tunic along with his “spit polished” pickelhaube. Of interest in the photo is the S88/98 ersatz bayonet as well as the ersatz canvas sling with leather reinforcing where the detachable swivel is stitched to the sling. These features would date this photo to late 1915 to early 1916. This aging member of the Landsturm (below) is wearing an oil-cloth visor cap with the Imperial German cross of the reserves on the obverse crown of the cap. This type of cap was issued to a large number of the Landsturm battalions rather than the pickelhaube. He has been issued the 3-pocket M1909 ammunition pouches. With bayonet mounted, the Gew 88 is displayed with the sling slung around his neck, a method of carry frequently seen among columns of German troops engaged in road or cross country marches to and from the front lines.
Mauser was impressed enough to incorporate the sheet metal barrel jacket in the contemporary M1889 Belgian Mauser models. However this unusual feature proved to be short-lived. The Gew 98 that replaced the Gew 88 was designed with the H-style top barrel band and a bayonet lug long enough to provide sufficient parallel contact surface between the bayonet lug and the pommel slot of the bayonet to eliminate the need for a muzzle ring. In addition, the stepped barrel and spaced bedding, as subsequently developed by Mauser, enabled the barrel to expand and stretch as it became hot without creating new pressure points with the stock inletting. The H-style top band with extended bayonet lug, along with the stepped barrel, rendered the barrel jacket obsolete.
With the development of the new rifle and ammunition viewed as a military emergency, the government arsenals prepared to ramp up production immediately upon the approval of the final pattern. On November 6th, 1888 by royal decree, 150 of the “88 Model” rifle were released for production at the Spandau Rifle Factory. The order for trial rifles was completed the following month and in January of 1889, field trials commenced and were completed in April.
An assortment of minor changes were made to the rifle through the summer of 1889 while the machinery and gauges for the mass production of all of the major components was being produced and delivered to the government arsenals. Beginning in July, serial rifle production commenced in Prussia, followed by each of the other state arsenals. The production requirements to completely rearm in as short a time span as possible was going to require additional manufacturing capability, which was achieved through contracts issued to the Loewe Consortium in Germany and to Steyr in Austria.
All of these developments were considered top secret at the time, though it wasn’t long before the word leaked out about Germany’s new, modern, state-of-the-art infantry rifle. It had taken the Commission and government arsenals 2 years to develop the cartridge, design the rifle and gear up for production. However, the problems encountered with the development of the new smokeless powder combined with the higher pressures generated behind the small-diameter jacketed bullet were to plague the Gew 88 program until the adoption of its subsequent replacement, the Gew 98.
The clean lines of the Mannlicher split-receiver bridge action are obvious in this photo looking directly down on top of the action from above. The flag safety is clearly visible, as is the excellent craftsmanship of the entire series of “Commission” rifles and carbines.
This brings us to the teething process experienced during the development and production of the Gew 88 and its evolution during the course of its service life. This can be a confusing topic due to the number of alterations performed “on the fly” during the early phases of serial production and field service of the Gew 88. Take into consideration the fact we are discussing a brand-new rifle design—firing smallbore jacketed bullets in a newly designed cartridge, charged with a revolutionary untried propellant as yet unperfected—it should come as no surprise problems developed during each phase of rearming the Imperial German Army.
Early examples of the Gew 88 experienced bulging, bursting or rupturing barrels, the results of which were potentially disastrous as rumors spread through the ranks. Nothing shakes a soldier’s morale more rapidly than going into battle with a primary weapon he can’t trust to perform adequately under field conditions. It’s bad enough to lack faith in a weapon’s performance, however it’s totally demoralizing if in the back of your mind you’re wondering whether or not the next shot you fire will result in a catastrophic failure! The rush was on to resolve each successive evolutionary setback while simultaneously attempting to provide the Imperial German Army with a serviceable shoulder arm.
Keep in mind this was, in its day, a transformational technological development setting in motion an arms race of equal importance for its era as drones, anti-missile systems and stealth aircraft are in today’s world. We have reaped the benefits of this technology for so long we simply take it for granted; however in 1888 these rifles, jacketed bullets and propellants were top-secret, cutting-edge developments.
An all-matching Gew 88 as issued (top), is shown here with a 5-round Mannlicher clip of original 8x57mmJ ammunition placed in the open action, ready to be pressed downward into the inline magazine. The pre-WWI Gew 88/05 conversion (middle) now loads via a 5-round Mauser-style charger, loaded with 8x57mmS cartridges. The new neat, clean, machined and riveted charger guides can clearly be seen on either side of the split receiver bridge. Due to the combined length of the cartridges and charger strip, the rear section of the receiver ring has been notched to allow for the additional length of the charger strip with “S” cartridges to fit. The features of the ultra-rare wartime Gew 88/14 conversion (bottom) are clearly apparent. The clean charger guides of the Gew 88/05 have been replaced by guides built-up by welding then hand-shaped with files. Despite numerous complaints regarding the quality of workmanship, an estimated 50,000+ Gew 88’s were converted to the 88/14 configuration during the war.
Next month, Part II will cover the various problems experienced with the Gew 88 during the course of 30 years of active service. We will explore the incremental changes, as well as the numerous variations of the rifle and carbines resulting from each “fix” as the Gew 88 continued to serve Germany and her Allies through the end of WWI. In chronological order, we will review each of the primary systematic alterations made to the Gew 88 “Commission” Rifle along with the myriad of corresponding markings applied to each weapon. Through imports of surplus rifles over the years, combined with GI “bring-backs” following two world wars, a tremendous number of Gew 88 variants may still be encountered by collectors in today’s used gun market.
With the 100th anniversary of the Great War upon us, interest in the surviving surplus weapons from the conflict has dramatically increased over the past several years. This trend will continue as documentaries, Hollywood movies, re-enactments and celebrations of famous battles, will over the course of the next 7 years, continue to spark additional interest in this largely forgotten war. Yes!—I did say 7 years! WWI really ended in 1920. Exactly how will be the focus of a future article.
A large number of the S88/98 ersatz bayonets were issued with the Gew 88 “Commission”
rifles. Shown are three variations. The basic design is loosely patterned after the S1898/05.
The S88/98 bayonets were commonly issued with the Gew 88. This pattern was manufactured with
a cast grip rather than the stamped grips common with so many of these emergency issue ersatz bayonets.
Shown here is another pattern of the S88/98, manufactured with stamped grips. As was the
case with many of these emergency issue bayonets, the blades of some examples feature fullers,
while others do not. The wide range of variation exhibited in many of these designs was due
to the large number of different, sometimes small, shops producing them.
To minimize utilization of resources, the location of the top barrel band, bayonet lug and the diameter of the muzzle extension beyond the barrel jacket were all designed to match the dimensions of the M71 and M71/84 rifles. This allowed the Gew 88 to be issued with either the S1871 brass-gripped sword bayonet or the more modern S71/84 knife bayonet as well as a number of other specialty bayonets such as the S71 fascinenmesser.
The Gew 88 variations still in service during the Great War were frequently issued with one of the many patterns of S88/09 ersatz bayonets produced by myriad firms during 1915 and 1916 when the government arsenals focused attention on maximizing the production of Gew 98’s and Kar 98’s to equip newly minted divisions.
The majority of these emergency ersatz (substitute standard) bayonets were ingeniously designed with split dual-diameter muzzle rings, allowing them to be mounted on both the Gew 98 as well as its predecessor, the Gew 88. In addition, with the Gew 88 serving primarily in the ranks of the Landsturm and, to a lesser degree, with units of the Landwehr, a variety of foreign and obsolete bayonets were altered to fit the Gew 88.
Winter Warrior 1917
A Bavarian Infantryman as he would have appeared during the winter of 1917. He has been issued a white linen winter camo cover with detachable hood worn over his Bavarian issue M1915 Greatcoat. The M1916 Stalhelm has been given a coat of white paint, a practice commonly used by both sides. Our Bavarian has also been issued a pair of Alpine winter gaiters to be worn over his boot and trousers to help keep out the snow and the cold.
In addition to the Gew 88, he is armed with a M1916 trench knife, just ahead of which can be seen his issue M1888 Linnemenn patterns entrenching tool with the distinct Fag-manufactured sheet metal ersatz bayonet scabbard, strapped in tight within the retaining strap of the e-tool in order to maintain noise discipline when on the move.
Properly wrapped around the leather bayonet frog is the Troddel, in this instance the blue/white/blue of the 4th Infantry Company. The combination of colors appearing on the slider, stem and crown of the Troddel were different for each company, allowing NCO’s or officers to identify each company at a glance.
Slung around the neck in the ready position is the M1917 gas mask canister. Inside, the M1917 Lederschutzmaske gas mask manufactured with horsehide, featured a cartridge filter to which additional filters could be fitted, depending on the type of gas encountered. Poison gas, first introduced by the Germans in the April of 1915, represented one of the many horrors of the Great War that set it apart from other wars before or since.
Our Bavarian soldier is carrying an Infantrie Gewehr 88S in its original en-bloc clip loading configuration, the “S” denoting that the rifle has had the sights adapted to match the flatter ballistics of the 8x57mmS cartridge.
The S88/98 ersatz bayonet (Carter EB22) mounted on the rifle in this display is one of the rare examples produced with a cast brass grip. Surviving examples are extremely rare, since the majority of these bayonets were recalled later in the war to salvage the brass due to the success of the Allied blockade.
By John Sheehan
Capacity: 5-round en bloc clip
Overall Length: 49 inches
Weight: 8.6 pounds
Barrel Length: 29.15 inches
Rifling: 4 groove
Rear sight: 2,050 meters leaf
Capacity: 5-round en bloc clip
Overall Length: 37.5 inches
Weight: 6.88 pounds
Barrel Length: 17.15 inches
Rifling: 4 groove, RH twist
Rear sight: 1,200 meters leaf
Capacity: 5-round en bloc clip
Overall Length: 37.5 inches
Weight: 7.12 pounds
Barrel Length: 17.15 inches
Rifling: 4 groove
Rear sight: 1,200 meters leaf