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The Long Road Of War Part 2

The Long Road Of War Part 2
Imperial Germany’s GEW 88 Saw Much
Modification And Widespread Use.

In Part I we met the Gew 88, its variants and bayonets. Now in chronological order, let’s explore the evolutionary history of the Gew 88 by deciphering the markings denoting alterations to the original design.

As frequently occurs in the course of newly developed technology, the cause of major problems results from a combination of different factors. The bursting and ruptured barrels of the Gew 88 were no exception. As testing continued with the experimental “RCP” powder (Rottweil Cellulose Powder) introduced in the 8x57mmJ cartridge, it was found to be very inconsistent in performance.

It was discovered the original production “RCP” powder changed unpredictably over time in storage, resulting in enormous increases in pressure generated by some production lots of stored cartridges. The net result was problems with barrel failures due to a combination of erratic powder pressure spikes, some exceeding proof loads, combined with variations in the steel used for the barrels.

In 1899, a more stable alternative single-base nitrocellulose flake powder called Type 436 was introduced. Research continued and, when supplies of Type 436 were exhausted, late production lots of the 8x57mmJ cartridges were loaded with Powder No. 682, more commonly referred to as “S Powder” based on its use in the 8x57mmS cartridge introduced in 1903 for the Gew 98.

During the second year of production the receiver ring markings—originally centered—were moved downward towards the lower edge closest to the action.

The early Gew 88 featured side-rail markings reading “G. Mod. 88.” In December of 1889, the Prussian Ministry of War decided to drop the term “Modell” from all new weapons and equipment. Production actions already stamped were left as is, while all new production were marked “Gew. 88.” Rifles marked with the original model designation were only issued in 1891.

When chambering a round, the extractor doesn’t snap over the case head until the bolt handle is turned all the way down and locked. If for any reason the extractor fails to engage the cartridge case, it is possible to short-cycle the bolt with a live round still in the chamber, resulting in a double-feed. If the bolt is cycled hard enough, the tip of the second cartridge may strike and ignite the primer of the unsupported cartridge in the chamber. The results were dramatic and invariably caused injuries to the soldier along with any unfortunate nearby bystanders.

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This rare photo shows a French “Poilu” tasked with the recovery of enemy war material
from the battlefield following a successful advance, in this case carrying an armload
full of five Gew 88’s.

A new bolt head with a recessed undercut in the bolt face and a wider extractor was introduced to correct the problem. Field trials in 1891 confirmed the fix didn’t work. Instead, the issue was resolved through proper training of the soldiers.

The first modification made to address the problem of barrel failures was to change the contour of the barrel blanks. The section of the barrel just ahead of the chamber, adjacent to and beyond the throat, was beefed up via a long taper vs. the original contour that narrowed substantially just beyond the chamber. Rifles built with the new barrel profile received a punch mark in the form of a dot stamped in the center of the receiver, 3mm from the edge of the joint with the barrel jacket. Existing stocks of early barrel blanks were used until they were exhausted.

Further analysis resulted in a change in the chemistry of the steel used in the manufacture of the barrel blanks. The original chemistry called for a maximum of up to 0.6 percent carbon, however there was no minimum amount of carbon established. Some early steel barrel blanks had less than 0.04 percent carbon. This discrepancy resulted in poor mechanical properties following the heat treatment process. Beginning in 1893 the specification for carbon in the metallurgical spec was changed to 0.63 percent +/- 0.03 percent. Barrels produced to the new specifications were marked “nm” for “neuese material,” which was stamped on the barrel underneath the jacket as well as on the side of the receiver underneath the model designation. Nonetheless, existing stocks of bar stock and barrel blanks under the earlier material specification were used until supplies were exhausted.

In addition to bursting or rupturing barrels, in the event of a split case or a complete case head failure, the venting of gas endangered the shooter. To channel the hot venting gas away from the soldier’s face, the ejector was lengthened and a square flange added to the left side of the cocking piece.

In spite of the barrel’s contour change and better chemistry for the steel, ongoing inspection exhibited a new, unexpected problem: excessive rifling wear. The four lands and grooves in the Gew 88 barrel had been copied from the French Mle 1886 Lebel Rifle purchased from a French deserter. The accelerated rifling wear was due to a lack of understanding of the relationship between the diameter of the bullet jacket relative to the depth of the rifling, both working in concert with the higher pressures generated by smokeless powder.

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The Gew 88 as it appeared early in 1890, before myriad changes over its
30-year service life with Germany. 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 Gew 88 somehow managed to escape the numerous upgrades and alterations
occurring to the large majority of these rifles during the war.

In spite of the barrel’s contour change and better chemistry for the steel, ongoing inspection exhibited a new, unexpected problem: excessive rifling wear. The four lands and grooves in the Gew 88 barrel had been copied from the French Mle 1886 Lebel Rifle purchased from a French deserter. The accelerated rifling wear was due to a lack of understanding of the relationship between the diameter of the bullet jacket relative to the depth of the rifling, both working in concert with the higher pressures generated by smokeless powder.

Original rifling dimensions incorporated a 0.319-inch groove diameter and 0.311-inch bore. The 225-grain nickel-jacketed roundnose bullet was 0.318-inch. Additional experiments concluded in 1896 with the decision to deepen the grooves to 0.321-inch. Effective July 1896, all new barrels were rifled so.

As rifles were returned, older barrels showing greater signs of wear were replaced, while barrels with stronger rifling were recut to the new groove specification. All rifles produced prior to July 1896 with the rifling deepened were stamped with a “Z” on top of the receiver.

Along with the Mauser Gew 98 replacing the Gew 88, the new 8x57mmS cartridge was adopted. The higher velocity combined with the lighter spirepoint bullet, resulted in greatly improved ballistics with a much flatter trajectory.

As Gew 98 production numbers increased, the Gew 88 was gradually withdrawn from service, first among the regular army, followed by the Landwehr and eventually the Landsturm.

While the rearmament efforts continued, millions of rounds of the older 88 cartridges were gradually replaced with the newer ones. In addition, some of the original ammunition in stores were now more than 10 years old, including a small percentage loaded with the original RCP powder and newer Type 436.

Some of the oldest 88 cartridges were sold to countries in no way threatening to Imperial Germany or German interests—like China—while other lots of cartridges were broken down to utilize the cases for production of new ammunition since the new “S” cartridge case remained unchanged from the original design.

However, with large numbers of Gew 88, Gew 91 and Kar 88 still in active service with the Landwehr and Landsturm, the juggling of reserve stores of two different cartridges represented a serious logistical challenge. The decision was made to chamber ream the neck and throat of all 88 series rifles and carbines still in service to allow the “S” cartridge to be fired in an emergency should supplies of the 88 cartridges become exhausted.

A 3mm tall “S” was stamped on top of the receiver between the manufacturers name and the barrel jacket. The rear sight markings were left as is and were not modified to coincide with the ballistics of the new “S” cartridge. It is important to note there were no further modifications made to these weapons and they are not to be confused with the later Gew 88S modifications performed during WWI.

The Gew 98 was the first German arm using Mauser’s patented charger loading system, referred to today as stripper clips and the benefits were obvious. In 1905, with the ramp up and distribution of the Gew 98 in full swing, the decision was made to modify a percentage of the S-reamed Gew 88’s for charger loading.

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During the first year of production, the arsenal markings and date were centered on top
of the receiver as seen on this 1890 dated Gew 88 manufactured by Steyr. In 1905, needing
to replace millions of aging rounds of 8x57mmJ cartridges in inventory, the decision was
made to ream the neck and throat of the chamber of the Gew 88, Gew 91 and Kar 88 in
service to enable them to fire the new 8x57mmS cartridge in case of emergencies. A
small “S” was stamped on top of the receiver above the arsenal markings. Nothing
else was changed and the sights were still calibrated for the trajectory of the
8x57mmJ cartridge.

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At some point during the second year of production, the decision was made to relocate
the arsenal and date downward towards the edge of the receiver closest to the action.

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In an attempt to resolve the issues of barrel failures, the contour of the barrel
blanks were beefed up ahead of the chamber. Barrels with the new contour were marked
with a punched dot on top of the receiver, 3mm from the barrel jacket joint, as seen
here stamped on this beautiful matching Erfurt Gew 91.

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By 1896, the rifling in barrels in service was eroding much faster than expected.
The decision was made to deepen the grooves in the rifling. The grooves in newly
produced barrels were immediately changed and were not marked in any special way.
However, earlier weapons recalled to have their rifling deepened were marked with
a “Z” as seen here on this well-worn rifle produced at the Danzig arsenal in 1892.

A pair of plates were riveted and brazed on either side of the rear section of the split receiver bridge, into which grooves were cut to accommodate the sheet metal charger. A small section of the left sidewall of the receiver was cut out to allow additional room for the soldier’s left thumb as he pressed the cartridges down into the magazine. Metal strips were added within the magazine to maintain the cartridges in proper vertical alignment since they would no longer be housed in a sheet metal clip. In addition, a spring-loaded feed lip was incorporated in the upper left side of the receiver to hold each successive cartridge in place to be stripped from the magazine into the chamber with the forward movement of the bolt. Due to the thickness of the sheet metal chargers, the length of the cartridges in the charger were too long to clear the rear of the receiver ring. A cut-out was added to allow the tips of the bullets enough clearance to be stripped from the charger down into the magazine.

Between 1905 and 1907, an estimated 350,000 to 375,000 Gew 88’s were converted to the 88/05 configuration. These rifles saw heavy use in the early years of the Great War prior to the majority being withdrawn from service in 1916. The rear sight leaves were scrubbed and renumbered in Farsi prior to being shipped to the Turks, who were perpetually short of serviceable weapons. In Turkish service, a crescent moon was stamped on the receiver along with a variety of other inspection marks inconsistently applied. In today’s collector’s market, it’s very difficult to find a surviving Gew 88/05 not Turkish marked.

Once “the race to the sea” was over and the nature of the battlefield in WWI was marked by miles upon miles of trench works, frontline conditions quickly pointed out problems inherent in the Mannlicher’s open floorplate. Dirt, mud or any other type of debris could find its way in and jam the action. Two sheet metal floorplate covers were introduced. A simple snap-on plate was produced for the Gew 88/05 as well as a more complicated version to eject the Mannlicher en bloc clip out the top of unconverted 88’s.
In Bavaria, Oskar Will, owner of Venus Waffenwerk, proposed to convert Gew 88’s to accept charger loading and fire the 8x57mmS cartridge. Will’s proposal was to create a streamlined variation of the Gew 88/05 to save time and expense. Instead of using pre-machined charger guides, Will welded enough material into which the charger slots could be rough filed. The exterior surfaces of the charger guide were then roughly shaped.

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This motley looking group of Landsturm have been issued a variety of different headgear,
including a mixture of Pickelhauben, with and without cloth covers, and oil cloth caps.
Their ammunition pouches vary as well with some soldiers sporting the M1909 three pocket
pouches while other wear obsolete patterns such as the M74 and M87. In keeping with their
lack of uniformity, the two soldiers on the left are armed with Gew 88’s, one of which
has a S88/98 ersatz bayonet mounted and the other the standard issue S1871 brass grippe
d bayonet. The remainder of the unit is armed with captured French Mle 1874 Gras rifles
with Mle 1866 Chassepot bayonets!

was added to hold the top round in place in the magazine. Instead of adding metal inserts on three sides as with the 88/05, a single insert placed in the rear of the magazine worked in combination with the retaining lip to ensure smooth feeding. To correct the rear sight leaf for the 8x57mmS cartridge, the face of the ladder leaf was milled away and a thin plate with the correct range was brazed onto the original leaf. The small flip-up leaf was removed and a new fixed leaf was soldered in its place. The balance of the alterations display the same general conversion features of the 88/05. The rear of the receiver ring is notched and the thumb notch is present, although not quite as pronounced as the 88/05’s.

WWI was not going to end before Christmas 1914, and the German Army had to reassess its small arms. The number of troops in the field on all fronts was stretching the army’s resources to the limit. With both obsolete and captured small arms in the hands of many Landwehr regiments and most all Landsturm battalions, the decision was made in 1915 to convert the 88 rear sight leaves to match the trajectory of the 8x57mmS cartridge. These were called Gew 88S models.

Confused? Let’s differentiate between the three groups of Gew 88 rifles chambered and throat-reamed for the 8x57mmS cartridge. The Gew 88/05 pattern was a complete conversion from clip loading to charger loading with rear sights altered to match the trajectory of the “S” cartridge. These rifles were issued with standard 5-round 8x57mmS ammunition in Mauser chargers.

A second group of Gew 88 rifles reworked in 1905 were never intended for issue with 8x57mmS. These rifles, marked with a small Gothic “S” on top of the receiver, were chamber-and throat-reamed to allow them to safely fire the “S” cartridge in an emergency only. The rear sights were never re-calibrated to match the trajectory of the spitzer bullet. While these rifles were capable of safely firing both cartridges, they were issued with surviving stores of Mannlicher clips loaded with original 8x57mmJ cartridges.

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In 1914, as the armies settled into trench systems for the first winter of the war,
it didn’t take long before problems developed with the open clip ejection port on
the bottom of the magazine. Mud, dirt, sand and various other types of debris
could easily make their way into the action, causing jamming. A sheet metal
cover was developed to snap over the bottom of the magazine, effectively
covering the ejection port.

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To seal off mud and debris entering from the bottom, an ingenious addition to the floorplate
cover changed the direction the Mannlicher clips were ejected. A strong, coiled spring,
upon which a round disc was attached, was riveted to the sheet metal cover. When the last
round was fired, a clip release button inside the triggerguard was depressed and the
coiled spring ejected the empty clip up and out of the top of the action.

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The rivet in the center towards the rear of the sheet metal floorplate anchors
the coiled spring ejector in the bottom of the magazine on guns still using Mannlicher clips.

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The side rail markings of the earliest production of the Gew 88 (above) included
the abbreviation for “Modell” in between the “G” for Gew and the “88.” model
designation. In December of 1889, the decision was made to drop the “Modell”
abbreviation to simplify the side rail markings (below). Receivers in production
that had already been stamped when the change was made were left with the original
markings, while all subsequent production were marked “Gew. 88.”

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The wartime Gew 88S conversions begun in 1915 and included the renumbering of the rear sight leaf to match the trajectory of the spitzer bullet of the “S” cartridge. The wartime Gew 88S conversions were issued with the older Mannlicher en bloc clips loaded with the new 8x57mmS cartridges.

To align the battle sight on the Gew 88S conversions to match the 400-meter setting of the Gew 98, the rear sight slide was moved backward 2mm and the original flip-up leaf was ground away, as was the very top notch on the sight leaf. Since the problems inherent in keeping dirt and debris out of the magazine and action via the clip ejection port were known, a sheet metal cover was also snapped over the clip ejection port to close it.

Upon completion, a 12mm crown/“S” was stamped into the right side of the buttstock of each rifle. With so many captured Russian M1891 rifles available in the fall of 1915 to reequip the Landsturm units of the occupation army in Belgium, 202,714 Gew 88’s were returned for conversion to the new “S” pattern. The total number of rifles converted will never be known, but surviving records indicate a minimum of 235,602 done before the end of 1916.

Since some Gew 88S still employed the en bloc clips, the snap-on floorplate cover would have resorted in the soldier having to fish out empty clips from the top of the action. To solve this problem, the new floorplate cover incorporated a coil spring-loaded disc riveted to the inside of the sheet metal floorplate. Under the pressure of the coiled spring, when the last round was fired, a clip release button located on the inside of the front of the triggerguard was pressed to pop the empty clip up and out the top.

The Gew 88 and its diminutive brothers, the Gew 91 and Kar 88, received quite a bit of bad press over the years and particularly during the course of the rifle’s service life. However, considering the fact the Gew 88 was rushed into production to fire a revolutionary new cartridge loaded with a revolutionary new powder under simultaneous development, the rifle performed well in the long run! Once these issues were addressed, the Gew 88 went on to provide valuable service during the early years of the Great War. It is important to remember at the end of the Great War, the vast majority of the Gew 88 variants still in service were already 30 years old, and the rifle destined to replace the Gew 88 was the Gew 98! Not too many bolt-action rifles of any period compare well to Paul Mauser’s ultimate masterpiece.

Shooting The Gew 88

Most knowledgeable collectors are aware of the potential risks involved in firing modern 8x57mmS ammunition in these lovely old rifles. Many argue most of the surviving examples of the Gew 88 have been fed with the newer, hotter ammunition loaded with the 0.323-inch diameter bullet. While this is true, it is important to keep in mind the youngest of these rifles was produced in 1897—117 years ago—with the majority of surviving examples being 8 to 9 years older!

In addition, many of the rifles sent to Turkey were reworked in the 1920’s and 30’s with parts, including new barrels and bolts purchased from the Czechs. These replacement barrels have a groove diameter of 0.318-inch, matching the original specification. These factors have long been taken into account by US ammunition companies, who load their ammunition with very mild minimum powder charges since they fear legal repercussions from lawsuits in the event of a catastrophic failure if their ammunition is fired in Gew 88’s.

The best compromise I have found to date is to use the 0.321-inch diameter, 170-grain flatnose bullet produced for the .32 Winchester rifle cartridge in handloads with a powder charge that generates 2,100 fps. This stays well within the 45,000 CUP most sources list as the maximum pressure safe for the Gew 88 action. The 8x57mm Mauser load data published online in the IMR website lists a variety of different powders for the 170-grain bullet and in each case, lists the CUP for each load. I have found this load to be extremely accurate and very close to the point of aim at 100 yards.

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The Gew 88 in K.u.K. Service

Our Austro-Hungarian Infantryman circa late 1917-18 wears a variant of the M1917 field jacket produced with “nettle cloth,” a late war material made with a higher percentage of recycled wool and fiber from the wild nettle plant in place of cotton (in short supply due to the Allied blockade). Nettle cloth was dyed in various shades of gray, green and brown. The puttees are captured and reissued Italian M1909 grigio-verde leg wraps. A wide variety of captured material was pressed into service during to fill perpetual shortages.

The rifle is one of the original Austro-Hungarian issue Gew 88’s designated as the “M13” in K.u.K. service (the abbreviation for the Austro-Hungarian Army, i.e.

“Kaiserlich und Königlich,” which translates as imperial and royal). The rifle remained unchanged and still required en bloc clips. The only alteration made to the rifle in Austro-Hungarian service was the addition of a large sling swivel under the buttstock in place of the original German detachable swivel. This was necessary to allow the retaining buckle of the Austro-Hungarian issue sling to pass through the lower swivel prior to being secured via tongue and buckle to the upper swivel.
The M1917 Hungarian helmet has an alternate pattern liner than the more common liner of the original German M1916.

Our well-equipped K.u.K. soldier has the M1906 calfskin pack with the leather tanned hair side out on all exterior panels. Three equipment straps are used to secure the shelter-half, woolen blanket roll or greatcoat to the pack. The entrenching tool with leather carrier is strapped to the back of the pack. To help support and distribute the weight of the pack, extensions link the shoulder straps with the metal loops on the back of the M1895 double pocket ammunition pouches worn on the front of the M1888 leather belt with brass buckle embossed with the Hapsburg double-headed eagle. On the left hip is the bayonet scabbard for the German S1871 Hirshfanger mounted on his M13 rifle. This bayonet was one of the primary patterns supplied by Germany along with the shipments of Gew 88’s. Slightly to the rear of his right hip, our Infantryman carries the M1917 trench knife with a “trench art” handle and crossguard fashioned from aluminum scavenged from a downed aircraft’s engine.

Slung over his right shoulder are the issue linen haversack and a M1907 enameled iron water bottle and enameled iron drinking cup secured by twine on a linen shoulder strap. In front of the haversack, in easy reach, is the M1917 Lederschutzmaske gas mask in its canister on a shoulder strap. This gas mask of German design was produced on contract for Austria-Hungary. The metal base of the mask where the filter screws in place was embossed with “K.u.K.”
By John Sheehan

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