The President & The Artist

Ike’s One-of-a-Kind ’98 Mauser

The “Eisenhower Mauser,” a gift to the President from his West Point classmates.
It was built from a military-issue ’98 Mauser in 1958 by supremely talented —
but relatively unknown today — gunsmith Roy Vail.

Twenty years ago when I was the director of the Patton Museum of Armor and Cavalry at Fort Knox, Ky. — and the Frazier History Museum in Louisville was still an arms museum — I really looked forward to calls from their staff. Our periodic talks gave me good reason to pay them a visit.

A Curious Find

The curator was always happy to share whatever hidden gems of the collection they were working on down in the climate-controlled artifact storage. On one particularly memorable working visit, I noticed an elegantly stocked and engraved sporting rifle bearing a detailed gold inlaid crest of the United States on the magazine floorplate. With the curator’s permission and gloved hands, I took it from the case and examined the action.

Inlaid in gold wire on the breech ring were the words “President U.S.A.” Closer examination of the rifle showed it to be custom built on a Mauser action by expert hands. The heavy scroll engraving and gold inlay were some of the best I’ve seen and every aspect of the rifle dripped master craftsman.

Every old gun has a story and this one’s about two exceptional Americans who lived and died in the past century. The first was one of America’s premier soldiers and statesmen, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). The second was Roy Vail (1902-1979), one of America’s greatest gun-making artists.

The official Presidential Portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike was
the 34th U.S. President (1953-1961) during the halcyon decade of the 1950s.

We Like Ike

The manner in which Eisenhower came to own this rifle speaks much to his accomplishments — it was a gift commissioned for him in 1958 by his West Point Military Academy Classmates of 1915. Known as the class “the stars fell on,” his West Point peers were the men who led America’s Army in World War II as generals. Eisenhower would become their leader in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). The name inlaid in gold wire on this rifle’s barrel is “GENERAL DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER,” but the rank he really bore was beyond the normal scope of measure.

A general’s insignia consists of four stars but Eisenhower was one of the few American soldiers to ever wear five stars. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he was the highest-ranking officer in the ETO. He commanded not only the land, air and sea forces of the United States and Great Britain, but also those of the occupied nations seeking refuge with the Allies after the Nazi conquest of Europe.

It was Eisenhower who bore the responsibility of wresting control of Western Europe from Adolf Hitler in a conflict the magnitude and violence of which has known no comparison before or since. On June 6, 1944, when 156,000 Allied invasion troops, 6,939 vessels and 11,939 aircraft beat down the door of Hitler’s Festung Europa (Fortress Europe), it was Eisenhower who gave the order. This accomplishment was so spectacular the expression “D-Day,” which actually refers to the planned day of any invasion, passed into history to signify the Allied invasion of France and no other.

After World War II, Eisenhower remained at the head of the United States Army as Chief of Staff until 1950 when he once again picked up the mantle of world leadership as the Commander-in-Chief of NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was the alliance of free European nations blocking Soviet aggression during the Cold War until the communist bloc ultimately collapsed in the 1980s.

By 1961, Eisenhower had also served two terms as president of the United States and had a record of 50 years of extraordinary service to the American people and the free world. It was in this year the Association of Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point chose him to be the recipient of the prestigious Sylvanus Thayer award. It was at this award ceremony Eisenhower’s classmates presented him with this beautiful rifle, two years in the making.

Custom fitted front sight mount with hand engraved matted ramp to reduce reflection.

Gold inlay and engraved scroll work on breech ring.

Remarkably precise hand-cut letters in gold inlay.

An unusual touch — a custom hard-rubber butt plate
carved with a basket weave pattern.

Magazine floorplate with national crest of the United States
in gold inlay and gold wire border.

Artist In Steel

Though not universally recognized like Eisenhower, Roy Vail’s talents were well-known in the firearms world. He was on the cover of American Rifleman in 1950 and the subject of one of the magazine’s “How To Do It” articles demonstrating the engraving and gold inlay work he was famous for. Knowing how something is done and having the talent to do it are two very different things. Vail made it look easy.

He often worked freehand, cutting the design into the steel without first drawing out a pattern on it. He could do it while he talked with customers in his shop. He held a master-of-arts degree and was a graduate of the Morrisville Scientific and Technical College. His gold inlay talents were honed studying alongside famed European-trained master engravers like Rudolph Kornbrath and Arnold Griebel. While Kornbrath and Griebel were essentially freelance artists who decorated customers’ firearms to order, Vail only used his decorative talents to enhance the firearms he custom built in his Warwick, NY workshop. He produced about 150 rifles and 200 shotguns in his career.

In our present era of the pragmatic modern sporting rifle, the expression “custom built” has a different connotation than it did when Roy Vail created this bolt action for Eisenhower in 1958. By this time, the bolt-action repeating rifle had gained supremacy over the venerable lever-action among American sportsmen but commercial offerings were still limited. For the budget-minded hunter, there were staggering numbers of inexpensive surplus military bolt action rifles to sporterize or use as issued.

For the affluent, there were custom gunmakers like Roy Vail whose clients included movie stars and national heroes. He built guns from parts too, just like we do today, but assembling custom bolt action rifles is not the same thing as building your own AR-platform rifle. The special gunsmithing skills required took years to master. Engraving was hand cut, not laser-etched by a computer program.

Masterfully hand checkered stock and bolt handle. The gold inlay
oak leaves on the bolt were another Vail trademark.

Classic scroll engraving — likely done freehand without patterns by Roy Vail —
on custom hinged magazine floorplate and trigger guard.

Ike’s Rifle

The action of the Eisenhower rifle is actually from a military weapon as revealed by its left-side thumb cut-out and stripper clip guide. Vail and his contemporaries used lots of ’98 Mauser actions as the basis for their custom rifles because they were considered then — and largely to this day — to be masterpieces of design efficiency, strength and reliability.

Vail barreled Eisenhower’s rifle for the popular flat-shooting .270 Winchester cartridge that first appeared in 1925 and remains a mainstay today for deer-sized game.

The highly figured custom English walnut stock has a raised Monte Carlo-style cheekpiece and a rosewood fore end. Mounting studs for quick-detachable sling swivels were installed over diamond-shaped inlays. The extensive checkering on the pistol grip and foregrip was hand cut.

The rifle was never intended to mount a telescopic sight. Waterproof optics weren’t even commercially available when it was made and most people hunted with open sights anyway. Vail equipped Eisenhower’s rifle with a two-leaf express rear sight and a ramped and banded front sight giving it an African big-game rifle look.

General Eisenhower talks with paratroopers before the D-Day landings
that started the long process of wrestling Europe away from Germany.

President Eisenhower gives a speech. “Ike” was a popular U.S. President
after his military career and is often remembered for his campaign slogan: “I like Ike.”

All That Glitters

The most spectacular aspect of this custom rifle is the beautifully decorated hinged floorplate. A hinged floorplate was a must for easy and safe unloading of a bolt action and a popular custom feature. Magnificent floorplates were something of a Vail trademark and this one is no exception.

The gold inlay is actually a miniature sculpture, cut to shape from sheet gold and hammered out from behind to give it a three-dimensional character and then flipped over and carved to near final form. The detailed national crest inlay on this rifle, as well as all the gold wire used for borders and lettering, is actually mechanically attached to the rifle. In every place where you see gold, the underlying steel was removed and the perimeter of the resulting holes and channels undercut so the edges of the somewhat larger gold inlays can be slipped underneath and held in place.

Had this rifle belonged to Theodore Roosevelt, he would certainly have used it. However, Ike’s custom Mauser doesn’t look like it’s been afield at all. He was 71 years old when he finished his second term as president in 1961, finished his memoirs in 1965 and died in 1969. Perhaps he never got around to taking those hunting trips, but the preservation of America’s wilderness was important to him. As president, he made substantial enhancements to both the acreage set aside as protected wilderness and fish and wildlife conservation.

Subscribe To GUNS Magazine

Purchase A PDF Download Of The GUNS Magazine March 2023 Issue Now!


Ruger Rifle...

Telling my Ruger American rifles apart by merely glancing at them would be a bonus. I was accumulating Ruger Americans faster than a crazy cat lady. Did I...
Read Full Article
Lee Speed Sporter

Two just-commissioned second lieutenants were celebrating their graduation from Sandhurst, 1910, with a pint at the local pub. They were speculating on...
Read Full Article
A “Russkie”...

Being introduced to all kinds of cool products, part of the event — and my favorite — included using the Scrambler and Military Crest shooting trails...
Read Full Article