The history of the Mauser semi-automatic rifles begins under questionable circumstances. The line of rifles began in 1897 with Paul Mauser’s development of the Mauser 1898 Recoil-Operated Rifle. This original rifle operated by the means of short recoil, where the breech block is cycled by means of a partially-traversing barrel. Interestingly, this original rifle had a provision that was to allow for “slow fire” manual firing whereby on the rearward movement of the breech block, it would snag a latch that would need to be depressed for the bolt to be allowed to travel back toward the barrel and strip a new round from the magazine. This provision was considered as a way to prevent the waste of ammunition, and the self-loading feature was only to be used in an emergency that required a high rate of fire. Unfortunately for Paul Mauser, the rifle provided an emergency of its own and, during testing of the rifle, a malfunction cost Paul Mauser one of his eyes.
Despite personal injury, development of Mauser’s self-loading rifles continued. In 1905, a new rifle appeared utilizing an entirely different method of operation. Unlike the short-recoil action of the Model 1898, the Model 1905 Self-loading Rifle (Sometimes referred to as the Model 1902) used the method of long-recoil, whereby the barrel and breech block, locked together, recoil laterally the entire length of recoil before disengaging. The most identifiable feature of this rifle is the pivoting bolt-handle that appears much like that of a bolt-action rifle, except located near the very front end of the bolt. The bolt-catch feature of the Model 1898 was absent in this design, but once again Mauser did give the rifle the provision for manual operation. If the pivoting bolt handle was turned down (locked, as in the case of a bolt-action rifle), the rifle would be prevented from operating semi-automatically. The magazine was internal and held 5 rounds.
Abandoning both the short- and long-recoil designs, the next iteration of the Mauser Self-loading Rifle came in 1908 with what was essentially an upscaled version of Mauser’s C06/08 pistol. The first apparent difference between the Mauser 06/08 Self-loading Rifle and the previous two Mauser self-loaders is the relatively massive magazine size. Opting not for an internal magazine, the 06/08 rifle introduced a 20-round detachable magazine. In fact due to the nature of the weapon’s operation, an internal magazine would have been extremely difficult, if not practically impossible to load.
The method of operation for the 06/08 rifle was by a fixed barrel and a delayed-blowback action. When the rifle is in battery, two pivoting lugs in a V-shape join together behind the breech block to prevent the block from recoiling rearwards, locking it in place. When the rifle is fired, recoil instead operates a slide that is positioned atop the receiver that is attached to the two locking lugs via cams cut into it. As the slide moves rearward, it opens the two lugs so they sit flush against the walls of the receiver, which finally allows the impulse of recoil to drive the bolt rearward. With the slide locked back in place, the bolt is free to travel forward again, stripping a round from the magazine into the chamber. Thereafter the slide is released, which again locks the lugs behind the breech block and enables the firing pin to be engaged.
It was an unnecessarily complicated design, and reloading the weapon was a laborious two-handed affair. Just to load the weapon fresh, the slide must be pulled back and manually locked into place, so that the locking lugs are retracted. With a hold-open device keeping the slide rearward, the bolt can then be pulled rearward and let go to strip a new round into the magazine. Then, the slide catch must be released, so that the weapon is fully in battery. Despite the overwhelming complication of the design, the 06/08 rifle was the longest-lived mechanism of the Mauser self-loaders. The same design principle was carried over into the final and most notable model of the Mauser self-loader: The Selbstlader-Karabiner Mauser M 1916.
The Selbstlader-Karabiner Mauser M 1916 was a further refinement of the 06/08 rifle, and its most notable features was a more ergonomic stock and an overall reduction in length. The 06/08 rifle had been tested as an aviation rifle, but its length was unwieldy. A rifle soon appeared with the same mechanism and a shorter half-length stock with a protrusion near the magazine well to aid in shouldering the rifle – this was designated as the Mauser 10/13 Self-loading Rifle. Undergoing military tests at the start of the First World War, the Mauser 10/13 rifle was ultimately rejected by the German Army proper, but found a home in the German Air Corps and the German Ballon-und-Zeppelin-Truppe. The German Air Corps adopted the rifle officially as the ‘Fliegerkarabine 15’ and the Ballon-und-Zeppelin-Truppe adopted the rifle officially as the ‘Selbstlader-Karabiner Mauser M 1916.’
Issued with multiple 20-round magazines, the volume of fire the rifle could lay down was impressive, but there was a catch– the rifle had to be meticulously clean to do so. Due to the expensive manufacturing costs and intricate high-tolerance machining, only 1000 of the Selbstlader-Karabiner Mauser M 1916 were produced. While the high-tolerance machining led to impressive mechanical accuracy, it suffered from easy fouling. For the rifle to operate reliably, rounds had to be properly lubricated in grease, making them a dirt-trap which kept the rifle in the air. Ground usage was out of the question. On top of the reliability concerns, there was the issue of the weapon’s punishing recoil. The fixed-barrel design led to the recoil impulse being much sharper as compared to other gas- or recoil-based mechanisms where the barrel or an operation rod would absorb some of the recoil. That was not so with the M 1916– the entire force of recoil was slammed back against the operator’s shoulder.
When the German military acquired sufficient numbers of the much cheaper Flieger-Selbstlader-Karabiner 15 Mondragon Rifle, the Mauser Fliegerkarabine 15 was largely withdrawn from the German Air Corps. The Flieger-Selbstlader-Karabiner 15 Mondragon was inherently less-accurate and more prone to stoppages according to its Bavarian Field Manual. It states that compared to the “previous introduced weapon,” being the Mauser Fliegerkarabine 15, accuracy of the newly-acquired weapons was abysmal:
“The unified construction of this self-loading weapon results in greater variations in the targeting position than exist in previously introduced weapons. Only deviations of more than 20cm from the normal group are corrected.”
For every one Mauser Fliegerkarabine 15 replaced, two Flieger-Selbstlader-Karabiner 15 Mondragon rifles took its place due to the frequency of stoppages. So even if the final Mauser self-loader was by no means a spectacular rifle and suffered from serious reliability issues, there were still objectively worse alternatives.
Mauser M1915 photos:
US Patent #639,421 (P. Mauser; Recoil Operated Firearm; December 19, 1899)
US Patent #783,123 (P. Mauser; Recoil Operated Small Arms; February 21, 1905)
US Patent #903,998 (P. Mauser; Recoil Loading Small Arm [06/08 pistol]; November 17, 1908)
US Patent #987,584 (P. Mauser; Small Arm [06/08 rifle]; March 21, 1911)