Ever the Bridesmaid: The 7mm Mauser2x 7×57 cartridge next to 7.5×55 Swiss / GP11 (mid), .308 Winchester and .223 Remington (right)
The 7mm Mauser (aka 7×57) has an interesting yet paradoxical history. Early in life, it was used in combat against the United States and the British Empire, and its performance made a powerful impression on its opponents. For example, the United States Army almost immediately dropped its Krag-Jorgensen rifle, even though this had been introduced only five years earlier. Its replacement was chambered for a cartridge based on the 7mm Mauser, and used a Mauser-type action. And yet, after such impressive performance, the 7×57 was never adopted as a standard service cartridge by any major belligerent in either of the two World Wars.
Peter Paul Mauser, an up-and-coming German rifle maker, traveled to Spain in 1892 to demonstrate a new rifle and its new cartridge, the 7mm Mauser. Both took advantage of the latest technological developments: the rifle featured a staggered internal magazine that held five rounds, and the cartridge was designed for the revolutionary new smokeless powder which the French had introduced six years earlier. The Spaniards were so impressed by both rifle and cartridge that they promptly placed an order with Mauser, and even awarded him the Grand Cross of the Spanish Military Order of Merit.
Little did they know that six years later they would find
themselves at war with the United States. And thus when 6,600 American troops charged up San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill, outside of Santiago, Cuba, they faced the business end of 750 Mauser M93s. Eventually numbers told, and the Americans took the hill – but at great cost. Outnumbered about nine to one, the Spanish troops inflicted 1,400 casualties on the Americans in a matter of minutes. This got the U.S. Army’s attention.
How Did That Happen?
Many of the American troops involved in the attack were carrying the .30-40 Krag-Jorgensen, introduced in 1893. Like the Mauser, it was a bolt-action rifle that held five rounds. Unlike the Mauser, it was reloaded one round at a time through a spring-loaded side gate. This was very handy for topping off the magazine, but decidedly slower to reload, as the Mauser could be reloaded five rounds at a time, using a stripper clip. Moreover, the Model Mauser 93 had a fast-cycling action; this video clip shows how quickly you can work its bolt.
Last but not least, the 7mm Mauser had a flatter trajectory. Its military load at this point in time was a 173-grain round-nosed bullet. Launched from a 29-inch barrel, it had a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps. While that might sound modest to 21st-century ears, it was a very flat-shooting round for its day. This gave it a clear edge over the .30-40 Krag, and a huge advantage over the black powder .45-70 that many American troops in Cuba still carried.
Back to the Drawing Board
Having noticed how many casualties it suffered at Santiago at the hands of only 750 Spanish troops, the Army commissioned a board of investigation that recommended replacing the Krag. In 1903, the Springfield rifle was introduced. It sported a Mauser action, was fed from a five-round stripper clip, and was chambered in a flatter- shooting cartridge, the 30-03. Remarkably similar to the rifle used by the Spanish troops at Santiago.
Next Stop: South Africa
The Spaniards weren’t Peter Mauser’s only customers. Sensing that a war with the British was brewing, the Boers of the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State placed an order with Mauser Werke for 50,000 Model 1895 rifles, chambered in 7×57. A little over thirty-five thousand of them arrived before hostilities broke out, and the Boers put them to good use.
The Boers didn’t have an empire they could draw on for recruits. What they did have was tough and rugged citizen soldiers, who usually fought as dragoons – they travelled by horseback, but often dismounted to fight. The flat-shooting 7mm Mauser proved to be an excellent choice for fighting in the open country of South Africa, as the British soon found out.
For example, the British assaulted a Boer-held position on Talana Hill, outside Dundee, Natal, on October 20, 1899. They sound found themselves in a maelstrom of rifle fire, and hit the dirt. Rallied by their commander, they resumed the attack and took the hill, but at great cost. Their commanding officer lay dying, they had suffered 253 other casualties, and the Boers simply mounted their ponies and trotted away. The British suffered even more heavily at the battle of Spion Kop three months later, where they lost 1,500 men, against only 335 Boer casualties, most lost to British artillery, not rifle, fire.
Not up to Snuff
The British were learning the hard way that their rifles’ sights were too crude for long-range shooting; to boot, many of them were incorrectly graduated, and shot wildly off the mark. Like the Krag-Jorgensen, the British Lee-Metfords were also slower to load, as they were not designed to be fed from a stripper clip. And to round out their troubles, the Lee-Metfords fired a 215gr cartridge whose ballistics were much inferior to those of the 7×57.
The British Army made some hasty improvements to the sights on the Lee-Metford, and eventually their superior numbers forced the Boers to the negotiating table. Yet once again, the 7mm Mauser had dealt its opponents a stinging blow, and the British concluded their service rifle was inadequate: back to the drawing board they went. The result was the Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield, which soon won an outstanding reputation on the battlefields of the First World War. In the meantime, thanks to their experiences in the Boer War, the British Army had begun paying more attention to marksmanship, which served them well in the ensuing conflict.
Meanwhile, back in Germany
Having given two major powers a bloody nose in less than four years, the 7mm Mauser made quite a name for itself on the field of battle. All in vain. No major power chose to adopt this outstanding cartridge for its service rifle. Spain and the Boer Republics had done so, but they had no comparable indigenous weapons industry. The German Army had indeed adopted a Mauser design, the model 1898, but decided to chamber it in 8mm Mauser (8×57).
The Sweet Spot
In my opinion, the Germans made a mistake. Not that the 8mm Mauser was a bad cartridge, or the Mauser 1898 a bad rifle. But the 8mm kicked a lot harder, especially with the 198gr load adopted in 1933. Shooting that out of bolt-action rifle with a steel butt plate – no thanks! In addition, the ’98 action was slower to cycle, since it cocked on opening rather than on closing, like the ’93 (and the equally fast Lee Enfield).
The 7mm Mauser came closer to the ideal cartridge in the age of battle rifles, possessing an effective combination of muzzle energy and range, with low recoil that just about any recruit could handle. The 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser would be another contender for this title, with even better ballistics due to its insanely high ballistic coefficient, but I’d go with the 7mm on the hunch that it delivers greater stopping power, and due to its impressive performance in the two conflicts mentioned above.
Alas, it never got star billing. The major powers of the two World Wars ended up fielding cartridges ranging from 6.5mm (Italy and Japan) to .30 caliber (US, British Empire, France, USSR) to 8mm (Germany), but the 7mm Mauser was left on the sidelines. If there is any silver lining to this cloud, it’s the fact that the major American rifle cartridge in both wars, the .30-06, is a direct descendant of Peter Mauser’s outstanding 7×57.