The First Scout: Germany's Karabiner 98K
December 17, 2018
Photography by Jill Marlow
I’ll be the first to admit that the modern sporting scout rifle as envisioned by Col. Jeff Cooper some 30-odd years ago has little in common with a special-purpose military rifle built on a design that came into service with Germany in 1935. Still, there are enough similarities that one may guardedly opine that the K98k Mauser topped with a long-eye-relief, 1.5X scope, if not a major influence on the scout rifle concept, certainly has uncanny similarities.
Despite some possible kinship to the Mauser, Cooper’s avowed inspirations for his handy, easy-to-tote, responsive little rifle were the Winchester Model 94, the Model 1903 Mannlicher-Schönauer, the British Lee-Enfield No. 5 Mk 1 “Jungle Carbine,” and the Remington Model 600.
Yes, I know a 9-pound, 44-inch battle rifle has a considerable distance to travel to be considered anything approaching a scout rifle. I’ll acknowledge a Mauser K98k is certainly a long way from the finished product. Its most obvious kinship to Cooper’s brainchild, is an extended-eye-relief scope, which, in the original scout rifle concept, was arguably one of the most optional features on the gun.
Developers of the Karabiner 98k mit Zielfernrohr 41 certainly had no idea at the time that their work would have any kind of influence on a future lightweight sporting rifle concept. Many of the arm’s scout-rifle features are evident only in hindsight.
The best way to start the comparison is to put together a checklist of the major features of an ideal scout rifle as envisioned by Cooper, and then see how a scoped K98k compares.
Defining a scout rifle. A scout rifle must be compact, a minimum of 39 inches in length, weighing no more than 7.7 pounds. It should be a bolt-action with a smooth bolt knob, have a Mauser claw extractor, two-lug locking and feature a three-position safety.
Optics, when used, should be low power (around 2X to 3X) and set well forward of the action to allow the rifle to be easily loaded with a stripper clip and permit optimum peripheral vision. The rifle has to have a backup (or primary), open rear sight featuring a large-diameter ghost ring and a plain front post.
The magazine may be either an integral box-style or removable. If integral, a magazine cutoff (a concept dating back to the 19th century) is recommended. If detachable, the box should be able to be set so that individual rounds could be loaded with the remaining ammunition kept in reserve.
Ideally, the caliber would be either .308 Winchester or 7mm-08 Remington. A synthetic stock is preferred and a folding bipod is nice to have, but not mandatory.
The trigger pull should be a crisp 3 pounds. Additionally, the gun should be able to keep groups as close to 4 inches at 200 yards as possible.
Scout rifles have been made by several firms, the first being Steyr Arms in 1998 under the direction of Cooper. Following the initial run in .308, other calibers were added. Savage Arms and Ruger have developed their own versions of the gun, which, because of new developments and the demands of the marketplace, offer some features not necessarily envisioned by Cooper. Custom gunsmiths have also provided their own interpretations based on the desires and needs of their clients.
Mauser’s “Scout” In 1935, Germany adopted the Mauser Karabiner 98k as general issue. Based on other, earlier shortened versions of the 49.2-inch-long Gewehr 98, this sleek new rifle with its progenitor’s superb five-shot, bolt-action design ended up being the preeminent military rifle of its time. The ’98 action itself is still regarded as being just about as good as it gets, providing a superb mechanism for countless other military and sporting rifles to this day.
In its most common version, the K98k mounted a sturdy V-notch so-called “rollercoaster” rear sight graduated to 2,000 meters and a drift-adjustable front blade. Chambered in the excellent 7.92x57mm (aka 8mm Mauser) round it, this a very accurate rifle. When scoped-up, it was lethal for sniping. Over the years, various models and makes of glass were attached to the rifle, generally in the 4X range and traditionally mounted over the action.
These arms were produced in somewhat limited quantities compared to the vast numbers of standard infantry rifles. It was felt by many of those in power that the quality of German marksmanship was so high that scoped rifles were almost superfluous.
With the onset of World War II, authorities again addressed the sniping issue and, over the objections of many experienced ordnance officials who demanded 4X magnification (which they eventually got), a 1.5X scope was adopted on a broad scale. Overall, six percent of all K98ks would be equipped with them.
The Zielfernrohr 41 (telescopic sight 41) scope was not really intended for a sniper rifle, being developed primarily for sharpshooter use. Adopted in 1941, the ZF 41 was to provide select members of infantry units with the ability to engage targets not necessarily visible to the naked eye. It was mounted over the standard open rear sight to allow the shooter to maintain a normal cheekweld on the buttstock when aiming. Because of this long eye-relief, the soldier, when shooting with both eyes open, was afforded excellent peripheral vision — a good feature to have in combat.
The scope itself was rather unprepossessing, measuring only 5½ inches. The field of view was limited and adjustments basic, mainly involving a ring graduated from 100 to 800 meters in 50-meter increments. Theoretically, the scopes were zeroed when they left the factory. However, alterations could be made in point of impact (POI), but this was to be done only by a trained armorer.
The reticle was the familiar German thick-pointed post with thin flanking bars. Two sliding tubular sheet-steel, sun/rain guards were fitted over the objective and ocular lenses. The mount itself was simple, a sturdy all-steel arrangement that was mounted on a rail and secured in position by dual internal rollers on the base and a thumb latch on the forward arm of the mount. The scope and mount could be easily removed by simply pushing in on the catch and sliding the unit forward off the rail.
This meant that the normal open sight could be used whenever required. The scope and mount was carried in a handy case (there were subtle variations in this accessory), which also had compartments for a lens brush and “Klarinol” cloth that was used to keep condensation from affecting the lenses.
Scopes and mounts were made at several locations in Germany, Czechoslovakia and France and were specially coded indicating the particular manufacturer. While the basic platform for the ZF41 was the K98k, a very few were also experimentally fitted to the shorter, special-purpose, Gewehr 38/40 (see “Germany’s Mountaineering Mauser”, Guns & Ammo, November 2017, page 106). The G38/40 only measured 39.2 inches long, had a 19.6-inch barrel and weighed 7.9 pounds. (That is close to the specs of the ideal scout rifle.)
Estimated at around 85,000, Karabiner 98ks fitted with ZF41 scopes were produced in considerable numbers from 1941 to 1945. They were hardy and, given their limitations, were apparently well-regarded by the troops. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not Cooper used any part of this system as an inspiration for the scout rifle’s sighting arrangement. I personally think it unlikely. If he did, he never mentioned it, having written that he affixed a Leupold 2X extended-eye-relief scope to a .308 Remington Model 600 initially, which provided impetus for his scout rifle. Even the Germans cannot in all probability lay claim to the long-eye-relief rifle concept.
The earliest one I have been able to ferret out was the British Lattey sight, a low-power (2X) Galalean arrangement whereby lenses, sans tube, were affixed at the front and the back sights. Used in limited quantities during World War I, these were civilian units and were only moderately effective in the trenches. There was also an extended-eye-relief pistol scope made by William Malcom of New York some time before 1886.
While I have fired the Steyr Scout rifle and was quite taken with it, for comparison, I thought it also would be interesting to see just how well the K98k ZF41 setup worked. I was fortunate enough to secure a good-condition rifle so modified. The ’98 itself was manufactured by Berlin-Lübecker Maschinenfabrik in 1942 and the scope by Emil Busch A-G, Optische Industrie, Rathnow (Germany) .
Range Work Supplied with a quantity of three types of 8mm Mauser ammunition (196-grain Prvi Partizan SP, Hornady 196-grain BTHP and 1973-vintage, FN surplus 198-grain FMJ), I took the rifle to the range. Optics were clear, with the reticle quite adequate to the purpose and, despite a limited field-of-view and low magnification, the target was readily acquired. (And I kept both eyes open when firing.)
Initial shots at 100 yards were disappointing with no hits registering on the target. I determined the rifle, even with the ZF41 at its lowest setting, was shooting at least 2-feet high regardless of the ammunition type. Testing was suspended for the day and the rifle taken to my gunsmith, Pete Forthofer, who was able to shim the scope in an attempt to correct the problem.
Two days later, I tried again, and this time with much better results. Horizontally, hits were pretty much right on, though they drifted about 6 inches to the left. Still, groups were excellent with the Hornady load providing the best results with spreads averaging in the 1½-inch category. One four-shot cluster came in at minute-of-angle (MOA). Unfortunately, as the barrel heated up (at least that’s my excuse, anyway), I threw the fifth out another 1¼ inches. Drat! The bottom line is that it worked very well, though the low magnification makes use of the glass beyond 300 yards iffy at best.
If I planned on shooting the rifle more, I’d find someone who could correct the windage difficulties, but at this point I think I’ll let things be. It was fun and an interesting learning experience.
A quick check of the K98k’s features vis-à-vis those of the scout rifle was next in order. To save space, we’ll just cover the similarities: The Karabiner 98k mit Zielfernrohr 41 has a Mauser extractor, a three-position safety, a smooth, round bolt knob, a long-eye-relief, low-power scope, open sights, an integral box magazine and the ability to be loaded with a clip. Accuracy was within acceptable limits. After that, things go south pretty fast.
It’s simply too heavy and too long to qualify as a scout rifle. Although being ZF41-equipped, more diminutive G33/40 would be getting pretty close to the mark. The K98k’s trigger was a typical military two-stage, freeing the firing pin at 6¾ pounds.
Still, by World War II standards, it’s not a bad setup. It’s certainly battle-worthy and, based upon the numbers of ZF41-equipped K98ks that saw service, successful.
There was no great expectation of the gun meeting all, or even a reasonable portion of all the original scout rifle’s prerequisites. Interestingly, since the late 1990s, with experience gained and normal evolution in some nuanced ways, the scout rifle is moving in interesting directions. Some may have pleased Col. Cooper, others, perhaps not.
To quote one of his comments from “Cooper’s Corner” in Guns & Ammo, July 1987, “[T]here is no single element that makes the Scout superior, but rather the total effect of many small increments. No single feature of the Scout makes it supreme, but when taken all together the effect is dramatic.”
Having worked for Guns & Ammo off and on for almost half a century, I ended up knowing Col. Cooper reasonably well. I sure wish I’d asked him if he ever heard of the ZF41. That would have been an interesting revelation.