Old Faithful - my 7x57mm Mauser
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Some years back I read an internet posting on Straight Shooter by an American called Ken who described the 7x57mm Mauser as ‘The Great Granddaddy of Modern-Day Cartridges.’ It wasn’t a long posting but it was certainly an interesting read. He described how on 01 July, 1898; some 15,000 troops of the American Army attacked 700 entrenched Spanish soldiers on San Juan Hill in Cuba. In order to keep up with the global arms race after Frenchman Paul Vielle invented smokeless powder in 1884, the American Army had just adopted the Danish Krag-Jorgensen rifle in 30-40 Krag.
Of the 15,000 American troops who went charging up San Juan Hill, (many of them still armed with the archaic 45-70 Springfield), the 700 Spaniards soon inflicted at least 1,500 casualties, holding them off for twelve hours. This loss caused America to relegate the Krag-Jorgensen to the bin and the Springfield Armoury soon developed the 1903 Springfield rifle (whose action was a Mauser 98 copy) and the 30-30 Springfield cartridge, a sort of scaled up 7x57mm cartridge. It predated the 8x57 Mauser and the Mauser ’98 which most bolt action rifles are based on.
In the wake of the Anglo-Boer War too, and the British army’s experience against the Boer’s 7x57 Mauser’s, they too, were forced to re-evaluate their ammunition and rifle design. This resulted in the Brits designing a Mauser-actioned 7mm (.276 Enfield); however, WW1 broke out before they could get it into service so they reverted to the .303.
In 1892 Paul Mauser designed the 7x57mm Mauser, one of the first rimless bottleneck cartridges and the 7x57mm’s design is the basis for most modern rimless cartridges including the 30-06 Springfield and all of its cartridge family. The Spanish Army first adopted the 7x57mm Mauser in 1893 and it was this cartridge which inflicted so many casualties amongst the American troops mounting the assault on San Juan Hill on that bleak day in July 1898.
During the late 1800s a number of other countries in Central and South America, and following the lead set by Spain also adopted the 7x57mm as their official military cartridge. From a sport hunting perspective, the 7x57mm cartridge was an instant success and has remained so to this day. Virtually every game animal on the planet has been successfully hunted with the 7x57mm. William ‘Karamoja’ Bell shot in the region of about 1,000 elephants using a 7×57mm rifle (in the British equivalent, Rigby’s .275). This was during a period when most ivory hunters preferred larger-caliber rifles.
Bell chose the cartridge because of moderate recoil and he used 175-grain solid bullets (with a velocity of about 2400fps) to ensure good penetration, which the 7×57mm does admirably due to its fast twist rate. This twist rate also enables it to fire long, heavy bullets, with a high sectional density. Having done his own thorough research, and aside from being a truly exceptional shot, Bell also had a sound knowledge of elephant anatomy. He knew the exact size and location of the brain from any angle, thus ensuring his bullet placement was precise. In the part of Africa where he hunted, elephants hadn’t yet learnt to fear man, and lived mainly out in the open, away from dense cover. This made them a lot easier to approach.
We must remember too that at the time of Bell’s hunting exploits, jacketed bullets and smokeless powder had only recently been invented. Initially in the smaller military calibres, and this combination showed impressive penetration compared with black powder cartridges of that era which fired large-bore all-lead bullets. Thus, a lot of ‘new generation’ experimentation was taking place. Inevitably Bell realised the 7x57 was not a suitable elephant cartridge, and switched to a .318 Westley Richard’s among other calibres, including a .416 Rigby.
Lt. Col. James (Jim) Edward Corbett an ex British Army officer and well-known Indian hunter, owned two .275 (7x57mm) Rigby Mauser’s. One of which is now in the possession of Paul Roberts in the UK, (at one time Paul owned the Rigby company before the name Rigby was sold). Corbett was a maestro with a gun and an accomplished backwoodsman. Aside from using a .450/.400 W.J. Jeffery & Co. boxlock double, he also frequently used the .257 Rigby with a 173-grain bullet at 2,300fps to hunt tigers, including the man-eaters of Kumaon, various tigers who terrorized the villagers of the Kumaon region of India in the early 1930s. He later wrote about these exploits in a book titled Man-Eaters of Kumaon and another book The Temple Tiger. Well known American hunter and author Jack O’ Connor’s wife Eleanor, accompanied her husband on numerous safaris worldwide, killing small and large game with her favoured calibre, the 7×57mm.
As a youngster growing up in 1950s British Colonial Rhodesia there was no shortage of 7x57 Mausers. Most of them had been brought back post WW2 by returning ex servicemen. We Rhodesian kids of that era witnessed nearly all of the hunting our elders did being done with either the British ex military Lee Enfield Mk111 .303, or with a Mauser 7x57mm.
My late dad had a 7mm Mauser and a .303 Lee Enfield. Although he wasn’t an ardent sport hunter, he was a deadly shot. For much of my boyhood, we lived on the banks of the Sabi River in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the old man couldn’t pass up shooting any big crocs that periodically appeared on the sandbanks in front of our house. For this task, he preferred the 7x57mm Mauser.
In early 1968 when I joined the Rhodesian National Parks & Wildlife Management department a number of field stations I served on had a 7x57mm Mauser in the armoury. As a result, I used the calibre on and off throughout my service. It impressed me greatly, and although the ammunition was ‘issue’, the brand name now escaping me, I never had a glitch. Unable to afford one at the time on my meagre game ranger’s salary I vowed that one day I'd own one, although it took a long time and only came my way as a gift in 1986, thanks to a generous client.
Initially I thought it was a military version due to its apparent full-length stock with handguard on top, so I had it ‘sporterized’. I later learned that it was a commercial (sporting) Mauser known as the ‘Afrika Model’ which had a fore-end almost to the end of the barrel, as well as a handguard. I also learned its pear-shaped bolt knob, double set triggers, and quarter turn magazine floorplate lever, all identified it as a sporting version, although I changed the double-set trigger. It was a Waffenfabrik Mauser Oberndorf with the serial number 76629.
Above: I learned the quarter turn magazine floorplate lever, helped identify it as a sporting version, known as the 'Afrika Model', although I changed the double-set trigger.
Our middle son Keith who at the time was 14-years old had already decided to embark on a career as a gunmaker. Back then he used to spend portion of his school holidays with well known gunmaker Johan Morkel who’d set up shop in Tarkastad, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Under Johan’s guidance Keith removed the full stock and made me a no frills copy turned one. The rifle was after all intended for work such as guiding on plains game, and for general wildlife management use. We also removed the military aperture sights and dressed the rifle with a fixed x4-power Tasco scope, an optic brand which had its detractors, however, the trusty 7x57 wore that scope for 22 years and it never let me down once. Being a working rifle in the truest sense it was never molly-coddled, and took a pounding around much of Southern Africa, yet the Tasco held true.
Above: Our son Keith, now a bespoke independent UK gunmaker works on an action (www.Keithdennisonthomas.co.uk)
As an aside, after leaving school Keith did a five-year apprenticeship with Rigby & Co in London, then spent nearly nine years with Purdey’s, and then seven years with Westley Richard’s, before re-joining Purdeys, and then ultimately going on his own. When I was still a PH it was handy having a son who’s a gunmaker.
For a long time, I used factory PMP in various bullet weights mainly because handloading was a hassle when living back in Zimbabwe after the Ciskei. After returning to South Africa however, I started to use Nosler Partition 160-grain bullets extensively, and I sighted them in at about 2½” high at 100m. For handloaders, the 7x57mm is deservedly described as ‘a ballistician's delight’.
My 7x57 was also hired on a regular basis by international clientele who with today’s heightened air travel security find it easier to just hire a rifle in Africa. Rather than haul one through the sky. All of the hunters who’ve used the 7x57 on their plains game go away totally satisfied with the results. In 2009 I finally retired the old Tasco scope (still in fine fettle), and replaced it with a Leupold Vari-X 111 1.5-5 which worked well.
Sometimes I pushed the envelope distance wise and animal size wise when asking my 7x57 to perform, and yet it never failed me. Over the years it has taken numbers of impala, warthog, blue and black wildebeest, blesbok, bushbuck, kudu, zebra, and gemsbok. Although I have shot eland a few times with it, let me go on record as stating that the 7x57mm is not an adequate eland cartridge. However, and in my defence I have nearly half a century of game-ranging and professional hunting experience in Africa. I stalked to within sure shooting distance, and was supremely confident of my shot placement.
Some years ago, a client brought me a box of 160-grain Nosler Spitzer AccuBond and I loaded up some test batches with variations of South African S355 before settling on 40grn (giving me 2345fps), which proved exceedingly accurate. The Nosler AccuBond bullet and load allowed my 7x57 to confidently step up to the plate on a variety of fairly testy shots, and it soon became my preferred bullet for all of my plains game hunting. When clients hire my rifle, I also ensure they use the 160-grain Nosler AccuBond bullets.
Above: I soon found the 160-grain Nosler Spitzer AccuBond in front of 40grn of South African S355 powder, and giving me 2345fps was the ideal powder/bullet combination for all of my plains game wants.
One-year Jamie Cox brought out some friends from the UK on a quick plains game hunt and we did our usual thing on Woodlands game ranch, courtesy Keith Gradwell. Given the group size, Keith and Doug Snow also joined us as PHs. My client, Jamie Ingram, used my 7x57mm with the 160grn Nosler AccuBond bullets. Interestingly, he’d never fired a rifle in his life but was keen to do a bit of hunting. After some quick coaching at the rifle range bench where Jamie quickly proved himself an extremely natural and accurate marksman, we went hunting.
A kudu bull was the first animal he killed using a clean well-placed heart shot across a 208m steep sided valley. The bull careened downhill, tail flagging, before piling up in a spekboom choked donga. Our next animal was a fine black wildebeest. We took him from a blind out on the Bedford plains. It was a ranged 190m shot, and again, Jamie put the 160grn Nosler AccuBond into the shoulder, causing the bull to circle round us as if prancing on parade, before he sunk to his knees and then fell over sideways. These two species were followed by a blesbok and a warthog, both out at about 180m and also cleanly grassed with single well-placed shoulder shots.
Above: It was a ranged 190m shot, and again, Jamie put the 160grn Nosler AccuBond into the shoulder,
Strangely, few of the younger generation PHs in southern Africa has shown much inclination towards owning and using the venerable 7x57mm Mauser. I have spoken to a number of them around campfires in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and while all readily acknowledge the bullet has been well proven on the global battlefields of yesteryear, and right across Africa’s hunting fields, they'd rather opt for another calibre such as a .300 Winchester Magnum. Obviously and correctly so, it's a case of horses for courses. However, I also think it could be because they perceive the 7x57mm a little old fashioned despite its accolades and sound track record.
Above: The 160grn Nosler AccuBond recovered from under the skin on the opposite shoulder of Jamie's black wildebeest.