Shooting the Gew. 88 style of rifle requires some love and care to get it shooting safely, but the results justify the effort.
A Brief History
When the French invented true smokeless powder and their 1886 Lebel rifle came out, it caught the world on fire. Germany was desperate to keep up with her age old enemy, so the government introduced a commission to build a rifle around a low pressure 8x57mm round.
The result was the Gew. 88 rifle (short for Gewehr) that came out in 1888 and it is also referred to as the Commission rifle. It was a five shot smokeless powder bolt action rifle that used a Mannlicher style clip loading system. The bolt itself features two locking lugs and a separate bolt head.
The Turks and the Chinese were quick to buy or make their own versions of the rifle. In 1898, after a series of successful rifles, Mauser introduced their Gew. 98 rifle. It fired a more powerful 8x57mm round and featured two locking lugs on a solid bolt and a third safety lug toward the rear of the bolt.
The 98 Mauser remains the gold standard in strength and safety in the world of bolt action rifles. So where does that leave the Gew. 88 and its copies?
While the Gew. 88 action was strong for its time, it was never designed with modern day 8x57mm military loadings in mind. Despite this, the Germans later modified the older Gew. 88 rifles to fire the new round by reaming the chamber, fitting a .323″ bored barrel to replace the original .318″, and giving the rifle a stripper clip feed. Modified rifles will normally be marked to show these changes.
Another knock on the Gew. 88 design is the separate bolt head which in theory is not strong like the solid bolt on a Gew. 98. Yet another is the lack of a gas protection system should a round be punctured by the firing pin. In this situation, the shooter’s face can be spewed with hot gas. Mauser was quick to drill the bolts on their later Mauser rifles so that gas could escape up instead of straight back if such a situation occurred.
Loading for Your Rifle
Bore Condition and Safety
An unmodified Gew. 88 will normally have a .318″ diameter bore while a modified rifle would have a nominal .323″ bore. The Chinese versions were designed for the .318″ bullet and modification was seldom done. In the case of the Chinese version, you will amongst always encounter them with worn bores with some having no rifling at all.
The German and Turkish rifles did see use too so bore diameters vary. Slug the bore of your gun to find out what the bore diameter is and what bullets to cast or buy. Also, the integrity of the action lockup must be tested and any vintage firearm should be inspected before firing.
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Commercial Ammunition and Reloads
Once you verified your rifle is safe to fire and determined the bore diameter, it’s time to access the situation. Do you reload or can you get by with commercial ammunition? In my mind, it depends on the condition of the bore.
Without question, it’s not a smart idea to use military surplus 8x57mm rounds in your 88 for the simple reason that they were never built to withstand it. Not to mention that the gentler the load is, the longer the gun will last you. Commercial ammunition, especially of American variety, is loaded lightly in case someone buys the ammo and puts it into their Commission rifle. European ammunition can be found loaded close to milspec with .323″ bullets.
Commercial American ammunition is lightly loaded and normally uses a .318″ bullet. This would work in an unmodified Gew. 88, but the modified version with the .323″ bore won’t shoot it accurately. The Chinese and Turkish rifles geneally have larger bore diameters and don’t work with the .318 bullet. Reports of poor accuracy with this type of ammo is well noted in Mauser pattern rifles too.
So what about reloading? That seems to be the option across the board with Gew. 88 owners, with cast bullets being the preferred projectile. Cast bullets can be made to suit the exact bore size and lead will not wear the rifling in the gun like a copper jacketed bullet would. Cast bullets are an inexpensive option whether you are buying in bulk or casting yourself, so in short, it’s an economical way to safely enjoy your rifle with great longevity for the rifle itself.
What Load Should I Use?
If you wish to shoot your 88 rifle and you have verified its safety and slugged the bore to determine the diameter, you are set to reload for it. The 8x57mm round originally used by the Commission rifle was a 220 grain round nosed bullet at about 2100 fps, and the case was a bit different in the throat than the later 8x57mm round.
Once you have determined the size of the bullet you need, select a cast bullet that is one one-thousandth larger, i.e. a .324″ cast bullet in a .323″ bore. This allows for the best possible accuracy.
Lose fit bullets do bad things, like keyhole. But well oversized bullets do even worse things. In my Hanyang 88 rifle, I opted to use a .324 diameter bullet over a minimum recommended charge of Unique shot shell powder which gave a muzzle velocity of just 1300 fps. I picked this load because it was an extremely gentle gallery load that demonstrated little felt recoil and noise. Ultimately, it is your call as to what you fire in your gun. These rifles are extremely accurate when you figure out what works best for you.
The German Gew. 88 and its foreign copies are an excellent find and represent a time in firearms history when smokeless powder was now on the scene but was not yet fully understood. The Gew. 88 rifle proved good enough to keep around through World War I, despite its early obsolescence. The Chinese kept their versions going far longer than that.
It’s easy to see why. It is a solid design with some short comings.
You are responsible as to what you put in you gun and a reloading manual should be consulted at all times. Given that, good luck 88 owners and happy shooting.