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Mauser's 7mm

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Developed in 1892 the 7x57 (or 7mm Mauser) was initially used in a limited number of Model 1892 Mausers. The following year Mauser introduced an improved bolt-action rifle in the same calibre which was officially adopted by the Spanish military. Other countries followed suit and when the South African Boer republics realised that war with Britain was inevitable in the late 1890s they imported 50 000 7x57 Mausers.

Three Mauser versions were used during the Anglo-Boer War: the long-barrelled fullstock model made in Berlin by Ludwig Loewe & Co and DWM; a 7lb carbine with an overall length of 37.5 inches; and thirdly the so-called Plezier Mauser (directly translated Plezier means pleasure). This was a beautiful sporter with an octagonal barrel and a stock with a pistol grip. Plezier Mausers with shorter round barrels and hair triggers were also available. Free State burghers could order these rifles through their local magistrate for the princely sum of £5.

Herr Mauser’s rifles and the 7x57 cartridge, which launched a 173gr roundnose bullet at about 2300fps, not only served the Boers well, they also impressed the English to such an extent that they became popular in Britain and its game-rich colonies after the war. In 1907 John Rigby & Co created their own version of the 7x57 by reducing the bullet weight to 140gr, increasing the velocity to 2800fps and calling it the .275 Rigby High Velocity. When chambered in Rigby rifles the cartridge was generally referred to as the .275 Rigby and the English rifles were sighted for the 140gr bullet. However, hunters could order rifles with two rear sight blades - for the 140 and 173gr loads respectively. German 7mm and English .275 rounds were interchangeable because the case dimensions were exactly the same.

My semi-custom 7mm Mauser, built on a 1939 wartime action is no showpiece but I just love its trim lines, the dark walnut and the way it comes up to my shoulder. And, almost every time I handle the little rifle, memories flood my brain... I pulled off the best running shot of my life with it - on a jackal at over 200m. Of course it was a fluke but the lavish praise of my father, who was with me, made me walk tall for the rest of the day.

My first Rowland Ward blesbuck, a huge ram that I had ambushed in a dry pan, was killed with the Mauser and a 140gr Sierra bullet. Five years later I shot an ancient gemsbuck bull in the same pan, this time with a 175gr Nosler Partition bullet. A particular kudu bull comes to mind, flattened early one morning in a dry riverbed near Maltahöhe in Namibia. We had been hunting for almost a week and all I had to show for it was a warthog. It was cold and the sand crunched under our boots as we headed up the dry riverbed that appeared to hold no life. Suddenly he was there... a grey statue, looking at us, regal and aloof. Moments later when I knelt beside him there was no joy, just a sudden choking feeling of loss. Two years ago a hunted the barren Moordenaars Karoo (Murderers Karoo) north of Laingsburg in the Western Cape, this time using a custom-made ghost-ring sight on the 7mm. In that open country it took me days to get within 100m of a herd of springbuck and when I did the little Mauser worked to perfection... And so I can go on.

The above could have been done with any calibre launching a 140gr or heavier bullet at approximately 2500fps but the little 7mm cartridge has that mystical "something"... an aura that makes hunters pause and think and dream. By now you have probably gathered that I am a 7x57 enthusiast, but unlike those who make exaggerated claims for their favourite calibres I fully except that the 7x57 is not a "wonder" cartridge. It does not have the .270 Win’s flat trajectory or the .30-06’s punch. The adage "it kills far better than its paper ballistics suggest it should", applies to all mild cartridges which employ heavy-for-calibre bullets with high sectional densities. The 6.5x55 and the 9.3x62 are examples that come to mind.

Karamojo Bell is often credited for immortalizing the 7x57/.275 Rigby but I think the old Boers made this calibre popular long before Bell used it on elephant and they were perhaps responsible for the mystique that surrounds the 7mm. In the 1890s most South African hunters and farmers were using Martinis and some even soldiered on with old breech/muzzle loader Westley Richards rifles which used percussion caps and paper cartridges (consisting of a lead ball and black powder wrapped in special ‘cartridge’ paper). The Martini, also using black powder fired a 480gr, .450-calibre bullet at a sedate 1350fps. It was deadly at short range - even on buffalo and elephant - but its lack of speed and rainbow-like trajectory made accurate shooting difficult at longer ranges. It also kicked like a mule.

Enter the 7x57 and the Mauser 1896 rifle. The Boers, used to the Martini’s big lead slug, trundling along at 1000+fps, found the 7mm’s 173gr ‘solid’ at 2296fps something awesome - its flat trajectory (compared to the Martini’s) and good penetration astounded and delighted. The cupro-nickel, steel-clad bullet could punch a neat hole through a ploughshare at 75 paces whereas the Martini’s bullet made only a shallow dent. On game the 7mm solids were equally impressive. Another feather in the 7x57’s cap was its accuracy. It simply ran rings around the old Martini and its light recoil induced better marksmanship. The smokeless 7mm also did not betray its user’s position in battle and for hunters there was no need to ‘run around the smoke’ to see whether the bullet has found its mark. Mausers could hold five rounds in the magazine and the ammunition was so light that burghers could carry two bandoliers of 60 cartridges each. Having earned its wings on the battlefield, the 7x57’s future was secured.

Pleased with this new ‘wonder’ cartridge, hunters naturally embellished on the truth when they gathered around campfires. By the time Rigby introduced the high-velocity expanding bullet, the superb Model 98 Mauser had been adopted and its many positive features together with Bell’s stories and embellishments further fuelled the 7x57’s fame. That is until some fools tried using it on dangerous game but used the 140gr expanding bullet instead of the 173gr solid.

The development of more efficient smokeless powders opened a new world to cartridge designers and by 1930 small-bore cartridges had been developed that could push bullets beyond 3000fps. Suddenly the 7x57 was just another slowcoach. Over the years many Magnums, Ultra Magnums and Short Magnums followed as the use of high-quality telescopic sights extended the hunter’s effective shooting range. No wonder many predicted that the 7x57 and other mild calibres would soon be obsolete. But, surprise... surprise, this old warhorse is still going strong. All the faster small-bores, including the new Short Magnums come at a price. Rifles and ammunition are more expensive and while the ammunition and reloading components might be readily available in the United States they are not in South Africa. Fast calibres are louder, recoil more and are heavier on barrels. Owners of Magnums often tell you that can download to 7x57 ballistics but I have yet to meet one who actually does. Last but not least, most fast magnum-type calibres represent overkill for general antelope hunting.

Some reason that the magnum’s extra power is necessary because game is getting wilder and limited hunting time often ‘forces’ the hunter to take shots at ranges beyond the capabilities of the 7x57. Agreed, in open country longer shots are the norm and those who prefer (and are capable of) taking head or neck shots need flat-shooting calibres. The 7x57 is probably not for them but a 130 grainer at 2800 to 2900fps or a 140gr lead pill leaving the muzzle at 2800fps shoots pretty flat out to 250m. And laser rangefinders nowadays make things much easier. If you know how far the animal is and you are familiar with your calibre’s trajectory (as all hunters should be) pulling off "fancy" shots aren’t that difficult. Although deadly with lightweight, premium-grade bullets the 7x57 really shines when loaded with 160 to 175gr bullets and used at ranges under 200m.

The most important reason why I strongly recommend the 7x57 is its user-friendly nature. I come into contact with very many hunters and the most common shooting ‘problem’ they have is, in essence, recoil or admitting that they have a recoil problem. When shooting off sandbags from a bench many manage to hide their flinch but ask them to use a practical field position and you will soon see the difference. Most people shoot better with light recoiling calibres, period. There is another advantage for those who carry their rifles more than they shoot them. The 7mm’s inherent light recoil means that this cartridge can be chambered in trim, lightweight rifles.

Bullet failure at short bushveld ranges and meat damage are other factors why the 7x57 is preferable for certain types of hunting. High-velocity, small-bores need premium-grade bullets to prevent bullet failure which can cause shallow, non-lethal wounds. Visiting trophy hunters do not care about meat damage but those of us who shoot for the pot want to save as much meat as possible. Head or neck shots are not always possible and when body shots are taken a bullet that hits with a striking velocity of 2400fps or more causes horrific damage. With the 7x57, loaded with 175gr bullet you do not have that problem.

Koos Barnard is an ex-professional hunter and a full time gun writer, having published hundreds of articles. He was born in Namibia and has been a keen hunter since his youth.

To conclude: The 7x57 is as relevant today as it was way back in 1892. On a recent hunt I shot an impala at about 60m, a warthog at 100 and just a few weeks earlier my youngest son took a gemsbuck at under 100 and I shot a blesbuck at 173m. All were one-shot kills. Before you buy your first (or next) rifle, stop and think - the 7x57 might be all the gun you need.

And, most importantly, you will actually enjoy shooting with it.

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