Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A pleasant surprise

I stopped by an elderly neighbor's house today to see how he's doing and we got to be talking guns and hunting. As we talked, he showed me some of his gun collection, most of which were scattered about the house. (His house makes mine look neat. I must show Aaron of The Shekel's wife some day so she stops commenting on mine.) As we talked, he grabbed an old rifle out of the corner and said "here. You can have this one. I bought three of them at a flea market once for ten bucks each. It's just junk now."

Under all of the crud and grime, I recognized the vague outline of an 1888 Commission Rifle. Owing to the darkness in his house, I really couldn't see it that well. A cursory attempt to open the bolt showed me that it was frozen solid. It probably is junk, I figured. But to refuse it would be rude. After a while I came home and checked it out. It looked even worse in clear light.Yeah, it's pretty bad. I can't even make out the manufacturer and date. It looks like Spandau, Germany but the date's still covered with dried gunk. I know that the first two numbers are 18. It's old.
It's clearly pretty far gone. I was about to relegate it to the junk pile but as usually happens, I got to be looking at it and speculating as to it's history and the stories that it could tell.

The 1888 Commission rifle was Germany's first cartridge rifle designed around the then-new smokeless-propellant cartridge that had been developed. It got it's name because it was the result of a program undertaken by a commission of military experts. A five-shot repeater, like many other rifles of it's day it required special clips to hold the ammunition. These clips dropped free from the bottom of the rifle when the last round was fired. In later days, many of these rifles were modified to feed from traditional stripper clips and the hole on the bottom was sealed. This one is not one of those modified rifles. It's still clip-fed. These rifles were still front-line weapons used by the Germans and their Turkish allies in World War One and the Turks continued to use them until and through world War Two.

Once I started to work on it, the bolt eventually yielded to the subtle persuasion of a block of wood and a hammer. (Fortunately it was empty.) It's now off of the rifle. As expected, the bolt head is missing. This was a common problem with this design, as the bolt head was way too easy to remove from the bolt and frequently became lost. But the mainspring still functions and the bolt might be salvageable.

The bore is full of crud but still has some distinct rifling left. It's going to take a lot of scrubbing before I can tell how bad it is, but the preliminary evaluation looks promising.

The neighbor who gave me this doesn't even remember how long ago that he bought this rifle. He just knows that it was a long, long time ago. The sad thing is, other than the bolt head and a few minor parts, it looks complete and probably worked.

It didn't take long before I made the decision: I'm going to save and restore this rifle. I'm going to make it presentable, and I'm going to make it shoot again.

Right now it's caked in a dried substance which I think--and hope--is a type of preservative grease. But it's rock solid and I haven't quite figured out how to remove it without damaging whatever finish is left. My first job is going to be to disassemble the rifle completely and then clean the parts, both wood and metal. Then I'll look at the finish and decide whether or not to apply a new one or just try to preserve what's left. Eventually I hope to get it back together, replacing any missing or broken parts, and get it out to the range for a trial. It's going to take a while and a lot of elbow grease, but with old veterans like this, it's a labor of love. This will probably be the toughest restoration I've done thus far, but I'm confident that I can save this rifle.

Scratch that. I WILL save this rifle.


  1. Cool, keep us updated on your progress.

  2. Anonymous11:40 PM

    Yes Please keep us updated on the progress with pictures

  3. Good luck with the bolt head. A lot of those rifles came in missing them, they're really hard to find, and are expensive when they are found. I wonder if some enterprising person wouldn't make up some bolt heads. They could get a good price for replacements.

    I can't make out the top of the receiver bridge for markings, but as it's so neglected it's probably one of the Ecuadorean rifles, don't quote me.

    As far as finish, I stripped my stock with oven cleaner. I've heard since this was not good, but it worked at the time. The wood itself will likely come out very dark, a sort of reddish-black color that shows almost none of the grain. I refinished with plain boiled linseed oil, several coats rubbed in.

    As far as the metal finish, I wouldn't worry about it; my example has no finish at all, not even under the wood.

    There will likely be rust-holes in the jacket under the wood. The jacket unscrews, has fine threads, and for mine I soaked the area with PB Blaster for several days before trying to remove it.

    You'll be surprised at how slender the barrel is inside that tube. 'Czech' the barrel for markings, as it may be a Czech replacement; if it is, the barrel will probably clean up well.

    What's really fun, if you can get a bolt head, is to load up an 8mm case with a dash of Unique, tap a ball of buckshot into the case mouth, and pop away. If you take a powder scoop, an awl and small hammer, a Lee AutoPrime, and a bag of shot, you can plink all day!

    They're finely-made rifles, and totally deserving of a restoration.

  4. Thanks fop the tips, LN.

    I did manage to locate a new bolt for it. The bolt's got Turkish markings all over it but it looks real good otherwise and is complete.

    There actually is a guy who makes new bolt heads, extractors and other parts at http://www.gunloads.com/fam/swedenelson/album2.htm but they're not cheap.

    Restoration work's coming along well and another article will be forthcoming soon.