In the years before 1914 one could find, tucked away in a corner of the Sears, Roebuck catalog, a listing for a bolt-action sporting rifle from Germany. Variously listed as a Mannlicher, or a Haenel-Mannlicher, or sometimes just a C.G. Haenel (pronounced HY-nul), these rifles were the first steps in a trend that became a deluge: Bolt-action sporting rifles based on military actions.
Generally now known as Haenel-Mannlichers, these German bolt-action rifles were not cheap. In the 1902 Sears catalog, the price was $24.50. By comparison, a Winchester Model 95 listed at only $17.50. What made the German import worth 50 percent more than this state-of-the-art lever rifle? And why, when Model 95s are prized by collectors, are Haenel-Mannlichers all but forgotten except for a few devotees of early custom rifles?
There are two answers to that question, and relative quality has nothing to do with it. They are both finely made rifles, and some of the Haenels especially so.
For most gun collectors, the era of sporting bolt rifles began with the Mauser 98.
Everything good and modern occurred after that, they believe, and nothing much before. But such was not the case. In the frenzy of rifle development in Europe between the arrival of smokeless powder in 1886 and the ultimate Mauser in 1898, several good military bolt rifles made their debut. For sporting purposes, the most significant by far was the German Commission rifle of 1888.
For military collectors, the Gewehr ’88 is almost a cult object, and while it has been widely written about, it is also widely misunderstood. It is sometimes described as a Mauser with Mannlicher features, and sometimes the reverse. In reality, however, the Commission rifle was neither Mauser nor Mannlicher, but that rarest of creatures: A mechanical device designed by committee that was highly successful.
Its stint as the official infantry rifle of the German Army was short-lived – only 10 years – but it went on to a successful career in every corner of the globe as both military rifle and, in its converted form, a hunting rifle. So good was the Commission action that Steyr, in Austria, which manufactured the ’88 under contract for Berlin, modified it into a hunting rifle. The result was the famous Mannlicher-Schönauer Model 1903, a design that set the standard for quality hunting rifles for the next 70 years.
Steyr was not the only company to appreciate the virtues of the Commission rifle. C.G. Haenel, a prominent German gunmaking company in Suhl, also made Commission rifles under contract. Founded by Carl Gottlieb Haenel in 1840, C.G. Haenel & Co. quickly became a force in German gunmaking and, like most German firms, produced sporting weapons when it was not filling military contracts.
Haenel’s civilian rifles on the Commission action followed the German hunting rifle style that existed since the advent of centerfire cartridges. Most had half-octagon barrels with full or partial matted ribs, matted receiver ring, folding leaf sights, schnabel fore-ends and elegant turned-down bolt handles. There was usually a stock-bolt in the fore-end, and sometimes they were fitted with receiver sights. Most had double-set triggers. While the majority were chambered for the standard military 8×57 cartridge (usually the original .318” bullet, rather than the later .323”) they were also offered in pure hunting cartridges like the 9×57.
The first importer of Haenel-Mannlichers was Oscar Hesse of New Jersey, who began bringing them into the U.S. in 1894. There was a strong connection between German shooting clubs in the U.S., German immigrant gunmakers and the German companies, so more and more importers got into the act, and each, it seemed, stipulated little changes to the overall design. As a result, the number of minor variations seems endless.
This brings us back to the two major reasons there is only minor collector interest in these rifles. The first, of course, is the lack of a famous name such as Winchester. The second is the impossibility of classifying rifles by model and year. Model classification and certifiable originality are the backbone of gun collecting, and with Haenel-Mannlichers and other civilian rifles based on the Commission action, this is almost impossible. There were too many importers at this end, too many small gunmakers at the other end, and far too many variations in between.
For the modern rifle lover though, Haenels in their many guises offer an opportunity to own a rifle of stellar quality for not much money. The materials, workmanship and finishing are comparable to fine, modern, custom rifles. On the negative side, they are chambered for cartridges like the 8×57 and 9×57 that by today’s standards are relatively low velocity and suitable only for short-range hunting.
Collecting Haenel-Mannlichers may never make you any money, but it can lead into exploration of a fascinating byway in the history of the sporting rifle. You will find early Mannlichers from Steyr as well as German and Austrian custom makers, and you will find custom-ordered takedown rifles and modified Gewehr ’88s.
There was life before the Mauser 98 and the evidence lies — as with so much of American life — in the pages of the old Sears, Roebuck wish book.
This article appeared in the 2016 Gun Digest annual.