Here are five classic European bolt-action rifles that are definitely worth owning … and will more than get you on target.
What are some of the European classics?
Bolt-action rifles have certainly passed the test of time. For more than a century, they have been the go-to long gun for hunting, target shooting and certain military applications. Whether you’re talking about accuracy or robustness of design, the bolt-action rifle just bring a lot to the table.
In their reign at the top of the rifle world, there have been some pretty dang nifty bolt-action designs to come down the line. As we saw earlier, Americans have had their say when it comes to cracking out exceptional examples of turnbolts. But the Old World most definitely has left its mark on this accurate, dependable and essential firearm. With that in mind, we look at five excellent European bolt-action rifles that are well worth you’re time to add to your gun safe.
Had microphones been in wider use in the 19th Century, Peter Paul Mauser would have had every right to drop one and walk off stage after this rifle. Arguably, the German engineer and gunmaker’s Model 98 Mauser is the greatest bolt-action rifle ever created. At well over 100 years old, the gun still sets the standard for modern bolt-action designs today. And, it's among the most prolific firearms of all time. By most accounts, the Mauser 98 is only second to the AK-47 in production figures.
What makes the rifle so desirable is its versatility. Front-line service rifle, sniping from distance, tackling every single type of game on the planet, target shooting — the Mauser 98 can absolutely do it all and well. As with all bolt-actions, the action is the heart of the rifle’s greatness. A three-lug bolt (two at the front, one at the rear), controlled-feed with massive Mauser Claw, internal firing system and lightning-fast lock time all make the great 98 among the most dependable and wickedly accurate rifles to come down the pike.
While some of the classics of this line can run a pretty penny in pristine condition, shooters need not worry about getting their hands on a Model 98. In all likelihood, you already own the oft-cloned rifle, only by another name.
Perhaps one of the hardest working bolt-actions to ever roll off the assembly line, this gem of the Russian Empire still shines. More than 125 years after it was first adopted as a service rifle, the Mosin-Nagant is still found in the active roster of arms for many military forces. Which is no surprise, given the assets the 7.62x54mm brings to the fight. The Mosin-Nagant is reliable, simple and capable of pitching lead fairly accurately at more than 500 yards — all desirable in the heat of battle.
Though, the venerable rifle’s true usefulness away from conflict is somewhat debatable. Most certainly, the Mosin-Nagant is a capable hunting rifle, able to bag medium to large game. But given its somewhat cumbersome 29-inch barrel, it isn’t the first choice come whitetail season. And while it’s adept at drilling bullseyes in competent hands, it also isn’t the top bolt-action rifle most pull from the gun rack for a match shoot. But if circumstances call for dependability and plenty of power, the five-round Mosin-Nagant is a solid choice.
When it comes to pure fighting bolt-action rifles, there are few guns that match the Lee-Enfield. The British gun was fast, accurate and supplied a soldier more firepower than nearly any other bolt-action service rifle of its day or since. With 10-rounds of .303 British on tap, a “Tommy” had, in most cases, twice the capacity of any adversary he’d meet also armed with a bolt-action. And he was certain he could send it his enemy’s way in the blink of an eye.
While not as strong an action as some bolt-actions, the Lee-Enfield’s rear-positioned locking lugs made its operation lightning fast. And a short 60-degree bolt lift further enhanced its rate of fire.
Much of the more than 120-year-old bolt-action rifle’s glory comes from the battlefields of World War I and World War II, but the Lee-Enfield made its mark in the sporting world as well. Surplus rifles abounded from Canada to Africa to Australia, and sporterizing them didn’t require much work. On top of that, the .303 British is more than capable of putting meat on the table. In Canada, it is frequently claimed that more moose have been harvested with the round than all others combine.
By all accounts, the Mannlicher-Schönauer is among the most elegant bolt-action rifles ever produced. But don’t let this Austro-Hungarian gun’s good looks fool you — it’s an out-and-out killer. Look no further than the work of WDM “Karamojo” Bell for proof. The legendary elephant hunter regularly used the Mannlicher-Schönauer in its original 6.5x54mm chambering to harvest pachyderms.
Similar to a Mauser Model 98, the rifle utilized two locking lugs at the front of the bolt, but ingeniously its butter-knife bolt handle doubled as a safety lug. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Mannlicher-Schönauer was its magazine, which was innovative for its day. It used a five-round rotary spool magazine, renowned for its flawless function and quick feeding.
What most likely endeared the rifle to sportsmen around the world was the bolt-action rifle’s manageability. Weighing in at just above 7 pounds as a rifle and just below that as a carbine, there were few 20th century rifles as svelte as the Mannlicher-Schönauer.
Sako L61R Finnbear
What Sako overall lacks in innovation, it more than makes up for in execution. The Finnish rifles have developed a worldwide following among hunters and shooters who appreciate well-manufactured bolt-action rifles, held to tight tolerances.
The L61R Finnbear, introduced in 1961, definitely fits this bill. And while it wasn’t the first true shooter to roll off the company’s assembly line, it is one that helped spread Sako’s popularity outside of Europe. The ability to digest the .30-06 and other long and magnum rounds, coupled with dead-nuts accuracy, made the L61R explode in popularity. The Finnbear could be found tracking game from the wind-swept Finland arctic to the sweltering African veldt.
In addition to being well made, this classic Sako L61R was also a robust bolt-action rifle; one might even accuse it of being hefty. It boasted a rock-solid action, with three lugs — two forward, one rear — and push fed its rounds. But even with an eye toward heartiness, the L61R rifle has an elegant look. The wood is rich, and there are many fine examples of engraved Finnbear almost too pretty to shoot — almost.
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The ’98 Mauser is the source of nearly all other bolt action rifles. I think some of the derivatives are better built, but such is opinion. One notes the rifle shown is NOT an original ’98 Mauser (gewehr 98) but the later model K98. The original Mauser ’98 had a roughly 30 inch barrel. Just like the Mosin-Nagant.
The cartridge for the ’98 Mauser and the K98 (and the Commission Rifle of 1888) was/is the 8x57mm rimless (not a Mauser). The 8x57mm cartridge is amazing. It was essentially a second generation smokeless cartridge, and since the ‘updating’ of 1905 (changing from a 235 or so grain, round nosed bullet at just over 2000 fps to a 154 grain spitzer bullet at 2880 fps (in the 30 inch barrel), the cartridge is still viable and is adaptable to rifles and machine guns. One notes it is not popular in the ultra light recoil ‘assault’ rifles since about 1943 or so.
The Mosin-Nagant is well known; popular because it is cheap to purchase. Also known for being uglier than a troll’s club and high in the running for worst issue trigger in the known universe. One also notes the carbine version is not shown; removing the unwieldiness of the long barrel. The cartridge is a solid, modern pressure affair. It would be a great cartridge if rimless. The rim complicates development of other than extant arms for this round. Except for single shots.
The “Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield” is a delightful surprise. Built as a battle rifle, it shines in the role. Criticized by some by not being semi or fully automatic, the rifle delivers accurate hits better than many other rifles. It has also ‘adapted’ to general use all around the world. Hunting, predator (various) defense, general utility – what the U. S. would call a ‘truck rifle’ – and so on. The cartridge has a rim, and is therefore somewhat limited. But the popular use in the Commonwealth has familiarized so many people, the rimmed cartridge is somewhat moot. It is a full sized rifle cartridge and will do most things needed.
The Mannlichers in general are accurate, strong and utile arms. The Mannlicher-Schönauer is the magic combination. The “Schönauer” refers to the rotary magazine, named for the designer. (Regular Mannlichers had an ‘en-bloc loader” type magazine; very useful, but ONLY if one has the ‘loader’ in possession.) The M-S design was one of the few Mannlicher rifles to transition to commercial production in many calibers.
An unqualified must for the rifleman of taste.
Sakos in general are excellently machined and finished. As noted, they are not ‘original’ in design; but as also noted in the essay, the 1898 Mauser design is hard to improve. Another excellent product.