Enemies: Garand vs. K98

By Tom Laemlein
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Enemies: Garand vs. K98

March 10th, 2020

7 minute read

The infantry battles of the 20th century pitted many classic firearms against each other. During World War II, on the battlefields of Western Europe, Italy and North Africa, the American M1 Garand rifle faced off against the German Mauser “Karabiner 98 kurz” (Kar 98k) in a bloody fight to the finish between two worthy opponents.

The German Gewehr 98k infantry rifle was a capable and refined military bolt-action rifle design. Image: NARA

The Mauser Kar 98k is one of the most recognizable battle rifles of all time. Many consider it to be the finest bolt-action rifle ever built. It remains one of the most widely used infantry weapons since it became the standard service rifle of the Wehrmacht in June of 1935. Even today, the Kar 98k can be found in the hands of insurgents, militia or second-line government troops, from Ukraine to Syria.

The American M1 Garand offered exceptional accuracy and performance, and its semi-automatic operation compared very favorably against rifles such as the German 98k. Image: Author’s collection

Born from a Classic

The Karabiner 98k was born of the classic Gewehr 98 (G98), Mauser’s bolt action rifle that set the design standard for battle rifles in a new century of warfare. The Gewehr 98 debuted in combat in China in the hands of German troops participating in the Peking Relief Expedition of 1900. The Gewehr 98 then went on to be the primary German service rifle until 1935, gaining considerable fame during the First World War. The famously smooth Gewehr 98 action, its internal five-round magazine — easily loaded by stripper clips — and the powerful 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge all contributed to make the G98 a dominant battlefield weapon in the early 20th century.

The 98k fitted with the 30mm “Gewehrgranatengerät” grenade-launching cup. Image: NARA

By the mid-1930s, Germany looked to update their excellent infantry rifle, and the Karabiner 98k took shape. It trimmed down the overall length from 49.2″ to 43.7″ and cut the weight from 9.0 lbs. to 8.2 lbs.

The 98k also included some improvements that were not so readily apparent. The Gewehr 98’s straight bolt handle was replaced by a “turned-down” handle design that increased rate of fire by creating an easier-to-operate bolt. The new bolt also allowed telescopic sights to be easily fitted directly above the receiver.

The M1 Garand gave American troops a decided advantage against their German foes. Image: Author’s collection

The 98k also replaced the complicated “rollercoaster” sight with a conventional leaf sight, and after 1939 the 98k was fitted with a hooded post front sight to reduce glare. Accuracy and rate of fire increased while size and manufacturing complications went down. Production of the Karabiner 98ks ramped up, and by September of 1939 most frontline infantry units were equipped with the new rifles. Germany was ready for war.

The 98k in the hands of a German paratrooper. Until the development of the specialized FG42, the 98k was the standard rifle for these troops. Image: Patton Museum

Base of Fire

The harsh lessons of World War I drove the Germans to focus on mobile firepower, particularly for their infantry. Even before the 98k was adopted, Germany had been refining light machine gun designs into a greater “general purpose machine gun” (GPMG) concept. The box-magazine equipped MG 13 gave way to the belt-fed MG 34, cycling at 900 rounds per minute. By the mid-war period, the MG 42 joined the mix (cycling at 1,200 rounds per minute). These weapons were used from either a bipod or tripod and were fitted with quick-change barrels to allow continuous fire.

Basic tools of the German infantryman: the Gewehr 98k and the M24 “Stielhandgranate” stick grenade. Image: Patton Museum

From the German perspective, the machine gun was their primary infantry weapon, and during World War II their riflemen transitioned to supporting the machine gun — the opposite of their role in World War I. There is ample evidence of this: many wartime photos show German riflemen carrying ammo cans (and swathed in ammo belts) in order to feed the machine guns in their unit.

The 98k was a relatively light (around 8 lbs.) and highly accurate rifle that was generally considered to be accurate out to 500 meters. Image: Author’s collection

This fact helps clarify Germany’s decision to maintain their use of the bolt-action rifle 98k, despite the development of semi-auto rifles like the Gewehr 41 and Gewehr 43. Rate of fire per rifle was not considered as important as the high-cycling MG 34s and MG 42s had the ability to dominate a battlefield.

More than 130,000 Mauser rifles were selected at the factory for their accuracy and then were fitted with telescopic sights. Image: NARA

Post-WWII

The Red Army captured hundreds of thousands of Kar 98k rifles over the course of World War II. Many of these rifles were refurbished and provided to eastern European resistance groups during the war.

The 98k served throughout World War II with the German military. Image: NARA

Post-war, the Soviets arsenal-refurbished many Kar 98k rifles and provided them to their communist satellite states. One of the first groups to receive them were Chinese Communist forces, who used the Kar 98k in the Chinese Civil War (1945-49) and then in the Korean War (1950-53).

The average German rifleman was tasked with supporting their platoon’s MG34 or MG42 machine gun. Image: Author’s collection

The Soviets and Chinese also provided the refurbished Kar 98ks to Vietnamese communist forces, first to the Viet Minh (fighting the French) and later the Viet Cong. For American troops in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, the Mauser Kar 98k became a desirable war trophy in yet another conflict. 

A rifle for a world war: The 98k served in the burning sands of North Africa. Image: Author’s collection

Versus the Garand

The M1 Garand rifle’s first combat action against Germany came during the large commando raid on Dieppe, France on August 19, 1942. A few M1 rifles were carried by the fifty U.S. Rangers who went ashore with the British Commandos and the Canadian troops during that difficult operation.

The 98k also served in arctic snow and bitter cold. Image: Author’s collection

On November 8, 1942 the M1 rifle was back in action during Operation Torch, the invasion of Vichy French North Africa. Throughout the fighting in North Africa against Italian and German troops, the M1 rifle was interspersed in U.S. units along with the M1903 Springfield rifle. More and more M1s were issued as American troops fought from Sicily up the boot of Italy. By the time of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, German troops were well aware of the firepower and accuracy of John Garand’s genius design.

From the trench lines to the city streets: Mauser rifle in action during World War II. Image: Author’s collection

An interesting note about captured rifles: a captured Kar 98k could easily be loaded and used. However, a captured M1 rifle was a completely different story. While the Kar 98k was readily loaded with loose rounds, the M1 relied on the metal en-bloc clip to charge its internal magazine.

The 98k Mauser was a truly capable rifle, despite its relatively slow bolt-action operation. Image: Author’s collection

By the numbers, the M1 rifle holds the advantage over the Kar 98k in many key areas. On the battlefield, American infantry firepower, in many ways due to the M1 rifle’s superiority, outshot the Wehrmacht. America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” provided the high-quality rifles and ammunition in overwhelming numbers that the Third Reich could never hope to match.

A trophy rifle for a different war: A 98k captured from Viet Cong guerrillas presented during 1967. Image: NARA

Toward the Future

And, the Garand would lay the groundwork for the U.S, M14, which adapted the design to be smaller and lighter and feed from a detachable box magazine. That rifle would spawn the civilian-legal M1A semi-automatic rifle from Springfield Armory of Geneseo, Illinois, a firearm that has proven its mettle in the hands of American shooters on the competition ranges.

The M14 carried on the tradition of the M1 Garand and served on the battlefields of Vietnam. Image: Author’s collection

Versatile, accurate and powerful, the M1A guarantees that the legacy of the M14 rifle continues in the hands of future generations of American marksmen. The Arsenal of Democracy still exists and has a tradition that has carried through the Garand on to the M14 and the M1A of today.

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Springfield Armory® recommends you seek qualified and competent training from a certified instructor prior to handling any firearm and be sure to read your owner’s manual. These articles are considered to be suggestions and not recommendations from Springfield Armory. The views and opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Springfield Armory.

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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