The very idea of a custom Mauser rifle built for African hunting ignites fireworks along the spine of any true gunbuilder, rifle aficionado or hunter in the world.
When Paul von Mauser, at age 60, leaned over his drafting table in Oberndorf, Germany, and signed off the final blueprints for his Model 1898 turnbolt action the conceptual evolution of the serious hunting rifle came to an end. A lengthened version of the action was introduced a couple of years later to better accommodate the massive British magnum cartridges and, other than designing a specific magazine box for every new cartridge chambered, that was that. Not even Paul Mauser could make the ’98 any better, though he kept trying right up to the day he died 16 years later.
A lot of so-called “improved” ‘98s have been offered over the century since Mauser’s masterpiece was created, “improved” being the code word for “cheaper to manufacture.” In many of these actions, the defining Mauser extraction and ejection systems that completely control the cartridge throughout the operational cycle were often compromised, some of the more expensive Mauser features such as important details of its gas-handling system were dispensed with, and much was made of minor modifications such as horizontally operated safeties and bolt-handle profiles intended for low-mounted scopes.
Winchester made such an action from 1925 with its Model 54 up until the last of the original Model 70s in 1964, when the company discovered that it was even cheaper and more profitable to manufacture simple push-feed actions that were adequate for light-duty North American hunting. Ruger currently makes such a Mauser-type action on its low-cost investment-cast receiver. Other American companies, notably Weatherby and Remington, never attempted to build Mauser-type actions, unless you count Remington’s sporterizing of a few leftover P17 Enfields. Weatherby’s original pre-Mark V success was based on the use of Belgian FN and French Brevex magnum actions before the company abandoned these excellent Mausers because they were too expensive to acquire and did not support the proprietary marketing position the company was anxious to promote. Remington is now importing Zastava-made Mauser actions in an attempt to rejuvenate its sagging rifle line which, historically, has been based primarily on the mass marketing of low-end Model 700 push-feed rifles suitable for target shooting, plinking and deer hunting.
Americans have always had a genius for low-cost high-volume mass production and mass marketing, having developed the finer points a century ago. Fortunately, that is not the only facet of the American firearms genius. The tradition of the skilled gunsmith, craftsman and innovator runs deep in the American psyche. After all, America gave birth to John Browning a few years after Germany gave birth to Paul Mauser. When the big American gun manufacturers were figuring out how to make things cheap, a goodly number of America’s more talented gunmakers were figuring out how to make things right. At first they honed their skills on custom rifles based on well-used Mauser military actions, imperfect Springfield and Enfield copies, and near-clones made on Mauser machinery that was dispersed throughout western and eastern Europe following the world wars. As these old warhorses and commercial variations grew ever more scarce, a few of the best American gunsmiths started to build Mauser ’98 actions by hand with great attention to precise Oberndorf detail.
One such extraordinary craftsman, perhaps the most imaginative and influential of all, was Fred Wells, whose death in 2006 at the age of 86 marked the end of the era of the completely hand-made Mauser action. Fred devoted his life to carving astonishing custom rifles from chunks of wood and blocks of steel. He was known throughout the world as the father of the custom magnum Mauser, and built incomparable dangerous-game rifles for the elite of international hunters who could afford them. It has been said that fewer than a dozen people still living know all that Fred Wells knew about Mausers, and Fred never hesitated to share his knowledge and wisdom with anyone who cared to ask. Jon Speed, author of the landmark book Mauser Original Oberndorf Sporting Rifles, called Fred’s freehand machining skills legendary, acknowledged the contributions Fred and his son made to the book, and published therein several examples of Fred’s remarkable work.
Today, computers and powerful software programs driving Computer Numerical Control (CNC) and Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) equipment have replaced all but the finishing stages of traditional hand work. At the same time, these mathematical miracles have eliminated potential human workmanship errors in 90 percent of the action-making process and have allowed the spirit and genius of artists like Fred Wells to live on and propagate.
Certainly one of the leaders at the highest level of this technological revolution is Granite Mountain Arms, located a mile high in the mountains of northern Arizona in the same old cowboy town of Prescott where Fred Wells lived and worked for more than half a century. GMA founder and president Mike Roden, a brilliant mechanical engineer with dozens of patents to his name and a close friend of Fred for many years, speaks of the Wells inspiration and insights which were crucial in forming his own vision of the Granite Mountain Arms action, which has arguably become the preferred big-bore Mauser action for custom gunmakers today.
“I first met Fred Wells in the early 90s,” Mike Roden says. “I’ve been a hunter since I was eight years old in Ohio hunting with my dad, and I finally started going to Africa. I’d read about Fred Wells in books and magazines over the years. I knew he was making Mauser-type actions for big-bore rifles and I had always wanted a .416 Rigby. I went in to see Fred and asked him if he would make me or sell me a magnum Mauser action. He didn’t really want to sell anything he had, but he knew my background in engineering and manufacturing and he said, Why don’t you just make one yourself? You can make your own and I’ll show you how to do it. So I decided to do that, and Fred was very helpful. He showed me how to do things, loaned me tools, went over original Mauser blueprints with me. He loaned me many original Mauser actions to study. Fred would do anything to help. Anything I needed he put at my disposal. He didn’t have any secrets, he didn’t try to hide anything, he was very open and encouraging. Fred had a talent for passing on knowledge and inspiration unparalleled in the gunmaking industry.
“The GMA action we’re producing today has all the features of a Mauser ’98, including the “C” ring and cammed firing pin. We fashioned the locking lugs after the Brevex magnum Mauser because there’s almost ten percent more locking lug surface in that design. We went to a .750-inch bolt on our big action to accommodate the Rigby and .505 Gibbs cases without having to shoehorn them in. We make four sizes of actions now – a short magnum .100-inch longer than a kurz, a standard magnum .200-inch longer than a standard Mauser, a magnum which is about the same as the original Mauser magnum, and what we call the African Express supermagnum with a .750-inch diameter bolt and 1.5-inch diameter front ring which is the same front ring diameter of the Brevex. The supermagnum accommodates every cartridge up to and including the .585 GMA Express, which is longer by about a quarter-inch than a .585 Nyati.
“Fred made his actions literally by hand, and I do mine on CNC machines. The CNC operation gives you a big head start, but once you get the machining done everything has still got to be hand-stoned and hand-finished. The bolt has to be fit along with the rest of the parts. Everything is very close when it comes off the machines, but the final hand-fitting is crucial to a fine custom rifle. Each GMA action is hand-fit to a specific cartridge.
“GMA actions are machined from bar stock, they’re not made from investment castings. Cast parts can have porosity, imperfections, casting is never as accurate as a machined part. When you get to the fit and finish, machined parts will always be more precise and accurate. No rewelding or reworking will be necessary. There won’t be any voids that you have to deal with. It’s a more expensive way to go but delivers much higher quality, consistency and strength. All the higher quality rifles have been made with machined parts, including all the original Mausers and the pre-64 Model 70s.
“My focus has been on building actions. Most GMA business is supplying actions to many of the world’s best-known gunmakers and custom shops. Some customers wanted barreled actions so I got with John Krieger and ordered some barrels. We ordered two-inch blanks and machined them out so we had integral ribs, integral sights, integral sling swivel studs. I took the barreled actions to stockmakers I really respected and let them build and finish the complete rifles. If somebody wants a complete rifle he calls up and orders an action or a barreled action. I encourage buying a barreled action because Krieger’s cut rifled barrels are unbeatable and I like to personally make sure all of the components affecting feeding and reliability are perfectly worked out for a given chambering. Then I discuss with the client what level of rifle he wants built and I steer him to the appropriate builder. We have about a dozen builders we especially like to work with. All of them have worked with GMA components and the rifle usually turns out much better than if a guy just buys an action and takes it to his local gunsmith. Ryan Breeding and Joe Smithson are probably building the most right now, about ten a year. Then Stephen Heilmann, Gene Semillion, JJ Perodaux at Champlin, several guys at the American Custom Gunmakers Guild, Larry Amarine, Reto Buehler, Kent Bowerly, a lot of really good gunmakers.
“Eventually, I’d like GMA to be a full-blown rifle company. We know our action is the premier choice for custom rifles in America and we’re recognized as the leader in the latest technology, but I want to take it a step further. I’d like GMA to be known for building the best complete rifles. To date, our primary market has always been the custom builder, not the end-user, and that market is stronger than it has ever been. When Fred Wells started building big-bore customs in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, two or three rifles a year was all the market would bear, but it has grown immensely. As African hunting continues to grow, at the same time some of the bigger factories are going under or getting anemic, there’s a lot more interest in custom rifles. African hunting is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. hunting market because Africa is the best hunting value in the world. On my last trip to Africa a month ago more than half the people on the plane were hunters.
“There are a few fine points I’d like to explain about Granite Mountain actions. We talked about all the parts being milled. We also hand-stone those parts so they have excellent fit and finish to them. When that’s complete we go through the heat-treating process. In order to make a good rifle, you need a heat-treated action and bolt so that they’re smooth functioning and reliable. Put a hundred rounds through an action that’s been heat-treated after machining the way we do it – with the receiver and bolt being two different degrees of hardness on the Rockwell scale – and it feels like glass. It’s important to have two different Rockwell degrees of hardness. The receiver about 44, the bolt between 48 and 50. Heat-treating requires follow-up handwork like lapping, which we do to all of our actions. Hand-lapping is how you get a lower coefficient of friction and a slick action. That hand labor is the main reason why it’s such an expensive process, but it’s the only way to make a smooth distortion-free custom action.
“We don’t cut corners. We use the best steel for this application, which is carburized and tempered 8620 nickel-chromium molybdenum alloy. It’s a great machining alloy, it’s stable, there’s little or no warping during heat-treating, and cracks are unheard-of. It’s softer in the core, harder on the outside, so it’s ductile. The 4140 alloy most riflemakers use is brittle by comparison because it hardens all the way through, it tends to bow and crack, so most people don’t heat-treat it. Heat-treating is a step in the manufacturing process that most gunmakers don’t want to deal with, they just buy pre-hardened steel and machine it. That leaves your Rockwell down around 32 at best and you can get set-back lugs on your receiver or your bolt. Heat-treating after machining, the way we do it, adds another step because you have to come back and finish the parts again and refit them – but then you’ve got a really smooth, fine action.
“We all know the requirements of a dangerous-game rifle. Whoever builds these rifles has to focus on the feeding. If we just sell an action, not a barreled action, you have to have somebody who knows what they’re doing and knows how to make it feed without destroying the rails and the underside of the action. Our barreled actions are built with chambered, cut-rifled Krieger barrels that are double stress-relieved and cryo’d on top of that. Bottom metal is perfectly designed and fit for the caliber, feeding is worked out. We do everything we can to build the best there is.”
I’ve spent some time with Mike Roden and Granite Mountain Arms rifles. We took a couple of days recently to exercise some completed custom guns in .375 H&H, .404 Jeffery, .416 Rigby, .458 Win Mag, .458 Lott, .450 Rigby, .505 Gibbs, and .585 GMA Express. I’m trying to talk Mike into building some metrics on spec. If he doesn’t do a 9.3x64 mm Brenneke soon, I may be forced to buy a ’98-size GMA barreled action and do it myself. In the meantime, during these sunny days high in the Arizona mountains, we had plenty of fine rifles to work with.
The guns are beautiful, alright. They look like African rifles should look and they handle very well. Enough metal in the right places, balance, weight, the whole entity. Mike likes an English style stock, as do I, and most of these rifles were built by stockmakers of like mind. The English wrote the book on express rifles and they knew what they were doing. It’s about tradition, nostalgia, mystique, but a dangerous-game rifle has to work, it has to shoot, you have to be able to shoot it comfortably all day long if need be. The Brits shot big-bore rifles all over Africa for a hundred years, in the old days dropping a dozen elephants in an afternoon, and never once complained about recoil.
I shoulder the .450 Rigby, my favorite way to deliver a 500-grain bullet at 2400 fps, and it comes up like a shotgun with a low-mounted scope. I hold my head up naturally and comfortably and the rifle comes to me with enough drop in the comb and the heel and just the right amount of cast and other magical ingredients to place the crosshairs right in front of my eyes and the recoil pad square in my shoulder. Mike Roden stands beside me shooting a .505 Gibbs, a favorite caliber of his and one which has helped make Granite Mountain Arms actions famous.
“The .505 Gibbs is a wonderful cartridge,” Mike says. “It just keeps going and going, seems to do everything just right. I’ve shot more game, and more different kinds of game, with a .505 than I have with anything else. When you’re out there hunting buffalo you’re likely to run into something else. I shot an eland with a .505 that I never would have got with the .375 H&H I would normally have been hunting it with. It was the last day, the last 10 minutes. You couldn’t even see the animal with the naked eye, but through the scope you could see it. The PH urged me on. He said, There’s your only chance, shoot it! I shot it with the .505 and drilled him all the way end to end with a solid. The .505 Gibbs is a clean killer, just devastating, very impressive.
“We’re known for our .505 Gibbs. We’ve really helped that cartridge come back to where it should be, because we have an action that is really made for it. The cartridge is so big it’s a marginal fit in the magnum Mauser action, but it fits perfectly in a Granite Mountain.”
The overwhelming majority of GMA-based rifles naturally go to Africa in the hands of experienced hunters. Mike Roden considers Africa his testing ground. He is quite aware that many rifles and cartridges that work fine in North America fail disastrously in Africa.
Paul Mauser probably never saw a Cape buffalo. He designed his rifles to operate in life-and-death situations because that’s the way he thought rifles should be designed. Most living dangerous-game hunters, and at least one American gunmaker I know, completely and totally agree.