A Brief History of Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifles,
the "World's Finest Rifle"

By Chuck Hawks

The Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifle dates to 1903 when the 6.5x54mm cartridge and both military and civilian rifles to shoot it were introduced. Austria and Greece adopted the 1903 military rifle and the 6.5x54 cartridge that same year. The 1903 Mannlicher rifles and carbines were the last designs of Ferdinand Ritter Von Mannlicher, who died the next year, and his friend Otto Schönauer who designed the exceptional rotary drum magazine intrinsic to all Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles. Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles and carbines were exclusively manufactured at Oesterreich Waffenfabrik Gesellschaft Steyr in Steyr, Austria.

Within a very short time the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer became a popular sporting cartridge in Europe and Africa. This was no doubt due as much to the excellence of the Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles in which it was chambered as to the low recoil, excellent accuracy and adequate killing power of the 6.5x54 cartridge itself.

Like the .30-30 cartridge and the Winchester Model 94 carbine, the 6.5x54 and Mannlicher-Schoenauer Carbine are a classic combination. Although M-S rifles and carbines were chambered for many other calibers, including such popular numbers as the .270 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield, the history of the M-S Carbine in inexorably linked to the 6.5x54mm cartridge.

The Model 1903 was the first of the famous M-S Rifles and Carbines and it established the basic design of all the models that were to follow. Rifles were supplied with half stocks and 23.5" barrels. There was also a take-down version of the rifle. The Carbine had a full length walnut stock with a graceful semi pistol grip and a short 17.7" barrel.

All models came with a flat "butter knife" bolt handle that was located well forward of the trigger guard. This was due to the design of the short stroke action, which had a split rear receiver ring through which the bolt handle passed as it was drawn back. Cartridges were fed from a Schoenauer spool magazine (hence the name Mannlicher-Schoenauer). All screws were indexed, and this was done throughout the entire prodiction life of M-S rifles and carbines. The buyer had the option of a double set trigger or a single trigger. The double set trigger was the more popular option.

The split rear receiver ring was to cause trouble later, when the use of telescopic sights became widespread, as it prevented the use of conventional scope mounts on top of the receiver. Scoped M-S Rifles and Carbines are usually fitted with side mounts.

The 1903 Carbine was manufactured only in 6.5x54 caliber, reportedly weighed about 5.5 pounds, and became the inspiration for what are today known as "mountain rifles." Its full length stock gave rise to the term "Mannlicher stock," which is still used today to describe a sporting rifle with a full length stock.

Mannlicher 1903 Carbine
Mannlicher-Schoenauer 1903 Carbine. Photo courtesy of GunsInternational.com.

In 1924 the M-S action was lengthened to allow the use of longer cartridges and in 1925 the M-S High Velocity Rifle appeared in calibers other than 6.5x54mm. The style of the bolt release lever was also changed at this time from the early round button to a flatter shape.

There was a gap in the production of Mannlicher-Schoenauer sporting rifles extending from the late 1930's to 1950. M-S models subsequent to the 1903 included the Model NO (available only in Europe), Model 1950, Model 1952, Model 1956-MC, Magnum Rifle and Model 1961-MCA.

After WW II all Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles and carbines were imported into the U.S. by the Stoeger Arms Corporation. The first Mannlicher-Schoenauer to appear in the U.S. after the war was the Model 1950. This was available in several North American and European calibers and was available as a 2/3 stock rifle with a 22" barrel or a full stock carbine with a 20" barrel. The exception was an 18-1/4" barrel supplied on caliber 6.5x54 carbines. The Model 1950 Carbine was very similar in appearance to the Model 1903 Carbine, but used the longer Model 1925 High Velocity action.

In 1952 the M-S action was improved by the addition of a swept back bolt handle and a couple of holes tapped into the flat above the bolt release on the rear receiver ring to accomodate a scope base. The gentle curve of the pistol grip was tightened somewhat. After 1952 the bolt handle, previously blued, was polished and left in the white. These changes were requested by Stoeger. All Carbine calibers had 20" barrels except 6.5x54, which retained its 18-1/4" barrel, while rifles were supplied with 22" barrels.

In 1956 the Mannlicher-Schoenauer line was again updated at Stoeger's urging, this time with a Monte Carlo buttstock, producing the Model 1956-MC. The use of telescopic sights had become widespread, which accounts for the high, Monte Carlo comb. White line spacers also appeared at butt plate and grip cap on 1956-MC models. About the same time a Magnum Rifle, based on a similar but larger and stronger M-S action, was introduced. This rifle was produced only in magnum calibers and came with a 25-5/8" barrel.

In 1961 the last variation of the Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifles and Carbines appeared. This was the Model 1961-MCA. MCA allegedly stood for "Monte Carlo All-purpose," as the height of the comb was lower to allow the use of both iron and telescopic sights. In 1963 the safety was relocated from behind the bolt handle to the tang. Carbines imported into the U.S. were drilled and tapped for Redfield two-piece SR-MS scope mounts using standard (U.S.) 6-48 screws from mid-1965.

The Redfield front base mounted on top of the front receiver ring in the usual manner, while the rear base mounted to the left side of the rear receiver ring. There was also a removable side plate on the left side of the receiver to accomodate side scope mounts.

The Model 1961-MCA was offered until 1971-1972, when all M-S rifles and carbines were discontinued by Steyr. I have a 1971 Shooter's Bible, and it shows the retail price for a M-S Carbine as $340. For comparison, the same issue shows the price of a Winchester Model 94 as $99.95, the price of a Winchester Model 70 Standard as $169.95, and the price of a Weatherby Mark V Deluxe as $339.50. Interestingly, the new Steyr-Mannlicher rifles that were to replace the Mannlicher-Shoenauer Rifles and Carbines are also listed in the 1971 Shooter's Bible. The new Model L short action carbine retailed for $210.95-$229.95 in calibers from .22-250 to .308 Winchester. The new carbine was not offered in 6.5x54mm.

The rapid increase in the cost of manufacturing Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles drove the retail price above what the average shooter could afford. When only the wealthy could afford to purchase M-S rifles, the sales of both rifles and cartridges declined. Eventually Steyr could no longer afford to produce the traditional Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles at all, and the line was redesigned for more economical manufacture.

Steyr still makes Mannlicher rifles, but they no longer use the Schoenhauer spool magazine or the action designed by Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher. They are good rifles with many modern improvements, but they are not the same. (You can read a review of a modern Steyr Mannlicher Full Stock Carbine on the Product Review Page.)

Anyone who has handled a classic M-S rifle understands the appeal of this fine firearm. Its bolt action was the simply the smoothest ever made. It is the only bolt action that I know of that will close and lock itself if the muzzle of an empty rifle with a fully open bolt is swung down to point at the ground while the trigger is held back. This is partly because of the outstanding machine work put into these rifles, and partly because the Schoenauer spool magazine does not drag against the bolt as does the follower in the box magazine of a Mauser style rifle.

The typical M-S trigger mechanism, usually a double set type, was absolutely awesome. Just pulling the release trigger normally can fire the rifle, but the pull weight is a creepy 5+ pounds. However, when the set trigger is first pulled to "set" the release trigger, the release trigger then breaks with a perfect 3 ounce let-off (as adjusted by the factory). The set trigger can be adjusted for a pull so light that the weight of the trigger itself fires the rifle if the muzzle is elevated--which clearly should be avoided!

When a smooth, easy pointing rifle with a great trigger is chambered for a light recoiling and effective game cartridge, the average hunter and shooter is liable to suddenly become a good shot. Good shooting takes a lot of game, and 6.5x54 M-S rifles and carbines did just that, at first in Europe and then very soon in Africa, where the 6.5x54 cartridge was found to be excellent for plains game. Ultimately, the reliable and deadly Mannlicher-Schoenauer became known as the "Worlds Finest Rifle."

The 6.5x54mm Carbine became a favorite of many well-known professional hunters in Africa before the beginning of the Second World War, some of whom wrote about the rifle and cartridge. Author Ernest Hemmingway was a fan of the Model 1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer Carbine, hunted with the little rifle, and mentioned it in some of his stories.

The legendary ivory hunter W.D.M. Bell used a Model 1903 Carbine with 160 grain solid bullets for brain shots on elephant. The factory loads at that time had a MV of about 2230 fps. He liked the moderate recoil and deep penetration of the little 6.5x54mm cartridge, which in his hands never failed to kill an elephant. Later he adopted the more powerful 7x57 Mauser with a 175 grain solid bullet as his elephant hunting weapon of choice. He is reputed to have killed around 2000 elephants, most with small bore rifles.

For the average hunter, of course, the 6.5x54 is not an elephant cartridge. It is, however, a very efficient cartridge for medium size big game. In the hands of a cool marksman it is adequate for large game like North American elk, Swedish Alg, and African Kudu and it is excellent for all CXP2 class game. Anyone who is lucky enough to own a Mannlicher-Schoenauer in good condition can still put it to good use.

Note: A full length review of a Mannlicher-Schönauer 1961 MCA Carbine can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2005, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.