The Misunderstood KAR 88 Carbine "Commission" Rifle

By Mike Hudson

KAR 88 carbine
KAR 88 carbine. Photo by Mike Hudson.

After hunting season last year, I paid a visit to my eye doctor, who told me I needed an operation. A few weeks later, he removed the cataracts that had clouded my vision to the point where I could no longer drive at night, slipped in a pair of permanent contact lenses that corrected the nearsightedness that had me wearing glasses since I was 12 and restored my vision to a perfect 20-20.

When I thought about possible applications for my new super vision, it occurred to me that since I had never been able to hit the broad side of a barn since turning 30 without the use of telescopic sights, maybe I could return to the simplicity and moral uprightness of my forebears and try hunting with an iron-sighted rifle.

The next thing I knew, I was the proud owner of a German KAR 88 carbine, rather a poor man’s version of the 1903 Mannlicher carbine so beloved by Hemingway, Chuck Hawks and anyone else who has ever had the good fortune to hold one in their hands. In fact, some authorities believe that the KAR 88 served as the prototype for the later 1903.

Manufactured at the Erfurt arsenal in 1896, my GEW 88 sports a 17-1/4” barrel with an excellent bore, a nicely turned-down butter knife bolt handle and a full length Mannlicher stock and nose cap. The action is incredibly smooth and the bolt will slide in or out simply by tipping the muzzle in the appropriate direction. The three-position safety, located at the rear of the bolt, would be familiar to anyone who has handled a Mauser of any vintage.

With an overall length of 37-1/8” and weighing in at just 6-1/2 pounds, the KAR 88 would certainly meet anyone’s definition of light and handy. While it fires a significantly more powerful cartridge, the specs are nearly identical to those of the popular Winchester 1894 carbine.

The nose cap is stamped “A.M.X. 5. 13.” This means that it was the 13th carbine originally issued to the 5th Artillery Ammunition Supply Column of10th Imperial German Army Corps. An Army Ranger, who purchased it in a Kabul bazaar, brought this particular rifle back from Afghanistan.

It’s unfortunate, but the KAR 88 and the full-length rifle known as the GEW 88 or “Commission” rifle, have received perhaps the worst press of any military rifles ever, with the possible exception of the M-38 Carcano short rifle used in the assassination of JFK, or the straight-pull Ross rifle, which would occasionally leave the shooter with the bolt sticking out of his forehead.

“You can’t shoot that with modern ammo,” I was told. “It will blow up.” The amount of misinformation out there today about the M-1888 series is staggering and I am convinced that most of it comes from people who have never even seen, much less fired, one of these fine old arms.

The bad rap given to the 88 series began almost as soon as they were in introduced into the Imperial German service. Some proto-Nazi wrote a pamphlet referring to the new rifle as the “Judenflinte,” because the guns were primarily being manufactured at the factory of Ludwig Lowe. Since Lowe was Jewish and there were some problems with the first run of the new rifle, deliberate sabotage must be the answer, the rabid anti-Semite concluded.

The truth is that little was known in 1888 about the pressures generated by the new smokeless powder and, indeed, an unknown number of barrels did burst during early trials. These original guns had a bore (land) diameter of .318” and the later 8x57JS cartridges were loaded with .323” bullets, though the bursting problem had nothing to do with bore size and had in fact occurred in the Imperial German service rifles before the JS cartridge was introduced.

By 1896, the problem was solved by reaming out the chamber throat for a short distance, thus allowing the case neck to expand properly and relieving pressure. The groove diameter on both the 8x57J and the 8x57JS designed for use with the Mauser of 1898 is, and always was, identical.

Finally, in 1903, barrels on existing stocks of M-1888 rifles were replaced entirely with barrels bored and chambered to fire the later 8x57JS round. Guns that have had the modification have an “S” (for spitzer) stamped on the receiver ring and rifles and carbines that had their barrels replaced entirely for the modern ammo are stamped “nm” (for new material) on the side rail. Still, as with any vintage arm, the M-1888 rifles and carbines should be checked over by a competent gunsmith before firing and the bore should be slugged to determine whether or not a particular specimen has had these modifications performed.

I have been unable to track down a single verifiable instance of one of these modified rifles or carbines blowing up over the last century, despite extensive correspondence and research, and the fact that many people seem to think it happens all the time. Tens of thousands of M-1888 rifles and carbines saw service with the German Army in WWI and thousands more remained in reserve at Turkish arsenals as recently as the 1990's. Obviously, the Germans and the Turks were not issuing two different kinds of 8mm ammo. One can only imagine the logistical nightmare that would result from such an arrangement.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of firing modern, full power 8x57JS ammo out of your surplus M-1888. The newest of these guns are more than 100 years old. The same holds true for the use of surplus military ammo in these old guns, as much of it was loaded considerably hotter than even modern European sporting loads. However, I submit that the M-1888 action is every bit as strong as the 1892 Krag, many of which still see service as hunting rifles across America today.

The carbine I purchased had both the “S’ and “nm” markings and the bore slugged out as .321, within the acceptable range for the 8x57JS round. The two locking lugs, located on either side of the bolt head, are backed up by the bolt handle itself, which acts as a third (safety) lug.

Despite the fact that I was convinced about the carbine’s shootability, I wasn’t about to test it with any of the high-speed 8x57 loads available today. Like most of the early Mannlichers, the KAR 88 loads by means of an en-block clip and the four I found at a gun show recently were already charged with remarkably fresh looking RWS cartridges dating to 1933.

Interestingly, the original box the ammo came in was stamped “8mm Mannlicher-Mauser,” and a number of early 20th Century commercial advertisements I have seen for surplus KAR 88’s use the same name. These rounds employ a 227 grain round nose bullet at 2213 fps, generating muzzle energy of about 2500 foot-pounds. That is not too far off from the current 220 grain load for the .30-06 produced by Remington.

I fired a few and the accuracy was promising. However, these cartridges are collector’s items themselves and I bought them mainly to get the clips.

Remington’s 170 grain Core-Lokt loading is kept within the SAAMI maximum pressure limit of 37,000 cup and is safe to use in shootable M-1888 rifles and carbines. With a muzzle velocity of 2181 fps generating 2102 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy, this load is comparable to the .300 Savage and may be used on most any North American game at ranges out to 200 yards.

Better for my money is the Privi Partisan 196 grain ammo, which is also loaded to SAAMI specs. With a muzzle velocity of 2181 fps and muzzle energy of 1911 ft. lbs., this well-designed bullet boasts a respectable sectional density of .271 and is a near twin, ballistically, of the venerable .35 Remington.

Offhand at 75 yards, I have been able to get consistent three-inch groups using the old battle sight, entirely satisfactory for the sort of hunting I do. I would just as soon not have to find out how it performs against the big bears, but for whitetail deer, black bear and wild boar at typical Eastern Woodlands ranges it should do fine.

The M-1888 rifles and carbines have been imported by the tens of thousands in recent years and interest in them has been such that author Paul S. Scarlata recently wrote a book, “The German GEW 88 Commission Rifle.” At least three Web sites are dedicated entirely to collecting and shooting these arms and contain a lot of useful information.

Their history is wild and varied, having seen service in China during the Boxer Rebellion, Africa during the Boer War and in World Wars I and II. How mine came to be in Afghanistan is anyone’s guess, but it probably saw service there as well.

This season, I’ll be saying goodbye to glasnost and heading down south of here for a crack at black Russian boar. With any luck at all, my German carbine loaded with good Serbian ammo will help settle some old scores and bring home the bacon.

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Copyright 2009 by Mike Hudson and/or All rights reserved.