By Wayne Van Zwoll
Europe’s gunmakers are well known for beautifully designed products, the prices of which would bankrupt a prince. and yet, these manufacturers also offer a variety of handsome yet affordable models that will appeal to many North American hunters.
After the tide of surplus Mausers receded and the spawn of the slim 1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer expired with the 1961 MCA, Europe’s gunmakers forfeited their standing stateside. By 1974, Browning’s Belgian FN plant had dropped its High-Power rifles. In Finland, Sako Finnbear and Forester bolt-actions had yielded to the Model 74. The classic Swedish Husqvarna was gone. Austria had replaced Mannlicher-Schoenauers with its first Steyrs. Germany’s commercial 1898 Mauser had vanished decades back. In the U.S., riflemen still mourning Winchester’s old Model 70 wept and gnashed their teeth.
Europe’s climb out of this dark hole has been glacial, marked by costly rifles with sloping combs, hooked wrists, fish-scale grips, and intricate set triggers. QD scope mounts of Teutonic complexity listed for more than box seats at the Super Bowl. Current rifles, however, brighten the horizon, and a fresh look to Europe is in order. But to sell these storied names effectively, you need to know who the players are and some of their rich history.
Ushering in a New Age
Compared to Europe’s gun industry, firearms manufacture in the U.S. is a young enterprise. Our oldest manufacturer, Remington, just celebrated 200 years in business. Austria’s storied gunmaking enclave in Ferlach, though, dates to 1246. European bolt-actions of the late 19th century ushered in the smokeless age, and in 1889, Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre (FN) emerged in Liege to produce Mauser rifles for Belgium’s government. FN owes its genesis to the Model 1889, which also confirmed Peter Paul Mauser as the continent’s ace rifle designer. His Model 1892 introduced the non-rotating extractor that grasped case heads as they rose, so it emptied the breech even if the shooter short-cycled. No jams.
Improvements on the 1892 produced the Model 1893 “Spanish” Mauser—whose deadly fire from San Juan Hill figured into the U.S. shift from the Krag to the Springfield. Mauser’s 1898, adopted by the German Army that year, improved on the 1893. Exported to many countries, it was built in many more.
I wasn’t awed by the Walter Gehman short-throw rifle acquired by Mauser and announced as the Model 66 in 1965. The 3000 (with the 2000 and short 4000) built by the Friedrich Wilhelm Heym Arms Factory of Münnerstadt, West Germany, was sold by Mauser-Jagdwaffen GmbH, Oberndorf. The equally unexciting Models 77 and 86 followed. In 1995 Mauser was gobbled up by the Rheinmetall Group. Its gun-making branch, Oberndorf Waffensysteme GmbH, built a Model 96 straight-pull rifle. The 1898 Mauser appeared in a limited run on its centennial. The next year, Mauser Jagdwaffen GmbH began building M98 hunting rifles in Isny/Allagau, Germany. In 2003, Mauser announced its un-98 Model 03, a nicely finished but costly rifle with interchangeable barrels and bolts.
A decade later, Mauser introduced the more affordable M12, a fetching rifle with a straight-comb stock (walnut or synthetic). Its full-diameter six-lug bolt (three pairs of two) has two plunger ejectors and an extractor in a lug. There’s a three-position safety and an adjustable trigger. The detachable box fits flush and can be loaded in the rifle. The M12 in .270 I took on a chamois hunt was nimble, accurate, and well finished.
Recently Mauser reintroduced a beautifully rendered 1898 sporting rifle, and a dangerous-game version on the famous square-bridge Magnum Mauser action. Both are costly but may be worth a divorce. The Magnum boasts pillar bedding, dual recoil lugs, and a three-leaf express sight. Barrel bands secure the front ramp and swivel stud. The walnut stock has point-pattern checkering, and a steel grip cap. The deep magazine holds four rounds in .375 H&H, four in .416 Rigby.
Mauser now shares its Isny manufacturing site with Blaser (it’s blah-zer, not blay-zer) and Sauer. Michael Luke and Thomas Ortmaier control the L&O Group that owns these brands, plus SIG Sauer in northern Germany. Bernhard Knöbel, CEO of Isny operations, runs Blaser. Thorsten Mann heads Mauser, Matthias Klotz the Sauer works. The three factories are, literally, a walk across the parking lot from each other.
Less than 70 years old, Blaser is gaining traction worldwide. Its straight-pull R93 and R8 (named for years of introduction) rank among Europe’s most innovative. I’ve used them in the States, Europe, and Africa, in timed target events and on hunts. No turn-bolt matches their speed or trumps their accuracy.
Thanks to its telescoping, radial-head bolt, the Blaser action is about 2 inches shorter than that of a standard bolt rifle. Both the R93 and R8 lock with a bolt-head collet forced into a circumferential groove in the barrel shank. The newer R8 is strongest. It has endured pressures of 120,000 psi.
A thumb-piece cocks the R8. Shove it forward, and you’re ready to fire. “You can carry a Blaser safely with a round chambered,” stresses Knöbel. The R8 also features interchangeable hammer-forged barrels. Plasma nitriding boosts surface hardness. Scope rings engage barrel notches so securely and precisely, you can remove the scope and replace it without losing zero. I’ve tested that claim at 600 yards and found it to be true. The R8 has a first-rate adjustable trigger. Its compact, aramid magazine/trigger assembly is easily removed by hand. You can top-load a stack in the rifle. R8s come in a plethora of chamberings, to .338 Lapua—even the .500 Jeffery special-order features include internal recoil-damping devices.
More conventional and less costly is Sauer’s 101. Of the eight versions, I favor the Forest, a walnut-stocked carbine with iron sights on a 20-inch barrel. The Scandic is a twin, in laminate. Both point to the sights, high enough to nearly match the sightline of a scope. My Forest in 9.3×62 drills sub-minute groups.
Last fall I met a new Sauer. The 404 has a cocking switch, not a safety—thumb it forward to cock. In five sub-models with two-piece synthetic or walnut stocks cradling an alloy receiver, the 404 has a six-lug bolt that locks into the barrel. The bolt head and barrel are easily changed (with a take-down wrench in the front swivel). Sauer lists 13 chamberings, .243 to .375 H&H. The 404’s Quattro trigger adjusts .3 inch for reach and down to 1.2 pounds. The Sauer Universal (saddle) Mount returns the scope reliably to zero.
After securing a Leica scope atop a 404 in .300 Winchester, I benched that Sauer in wind and rain on the steeps of western Scotland. It fed without fail. Twin ejectors spilled cases briskly. It rang steel to 1,000 yards. The synthetic stock shrugged off afternoon sleet as we traipsed through sopping heather. When my stalker spied an aged stag in a distant swale, we splashed across an icy stream and scrambled to the ridge-crest beyond. The fury of the North Atlantic pummeled us. I bellied a few more yards, swabbed the front lens, and squeezed. My Hornady ELD-X bullet quartered to the off shoulder. One kill is no test of rifle, scope, or load, but my pals on that trip got similar results with Sauer 404s.
No bolt rifle in the world is smoother than Austria’s Mannlicher-Schoenauers of yesteryear. The first appeared in 1900. The famous 1903 followed, in 6.5×54. Its “butterknife” bolt handle ran so eagerly through its split bridge that a downward flip of the muzzle would zip an open bolt forward and turn it into a battery. Cartridges fed fluidly from the spool magazine. The 1903 begat a long series of M-S rifles, the last built 50 years ago. None were manufactured by Mannlicher or Schoenauer, who were designers, not company chiefs. But their genius fueled the Steyr works, in the Austrian city of that name.
Leopold Werndl established the Steyr company in 1821 to make gun parts. He died of cholera in 1855, leaving the business to son Josef. Steyr started building rifles in the 1860s, after Josef returned from a stint in the U.S. at Remington and Colt. Military contracts blessed the Steyr factory. A visionary, Josef brought hydropower to the city in 1883, making it the first in Europe with electric lights.
Bolt rifles from Steyr appeared at roughly two-year intervals until 1910. In 1918, as the company began producing vehicles, Josef died of pneumonia battling one of the town’s periodic floods.
Steyr-Daimler-Puch resulted from a 1934 merger. That union dissolved in 1996, leaving firearms production alone under the Steyr shingle. Current twin-lug Steyr rifles have a Mauser-style bridge and can endure pressures spiked by a factory load behind a bullet lodged mid-point in the bore. In profile and features, the push-feed Steyr SM12 borrows from M-S rifles and its immediate predecessor, the SBS. A Classic in .338 RCM delivered half-minute accuracy for me. Hammer-forged barrels in 10 chamberings have a signature twist near the breech. Front sights adjust for elevation, rear for windage. The cocking switch moves easily, unlike some that don’t yield to weak or cold thumbs. The SM12’s trigger can be set for a 12-ounce pull.
In 1936, the Czech government moved its arms factory to Uhersky Brod, 25 miles from Slovakia and as far as practical from Germany. Hitler’s intentions were clear. The first CZ plant had sprung up in the 1920s farther west. In Strakonice, it produced pistols to augment post-WWI rifle output in the central Czech town of Brno, where Zbrojovka Brno built rifles for the army. In 1921 it became Ceska Zbrojovka: “Czech armsmaker.” By 1939, the Uhersky Brod facility was a subsidiary of CZ Prague. Early structures had peaked roofs, so in bomb sights the factory would look like houses. After Chamberlain capitulated in Munich, Hitler snatched Sudetenland, then the rest of the country.
At war’s end, Czechoslovakia became, briefly, self-governing. Communists gained control during 1948. In 1955 the Uhersky Brod enterprise separated from Strakonice. Within a decade, the government further pared production at Brno and renovated the Uhersky Brod plant. As the Brno name had cachet, it appeared on ZKK, ZKM, and 527 rifles in the 1960s. All came from Uhersky Brod.
In 1989 a revolution led by poet Vaclav Havel overthrew Communist rule. Two years later, Czech industry was privatized. In 1993, the nation split. The Czech and Slovak Republics remain independent.
Internal problems bankrupted Zbrojovka Brno in 2004. Two years later a resurrected Brno began building shotguns and sporting rifles under the CZ label. The petite 527 bolt-action is for the .223 and kin. The CZ 550, clearly Mauser in design, has served for cartridges from the .243 to the .505 Gibbs. Last year a new push-feed 557 action replaced the 550 for standard rounds. Bigger rounds merit the magnum-length 550 and its Mauser extractor. The modestly priced 557 boasts a receiver machined from a steel billet, its top dovetailed for CZ scope bases. The bottom metal, with hinged floorplate, is steel. The trigger adjusts for weight, take-up, and over-travel. Hammer-forged barrels are lapped. The walnut stock has a straight comb and machine-cut checkering. I’m partial to the 557 Carbine. Its 20½-inch barrel has iron sights. My .30/06 is nimble but steadies quickly and routinely delivers sub-minute accuracy.
The moose surged ahead. Bang! The bolt snicked. Bang! I sent a third bullet at the buzzer. Bang!
“You must hit every shot,” said the stone-faced Finn.
Whiffing a moose target at 80 steps is not allowed. My next six shots were ragged, but better. The Finn shrugged, as if considering an act of charity.
Explored by Swedish missionaries as early as 1155, Finland remained Sweden’s protectorate until 1809, when it was surrendered to Russia. The Czar proclaimed it a Grand Duchy. Independence followed Finland’s 1917 break with Russia. Sako (Suojeluskuntain yliesikunnan asepaja) was established the first day of April 1919. (By the way, it’s not sayko or sacko. It’s socko.)
Sako’s petite Vixen appeared near the close of World War II, first in .22 Hornet and .218 Bee. It reached the States via Stoeger. In 1957 Sako grew its rifle line with the L-57 Forester, sized for the then-new .308 and .243. The L-61 Finnbear came three years later, for the .30/06 and kin and belted magnums.
In 1961, Sako unveiled its lever-action Finnwolf. It lasted a decade. On the heels of its successor came the bolt-action Model 74 to replace the Vixen, Forester, and Finnbear. Its three action lengths sold from 1974 to 1978, when they yielded to the AI, AII, and AIII series (short, medium, and long). A similar Hunter arrived in the mid-1980s.
By 1983, Sako’s Riihimaki plant was producing a Model 555 rifle for another Finnish firm, Tikka. The 555 venture led Sako to buy Tikka. By 1989, Tikkakoski Works production had moved to Riihimaki.
In 1993, shooters welcomed Sako’s TRG rifle in .338 Lapua. Four years later the Model 75 came along for popular hunting rounds. Three locking lugs reduced bolt lift to 70 degrees. The subsequent 85, in six action sizes, is Sako’s current flagship, with a push-feed bolt that runs like a well-oiled piston. The two-detent sliding thumb safety has a tab that allows cycling with the safety on. Tapered dovetails accept Sako scope rings. In .375, the 85 Kodiak has a muscular 21-inch barrel with useful iron sights. The elevation-adjustable white bead is concave and won’t reflect light off-center. A shallow rear notch adjusts for windage. Crossbolts strengthen the stock around the flush-mounted four-shot steel box, which holds four magnum rounds. It can be loaded easily in the rifle. Its clever latch prevents accidental magazine drops afield. The Kodiak—and my 85 in .260—are stainless steel. The laminated stocks are comfortable, cleanly checkered, and closely inletted. Both rifles are supremely accurate; I’ve had same-hole hits even from the .375.
I’m told that in Finland, game is managed by 300 state-sanctioned associations comprising around 2,370 clubs with 140,000 members. Hunters needn’t join, but members get access to the best habitat in a country that puts 300,000 riflemen afield after moose. About 84 percent of the 22 million pounds of meat marketed annually in Finland is moose. Many of those animals fall to Tikka rifles.
The Whitetail of the 1990s was not Tikka’s first rifle. The company dates to 1893 and is 26 years older than Sako. Tikka has long made gun parts; during WWII it built sewing machines as well as sub-machine guns. Later it designed other sporting arms. The Whitetail got a tepid reception stateside. Then in 2003, Tikka announced the T3. It had many features of the costlier Sako 75 as well as improvements. Its two-lug bolt had the 70-degree lift of the three-lug 75’s and disassembled without tools into four components. The recessed face had a plunger ejector and a Sako extractor. A steel stock insert served as a recoil lug, engaging a receiver slot. Grooved for scope mounts, the T3 was drilled and tapped too. Early Tikka bolt rifles came in two action lengths, but the T3 was built on one. Bolt stops accommodated different cartridge lengths.
The T3 was succeeded in 2016 by the T3X, with a modular synthetic stock. Interchangeable slabs let you customize the grip. A more robust recoil pad reduces the shock of hard-kicking loads; foam inserts in the butt-stock muffle noise from the stock shell. The T3X’s ejection port is larger, for easier single-load feeding. A metal shroud caps the bolt’s tail. Tikka lists 19 configurations of the T3X, in chamberings from .204 Ruger. Both Sako and Tikka are now part of Beretta.
Best Buys from the Old Country
“I can’t compete against $400 rifles in the U.S.,” lamented one CEO of a European firearms firm. “Our labor is more expensive. Tariffs and shipping add cost. Our adverts duel with iconic American names.”
Still, there’s hope for Europe’s current hunting rifles, and profit for dealers who sell them. While the under-$600 category is Uncle Sam’s, a Tikka T3 can be had for as little as $650 and is a fine rifle. CZ 527s and 557s list in the $700s. At just over $1,000, the CZ 550 is the bargain among magnums. Toward the upper end of mid-price, Mauser’s M12 and Sauer’s 101 come in at $1,500. Steyr’s SM12 slides under $2,000, Sako’s 85 retails for little more. The Sauer 404, at $2,500, might give you pause. Blaser’s R8 is a $4,000 commitment, but there’s no other rifle like it.