German Sniper Rifles
Rifle|September - October 2021
In the run-up to World War II, military planners in Germany expected a fast-moving mechanized war. They considered that a sniper firing one well-aimed round at a time was a holdover from trench warfare. On December 6, 1934, the German Army’s High Command ordered all “Telescope Sight Rifles” to be turned in by the 15th of that month. There was no plan for their replacement (from Sniper Variations of the German K98k Rifle by Richard D. Law).
Mike Venturino

Mike is shooting his low turret K98k with a Zeiss 4x scope at a vintage sniper rifle match. Minutes after this photo was taken, something broke inside the scope.

After World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht began an about-face on the subject of sniper rifle usefulness. Then, after attacking the Soviet Union in June 1941, their about-face was completed because very quickly their troops encountered a host of trained Red Army snipers who wreaked havoc on German officers and NCOs. In essence, this opened the dam for a wide array of scopes and mounting system combinations lasting until war’s end in May 1945. German ordnance put technical names on their sniper rifle scope/mount creations, but modern collectors have simplified the matter. Their terms for K98k sniper variants range from low turret, high turret, short side rail, long side rail, single claw, double claw and swept back, along with a few others.

In the beginning of Germany’s sniper rifle reboot, scopes were those available on the civilian market. Some of the better-known scope manufacturers were Zeiss, Hensoldt, Kahles and Swarovski. Later, the German ordnance designed its own scope called the ZF4, which was produced by several companies. Collectively, these scopes ranged from 1.5x to 6x, with 4x being the most common.

Some German sniper rifles were built in military armories and others were put together by rifle manufacturers at their own facilities. The German military used codes for almost all equipment. Rifles were marked as to maker and year. For example, a rifle stamped “ce” and “42” on the front receiver ring was made by JP Sauer & Sohn in 1942. Additionally, if that rifle was converted for scope use at its factory, an additional stamping was added on the left side near serial numbers. For example, sniper rifles built by Sauer & Sohn received tiny “37” stamps. Early scopes originally intended for the commercial market will have makers’ commercial legends, such as Zeiss Zielvier. Scopes later built on military orders will have codes instead of names. Zeiss became “blc.”

This mishmash of codes, names and scope mount variations has resulted in a treasure trove of details for modern collectors to research. About the only thing constant with German sniper rifles is their cartridge, 7.92x57mm. Even then, German ordnance officers gave different criteria when zeroing sniper rifles with ammunition in brass cartridge cases versus loads using steel cases.

The vast bulk of German sniper rifles were built on the K98k bolt action. Between adoption in 1935 and war’s end in 1945, about 10 million were made. Of those, only a small percentage ended up with scopes. Each one chosen for scope mounting was accuracy tested, first by human shooters at 100 meters from a benchrest. Late in the war, a Schiessmaschinen (machine rest) was developed in collaboration between the Zeiss and Mauser companies, which shortened sighting-in time and lessened ammunition quantities needed for the chore.

Precision standards that rifles had to pass before being accepted as sniper rifles are interesting and confusing. After visual inspection they were testfired. Five rounds had to stay within a rectangle of 40mm by 80mm. Illustrations in Law’s book shows the rectangle standing upright. Additionally, all five of those rounds had to land in a circle of 120mm in diameter. To modern sporting riflemen, those standards seem lax because 120mm is almost 5 inches.

By mid-war, Germany had developed its semiauto infantry rifle, first called the G43 (Gewehr 1943), but later renamed K43 (Karabiner 1943). These were intended to replace bolt actions as the standard infantry rifle, and also become the universal sniper rifle. Neither happened, as far from enough were produced to arm every infantryman, and field tests showed their inherent precision was not suitable for long-range sniping. However, almost all G/K43s were built with a rail to accept a quick detachable mount holding a short ZF4 scope.

The left action side rail on this K98k, coded “bcd4,” was made 1⁄8 inch wider so it could be machined flat for mounting long side rail mounts more securely.

This photo shows the elevation adjustment of Mike’s Zeiss 4x commercial scope. The rifle had to be first zeroed at 100 meters and then the dial changed to match it.

The two German sniper rifles which were deemed failures by the German Wehrmacht were the ZF41/K98k (top) and the ZF4/K43 (bottom).

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