At two centuries of industrial arms production

Franz Mauser builds his first rifle at Oberndorf in 1812

Duke Ludwig von Tieck would hardly have thought it possible that the Augustinian monastery built in 1264 in the town he himself had founded in 1250 would one day be used for arms production. The monastery was no longer used as a religious building in 1806 - Duke Frederick of Württemberg who was later elevated to the status of King of Württemberg (1797-1816) by Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that the monastery should cease to exist. In 1811 King Frederick I decreed that the two new rifle and rifle component factories at Ludwigsburg and Christophtal should be relocated and combined in the Royal Armoury “Königliche Gewehrfabrik” in Oberndorf. After all, everything that was needed was on hand here: The monastery including church offered sufficient space and storage capacity, the River Neckar provided power and the Black Forest had ample timber supplies needed to fire the forging furnaces. In the same year, members of a so-called Ouvrier Companie , “soldiers” moved into the former monastery, one such soldier was a certain Franz Andreas Mauser from Sontheim near Heilbronn, originally trained as a cobbler, they begun 1812 manufactured rifles, swords and bayonets. “

The fall of Napoleon in 1815 led to a sharp drop in orders for the arms factory. The Ouvrier Companie was dissolved in 1818 but Franz Andreas Mauser remained in Oberndorf as a simple labourer. He lived there with his 13 children including the two sons Wilhelm (1834-1882) and Paul (1838-1914) who learned the trade of gunsmith in the buildings that used to house the monastery. They started developing new rifle models applying modern weapons techniques in the 1850s, including a rear-ignition gun which unfortunately did not find favour with the King of Württemberg.

Paul and Wilhelm Mauser

Paul and Wilhelm Mauser

The brothers finally achieved their breakthrough, when the Prussian army failed badly against the “Chassepot” rifles in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871. On August 16th, 1871, the Imperial War Ministry of the still young German Reich decided to introduce the M71 Mauser rifle that was manufactured in the state-owned Spandau arms factory. The prospect of winning major orders for rifle sights encouraged them to establish their own company Gebrüder W. & P. Mauser in 1872 and to rent the saw-mill. The company was entered on the trade register on 23rd December 1872 – in other words, the arms factory Mauser came into being 140 years ago.

Already 1872, the Mauser brothers started to build the Upper Works and two years later they acquired the Württemberg Royal Armoury (Königliche Gewehrfabrik) consisting of the heart of the former monastery (Middle Works) and a northern smaller works on the grounds of today’s factory that was acquired around 1849 (the Lower and Outer Works). This investment cost such a lot of money that the brothers had to enter into a partnership with Württembergische Vereinbank as coshareholders. In 1874, the company was changed into Gebrüder Mauser & Cie and booked a large order for 99,700 rifles from the Kingdom of Württemberg. The company managed to fulfil the order by 1878 in spite of difficult conditions including a serious fire in the Upper Works. Nonetheless, it proved difficult to win new orders at reasonable prices. Wilhelm Mauser presented a new rifle design in Sweden – but all he won was a medal and not an order. But Mauser managed to secure a big success not long afterwards in 1881: Serbia ordered 120,000 rifles from Oberndorf – a sure sign that Wilhelm Mauser’s relentless commitment during his travels had finally paid off, but he paid the price with his health. Shortly after his return from Belgrade, Wilhelm Mauser died on 13th January 1882 aged only 48.

Paul Mauser encountered many more setbacks. Although the German Empire had ordered the new infantry rifle M 71.84, an enhanced version of the M 71 rifle, debts forced Mauser to transform his business into a stock company – Waffenfabrik Mauser AG – in 1884 with the bank as majority shareholder. In 1887, Württembergische Vereinsbank sold its shares to Ludwig Loewe & Co. and Paul Mauser was forced to follow suit. From then on, Mauser was simply a director of the company that bore his name. Only nine years later in 1896, the arms factory was taken over by Deutsche Waffen- und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) in Berlin, later renamed Industrie-Werke Karlsruhe-Augsburg (IWKA). On January 1st 1898, this company was turned into stock corporation and Paul Mauser was appointed the first chairman of the executive board.

Important inventions made Mauser weapons world famous at this time. In 1887 the Mauser rifle M 1887 developed specifically for Turkey was built. The German customer decided against Mauser in 1888, instead choosing to introduce the M 88, a development of the Spandau rifle factory. But apart from the fact that Rheinmetall was founded in 1889 to manufacture the ammunition for the M/88, the Spandau rifle with its flawed design did not have a lasting influence on German military history. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. The German government returned to Mauser with the introduction of the M 98 which was doubtlessly one of the most important rifles of the time since it had a five-round magazine that could be reloaded at any time. Equally famous was the semi-automatic pistol C 96, the world’s first self-loading pistol. Firing trials with the gun in 1896 left a strong impression on Kaiser Wilhelm II and mass production got under way at Oberndorf in 1898.

Paul Mauser died on 29th May 1914 aged 76 shortly before the outbreak of World War I. During which Mauser delivered numerous pistols and rifles and had to expand the factory premises by the River Neckar. The boggy soil of the Neckar valley was reinforced with wooden pillars and the foundations for the factory site at today’s premises were thus extended in 1920. The first medium-calibre weapon, an anti-tank rifle used against armoured vehicles and low-flying aircraft, was developed at this time.

The Treaty of Versailles put an end to further growth. Mauser was only allowed to manufacturer non-military goods in the 1920s: measurement equipment, slide gauges and micrometers left the Oberndorf factory alongside industrial sewing machines, cars, and calculators. The re-armament of Germany restored the Mauser Werke AG to mass production status with the development of new pistols, hunting and small calibre rifles and – from 1936 onwards – of machine guns, like e.g. the Flak 38 20mm. This is the darkest chapter in the history of the company, also because manufacture relied heavily on forced labour.

First heavy air strikes on the Oberndorf factory were on 22nd February 1945 and on 20th April of the same year the French Army occupied the town and factory. All accessible technical records were confiscated by the Americans, employees were imprisoned and questioned, arms were manufactured for the French occupying forces and ultimately the factory was dismantled and destroyed 1947 by the French. With the start of the Cold War, arms production was re-commenced in the company that had all but disappeared in 1956 – now for the new German Bundeswehr. Mauser initially concentrated on machine guns and gun mounts.

The product portfolio was complemented by the development in 1963 and production in 1966 of hunting rifles – initially with the M66 rifle that soon brought the company an excellent reputation around the world. Mauser gained access to the medium calibre market for the air force in 1971 with the development of the 27mm calibre single barrel aircraft cannon BK27 for which a significant order was booked in 1976 for integration in the NATO multi-role combat aircraft MRCA Tornado. The BK27 was followed by 25 and 30mm machine guns; series production of these guns was launched in 1987. The increasing stake of Mauser-Werke Oberndorf GmbH in defence technology made the company interesting for Rheinmetall. Negotiations failed and the Nuremberg-based Diehl group acquired Mauser Werke on January 1st, 1979.

The changed geo-political situation led to a dramatic drop in orders and sales for Mauser and the company suffered losses. Numerous jobs had to be scrapped to save the business. The defence sector including the hunting rifles business was spun off as a separate company and later sold to Rheinmetall in two steps in 1995 and 1996. Business with hunting rifles was slack in the years following the takeover and later sold to Schweizerische Industriegesellschaft.

Since the 1990s, the light naval gun MLG 27 with the related 27mm FAPDS ammunition attracted a lot of attention. In 1997, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Spain decided to introduce the Eurofighter 2000 that was to be equipped with an enhanced BK 27 with a linkless feed system from Mauser. The systematic allocation of Rheinmetall defence activities to product departments and the related concentration on the name Rheinmetall ultimately led to the disappearance in 2004 of the name Mauser after 132 years as a company name. Nonetheless, the name “Mauser” remains alive as a works designation.

In the wake of the most recent restructuring of Rheinmetall Defence, Rheinmetall Waffe Munition GmbH, Oberndorf, was made part of the Combat Platforms product department in the Combat Systems division. Key development activities of the company that currently has around 260 employees include the MK 30-2/ABM automatic cannon featuring advanced Air Burst Ammunition for the Puma IFV, follow-on developments of the light naval gun and upgrades of the aircraft cannon for the Swedish Gripen fighter. The light machine gun RMG.50 is a step in the direction of infantry armament to meet demand for threat scenarios in out-of-area missions of the German Bundeswehr. The armament of vehicles, helicopters and ships (e.g. fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia) can be optimised with the RMG.50. The defence facility at Oberndorf is therefore very much up-to-date with developments in the defence sector – as in the days of King Frederick I and his guns for Napoleon’s Army.

Dr. Christian Leitzbach

Source of pictures: Museum of the city of Oberndorf "Waffenmuseum der Stadt Oberndorf"

  • Rheinmetall Waffe Munition GmbH

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    Werkstraße 2
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    Fax: +49 7423 70-670

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    Dr. Christian Leitzbach
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