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NOTE - Total newbies trying to identify a gun might want to start on the Quick Identification Page


Uncredited Net-trawled illustrations, most likely from A.B. Zhuk,
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Handguns: Pistols and Revolvers of the World from 1870 to the Present.
The M-30 at upper right has the wrong lanyard ring loop, and the serial number is in the wrong place.

These pistols are collector's items. That means that nobody now uses them as workaday guns. No military or police force anywhere is known to carry the C-96 - the last ones I've heard about were the ceremonial guards at Mao's tomb. But mention collectors, and you'll see combat a-plenty - it's the inevitable cage match between the Aristotelians and the Platonists, the "splitters" and the "lumpers".

Some collectors see differences everywhere - they're classic "splitters." And the C-96 is good material for splitters. One of the books describes and pictures some seventy distinct variations. I've identified more. It's as bad as collecting PEZ dispensers, but more expensive.

On the other hand, a historian of firearms production would note that not all variants are equal. Some sold in large numbers. Others were duds, and were quickly dropped. In a very real sense, the common ones are the important ones. And they are the ones which approach the Platonic ideal of the Mauser - the one you'd show them when the kids ask, "What's a C-96?"

So. For the purposes of this site, I am going to make a break with the books, ignore the rarer variants, and concentrate on the "ordinary" guns which anyone, dedicated collector or casual shooter, is most likely to encounter.

The vast majority of oddball pistol variations date from the early years of production. It didn't take the Mauser factory long to debug the design, and very soon after startup, reliable and remarkably sturdy pistols were being cranked out by the thousands. Except for an enforced hiatus at the end of World War One, the pistol stayed in continuous production for more than forty years. But for a while, the factory flailed about with a blizzard of minor variations and strange stylistic experiments. Six-shot and twenty-shot magazines, the "flatside" frame, the cone hammers, the large ring hammers, and the early Bolos all date to the first eight years or so of production. These had all pretty much disappeared by the time serial numbers reached the 40,000 range (very approximately, 1905 - possibly as early as 1902, though I doubt it; lacking documentation, it's all guesswork), and so constitute a very small fraction of the total production of well over a million pistols. If we eliminate this small percentage of early pistols, a mere half-dozen major variants remain. Ninety five percent of the guns made were one or another of these variants -
  • Prewar Commercial, of two minor variants - around 240,000 made between about 1905 and 1912-14
    (In the C-96 context, the "war" is always the Great War of 1914-1918.)
  • Wartime Commercial - around 144,000 made between 1912-14 and 1918
  • 1916 Prussian Contract - a.k.a. Red 9 - around 135,000 made between 1916 and 1918
  • Postwar Bolo, of two minor variants - around 345,000 made between the early 1920s and 1930
  • M-30, of several minor variants - around 120,000 made between 1930 and 1937
  • Schnellfeuer - close to 100,000 made between about 1932 and 1937 - rare in the USA, thanks to the 1934 National Firearms Act
Most of the terminology is not entirely standardized. And most of it is modern - Mauser never sold a new gun as a Prewar Commercial, for instance. However M-30 is almost an official Mauser designation, as is Schnellfeuer (more properly, Schnellfeuer-pistole). The unofficial names used by modern collectors are relatively well-known but vary somewhat in practice. On this site, I refer to all variants of the pistol as the C-96, due to habit more than anything else. The name Bolo is common but not standardized. I use it for any C-96 with a small grip and short (3.9 inch) barrel. Others may apply the term to guns with either a short barrel or nasty little grips. Parts names I use appear on the exploded view. And keep in mind that "prewar", "wartime", and "postwar" in the C-96 context refer to the Great War of 1914 - 1918.
I refer to the days when these guns were manufactured as the Stable Production Period (something of a misnomer, I'll admit, as it was none too stable for a few years after the war). Stable Production Period is a new term - it doesn't appear in the books. It extends from about 1905 to 1937, encompassing all serial numbers from about 40000 on up, and all Prussian Contract guns and Schnellfeuers regardless of serial number.

But exactly how to chart C-96 production is a bit of a puzzle. By date? By serial number? By feature? All choices have drawbacks.
By Date

Unfortunately, most Mauser production records were destroyed when French occupation forces demolished the Oberndorf factory and offices after WW2. There have been attempts to blame this vandalism on American troops, but for several reasons I don't buy it. In any event, this lack of records means that few dates can be established with certainty. Terms such as "1898 Model," "1902 Model," "1908 Model," "1912 Model," etc. are often bandied about, but Mauser never sold the guns as such, and the production dates can't be established with certainty. A few contracts have known dates, such as the Italian contract for 5000 guns (1899) and the Prussian contract for 150,000 guns (1916). But Mauser called them all "the military pistol" until 1930 - the "Modell 1930" (usually contracted by us impatient modern types to "M-30") was Mauser's designation for the series of variants introduced in 1930, and a year or two later the "Schnellfeuer" appeared. All other dates have been supplied after the fact, too often by collectors with more enthusiasm than accurate data.

So classification by date isn't entirely satisfactory.

By Serial Number

Classification by serial number doesn't work all that well either. Although the Mauser serial number system is simple in theory - start at 1 and go up to whatever - it was violated in practice. Mauser skipped some sizeable blocks of numbers in the early days, sometimes filling them in subsequently with later-production pistols. And some contract guns had their own serial numbers, starting again at 1. The Schnellfeuer had its own series, also starting at 1. So Mauser actually made at least four C-96s with the serial number 4095 (to pick a number more-or-less at random). Low serial number guns with later production features turn up, implying smaller and otherwise unknown contract runs with their own serial ranges, so exactly how many guns with a particular serial number were actually made can be hard to determine. Higher serial numbers are unique, though, as the highest serial contract gun would be about 139000, from the 1916 Prussian Contract, and the highest serial Schnellfeuer was somewhere around 95000. So a high number like 881837, as seen on one of my M-30s, is a number unique among C-96s.

It remains difficult to account for "flyers" - guns with serials substantially separated from their sisters with identical production features. A good example is 232232, by all appearances a Wartime Commercial. But the immediately previous version, the Prewar Commercial, is found with serials well into the 270000 range. Nearly all surviving Wartime Commercials have serials above the 290000 range. So what exactly was going on at Mauser between the times the 232000 and 290000 ranges were made? Was 232232 actually made at the same time as the 290000-range pistols, but given a lower number to fill in a previously-skipped number block? At this late date it is generally impossible to say.
To finish up the mysterious case of number 232232: The best theory is that 232232 started life as an ordinary Prewar Commercial, but was returned to the factory for a defective safety. She was then retrofitted with the New Safety hammer and safety lever. Since the only differences between the Prewar and Wartime commercial guns were those two parts, 232232 was magically transformed from a Prewar to a Wartime Commercial. Perhaps that's how it happened, but absent a paper trail, we can't say for sure.
By Feature

Classification by feature is useful, as it's purely phenomenological. Features actually observed on a particular gun are sufficient to categorize it. This is the rationale for the common classification of all C-96s as Cone Hammers, Large Ring Hammers, or Small Ring Hammers. Cone Hammers were made from approximately 1896 to 1899, and run up to serial numbers in the 14000 range. Large Ring Hammers were made from approximately 1899 to 1905, and run up to serial numbers in the 40,000 range. All later guns have small ring hammers. This includes all the guns of the Stable Production Period.

Hammer type is a poor way to classify guns of the Stable Production Period, as very different guns, such as Postwar Bolos and M-30s, all had small ring hammers of one sort or another. So other features become important.

Prewar Commercial

By the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, Mauser had stopped all their initial foolishness and settled down to a stable design, known today as the Prewar Commercial.

A few odd features still turned up on Prewar Commercials, but even those disappeared as the decade drew to a close. These features were -
  • Some guns with the earlier type (long) extractor (compare the earlier type on 40543, a prewar Bolo, with the later type on 54230, a Prewar Commercial)
  • Some guns chambered in an oddball 9 mm cartridge, 9 mm Mauser Export
  • Some guns with checkered hard rubber grips (here's an example on 32595, a late large ring hammer)
  • Some guns with prominent importer or dealer marks, primarily (in the US) Von Lengerke & Detmold New-York (as on this Prewar Commercial, serial 52297)
  • Some guns with a Mauser banner mark rather than the more common Oberndorf address mark over the chamber (here's one on a Prewar Commercial, serial 90038)
  • Some early guns have the antler stamp of the Proof House at Ulm, in addition to the standard double crown over "U".
But the vast majority of Prewar Commercials were outfitted like so -
  • 5.5 inch (140 mm) barrel
  • 7.63 mm caliber
  • 50-1000 meter tangent sight
  • Second type safety
  • Hole through safety lever knob
  • Small ring hammer, early style
  • Walnut grip panels with 30 to 34 grooves
  • 10-shot magazine
  • Lanyard loop pivoting fore & aft
  • "Step frame" - a widened grip backstrap to accommodate the slot for the shoulder stock
  • Serial numbers - Full serial numbers for Prewar Commercials will be five or six digits.
               - full number on barrel (upper left of chamber), back of grip, back of lock frame
               - partial number on back of hammer, top of bolt, inside of floorplate, bolt lock, disconnector, inside of grip panels, and top of bolt stop
               - partial number on (sometimes) bottom of tangent sight, inside of safety lever, sear
  • Proof house stamps - barrel (left of chamber), bolt lock, top of bolt
  • Markings -
    Right side of frame,
    WAFFENFABRIK MAUSER
    OBERNDORF A. NECKAR

    Barrel, over chamber,
    WAFFENFABRIK
    MAUSER
    OBERNDORF A/N


    (Note that the A. NECKAR is important - there are several Oberndorfs in Germany and Austria, but only one Oberndorf am Neckar, on the river Neckar)

The only manufacturing change was a switch from 4-groove to 6-groove rifling. The highest serial number I've so far seen with 4-groove rifling is 104441.

The serial number situation is more complicated than my little summary above makes it seem.
  • Partial serial numbers may be three or four digits, depending apparently on the whim of whoever happened to do the marking. Example - gun 104441 is marked 4441 on the bolt and bolt stop; gun 105431 is marked 431 on the bolt and bolt stop.
  • The insides of the grip panels may be stamped with the full or partial serial number.
  • Some parts may have partials or no numbers at all, such as the tangent sight (on the bottom, if it's there at all), the inside surface of the safety lever, or the side of the sear. I have seen a gun in the 60,000 serial range with a three digit serial on all three. The sear and safety lever marking may have been dropped later, as I've never seen them on higher-numbered guns. Occasional partial serials on the bottom of the tangent sight persisted erratically into Postwar Bolo production. I don't believe I've ever seen a C-96 with a numbered trigger or cartridge follower.
Other numbers might be found on particular guns. These mystery numbers have no known significance. One of these is commonly found on the top of the barrel extension, under the sight. Here is a typical example. The Mauser Self-Loading Pistol claims that these numbers under the sight are contract numbers. However the gun in the photo, 104441, has no other indicators that she is any sort of contract item. She seems to be an absolutely box-stock Prewar Commercial, and I have little doubt that she followed tens of thousands of her identical sisters into routine commercial channels, and preceded tens of thousands more.

The grip panel situation is unsettled. All Prewar Commercials, except some of the earliest ones with hard rubber grip panels, have walnut grip panels with fine horizontal lines or grooves. The exact number of grooves varies. I recall seeing guns with 30, 32, 34, and even some 36 groove panels. If there's a pattern as to which guns have which groove count, it's evaded me. On any individual gun, the left and right grip panels usually have the same number of grooves - but not always.

System Mauser gives an observed serial range of 39815 to 273339 for Prewar Commercials. My own database lists Prewar Commercials from 36481 to 240074.

Wartime Commercial

This variant is distinguished by the first appearance of the New Safety. It superceded the Prewar Commercial, perhaps as early as 1912. The war didn't start until August 1914, but this variant is called the Wartime Commercial nonetheless. It is identical to the Prewar Commercial (the later variety with six rifling grooves), except for a few changes -
  • New Safety
  • "NS" monogram added to back of hammer
  • Hammer milling changed for New Safety
  • Solid safety lever knob (no hole)
  • 50-1000 meter tangent sight, without "900" meter mark. Most Prewar Commercials have sights with the "900" mark

The Wartime Commercial can be easily distinguished from the Prewar Commercial by the hammer, which is marked on the back with an intertwined NS monogram (here is the identical monogram on a Postwar Bolo), and the safety lever knob. The only internal change is to the hammer. The number of grooves in the grip panels continues to vary.

The authors of System Mauser note serial 290090 as the lowest number Wartime Commercial they'd seen. However, my database has one with a much lower number - presenting serial 232232, a Wartime Commercial in all respects (New Safety, 30-groove grips, tangent sight without a "900" mark, etc).

System Mauser gives an observed high serial of 433900 for Wartime Commercials. My own database lists Wartime Commercials up to 426651.

1916 Prussian Contract

Guns for this contract were made from 1916 to 1918. The popular modern term is Red 9. This was a wartime military contract for 150,000 guns, perhaps 137,000 of which were delivered before the contract terminated with the end of the war. Despite occasional statements to the contrary, these were not prewar guns reworked to 9 mm. Except for the relatively poor finish, they are identical to the Wartime Commercial, with these specific exceptions -
  • 9x19 mm caliber rather than 7.63 mm
  • 50-500 meter tangent sight
  • Small clearance relief cut out of top of cartridge follower
  • 24 (approximately) groove walnut grips panels, usually with a "9" carved or branded in and painted red
  • Government acceptance mark on right side of barrel, over chamber (Note that the presence of a Government acceptance stamp is not diagnostic of the 1916 Contract. Any gun bought by the government might have that mark. I have seen it on Prewar Commercials which were otherwise unmarked and unmodified - and were still chambered in 7.63 mm)
  • There may be a Prussian eagle stamp on the front of the magazine.
Guns made for this contract have their own serial number range, running from 1 through whatever. System Mauser gives a highest observed serial of 135127. My own database lists serials as high as 131595.

I prefer to avoid the name Red 9 for the 1916 Prussian Contract guns, because -
  • Not all original 1916 Contract guns were marked with a "Red 9" on the grip panels - some seem to have had a "Black 9," and some had no "9" at all.
  • During the last twenty years or so, significant numbers of guns with shot-out bores have been bored out to 9 mm and are now wearing reproduction Red 9 grips. This by itself is not a problem, but it causes confusion with genuine 1916 Contract guns.

1920

After the war, a good number of guns - no one knows how many - were reworked, some at the Mauser factory. The rework involved -
  • Shortened barrel (with a new front sight soldered on)
  • Fixed sight (tangent sight milled from top of barrel extension, and a fixed notch sight soldered on)
  • "1920" mark on frame or barrel extension (usually)
The "1920" is apparently not a date so much as a claim that the gun complies with some legal edict of that date. That is, a gun so marked may have been reworked shortly after 1920.

Since the "1920" guns are all* reworks of prewar or wartime guns, they might have just about any features and a large range of serial numbers. Particularly because of the range of features, I don't consider these a real variant - that is, they don't help us out much in trying to account for factory production.
* As usual, there are exceptions. I have seen guns with prominent "1920" marks which have not been reworked in any way. A real oddball is serial 154594, a correct Persian Contract gun, which still has all its Prewar Commercial features despite the "1920" on the right barrel diagonal flat. Weird.

Postwar Bolo

This was the first major variant out of the Mauser factory after the war. Production started in the early 1920s, perhaps 1922.

Due to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, German pistols were limited to 100 mm barrels or shorter, and calibers under 9mm. Mauser satisfied these restrictions by reviving an older variant, popularly known as the Bolo. Although often called the "small-frame" Mauser, most of the frame is identical to that of the full-size guns. The grip is notably smaller, but all the internal parts are identical to those of the larger pistols. The original Bolo may have been an attempt to make the gun slightly less bulky overall, a notion supported by the fact that nearly all of the very early six-shot guns were Bolos - that is, they had the smaller Bolo grips and the short (100 mm, or 3.9 inch) Bolo barrels. See more on this subject here. However, the postwar Bolos all have 10 shot magazines.

The Postwar Bolo is identical to the Wartime Commercial, with these exceptions -
  • 3.9" barrel with the front sight on a barrel band
  • No proof stamp on locking block
  • Small grip
  • 22 groove walnut grip panels
  • Barrel serial number and proof stamps change places - serial number is now on side of chamber, proof stamp is on diagonal flat above it
  • Lanyard ring swivels from side to side, rather than fore & aft

The Bolo dominated postwar production throughout the 1920s. It retained the WAFFENFABRIK MAUSER markings, even though the factory name changed to MAUSER-WERKE A.G. in the early 1920s. System Mauser gives an observed serial range of 444476 to 793350 for Postwar Bolos. My own database lists Postwar Bolos from 440864 to 674447.

Around serial 500,000, a Mauser banner mark was added to the left side of the Bolo frame.

Model 1930 or M-30

This was the first C-96 variant to have an official factory designation ("Modell 1930" in German). The big changes were a reversion from the Bolo to the earlier large size; yet another safety, the Universal Safety; and what is now called the step barrel. The M-30 is identical to the Prewar Commercial except -
  • Small ring hammer, late style (slightly simpler than early style)
  • Universal Safety
  • Hammer milling changed for Universal safety
  • Modified safety lever, with a hole through the knob
  • Sear modified slightly for Universal Safety
  • Lock frame modified slightly for Universal Safety
  • Lock frame milling simplified slightly
  • 50-1000 meter sight, without "900" meter mark. On early guns, the "1000" reads from the right. On later guns, it reads from the left
  • Chamber walls are a bit thicker, making a step where the barrel reduces to the same diameter as the earlier guns - hence another common name, the step barrel
  • Different grip - the grip frame is thicker (not "stepped" like the earlier guns)
  • 12 groove walnut grip panels (which will not fit earlier "step frame" guns)
  • Lanyard ring swings side-to-side rather than fore & aft - the lug is longer than that on the Postwar Bolo
  • Serial numbers -
               - full number on barrel
                         early guns - left side of barrel (same place as Postwar Bolos)
                         late guns - top of barrel extension, behind rear sight
               - partial number on top of lock frame, magazine floorplate
  • Markings -
    Left side of frame - Mauser banner, larger than banner on Postwar Bolo
    Right side of frame -
    WAFFENFABRIK MAUSER
    OBERNDORF A. NECKAR
    D.R.P.u.A.P.

    Very early specimens omit the "D.R.P.u.A.P."
System Mauser gives an observed serial range of 803115 to 894897 for earlier M-30s, and 900302 to 921075 for later ones. My own database lists five minor variants of M-30s, from serial 832525 to 920270.

Three small Chinese ideographs meaning "Made in Germany" often appear on the left side of the magazine. Location varies, from down close to the floorplate to 'way up near the slide rails. However, the size of the characters is constant - they're always quite small, about 1/8" square.

About serial number 900,000, the milled cutouts on the sides of the barrel extension were deleted, the lettering on the right side of the frame changed to an italic (slanted) font, and the frame milling was changed slightly on the right side. There were other small changes over the seven year production run of the M-30, and not all were introduced at the same time, so some guns will show a mix of older and newer details. The barrel lengthened slightly from 135 mm to 140 mm, the serial numbers moved around a bit, the numbers on the tangent sight changed slightly, and some small parts lost their traditional Mauser turquoise blue, to be replaced by the same dark blue as the rest of the gun. But the major visual cues persisted - all M-30s have the Universal Safety, step barrel, wide (unstepped) grip frame, and 12-groove walnut grip panels. Only the M-30 (and the Schnellfeuer) had these features.

Schnellfeuer

Although significant numbers of Schnellfeuers were made, in the United States they must be registered as machine guns, and the Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986 severely restricts imports. There are, last I heard, only about a hundred registered in the United States, so they are rare here. Features and changes generally tracked those of the M-30s. Since this site concentrates on high-volume variants, I won't consider Schnellfeuers further.



To summarize -

  Prewar
Commercial
Wartime
Commercial
Red 9 Postwar
Bolo
M-30
approx production dates 1905? - 1912/14 1912/14 - 1918 1916 - 1918 early '20s - 1930 1930 - 1937
approx qty made ~ 240,000 ~ 144,000 ~ 135,000 ~ 345,000 ~ 120,000
approx serial nos. 40,000 - 275,000 280,000 - 434,000 1 - 135,000 445,000 - 790,000 800,000 - 920,000
caliber 7.63 mm 7.63 mm 9x19 mm 7.63 mm 7.63 mm
barrel length 5.5" (140 mm) 5.5" (140 mm) 5.5" (140 mm) 3.9" (99.0 mm) 5.25", later 5.5"
rear sight 50-1000 m
Type a, b, or c
50-1000 m
Type c
50-500 m 50-1000 m
Type c
50-1000 m
Type c, d, or e
grip size full size (step frame) full size (step frame) full size (step frame) small (step frame) full size
walnut grip panels 30-34 grooves 30-34 grooves 24 grooves, red 9 22 grooves 12 grooves
lanyard pivot fore & aft fore & aft fore & aft side-to-side side-to-side
hammer early small ring early small ring, "NS" early small ring, "NS" early small ring, "NS" late small ring
safety second type "New Safety" "New Safety" "New Safety" "Universal Safety"
safety lever knob through hole solid solid solid through hole
NOTE - The approx serial nos. data are highly suspect. Therefore, the approx qty made data are also highly suspect, as they are derived from the serial number data. I basically took these numbers from System Mauser. Entirely different numbers can be found in The Mauser Self-Loading Pistol. I consider System Mauser to be more reliable, but still not terribly accurate. My own database is entirely reliable (well, obviously), but not terribly large yet.




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