C-96 serial numbers are basically sequential .... with exceptions. They start at 1 and run up. The highest serial number in my database, as of March 2005, is 920270, a late M-30 with no unusual features.
Mauser skipped some serial number ranges. Sometimes, later production guns were given some of those numbers which had been skipped earlier. The situation is uncertain. A German-language instruction manual with a cone hammer illustrated on the cover claims that 60,000 guns had been made. This was either blatant deception - the cone hammers only lasted until production reached the 12,000 to 14,000 range - or Mauser was sloppy about updating the illustrations .... probably a bit of both.
There can be considerable overlap of basically sequential features - some known guns with the Second Type safety have higher serial numbers than some others with the later New Safety, for instance. But roughly speaking, features changed sequentially. Guns with long extractors have lower serial numbers than guns with short extractors, cone hammers have lower serials than large ring hammers, which in turn have lower serials than small ring hammers, 1000 meter sights with a "900" range are found on guns with lower serials than are sights without the "900", etc.
Some contract guns had their own serial number ranges, starting with 1.
This all means that a C-96 may not have a unique serial number. I own a Prewar Commercial, serial 104441, which would have been made in, maybe, 1907. Ten years later, Mauser made one other C-96 with the same serial, this one in 9 mm, for the Prussian Contract. I have never seen this other 104441, but there is no doubt that it existed at one time, and may well exist yet.The only other known contract was the Persian Contract of uncertain date, usually stated to be 1910. This contract was for 1000 guns. These are numbered in the normal commercial sequence, all with 154xxx serials. They are ordinary Prewar Commercials except for markings and frame milling pattern. The serial and sight numbers are in ordinary Western-style numerals, not Arabic numerals. This Contract is interesting because each gun has, on its left frame where in later years Mauser would put its banner trademark, a prominent Persian emblem - the sun rising over a lion somewhat improbably holding a sword. The lion and sun are ancient symbols, but the sword and crown seem to have been added around 1850. Here is the left side of serial 154594 -
Note that the milled border around the central panel is much narrower than on the other Prewar Commercials. That means that somebody from the sales department didn't simply go down to the stock room at Oberndorf, grab any old crate of 1000 guns, and send them out to get a Persian crest engraved. Somebody planned for those frames far earlier in the production cycle. But in that case, why keep them in the standard serial number sequence? It would seem to be much simpler to keep guns with special machining features separate. Probably they were kept separate, and the serial block from 154000 to 154999 was reserved for them. But that, in turn, means that the Persian guns can't be dated from their serial numbers - they might have been made considerably earlier, or considerably later, than their sisters in the 153000 and 155000 ranges. Lacking a lucky find of documentation - a dated invoice or something simple like that - there's no way to tell. Why these guns were not assigned their own serial sequence from 1 to 1000 remains cryptic.
All other contracts are conjectural. Claims for these are based on scanty evidence -
Location and typeface
Serial numbers moved around over the course of the C-96 production run. The earliest guns are sparsely decorated with serial numbers - the full number usually appears only on the grip backstrap. Numbers proliferated later, then decreased again. The trend during the Stable Production period was toward numbers on fewer parts as time went on. By the end of production, only the barrel (back of barrel extension, behind the rear sight), the frame and lock frame (on top, only visible on a stripped gun), and the inside of the floorplate were numbered, and the frame, lock frame, and floorplate didn't merit the full six digits. The floorplate number is always visible when the floorplate is removed from the gun - the magazine spring need not be removed to reveal it. This is a useful feature, because the floorplates are routinely taken off these guns - it's the only reasonable way to unload the magazine, at least of fixed-magaine guns - which of course are most of them.
Oddly enough, the typeface of the numbers can vary on any single gun. This is normal, and is not by itself evidence of "force-matched" replacement or mixed parts. Here are several serial numbers found on 104441, a matching Prewar Commercial -
The frame number is in the same typeface as the hammer, lock frame, etc, but doesn't photograph well due to old rust pitting, so it isn't shown here. And the floorplate isn't shown because I lied a little about 104441 being a matching gun.
Parts may have full serial numbers (some grip panels, for instance), or may be truncated to 3 or 4 digits. The choice of 3 or 4 digits is inconsistent. Bolts and bolt stops, particularly, can be found with either - however, on any particular gun, if the bolt has a 4-digit number, it seems that the bolt stop will also, and vice versa. But the bolt and bolt stop numbers need not necessarily use the same typeface, as witness this Wartime Commercial -
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Some photos copied from sales sites. Photos from printed publications appropriately credited.