by Terry Wieland
When most shooters think of German guns, they think military: Luger, Mauser, Walther. Rarely do civilian firearms get much attention.
One class that deserves to be remembered is the 500-year old tradition of Schützen rifles, shot offhand at 175 or 300 metres. The full story can be found in the three-volume, 1,200-page, 14-pound treatise Alte Scheibenwaffen, compiled and published by five American enthusiasts in the 1990s.
This German tradition was the father of the great American sport of Schützen, which flourished here between the 1880s and 1917. Some pockets are still to be found in areas of the country with large populations of German descent, and it enjoyed a modest resurgence in the 1990s. In the era before baseball, Schützen was as close to a “national pastime” as we had, drawing crowds of spectators numbering in the tens of thousands, from Long Island to San Francisco, with match results reported in the New York Times.
One lasting result of this former national passion is a legacy of wonderful single-shot target rifles from Ballard, Maynard, Bullard, Stevens, Farrow, Winchester, and Remington, as well as quite a few lesser known names.
The Germans developed an extraordinary fondness for the Martini action, so-called — original design by Peabody in America, modified by Martini in Switzerland, and adopted with joyous cries by German gunmakers large and small. There are so many variations I won’t even attempt to list them. Each rifle deserves to be treated with the same consideration one should give an original oil painting, as a unique work of art to be judged on its own merits.
Two years ago, I lucked into two Martini Schützen rifles at the Rock Island auction. I told the story of the older one in Sporting Note #16, in April. The newer one was much more elaborate, with extensive engraving, a modicum of wood carving, and all restored by someone who knew his stuff. I got it for a remarkably low price because it had no sights at all — at least, I assume that’s the reason, because it was mechanically perfect, aethetically beautiful, and in a caliber relatively easy to find (8.15x46R).
I immediately set about looking for suitable sights among the collector community. They needed to be the right age, as well as the right size and type. Most German rifles have three sights — front, mid-barrel, and tang aperture sight called a diopter. I found the first two with little problem, and not a huge outlay of money. The third, however, was a problem because those were made in unbelievable variety and most were custom-fitted. Fortunately, my older rifle had an almost identical base, just a slightly different size.
We assumed the newer rifle had worn a similar sight, so Lee Shaver used the one as a pattern to make another. As you can see from the photograph, it looks right at home on the rifle.
An interesting point about these sights is that usually the front and mid-barrel sight were used for actual sighting, while the diopter’s role was solely to sharpen the sight picture of the other two. This is an optical trick German shooters discovered early. Some matches allowed only two sights, in which case the diopter was removed. In Switzerland, this was the usual approach, and any Schützen rifle without provision for a diopter is presumed to have been made for a Swiss, or for someone who often shot in Swiss matches.
My newer rifle proved to be almost alarmingly accurate once I’d corralled all the necessary bits — cartridge cases, suitable bullets, and dies. All that was missing was a huge tankard of frothy Bavarian ale, brought by a lissome Schütenliesl. Maybe in another life.
Gray’s shooting editor’s capacity for fantasy is almost unlimited, but discovering the world of German Schützen was right up there with the Brothers Grimm.