by Terry Wieland
Any time you feel you know everything there is to know about rifles, or that your rack of guns is becoming a yawn, you might want to take a ride on the Schützen-rifle express.
Jack O’Connor, long-time shooting editor of Outdoor Life and reigning rifle guru of the mid-twentieth century, once compared German guns to cuckoo clocks, and not in a flattering way. To a great degree, he was right. But just as cuckoo clocks have devoted admirers for their outlandish style and exquisite craftsmanship, as much as their ability to keep time, so Schützen rifles command an admiration all their own.
O’Connor’s target was the various multi-barrel guns, Drillings and Vierlings and the like, which can become bizarre in their ingenious mechanisms of sights and safeties and triggers, aside from all the garish decoration of engraving and wood carving. But the classic German Schützen Gewehr, a single-barreled target rifle created solely for the purpose of shooting, offhand, at a target 300 metres away, is in a class by itself.
Formal target shooting with everything from crossbows to matchlocks has a tradition in the German states going back 500 years, and obviously it evolved over that time. By 1860, with the introduction of breech-loading cartridge rifles, it began to take on the form that defined it as a national pastime from then until the oubreak of war in 1914.
When I say “national pastime,” I’m not kidding. Every town had a shooting club, and it became the custom to hold a national match each year, with different cities awarded the right to host it. For these two-week events, they built special target ranges, with Olympic villages of shooting houses, beer halls, and presentation stands comparable to England’s Great Exhibition of 1851 with its Crystal Palace. With an attendance numbering, typically, 10,000 competitors or more, this was a very big deal.
Naturally, as interest grew, there was great competition among riflemakers, and this resulted in the classic Schützen rifle—an arm every bit as specialized as the modern “unSingle” trap gun, and just as arcane in its features to the untutored eye.
Unlike a Vierling, with four barrels, typically two smoothbore and two rifled, intended to combine a multitude of applications in one ingeniously complex tool, the Schützen rifle was designed to be held to the shoulder as the shooter stood upright—no rests or supports of any kind—and direct a bullet down-range, one at a time, at a 300-metre target with rings measured in millimetres.
Such rifles cannot be shot from a bench, at least not with any degree of comfort, or from a sitting or kneeling position. The stocks are carved into a shape that supports the shooter’s cheek like a pre-formed pillow, and with a thumb rest to support the hand while the trigger finger caresses a set trigger with a pull as light as drifting eiderdown.
Not surprisingly, given Germany’s history of optical innovation, the sights eventually became as complex as the rifles themselves.
What you see here is a Haenel Original Aydt rifle fitted with a late-model optical diopter sight, made by W&H Seibert of Wetzlar, a firm famous for its microscopes, located in the center of the German optics industry.
Schützen rifles typically have three sights: Front, mid-barrel open, and a diopter on the tang. The diopter is an aperture sight. In America, the aperture was combined with the front sight to give a sight picture, but not in Europe. There, the aperture served solely to sharpen the sight picture of the mid-barrel open sight and the front bead. In Swiss matches, diopters were not allowed, and their target rifles have no provision for one. The Germans had both types of matches, and all the sights were removable, often stored in leather cases separate from the rifle, and as a result, many were lost. This is why so many Schützen rifles come up for sale with no sights at all.
But back to diopters.
Having discovered that an aperture sharpens the sight picture, German technicians set about refining them. I have no idea in what order the improvements and innovations occurred, so I’ll just list the features found on the sight shown here.
It has a rotating disk that allows the shooter a choice of aperture sizes. There is a lens inside the shaft which sharpens the picture, and this is focused by the knurled wheel. There is a lever that moves an internal amber glass filter into position, for use on overcast days. As well, the sight has a Gabel, or fork (slot), which is used for field matches with the eyecup removed. When the Gabel is in use, a gate rotates down to block the aperture.
As you can see, the sight and eyecup alone rival the most complex cuckoo clock.
I believe Seibert made just the eyecup, because it was sold separately in a small, round, but very sturdy box similar to a jeweler’s. For those who have Alte Scheibenwaffen, the multi-volume, multi-authored history of German Schützen, a catalogue entry for the Seibert eyecup can be found on page 327 of volume three.
Not surprisingly, this sight is not easy to use. In fact, combined with the other two sights, and the three-leaf double-set trigger, settling into this rifle is like trying to fit yourself into the cockpit of a Formula One car. Settling the rifle to take aim is a skill in itself, never mind actually hitting the target.
And remember, German competitors might fire a hundred shots in a day, one shot at a time over the course of many hours, during which they consumed gallons of muscular German ale. And, they turned in some scores I’d have a tough time matching with a benchrest rifle and scope.
These Herren were, indeed, a race apart.
In spite of his German name, Gray’s shooting editor makes no claim to either Teutonic precision or capacity for lager. But, he can admire them both.