The 98k was the most common firearm of Germany during WWII. It was used by all branches of the German military, in all theaters on all fronts, from the start of the war to the very end. It was in production for all of WWII and a total of 14.6 million were built.
After Germany’s surrender in 1945, numerous countries ranging from Norway to Vietnam employed the 98k for varying peiods of time. The most surprising, and one of the most prolific, users of the 98k after WWII was Israel.
(The Karabiner 98K in the form it was issued to the Wehrmacht during WWII.)
(Receiver of an IDF 98k showing WWII waffenamt, or proofmarking, and partially-defaced reichsadler (eagle-holding-swastika) alongside Israeli proofmarks.)
(Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ultimate total failure of nazi ideology than this 1967 photo of an IDF infantryman praying at the Western Wall with a 98k.)
(A 98k of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with bayonet and sling.)
The bolt-action 98k was 3’7″ long and weighed 9 lbs. It fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge from an internal stripper-loaded 5-round magazine. This round had a muzzle velocity of 2,493 fps. The 98k was accurate out to about 550 yards and had a maximum range of 1,100 yards.
(Three 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridges and the five-round stripper clip for the 98k.)
Israel had both WWII-vintage German S84/98 bayonets and a locally-manufactured version with muzzle ring. Some of the ex-German bayonets were later refurbished and had the muzzle ring added. As the 98k began to be retired from IDF service, some bayonets of both types were chrome-plated and presented as gifts to American supporters of Israel.
(The Israeli-manufactured bayonet and scabbard for the 98k.)
It is often lazily reported that the Israelis “purified” WWII-vintage 98ks by removing all German markings. This is clearly not true. There was no such regulation in the IDF, and a majority of surviving Israeli 98ks have some or all nazi-era markings. For certain some were obliterated out by their new owners, in other cases they were left intact either as a gesture of defiance, or because the individual Israeli soldier did not care one way or the other.
(The left side of the receiver on an Israeli 98k; clearly showing the reichsadler fully intact along with the original WWII serial number and post-WWII IDF proof and acceptance markings. Like almost all Israeli 98ks, this one was later rechambered to 7.62 NATO and is indicated as such.)
(This receiver has the German reichsadler defaced, but it appears to have been done with a screwdriver head and was most likely the decision of an individual Israeli soldier.)
The first Israeli 98ks – direct ex-German
In the interim between the end of WWII in 1945 and Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Europe and the middle east were awash in ex-WWII firearms. The Jewish group Haganah had begun pressing for the establishment of a homeland in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine since late 1945 / early 1946. Haganah included in it’s ranks some members of the WWII British army’s Jewish Brigade, which had fought the Germans in Italy, as well as veterans of the US Army and the French resistance. Haganah thus was fairly well-connected internationally and began clandestine acquisition of firearms, including surrendered ex-German 98ks.
(The German markings on this Israeli 98k indicate it was manufactured in Oberndorf during 1944. Note that the 6 of the Israeli rechambering warning was put directly over the WWII waffenamt. This rifle has no Czechoslovak markings and was probably a very early example in Israeli use.)
Some of these early Israeli 98ks were the “Kriegsmodell” German emergency production of late 1944 / early 1945 which are missing the stock washer, bayonet lug, and cleaning rod. The rest were the standard 98k.
(Haganah fighters in 1947. The man in the middle has a WWII German 98k; above him on the ridge his comrade has a SMLE rifle of WWII British origin.)
The Czechoslovak buy
The vast majority of Israel’s 98k inventory was obtained from Czechoslovakia, in one of history’s greatest arms-smuggling operations. In 1947, Haganah and other groups were fighting a small-scale insurgency, both against the Arabs and against the British (who as late as February 1948 had not formally announced their full withdrawal).
The Jewish effort to obtain weapons overseas was codenamed operation “Balak”. This came at a very opportune time as the communist bloc was, for a very brief period, positively inclined towards a secular Jewish state in the mid-east, which Stalin foresaw as a possible counter to the Egyptian and Jordanian monarchies, and the early Syrian nation which had (briefly) shown friendship to France and the USA. This situation seems almost unbelievable today and the window only lasted a brief while before events in the Arab world “flipped” it towards the Soviet side.
Czechoslovakia was identified as an ideal source for arms. The country was full of German WWII-era weapons, either WWII captures donated by the USSR or abandoned on Czechoslovak territory when Germany surrendered in May 1945. A large number were 98ks, which Brno Arsenal had already began to recondition in 1946. Czechoslovakia also inherited a full set of blueprints and production tooling, and briefly manufactured the 98k itself after WWII under the name vz.98N.
On 14 January 1948, a contract was signed for the delivery of 4,500 98k rifles (designated “P-18” in the contract) along with 200 ex-German MG-34 machine guns and 50.4 million rounds of ammunition. Most likely all, or almost all, of this first batch were actual ex-Wehrmacht weapons from WWII. In Czechoslovakia, the project was codenamed “DI”, the Czech-language abbreviation for “Classified, Israel”.
(An ex-German 98k reconditioned by Brno Arsenal. This weapon had originally been manufactured by Brno Arsenal itself (which the Germans called Waffenwerke Brünn during the WWII occupation). The receiver appears to have been machine-buffed to remove all of the German markings prior to transfer to Israel. The 7.62 NATO rechambering came much later.)
As for the ammunition, most or all of it was ex-German as well; as the USSR had tasked Czechoslovakia with reboxing WWII-captured 7.92x57mm Mauser ammo captured in vast quantities ranging from loose individual rounds to factory crates.
Getting the weapons to British Palestine was another problem. On the night of 31 March 1948, a WWII-surplus C-54 Skymaster evaded Yugoslav customs in Europe and the RAF in Palestine, and landed 200 98ks, 40 MG-34s, and thousands of rounds of ammo at a field near what is today Beit Daras, Israel. On 2 April 1945, the rest of the initial batch (4,300 98ks and several tons of ammunition) arrived at Haifa aboard the merchant ship Nora. The rifles were hidden beneath pungent onions and slipped past British customs. The payment was done through a network of banks in New York City, London, and Prague.
(Female Israeli soldiers in formation with 98k rifles from the Czechoslovak buy.)
An option on the contract was exercised and shipments of 98ks continued after Israel became independent on 14 May 1948. While this eased the delivery problem a bit, it was still challenging as Czechoslovakia was landlocked and pretending to abide by a UN arms embargo against all sides in the middle east. In all, about 34,000 98ks were imported by the time the effort was terminated at the end of October 1948.
(An Israeli 98k by way of Czechoslovakia. This example shows the “winter” enlarged trigger guard.)
Israel’s later 98k batches were Czechoslovak postwar-manufactured vz.98Ns, which differed from a WWII-veteran 98k in that the internal magazine was stamped steel and did not have a detachable floorplate. The vz.98N used the 98k’s “winter” trigger guard which was larger to allow a gloved finger. The bolt stop-screws were deleted, and beechwood was used for the stock. Obviously there are no German markings; instead the receiver has a large rampant lion; the emblem of Czechoslovakia. All of these changes are not constant throughout the vz.98N’s production run, as Brno used up WWII-manufactured German parts before making their own.
(Side and top views of the Czechoslovak insignia on a new-build vz.98N provided to Israel. These were originally white, as was the later Israeli 7.62 NATO rechambering warning; the rifle was possibly reblued still later in Israeli service.)
(This Israeli vz.98N is interesting as it still has a German WWII-style factory code (dou, for Bystrica Arsenal in occupied Czechoslovakia) and the year 1945, but lacks any German proof or acceptance marks; nor does it have the Czechoslovak lion. It’s likely that the receiver was manufactured just before Germany surrendered and was later used by Brno to make a complete rifle immediately after the war.)
(Left side of the ejector port showing the manufacturer and on the receiver, the Israeli proof and acceptance marks.)
In 1939, just before the start of WWII, Sweden purchased 5,000 98k rifles from Germany. They were designated m/39 and were issued to heavy machine gun teams as a backup weapon. For whatever reason, the Swedish army did not like the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge and several months after the 98k buy, they were rechambered to the 8.2x63mm Patron m/32 cartridge. This round was similar length but with the casing bottlenecked up to a much bigger (12.2mm) diameter, resulting in an extremely powerful cartridge with very high muzzle velocity on the bullet.
The rechambered rifles were designated Gevår m/40. Sweden intended that they might give infantrymen a chance against tankettes, which had been in vogue in the 1930s and were (erroneously) predicted to play a major role in future wars.
(The hated Gevår m/40 in it’s original form, with muzzle brake.)
The m/40 was not successful. The recoil was massive; beyond being painful it was actually causing collarbone and shoulder injuries. A muzzle brake was installed to rein in the kick but it was still stout; similar to a .300 Magnum. The muzzle brake (which often cracked) added a new problem in that the report of each shot was partially concentrated back towards the soldier, causing hearing injuries. It also left a telltale “puff” looking back from downrange. The m/40’s front sight was a clever graduated blade operated by a thumbwheel, but unfortunately it tended to freeze up in the arctic. Because of the new cartridge’s size, only four could safely be loaded. However there was no mechanical stop and the soldier had to remember not to put five in the stripper.
After WWII, Sweden wanted to get rid of the hated m/40 and found a willing customer in Israel, which bought a few thousand after the 1948 War of Independence. In the early 1950s, these were mostly allocated for reserve units, or kibbutz self-defense. The m/40s were among the first candidates for rechambering in the late 1950s. Besides the caliber change, the front sight was changed to a normal 98k style, the muzzle brake eliminated, and the bayonet boss changed to accept the German design or it’s Israeli facsimile. After the rechambering, the ex-Swedish rifles were pretty much the same as a regular 98k and were not specially designated by the Israelis.
(A Swedish-origin Israeli 98k, formerly m/40, after it had been converted to the normal configuration and rechambered to 7.62 NATO ammunition.)
Some of the ex-Swedish Israeli 98ks had a “SS” stamp on the receiver. This was the Sten Stenmo inspection mark and has nothing to do with the Waffen-SS. No Swedish 98k had any sort of German markings.
These were a less common type of the initial Israeli 98k batches. In the late 1940s, Israel quietly negotiated the purchase of some Ethiopian weapons. Designated M30, these had originally been bought by Ethiopia from FN during the mid-1930s. A commercial FN design marketed as the Mle.1924, the M30 rifles fired the standard German 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge and were essentially identical to a Wehrmacht 98k except for being a bit shorter, having a different bolt handle, and some other changes. This particular model was also used by the Liberian army during WWII. During WWII the M30s served the Ethiopian army alongside some older FM-manufactured Mauser rifles, and a smaller number of M33s which were actual German 98ks. After Ethiopia was liberated a number of M30s and M33s returned to army use for a short while.
(An Ethiopian-origin 98k of the IDF, after it had been rechambered to 7.62 NATO.)
The Ethiopian M30 rifles were marked with Emperor Haile Selassie’s crest atop the receiver. This was left intact by the Israelis however standard IDF acceptance proofmarks were added. They are certainly an interesting type; a German design manufactured in Belgium for Ethiopia used by Israel.
When Israel rechambered it’s German-, Swedish-, and Czechoslovak-made 98ks to 7.62mm NATO, some of the Ethiopian guns were likewise rechambered.
The Belgian buy
In 1950, Israel opened negotiations with the Belgian arms maker Fabrique Nationale (FN) to produce more 98ks. FN had already produced a similar rifle for Morocco after WWII. The FN-made 98ks for Israel used no German parts; everything (including the production machinery) was new. They differ in that they were made for 7.62mm NATO from the start. (They still have the “7.62” stamp to prevent confusion). The FN-made 98ks did not have a cleaning rod channel.
(Top of a FN-produced 98k of the Israeli military.)
Obviously as post-WWII production they don’t have any WWII German markings, instead they have the IDF’s emblem on the receiver.
Israel’s FN buy was not large, all were made in 1952 and delivered then or in early 1953. Ironically, these 98ks were among the first military rifles in the world chambered for 7.62mm NATO (the NATO alliance did not formally adopt it until 1954; at the time it was called Cartridge T65).
(The FN production was made for 7.62 NATO ammunition from the start. The Hebrew markings above the serial number are the letters tsadik and nunn. The letter tsadik is the first letter in Tsahal (literally translated as “The IDF”) and nunn is the first letter in nizdak (“checked”) so the marking means “IDF Inspected”.)
As they were the newest, the FN-made 98ks were the preferred type in Israel.
The FN 98k training rifle
At the same time the main order with FN was placed, Israel bought 1,000 of a single-shot training version chambered for inexpensive .22LR rimfire ammunition. These were not rebuilds or factory modifications, but rather built new expressly for the purpose. They were centered around a generic single-shot Mauser platform, and do not have complete spare parts commonality with FN’s 7.62mm NATO 98ks.
(An Israeli .22LR training 98k.)
The Israeli .22LR training 98ks remained in use until the mid-1970s. They are today exceedingly rare and valuable. They have often been copied, using civilian Remington .22LR barrels and parts with Israeli 98k stocks and/or fake Israeli stampings, sometimes on FN-manufactured South African .22LR 98k versions.
The IDF’s logistics had, throughout the 98k’s service in Israel, cycled through 91.5 million rounds of 7.92x57mm ammunition (obviously not all at once). This was a mixture of reboxed WWII German-manufactured rounds, postwar Czechoslovak-manufactured rounds, and Israeli production.
(Headstamp of an Israeli-made 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge of the 1951 production run.)
(Israel also designed and manufactured this 98k adjustment tool as almost all of the German ones had been lost.)
In 1954 Israel was looking to re-equip it’s frontline units with the then-new FN FAL assault rifle which used the 7.62 NATO round. This presented a dilemma as the country still had thousands of 98k rifles and millions of 7.92x57mm Mauser rounds on hand. It could either maintain a parallel logistics system, or rechamber the 98ks to the new round. The latter option was selected.
(The 7.62mm NATO centerfire rifle cartridge.)
In 1949, Israel had secretly obtained an entire production line’s worth of tooling for 98k rifles. It is not known how or from where this was obtained. In 1950 Israel actually test-produced a few completely new 98k rifles but it was grossly unprofitable and the idea was dropped. The mothballed machinery did however come in quite handy later for the rechambering project, which began in 1956 and was in full gear by 1958. As Israel’s budget for the effort was limited, it was very gradual, and was not completed until after the Yom Kippur War by which time the 98k was already largely phased out anyways. By the program’s completion, the entire Israeli inventory had been rechambered.
Because of the larger round, only four could fit into the magazine. The rechambered guns had a new Israeli-manufactured barrel, a new internal magazine with a different follower design, and a new front sight due to the 7.62 NATO’s different ballistics. As the rechamberings were done, the 98ks were disassembled and cleaned. Basically each lot was broken down into it’s lowest level, and then parts were drawn from a pile to reassemble rifles. As such, almost no rechambered Israeli 98k has matching serial numbers and in fact, a 7.62mm 98k with matching numbers and Israeli markings is considered a fake by most of today’s firearms collectors. If the stocks were in bad shape, they were replaced by Israeli-made beechwood stocks (similar to the Czechoslovak-made guns), and these can be identified by a unique front banding strap made in Israel.
(A rechambered Israeli 98k which also received a new stock.)
All Israeli rechambered 98ks had a large “7.62” stamp on the receiver to warn the soldier of the safe ammunition type. Most also had “7.62” burned into the buttstock so they could be identified on an armorer’s rack. Finally they were proof-fired, as such most Israeli 98ks have two Hebrew proof markings today; one from the 1940s/1950s and the other after the rechambering.
(A rechambered Israeli 98k showing the 7.62 warning burned into the stock.)
Israeli 98k in combat
Israeli War of Independence (1948)
This war lasted from 15 May 1948 (the day after Israel declared independence) until 10 March 1949. The 98k was one of the main Israeli firearms of the conflict. They were a mix of Haganah’s stockpile and the first batches of the Czechoslovak order, and served alongside a wide variety of WWII-era (and even pre-WWII) rifle designs; including the Canadian .303 Ross, American M1 Garand, various models of the British Enfield family, and Soviet Mosin-Nagant.
(Ex-Haganah fighters in 1948, armed with 98k rifles and wearing WWII British Mk.II Tommy helmets.)
During this war, the Egyptian, Transjordanian, and Syrian forces were themselves equipped with castoff WWII weaponry. Egypt mainly used Enfields, the Jordanians M-1 carbines and Enfields, and the Syrians the MAS-36. In each case the 98k was an equal match.
(The Israel Defense Force (IDF) in 1948, it’s first year of existence. The soldiers are armed with WWII German 98k rifles, and wear M1 steel pot helmets of WWII American origin and web belts of WWII British origin. These combinations were not uncommon in the IDF’s first desperate months.)
After the end of the war, Israel was already starting to acquire western-made weapons and some of the 98ks were sent to reservist units or to kibbutzes as self-defense guns.
The Suez Campaign (1956)
The 98k saw only limited use during Israel’s involvement in this brief conflict.
(Female IDF reservists pose with 98k rifles in 1954, about a year and a half before the Suez Campaign. The Mk.II Tommy helmet was still in use, at least with reserve units.
(IDF rear-echelon troops dig in following the ceasefire which ended the Suez conflict. The soldier in the foreground has a 98k.)
The Six-Day War (1967)
By the time of this war, the FN FAL was already the main firearm of the IDF, backed up by the Uzi submachine gun. None the less, the 98k saw significant use. By this point a majority had been rechambered to 7.62 NATO, but there were still a few using the original Mauser round in service.
(A 7.62 NATO-rechambered 98k used by Israel in 1967.)
(IDF soldiers in a WWII-veteran M3 half-track ride into battle in 1967 carrying 98k rifles. Leading the way are M50 Super Sherman tanks, an upgrade of the WWII M4 Sherman.)
The Arab opposition had largely standardized on the AK-47 and SKS, putting the bolt-action 98k at a disadvantage. It was mostly used by the second wave of called-up reservists. None the less, it’s accuracy, range, and stopping power was useful and it gave good use.
(IDF infantry with 98k rifles in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula during the Six Day War.)
(Israeli soldiers with 98k rifles in Jerusalem during the Six Day War, when the West Bank was captured from Jordan.)
The Egyptian army, in addition to the Soviet-made weapons, fielded the Hakim rifle, a semi-automatic design with a 10-round magazine. Ironically, the Cold War-era Hakim used the WWII-era 7.92x57mm Mauser round, whereas the WWII-design Israeli 98ks were now using the Cold War-era 7.62 NATO.
The Yom Kippur War (1973)
This was the last use of the 98k by Israel. The main units of the IDF had not only long since converted to the FN FAL, but were already using the Galil assault rifle. By this time, almost all had been rechambered to 7.62 NATO. The 98k was only used by reservist LOC (lines-of-communication) units; rear-area troops not expected to see the heaviest fighting but still in need of a rifle. Some infantry units also had one as a designated marksman’s weapon.
(One of Israel’s last niche uses of the bolt-action 98k was as a rifle grenade launcher.)
Israel obsoleted the 98k in the late 1970s and by 1980 they were being sold as surplus. The civilian Israel Police (the small country has a unified department) still had some in inventory up until the turn of the millennium.
As they were phased out of IDF use, Israeli 98ks ended up on the other side of the world in Guatemala. Israel has traditionally had good relations with Guatemala. The Central American country cast the deciding vote to admit Israel to the UN, and Israel has reciprocated by granting favorable arms sales terms.
Guatemala had previously used similar mauser-type bolt-action rifles, the Czechoslovak vz.24 and the M33; both obtained before WWII. Additionally, a few hundred ex-Wehrmacht 98ks from Czechoslovakia, routed through Poland, were delivered to Guatemala aboard the freighter Alfhem in May 1954 during a period when a left-wing government was ruling Guatemala. These long-warehoused 98ks were primarily used as a “paperwork cover” for the vast majority of the shipment which was actually modern mortars, anti-tank rockets, and heavy machine guns. The CIA briefly considered sending a commando team to Guatemala to blow up the Alfhem before it could be unloaded.
(A Guatemalan army officer with a 98k in the late 1950s.)
The Israeli 98ks were delivered in three batches. The first was during the late 1950s, as the introduction of the FN FAL into the IDF freed up some excess WWII-era firearms. Another small batch came after 1967, when the USA’s Congress capped military exports to all of Central America at $75 million. Guatemala evaded this by classifying the 98k as a “police weapon” eligible for American financial aid to pay Israel.
The third, and much larger, batch came later. In 1977 the USA (Guatemala’s main arms supplier) placed a weapons embargo on the country. Israel stepped in and sold some guns, including 7.62 NATO-rechambered 98ks. The shipments during the embargo were “two-tier”, consisting mainly of modern Galil assault rifles to replace Guatemala’s WWII-vintage M1 Garands in frontline units, and lesser numbers of rechambered 98ks which would then join the M1 Garands in second-line and militia units.
Israel’s arms trade with Guatemala during this period was quite heavy, and included UH-1 Iroquois helicopters and Arava transport planes. In the worldwide arms black market community, Israelis were known to have a rolling lease on a block of rooms in the Cortijo Reforma Hotel in Guatemala City (across the street from the Guatemalan army’s GHQ). The sales became public knowledge in June 1977, when an Argentine-registered airplane was searched in Barbados and found to have Israeli-marked 98k rifles onboard, destined for Guatemala.
The rechambered 98k came at a good time financially for Guatemala, as the USA was in the last stages of the M14-to-M16 switch, and much of the rest of the western world was changing to 5.56 NATO. There was a good amount of 7.62 NATO ammunition floating cheaply in the international market.
(The fairly remarkable receiver exterior on an ex-Israeli Guatemalan 98k. The “147” is the WWII German factory code for Sauer & Sohn in Suhl, and it was made in 1940. It has the original German serial number, an obliterated waffenamt, and two sets of Israeli proof & acceptance marks, plus the 7.62 NATO warning, and finally a Guatemalan serial. This gun is now with a private collector in the USA.)
Export of Israeli 98k rifles to Guatemala came to the American general public’s attention on 22 December 1983, when US Customs officials in Ft Lauderdale, FL discovered four Guatemala-bound shipping containers with 12,000 98ks aboard the freighter New Orleans which was owned by the Israeli shipping company ZIM. The containers were registered to Eagle Exports of Ashdod, Israel and described as “General Cargo”. After some deliberation (and likely input from the Reagan administration) the New Orleans was sent on it’s way and the matter quietly dropped. This was likely the last major batch of Israeli 98ks sent to Guatemala, as the huge quantity likely represented the remainder of the IDF’s warehoused inventory.
The 98k served in Guatemala through the 1980s. Some were later re-routed to the Contra rebels fighting the communist government in Nicaragua. Many of the Israeli-rechambered 98k rifles in civilian collections in the USA are actually via Guatemala, which phased them out in the late 1990s. Despite their interesting history, these are less-favored as the humid jungles of Central America left most of them in poor condition.