By Sam Pikula
Military sniper rifles have always commanded a special place of fascination among small arms enthusiasts and collectors for a number of reasons. First of all, the number of true sniping rifles has always been very small in relation to other standard issue military weapons and this scarcity has made them rather rare. Another reason is that these rifles often represented the pinnacle of small arms achievement for a particular army or period. Quite simply they were the best that could be manufactured at the time. Finally, there has always been a mystique surrounding snipers, their rifles, and the legendary “one shot one kill”. Most of us are in awe at the amount of skill, discipline, and courage it takes to be a true sniper. Of the scores of military surplus weapons I’ve owned over the years the one that intrigued me most was a very well used and somewhat beat up No. 1 Mark IV T .303 Enfield Sniper that had obviously seen a lot of action. Yes, new in the box M1 C and D sniper rifles have their charm, but if you want a sniper rifle with character, it must be one that was used for real.
At the last International Waffen Exposition in Nurnburg, Germany (IWA for short) I saw a rifle at Springfield Armory’s exhibit that really turned my head. Springfield had made a purchase from the Israeli government of 90 Mauser M-66 SP sniper rifles in 7.62 NATO. OK, I’m not a big bolt gun guy-I mean manually operated weapons don’t usually do much for me, but this was no ordinary bolt action. You see, all of these rifles were actually used in frontline service by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and had character oozing from every pore. Once back in the States I contacted Springfield Armory and arranged for one to be delivered to me for testing.
In about a month the rifle arrived and I promptly gave it a thorough inspection. Like the one I saw at IWA Show, I would rate this specimen in “Very Good +” condition. All of the steel parts were Parkerized and only the sharp contours displayed any wear. As expected, the walnut stock had the usual dings, scratches, scuffs, and scrapes that occur through normal use, but none were extraordinary. In actuality, any rifle that was used for 19 years by the Israeli Army and is still in good shape is almost a minor miracle. I had the opportunity to spend some time in the mid-80’s with the IDF and it was an eye opening experience. I mean the Israeli Army is extremely hard on their weapons. I’ve seen mech infantry troops on top of M-113 armored personnel carriers throw their rucksacks to the ground and toss their Galils right after them. I once asked an Israeli platoon sergeant how he liked the CAR-15 he was carrying and he replied, “I don’t-it won’t work unless you clean it”.
The Springfield representative at the IWA pointed out that all of the Star of David acceptance stamps had been ground off the weapon prior to their leaving Israel and the one I held was also sans IDF proofs. Curiously, my Israeli rebuilt 98k Mauser in 7.62 NATO that I got long ago was released with all the Israeli proofs still on it (although every swastika was understandably effaced).
The Mauser M-66 SP, or what Springfield Armory calls the “IDF Mauser M-66 SP” is a big heavy gun. I mean at 13.5 pounds with an overall length of 46.5 inches it ain’t buckets of fun packing this piece around in the bush- although I learned long ago just about anything is portable when enough willpower is applied, and “fun” is often a matter of perspective. When I first glanced at the IDF M-66 SP in Nurnburg, I deduced how the Israeli’s employed this weapon and a subsequent conversation with Springfield Armory President Tom Reese confirmed it. These rifles were set up in bunkers and static positions on Israel’s borders in places such as the Golan Heights and Gaza Strip. There was no need to pack them around so weight wasn’t a problem. What did matter is accuracy and I can say that it is one damn accurate rifle, but more of that later.
As a design the M-66 SP, like many sniper rifles traces its roots to a civilian sporting rifle. The action was designed in the 1950’s by Walter Gehman, world record setting German “Master Shooter”, expert ballistician, and small arms engineer. Mauser put Gehman’s creation, known in Germany as the “Gehman-Short Action” into production in 1965. In 1971, German police, like many other law enforcement organizations at the time, began to search for weapons, create tactics, and form units to fight terrorism. The bloody attack by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics caused Mauser to design a precision sniping version of the M-66. After eight years of development the weapon was ready to be put into production and was designated as the “SP” variant of the M-66. All M-66 SP rifles had to group five shots in a two-centimeter diameter group at 100 meters. Only 360 of these rifles were produced with almost all of them being manufactured in 1980. Mauser suspended production of all M-66 rifles in 1995.
The M-66 SP sports a 24.5” barrel with the last three inches composed of a rather beefy muzzle brake/flash hider. The cold forged chromium vanadium barrel is heavy and free floating-like one would expect from such a rifle and has a 1 in 12, four groove, right hand twist. The bore was in outstanding condition- a round mirror from throat to crown. The muzzle brake has ten vertical slots, five on each side with a transverse slot just behind the exit hole angled rearward at 45 degrees, and is serial numbered to the gun. I can’t imagine why a group of snipers or armorers would get together and decide to remove their muzzle brakes and mix them up, but then again more inane things than that have occurred.
The thumbhole walnut stock is massive. As stated earlier, these guns were built by Mauser in 1980- not all that long ago to preclude the use of a synthetic stock. There is a bit of gunsmith wisdom that goes, “the tree is not dead until it is burned”. Apparently to avoid some of the problems with impact shift and warpage the good folks at Oberndorf decided to make the stocks oversized to compensate. There is a large spring-loaded adjustable cheek piece that is held in place by a large set bolt. The adjustable cheek piece is a moot point as the rifle is most comfortable when locked all the way down. At one time there was sharp stippling in the forearm and pistol grip area reminiscent of that found on some Olympic target rifles, but has been smoothed out from use. The free- floating action is held in the stock with three large hex bolts. The sporting versions of the M-66 have barrels that are easily removable and interchangeable with no other tool than an Allen wrench. The SP model however, was not designed with this feature and I didn’t even contemplate trying to lift the action.
The action is well, different-not bad by any means, just different . Yeah, it’s a Mauser, but it’s greatly removed from the Model 98. It still uses the venerable two front locking lugs found on most bolt guns, however the bolt is guided on the receiver by a sleeve which in turn moves back and forth when the action is worked. Bolt length is short, just over five inches, and the bolt travel is four and a quarter inches. I would rate the action as being smoother and the lock time quicker than that of a standard 98k, M1903 Springfield, or the current M-24. The safety is located on the right rear of the bolt and is easy to manipulate. Pushing it rearward makes the weapon safe and the opposite motion enables it to fire. There is no bridge on the rear of the receiver, nothing at all like you’d find on a 98’. Since there’s no bridge the ejector is a spring-loaded plunger in the bolt ala’ the M-1 Garand or M-24. The bolt handle is the safety lug as it fits down into a notch in the right side of the receiver when the rifle is in battery. To remove the bolt you lift up on the bolt handle, press down on a stamped button on the right side of action, and remove the bolt and sleeve. That’s it. Assembly is in reverse order.
While we’re on the subject of the action, I should mention that the M-66 SP only holds three rounds of 7.62 NATO. In order to increase rigidity in the stock a blind magazine is used. I’ve never owned a centerfire rifle that held so few rounds but I guess if you’re one of those guys that grabbed the pebble from the Master’s palm on the first try and are really into the Zen of the one shot hit, then three rounds is probably enough.
But what’s a sniper rifle without a good scope? The IDF Mauser comes with a really top of the line glass: a Swarovski 6X42 MM with a 200-1000 meter range finding scale in the field of view somewhat like you find on a SVD PSO-1 scope, but much simpler. The crosshairs are the traditional Teutonic design of a heavy cross hair at the 3,6, and 9 o’clock position, and thin crosshairs in the middle and at 12 o’clock. This is a really nice tube and the clarity is like looking through clean mountain air on a cold day. The elevation drum at the top has positions on it corresponding to the range scale on the reticle, and has “M118” engraved on it so there was no mystery as to the kind of ammo it was designed for. The objective bell of the scope is sheathed in a thick rubber jacket to help protect the piece from the inevitable dings and bangs that are drawn to any precision instrument designed for troops. The scope tube itself is standard European in diameter- 30 MM. The scope rings and mounts are solid steel, extremely beefy, and appear to be just about bulletproof. My only complaint about the sighting system is that there are no emergency iron sights.
To test the rifle I grabbed a bucket full of match ammo and went to one of the premier ranges in the southwest, the Rio Salado Sportsman’s Club in Mesa, Arizona. Due to time constraints I was only able to set up on the main range that goes out to 335 yards, but that was enough distance to see what the rifle is capable of. Starting out at 100 yards and dipping into my stock of M118 Lake City Match I was able to get three shot groups that measured just under an inch. Yeah I know, not spectacular as even my SVD can beat that. Switching to Federal Gold Medal Match though, brought much better results. Groups began running from just one-half to three-quarters of an inch. Usually two shots would pair into one hole and the third would break formation a quarter or half-inch away. A lot of this was due to the wind picking up and starting to gust at 10-20 knots as the morning wore on. Just for the heck of it I threw some standard Austrian military ball down the barrel and my groups still weren’t much larger than an inch.
Once I got the rifle dialed in, no target on the range was safe from a one shot hit. Of course, all shooting was done from the bench so the credit belongs to the rifle and not to me. At two hundred yards the rifle easily got center head hits on a pepper popper. A ten- inch hanging steel plate at three hundred yards was easy prey. The furthest target at 335 yards, a life size, self resetting, steel prairie dog, had the snot knocked out of it (OK, I did miss a couple of times-my fault not the guns). The M-66 SP’s excellent three and half pound trigger pull was also a large factor in achieving this accuracy. During the test, I fired a tad over 100 rounds and as expected encountered no difficulties. At each ten shot interval I ran a brush dipped in solvent and five or six patches down the barrel to clean it out. I didn’t detect any difference in group size after these cleanings, but a rifle like this should be given a little extra attention.
It should be no surprise that I heartily recommend and endorse this rifle. In fact, after shooting this sucker I did what no gunwriter should do if he wants to turn a buck in this business-I bought the test rifle. This is a once in a lifetime chance to own a real piece of history that can also be taken to the range and shot without guilt. Of the 360 SP’s that Mauser produced only 100 went to Israel.
Now if you absolutely can’t live with a bolt gun or would like to have a really awesome collection of IDF sniper rifles, Springfield has also imported the parts sets from the 600 M-14 sniper rifles the IDF also used in combat and assembled them on their excellent M1-A receivers. In 1984 I was with IDF for a short time in South Lebanon at Beaufort Castle and saw one of these M-14’s in the hands of an IDF sniper. Like the M-66 SP, these IDF M-14/M1A’s are also special guns. The Israeli’s built up the cheek piece on the wooden stock and added a rubber recoil pad. They also added a steel scope mount that held a 6X40 Israeli “Nimrod” scope and fitted the weapon with a Harris bipod. Springfield offers the same rifle with an AN/PVS-2 night vision scope. Price of the IDF Mauser M-66 SP is $2225.00 retail with the IDF M-14/Nimrod scope going for $1875.00 and $2229.00 for one with an AN/PVS-2 night vision scope. For more information contact Springfield, Inc., 420 West Main St., Geneseo, IL, 61254 telephone 309-944-5631.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N1 (October 2000)|