Between 1871 and 1898, the Germans issued four different bolt action rifles. It started with Mauser's seminal Gew. 71, an 11mm black-powder cartridge breechloader. This rifle was standard issue to the armies of the newly unified Germany for thirteen years, when it was replaced by the Gew. 71/84; essentially the same weapon, but with the addition of a tubular magazine below the barrel. After the shock of the French Lebel, the Germans put the Gewehr Prufungs Kommission (Rifle Testing Commission) at the Spandau Arsenal to work designing a new rifle. Initially, it was suggested to just rework the existing 71/84 to a smaller-caliber smokeless round, but this was overridden by a desire to get a quantum leap ahead of the French and their tubular magazine Lebel.
Mauser wasn't consulted, due to the fact that the contracts he had with the Ottoman Empire contained stipulations that any new rifles he made for Germany would also be used to fill the balance of open orders he had with the Turks. Bereft of the country's premier rifle designer, the committe went to work, and produced a result in a surprisingly short time.
The committee-designed weapon was a hodgepodge of Mannlicher, Mauser, and other odds & sods. It had a Mauser-esque safety and trigger allied to a new bolt, a magazine system so like that designed by Ferdinand Mannlicher that the Germans lost a patent infringment lawsuit to Steyr, and was most notable for its bizzare tubular sheet steel barrel sleeve that was intended to keep accuracy from being affected by stock warps or swells, while still giving a soldier something to grasp during bayonet work that wouldn't burn his hand. The new arm went into service in 1888 as the Gew. 88, but is better known to us as the "Commission Rifle."
LEFT: The distinctive sheet steel barrel shroud of the Gew.88. Photo by Oleg Volk.
RIGHT: The wing safety was a more-or-less direct copy of Paul Mauser's designs. Photo by Oleg Volk.
Paul Mauser took der Vaterland's acceptance of a non-Mauser rifle as a personal snub and set to work designing a series of rifles that eclipsed it entirely. The culmination of the resulting evolutionary tree was the Gew. 98, which replaced the Commission Rifle after the latter had only been in use for ten years, and is regarded by some (including your humble scribe) to be the pinnacle of the era of the military bolt-action rifle.
Ironically, the Gew. 88's major combat debut with the German armed forces took place after it had already been replaced as the standard rifle by Mauser's Gew.98. German naval infantry in China during the Boxer Rebellion were largely equipped with the Commission Rifle. In an interesting twist, its commercial success made it one of the most common rifles used by their Chinese opponents as well. With the coming of the Gew.98 and its faster spitzer bullet, many old Gew.88s were refurbished to use the new rounds and the stripper clip loading system that came with them. The converted weapons, known as Gewehr 1888/05s, could be identified by the stripper clip guides affixed to the rear of the receiver, the sheet metal block closing off the old clip ejection port on the bottom of the magazine, a notch machined in the receiver ring to clear the longer pointed noses of the new rounds as they were loaded, and an "S" marked above the rifle's chamber. Thus modified, they soldiered on well into WWI, long after their obsolescence.
RIGHT: Detail of the Gew.88/05's magazine floorplate, showing the sheet metal cover closing off the old clip ejection port. This was a major improvement, as the old Mannlicher system could introduce dirt into the magazine when the firer went prone. Photo by Oleg Volk.
LEFT: This rifle, originally made at the Danzig government arsenal in 1890, shows the signs of being upgraded to the 1888/05 standard. Visible are the notch for clearance of spitzer bullets and the "S" mark showing that the rifle had been altered to use the newer round. Photo by Oleg Volk.
Commission Rifles were the red-headed stepchild of German rifle collecting for many years, selling for not much over $100 as recently as four or five years ago, and they're still cheap compared to their more famous Mauser brethren. As has everything else in the world, however, they've become more expensive than yesterday, and a really nice Gew. 88 can set you back more than three hundred dollars now. (As a friend commented: "They're actually wanting money for Commission Rifles these days!") Still, no collection of German military rifles is really complete without at least one example of the only non-Mauser rifle that country issued for almost seventy-five years.
(PS: I am going to avoid getting into the arcana of "J-bore" versus "S-bore" rifles, handloads, pressure levels, lengthened throats, rebarrellings, and whatnot, and say that before you decide to shoot your Commission Rifle, you should have it checked over (complete with chamber casting) by a competent gunsmith. Don't believe what the Jerries may have stamped on it under wartime duress; the eyesight you save may be your own.)