The .30-06 Springfield cartridge wasn’t created out of thin air, just like the rifle for which it was created. The 1903 Springfield rifle was essentially a modified small-ring Mauser, developed in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War after US forces had found themselves incredibly outgunned by Spanish Mauser-armed forces. The .30-06 Springfield cartridge was essentially a scaled-up version of the 7x57mm Mauser cartridge fired by those Mausers. And that cartridge was itself based on the granddaddy of many a rifle cartridge today, the 8x57mm Mauser cartridge.
Despite the Mauser name, the 8x57mm cartridge was not a Mauser development, nor was the rifle for which it was developed a Mauser rifle. The cartridge was developed by the German rifle testing commission that had been tasked with coming up with a response to the French Army’s Lebel rifle and its radical new smokeless powder cartridge. The cartridge, known as the m/88, featured a 226-grain roundnose bullet traveling at about 2,060 feet per second. The rifle for which the cartridge was created, the Gewehr 88 or Commission Rifle, was also not a Mauser development, incorporating elements of several different rifle designs and forming the basis for the later development of various Mannlicher and Mannlicher-Schoenauer pattern rifles.
Like many cartridges developed before the advent of spitzer bullets, the 8x57mm Mauser was eventually upgraded with pointed bullets. That update, in 1903, saw the introduction of a 153-grain spitzer bullet traveling at nearly 2,850 feet per second. That was a velocity increase of nearly 40% and an energy increase of nearly 30%. Existing rifles had their throats re-cut to allow for the proper use of the new S-Patrone, which featured a bullet diameter of .323” versus the .318” bullet diameter of the m/88 cartridge. Because of the new chambering and the acquisition of Mauser 98 rifles for the German army, the cartridge began to be known as the 8mm Mauser.
Because many civilian firearms chambered for the older m/88 cartridge continued to be chambered to accept the smaller bullet of the m/88, this led to two different chamber designations for rifles chambered in 8mm Mauser. Those designated 8x57J (or in Europe 8x57I) are designed to fire the older cartridges with the .318”-diameter bullets. Those designated 8x57JS (or 8x57IS) are designed to fire the newer cartridges with the .323”-diameter bullets.
Bullet weights for the 8mm Mauser vary from the 125-grain bullets used in the 8x33mm Kurz to 250-grain bullets intended for heavy game. Most surplus ammunition features bullets weighing either 154 grains or 196 to 198 grains. The lighter bullets tend to leave the muzzle at around 2,650-2,700 feet per second, while the heavier bullets tend to travel at 2,500 feet per second. Recoil can be stout, especially in military rifles with steel buttplates. Commercial ammunition produced in the United States is often downloaded to 35,000 PSI pressure levels and loaded with .321” diameter bullets in deference to the different bore and chamber dimensions that many American shooters with older 8mm rifles may not be aware of.
The 8mm Mauser is a perfectly adequate cartridge for hunting just about any game animal in North America, and is a proven man-stopper as well. It is essentially the European equivalent of .30-06. And the 8mm Mauser case has proven to be one of the most popular for wildcatting and development of new commercial cartridges. A whole host of cartridges share the same case head and cartridge base measurements as the 8mm Mauser, including .30-06, 7.62x51mm NATO, .338-06, .280 Remington, etc.
While cheap surplus ammunition may not be as readily available as it once was, it is still out there. Commercial ammunition remains available too, both from European and American producers. While 8mm Mauser may not be quite as available on store shelves as .30-06, it’s still able to be found in most places. And if you’re looking for a hunting rifle cartridge that can double for self-defense, you could certainly do worse than 8mm Mauser.