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Steyr Zephyr .22 LR

By Keith Mitchell
  •   24th Sep, 2020 Sep 24, 2020, 11:34 AM
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Some firearms are icons for shooters and collectors. One that definitely fits that category is the Mannlicher-Schönauer - particularly the carbine. Virtually anyone who knows anything about firearms will recognize a M-S carbine with its short barrel, full-length stock and double-set triggers. The little carbines, and the longer half-stock rifle versions, have been used to hunt game animals in all parts of the world.

 

According to my research, the Austrian firm Steyr produced approximately 140,000 Mannlicher-Schönauer sporting rifles over a period of around 70 years beginning in 1900. This total was estimated by digging out hundreds of serial numbers from numerous sources, and is divided into about 80,000 pre-Second World War, and 60,000 post-war rifles.

 

Many famous hunters and personalities have owned and used Mannlichers. This, coupled with the beauty and quality of their design, has created serious interest among collectors and today nice examples command high prices - good old “supply and demand” in action.

 

“NZGUNS contributing writer John Dyer visited the Steyr works thirty years ago and was told that the Zephyr was produced as a way of promoting the centrefire Mannlichers...”

 

Supply and demand certainly figure strongly in the “spin-off” rimfire version, the Steyr “Zephyr”. This is because in the period from 1953, when the first examples were manufactured, until 1968 when production ended, the “Blue Book of Gun Values” tells us that only 3,913 were made.

 

Serious Mannlicher collectors must have a Zephyr rimfire to complement their centrefires, and with only 3,913 in existence, many collectors are going to miss out. To labour the point, if we divide 3,913 by the 16 years the Zephyr was in production, we get 244 made on average per year.

 

If we assume that the Steyr factory workers had a five-day week and took the minimum statutory holidays, they averaged only one Zephyr per day. However of course, the Zephyrs would have been made in batches rather than just one per day.

 

A superb example of a Steyr Zephyr carbine, serial number 1850 which places it in the 1960 production year. It is complete with a Kahles 4x22 scope. (Photo published with permission from Joh. Springer’s Erben Auctions, Vienna.)

 

Six prototype Steyr .22s are known. The first numbered “1A” and dated 1952, was finished in a plain half-stock form with rather hideous grooves in the pistol grip and fore-end in lieu of chequering – fortunately, this embellishment was not used in production. Number 1A is kept in the Steyr factory collection.

 

It seems that Steyr didn’t really get into gear producing the Zephyr until they received their first substantial order from Stoeger, a major American importer of European firearms. Out here in New Zealand, Stoeger is best known for its “Shooter’s Bible” annual catalogue. Generations of kids (and adults) have stared longingly at the firearms illustrated within, and wished...

  

Stoeger’s 1958 “Shooter’s Bible” states: “A completely new replica of the world famous Mannlicher Schoenauer Carbine has now been developed by the Steyr factory chambered for the .22 long rifle cartridge.

 

“Out here in New Zealand, Stoeger is best known for its “Shooter’s Bible” annual catalogue. Generations of kids (and adults) have stared longingly at the firearms illustrated within, and wished...”

 

NZGUNS contributing writer John Dyer, a Kiwi collector, visited the Steyr works thirty years ago and was told that the company’s Zephyr was produced as a way of promoting their centrefire Mannlichers, which pretty much makes sense.

 

The Steyr factory referred to their new rimfire as either the “Standard” model or the “Closed Season De Lux” model. The name “Zephyr” doesn’t actually appear in Austrian Steyr catalogues so it was probably conjured up by Stoeger.

 

However, curiously, Stoeger in their advertising did not refer to the little rimfire as the “Zephyr” either, certainly not in the 1958 Bible, nor in the 1961 issue, rather it was called the “Steyr Custom Small-Bore Carbine”.

 

Perhaps this was due to the fact that Stoeger was already marketing a line of “Zephyr” shotguns. Nevertheless, as far as I am aware, all production weapons beginning with serial No.1, are stamped “Zephyr” on top of their receivers. It is possible, and this is conjecture on my part, that Stoeger was the impetus behind the design of the Zephyr.

 

FROM TOP: Steyr Small-Bore Standard Model .22 LR; Steyr Small-Bore Closed Season De Lux Model .22 LR (Left and right hand view); Closed Season Model with Telescopic Sights.

 

I think their influence can be seen in the sloping bolt handle, much the same as a Winchester Model 70. At the time production of the Zephyr began, 1953, Steyr was also starting to produce their centrefire rifles with sloping bolt handles. I couldn’t find much about Zephyr variations in the literature so I thought I would have a go myself at tracking down what I could on the ‘net and through other collectors.

 

The obvious places to look were in the archives of American, British, German, and Austrian auction houses - most being reasonably user-friendly. From all sources, I found more than 100 individual firearms, about 2.5% of total production.

 

The serial number is found on the right side of both the front receiver ring and the barrel. The proof marks and a two-digit date code, for example “58” for 1958, are found on the left side of the barrel which holds true until very late in production when they were switched to the right side of the barrel.

 

These stamps were unfortunately often overlooked in auction catalogue descriptions which makes it difficult to pin down when changes were made.

 

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The deluxe full-stock versions are by far the most sought-after, and probably the most likely to appear at auction. It seems that at least 80% of total production was the full-stock model - a case of the more common firearm being more valuable than the rarer one.

 

I should point that the main difference between the two models is the stock, both have 500mm barrels, so apart from the styling, one isn’t really a “carbine” and the other a “rifle”. However, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to them as “carbine” and “rifle”.

 

Buxton’s Guide: Foreign Firearms”, an American catalogue first published in 1963 with the reprint available from Cornell Publications, gives the impression that the “Deluxe Model” was only available with a full-length stock.

 

A comparison between the nose caps of a Zephyr (top) and a centrefire Mannlicher-Schönauer M.1903. (Photo courtesy of John Dyer).

 

However, this was not so as I found two examples of half-stock rifles with deluxe features such as folding rear sight blades, forged trigger guards, and quality walnut with a cheekpiece and chequering.

 

Also, I found three other examples with the above features except that they had the plain stamped and pressed sheet metal trigger guard of the standard model.

 

These were serial numbered 708 which was probably made in 1955, and 3733 and 3734 from 1968, the last year of production. The latter two also had only the single leaf rear sight. As you will now be aware, there are plenty of variations in this small production run to keep the dedicated collector happy.

 

TRIGGERS

From my observations, double-set triggers don’t appear until 1957, four years into production. However, judging by the large “forged” trigger-guard, it seems that Steyr intended double triggers to be an option from the beginning, although nearly two thirds of Zephyr carbines were fitted with the single trigger.

 

I found just one rifle version with the combination of forged trigger guard and double triggers, No. 1608, a plain standard model - a very interesting variation. Page 215 of “Buxton’s Guide: Foreign Firearms”, confirms that such an unusual combination was possible.

 

Serial No. 1608, a plain rifle with double-set triggers, an extremely rare combination.

 

Philip Sparholt, a Danish gunsmith, has found that the double triggers are interchangeable with those of the centrefire rifles. In fact Philip, in comparing a Zephyr carbine with an M.1950 Mannlicher-Schönauer, found the following parts to be either identical or interchangeable: nose cap, front and rear sights, front sight cover, front and rear sling swivels, grip cap, butt plate, and trigger guard.

 

I presume this was to keep a lid on the cost of producing the little .22. Doubtless the profit margin on a .22 is smaller than that of a centrefire rifle.

 

TRIGGER GUARDS

The carbine and the “Deluxe” rifles both have elegant “forged” trigger-guards rather than the “piece of bent tin” on the plain rifle - and herein lies an apparent problem of ergonomics.

 

The butts of all stocks have a similar profile so standard model Zephyrs with their smaller “pressed steel” trigger guards appear to have disproportionately open pistol grips - thus they look “out of balance”. The fact is though, the shooter’s trigger finger has to reach a similar distance in both designs.

 

SAFETY CATCHES

There were two variations, both mounted on the rear of the bolt. The safety lever on early bolts swings horizontally like that of a Winchester Model 70, but the great majority have levers that rotate vertically.

 

Perhaps a fault was discovered with the early safety? Why else would there have been the change from an efficient design to one incompatible with low-mounted scope sights?

 

FROM TOP: Two variations of safety catches. The early type (right), swings horizontally. Note the worn red dot on the lever. Both catches are in the “fire” position. The later, more common variation (left) rotates vertically; the bolts cocked and safety catches engaged. Note that the strikers protrude when the rifles are cocked.

 

I wasn’t able to pin down a year for the change but John Dyer writes that his No. 262 made in 1953 already has the vertically rotating safety. However, one of my two Zephyrs, No. 863 (1956), has the horizontal safety.

 

The other one, No. 1153 (1957), has the vertical safety, so presumably there was a gradual changeover as stock items were used up. I have read criticism of the later safety in that on some rifles it can be quite loose but apparently it still functions well enough.

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SIGHTS

All the carbines I’ve observed have a two-leaf rear sight, one standing and one folding. John Dyer has an early carbine, No. 262. He writes that the folding leaf on his is marked “300” which with its matted face indicates that it is the same as the folding leaf meant for post-war Mannlicher-Schönauer centrefire models.

 

This could well stand to reason because the Zephyr barrel tapers down sharply just in front of the receiver, making the sight just the right height for the rimfire.

 

Most standard Zephyr rifles have a very simple rear sight blade fitted on the previously mentioned steeply tapered barrel, just in front of the receiver. However, there is a variation that seems to be most prevalent on rifles imported into Australia and New Zealand.

 

Three New Zealand-retailed rifles illustrating their tangent rear sights. Top to bottom, Numbers 1350 (1958), 1153 (1957), and 863 (1956). All three rifles have the wide 16.5mm scope grooves.

 

This is a tangent rear sight calibrated from 30 to 200 metres. My two standard rifles have this sight with a slight variation in the beds, one being longer than the other.

 

Some early rifles were manufactured with round top receivers without scope grooves. The latest I found without grooves was No. 303. However, photographs of Serial No.1 show it to have grooves. Early rifles had narrow 11mm (about 3/8”) scope grooves, and later ones 16.5mm (about 5/8”).

 

I have no information as to when the change was made. All I can state is that John Dyer’s No. 262 has the narrow grooves, while my No. 863 has the wide grooves.

 

THE MAGAZINE

To me, the magazine has an “unfinished” appearance since it has no projecting base. I presume it was made that way to sit absolutely flush with the underside of the Zephyr. Removing the magazine is reliant on it “popping-out” when the mag-release button is pushed.

 

There were two magazine-releases. Early rifles have a sliding button inlet into the left side of the stock that tends to become faulty with time. This is unfortunate because if the release malfunctions removal is going to be difficult.

 

The first Zephyr I have observed with the new and presumably improved mag-release, is No. 2134 dated 1961. It has a more conventional catch located on the underside of the stock just behind the magazine.

 

BUTT-PLATES

It appears that all carbines, and all deluxe rifles, have a plastic butt-plate and pistol-grip cap. While some standard rifles have a plastic butt-plate, most have a grooved butt with neither a plate nor a grip cap - which is typical of the Zephyrs sold in New Zealand.

 

Left, the grooved butt of a New Zealand retailed standard Zephyr rifle. Middle, the plastic butt plate of an early carbine. Right, the later butt plate with the Steyr logo (fitted to serial No. 3775 dated 1968, the last year of production).

 

THE END OF THE LINE

What killed off the original Steyr Zephyr, and why were so few made? Probably price was the main factor in the all-important American market where the Zephyr was competing against many cheap domestic rimfires.

 

As for Europe, Axel Eichendorff, a German Mannlicher collector, has pointed out to me that he has never seen period German dealers’ catalogues that listed the Steyr Zephyr. In Germany, the Zephyr would have been competing against several other superb rimfire models made by the likes of Anschütz, Brno, Krico and Walther.

 

It would be interesting to know what proportion of the 3,913 Zephyrs came here to New Zealand. Priced at just under £20.00, the plain model competed squarely with the likes of the Anschütz Standard model, BSA Supersport and the Browning Model A semi-auto.

 

I am sure there is more to tell about Steyr’s little rimfire. For instance, doubtless there are Zephyrs “out there” with features I have not touched on and possibly even some with factory custom work. If you can add to the Steyr Zephyr story, please contact me at: glenledi@xtra.co.nz.

 

Keith

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