To remedy their defeat at the hands of the German Empire and North German Confederation in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), neighboring France moved to adopt the 8x50mmR Lebel cartridge for their new Lebel Model 1886. What made the adoption unique was the 8mm's smokeless powder design which immediately put the French Army at the forefront of small arms advancement. An 8-round tubular magazine allowed for a repeat fire action, an upgrade over all existing single-shot designs. The weapon was a standard bolt-action weapon featuring an outward-turned bolt handle and of typical "long gun" arrangement of the period sporting a solid wooden stock and grooved, single-banded wooden forend. Support was, of course, retained for a bayonet. Some 2.8 million of the type would ultimately be produced.
The move naturally spurred the Germans into action for their existing Mauser Model 1871 line was now made largely obsolete. It still relied on a black powder cartridge, featured an upturned bolt-handle prone to snagging and made use of the larger, slower 11x60mmR cartridge. It originally appeared as a single-shot form though this was eventually addressed through the Model 1871/84, with its 8-round tubular magazine, and the Model 1880/07 which supported a 5-round "stripper" clip feed. A shortened carbine version was also unveiled.
Nevertheless, the need to modernize was great against their long-time enemy. This positioned a German Army-led commission to issue formal specifications for both a new, small caliber, smokeless powder cartridge and a new service rifle to fire it. Interestingly, the commission moved away from the Mauser influence and focused on a Mannlicher-type clip-loading magazine approach with features of the Model 1889 "Belgian Mauser" and the competing French Lebel. The barrel was rifled with a pattern largely taken from the Lebel while the gun was given a single-piece wooden body with integrated straight handle grip and solid wooden stock. The action resided in the main section of the body with an outward-projecting bolt-handle. The trigger was underslung with its ring integrating into the projecting magazine assembly. A barrel jacket was fitted around the barrel assembly. Support for a field bayonet was managed through a mounting at the right side of the barrel shroud. Overall weight was 8.4lbs, decidedly lighter than the Lebel, with an overall length of 49 inches managing a 29 inch barrel - both qualities shorter than the Lebel. The commission also developed the corresponding new cartridge which became the M88 and up to five of these were loaded into the fixed magazine assembly. Sights were fitted ahead of the action and at the muzzle.
The weapon was adopted as the Model 1888 and known under other names as well - Gewehr 88 (Gew 88), Model 1888 Commission Rifle and Model 1888 Reichsgewehr. Manufacture was across Germany, Austria and Prussia through Ludwig Loewe & Company, Osterreichische Waffenfabriks-Gesellshcaft,C. G. Haenel, Steyr-Mannlicher and V. C. Schilling & Company while several national arsenals also became involved (Amberg, Danzig, Erfurt, Spandau).
In practice, the Model 1888 proved a sound bolt-action service rifle, perhaps one of the best of the new generation smokeless powder-firing types. The barrel jacket of the original models was soon given up when it was found that they trapped moisture which led to rusted barrels within. A new, reinforced barrel was instituted in 1891 and this was followed by a new rifling pattern in 1896. In early 1890, a short-bodied form was introduced as a carbine variant and another short rifle variant emerged in 1891.
In April of 1903, the German Army dispensed with the original "round-nose" M88 commission-led cartridge and adopted the new 7.92x57mm Mauser "pointed" bullet cartridge. This change begat the Model 1888S designation which appeared in 1905. The switch to the new cartridge also brought about use of "clip-loading" in which containers housed five ready-to-fire, stacked cartridges and entered as a whole unit into the weapon - helping to speed reloading. This adoption led to the new designation of Model 1888/05.
The Gew 88 remained in service from 1888 to 1915 which allowed for its availability in World War 1 (1914-1918). Over 100,000 of the type were in circulation and these pressed into service when the German Empire committed to war alongside their Austro-Hungarian cousins following the assassination of one of their royalty (Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria). Some German troops went to war with their charger-loading, bolt-action Model 1888s and variants which reportedly gave a good account of themselves. The fighting began in July of 1914 and degraded into a slog-fest of trench warfare by December (many expecting the fighting to be over by Christmas). In that month, a revised charger-loading version appeared as the Model 1888/14 which featured engraved guides at the bridge to facilitate reloading. Thousands of the guns also made their way to Austrian-Hungarian inventories (as the "Repetiergewehr M13") and even more were shipped to the equipment-strapped allied Ottoman Empire (Turkey).
The Gew 88 officially served with German forces until 1915 though other operators persisted with the type much longer - many still appearing in the fighting during World War 2. Illegal copies were fabricated at the Hanyang Arsenal of China and designated as "Hanyang 88" for use by the Qing Dynasty. The Gew 88 was eventually superseded by the excellent Gewehr 98 which proved a substantial upgrade over the Commission Rifle - considered the pinnacle of Mauser bolt-action rifles - and saw extensive service throughout World War 1 and World War 2 as a standard German Army service rifle.
Gew 88 rifles were also featured in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) against the British Empire and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) which involved China, Europe and the United States. Due to early teething issues coupled with production at some "Jewish-owned" factories, the German press began to deride Gew 88s as the "Judenflinte" or "Jewish Rifle"/"Jews' Musket". This insult, however, proved inaccurate for more Gew 88 factories than not were owned by non-Jews.