Norway’s Svalbard Arctic Seed Vault is Defended by Rifles from World War Two

    Svalbard guard with Mauser K98k

    Svalbard Global Seed Vault Guard with Mauser Rifle (Dag Terje Filip Endresen)

    Norway’s Svalbard Arctic Seed Vault, located deep inside the Arctic Circle, on the island of Spitsbergen maintains a high level of security. It is defended by armed guards equipped with 80 year old rifles.

    Built into the Norwegian island’s permafrost the purpose of the Svalbard Seed Vault is to provide a safe storage facility from which institutions around the world can replenish their stocks of seeds in the event of accidental loss caused by local problems such as mismanagement or accidents or more regional problems such as natural disasters or conflicts. The bank recently had its first ‘withdrawal’, back in 2015: when the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was relocated due to the Syrian Civil War.

    The vault itself is buried 400 feet below the surface. Established a decade ago the seed vault now holds hundreds of thousands of seeds deposited by over 70 institutions.

    Armed with a .30-06 Mauser K98k, a guard heads out to begin his shift protecting the vault (John McConnico/AP)

    It is not would-be seed thieves that the vault’s armed guards protect against, but rather the threat from polar bears which also call the island of Spitsbergen home. While the bears are protected from hunting all persons travelling outside the island’s isolated settlements are required to carry rifles to protect themselves in the event they are attacked by the bears. The killing of polar bears should only be a last resort.

    The Story Behind The Rifle

    The story behind the rifles carried by the vault’s guards is fascinating, dating back to the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War Two. Norway was occupied by hundreds of thousands of German soldiers during the war. When Germany finally surrendered the Norwegian military took possession of much of the former occupier’s equipment and small arms. This included nearly half a million Mauser K98k rifles.

    The Norwegian military refurbished approximately 200,000 of the rifles replacing their ageing Krag–Jørgensens. These remained in service, largely unchanged, until the early 1950s when the decision was made to rechamber the K98ks from their original 7.92x57mm to the more plentiful American .30-06 round. The US was offering its allies military aid and Norway gratefully accepted ammunition. All except those used by the Norwegian Navy were rechambered.

    This decision required the re-barrelling of the rifles and the lengthening of the magazine to fit the longer American round. In addition to rechambering the rifles, the Norwegian made a couple of other changes. The rear sight notch was cut into a ‘u’ an a square front sight post protected by a sight hood was added. the rifles were reblued and the stocks revarnished if necessary.


    A lone armed guard protects the Seed Vault from marauding polar bears (Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP)

    These K98kF1s remained in service into the 1960s when the AG-3 (HK G3) was adopted. The K98kF1s were relegated to reserve use with some continuing in service with the Norwegian police. Now it seems the rifles have again been pressed into service protecting the Svalbard vault. The rifle’s bolt action is well suited to coping with the extreme cold and its round is powerful enough to deal with a polar bear.

    The Norwegian Mausers aren’t the only bolt action rifle favoured for use in cold conditions as until recently the Canadian Rangers, who operate in the wilds of Canada, favoured the venerable Lee-Enfield No.4, which is now being replaced by the Sako T3 CTR ‘C-19’.

    H/T: Thanks to Mike F for tip

    Matthew Moss

    _________________________________________________________________________ – Managing Editor – Managing Editor

    Matt is a British historian specialising in small arms development and military history. He has written several books and for a variety of publications in both the US and UK. He also runs Historical Firearms, a blog that explores the history, development and use of firearms. Matt is also co-founder of The Armourer’s Bench, a video series on historically significant small arms.

    Here on TFB he covers product and current military small arms news.

    Reach Matt at: [email protected]