A reader suggested that I take a look at lower cost firearms, particularly military surplus ones, and I thought it was a great idea. The one he told me that would make a good start is the Russian Mosin-Nagant, which is currently the easiest to find and cheapest surplus rifle on the market. It is chambered in a .30 caliber round, 7.62x54R, and there are a lot of them available at the moment coming from old war reserves in Russia and Ukraine. They were refurbished and put in storage when replaced by more modern arms. Russia and Ukraine are both apparently making some money by selling them off, but with current tensions in the region today, it is hard to say how much longer we will be able to get them. There are embargos against Russia while Ukraine could decide they need to keep theirs. If you think you might want one after reading this, you probably should act in a timely manner.
I should point out that there have been Mosin-Nagants available from a number of other countries, but the Russian-made ones are what we can find easily today, so that’s what I’m writing about here.
Why, by the way, would one want an old military rifle rather than a new sporter? Cost is a huge reason. You can find them from about $130 and up in usable condition. If you are short of funds but need a hunting rifle, one of them could do the trick. Don’t write them off for self-defense, either. They are not as trendy as a tricked out AR, but they have decent accuracy and the cartridge hits hard. I know people who like to have extra weapons in case their neighbors need something during a crisis. We can debate that idea, but if it sounds good to you, the Mosin-Nagant fills that need easily. It is easy to learn to shoot, and you could outfit a squad with ammo for under $2,000, which is just a bit more than a single fancy AR with magazines will set you back. Another plus that I’ll elaborate on later is that ammunition can be had at great prices.
There is also domestic politics to consider. An old bolt action rifle is probably going to be one of the last things to get regulated.
I can’t deny that there is an historical appeal as well. I majored in military history, and apparently the interest is genetic as my nine-year-old son is equally fascinated by it. Any old rifle makes his eyes light up, and it was a joy to let him pick this one out off of the rack. Anyway, let’s get back to the rifles. They have been around for a long time; the 91 in the name stands for the year they were adopted, 1891. The Mosin-Nagant was the front line service rifle for the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, until the SKS semi-automatic carbine was adopted in 1949. It had a front line life of 60 years, but it didn’t, however, just fade away in 1949. They are still showing up on the world’s battlefields, thanks to how widely they were distributed to Russia’s allies and communist insurgents.
In my youth, they were disparaged by most shooters as inferior to the Mauser and Springfield. I tend to agree, but there aren’t very many Springfields or Mausers available these days, and they usually cost considerably more. Despite not having the snob appeal, Mosin-Nagants are serviceable and available at good prices.
They have a five round magazine that can be fed with stripper clips or by single loading rounds through the top. Since the cartridges are rimmed, you have to take care to keep the rim of the each cartridge in front of the rim of the cartridge below it, but it isn’t hard to do.
There are three variants usually seen these days. The most common is the M91/30 rifle. The 30 stands for 1930, when the Soviets made some updates to the design. This is what the line grunts got in most of WWII. It has a long, 29-inch barrel, which is less handy than I would prefer but more manageable than I expected. The overall length is 48.5 inches. There are also carbines with 20-inch barrels that are much handier at 40-inches long. This is actually shorter than many of today’s commercial bolt rifles. The carbines would have become the standard front line weapon, but semi-autos beat them out. The last variant is the sniper rifle based on the 91/30. Mosin-Nagants that were actually built as a sniper rifle, complete with scope, are rare and probably should be considered a collectible rather than a shooter. There are, however, a lot of bits and piece out there, including replica parts, that allow folks to build reproductions. Some of the rifles sold as real snipers are probably reproductions and should have sold for less, so buyers should beware. A well done replica can, however, make a nice rifle. Be aware that Mosin-Nagant snipers aren’t what we think of as sniper rifles today. They were pretty much just a regular rifle fitted with a scope. The scope did make it easier to hit targets further away, but they were not the highly tuned weapon an American sniper expects.
There will be two subspecies of the rifle encountered– ones with round or hex shaped receivers. The hex shaped ones are older. In the mid-1930’s, the Russians altered the original hex shape to a round one to make them easier to produce. Hex ones will usually cost most, partially because there are fewer of them and also because a lot of us think that the older guns might have been made better. Pre-WWII guns are usually better finished than guns made during the war.
The 91/30 rifles with round receivers usually range from about $130 to $185 in a local gun shop, depending on condition. You can get them online and have them delivered to a local dealer (or yourself if you have a Federal Firearms License). A hex receiver rifle will probably command another $50 or so. The M44 carbines are now more than $200. There was an earlier carbine, the M38 that some like better, but they are hard to find now. The M44 has an integral bayonet while the M38 doesn’t, so it is lighter. Reproduction snipers, when available, go for $400 and up.
The 91/30 rifles come in at a bit under nine pounds. The carbine without the bayonet is 7.5 pounds while the version with the bayonet is about nine pounds. I haven’t had a chance to weigh one that has had the bayonet removed, but I’m assuming the weight would go down to under eight pounds. Collectors frown on removing the bayonet as you have to deal with a heavily staked in screw so it usually shows that someone has been mucking about with it. I’ll leave that moral decision up to the owner. We’re history buffs here, so we would probably leave it on, but if I wanted it off, I would be sure it isn’t some rare collectible before drilling out that screw.
You will usually find a date of production stamped on the receiver, but it might have been buffed or ground off when a rifle was refinished. Rifles made during WWII are usually not finished as well as pre-war rifles and sometimes show a lot of machining marks. Some look downright crude and ugly.
They were made in a number of countries, including the United States, which produced them in WWI for the Imperial Russian Army. Some of these Mosin-Nagants were even issued to U.S. troops participating in the interventions in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. Some of the rifles made outside of Russia are considered to be very high quality, particularly the Finnish versions. The Germans captured a lot of them in WWII and happily turned them on their former owners. Carbines continued to be made after WWII with production stopping around 1949.
The cartridge itself is still in use in front line arms, such as machine guns and sniper rifles. At 123-years-old, it is the oldest military round in use today. The “R” in the name stands for rimmed, which is truly unusual in military ammunition. The U.S. gave up rimmed military rounds in 1903. The only other rimmed military round to rival the life of the Russian round was the British .303, which lasted into the 1950’s in general use, though some sniper rifles in .303 kept showing up for many years afterwards.
This round is not to be confused with the more modern and less powerful 7.62x39mm used in the SKS and AK-47. It is a full power service cartridge, comparable to the .308 Winchester in power. Both rounds get about 2,800 feet per second with 150 grain bullets. It is accurate enough to be used effectively for sniping. It can be an excellent hunting round for medium and large game in North America. I might want something bigger for grizzly or brown bears (a 40mm sounds good if the bear is in a bad mood), but plenty have been taken with the .308 with good bullet placement. One key to good hunting performance is bullet selection; hunting ammunition needs soft point bullets. Most of the ammunition you will find, however, is going to be surplus full metal jacket (FMJ), which is not good stuff to humanely take game with. Soft points are out there, but you may have to work to find it. I had no luck locally, but I found some online . It can run from about $0.50 to about a dollar or so a round.
Don’t neglect to get some surplus military FMJ, though. Shooting is fun and practice is necessary; you can get the surplus stuff for as little at $0.20 a round, which beats current reloading costs. It might be good to act now, as current international politics could impede the flow of cheap ammo to the U.S. One warning to heed, though, is that virtually all surplus ammo is corrosive and will rot your rifle quickly, if you don’t clean it immediately after shooting. Make sure your cleaning poison is rated for neutralizing and removing corrosive fouling. Some aren’t. One thing that will work is boiling water, especially if you add detergent. What makes corrosive ammo corrosive are the salts used in the primer, and these dissolve in hot water. You still need something to finish getting out the copper, powder, and carbon, but the hot water gets a lot of dirt out. It also seems to loosen some of the other fouling. Some people swear by Windex, but I haven’t tried that yet. After you are done, you need to put a good preservative in the barrel to protect it.
Speaking of reloading, I have found it very difficult to get bullets for 7.62mmx54R. Most manuals recommend a .310 to .312 diameter bullet, which means the .308 diameter ones for American .30 caliber rounds won’t deliver much accuracy. This is the same diameter as usually found in .303 British and 7.7mm Japanese ammunition. These rounds aren’t all that popular these days for reloaders, and since the manufacturers have had so much trouble keeping up with demand for more popular rounds, they haven’t been making much for these cartridges. Truthfully, as long as surplus ammunition is available at such good prices, I see little reason to load practice ammunition, which I suspect is a common attitude that gives few incentives to ramp up production. On the other hand, I would like to be able to load some hunting ammunition and tune it to my rifle. Until bullets start showing up, that won’t happen.
If you reload, be careful as you work up a load, particularly with the larger diameter bullets. These are old rifles, and there is no need to make magnums out of them. A reasonable load will be much more powerful than a .30-30– a round that has put a lot of deer in the freezer.
We bought our Mosin-Nagant, a Model 91/30, from a nearby gun shop. I could have found one for less online and had it shipped to a local dealer, but I really wanted to be able to look it over in person. It came with a bayonet, which truly excited my history buff son. He picked out a 1932 with the hex receiver. We also looked at a 1943 with the round receiver, but there were a lot of machining marks on it, and it just looked pretty ugly. The 1932, while not up to a custom sporter in finish, still looks pretty good. The stock has a lot of dings and dents but appeared solid.
I did mention that they are long. I really wanted a carbine, but I couldn’t find one locally. If you can find a good carbine, I think you would be happier with the nine fewer inches of length. It will mean more muzzle blast, though. There are a number of YouTube videos of folks showing off the fireball you can get with some of the surplus ammo fired from carbines. This is thanks to the fact that most surplus ammo is loaded for longer barreled weapons, like machine guns and sniper rifles. If you load your own, you can use a powder that will make it more bearable.
The action operates fairly smoothly, though not, in my view, up to a Mauser or Enfield. It is, however, better than some current commercial rifles. There is a kind of catch, just before the handle arrives at the top of the stroke, that I find annoying. It cocks on opening, like the Mauser 98 and most modern bolt rifles. The bolt handle sticks straight out, if you don’t have a sniper version. We are generally used to turned down bolt handles these days, thanks to the prevalence of scopes, which need the handle bent for clearance. The straight handle presents serious problems, if one wants a conventionally mounted scope. You have to find a bent bolt handle from the sniper variant for this. There are a number of vendors and custom shops that carry these. The bolt body can be changed by the user, thankfully. Another alternative is to mount the scope over the barrel in the Scout rifle position. I expect to have another review on this option.
One interesting discovery I made was that the straight handle is helpful for lefties who can more easily grasp it when reaching over the action to operate the bolt.
I have seen criticisms that one cannot operate the bolt while the rifle is shouldered. We can do that with ours, but it is nowhere near as easy as with a Mauser or Enfield. I suspect that if one has a tight Mosin-Nagant or one with a rough action, it would be difficult. Truthfully, I don’t see very many shooters who keep bolt rifles shouldered when working the action, so it might be a moot point for most.
The safety is probably the worst part of the rifle. You have to pull back the knob on the cocking piece and rotate it to the left to safe the rifle. This is awkward and takes a lot of effort. What’s worse is that it is equally hard to unsafe it for firing. Some shooters leave the bolt in the up position and close it before making a shot. I think that would work fine on a stand, but it bothers me for walking around. I could imagine the bolt getting pushed closed and something hitting the trigger. Others leave the chamber empty and work the bolt to fire, but that’s noisy. I’m looking at some improvements that can be installed and will write about them in another article.
The other worst feature is the rear sight. It is located ahead of the receiver on the barrel and is one of those stepladder arrangements with a small open U notch that can be set all the way out to 2,000 meters. I can’t see that far, so that doesn’t do me much good, and I find the notch is difficult to use quickly at more reasonable ranges. I have been truly spoiled by the excellent aperture sights found on U.S. rifles since the 1917 Enfield. That said, you can get hits with these sights, but you have to work harder.
Scopes can fix a lot of the sight issues. I’ve already mentioned the issue of the straight bolt handles interfering with conventional scope mounting. I’m in the process of investigating some alternatives that keep you from having to deal with that and will report on them. Stay tuned.
The bore on our rifle looked okay. It wasn’t bright, but it has sharp rifling. I cleaned it and not much came out, but after running five rounds through it, I was able to get a tremendous amount of carbon and copper fouling out of it. I am assuming that shooting it somehow loosened things up. There is no way five rounds could have deposited as much copper as I got out. It continues to spew forth carbon and copper fouling after each range trip, so I may have purchased a copper mine instead of a rifle.
One oddity of the Mosin-Nagant is that it was designed to be used with the bayonet fixed. That means the sights are calibrated with the bayonet attached, which affects where the rounds hit. You may have to learn to apply Kentucky windage or make some modifications. Most people find they shoot high, which means raising the front sight. Some folks put a piece of heat shrink tubing on the front and trim it to the right length. On the other hand, some have found the sights close enough to hunt with. Ours shoots about eight inches high at 100 yards, and I plan to try the heat shrink remedy when I get time. The front sight is well protected, and I think this should work just fine.
My son noticed that the stock on our rifle is a bit shorter than those on some of our other long arms. I think a little of that has to do with the fact that people are taller today than they were when Mosin-Nagants were being issued. Most of it, however, is probably due to climate. Russians had to wear thick, heavy clothing much of the year, and the more you wear, the shorter the stock should be. The stock is, however, long enough for me to shoot comfortably, as I’m several inches over six foot.
I was surprised at how comfortable the rifle is to shoot. The weight helps, but I think the long barrel has a lot to do with it. There just isn’t as much blast and flash as I’ve gotten used to from short-barreled modern weapons. It actually weighs less than an M1 Garand but seems about the same to me for recoil.
The trigger pull was, as expected, heavy. It breaks at eight pounds, but it is pretty clean and consistent, which helps a bunch. For me, a gritty trigger with a lot of creep is harder to manage than a heavier one that is clean.
So, how does it shoot? Not bad, actually. I did the groups of record with Priv Partizan 150 grain soft points. I need to insert the usual disclaimers that I’m not a great shot, the trigger is really heavy, and the sights are rotten. After all that, I got four inch groups at 100 yards, which is perfectly adequate for deer or hog hunting. I am sure a better shot, particularly with a scope, can do considerably better than that. I’ve seen a number of modern rifles that couldn’t do much better.
I’m really glad I got this rifle, if only because of its historical significance. I long resisted buying military bolt rifles, because I’m left-handed and they just don’t run as well for lefties, but I now regret not buying them when they were cheap and available. Besides collecting them, they are fun to shoot and can serve as decent hunting rifles. They were made to endure the worst war could throw at them, and I suspect they will hold up better than many of the current commercial rifles. It won’t be the first one I grab in a crisis, but I know I would be happy to have it as a backup or as something I can loan a deserving person. It sure hits harder than an AR-15.
I found a couple of Mosin-Nagant enthusiast pages to be very helpful. The second one has some pretty detailed information of caring for these rifles.
There are also a couple of useful books. 7.62mmR Mosin Nagant Handbook which is pretty much the user’s manual and The Mosin-Nagant Rifle which is a history text on the rifle and its variants. You can get by without them since much of the information can be found on the Internet, but the books are really nice to have. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie