Almost every shooter in the US has heard of or seen the Mosin-Nagant rifle, due to the large volume of them that were imported over the last decade or so. The WWII variant was quite readily available and inexpensive until very recently. As it turns out, they have actually been floating around our nation for quite a long time. In the process, they have ended up in some very interesting situations.
During the First World War the Russian army, like everyone else, was in dire need of weapons and ammunition. Casualties and losses of equipment were absolutely staggering. So the Russians approached US arms manufacturers to make rifles for them. Most of these contracts were for their standard rifle, the Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 or M91, though Winchester did produce some lever action rifles chambered in 7.62x54r. There were some delays, so it took some time for the American made M91s to get into production. Then once they were delivered, they apparently sat in warehouses near the ports where they were offloaded. As a result, there weren’t very many actually issued to Russian soldiers before the October 1917 Revolution.
In case anyone reading this is not familiar with the Mosin-Nagant rifle, it is a bolt action rifle chambered in 7.62x54r with a 5 shot single stack magazine. There have been many variants of these rifles, produced in several different countries. The barrel length on the Model 1891 is fairly long, being 31 inches.
The rear sight on the Model 1891 is more elaborate than later models of Mosin-Nagant rifles. It has something similar to the typical tangent rear sight, though it is graduated in arshins, an antiquated form of measurement that translates to about 28 inches. It is also possible to flip the sight leaf up 90 degrees, in a ladder sort of arrangement, for shooting at some rather optimistic ranges.
The bayonet for the Model 1891 is similar but different than the 91/30 bayonets. It is still has a triangular, needle type blade. It also has a sort of socket that goes over the barrel. Where it is different is the lock. Where the 91/30 bayonet has a spring loaded tab, the 1891 has a locking ring. Basically, you slide the socket over the barrel and rotate the ring to “lock” it behind the front sight. Mosin-Nagant bayonets, much like the rifles themselves, were not made to high tolerances. If you have a bayonet, it may require some fitting to properly attach. 91/30 bayonets will attach to 1891 rifles (if you aren’t concerned with being “period correct”) but not the other way around. The M91 bayonet that I have actually came with a 91/30 I bought later.
In case you are wondering about what the designation actually means: “7.62” refers to the 7.62mm bullet, “54” refers to the 54mm casing length and the “r” notes that it is a rimmed case. While it is referred to as a 7.62mm, most weapons of this caliber are intended to use .310 diameter bullets rather than .308s as we are usually accustomed to in this country. For those that handload, this means that you can likely use the same bullets you use in that .303 SMLE or 7.7 Arisaka that you already load for. That said there are some exceptions, and there are some Mosin-Nagant rifles with bores sized for .308 bullets. So make sure you figure out what you have before you start loading. Also given the age of these rifles, if you are handloading for them be gentle. There is no good reason to hot load these.
The caliber itself also has quite a history. 7.62x54r was the first smokeless powder cartridge issued to the Russian Army. It is the longest running issued cartridge in the world, as it was first used in 1891 with the first Mosin-Nagant rifles, which were obviously Model 1891s. It is still in front-line service with the Russian army (and many others as well), with the SVD rifles and PKM machine guns chambered in it. This is really quite remarkable. To give you an idea, the US Army’s first smokeless cartridge was the .30-40 Krag, and it was issued at around the same time. Needless to say, we have changed cartridges several times since then.
In all of those years of service, the loading of the cartridge has changed several times. The original loading was a 212 grain round nose loaded to approximately 2020fps. In 1908, the Russians, like everyone else at that time, designed a pointed or “spitzer” bullet (this is what the common profile for rifle bullets are today) for the cartridge. It was 147grs and referred to as the “L” bullet(for light) and had a velocity of approximately 2800 fps. Ironically enough, that loading is what is still being loaded.
All of this is great, but what does it have to do with the US Army? When the United States entered the war in 1917, there were not enough rifles to issue the rapidly growing American Expeditionary Force. In addition to rifles for the troops to carry into combat, weapons were needed for various stateside duties such as training (think teaching troops how to march), guard details, and similar tasks. At the same time, Remington-UMC and New England Westinghouse were stuck with a bunch of rifles, since the Bolsheviks both did not want to pay, and did not have the means anyway. This would have meant disaster had the US government not stepped in and purchased these rifles, both to prevent those companies from financial ruin (which was important given the US Army’s sudden need for vast amounts of small arms) and to help free up 1903s and 1917s to ship to the western front.
Since these duties were not as ammunition intensive or as maintenance intensive as combat, obsolete weapons and non-standard weapons were used to fill these roles. Mosin-Nagant rifles were ideal for this purpose, being a military design and very durable. They were given the designation, “Russian Three-line Rifle, Caliber 7.62 mm. (.3 inch)”. As an interesting side note on stateside US duties: supposedly a small number of the US made M91s were modified to take the Pederson Device.
The Model 1891’s wartime service to the US does not end with stateside duty. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the Allies had already shipped a large amount of military aid to the Czar. It was decided that this war material should not fall into the hands of the revolutionaries. So the North Russia Expeditionary Force was formed. The US Army sent a contingent, the 339th Infantry. At that time, the US Army units of draftees would be formed of men from an area and trained in the region before being shipped out. So, different regiments had very distinct regional identities. This regiment was referred to as “Detroit’s Own” and its personnel came from the Midwest, which proved to be fortuitous given the harsh climate where they ended up being sent.
Because of a large amount of 7.62x54r ammunition already at the locations they were to be sent, the Americans traded their rifles in for Model 1891s. This was done to ease the logistics of deploying troops to such a far-flung location as Archangel. M91s were not exactly popular with American soldiers. They didn’t care for the bayonet, and the sights were considered crude in comparison to the 1903s. Also, in a lot of cases, soldiers found that the rifles were not properly zeroed. At that time marksmanship was highly stressed in training, and the normal US weapons were made with accuracy in mind in contrast to most of the other combatant nations involved in the war. But the M91s seem to have performed acceptably in combat anyway.
11:00 am on the 11th of November 1918, which marked the end of the fighting on the western front, came and went with no change for the soldiers fighting in what was essentially Siberia. The fought on until well into 1919 before being finally withdrawn and shipped home. Ironically enough, in spite of the purpose of the North Russia campaign, when the Americans left, they left their rifles to the Bolsheviks rather than bring them home.
The Story of a Rifle
This particular rifle is quite unique. It is definitely one of those “if it could talk, the stories it would tell” firearms. It is dated 1917. But most of the original markings were defaced from it. It looks as though someone took a punch or a chisel and peened over all of the manufacturer’s marks. I suspect that the fledgling Red Army was in dire need of weapons since the Russian Army was in pretty rough shape from its part on the Eastern Front. While this was the case, it wouldn’t do much for the propaganda of the new worker’s state, if the Red Army was using weapons made by nations that it was just fighting. The markings between different makers of Model 1891s were fairly distinctive. The peen marks on my rifle match up with where the letters would have been on a Remington made rifle, and no others interestingly enough.
Since not very many of these rifles were actually issued, it is likely that it was captured at some point in time either during the fighting or after the withdraw of Allied troops from North Russia. Then sometime after 1986(since it has import marks, which weren’t put on surplus firearms until then) it was imported back to the US. I found it in a rural North Carolina gun shop, for a very reasonable price. At the time I bought this rifle, the 91/30s were cheap and readily available, and I almost didn’t give it a second look. Sometimes you can find a surprise hiding in plain sight, so keep an eye out.
While I was not exactly expecting 1 MOA out of a 100-year-old rifle, with ball ammunition, I figured I should shoot it anyway. For this, I used Tula 7.62x54r 148gr FMJ, since it’s fairly close to the same load as what this rifle was intended for. I would be amiss if I didn’t throw this safety statement in here: If you have an old rifle such as this, be sure to have it inspected to ensure that it is safe to fire before you attempt to do so. These rifles are 100 years old, so be careful with them.
I fired the rifle at 50 yards off of an improvised rest (prone supported, for all of you other military folks). I fired the first 5 round group to get an idea as to how well it would shoot, as well as the exact point of impact for this rifle. I had fired this rifle before, so I had a pretty good idea of where that would be. But I hadn’t ever tried to group in on paper. Given that the lowest sight setting is 400 arshins or about 311 yards, I expected the impact to be a few inches high, given the distance that I was shooting at. This is very common for bolt action military rifles. In the days before assault rifles and intermediate cartridges, it was thought that combat would likely be either at distances of several hundred yards or in bayonet range. As such the sights on rifles of this era generally start at 3-400. So if you decide you want to “paper” your old surplus rifle, make sure you have a big enough target to account for this.
My first 5 rounds settled in at about 3 ¾”. The point of impact was roughly about 2” high and right. I decided I would speed up my rate of fire a little bit and do a little “combat shooting” since this is a military rifle after all. I used a 6 o’ clock hold, to account for the sights. I kept all 5 rounds in the “head” portion of the target without a whole lot of effort. Not terrible for a 100-year-old rifle, with a so-so barrel.
After the war, the M91s still in the service of the US government were sold as surplus (along with a whole lot of other items no longer needed) to the American people. These appear to have been the first surplus Nagants for sale in the US. Now it’s beginning to look as though we’re seeing the last of them in any quantity. The Mosin-Nagant rifles have been like the $25 Lugers or $15 1903 Springfields for those of us who were born too late to see those gems. But occasionally you can find something extraordinary, even when you are looking a whole rifle rack worth of history.