Return to Mosin-Nagant (thing)

There are some firearms that are immediately recognizable to just about anybody, even if they don't even really know what they're looking at. Everyone has heard of the AK-47 or the Uzi or the Glock; most people would immediately recognize by sight a TEC-9 (the ubiquitous submachine gun used primarily by "thugs" in movies like Robocop or in basically every episode of Miami Vice) or a Smith & Wesson Model 29 (this is the revolver Clint Eastwood used in the Dirty Harry films and the very large one Robert De Niro used in Taxi Driver). It's ironic, then, that one of the most widely-produced and easily procured weapons in the world right now is also one that has one of the lowest rates of recognizability among the general public (at least in the West). The venerable M91/30 is probably the best deal around right now for someone looking for a reliable bolt-action rifle, though in some circles it has something of a bad reputation owing to its lineage.

Most people who aren't into guns who know about the M91/30 are familiar with it by virtue of the film Enemy at the Gates. More commonly known as the Mosin-Nagant (and I'll use the terms interchangeably), the M91/30 is a gun of Russian manufacture and is currently widely available in the United States by the crate-full. Individually, these guns sell for around $120 at the most, but a box of 20 can be purchased for less than $1500 (depending on freight). The 7.62x54mmR (for "Rimmed") ammunition used by this weapon is still in use in other, more modern firearms and is available (fairly inexpensively) just about anywhere ammo is sold. This particular round has been with us since its original development in 1891, thus making it the oldest military cartridge in continuous use in the world.

Development

As the name implies, the M91/30 was introduced into service in 1891. It was the result of more than a decade's worth of soul-searching by the Imperial Russian military over the stunning losses incurred during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. At the time, most infantrymen in the Russian military were equipped with the Berdan, a single-shot rifle chambered in the ungodly large 10.75x58mm cartridge. The Turks were armed with American Winchester Model 1873 lever-action repeating rifles. What this basically means is that while the Russians could only load, fire, and extract one bullet at a time, the Turks could load their weapons with ten (or more, depending on caliber) rounds before running out. While the Turkish rounds were not as powerful as the Russian bullets, their sheer volume overwhelmed them. While Russia was ultimately victorious, the fact that an American hunting rifle outclassed their heavy-caliber gun made them realize that quantity has a quality all its own. The Russians had an irrational love of the Berdan and attempted to retrofit existing models with higher-capacity magazines, but all such experiments ended in failure. By 1889, there were essentially two rifles left in the running to replace the Berdan, one designed by Sergei Mosin, and the other by Léon Nagant.

Nagant's design was initially favored and indeed was probably better suited to Russia's needs because of its high quality components and larger caliber projectile, but political and financial concerns eventually led to the selection of Mosin's gun instead. As a member of the Russian army, Mosin would not have to be paid to license the weapon beyond the initial amount promised to the winner of the trials. By contrast, Nagant was a Belgian civilian arms designer and so would have been able to license the weapon in Russia and then sell it abroad as he pleased (German arms designer Paul Mauser would base much of his company's success on such a business model). Mosin's design was also much less complex than Nagant's, meaning that it could be manufactured and distributed at a significantly lower cost. Before Mosin's weapon was mass-produced, however, the army made some relatively minor changes to it to improve its reliability. Unfortunately, one of those changes happened to be in violation of a patent owned by Léon Nagant...which was in turn "borrowed" from Mosin's original design.

At issue was a system designed to prevent more than two rounds being fed into the chamber at the same time (the eventual weapon was capable of holding five rounds). Nagant's submission had lacked this feature and experienced the failure routinely, causing Mosin to adjust his design to compensate for it. Seeing an opportunity (and aware that Mosin was legally precluded from patenting such a device), Nagant promptly patented the system himself and then threatened to sue the Russian military if he was not given proper credit. To shut him up, Nagant was paid an amount equal to the prize money awarded Mosin as well as a lucrative contract to design the Russian army's standard-issue sidearm, the hideous and overly complex 1895 Nagant Revolver. When the dust settled, the Three-Line (i.e. the Russian term for .30 caliber) Model 1891 entered into service with neither man's name attached to it.

History of Use

The first test of the M91 came in 1904 with the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War. The transition from the Berdan to the Mosin-Nagant was an extremely difficult one, with most soldiers eventually going back to using the older design. This was likely related to operator error and improper cleaning techniques. Depending on the way they're manufactured, loading a Mosin can be a real challenge. The rimmed 7.62x54mm cartridge is somewhat cumbersome and not the easiest thing to load even in perfect conditions. An excessively fouled or gunked-up receiver can cause both loading and extraction problems. The bolt is extremely durable but also awkwardly designed, and even minor (and largely unintentional) misadjustments of the firing pin can cause the weapon to fail to fire. Similarly, rotating the bolt on a Mosin is an adventure in and of itself: it is not uncommon to have to repeatedly smack the bolt upwards in order to pull it back and extract a spent shell or a dud. Compare this to the more complex but ultimately more functional Mauser bolt system that almost never fails to function quickly and efficiently.

By the time the Great War rolled around in 1914, Russia was completely unequipped to deal with the massive demand for infantry rifles. The infrastructure for the massive changeover was simply not in place and was one of the contributing factors to the country's inability to have anything resembling success against the Germans and Austrians during that conflict. To make up for this, Russia turned to Remington to manufacture large quantities of the M91 in America and then ship them over. The contract was abrogated by the events of the Russian Revolution and the end of their participation in the war in 1917, leaving massive quantities of Mosin-Nagant rifles in the US. Most of these were ultimately sold to either private collectors or to the White Russian forces still resisting against the Bolshevik Red Army. Still more wound up in Finland due both to that country's status as a duchy of Imperial Russia and widespread local manufacturing.

In the 1930s, the issues surrounding the fabrication of M91s were resolved. First, the gun underwent a slight redesign to make it easier to manufacture, leading to the more technically correct M91/30 designation it bears today. Second, Josef Stalin's leadership of Russia's successor state, the Soviet Union, emphasized rapid and massive industrialization at the expense of pretty much everything else. The increased focus on infrastructural development in peacetime helped solve the issue. While the Soviet army was not anywhere remotely near being prepared for the German invasion in 1941, there was at least the capability to provide infantry arms. Mosin-Nagants made during the war are of noticeably lower quality than earlier examples, bearing as they do manufacturing scars and poorly stamped marks on their receivers. That being said, a large number of them were never even issued, but rather held in reserve just in case they were needed.

It is estimated that about 40 million Mosin-Nagant rifles have been produced over the course of the weapon's lifetime, the majority of which were created immediately before and during World War II. This is the primary cause of there being a glut of them on the market today. Likewise, it was clear by the end of the war that the standard bolt-action rifles almost universally used by the world's militaries would not really have a place in future warfare. With the Soviet adoption of more advanced weapons like the semi-automatic SKS or the fully automatic AK-47 assault rifle, huge quantities of Soviet-made Mosin-Nagants were either given or sold extremely inexpensively to friendly countries and communist rebels worldwide, leading to their proliferation in places as far flung as South America, Vietnam, and Afghanistan (and almost literally everywhere in between).

Modern Analysis

Ironically, the utilitarian advantages of the gun are the primary reason it is not particularly in vogue today. There are literally millions of these guns just sitting around, waiting to be bought, which is naturally why they're so inexpensive, especially when compared to other military surplus weapons like the Mauser Karabiner 98 ($500+) or the M1 Garand ($900+). Their perceived lack of quality is similar in some ways to the attitudes about AK-pattern rifles, namely that even though they're reliable, they're also mass-produced pieces of crap that can't shoot straight. Mosin-Nagants are definitely not the most beautiful weapons; compared to elegant contemporaries like the Mauser K98 or the Winchester Model 94, they're actually somewhat aesthetically displeasing. Likewise, operating the gun is virtually impossible if the receiver isn't cleaned regularly, so this might be a turn-off for people who don't particularly care about cleaning their weapons (as an aside, anyone who has this irresponsible attitude should not own a firearm since a dirty weapon is also an extremely unsafe one). Almost all surplus M91/30s come caked in cosmoline, a vaseline-like substance that is used to combat rust on old guns; removing all of the cosmoline from inside the firearm is essential to ensuring safe and proper operation. Like all full-sized, non-carbine rifles of the era, Mosin-Nagants are also very heavy and can be awkward to hold and shoot at first.

All of that being said, however, the anti-Mosin brigade is very much in the wrong. Despite everything else, it's important to remember the simple fact that the M91/30 is the gun that won World War II for the USSR (or as it's called in Russia, the Great Patriotic War). Even going up against the extensively technologically advanced weaponry of the Third Reich, the Mosin-Nagant proved its worth time and time again. Even the production lines of 1943 and 1944 -- probably the worst of the lot -- still functioned in the way they were intended with minimal failures. It is a rugged weapon, capable of withstanding sustained bouts of abuse (so long as the receiver and bolt stay clean, of course). The fact that so many of these guns are still in existence -- and that they still work -- is not so much a testament to their ease of production but rather their reliability.

The 7.62x54mmR round used by the Mosin-Nagant is one of its main selling points as well. As a .30 caliber bullet, it is well-suited for just about any purpose. Long-range, short-range, it doesn't matter: it is a powerful projectile with a large amount of energy behind it. As a military round, its most obvious function is that of offense, but it is also extremely well-suited to hunting and will bring down just about any game you can imagine. As mentioned earlier, ammunition is plentiful and not at all expensive. One of the primary concerns for anyone thinking of purchasing a firearm should be the availability and cost of ammunition, which makes the Mosin-Nagant extremely appealing.

Concerns about the accuracy of the gun are ill-founded as well. Anecdotally, I have owned and shot both Mausers and Mosins, and I can personally say that even though the Mosin is somewhat more unwieldy, it is generally as accurate as other similar weapons if not moreso. Part of the reason for this has to do with the long barrel of the gun and the corresponding long sight radius (i.e. the distance between the front and rear sights). Longer radiuses generally result in improved accuracy, which is one reason why AK-pattern guns are usually less accurate (the sight radius on a standard M91/30 is about four or five times that of a standard AK). Simo Häyhä, a Finnish marksman of the World War II era, still holds the record for the highest number of confirmed sniping kills in the world. Using his Finnish-made Mosin-Nagant (called the M39 there), he killed 505 Soviet soldiers (that we know of) at distances of up to 2000 meters without the benefit of a scope. While obviously being a talented marksman helps, this feat would have been impossible if the gun were as unreliable and inaccurate as everyone says. Aside from user expertise, the biggest determinants of accuracy are going to be the condition of the gun's bore as well as the type of ammunition used. Since many M91/30s on the market today were either unissued or used sparingly, many of them have barrels in extremely good condition and thus have the potential to be very accurate weapons.

While I'm definitely not one of these zombie apocalypse people preparing for an event that will almost certainly never occur in our lifetimes, the reliability and economy of these rifles -- especially when purchased in bulk -- make them ideal for at least having something that your whole family can quickly and easily learn to use if there was ever a circumstance that warranted it. You can arm yourself and 19 of your closest friends for about $1500 -- less than the cost of two high-end brand new .30-caliber rifles that are unable to take the same kind of abuse as a Mosin-Nagant. Almost all of these come complete with slings, bayonets, ammo pouches, and oil cans. Again, I don't really have any personal interest in stockpiling guns just for the hell of it, but if you really had a need for it, the Mosin-Nagant would be the way to go.

If you're not entirely sold on the idea of buying 20 World War II-era rifles "just in case," I invite you to consider it as an investment opportunity. For years, Mauser K98s were as plentiful and as cheap as Mosin-Nagants are now. In mediocre shape, German-made Mausers sell for $500. In great shape, they're closer to $1000. AK-47s -- which exist in greater quantities than M91/30s -- have gone up in price on the collectors' market in the last five or six years as well. The average price of a civilian AK in 2006 was around $350; they sell for around $550-$600 now. In the same period of time, Mosin-Nagants have increased in average retail price from about $75 to the current $100-$120 range. Who knows where they'll be in 10 or 20 years? I'm definitely not advising anyone to go out and buy $10,000 worth of guns, but there are worse and less useful investments out there.

In general, though, Mosins are excellent military surplus weapons. For people who are just getting interested in firearms and/or who do not exactly have a ton of money to spend, you could definitely do worse. It's easy to learn the fundamentals of shooting and gun ownership with a Mosin-Nagant since it's not a huge financial investment (unless you buy several crates of them) and they are well-suited for sporterizing. There are a variety of replacement stocks available for the gun, most of which are lighter and significantly more comfortable than the production stocks. While most M91/30s were not built with the intention of ever being able to accept scopes, there are several extremely affordable modification kits available to turn a standard issue Mosin-Nagant into a modern and effective long-range hunting rifle. I'm generally not one to recommend sporterizing old military weapons, but given the extremely common nature of the M91/30, it doesn't seem harmful.

There are dozens of variations of the gun, some of which are considerably more valuable than others. Hexagonal receivers, sniper variants, Finnish-made models, carbine-style versions, and pre- World War II examples tend to be more expensive than the run of the mill M91/30 and are really only purchased for the benefit of being able to say one owns them. I wouldn't really recommend buying these types of guns unless you're prepared to spend a lot of money for something that functions identically to the original version with perhaps slight cosmetic and compatability differences. Beyond that, I suggest the M91/30 to anyone interested in owning a rifle but who doesn't feel the need to spend a ton of money on one. And who knows? Maybe it'll make you rich one day!

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