Among nations reacting to the introduction of France’s Lebel smokeless repeating rifle, Russia tested rifles designed by Sergei Ivanovich Mosin and the Belgian Leon Nagant. After much drama, the tsar’s commission decided on the Mosin rifle, but with a Nagant magazine and interrupter. The rifle was produced at Tula, Izhevsk, and Sestroyetsk in Russia and Chatellerault in France. Built in enormous numbers, it was first used in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
Following Russian disasters at Tannenburg and elsewhere in 1914, hundreds of thousands were captured by Germans and Austrians and reissued to their rear-echelon troops.
During World War I, Remington and Westinghouse were contracted, but many of their rifles were not delivered due to the collapse of Tsar Nicholas’s government in 1917. The U.S. helped itself to this serendipity for training and guard rifles, while others were shipped to the Czech Legion fighting with the Whites in the Russian Civil War. U.S. troops fighting around Archangel in 1919 were also armed with Model 1891s, designated Rifle, 7.62mm, Model of 1916.
After the Bolsheviks seized power in the early 1920s, they set to improving the rifle by whacking 3.5 inches off the barrel and using a lighter, round receiver in lieu of the original octagonal version. During World War II, these improved 91/30s served in huge numbers. Many were converted to sniper rifles sporting optics (4X PE and PEM, 3.5X PU) and turned-down bolt handles. These were the rifles used in the movie Enemy at the Gates.
Ironically, the salient use of a Mosin-Nagant was by Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä. He used an m/1928 variant to kill well more than 500 Soviet invaders during the Winter War.
Soviet production of the 91/30 ceased after World War II but continued in satellite nations. 91/30s continue to serve on in the Third World today.
The subject rifle was built at Tula Arsenal in 1938 and imported by Century Arms International of Delray Beach, Florida. It appears to be either an armory rebuild or an unissued rifle, as there are none of the usual surface dings and pits associated with even garrison use, let alone combat service.
When I got the rifle in 2006, I showed it to Sergei Kimack, a neighbor in Tujunga, California. This Ukrainian veteran of the Great Patriotic War trained with the Mosin-Nagant but fought with the PPSh 41. He eyed the rifle suspiciously. “This is not Russian rifle,” Sergei said. “I have never seen Soviet weapon in this good of condition.”
The rifle came with a sling, ammunition pouches, oil bottle, and bayonet. No scabbard was ever issued for the 91’s bayonet. It was either on the rifle or thrust through the wide leather belt of the smerdi, the smelly ones. With a firm twist, the bayonet locks securely onto the base of the hooded post, adding 16 inches to the rifle’s already considerable length. This isn’t a problem when marching across the steppes to convince reactionary Kulaks of the virtues of Marxist-Leninism or even repelling the odd cavalry charge, but it is a severe disadvantage when operating out of trucks or armored vehicles.
As one shooter told me, “Mosin-Nagants are more accurate than they have a right to be.”
This is largely due to the bolt head being separate, ala a super-accurate Savage 110. A separate head is less affected by cant and setback than a one-piece lugs-on-shank bolt.
Beefy, peasant-proof sights are graduated from 100 to 2,500 meters. Remember that this is from an era when the concept of long-range “barrage” firing by massed infantry was still considered viable (the sights on original ’91s were graduated in arshins–28 inches each–the marching pace length of Russian infantry).
Nagant’s interrupter seems unnecessary, but it makes for a smooth, fast bolt stroke and prevents double feeding.
The short bolt handle seems needlessly beefy, but consider that it was designed to be used when frozen shut and beaten open with a tent stake. Mosins aren’t polished like Western European arms. They are very well made, but left a bit rough because pretty doesn’t mean effective, and when you’re building 37 million rifles polishing can use up a lot of time.
The 7.62x54R is the longest serving military cartridge ever, still soldiering on worldwide in PKM machine guns and SVD sniper rifles. A ballistic twin of the .30-06, most military loads throw a 148-grain FMJ bullet at just under 2,800 fps. You have to be careful with Combloc military loads, as many are corrosive, although all current commercial ammo is safe.
The rimmed, bottleneck casing is awkward for firearms designers, but the taper is superb for reliability in all arms because it greatly eases extraction–the most difficult chakra in the cycle of functioning. The 440-round sardine cans of military ammo are filled with paper packages of 15 rounds each. These can be placed into a high-sided five-round stripper clip for loading like a Mauser.
For testing, I had on hand Silver Bear, which is imported by Zanders Sporting Goods. It’s made in Barnaul, Siberia, and has a zinc-coated steel case and a 185-grain, copper-washed, mild-steel boattail. I bought a sardine can for $94, which was produced in 1974 in Plant 188. Good friend and fellow IMO contributor David Fortier tel
ls me the silver-tipped rounds were made in the Novosibirsk Low Voltage Electrical factory and have a 148-grain mild-steel core. The legendary Bob Forker was consulted on reloads, and I went with his recommendation of 46 grains of Varget. Brass was Hornady, with CCI Large Rifle primers and Hornady’s split-the-difference .3105 174-grain BTFMJ spitzers. Some sources list the bullet diameter as .310 and some as .311, so the .3105 eliminates speculation. I used a Hornady digital powder trickler, which was intuitive, taking only 10 minutes to set up, calibrate, and begin measuring. Loading was done on an RCBS turret press using RCBS dies.
As the ’91 was designed and factory sighted for firing with the bayonet fixed, it seemed only right to attach the long, spindly, Gettysburgesque, three-groove pig-sticker. But first I checked zero without the bayonet. Nekked, it grouped the Silver Bear a full foot high and 6 inches right. I attached the bayonet, the tolerances of which required some persuasion, and spent the rest of the range session in dread that the self-appointed “Range Safety Nazi” would have apoplexy if he saw it, typically sliding his truck to a stop and jumping out to holler at the slightest provocation. Luckily, he was a no-show.
I set out eight giant Birchwood-Casey Shoot-N-Cs (courtesy of The Target Barn) so as to create a wall of targets. This was to preclude the frustrations of the “It’s off the paper.” “Where off the paper?” time wasting usually associated with zeroing vintage arms. Then I plopped the 91/30 onto Shooter’s Ridge bags.
When loading into the magazine, take care to not place the cartridge up against the bolt face, or the round will nose dive and you’ll end up fussing with it to get it out. I ended up clearing several rounds by opening the magazine using the catch on its underside. Unless the bolt is completely closed, the tiny extractor will not snap over the rim, so you can run the bolt forward to stop, retract it, and still have a live round in the chamber. Single-feed rounds must have the bullet inserted into the chamber. Because of the case taper, if the case is just set on the follower, the bullet will bang head-on into the chamber shoulder. If done with enough force, it could set back the bullet.
The rifle’s two-stage trigger was heavier than my 8-pound RCBS scale, but I estimate it to be just a hair over–say 9 to 9.5 pounds and breaking with a modicum of creep.
Recoil was much more punishing than I expected from a full-length rifle, especially with a half-pound of bayonet attached. The Barnaul 185-grainers were toughest, with the light ball Factory 188 stuff displaying more brissance but less push. My Forker-recipe handloads were very gentle.
The Barnaul ammo grouped 4 inches left and 2 inches above point of aim, producing a 2.5-inch cluster with a flier opening it up to 4.75 inches. The military stuff went exactly to point of aim, with four rounds in a 2.25-inch row and a high flier opening up again to 4.75 inches. The handloads tossed everything into a Y-shaped clump 4 inches left and 1 inch low, yielding 3.63 inches, easily “minute-of-Bourgeois Reactionary.”