Every man needs a rifle. Some would even go so far as to say that the rifle makes a man. If that’s the case, why not have one of the manliest guns that has ever dared to exist? Enter the 91/30 Mosin Nagant, a 120 year-old design with a legacy that eclipses nearly every other semi-modern firearm. Mauser? Get a cat. Springfield? What is that, some sort of retreat for pansies? Garands? Mmmm, cinnamon rolls. Where was I? Oh right, the history lesson.
For the uninitiated, the Mosin Nagant is the rifle that really won World War II for the Allies alongside General Winter. It shot, stabbed, and crushed its way through the Third Reich in the harshest battlefield conditions imaginable and kept on chugging in frontline Russian military service as a sniper/designated marksman weapon until 1963 when it was officially replaced by its handier semiautomatic grandson with which it shares a caliber, the SVD Dragunov. Even the NVA and Viet Cong utilized Nagant-based PU sniper rifles to great effect in the Vietnam War. Since then, the Mosin Nagant has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among shooters looking for cheap entry into the world of centerfire rifles. That’s essentially the same thing as your grandfather working his entire life until he’s 70 years old and then taking up ultramarathons as a hobby on the side (assuming he’s made of steel and wood, of course, which some men back then practically were). This is all well and good in theory; the allure of a good-looking, yet virtually unbreakable gun is a powerful force indeed.
However, there are a few things you should know about Natasha before you pull the creepy, stiff, and sometimes mushy trigger to bring her home in your arms. She is not to be treated like any old internet bride, bought sight unseen unless the seller is completely honest about the condition and any issues that may possibly crop up, as Natasha can sometimes be in the habit of hiding things. Because 37 million of these rifles were made and a large majority have sat in storage for decades, the condition varies so widely between examples that some can pose more of a threat to the operator than they do to the potential target. This virtually eliminates most online purchases (with the exception of reputable dealers) for that reason. You don’t buy an old car without kicking the tires first and Natasha is no different.
When scoping out a potential purchase, the first thing you must do is check the condition of the bore. Pull the bolt rearward as far as it will travel and depress the trigger, then continue to pull the bolt out of the receiver. Look down the bore into a light source, carefully checking for excessive pitting and worn down grooves in the rifling. It’s almost a given that an average Nagant will not produce accuracy that is anything to write home about unless it’s been given the tender loving care it deserves. If the barrel has been completely shot out or is pitted beyond contempt, you may be able to hit the barn if you’re inside the building and pressing the muzzle to it.
The same can be said for the tip of the muzzle. If the crown is beat to hell or there is evidence of counterboring (a smooth section with no rifling), you’re better off with a different specimen because both of these conditions can pose a serious detriment to accuracy. A beat-up crown or improperly counterbored rifle will cause the bullet to ‘keyhole’ as it impacts the target due to the barrel’s failure to stabilize it as it leaves the muzzle, which will consequently have terrible effects on group sizes. In addition to openings in group size and keyholing, degradations in the rifling and the crown that fail to stabilize the bullet create the oft-purported devastating wounds created by 7.62x54R. If the bullet tumbles through the air on the way to the target, it creates a dramatic wound channel upon impact. This is not an inherent property of the round itself, but rather a side effect of a poorly cared for barrel. You want Natasha to be as good or even better of a shooter than you are and a rusted smoothbore tube screwed to your rifle is the best way to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Next, you will need to check that the rifle in question is headspaced properly so that it doesn’t spontaneously transform into grenade or shoot the bullet in one direction and the bolt back out of the gun in the other. Headspacing is absolutely crucial to ensuring the rifle operates safely and only requires a headspace gauge between the chamber and the bolt face. Once the barrel checks out, reinsert the bolt into the receiver (depressing the trigger allows it to return to the normal operating position) and insert the headspace gauge. If the bolt closes on a no-go or field type headspace gauge, put the rifle down and find another. Your fingers, face, and wallet will thank you.
Assuming that everything is good up to this point, begin to look at the overall fit and function of the gun. If the action is relatively smooth and the pieces look like they were fit together by an actual human being with even a vague understanding of what the word ‘tolerances’ means, you’re in pretty good shape. Pre-WWII manufactured rifles are preferable due to higher factory standards during peacetime that allowed for more time to be spent crafting each rifle as opposed to simply churning them out, quality be damned. Keep in mind that these were made by the same country that couldn’t guarantee every soldier a rifle during wartime, so quality control certainly wasn’t the biggest priority. Stamped (as opposed to “electropenciled” digits, which were employed to force-match parts) matching serial numbers are a bonus for both collector value and ensuring all the parts play well with one another, as evidenced by conditions such as poor bolt lock-up, non-functioning safety, or a host of other ills. Discord among the ranks of parts does not a happy operator make. In addition, keep an eye out for rifles with hexagonal receivers or markings indicating it was made by Remington or New England Westinghouse Company, as these factors increase the value (especially the latter two). Rifles that have been fettled by the Finns fetch a pretty penny as well.
When handling a potential purchase candidate, don’t be dissuaded by the feel of the trigger, even though you will be fortunate to find one that consistently breaks in the neighborhood of seven to eight pounds. That is easily remedied with some sanding in crucial places on the trigger sear, but that will be covered at another time. Before making a purchase, make sure the rear tang of the receiver fits in well with the top of the grip area of the stock. A large gap between the tang and the stock will impair accuracy because that void lets the whole action recoil inside the stock as the bullet travels down the barrel. An action that recoils within the stock under recoil is no good for precision.
One thing that bears mentioning is Natasha’s longstanding relationship with her good friend cosmoline. Ol’ Cosmo will be a pain in your ass initially, until you realize it’s solely responsible for keeping Natasha fresh and invigorated through retirement, in which case you begin to appreciate it. Until the first time you get the rifle hot (which won’t take very long, due to the relatively thin profile of the barrel)and your bolt jams due to cosmoline seeping out, that is. Fear not: all it takes to break up Natasha’s decades-long marriage with Cosmo is a toothbrush, some hot water, and a magical solvent called Brakleen that can be found at most any auto parts store worth its salt. Spray the Brakleen on the affected areas, let it sit for a few seconds to dissolve the cosmoline, and then scrub it with the brush under the hot water. Nagant bolts are usually quite sticky because they are packed with goop. A thorough cleaning and disassembly of the bolt and chamber face almost always makes it feel like new. In addition, you may want to refinish the stock by soaking it with a degreasing agent it and giving it a thorough scrub, followed by your choice of stain for a more aesthetically-pleasing color and linseed oil or tung oil for protection. Depending on how you feel about having an unknown Ivan’s 50+ year old sweat stains on your rifle, this step is strictly optional.
Now that she’s not all sticky from past relations with Cosmo and Ivan and you’re reasonably sure Natasha won’t explode in your face like a malevolent girlfriend, it’s time to schlep all eight pounds, four feet to the range. If Ivan could carry it across Russia while merely subsisting on rations that were “guaranteed to keep for years, guaranteed to be loaded with calories, and guaranteed to be hard to chew yet virtually flavorless,” you can haul it around for a few hours. Quit complaining, анютины глазки. Surplus ammo is cheap and readily available, but it comes at the price of corrosion if neglected and lack of accuracy, as well as being constructed with a steel core FMJ projectile. This is largely a nonfactor if you have stock in the company that makes Windex and you’re looking to blast some holes in something for very little money. If you want much more respectable results with none of the surplus drawbacks, however, save yourself the headaches and get thee some Prvi Partizan (PPU) brass cased ammunition Brown Bear lead nose hunting rounds, or reload like a real man. This is especially critical if armor-piercing rounds are verboten at your chosen shooting venue. The range masters won’t take kindly to you slowly but surely transforming their steel into something resembling but not as tasty as swiss cheese.
Most shooters will slap a target on something at 100 yards, claw through the marshy swamp that is the trigger, and be distressed to find that the round didn’t land anywhere near the ten ring. This is because most Nagants were sighted in from the factory with a 300 yard zero (and some had the bayonet on, while others did not), which means it will be shooting approximately three to four inches high and likely a few inches left at 100 yards. Again, have no fear, for there is a cheap and simple solution to the problem. Find a place that sells cotton ear swabs and buy the type that have a brightly colored plastic tube connecting the middle. Use a small pair of scissors to snip it to the appropriate length (about half an inch long) and then slot it over the front sight. You may need to drill out one end in order for it to fit over the front sight post. Trim it after each shot until your rifle’s elevation is appropriate for a 100 or 200 yard zero, depending on your preference. Use the rest of the swabs to clean your ears or the smaller parts of the rifle. If you think you’ll want to stretch Natasha’s long Russian legs a little bit, put a small dot of fluorescent paint or brightly colored nail polish at the point where the plastic and the tip of the front sight intersect, so as to preserve the original aim point for 300 yards. Explain to your significant other that you need the nail polish for “reasons.” In effect, you now have a vague facsimile of a fiber optic sight except without the whole “fiber optic” part.
Alternatively, get a clamp-on rail and inexpensive long eye-relief or ‘scout’ scope (Hi-Lux makes a good one on the cheap, as pictured at the top of the article) for increased accuracy if your eyes let you down as much as mine do. One last thing: if, like me, you have trouble operating the safety (and let’s face it, nearly everyone lacking superhuman strength with fingers of carbotanium and/or proper technique does), you can essentially remove the mechanical safety from the equation altogether without compromising the safety of the firearm by cutting a section of thick rubber tubing, heater hose, etc. into a half-moon shape about two inches long then inserting it behind the trigger and around the rear of the trigger guard in order to prevent the trigger from traveling far enough rearward that it causes a discharge. When you’re ready to fire, just remove the section of hose from behind the trigger. You will find this method is much easier than wrestling with the safety in dismay as your quarry (quadruped or otherwise, depending on the circumstance) escapes with nary a single 7.62mm hole in it or proceeds to put several ancillary ventilation holes in you, after which you will assume room temperature. Natasha exists to make other things assume room temperature. Natasha is simple like that.
Side note: when loading the rifle with individual rounds, make sure the rim of the case goes nearly all the way to the rear of the magazine so that it feeds reliably. When loading rounds into the stripper clip, stack the rim of the top case in front of the one below it to avoid a special type of jam called ‘rimlock,’ wherein the rim of the top cartridge runs into the rim below it, which consequently prevents the bolt from picking up rounds in the magazine. Additionally, brass cases tend to feed better than their steel and copper-colored surplus counterparts, as do genuine (non-reproduction) stripper clips. Curves are great on a number of things, but Nagant clips are not one of them. Good stripper clips can be identified by straight lines on the side of the clip and sharp angles within the body that hold the cartridge more securely. When it’s time to load the rifle, lift up on the top round and use it to push down on the rest so they are fully seated in the magazine. Close the bolt and the stripper clip should pop right out. Easy as kulebyaka. If you have followed these instructions up to this point, your groups should look something like this:
The more you read about, shoot, and tinker with Nagants, the more you realize that they offer absurd value for money, endless customization, and an addictive ownership experience with history to boot. Удачной охоты, товарищи! (Happy hunting, comrades!)
Other helpful Mosin Nagant resources (that should cover most anything I somehow managed to leave out):
Okie headspace gauges: http://www.okiegauges.com/
Rock Solid Industries (custom parts): http://www.rocksolidind.com/
7.62x54R.net (a comprehensive, if a bit dry, guide to the famous Russian rifle and all of its accessories, this represents almost literally everything you could possibly need to know about Nagants): http://7.62x54r.net/MosinID/MosinIDII.htm
Ballistic Studies.com: http://www.ballisticstudies.com/Knowledgebase/7.62x54R.html
A guide to Nagant stripper clips: http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2012/04/chris-dumm/stripper-clip-trivia-tip-mosin-nagant-edition/
All photos in this post belong to me and are subject to copyright by Center Mass Firearm Blog.