With our editor’s continued blessing, I’ll be presenting reviews and profiles of exceptionally affordable yet dependable firearms. Aesthetically-challenged guns that will never command a collector’s premium. Guns that were often made by the tens of millions, in countries that either no longer exist or whose names cannot be pronounced by Western tongues. Guns that attract sneers and looking-down-the-nose condescension from the bespoke shotgun crowd at your shooting range. Guns, in other words, for Cheap Bastards. Or, in this case, paranoid cheap bastards.
If you find entertainment in marginally informed but strongly-held opinions, you’ll never be bored with sports bars, talk radio and firearms bulletin boards. After interminable discussions of “the best carry gun ever” and “is my AK clone 922(r) compliant?” you’ll be regaled ad nauseum on the subject of gun for SHTF (Shit Hits The Fan) or WROL (Without the Rule Of Law).
When SHTF and society is WROL, it is opined, you’ll want a handy and reliable rifle at your side, as you try to survive or escape the ensuing Hobbesian jungle where life is “nasty, brutish and short.” Where anarchy provides liberty only to the strong and ruthless.
Let’s add IMHO to this theoretical search for a SHTF WROL firearm that you can stash away for a very rainy day, along with several hundred rounds of ammo and a can of dessicant, for two or three Benjamins. I recommend the Mosin-Nagant rifle as your new GBFF (Gun Best Friend Forever).
The Mosin-Nagant rifle fought the enemies of the Russian and Soviet Rodina from the 1890s until the early 1960s. The weapon’s history is a 70-year lesson in what life is like when you don’t get on well with your neighbors. The Russians used their Mosin-Nagants against the Japanese, the Germans, their fellow Russians, neighboring Finns and, finally, more Germans and more Japanese.
The Mosin-Nagant earns no great distinction in having been used and abused by millions of illiterate peasant soldiers and Soviet conscripts. It wasn’t the best all-around infantry rifle of its time. Truth to tell, the Mauser 98 and the Lee-Enfield would be superior SHTF rifles in almost every category—except reliability and price. Nothing holds a candle to the Mosin-Nagant when it comes to price and reliability.
It’s not just a beer-budget blunderbuss. During World War Two, the Mosin-Nagant was the weapon of choice (and necessity) of Soviet and Finnish snipers. These grim reapers of the eastern front used the Mosin-Nagant to single-handedly kill entire companies of enemy soldiers.
Sniper Vasiliy Zaytsev, fictionalized in “Enemy At The Gates,” used scoped Mosin-Nagants to snuff 242 Wehrmacht Soldaten in four months. His sniper girlfriend, Tania Chenaya, (who may or may not have looked anything like Rachel Weisz) gave at least 80 Germans a dirt nap with her own Mosin-Nagants. Lyudmilla Pavlichenko was even more effective: she and her Mosin-Nagants had 309 confirmed kills.
Even these Russian die-hards couldn’t keep up with Finnish sniper Simo “White Death” Hayha. He killed 505 Soviet soldiers in just 100 days during the Winter War of 1939-40, using only his Finnish-made Mosin and its iron sights. Gangsta!
It may be ugly and antiquated, but a Mosin-Nagant in the right hands (and a target-rich environment) is a nine-pound weapon of mass destruction.
Today, Mosin-Nagants are the Mother of All Budget-Minded SHTF WROL WTF is that rifles. With perhaps 50 million weapons rattling around worldwide, they’re cheap as chips. Big 5 will sell you a Mosin-Nagant for $120 ($89 if you wait for their biweekly ‘sales’). Prices are even better at gun shows and gun stores. My own M44 carbine, IIRC, cost a whopping $65 in 2008. Your mileage may vary.
The Trick to Training a Dog?
Buy the right dog. Not every Mosin-Nagant is worthy of your zombie panic-room. Triggers run from good to hideous, as do their bores. It’s important to buy a [relatively] good one from a rack full of candidates, if only because you can.
If you go Mosin-Nagant shopping at a gun show, you’ll have to convince the dealer to snip the zip-tie so you can check the trigger and barrel. If it’s a busy gun show, he’ll have other, more profitable sales to chase. Don’t be surprised if you’re SHTF gun elicits a TILI (Take It or Leave It). in that case, get thee to a gun store. Preferably on a slow day.
There’s nothing magic about picking a good Mosin-Nagant. Find one with a nice bright bore that doesn’t look too beat-up and locks up tightly. Test for a decent trigger pull. Mosin-Nagants have so few moving parts—there’s not too much else that can go wrong. As a bonus, many of them have been arsenal-refinished. Don’t worry about “collector value.” Unscoped Russian Mosin-Nagants have less collector value than remaindered Stephen King paperbacks.
As we’re asking a new (70 year-old) Mosin-Nagant to perform SHTF duty, you’ll need to function-test it and sight it in before you oil it up and put it in storage with maybe a thousand rounds of ammo. And hope you’ll never need it.
Where’s the fun in that? Once the Big Brown Truck drops off your crate of ammo, go ahead, make it pay. Blast holes in paper targets, tin cans and big game (void where prohibited by law). If you’re using steel-core ammo, have a go at any metal plate less than .5″ thick. [NB: If you've loaded you Zombie Plague rifle with steel-core bullets, keep in mind steel core bullets don't expand. Hint: aim for the head.]
7.62x54R ammo is cheap. Russia and Eastern Europe produce hundreds of millions of rounds each year. An online bulk retailer will ship you a sealed 440 round ‘spam can’ for as little as $82.50 plus shipping. Compare that to the cost of commercial .30-06, and you’ll notice that your Communist rifle has a strong Capitalist charm.
This cheap ammo is no slouch, either. Depending on barrel length, the Mosin-Nagant typically drives a 147-grain bullet at a velocity of 2600-2900 fps. Some of the cartridges feature a mild-steel bullet core. It’s banned from some shooting ranges, it’ll punch holes in almost anything. CBs (Cheap Bastards) note: surplus 7.62x54R ammo is made with steel cases and Berdan-type corrosive primers. No reloading for you.
Another crucial tip: corrosive primers require you to give the rifle a quick cleaning with Windex or another ammonia-based cleaner promptly after shooting, followed by a regular cleaning with your favorite gun cleaner like CLP or Hoppe’s No. 9.
Cleaning a Mosin-Nagant isn’t difficult or terribly time-consuming. But failure to do it even once can ruin the bore and trash the gun. Alternatively, you can buy non-corrosive, non-reloadable ammo from Wolf and Privi Partisan starting at $8.60 per 20-round box plus shipping, which is still a hell of a deal for full-powered rifle ammo.
Ergonomics? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Ergonomics!
When it comes to shooting comfort and ergonomic controls, the Mosin-Nagant’s got nothing. The nicest thing you can say about the club-like stock is that you’re not likely to break it by accident. It features a straight grip, a dismally short length of pull and a contusion-inducing steel buttplate.
The short pull length was meant to allow a proper hold while wearing incredibly bulky Russian winter uniforms. What’s good for Igor the Soviet Conscript sucks for you. If you’re taller than 5’6″ or if you’re wearing normal clothing, you’ll have the bolt cocking piece nearly in your eye socket—unless you attach a thick recoil pad.
The butt end of the Mosin-Nagant resembles a steel-clad cudgel, destructible only by fire or chainsaw. If Barry Bonds tried to snap one over his knee like a misbehaving Louisville Slugger, he’d be carried off the field with a shattered and protruding femur.
Like most of its contemporaries, the Mosin-Nagant sports a clumsy bolt handle that sticks straight out from the receiver at 3 o’clock, instead of bending gracefully downward. It’s ugly and awkward; doing exactly nothing to improve the slightly balky cock-on-opening action.
The Mosin-Nagant isn’t buttery-smooth like a Lee-Enfield, or a masterpiece of clockwork German engineering like a Mauser. It is what it is: strong, ugly, cheap and functional.
I Spit on Your Safety!
TheMosin-Nagant’s ’safety’ mechanism isn’t just clumsy; it’s a useless failure. Engaging it requires griping a small, slippery cocking piece on the rear of the bolt and pulling it back with 20 to 30 pounds of force while twisting it counterclockwise.
Disengaging it requires the same knuckle-crushing manipulation in reverse. This is challenging for iron-fingered rock climbers, difficult for mortal men and completely impossible for those with arthritis, gloves or cold fingers. Unless you go aftermarket, a Mosin’s only ‘safety’ mechanism is an empty chamber, or removing the bolt and carrying it in your pocket.
Hindsight is 20/20
Mosin-Nagants don’t do too badly in the sighting department. Its robust open sights are optimistically calibrated out to 1.5 or 2.5 kilometers. The carbine models (M38 and M44) are more challenging to shoot well because of their shorter sight radii, but benefit from much quicker handling. Aperture sights? Nyet. Scope attachment? Nyet. But M44s do come with a permanently attached side-folding bayonet which can stab your left middle finger if you grip the stock the wrong way.
Perceived recoil depends on the type of Mosin you’re shooting. Without a recoil pad, carbine-length M38s and M44s kick like a short barreled 12-guage shooting 3″ rifled slugs. Or maybe like a featherweight .35 Whelen. Either way, the undersized stock and the steel buttplate don’t help things. You’ll want a beefy recoil pad which adds perhaps an inch of pull to the stock. Long-barreled 91/30s are heavier and the mass soaks up the recoil, but they will still fit you better if you add a thick recoil pad.
I’ve fired many hundreds of rounds through various Russian Mosin-Nagants, long and short, with iron sights and scout scopes. Not all of them were guns I would have bought; some had horrid triggers and some had rough bores.
A good Mosin can shoot 3″ groups at 100 yards with surplus ammo—if you’ve got better eyes than mine. A bad one won’t keep five shots on a Domino’s pizza box. Family size. My own M44 with a scout scope will shoot 3″-4″ groups all day long, or at least until my pounding headache starts to impair my shooting.
The Mosin-Nagant isn’t a tack-driver. Buut it handles quickly and points instinctively and hits what you aim it at (if your target’s big enough). I’d like to spend more range time with a scoped 91/30 and its longer barrel (and its reduced muzzle blast) to really see what a Mosin-Nagant can do from the bench with optics. But then . . . reliable, accurate or cheap. You’ve already chosen two.
You will not find a more rugged or reliable firearm on earth. Other than poor triggers and mistreated barrels, which you’ll discover before purchasing, the only common functional flaw is difficult extraction once the gun heats up. This is usually caused by baked-in cosmoline in the chamber. A thorough cleaning while the gun is hot and you’re G2G.
The 7.62x54R is a rimmed cartridge; that’s what the “R” stands for. While the rim provides extremely positive extraction of spent cases, it requires special attention when loading. Each inserted cartridge must be pushed fully to the rear of the magazine before another is inserted on top of it. This makes reloading slower if you’re not using stripper clips.
Your Hurt Your WHAT?
The Mosin-Nagant is a ‘blast’ to shoot, on two levels. It’s all kinds of fun to go trigger-happy with a powerful rifle knowing you’re only spending $1 each time you empty the five-round magazine. The short-barreled Mosin variants (M38 and M44) are also amongst the loudest small arms ever built.
DO NOT fire them without hearing protection, even once, unless your life depends on it. I won’t fire mine without double hearing protection: plugs and muffs. Failure to double up sentences me to a splitting headache, which lasts for hours.
Surplus 7.62x54R ammo is optimized for light machineguns and Dragunov SVD sniper rifles, not for 20″ carbine barrels. When those bullets leave the muzzle of a 20″ barrel, they’ve still got burning powder behind them which blows out of the barrel and produces a dazzling blossom of flame, anywhere from six inches to three feet in diameter. It also subjects you and your fellow shooters to a grenade-like concussion.
Accessories and Modifications
The Mosin-Nagant has frugal charms and ergonomic flaws. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll start to wonder how you might be able to improve it a little bit. Maybe you could improve the trigger pull a little, or give it a functional safety mechanism, or replace the stock,or add a scope, or . . . whatever.
Don’t go there. I know the above video (and many more like it) show enthusiasts firing modified Mosin-Nagant’s at—and occasionally hitting—targets that are eight billion yards away. [ED: I blame Zaytsev.] But the Mosin-Nagant should be first and foremost a cheap gun.
The Mosin-Nagant aftermarket is thriving; you can transform your $89 STFU gun into a modern scoped hunting rifle or a tricked-out’Tacticool’ scout-sniper. You’ll end up dropping $400-$500 on a 70-year old gun that’s only cosmetically different from the $89 beater you bought. If you want a modern scoped rifle for $400-$500, there are plenty of better choices out there.
That said, some of the Mosin’s flaws can be addressed fairly cheaply. The safety, the bolt handle and the trigger can be collectively upgraded for about $120. These three modifications will make your Mosin a more accurate, comfortable and safe gun without compromising its character or reliability.
Safety and Bolt Modifications
Various third-party vendors offer Mosin cocking pieces with a steel ring welded to the safety knob, after the style of Swiss Schmidt-Rubin rifles, for around $25 plus shipping. This photo of a friend’s rifle also shows a $60 professional bent bolt modification. Steer clear of DIY bent bolt kits. Bolt handles are subjected to enormous stresses, which can shear the tiny machine screws that secure DIY bolt handles to the body.
Mosin-Nagant triggers are all over the place in terms of creep, weight, overtravel and grittiness. You should have selected a good trigger when you cherry-picked your rifle. If you didn’t, you can drop in a Timney match-grade trigger group for less than $100. Or you can get a $55 ball-bearing trigger modification from Huber. [ED: Next time, pay attention in class.]
Mounting a scope on a Mosin is tricky. A gunsmith can drill and tap the receiver for specific Weaver-style bases, but you’ll need a bent bolt to clear the scope. This combination of parts and projects can easily cost $200, so . .. stop already.
To avoid the expense of a bent bolt, you can opt for a long eye relief ‘scout’ scope mount. There are many cheap ‘no-gunsmith’ mounts, costing less than $50, which attach to the rear sight base. Most are too flimsy to withstand the recoil or hold their zero. S&K makes the onlyhigh quality no-gunsmith scout mount for the Mosin-Nagant, for about $90.
My own DAIS NAID (Do As I Say, Not As I Do) M44 wears an S&K mount. It’s proven to be durable and reliable through 300+ rounds fired. Degreasing it thoroughly and applying blue Loctite to all screws during assembly was crucial to holding zero.
Don’t be tempted to bolt an AK-style muzzle brake on your M38 or M44, even if the recoil beats the stuffing out of you. First off, they make these guns even louder. They also attach rather weakly to the front sight post, which is only pressed onto the barrel proper. The violent recoil and muzzle gasses from these guns can either permanently damage the front sight post or physically tear the muzzle brake apart. I have a twisted paperweight that used to be an AK-style muzzle brake on my Mosin-Nagant.
The Mosin-Nagant isn’t pretty and it’s not the sweetest shooting rifle in the world. It could be pressed into hunting or defensive service, but it’s not the first choice for a hunting rifle and it would make a lousy home defense carbine. For an SHTF WROL OMG you bought THAT? gun it doesn’t get any better—that’s to say, cheaper—than this.
Two-hundred dollars and change buys you a rock-solid rifle—and 440 rounds of ammo. Every time you load it and pull the trigger, it goes BANG and blasts a big hole in whatever it’s pointed at. Works for me.
Barrel: 20.2″ or 28.7″
Overall Length: 39.9″ or 50.7″
Weight: 7.5 lbs (M38) 8.8 lbs (M91/30) 9.0 lbs (M44)
Action: Magazine-fed bolt-action
Finish: Blue steel, wooden or laminated stock
Capacity: 5 round internal box magazine
Price: $90 to $120
RATINGS (Out of Five)
Style * *
It’s got a rugged and rustic Partisan charm, but has never won and will never win any beauty prizes.
Ergonomics * *
Nobody likes straight stocks or straight bolt handles. Stout recoil and a short length of pull give the carbine models punishing recoil. Add a ring safety and thick recoil pad for 2.5 stars.
Reliability * * * * *
Load, aim, pull trigger, and BOOM. Every time.
Customize This *
Trigger, bolt and safety can be upgraded cheaply, but proper scope mounting is costly. Buyer beware aftermarket muzzle brakes and DIY bolt modifications.
Overall Rating * *
Two stars is still a lot of gun for $89.