The Mosin Nagant 91/30 is a blunderbuss with a bad attitude, a fierce weapon of war from the tip of its pig-sticker bayonet to its skull-cracking iron butt plate. The original 91 was introduced in 1892, improved in 1930, and remained Russia’s top infantry rifle until 1945. Like the Ivans and Ivanettes who carried this beast through seven wars, the Nagant rifle packs a punch. It’s big, robust, heavy, loud, rude, sometimes crude, iron-balls tough, ugly in a beautiful way, cheap, historic and a whole lot of fun if you go easy on the vodka. Whoa. I just kinda described myself if I drop the historic thing and add more vodka . . .
The Russians made more Nagants than they did those annoying matryoshka dolls – those fat-chick dolls that open up and there’s a smaller babushka inside that one and you open that one and there’s a smaller one inside that one and you keep on going and going until you want to grab a sledgehammer and smash every freakin’ one into subatomic Soviet-era sawdust. Yeah, I don’t like them either.
Because Nagants were made by the bazillions and never thrown away, they don’t cost very much now. Prices start at about $75 bucks online and less than twice that in your local store. The online deal looks better, but when you add in the shipping and FFL fees (if you don’t have a C&R License) and the fact that the rifle can’t be checked out beforehand, maybe it’s not.
Nagants are also cheap to run. 440 round spam cans of milsurp ball ammo cost only a few rubles. Modern hunting ammo in 7.62x54R costs a few kopecks more, but still less than hunting rounds in .308 and .30-06. Cheap to buy, cheap to use, what’s wrong with that, comrade?
Every collector, recreational shooter, amateur historian or general firearms enthusiast should own at least one Mosin Nagant 91/30. Anyone who believes that battle rifle technology began and ends with the M-16 can turn away in horror, because this is a guide to buying and tuning your first Mosin Nagant 91/30. There isn’t much to dislike about the Moist Nugget (as it’s affectionately known), but there are a few myths and truths you need to know.
The Good, the Bad and the БЕЗОБРАЗНЫЙ
The Nugget does not have a reputation for great accuracy. Okay, I’m being charitable. The fact is that the standard infantry 91/30 isn’t a sub-MOA thread cutter and never will be. However, as a battle rifle, Nagant accuracy ought not to be measured in MOA, but in MON — Millions of Nazis. It’s the rifle that won the Battle of Stalingrad, which is accurate enough for me.
Westerners have heard that “General Winter” defeated the Wehrmacht. Oh, really? Well, then, exactly who was blowing all those Storm Trooping bastards straight to hell during those sultry summer on the Eastern Front? The Russian winter slowed the Germans up, that’s true, but it was the Nagant that knocked ‘em down — and it didn’t take half a year off to get its wind back.
91/30 construction at the height of WW2 was fast and furious. Wartime models show tool marks and rough stocks and a whole lot of other cosmetic defects that should not affect their function. However, the quality of prewar Nuggets was good to excellent in the Russian way, meaning they were purpose-built for an army of illiterate muzhiks and the guns worked, always.
Every gun was crazy overbuilt so it would withstand constant Arctic combat and kill from either end. Despite what you think you know, Russian metallurgy of the period was on a par with Western Europe’s. Finally, after the war the Russian military stored seventeen hundred million trillion of these rifles (more or less), using up the entire world supply of cosmoline in the process. So, there’s no shortage of Nuggets available – yet — although they are getting more difficult to find.
Next gripe — the Russians used corrosive ammo. Yes, it’s true, and so did every other WW2 army, but if properly maintained the rifles remain battle-worthy until this very day. Ivan had to keep his rifle in good shape because if he didn’t he’d end up on that long lonely roll of dead commies. And I won’t hesitate to remind y’all again that Russian ammo shredded the Wehrmacht more than it did the Nagants, so don’t overthink this issue.
Then there’s the safety. This is a real issue and not a myth. Some people say, charitably, that it blows. Well, yes. Actually, it does. Totally. It’s not unsafe, but for hunting, it’s noisy enough to scare off a hungry mama grizzly and her cubs. Even at the range, it can’t be operated easily by anyone who doesn’t have steel appendages. It’s slow to engage or disengage. Other than those “minor” quibbles, it sucks.
The only good thing that can be said about the Nagant safety is it that it’s unlikely to fail because, unlike a cross-bolt, bolt interlock, trigger disconnect or other Twentieth Century appliance, the Nagant’s Nineteenth Century cocker physically locks the bolt to the high-side of the receiver. It would take a mighty blow to dislodge the safety, but there’s no other good news about this Communist torture device except that it beats being water-boarded.
And then there’s the Nugget’s trigger. I read somewhere that the pull is longer than the Volga. That’s silly, since the Volga is 2,293 miles long and the Nugget’s trigger pull is maybe half that, tops. Besides, a lot of combat triggers have a long and crusty pull – think of the M-16 as one example. The Nagant trigger is as lengthy as the Don and as creepy as a mortuary, but it’s not much worse than a lot of basic triggers.
Anyone who wants a match trigger on a Nagant can get one from Timney or Huber, but I wouldn’t bother. Oh, since a trigger return spring was considered a potential weak spot, the Nagant doesn’t have one and honestly, it’s not necessary. If you insist on having one, a return spring upgrade costs under $10 and it’s an easy install.
Which brings us to the grip, which is as straight as Chuck Norris. The venerated Springfield 1903 had the same grip, which didn’t seem to bother the doughboys when they were tramp-tramp-tramping through Belleau Wood using Hans and Franz for human target practice. It’s also the same grip found on English-style shotguns and didn’t bother Elmer Fudd while Bugs was driving him cwazy. AR-lovers might think I’m cwazy too, but the grip doesn’t bother me at all.
Finally, a few words about cosmoline, the icky crap that puts the Moist in the Moist Nugget. One day, many centuries ago, the devil blew his nose like a flugelhorn and what shot out was cosmoline. Warm cosmo has the tantalizing aroma of freshly-poured road tar on a hot day. It’s gooey and it sticks like baby vomit. It’s darker than the interior of a bat’s colon. It gunks up the works and it’s gotta be removed or it will shut your rifle down and maybe make it unsafe.
I love it, though, because without cosmo, these military relics would have rusted away to Battenberg lace eons ago. It’s not difficult to de-cosmo a rifle, but it’s a time-consuming PITA and can’t be done at the show or store. If you find a Nugget that’s still “in cosmoline,” that’s not a bad thing, but it’s going to make it tough to check the rifle on the spot.
This much I promise: with a bit of time, effort, affection and engine degreaser, this ugly duckling can be turned into a very presentable duckling with no or very light non-Bubba gunsmithing. No, it’s never going to be a swan. On the other hand, a modern tack driver is never going to be an important piece of world history.
Choosing Your First Mosin Nagant 91/30
Let’s begin with the inevitable safety warning: Know and obey the rules of gun safety before you handle any gun, even one that’s older than you and should know better. Keep the muzzle pointed in the proverbial “safe direction” at all times, which as far as I’m concerned means “not at me.” You will need to depress the trigger when you’re examining Nagants, so check and double check to make sure the rifle isn’t loaded and neither are you.
Don’t do any of the following tests with a loaded rifle — if you shoot somebody while you’re flagging the room, that somebody may get pissed off and return the insult with an ever larger and more powerful gun. While it’s true that we should all reduce our carbon footprints, premature death by gunfight would be an extreme way to Save the Planet.
There are Nagants to shoot, and there are Nagants to collect. If you’re looking for wall-hanger, this won’t be the right guide for you. To find a shooter, shop for your Moist Nugget the same way my beloved GF shops for shoes – absolutely freakin’ relentlessly. Whether at a gun shop, gun show or private face-to-face transaction, remember that there are still plenty of Nuggets around if you look for them, so there’s no reason not to buy a nice one. Do your due diligence and you’ll make a lifelong friend.
So you go to the show or store and spy a Nagant beckoning from the rack, or you meet up with Bubba and he shows off his well-used “Roosky” rifle. Whaddaya do?
Assuming the rifle is relatively free of gunk, check the stock. Well, duh. Did you really need me to tell you that? Check for cracks, ugly gouges and Bubba’s classy “improvements.” Minor dings and compressions are to be expected, but if a Nugget doesn’t have sound wood, put it down and say до свидания, кот котенка – that’s “das bidania, kitty cat.” Why bother to repair a damaged stock? Also check the shellac and tenderly run your fingertips over the wood.
If the surfaces are sticky, slimy or just look wrong, the furniture’s been poorly redone. If the shellac is dull, rough or worn away, the furniture needs refinishing. Anyone who enjoys woodworking and is prepared to invest a little time and money to spruce up a stock needn’t be deterred.
On the other hand, if you don’t know Elmer Formby from Elmer Fudd, Elmer Gantry or Elmer the Cow, say до свидания. Some Nagants have been sporterized with synthetic stocks, which is fine for anyone who likes old wine in new bottles. To me, its heresy and whoever does such a thing should be have the Nagant’s eighteen-inch long spike bayonet shoved right up their old Moon River, if you get my thrust.
Nuggets are infamous for “sticky” bolts that are not always evident until the rifle is fired. There are a number of causes of “sticky bolt syndrome.” Cosmoline can harden and coat the chamber like shellac. When the bolt heats up, the cosmo softens and turns to mucilage. There could be a burr in the chamber. There could be a lot of things. Look for a sticky bolt by working it several times. The Nagant’s bolt is far from smooth like a Krag’s, but it should open, slide and close with mild pressure or a “keep-your-hand-out-of-the-cookie-jar-you-little-brat” lovetap.
If the bolt requires persuasion by force, deadly or otherwise, just say до свидания and pass it by. A sticky bolt can be cured, but why choose a rifle that’s already a bigger ball-breaker than Hillary Clinton? Open the bolt and point the barrel straight up without scaring any passing pilots. Give the rifle a little shake or slap, or touch the bolt handle lightly, and the bolt should slide open on its own. Ура!
Function-check the safety. The cocking knob looks inviting, but it’s so close to the stock that there’s no way to grab it properly. Seated or standing, brace the butt on your leg, body or crook of your elbow with the bolt closed. Squeeze the knob between the first two fingers of your strong hand, or your thumb and forefinger (which never works for me).
Now, pull back on the cocking piece, rapidly turning the knob counterclockwise and the rifle clockwise at the same time. With two hands sharing the work, deploying the safety is half as difficult. The bolt should now be locked to the receiver. Pull the trigger and nothing should happen. When you get your rifle home, practice this move until you need orthopedic hand surgery. Ten turns ought to do it, maybe less if you frequently limp-wrist your Wonder Nine.
In our next thrilling episode, we’ll inspect the crown and if you’re not bored we’ll check the bore. We’ll measure the firing pin depth and head spacing. We’ll look at some markings and – cover your noses – remove any remaining cosmoline. I have a tip on the last one that will make y’all heroes to your spouses. In the final chapter, we’ll sight her in, tune her up and blow some shit to smithereens.
I hope that anyone interested in purchasing and spiffing-up their first Moist Nugget will find this series of articles useful and amusing. Comments, suggestions and contributions of a non-financial nature are invited from members of TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia or anyone else who knows and appreciates the historic Mosin Nagant 91/30.
[Click here to read Chris Dumm's review of the Mosin Nagant]