So you’ve decided you want to compete in Civilian Marksmanship Program matches, be it at local clubs or with me at the national matches at Camp Perry. It all starts with the rifle. This article will explain the criteria for selecting a rifle that will give you a competitive edge in the matches and allow you to maximize your abilities . . .
There’s a lot of ground to cover here whether your looking for a Garand or a Persian Mauser. The selection process isn’t as simple as grabbing the nearest old gun off the rack at your FFL. You’ll need to be careful and pretty particular about what you are looking for because no two old military rifles are alike, even if they are the same model. You’re looking for an individual, not a species. Esti Ginzburg is a woman, but not all women are Esti Ginzburg, you know what I mean?
The first feature to look for in a rifle is the condition of the bore. If you’re at a gun show and the owner refuses to show you the bore, walk away and forget about him. There’s a reason he wouldn’t show it to you. You’re looking for a bore that’s virtually perfect. The rifling must be crisp and clean, but the bore doesn’t have to be shiny like a mirror. I’ve seen many old guns that shoot great that have what people call ‘dark’ bores.
Right after examining the barrel, look at the action. In particular, check the locking lugs and firing pin. If you’re serious about a rifle, have the owner or salesperson take it apart for you. Firing pins break and they are seldom checked when a gun is taken in at a store.
The lockup on the rifle should be tight with little to no play and the firing pin should be clean and show no signs of filing or tampering. Don’t fret too much about the springs inside the bolt. If your lock time is a bit slow, it could be that there’s grease or old cosmoline in there.
Next, gauge the overall exterior condition of the rifle. It should ideally be clean and dry. There shouldn’t be too many dings or dents in the wood. Wood condition varies wildly, but luckily it’s the easiest thing to replace if you decide the barrel and action are worth owning.
Next come the sights. Makes sure you have both a front and rear sight. The sights need to be crisp to your eye with no signs of modification or filing. Sights are easy to replace if necessary.
The sights should also move freely and adjustments shouldn’t be sticky. This really applies to only rear sights, as most front sights are only drift adjustable.
Look for little accessories that comes with the rifle, too. Things like sight hoods and muzzle caps often are lost over the years. If you find a rifle that still has other goodies, be sure to grab them.
If the gun passes all those tests, hand over the cash. This is where it gets interesting. There’s more that you’ll want to avoid than accept when it comes to these old rifles, so pay attention here. What I’m about to tell you isn’t meant to make anyone upset or rile the masses. What follows is my honest opinion about what you’ll need to get into the sport.
That said, don’t fall in love with your new gun. To be able to do well you’ll need a rifle that will print groups that have a radius of about 2”. All your shots should drop into a 4-inch circle at 100 yards and into about 8-inch at 200. That’s not optional. If your gun won’t do that, sell it. These things either shoot or they don’t. I’ve bought and sold dozens of ‘good’ rifles over the years and haven’t shed a tear over any of those I’ve passed on. These guns are sports equipment for playing a game, nothing more.
PICKING A M1 GARAND
Hands down, you will want a rebuilt M1. The M1 is the favorite rifle of an entire generation, but it’s also a sorry old oar that was obsolete before it was even invented. Many praise it for being revolutionary, but keep in mind that it was the result of government criteria last to what they believed an infantry weapon should be. The Nazis were light years ahead of the US government in terms of arms design and even John Garand knew it. We’re still living in the Sturmgewehr era, which should tell you something.
The M1 is nothing but a curio these days. While well-loved and functional, they’re ill suited for anything except the competitions designed around it. I’m not being facetious, either. The M1 is only relevant today because we as a community have chosen to make it so and that affects the price and quality of the guns you’ll find out there.
On that note, understand that the M1 needs to be rebuilt to make it competitive. The M1 isn’t a terribly accurate rifle to begin with. It’s quite literally the sum of its parts. You will need to check every single piece of that rifle and tune them all to your shooting style to make it work for you. This isn’t really a beginner’s task in all honesty. Sure, you can get an M1 that shoots, but if you’re reading this, you are probably looking for an accurate one. That takes time and expense.
New stocks are available from a number of manufacturers and allow you to do away with that greasy board that was on it when you bought it. New barrels are also available and are a must if you want to do well.
Sights are next. The rifle must have solid and repeatable sight adjustments. Many M1s I’ve seen have a slippage issue where the sight will walk down. People sometimes put clear nail polish in the mechanism to freeze it in order to maintain zero if slipping occurs. Just be careful of this and test the adjustment knobs out while pressing on the rear ghost ring. You shouldn’t feel it moving, even under pressure.
Accuracy on a Garand is 50/50. Many people assume that M1 rifles are really good because it’s what Gramps carried across Europe. In reality the practical accuracy is about the same as that of a good AK. I saw a skilled, expert level big-talker shamed by a guy using an Arsenal SLR series AK in 7.62×39 in a national match course of fire. He may have beat every other M1 shooter, but fell short of the AK guy. He didn’t just lose, he lost badly. At 200 yards. Oh and I wasn’t just present that day, I was the guy with the M1.
The Garand shoots well for a 1930s era semi-auto, but it isn’t great by our modern standards. Expect across-the-board accuracy to be about 5 to 8 MOA for an off-the-shelf rifle. A rebuild with a new barrel and stock will bring that down to 3 to 6 MOA. You can do better with a custom build and match ammo.
All that is to say that the M1 is not a beginner’s rifle. If that’s the way you want to go, fine. Just have realistic expectations and be prepared for lots of frustration.
Garands in various degrees of quality range in price from $700 to $2000. There is no telling what you’ll get as far as accuracy in that price range. I’ve seen quality guns go for $600 and garbage sell for over $1500. A good rebuild on a Korean War receiver will run about $1200 these days.
PICKING A 1903 SPRINGFIELD
There’s a winning combination that I see used over and over again at both my local ranges and at Camp Perry. Unlike the M1 where accuracy is willy-nilly even with a rebuild, the 1903 can be made into a tack-driver with little effort.
Like the M1, you will want a rebuild. A 1903A3 action is ideal. The stamped metal parts are junk, so ditch those. What you will want in place of the WWII-era stampings are the earlier milled parts common to the original 1903. These are a thicker and better design and provide smooth surfaces to grasp while shooting offhand. That will also add a bit of weight to the gun, making it a hair more stable in the right hands.
The 1903 is blessed with a Mauser action, but it does much to insult the innate beauty and perfection of the German designs. It’s a Mauser knock-off, but it’s a good knock-off and as such, the feed is smooth and reliable. If it’s not, you are likely in possession of a parts build on a refinished drill rifle. Those rifles can be identified by distorted metal coloration on the magazine switch assembly and a gritty action.
You can find professional level rebuilds on drill rifles. In fact, some of the best rifles are done this way. You can actually buy completely rebuilt rifles as I’ve described right at Camp Perry. They’re fully re-parkerized and competition ready in most cases. Expect them to run in the $800-1200 range.
There are a variety of 1903 stocks available that are legal for competition. There isn’t anything wrong with the straight stock, but the C stock is by far the best. It allows for easier indexing of the hand and relieves wrist fatigue.
Lastly, replacing a barrel on a 1903 is easy and can be done just like any other bolt action rifle. Many fine replacement barrels are available and will produce exceptional groups with match quality ammunition. Expect accuracy to be about 2 MOA. These are solid and accurate rifles when you do them right, but are sadly nowhere near the quality and aesthetic beauty of their European counterparts.
THE WORST VINTAGE MILITARY RIFLE
Picking a vintage military rifle some of the most fun you will have in CMP, trust me. There’s something so invigorating about hunting down a rare or mint bolt action rifle and seeing what potential lies under the wood. Our domestic rifles are soulless clubs compared to their foreign counterparts.
There are three rifles that dominate the top rungs of CMP and only two (discussed below) that are worth a damn to most people. The one that I have a great hatred for, though, is the 1917 Enfield. This rifle is a disappointing combination of Mauser genius and breathtakingly crude engineering.
Do you sense some animosity on my part? You should. I hope the guys running the CMP read this because I’m just saying what all of us are thinking. The 1917 doesn’t belong in competition against foreign military rifles. This rifle belongs in a combined match against the 1903 or hanging on a wall. Preferably the latter.
I’m not saying this to upset anyone. The 1917 isn’t a beginner’s rifle and will not let you shoot well. I’ve coached and competed for over a decade and I’ve never had a good time with these guns. Out of a dozen students I’ve coached that started with a 1917, none kept them longer than a competition season. I’ll tell you because I know. This is not a beginner’s rifle and you will have difficulty becoming proficient with it.
I’ve shot with these rifles and find them to be the least comfortable and accurate available today. I’m convinced that the 1917 was designed to cause headaches. It suffers from a poor trigger and nasty ergonomics. The shape of the stock is problematic for match shooting and makes the shooter assume an unnatural head position to look through the sights because of where they’re located on the receiver. I’d describe the entire rifle as ungainly. Is it a good collector’s rifle? Yes. Is it a good gun for someone looking to begin in competitive shooting? No.
Why then is it a top rifle in the Vintage match? It’s because the ones that shoot do so very well in the hands of an expert. Out of 100 rifles, only one is worth it. The guys who found those few have held onto them and make good use of their accuracy. Expect 1903-level accuracy on a good one, but Mosin-like 10-14 MOA sprays from the rest. Last year at Perry, both the highest and the lowest scoring shooters shot 1917 rifles.
If you want one, you’ll be hard pressed to find a quality 1917 for under $1200 these days. Many junk builds or parts guns are floating around out there in that price range. I strongly recommend anyone who is looking for a CMP rifle to steer clear of 1917s.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
There only two rifles that you should consider seriously if you want to shoot in the Vintage matches. First is hands-down the best and most accurate CMP rifle out there. It will out-shoot anything and everything and on average is one-third the cost of the others. I’m talking about the Swiss K31. These rifles can commonly be found in excellent condition with either a walnut or beech stock.
K31 triggers are among the very best available, putting even modern versions to shame. The triggers are two-stage and break like glass. I’ve not found a better trigger on any service rifle. It isn’t just my own rifle, either. Every single one I’ve handled has the same pull, courtesy of Swiss craftsmanship.
The K31 takes the 7.5x55mm cartridge. This can be found as surplus occasionally, but modern ammunition is common and readily available. You’ll want to reload for this round if you can. It takes any commonly available .308 bullets and most standard powders like H4895 or Varget. My own K31 has shot into 1 MOA territory using match handloads and has accounted for two golds and two silvers at Camp Perry.
K31’s fall into the $400 range and can typically be had in unmodified condition. The sling on the K31 is meant to be mounted on the side, which some shooters find distracting. It’s CMP legal to switch the barrel band to the older K11 style that features a bottom sling loop.
The next rifle is arguably one of the most beautiful ever made. The Swedish M96 Mauser is an excellent rifle to get into CMP competition on. The rifle is well-balanced and has a very long sight radius. Much like the British Lee-Enfields, the M96 is a cock-on-closing design. For reference, the 98 Mauser cocks on opening. The cock-on-closing feature allows rapid bolt manipulation and smooth cycling.
The M96 benefits from being chambered in the 6.5x55mm. The weight of the rifle combined with the low recoil of the smaller 6.5 bullet means that you can practice without worrying about being beaten up.
These rifles go in the $400-600 range and are sadly the common victims of sporterization. It isn’t often worth the cost of repairing one to do so. Look only for rifles that are in shape and unmodified in any way.
The 6.5x55mm cartridge is easily reloaded and uses about 1/3 less powder than its .30 cal peers. Even a hot load is pretty mild with this round. Modern high quality match bullets are readily available and will allow you to wring the best accuracy out of the gun. Anything .264 will do. If you already load for 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 Grendel, 6.5×47, or .260 Rem, you will be right at home with the 6.5×55.
OTHER SURPLUS RIFLES
I got into match shooting with a pedestrian Mosin 91/30. It was a cheap way to start out and was a fun gun. Mosins are often thought of as accurate rifles and they are. They’re just not accurate enough for competition and the modifications made to make them more accurate are illegal for CMP matches. The sling setup isn’t good for match shooting and the triggers are typically terrible.
The only Mosin worthy of CMP is the Finnish M39. It’s a good rifle and all were tuned at the state arsenal in Finland. I shot one of these for couple years and then sold it. They’re solid rifles, but just aren’t able to produce the kind of accuracy common to the K31 or the M96.
British rifles have a number of problems in general and are best avoided. The various Enfield pattern rifles may have been fine for fighting Nazis, but sadly aren’t very good for competition. The days of quality British surplus are over and most of what’s being imported now are leftovers or discards.
I’ve shot Enfields and find them to be of poor quality when compared to other available options. The lack of match reloading components and poor bores plague this otherwise solid rifle family.
There are a large number of Mauser derivatives available for under $300 today and most aren’t match-quality. Yugo 8mm rifles are cheap now, but aren’t match level guns.
German Gew 98 rifles are typically of good quality, but are rare and expensive. Nazi K98k rifles can be had in nearly new condition and are usually pretty good for match shooting. The only problem is their sling setup, but that can be fixed with a little effort and sling modification.
RECOMMENDATIONS AND EXPECTATIONS
So now that you’ve read my opinions on rifle selection, what do I actually recommend? Well, if I were you, I’d skip the US service rifles to start. I don’t hold the M1 or 1903 in very high regard for this sport because of their high buy-in cost and the fact that they take a good deal of work to make accurate.
If I were in the market for a rifle today, I’d hunt down an M96 or a K31. I’d likely pick the M96 if I had to choose only one.
Wait. Why? You said earlier that the K31 was the very best, right? The M96 is an easier rifle to learn on. If you only shoot in one match, make it the Vintage at Camp Perry. When compared to the 7.5×55, the 6.5×55 is just plain easier to shoot. If you reload, it uses less powder and can fire lighter bullets.
If you happen to be a woman or small-statured, the M96 just makes sense. It has the recoil of a .243 and doesn’t require a great amount of physical strength to use. The cock-on-closing action doesn’t require rough cycling and is easier to use than a straight-pull action or a Garand en-bloc clip.
In short, you’ll be hard pressed to find a CMP rifle that offers all the benefits of the M96 purely as a game gun.
Before you laugh me off and lovingly cradle your M1, take into account that this series is aimed at beginners. M1 thumb is enough to make anyone reject CMP. For those who don’t know, you must stick your thumb into the M1 action to load it and the bolt can and will close on you. It can rip nails off in some cases. It’s happened to me. Recoil on a 1917 or 1903 is punishing. Thirty rounds in a match of 120gr 6.5 is nothing compared to 30 rounds of 175gr .30-06.
Remember that this is a game, nothing more. You aren’t going to go fight in the trenches or punch a Nazi. You’re going to play a game using old guns. Pick something that will allow you to do your best and have fun. Even if you don’t go to Camp Perry, this is still a blast and will give you hours of enjoyment. The CMP culture is lots of fun and the majority of people in it are very willing to help and share in the good times.
Next time, we will discuss rifle set-up and accessory selection. Good luck finding your rifle!