There are few famous ‘antique’ rifles in human history which are as renowned as the Mosin Nagant. This rifle is more than a century old but is still used down to today by hunters as well as some professional armies.
The Mosin Nagant has a glorious history, from charging bloodbaths and cunning sniper kills to revolutions and hunting. This rifle has been through a lot and here we’ll look at it.
Origins of the Mosin Nagant
Russia is famous for manufacturing weapons and is probably the largest exporter of firearms in the world. But the case was not the same a century ago. It all started during the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-1878. The Soviet troops used the Berdan single-shot rifle. It was no match for the Turkish forces equipped with Winchester repeaters. The Soviet army suffered heavy casualties especially at the siege of Pleven, which made the commanders look for better combat rifle alternatives.
Gunsmiths submitted three rifles for evaluation in 1889. One was a 3-line design (1 line = 1/10th inch, 3 lines = 7.62mm/.30cal) by Captain Sergei Ivanovich Mosin of the Imperial Red Army. The second was a 3.5 line design (9mm/.35cal) by Belgian designer Leon Nagant. Another 3-line design came from Captain Zinoviev. The designs were tested from 1890 to 1891.
Nagant’s design had a better feed system, but a more complex disassembling procedure. A committee finally decided on Mosin’s version. The production of these rifles began in the year 1891 under the name of 3-line Rifle M1891 (Pekhotniya vintovka obr. 1891g). However, there was bias in the selection process: Russian politicians appeared to favor this design by a fellow Russian.
This claim of bias lies in the dispute filed by Leon Nagant. He filed an international patent protection over the “interrupter”. Mosin couldn’t file a patent because he was a Russian Army officer. The status of his design was an official government “secret”. To protect the gun - and t to save money too - Russian officers threatened Nagant with a ban from any further ‘trials’ of the Russian Army.
Under this pressure, Nagant withdrew his case. He probably couldn’t have won because Mosin’s design was already claimed as a ‘government secret’. Later Nagant remained a major contractor of the Soviet Army. He gained a lot of fame with his 1895 Nagant revolver, which was adopted as the official sidearm of the Russian Army.
At this point you might be wondering why it’s the Mosin Nagant, then. That’s because it wasn’t original name of this rifle. Instead this spread in the West due to the disputes about who really designed it - Sergei Mosin or Leon Nagant.
The Russo-Japanese War (1904 - 1905) was the debut theatre for Mosin Nagant rifles. By 1904 more than 3.8 million M1891 rifles had been manufactured in three Russian ordnance factories in the cities of Tula, Izhevsk and Sestroryetsk. However, it didn’t see much combat because a large part of the Russian Army on the front lines still had to make due with the single-shot Berdan rifles.
The two primarily manufactured versions until 1905 were the dragoon (issued with a bayonet) and cossack (issued without a bayonet) types. Cossack rifles are pretty rare these days and can be recognized by the mark Ka3 on the chamber.
World War I, the Russian Civil War and the Finns
Slowly, the Mosin Nagant became the regular combat rifle of the Russian Army. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Russia had to increase the production of its ordnance. However, the infrastructure and weapon manufacturing facilities in Russia were not as good as they are today. With a need to build rifles as quickly as possible, the Russian government gave an order of 1.5 million M91 rifles to Remington and another 1.8 million rifles to the New England Westinghouse Company - both based in the US - in 1915. The order also included a substantial amount of bullets for these rifles.
The M91’s were widely used in WWI. You can find them with markings from many European countries who either captured them or purchased them during the war.
The US-Produced Mosins
Remington produced 750,000 rifles before halting the production in 1917 due to the October Revolution. 469,951 rifles were exactly shipped to Russia. When the new Bolshevik regime headed by Vladimir Lenin gained power, the order was canceled. The Russian government didn’t even pay for the delivered weapons, which brought both Remington and New England Westinghouse to the brink of bankruptcy.
To overcome this loss, these companies decided to sell the rifles locally. Approximately 280,000 rifles were procured by the US military and the British Expeditionary forces, both of which used them primarily for training but also in combat.
Spread by Force
A large number of Mosin Nagants were captured by German and Austro-Hungarian forces during WWI and put into use. At the outbreak of the Russian Civil War in 1917, the infantry and dragoon versions of the Mosin Nagant were still in production. It was a widely available weapon because of its enormous production and use by the military. The M91 served both the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces.
Later, Russia sold a lot of M91’s to the Finnish army in the 1920’s. Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian Empire. The Finnish military was acquainted with using the Mosin Nagant as they fought alongside the Tsarist army. However, after the Russian revolution, Finland declared independence from Russia in 1917. This led to further revolution and a bloody conflict between the Soviet and Finnish forces. The Finns defeated the Russian forces in Finland and forced them to escape.
The Finns, though, were able to preserve the ordnance depots and stores of arms. They were under imminent threat of retaliation from the Soviets. But they had large numbers of the M1891 decided to adopt it as their primary military rifle.Finland produced several variants of the Mosin Nagant with some upgrades from different countries and companies. Thus eradicating several basic problems with the rifle. The Finns traded a lot of Mosin Nagant rifles with other countries for weapons and military technology.
The Mosin spread to various other countries as well, but Finland played the largest role outside of Russia.
World War II and Three Famous Snipers
Upon the onset of World War II, the Mosin Nagant had already completed five decades of service. It was a standard issue rifle for the Soviet army.
The Mosin Nagant model 1891/30 was modified and adapted as a sniper rifle in 1932. The mounts and scopes over the Mosin were an upgrade over the Germans. Later the Soviets engineered their own designs, such as the 3.5x PU fixed scope and mount. This revolutionized the use of Mosin Nagant and made it an effective long-distance weapon.
The M91/30 stands among the most respected and reliable sniper rifles of all time. It is easy to maintain, rugged and accurate. It offers an amazing combination of engineering and durability for a sniper. It performed extremely well in the brutal theaters of WWII, especially on the Eastern front.
The rifle reached the zenith of its fame in the hands of some of the most deadly snipers of the war. Famous Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev killed 225 Wehrmacht soldiers including 11 SS snipers between 10 November to 17 December 1942, during the battle of Stalingrad. He was awarded the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. The 2001 movie “Enemy at the Gates” was inspired by the story of Zaytsev.
Another sniper feared by the Axis forces during WWII was Ivan Sidorenko. Conscripted into the Soviet Red Army in 1939, he fought in the Battle of Moscow as the junior lieutenant of a mortar company. He taught himself to snipe during the early days of the war by taking out several German soldiers. He was later promoted to be a sniping trainer for the Soviet Army.
In his entire career, Sidorenko amassed a total of 500 confirmed kills. He also trained over 250 Soviet snipers during the course of his service. He also was awarded the title of Hero of Soviet Union, on June 4, 1944.
This article would be incomplete without talking about the most deadly and renowned Mosin Nagant sniper of all time, the Finn Simo Hayha. He was so feared by his enemies that they named him, “the white death”.
Simo Hayha killed 505 men during the 1939-40 winter war against the Soviets. This is the highest number of kills by any sniper in a major war. Simo used both his M91/30 rifle and submachine gun to kill his enemies.
The most amazing fact to note here is that Simo Hayha never used a scope. Instead, using just the iron sights, he relied on his knowledge and skills. He somehow remained effected even from a distance over 500 yards. Simo served in war during brutal winters where temperatures would fall below -40 degrees Celsius. All of his kills were achieved within 100 days, averaging 5 a day.
The Cold War and Beyond
Following WWI, the Soviets halted the production of the Mosin Nagant. However, they had already been produced in staggering numbers over the course of 50 years. The Mosin Nagant continued to serve as a primary weapon for many armies for a long time, especially among Eastern-bloc countries and other areas - including China - that had Soviet influence or bought weapons from the USSR.
With the advent of SKS and AK series of assault rifles, the Soviets discarded the Mosin Nagant and decommissioned them a few years later. The Mosin Nagant rifles you see today are relics of the past, except an occasional Chinese-made replica.
The Mosin Nagant rifle is still in active service alongside modern weapons across many countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine. Mainly they are countries influenced by the communist/Soviet bloc or where there were Soviet military interventions.
There are reports of Mosin Nagant rifles being used by the Taliban and Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Lately the M91/30 has been seen in the Syrian Civil war and the second war in Chechnya. Scoped Mosin Nagants are used as sniper rifles by several modern armies including Afghanistan, Iraq and Finland. It has an incredible active service record of more than 120 years.
The Mosin Nagant has a reputable and prestigious history. Its name is associated with some of the most deadly and renowned snipers of all time. An original Mosin Nagant is a piece of history which should never be forgotten. It is an accurate, reliable, inexpensive and easy-to-maintain firearm, with a track record of serving in some of the harshest terrains on this planet.