|Action||Rotation Bolt||Barrel Length||30.5″|
|Magazine||5 rnds, stripper clip||Weight||9 lbs|
It’s fair to say everyone interested in old guns has a passing familiarity with the Mosin-Nagant. But the adoption of the first Mosin, the 1891, was shrouded in military secrecy and then obscured by political turmoil over decades to come. Especially for us sitting in the West, there is a lot unsaid about this classic service rifle.
Like so many other stories on this site, this one begins with the adoption of the 1886 Lebel and its small-bore, smokeless powder cartridge. Russian Colonel N.F. Rogovtsev began work as early as that same year to develop a similar cartridge. He started with an 8mm bullet propelled by black powder but by 1890 had settled on the 7.62x54mm rimmed, smokeless cartridge. This was popularly known as the “3-line” cartridge due to the old Russian measurement system. Why the rim was retained is something of a mystery and the only reasonable explanation we have heard put forward was an obsession with making sure individual cartridges could be handled with gloved hands.
Now there just needed to be a rifle. While there is some disagreement on details, two names played the largest parts in the development of this long arm: Sergei Mosin and Léon Nagant. The trouble is all the speculation on just who did what.
Sergei Mosin was a graduate of the Mikhailovsky Artillery Academy and in seeking to live near his family, sought and found a position in the Tula Arms Plant. He was very apt and eventually began tinkering with rifle design. His Model 1885 was a distinct-looking two-piece stocked, exposed receiver, bolt action, with magazine capacity 12 rounds of 10.6mm. This rifle proved to, mostly, be an evolutionary dead end but it garnered a great deal of attention and enthusiasm for Mosin’s capability in designing a new repeating arm. During the Russian trials he would submit his own system to be inspected. This Mosin trials rifle owed much of its styling to its predecessor, the Berdan II, but it was mechanically unique. Because Imperial Russia was so closely in touch with French trends, the similarities to the Mosin bolt and the Lebel probably shouldn’t be ignored. They both feature a split-bridge receiver setup with separate bolt heads which feature their forward locking lugs. Both systems also have a bolt body extension that lips over a lug to retain the bolt head and are technically unlocked when in battery. The Mosin, however, does not lip directly over the bolt head itself, this is actually attached to a unique collar and rail known as the guide rod. This component is a terrific improvement as it fills the receiver channel even when the bolt is turned into lock, keeping it steady. It also prevents the cocking piece from rotating when the action is unlocked and open. On the Lebel bolt you can actually grab and twist the cocking piece when the bolt is back, a potential problem even if a rare one. Moreover, combining these features into the bolt itself meant the tolerances between bolt and gun could be a bit looser and still provide smooth operation, important in icy conditions. Also unlike the Lebel, the Mosin designed bolt incorporates a safety, but more on this later.
The Belgian brothers Léon and Émile Nagant are remembered for their revolvers but they also put forward some military rifle designs. One of their guns, patented in 1887, was submitted to the Belgian trials that ultimately adopted the Model 1889 Mauser. While their straight-pull, bottom-loading, hinged-magazine military rifle with lines not unlike the early Mannlichers did not meet Belgian approval, the Russians had been watching closely. They had reviewed the current field of tubular magazines and enbloc loaders and found them wanting. The straight stack of the 1889 was appealing but their rimmed cartridge would present problems.
Here is where we must speculate as we have not been given the occasion to inspect the Nagants’ 1887 patent. It was a bottom feeding design with an articulated follower that closely resembles the final Mosin-Nagant rifle’s. Being loaded from the bottom, it most likely required a simple interrupter to prevent the cartridges from just spilling up and out an opened action. This interrupter and the magazine itself are often debated as to whether or not they were Russian in origin and if the Nagants just copied these designs. But here, with the 1887, if we find the interrupter we may know the truth. So anyone who has one handy, please write in!
Regardless, the Nagants were invited to submit a rifle to the Russian trials. It is likely that strict guidelines were given because both the Nagant and Mosin submissions have the same general appearance in many features. The sights on both strongly resemble the ones on the Nagants’ 1887 design and the stocks and cocking pieces favor the Berdan II. Interestingly the Mosin was submitted without a magazine system and the Nagant had a modification of the 1887’s. It now fed from the top and, likely borrowing from the Belgian trials, fed from a stripper clip. The interrupter is definitely present here as a spring in the left side of the magazine body. The ejector is a separate spring in the left wall of the receiver. There are additional features unique to the Nagant rifle but since we are unable to photograph one we’ll save them for another time. We now have the important components.
During the trials the Nagant submission fared well and sources say it could have been a real contender for adoption. However, it did have several failings. First, it used a small receiver mounted safety switch which actually did break during the trials. This led to a strong favor for the ridiculously simple Mosin safety system, in which the cocking piece is pulled and turned to rest on the outside wall of their receiver. Very little to break here and very easy to manipulate. The Nagant rifle was also more complex in design and even if it were not, the Mosin had already been built out of available Russian machines so its adoption would be much cheaper and faster. In the end the Russians did what it looks like they had already been planning and combined the best features of both guns.
The Mosin action was adopted nearly wholesale with very few changes in fit and finish. The sights appear to have come from the Nagant brothers but this is still a bit uncertain. The magazine adopted was a simplified version of the Nagant and used their armature follower and interrupter, which was further simplified. Now the Mosin’s ejector spring was given an extension to simply hold down the 2nd cartridge in the magazine. This may be the final point of contention since the Nagant system used two springs. How much credit do you give to who? The new rifle would feed from stripper clips like the Nagant. Overall, for the end user, the system would be very familiar and for the manufacturers the changeover was simple. Everyone seemed to welcome the new “3-line rifle” model of 1891 on its adoption.
Everyone except Léon Nagant, who now headed the brother’s company after his sibling’s retirement. There had been a promise that if their design had been adopted they would be paid a sum of 200,000 rubles. Because only some of their patent was used, they had to settle for a smaller pay day. But Léon was shrewd and put a price of 75,000 rubles with all rights to produce outside of Russia reserved. The Empire, however, wanted to have Chatellerault in France produce some 500,000 rifles and the royalties would be much higher than the full payout of the original rifle contract. Wisely, they chose to pay the full 200,000 rubles as if they had bought the gun outright, and preserve their foreign production rights. As member of the Russian military, Mosin received high praise but only 30,000 rubles in cash compensation. This story has likely led to much of the anti-Nagant sentiment in the Mosin-Nagant rifle. In Russian the gun is only known as the “Mosin 1891” whereas the name Nagant was passed along in the West as part of attempts by the Belgian arms designers to show they had a military rifle in the game.
All right, that was a lot just to get to the 1891. But that isn’t the end of the story. The Mosin-Nagant of 1891 would look pretty unfamiliar to most people today. It had no upper handguard, a spur to act as a semi-pistol grip, the rear sling was fixed to the magazine and the forward sling hung down on a swivel. It had a very flat rear sight ladder as well. But, due to experience in the Russo-Japanese war, the Mosin would change. First the 7.62x54mmR cartridge was improved with a pointed spitzer bullet and improved ballistics. This meant the adoption of the now-familiar rounded rear sight set for greater range around 1908. The following year we see the addition of handguards for easier handling of hot barrels and the sling swivels are dispensed with for simple cuts in the stock, allowing the use of leather collars. The rear sling was moved all the way to the buttstock. The former sling position on the magazine became a simple rivet point.
- New England Westinghouse
- Remington Armory
It is said the Mosin 1891 was first used in battle during the Andijan Uprising of 1898. It was then fielded for the Russo-Japanese war, which brought about the changes above. Then went on to serve famously through WWI and beyond without much alteration. In 1930 we finally see it get a minor shortening, and we’ll cover that story in further detail later. This barely changed 91/30 served through WWII and variations built on the identical action remained with military forces through Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Rugged and reliable, it has earned a reputation for being a simply brutal design and helped spark the now widespread notion of simple and dependable Russian small arms design.
Because the gun is so common in collecting and so popular in the culture, many have turned away from the design. They point out common deficiencies and slop in the Mosin. But remember its contemporaries: The Lebel, Mannlicher 1895, Italian Carcano, Swiss 1889, and the design at its debut is wonderfully advanced. This may just be another case of why fix something that just wasn’t broken. Especially when all the tooling is already setup and you need to arm millions of troops again and again.