Mosin Nagant History

    by Dan Reynolds

The Berdan I was designedby Col. Hiram Berdan and produced by Colt for Russia beginning in 1869.  It fired the excellent .42 Berdan bottlenecked cartridge with paper patched bullet. The rifle was a hinged breech design and was in service for a very short period before Russia decided to adopt a new bolt action design, which is known as the Berdan II.  It is a matter of conjecture exactly how much of the design of this new rifle can be credited to Col. Berdan.  Unknown Russian designers and the former master armorer of the Confederacy, James Burton of Virginia, have been cited as responsible for all or parts of the design.

Initial prototypes came from America.  A production order of 30,000 rifles was given to BSA of Birmingham, England, in 1869.  The Russian inspectors proved hard to please, and it eventually became clear that Russia wanted to produce the rifles, not buy large numbers from England.  Negotiations resulted in only about 10% of the contract being accepted for delivery.  In 1871 Burton went to England, where during the American Civil War of 1861-65, he had made contacts with firms contracting supplies for the C.S.A., the Confederacy of Southern American States, which were seeking independence from the U.S.A.  J. Burton was a highly skilled ordnance man who was called upon to oversee the production and setup of the machine tool plant, which Russia was buying in England to make this new rifle.

The firm of Greenwood & Batley of Leeds, England, had received a contract for machine tools to re-equip Tula Arsenal in Russia for the production of the Berdan II rifle.  The actual production of the initial rifles got underway in England, at Birmingham in 1870 and continued until 1873.  Some 30,000 pieces being produced before the machinery was setup in Russia in 1873, after which all further production was by Tula and eventually Izhevsk and Sestrorets Arsenals.  Burton returned to America in 1873.

The Berdan II was made in four major types: Model 1870 Carbine with an overall length of 38" and rear sight marked to 1000 arshins; Model 1870 Dragoon Rifle with overall length of 48.7" sighted to 1400 arshins; Cossack Model 1870 about the same length of as Dragoon, but differing in details such as having three barrel bands instead of two, and a special drum type trigger in lieu of the regular guard and trigger assembly, and minor other points, (although both had sling slots as opposed to the full rifle); and the Model 1870 Rifle which had sling swivels at the upper band and at the front of the guard bow, 53.4" Overall, sighted to 1500 arshins.  All chambered the 10.67x58R (.42 Calibre Berdan) cartridge, the most advanced military round of its day.

About 30,000 rifles were made at Birmingham, a small number at Leeds to prove the production tooling for Tula, and production got underway at Tula in 1874.  Izhevsk began producing in 1878 and Sestrorets at a later date.  Total production was probably well over a million pieces up to 1892.  The only major improvement during the years of production was the fitting of long range sights, from about 1879 onwards, to exploit the excellent ballistic potential of the cartridge.

Bulgaria adopted the Berdan II as the Model 1880.  It was made in Russia under contract and marked with the crest of Czar Alexander I of Bulgaria.  Later in the 1890's, Russia provided many Berdan rifles to Slav nations in the Balkans.   Montenegro received about 30,000 rifles, Serbia and Bulgaria unknown numbers, but including the later version with long range sights.  During W.W.II, the Germans were capturing both Berdan I and Berdan II types of all variations from partisans on the Eastern Front.  Berdans were found throughout south east Europe through W.W.II.  Hungarian Freedom Fighters in 1956 were pictured using them against the Russians.

The Mosin Nagant Rifle was an evolution of the design elements of the Russian Berdan II bolt action rifle combined with ideas from Col. Mosin and the Belgian Nagant Rifle.  Production of the new design designated the Model 1891 was slow and output low in the early years of the 1890's. Russia turned to its ally France for assistance in replacing its obsolete black powder Berdan II rifles.

A contract was let to Chatellerault Arsenal, MAC, for a large quantity of the Model 1891 and bayonets.  The Russians have a thing for bayonets.  No scabbard was issued for Mosin Nagant bayonets in Russian or Soviet service.  They were always to be mounted on the rifles.  The Russians and Reds always spoke, not of infantry or rifle when describing the strength of fighting formations, but of bayonets.  They believed in mass formation charges with cold steel, of its psychological impact on the enemy, of its value in building aggressiveness and morale in its own men.

Production could still not begin to equip the vast Russian Army with the new smokeless powder Mosin Nagant.  So as an expedient measure, the design of the Berdan II was revised to strengthen the action and convert it to fire 7.62x54R smokeless ammunition.  In 1895, a contract was let to one or more Belgian firms to rework 500,000 rifles to this new pattern.  It was thought that these rifles would be adequate for arming service troops and other non line units with a weapon which could fire the new smokeless cartridge.  This was of vital importance both logistically, but also tactically as black powder weapons were dangerously obsolete, as was later  demonstrated in Cuba during the Spanish American War when U.S. National Guard units such as the 71st N.Y. Infantry were forced to face the Spanish Modelo 1893 Infantry with black powder Springfields.  The work could not be done in Russia as all arsenal facilities were striving to maximize production of the Model 1891 and to repair unserviceable rifles.

It is believed that the Nagant firm handled the deal and may have sub-contracted out some or all the actual work.  Russia provided Mosin Nagant rifles to The Kingdom of Montenegro, despite its own shortage, but no bayonets for them.  Surplus French sword bayonets for the Chassepot rifle were issued in lieu to soldiers armed with this rifle, but the bayonets were not adapted to fit these rifles, and so were used only as a side arm according to British military intelligence reports of the pre 1914 period.

When W.W.I began in August 1914, Russia was gravely short of rifles to arm its mobilizing armies.  All old Berdan I and Berdan II rifles in .42 Berdan as well as 300,000 available 7.62x54R magazine conversions were pressed into issue.  This was inadequate to meet demand.  Initial battlefield successes yielded Mannlicher Model 1888, Model 1890 and Model 1895 rifles in 8x50mm which were pressed into service.  However reverses soon followed and especially after the crushing defeat at Tannenberg at the hands of the Germans under Hindenberg, losses of rifles far outweighed captured booty rifles.

Russia turned to its ally England for help.  The British had no rifles to spare, but through their banking agents in New York, arranged for the letting of contracts with Remington Arms and New England Westinghouse for the production of huge quantities of the Mosin Nagant and bayonets for it.  It was now 1915 and as a stop gap measure the British arranged the purchase of Japanese Type 30 and Type 38 rifles both for themselves and for Russia .  These were in 6.5mm Jap.  Despite this shortage of rifles, Russia, for political reasons, supplied Model 1891 rifles to Serbia and Montenegro to help keep them in the war, which began because of Serbia.

The British, through their American financial agents, arranged a contract with Remington Arms for over a million Mosin Nagant rifles of the latest Russian pattern and also with New England Westinghouse for the production of 900,000 M1891 on behalf of the Imperial Government.  To fill this order New England Westinghouse purchased the Meriden Firearms Co., which Sears Roebuck & Co. had formed in 1907 to produce low cost rifles, pistols, and shotguns for sale in their catalog.  Sears had purchased the Freyburg Firearms Co. of Worcester, Mass. in 1907, chiefly to obtain the highly skilled Swedish immigrant gunsmiths and machinists, then moved the operation to Connecticut and set up a new factory.  Westinghouse bought the new tooling necessary to mass produce the Mosins and it was installed in the plant.  Czarist inspectors were used for quality control.  Production was halted after the Red revolution in 1917, and large stocks on hand were taken over by the U.S. Army for training purposes.  Colt then took over the factory to make parts for the new M1918 BAR.  After the war the plant was liquidated.  The total number of rifles produced by both contractors was far short of the numbers ordered, and of these large quantities were never sent to Russia.

During the course of the war, Russia could not acquire enough Mosins to meet requirements and lost tremendous numbers of these rifles to the Central Powers.  Germany, Austria, Turkey and Bulgaria re-issued captured Mosins in large numbers. Germany sent 27,000 to Ireland to arm Nationalist insurgents in the spring of 1916, but the ship carrying the rifles and 7.62x54R ammunition was sunk off the Irish coast before delivery.  Zeppelins delivered captured Mosins and Winchester M1895 7.62x54R Muskets to Muslim resistance forces in Libya in 1917 to draw off Italian forces.  The Austrians converted some of their Mosins to fire the 8x50mm cartridge which was their standard.

At the end of W.W.I, many of these captured rifles passed into the hands of Italy, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Albania, Poland, France, and the future Yugoslavia.  U.S. Army and Navy personnel engaged in the Bear War in northern Russia around Archangel were issued Westinghouse and Remington Mosins because of the huge stocks of rifles and ammo stored there.  They had problems with the ejector springs breaking on their M1917 Enfields and a lack of spares for their M1903 Springfields, as well as a shortage of .30-06 ammo.  The Mosins were not generally liked by Americans.  The action was not as smooth as those they were trained on.  The finely made U.S. Mosins had a problem with sticky bolts in the cold wet arctic weather.  This was probably due to the lubricant used by the American forces as well as a failure to properly degrease the new rifles as they came out of the cases.  In any event they often resorted to substituting captured Russian bolts in their rifles.  The U.S. Navy, in 1919, delivered a large number of American made Mosins to the Finns.

On the subject of the Finns: During the Winter War of 1939/40 and the Continuation War, Finnish troops would often substitute Russian bolts for their own in the otherwise fine shooting Finn reworked Mosins.  The reason for this was sticky bolts caused by the reuse of worn mismatched parts in bolts, during the rebuild of old Mosins, due to cost constraints.  The Russian troops were generally armed with new, well made, M91/30 rifles made in 1936 or later and the bolts were much better fitting and smoother.

At the close of the Russian Civil War, fleeing White Russian troops brought out many Mosins to Manchuria, Turkey, the Baltic states, and Poland postwar.  Finland and Poland used and modified Mosins and made them a standard issue.

In the inter-war period there was much trading of Mosin rifles between the powers with Finland being the chief buyer.  At the start of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, Stalin ordered GRU, Red Army Intelligence, to arrange the covert supply of small arms to the Madrid government forces, prior to the shipment of Soviet weapons from Odessa in September 0f 1936.  At first he wished to conceal Soviet intervention and so operative Walter Krivitsky was ordered to buy up all available rifles through a front company in Belgium and ship them to Spain.  Concurrently, the Mexican government shipped rifles to the left wing government.  U.S. surplus Remington and New England Westinghouse rifles, which had been taken over by the U.S. Army in 1917 for training purposes and  subsequently sold off, were acquired in America and routed through Mexico City.  There they were repackaged and sent on to Spain where they were issued to Communist elements in the government coalition.  In early 1937 when the P.O.U.M. was suppressed in Barcelona as the Communists, under orders from Moscow, began taking over control of security and military affairs, smashed this far left political/militia group which Stalin had labeled Trotskyite.  Newsreels show the Assualtos, the paramilitary police of the left, sent from Madrid to secure Barcelona were armed with these rifles.  This is also confirmed by George Orwell, the British author who was serving in the P.O.U.M. military.

During the course of the war in Spain, Russia sent large quantities of M91/30 rifles as well as some interesting collector class Mosins and M1895 Winchesters.

On the eve of W.W.II, Poland sold a large quantity of M91/98/25 7.92mm Mosins Nagant rifles to Yugoslavia. These had been standard Russian pattern rifles of the W.W.I period which came into Polish hands as a result of the various actions arising out of W.W.I and the Soviet Polish War.  The Poles had adapted them to use the Mauser M1898 bayonet and the 7.92mm cartridge in the 1920's for use as a standard rifle for reserve formations.  This was due to lack of adequate numbers of the 7.92mm Mauser, which was the preferred standard rifle.  In 1938 they had enough new Polish made Mausers to sell off over 50.000 of these pieces to the JUGS.  Yugoslavia was trying to increase the number of 7.92mm rifles available for second line formation.

During W.W.II various Slav units under Soviet control, including Czech,Slovak, and Polish formations in the Soviet Order of Battle were issued M91/30 rifles which they took home when the Red Army over ran their native lands and set up puppet states.  Mosins were also issued to Bulgarian and Yugoslav forces when Soviet forces entered these states and they fought with the Red Army against the Axis.

Romanian forces were given Mosins as well as captured 7.92mm VZ-24 and other 98 Mausers when they switched sides and held large sections of front against Army Group South of the German Army.

In the postwar period, Hungary appears to be the first of the satellite nations of eastern Europe to adopt the Mosin as standard, replacing the native Mannlichers in Army service. Newsreels showing troops parading in Budapest after the complete Communist take over seem to indicate that sometime in August 1948, at least the ceremonial parade troops, were rearmed with Mosins although German style helmets were still worn.

The North Korean Army, the Immun Gun, was equipped with Soviet M91/30's in the late 1940's.  However Jap rifles were still in use by militia and police units in this period.  In the spring of 1950, the Chi-Coms released Korean formations which fought in the China civil war, to North Korea for use in the invasion of South Korea.  These units brought with them Mausers in 7.92mm as well as Jap rifles in 6.5mm of various patterns.

During the Korean War, captured M91/30 rifles were collected by the U.S.. forces for covert activities both current and future.  G.I's were given Jap rifles when they tried to get a chit to bring home Soviet rifles.

In 1954, some of these rifles were issued to insurgents in Guatemala in the revolt which overthrew the pro Marxist regime of Col. Arbenz, which had just received a shipment of Czech arms.  Newsreels show these anti-Communist rebels with their Mosins.

copyright 1999-2000 Daniel Reynolds