LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
New Life for Old War Horses
Hunters have used military surplus rifles for over a century and a half. They are rugged, affordable, and available.
Retired military guns are often dumped on the civilian market in waves after major conflicts, or when a country upgrades their infantry small arms. Some are scooped up by collectors, but most are bought by average gun owners. Many languish in gun safes for years with perhaps an occasional plinking session, but this wastes their true potential. These weapons are great (and fun) for hunting; more people should use them to put meat on the table.
A bit clunky to look at perhaps, with their full wooden furniture, matte blue or Parkerized finishes, and rudimentary sights, but with a little attention they can become a favorite hunting gun. There are several things in their favor.
A soldier’s rifle must function in extreme conditions; it must fire no matter what. Armies go to great lengths to develop guns which will work in artic cold, jungle humidity, or desert sand with the minimal maintenance often inflicted by poorly trained recruits. Mil-spec guns are tough.
Military rifles are chambered in cartridges which are more than adequate for taking most soft-skinned game animals, even the larger ones. The fact these guns have been produced by the millions means their ammunition is also widely available.
Some surplus rifles, such as the 1903 Springfield and M1 Garand, are now considered valuable collectables, but many don’t interest history buffs. This means prices are reasonable, sometimes even bargain basement. A reliable, inexpensive rifle is great to have since a hunter won’t cry if it takes a knock or two in the field. They also make excellent spares in case one’s primary rifle becomes inoperable, or a friend or family member needs a loaner for a hunt.
Not all sunshine and light
For all their positive attributes, surplus rifles have some challenges for hunting use. Foremost, all surplus rifles need a thorough inspection by a qualified gunsmith prior to use. There are also several areas which need improvement or require some ingenuity by their owners.
This is the biggest challenge with military surplus rifles. Most have crude open iron sights designed to survive the battlefield first, and offer precise alignment second. They were also designed with teenage soldiers in mind; older eyes may find it difficult to get a good sight picture. There are three options to improve the sights. Install a rear aperture sight, drill and tap the receiver for scope mounts, or replace the tangent rear sight assembly with a long eye relief scope or red dot electronic sight.
Both the aperture sight and receiver mounted scope require a qualified gunsmith’s skills. Simple to install kits are available which replace the tangent sight with a scope mount. In the receiver mounted scope’s case, many bolt-action rifles also need their bolt handles and safeties modified to clear the scope. A scope will also block access to the receiver’s stripper clip feed notch and force the operator to load the magazine one round at a time like a conventional sporter rifle.
Military triggers are designed to reduce the chance a jumpy soldier will have a negligent discharge. They have heavy pulls with significant slack and over travel. Most aftermarket trigger makers offer improved drop-in triggers for many surplus guns. If a ready-to-go trigger is unavailable, a qualified gunsmith can often improve the original with a few hours work.
Stocks on military rifles are heavy and cover most if not all the barrel to protect a soldier’s hands from the hot metal. Aftermarket stock makers offer either wood or composite sporter type stocks for popular military rifles. An owner should always keep the original mil-spec stock if they sporterize their rifle; one never knows when a cheap surplus gun might become a collector item. If all else fails, a custom stock maker can supply a new stock—for a custom price, of course.
A gun which could hit a six to ten inch target at 100 yards met most armies’ requirements for a battle rifle. Military rifles are not noted for match-grade accuracy. This is caused by many factors such as poor stock fit, war time production standards, and firing chambers with long head space.
These guns were built with the maximum permissible head space so the weapon would function with dirt or powder residue in the action and poor quality ammunition. A gunsmith can tighten the head space on some rifles or install a better aftermarket barrel which will improve accuracy. However, a mil-spec gun which works under adverse conditions and limited maintenance is desirable if one hunts in harsh, remote places such as Alaska or Africa.
While surplus ammunition is available by the case-load, it is not useful for most hunting situations. Military ammunition is loaded with full metal jacketed bullets to comply with international agreements. Full jacketed bullets do not expand, they create narrow wound channels which do not always promote rapid blood loss. Hunters, unlike war rule makers, want bullets which cause rapid blood loss for a quick, clean kill on game animals. Most ammunition companies offer the more popular military calibers loaded with bullets designed for hunting.
Which Rifle Should You Choose?
Here are four excellent candidates to consider. Each is affordable at the moment and will get the job done.
Yugoslavian M24 and M48 series
Produced from 1924 through the 1950s, the “Yugos,” as many call them, are Mauser M1898 type bolt-action rifles first built by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium and later under license by the Yugoslavian government at the Zastava arsenal. They are similar to the German Kar 98K with some minor differences.
With communist Yugoslavia’s breakup into its ethnically divided root countries, the M24’s and M48’s were declared surplus and sold in large quantities around the world. They are robust guns, and accurate within military standards for their time.
These rifles are chambered for the powerful and versatile 7.92x57mm IS Mauser (aka. 8x57 Mauser or 8mm Mauser) cartridge. The IS 8mm is intended for use only in rifles with a .323 inch bore diameter, which all the Yugos have. Ammunition power varies. In Europe, the IS is loaded to traditional military specifications, a 196 grain bullet at 2550 – 2600 fps muzzle velocity. American ammo makers, however, only sell it loaded to the old, low pressure pre-1898 specs on the off chance someone with limited intelligence puts an IS cartridge in a pre-98 gun with the smaller .318 inch bore. Thank the lawyers for that one, American shooters.
The Yugo’s biggest advantage is it will accept almost any part or upgrade made for a 98 series Mauser, so it is an easy gun to modify or repair. 8mm ammo is also available worldwide. Use the full power European loads for big animals such as elk, moose, and bear. The anemic American ammo is good for small game and deer sized animals, or if one wants less recoil.
Adopted by the Imperial Russian Army in 1891, the Mosin-Nagant has served through two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and countless smaller Third World bloodbaths. Over 37 million have been built. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Russia and former Communist Bloc allies dumped Mosin’s by the train load onto the world arms market at fire-sale prices. A good thing for those who need or want an inexpensive hunting rifle.
The M1891 is as rugged as the Russian landscape. Built to operate in Siberian cold, Mongolian deserts, and by conscript peasant soldiers. It is not an elegant or well finished weapon like the Mausers, but in typical Russian fashion, it is brutally effective at its intended job. The bolt is stiff to operate, the long barrel unwieldy, and the sights regulated for the long abandoned Imperial Russian measurement system, but it will fire no matter what.
Due to often indifferent manufacturing by pseudo-slave laborers under Soviet communism, accuracy is spotty. Some rifles are exceptional and others abysmal, but with an average price around $200.00 (US), one could afford to buy two or three, keep the pick of the litter, and sell the rest.
The M1891 is chambered for the Russian 7.62x54R cartridge. The “R” denotes it has a rimmed case head. It doesn’t stand for “Russian” as many believe. While termed a 7.62mm round, it fires a .312 inch diameter bullet, not the more common .308. This can limit bullet choices if one hand loads, but good factory hunting ammo is available around the world. Ballistics are similar to the .308 Winchester. Hand loaders can get .30-06 level performance with little effort.
SKS stands for Samozaryadny Karabin sistemy Simonova, which in rough translation means “semi-automatic carbine designed by Sergei Simonov (head of a Soviet government weapons bureau).” The SKS replaced the Mosin M1891 as the main Soviet battel rifle in 1945 until relegated to secondary status by the legendary AK-47. SKS’s have been produced by all Soviet client states, and several communist Asian regimes such as China and North Korea.
Like the Mosin-Nagant, SKS’s were dumped on the market after the Soviet Union’s collapse in order to get hard currency into the Russian economy. China and others have also exported it for decades, so there are plenty to go around and prices are still reasonable, though on the rise.
The SKS has good aftermarket support and they are easy to improve and customize. Like all communist bloc small arms, quality and accuracy varies from gun to gun, but a good one will shoot well enough for most hunting situations.
The SKS fires the ubiquitous Soviet 7.62x39mm round (.312 caliber bullet). While not as powerful as the 7.62x54R, with a good quality bullet, it is a match for deer sized game out 200 yards. Reloading components for the 7.62x39 are available and it is an easy cartridge to hand load.
The Lee-Enfield rifle served British and Common Wealth armed forces from the 1890s through the 1970s and is still seen on battle fields in the Third World. The rifle is renowned for its butter-smooth action, large magazine capacity (10 rounds), and rock-solid reliability.
The rifle has undergone numerous improvements during its service life. As a general rule, the more modern the Lee-Enfield, the better, although the earlier guns were assembled with meticulous English craftsmanship. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Rifles produced during both world wars suffered from changes meant to speed war time production, and said rushed production caused spotty quality control. Hunters in the market for a Lee-Enfield should also avoid the jungle carbine variant. In their zeal to make it light-weight, the Enfield armory weakened the receiver and these carbines seldom hold zero. Some Lee-Enfield’s have become collector items, but most are still available at good prices. They are accurate, reliable, and plentiful.
The rifle fires the .303 British round, a rimmed cartridge with .308 Winchester level performance. Like the 7.62x54R and 7.62x39, the .303 uses .311 - .312 caliber bullets. The good news is, due to the Lee-Enfield’s use throughout Britain’s vast empire, .303 ammunition is common, particularly in Africa and Asia, as well as Europe, and most companies offer good hunting loads. Reloading components are also in good supply. Due to the Lee-Enfield’s single locking lug design, hand loaders should never exceed maximum published load data. It’s a good rifle, but not quite as sturdy as a Mauser, and doesn’t suffer foolhardy experiments well.
The Lee-Enfield and .303 British: accurate and powerful.
Hunters who want or need a good but inexpensive rifle should give military surplus guns serious consideration. They are rugged and effective. Plus, there’s a certain cache to going afield with a traditional battle rifle; the solidity and heft have a confidence other guns just can’t match. Try ‘em, you’ll like ‘em.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Where can I find military rifles?
Answer: Your local gun store can probably hook you up. Gun auction sites have quite a few, as well. You'll need someone with an FFL on your end to receive and then transfer the gun to you if you get one through an auction. You cannot buy a gun on the internet.
© 2017 LJ Bonham
James Heavey on September 21, 2018:
Love the idea of a surplus rifle but found a Savage 99 for half the price.
Robertcwoods on July 21, 2018:
I would like to get a .303 enfield rifle I did target practice with one yrs.ago
3oh3 on June 22, 2018:
1891 & 98 Mauser sporters. 1917 Remington & Winchester sporters (the Winchester was my first centerfire bought back in 1979) 1898 Springfield 30-40 Krag sporter. Arisakas, Lee Enfields, Mosin Nagants. I either still have them or most anyway and still put meat in our deep freeze and on our diner plates. I will use one of my modernish rifles for hunting once in a while.
Cubefarmer on January 22, 2018:
1903 Springfield. More expensive than most military surplus guns, but s real tac driver. 30 caliber carbine.
LJ Bonham on June 24, 2017:
Ed Palumbo, Thanks for the good review. You're right, mil-spec guns are fun. I plan a follow up piece and will include a few you mentioned and some others. Stay tuned.
Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on June 22, 2017:
I enjoyed reading the article and would like to see more of them. In my opinion, the list of best military rifles for field shooting should include other M98 Mausers made between the World Wars for South American nations, though that supply seems to be dwindling. The M1909 Argentine in 7.65x53mm Belgian and the M1908 Chilean Mausers in 7x57mm are gems. The M96 in 6.5x55mm is a pleasure to shoot. The .30-40 Krag is a good choice, though I haven't seen one in a while. All military rifles should be inspected carefully, since some were subjected to extreme conditions or fired ammo using mercuric primers. Military rifles should not be overlooked; they're fun to shoot and military ammo is normally much more affordable. Hunting ammunition is often available from major manufacturers. Good job, and I look forward to other articles you may write.