LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Anyone with some common sense knows our world is a dangerous, unpredictable place—often with disastrous results for ordinary people. Governments rise and fall. The world economy moves in continuous boom-bust cycles. Natural disasters afflict every continent. Civil unrest, whether localized or nationwide, can burst forth with little or no warning. Electrical grids can fail. The list is almost endless. Smart people throughout history have realized they must prepare for unexpected circumstances.
Preparedness, “preps” for short, cover a wide spectrum from the simple, such as having enough reserve cash to pay for an unexpected automotive repair, to the fanciful (buying half of New Zealand and turning it into a private bunker complex, for example). In any discussion about preps, firearms are a major topic because it is unrealistic to expect to survive major upheavals without the means to mount an effective defense. Violence and lawlessness almost always accompany tumultuous events. Prudent, realistic people arm themselves rather than depend on humanity’s brighter angels or a government to protect them.
The real question then is not whether to own firearms, rifles in this case, but rather which ones are best for the task? Today’s rifle market offers the prepared person near-infinite choices. There is one type, however, to which they should give serious consideration: military surplus.
Mil-surp, for short, rifles have many advantages when the going gets rough. They are reliable: armies go to great lengths to develop guns that will work in arctic cold, jungle humidity, or desert sand with the minimal maintenance often inflicted by poorly trained recruits. They are, for the most part, affordable. They are available: almost any gun store has a few on the used gun rack. They don’t attract much attention to themselves, or to their owners. They are good for either defense or hunting, and preppers are always on the lookout for multi-purpose equipment.
Let’s face it, modern sporting rifles based on Eugen Stoner’s ingenious AR design are a political lightning rod at present. The unfortunate fact a few deranged individuals have chosen this excellent platform to commit heinous acts has fueled the always active gun-control faction’s efforts to take them away from the people. To the uninformed, AR-platform rifles just look “scary.” These same people, though, will not give a second glance to an “old” gun with a wooden stock that looks like something their grandfather may have used in some long-forgotten (for them) war. Mil-surp rifles help the prepared citizen keep a low profile.
Given these five rifles were designed for battle, it should come as no surprise they are a superior choice to run-of-the-mill sporting guns when it comes to defensive use. Equipped with a full accessory kit—bandoliers, clips, sling, and bayonet—they are just as effective now for social occasions as when they ruled the battlefield in the last century. Old tech does not mean bad tech. History is replete with instances where people with less than state-of-the-art arms leveraged them to acquire more modern hardware once things turned ugly.
Not All Sunshine and Light
For all their positive attributes, surplus rifles have some challenges. Foremost among them, all surplus rifles need a thorough inspection by a qualified gunsmith prior to use. There are several areas that could stand improvement, such as sights and triggers. Not to worry, though, a burgeoning aftermarket has many ingenious ways to improve the rough spots on these old warriors.
Here, in reverse order, are my top five mil-surp rifle picks for those times when the stuff hits the proverbial fan.
5. Mosin-Nagant M1891
Adopted by the Imperial Russian Army in 1891, the Mosin-Nagant has served through two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and countless Third World bloodbaths. Over 37 million have been built. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Russia and former Communist Bloc allies dumped Mosins by the trainload onto the world arms market at fire-sale prices. A good thing for those who need or want an inexpensive rifle, although prices have risen in the last few years.
The M1891 is as rugged as the Russian landscape. Built to operate in Siberian cold, Mongolian deserts, and in a conscript peasant soldier’s hands. 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 even at today’s prices, 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 7.62 x 54R cartridge. The “R” denotes it has a rimmed case head. It doesn’t stand for “Russian,” as many believe. While termed a 7.62 mm 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 ammo is available around the world. Ballistics are similar to the .308 Winchester. Hand loaders can get .30-06 level performance with little effort.
4. Yugoslavian M24 and M48
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.
When communist Yugoslavia broke up into its ethnically divided root countries, the M24s and M48s 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 7.92 x 57 mm IS Mauser (aka. 8x57 Mauser or 8mm Mauser) cartridge. The IS 8 mm is intended for use only in rifles with a .323-inch bore diameter, which all the Yugos have. Ammunition power varies. In Europe, it is loaded to traditional military specifications, a 196 grain bullet at 2550 – 2600 fps muzzle velocity. American ammo makers, however, load it 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.
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. 8 mm ammo is also available worldwide. Use the full power European full metal jacket loads for defense to ensure reliable feeding and soft-points loads to hunt 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.
3. M1917 “Enfield”
The M1917 (P-14 in British service) is a stop-gap rifle adopted by the U.S. Army during World War One. U.S. industry couldn’t meet the demand for the army’s main battle rifle, the M1903 Springfield. Rather than take precious time to tool up factories to produce it, the War Department settled on a rifle that several American arms companies produced at the time under contract for the British. It proved fast and easy to just re-chamber them from .303 to .30-06. The M1917 went on to become the most issued U.S. rifle during the war and outnumbered the Springfield almost three to one. Unlike the M1903, however, collectors have yet to drive M1917 prices beyond sane levels so average people can still get one for reasonable money.
The M1917 is a robust design made from high-quality materials. It has the best sights ever put on a military rifle at the time and it is quite accurate. Its oversized magazine holds not five, but six rounds. Although, this feature is a bit moot since charger clips for the gun hold just five.
From a prepper’s perspective, the M1917’s greatest advantage is the fact it fires the ubiquitous .30-06 Springfield round which means ammunition is available everywhere and affordable. The .30-06 is America’s second most popular big game cartridge, just behind the .308 Winchester, and as such companies offer loads fit for everything from rabbits to bears. Several ammo makers now also sell mil-spec FMJ loads.
2. Lee-Enfield SMLE
The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle served British and Common Wealth armed forces from 1904 through the 1970s and is still seen on battlefields in the Third World. The rifle is renowned for its butter-smooth action, large magazine capacity (10 rounds), and rock-solid reliability. The SMLE has the highest rate of fire for any bolt-action ever produced. A trained operator can perform what’s termed “The Mad Minute,” which places over 30 rounds onto a man-sized target at 300 yards in sixty seconds. Until they learned better, German troops during World War One thought every British rifle platoon had a heavy machine gun due to the SMLE’s firepower.
The SMLE has undergone numerous improvements during its service life. As a general rule, the more modern the SMLE, 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 wartime production which caused spotty quality control. 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. Also, pass on the Indian army rifles rechambered for 7.62 mm NATO. Some SMLEs 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 7.62 x 54R, the .303 uses .311 - .312 caliber bullets. The good news is, due to the SMLE’s use throughout Britain’s vast former empire, .303 ammunition is common, particularly in Africa and Asia, as well as Europe, and most companies offer both FMJ and good hunting loads. Reloading components are also in good supply. Due to the SMLE’s single locking lug design, hand loaders should never exceed the maximum published load data. It’s a good rifle, but not quite as sturdy as a Mauser, and doesn’t suffer foolhardy experiments well.
1. M1 Garand
American general, George S. Patton, called this iconic rifle “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” Proven in every environment on Earth from the Arctic to jungles and deserts, the M1 ranks as a top prepper rifle. Its semi-automatic operation combined with an eight-round internal magazine-fed with enblock clips gives the Garand fantastic firepower. Yet, it flies under the radar in many jurisdictions where more modern semi-auto rifles are either banned or subject to draconian registration schemes since it does not accept detachable, high-capacity magazines.
Developed during the 1930s by Canadian-born designer, John Garand, the M1 replaced the bolt-action M1903 Springfield as the U.S.’s main battle rifle in 1936. It went on to defeat three thug regimes: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. It held the line against communist aggression in Korea and also saw action in Vietnam. It is tough, reliable, and hits hard.
It has a few drawbacks, however. As an early semi-auto design, it is more complex than needed, because conservative Army officials insisted on certain features which in hindsight were unnecessary. Its complexity means there are many more things that can go wrong with it compared to simpler bolt-actions. However, spare parts are still plentiful and most repairs don’t require advanced gunsmith skills. It can have particular tastes in ammunition, though. Owners should run at least 100 rounds through it without a malfunction before they settle on any particular load. It’s best to feed the Garand mil-spec FMJ .30-06 ammunition whenever possible. This can limit its usefulness as a hunting rifle if your particular one won’t digest soft-nose big game ammo. Still, quite a few M1 aficionados hunt with these superb guns.
Prices range from the reasonable to the certifiably insane. Due to the gun’s complexity, always get a prospective purchase examined by a knowledgeable gunsmith before you buy, if possible.
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.
© 2019 LJ Bonham
Readmikenow on May 08, 2019:
Very well written article. You provided some good information. Enjoyed reading it.