I need to preface this post by saying that I am far from being an expert in World War II era small arms. That being said, I own a few of them and enjoy the history associated with them. I have tried to obtain a representative bolt action rifle from all major powers during the war, and have gotten seven-eights of the way there; I am still missing a decent quality Chiang Kai-Shek Mauser. Owning pieces of history, even when you don’t know the full story behind them, is interesting for old history majors like me. Being able to put those pieces of history to actual use, however, is nothing short of exciting. This evening, I offer a very unscientific ranking of bolt action rifles from World War II.
Representatives of the major nations that currently reside in my gun cabinet are: 1) an Italian Carcano 91/24, built in 1917 and refurbished in 1924; 2) for the United Kingdom, a Lee-Enfield No.4 Mk.1 rifle manufactured in 1942 by Royal Ordnance Factory Maltby; 3) a Japanese Arisaka Type 99 manufactured by Toyo Kogyo in 1944; 4) a Springfield M1903 manufactured in the United States in 1908 by the Springfield Armory; 5) a Soviet Russian Mosin 91/30 built in 1943 at the Izhevsk Mechanical Plant; 6) a Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne (MAS) 36, manufactured in 1938; and 7) the famous German Mauser Kar.98k, built in 1942 at the Mauser AG Oberndorf. I have fired rounds through all of these firearms (or in the case of the M1903, another rifle of the same model) over the course of the last year–but not all on the same day. The rifles were fired at different ranges, all indoors, at a range of fifty yards, while standing. Other variables that might affect pure ratings include the time of day and the amount of coffee I consumed before shooting, the quality and type of ammunition used, and how well I cleaned the rifle after the last time I shot it. In other words, this will not be a very objective ranking. With all of this out of the way, it is time to get on with the list.
7. Carcano 91/24: It really isn’t fair to rate the little Carcano. It is the oldest rifle, has had extensive post World War I work done on it, and I do not have the correct round-nose ammunition to put through it. At fifty yards and with Spitzer bullets, I am able to put all of the shots on paper, but just where they passed through is…well…all over the place. The bullets key holed well over half the time and the sights seemed to be adjusting themselves between shots. Truth be known, I fired twenty shots through the Carcano after putting twenty through the Mosin and drinking a few cups of coffee, so fatigue or caffeine might have had some effect on my aim, but I don’t think I am that weak. While the performance of the Carcano leaves a lot to be desired, it is a delightful little weapon, being rather light for an early 20th Century firearm, with en-bloc loading, a very strong action, and a very interesting history. The rifle might well have served in two World Wars, and it has the scars to show it.
6. Arisaka Type 99: I really should have tried to get an early war Type 99. The example I have saw some service and was manufactured at a time when Japanese fortunes were fading and quality was being sacrificed for efficiency and volume. This is a very basic rifle, with some parts simply unfinished and others showing signs of the haste with which it was built. The rifle shoots straight enough; all twenty shots through this one were within about a ten-inch radius circle. The action is strong, but a little loose for my taste, and the whole unit just feels a little wonky. Another negative for me is that it just doesn’t look all that great. I suppose the Japanese designed the rifle for function and not for aesthetics, but next to a Mauser or an Enfield, this one pales in comparison. All-in-all, this rifle gets the job done, but it is not what I would pick up if I had to go to war with a bolt action rifle.
5. Mosin 91/30: Ok, there are thousands–maybe millions–of Mosin fans out there who may want to shoot me with a 7.62×54 round after ranking the venerable 91/30 as fifth out of seven rifles. In terms of accuracy, it is near the top. Twenty shots through my 91/30 landed (with one exception which was wildly off target) in a six-inch group. That is fine, except that the group was six inches above where I was aiming. Part of that, I am sure, is that I wasn’t properly accounting for the sights being calibrated to 100 meters. Part of it might be that I just can’t shoot. The main problem I have with the Mosin, though, has nothing to do with accuracy. The bolt on this monster is just too difficult to work. It is solid…very solid…probably the most solid of all of these rifles. In essence, it is a solid piece of hardened steel shaved down to serve as a bolt. It is heavy, resists rapid cycling, and sometimes picks up a cartridge more than it should. Another negative, for me, is that the rifle is just plain heavy. My admiration for the line rifleman of the Red Army has grown greatly since I started really playing with the Mosin. Imagine lugging this monster around over the Steppes of Europe and having to actually use it in combat. On the other hand, the Mosin is a very nice looking and imposing rifle, the history is wonderful, and it was one of the major contributors to winning the Great Patriotic War.
4. Lee Enfield No.4 Mk.1: I surprised myself ranking this rifle this low. I have spent hours looking over this piece from end to end. I have taken numerous photos of it and posted them on Instagram (look me up @oldmauserman). It is a nice looking and solid rifle. I love how the Enfield feels and I enjoy cycling the bolt. It is also a joy to shoot. I suppose this one fell to fourth because the remaining three rifles just perform better and have some other factors that make me prefer them. The Enfield is accurate. I can regularly hit the inner circles of a standard target at fifty yards. The weight balance is natural, and aiming is easy. The ten-round magazine means you don’t have to stop and reload as often as with any of the other rifles listed here. The history behind the Enfield family is interesting, and the potential for this rifle being a combat veteran is great. I really don’t have very much at all to say negatively about this rifle.
3. MAS-36: If ranking the Enfield at number four surprised me, ranking the MAS-36 at number three surprised me even more. I bought this unit, mostly, because I wanted to have a representative of France in my collection. When I picked her up, she needed a good cleaning, the barrel was dirty with grease and dust, and the action was sticky. I initially believed I made a mistake and that I should have waited for a better specimen. Once I got the rifle cleaned up, however, my opinion changed…quickly. The action, once free of years of grease and grime, is surprisingly smooth and easy to work. Still, it closes up tightly. Absent a safety, the rear end of this rifle is simple and surprisingly pleasant. The sights, adjusted at the factory, are a little difficult to work for range (though that is not a problem at fifty yards), and the bolt handle is oddly bent forward. There is a story behind that, which I will
share in a later post, but the forward-bent bolt is very functional and makes it very easy to cycle. I’ve heard the MAS-36 described as ugly and several other words that are even less complimentary. Having played around with her for a while, I don’t think the derogatory terms are fair. In terms of performance, the MAS-36 puts bullets right where you want them. Purely in terms of my non-scientific tests, this rifle shot the tightest group of all. As I explained in the intro, however, there may be circumstances that affected accuracy that cannot be attributed to the rifle. If I had to go to war tomorrow with a bolt action rifle, I would not be afraid to grab this one.
2. Mauser Kar.98k: Moving past the surprises, I was not in the least surprised that the Mauser ended up in the top two. If you are a rifle collector, a historian, a gun nut, an artist, an engineer, a soldier, or someone who just enjoys fine things, how can you not like the Mauser. The history behind this and all other wartime Mausers is the single negative factor that I could attach to this rifle. In terms of performance, it is hard to beat these old warhorses. The Mauser is, all at the same time, accurate, balanced, dependable, easy to
maintain, a delight to shoot, deadly, and even aesthetically pleasing to look at and hold. I can regularly shoot tight groups with this rifle (when I use decent ammunition). The action is as smooth as silk and the sound of the bolt cycling is one of the greatest of manmade sounds. Even little details like the brass tear down disc on the butt add to the desirability of this piece. The rifle pictured above is the first World War II military surplus rifle I bought, and it is one that I’ll not part with.
1. Choosing between the Mauser and the Springfield M1903 was difficult. When applying the “what do I want to grab on my way out the house” test, I would be happy to have the Mauser and the Springfield next to the door. This rifle has, easily, the smoothest action of all of the rifles I own. It is solid, but not too heavy. Once you get used to the sights (for old folks like me, that means being able to FIND the rear sight), it is dead-on accurate. If I had to find a negative with this rifle, it would be those sights. This rifle is the only one in this collection to feature a magazine cut-off switch, which is interesting if not exactly useful. I have heard and read, from several sources, that the M1903 is the most beautiful rifle ever produced. I’d be hard pressed to offer an argument against that, though the Mauser
family would be a pretty close competitor in the firearm beauty pageant. With this rifle, and with a little practice with aiming, I can put twenty shots into a space not much bigger than an iPad. The 30-06 cartridge puts out a lot of bang at the range, and carrying an M1903 around in the local gun shows always invites favorable comments and several cash offers. I don’t think I’ll be parting with this old lady for a long, long time.
So, there you have it. I am thinking about covering each of these rifles in more detail in separate future posts if there is any interest. Each of them have unique and very interesting histories, both in terms of development and combat. I enjoy having these functional relics in my collection, and suggest to anyone who enjoys World War II history–or military history in general–to purchase an old military surplus rifle and take it to the range (following a good inspection to ensure safety). You’re sure to make new friends and you’re likely to end up in a great debate about how to rank bolt action rifles from World War II!