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The Mosin Nagant: The Rifle That Never Dies

Ukranian partisans in World War II holding the final incarnation of the Mosin Nagant -- a sniper rifle.

Ukranian partisans in World War II holding the final incarnation of the Mosin Nagant — a sniper rifle.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Russian Mosin Nagant (“moh seen nah gahn”) rifle. Born in 1889 and officially adopted by the Tsar in 1891, this simple weapon continues to shape the face of the world. Manufactured by the millions, it has been part of virtually every armed conflict of the 20th century from the Boxer Rebellion to Vietnam, Afghanistan and the current Syrian civil war. Like some consorting demon, wherever there is war or rebellion, the Mosin Nagant is there.

The Birth of The Mosin-Nagant

The history of the Mosin Nagant is shrouded in politics, intrigue and terror, the product of a bloody, long-ago battle known as the Siege of Plevna.

Mosin Nagant

The Russians had a long history of wars with the Ottoman Empire and in 1877 the two were at it again. This time the Muslim Turks were accused of mistreating Christians. On April 24th, Russian troops entered Romania on their way to attack Constantinople. When they arrived at the crossroads town of Plevna, it looked to be easy going and the Czar’s men easily dispersed a small force of Turks. Satisfied that their opponent would put up no further struggle, the Russians sent their entire force of 7,500 soldiers into the city. The Turks, however, were waiting, hidden in houses and barns, and opened fire at nearly point-blank range. In an encounter that lasted just 15 to 20 minutes, the Russians lost 74 officers and 2,771 soldiers. Twelve Turks were killed with 30 more wounded.


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A second assault on Plevna was even more disastrous, leaving 169 Russian officers and 7,136 men dead. By the time a third assault ended on the night of September 11, another 300 Russian officers and 12,500 men had died. Newspaper reports of the time described the Turkish gun fire as “infernal.”

The Surrender of the Siege of Plevna

The Surrender of the Siege of Plevna

That “infernal” Turkish gun fire came in part courtesy of America gun manufacturer Oliver F. Winchester. Winchester had, some years earlier, sent “gifts” of his new rapid firing .44 caliber 1866 repeating rifle to a select group of Turkish politicians and officers. When the Turkish military found that their troops could easily handle the lever action rifles, they eagerly placed an order. It was with these weapons that the Turks brought such hellish fire on their more poorly equipped foe.

After the slaughter at Plevna, the Russian army launched a competition to find a new, more modern, rifle that could compete with the Winchesters. Three were presented for evaluation. Captain Sergei Ivanovich Mosin of the Imperial Army submitted a .30 caliber, 7.62 mm rifle. A Belgian designer, Leon Nagant, submitted another and a Captain Zinoviev submitted yet another.

Sergei Ivanovich Mosin, May 5, 1849 - February 8, 1902

Sergei Ivanovich Mosin, May 5, 1849 – February 8, 1902

At first, Nagant’s design got the highest marks although it had some problems. It was complicated, was difficult to take apart and needed special tools. Mosin’s offering, on the other hand, soured the judges partly because it was poorly manufactured and failed often. For a while it looked like Nagant had won but for some reason, the Russians decided to conduct another round of tests. This time it was Mosin who came out on top. Nagant’s reaction to the decision was to angrily file a patent infringement lawsuit.

Nagant, it turns out, was the first to apply for patent protection for the feed system used by the Mosin rifle – something he just happened to have “borrowed” from Mosin. Mosin, who designed the device, was prohibited from filing for a patent because his design was considered a state secret. Further, even if he had wanted to patent the device, Mosin could not. As an officer in the Russian army, anything he invented already belonged to the government.

Just as the scandal was about to go public the Russian army agreed to settle things by paying Nagant 200,000 Russian rubles, the same amount Mosin was to receive as winner of the competition.  In order to avoid upsetting the volatile Nagant further, it was decided not to call the new rifle “the Mosin” but instead the “3-line rifle, Model 1891.”

Production of Model 1891 began at a number of Russian arsenals and by the time of the 1904 Russo-Japanese war, some 3.8 million were already in use. With each successive battle, the Mosin Nagant underwent modification but all had just two goals in mind: simplicity and accuracy.

Manufacture of the weapon continued until the end of World War II when it appeared in its final incarnation as a sniper rifle. (See the picture of the young women at the top of the page.) Eventually, the Mosin Nagant was replaced by the SKS series of carbines and later, AK rifles. But millions of these weapons still prowl the world’s hot spots, doing their deadly duty in the hands of generation after generation of fighters.

North Korean guards at the Panmunjom truce talks sporting Mosin Nagants in 1952.

North Korean guards at the Panmunjom truce talks sporting Mosin Nagants in 1952.

The Mosin Nagant measures 48.5 inches, weighs 8.8 pounds and can fire 10 rounds a minute. It is reported to be accurate from 550 to 700 yards. Today, it is imported into the United States for tamer purposes, usually collecting, hunting or target shooting. Its inexpensive price, usually under $150 for some models, makes it a popular firearm but one with a very dark history.

Joe Miller, AtticExplorer.com

For an exhaustive list of Mosin Nagant variations with pictures, check out the Mosin Nagant Master Model Reference. Note: Casualty figures for the Siege of Plevna vary depending on the account but all agree that the Russians suffered horrendous losses. As a side note, despite the slaughter, the Russians won the battle, driving the Turks out of the city after five months of fighting. Korea photo courtesy of the National Archives, all others are held/taken personally or are in the public domain.

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