Military Rifles for Recreational Use
By Chuck Hawks
I should make it clear from the outset that I am neither an expert in the field nor a particular fan of military rifles. What appeals to me is a nicely figured walnut stock of slender and elegant contour, precisely cut checkering, and highly polished finishes on both wood and metal. I insist that all of my rifles be scoped because I prefer to hit what I shoot at, and I want the scope mounted low and over the bore.
These features are not typical of any military rifle I have ever seen, and the only military rifle in its original condition I have ever owned is a Swedish Mauser Model 1896. I once owned a sporting rifle based on a British Lee-Enfield SMLE action, but all that was left of the original military rifle was the action itself. The action had been polished, blued, re-barreled, and re-stocked in black walnut. It looked and handled like a civilian hunting rifle, which was what I wanted. Unmodified late 19th and early 20th Century infantry rifles generally have unreasonably long barrels for hunting purposes, which makes them slow and awkward in the field.
Since the end of the Second World War a great many surplus military rifles have been imported and sold in the United States. Among the best known of these (there have been many others) are the Argentine Mauser Model 1891 (7.65x53); British SMLE Lee-Enfield rifle and Jungle Carbine (.303 British); German Mauser Model 1898 (8x57JS); Italian Carcano Model 1891 (6.5x52); Japanese Arisaka Type 38 (6.5x50) and Type 99 (7.7mm Japanese); Russian Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 (7.62x54R); Spanish Mauser Model 1893 and Model 1895 (7x57); Swedish Mauser Model 1894, Model 1896 and Model 36 (6.5x55); Swiss Schmidt-Rubin Models 1889, 1896, 1896/11, and 31 (7.5mm Swiss); U.S. Model 1892 Krag (.30-40 Krag), Model 1903 Springfield (.30-06), and Model 1917 Enfield (.30-06); and the U.S. M1 Carbine (.30 Carbine).
All of these except the U.S. M1 Carbine (an autoloader) are bolt action rifles. The supply of most of these rifles has long since dried up, but they are still seen on the used market. And a few models are still being imported as various militaries around the world, particularly in the smaller nations, clean out their reserve stocks of obsolete rifles. That list of military rifles, attenuated though it is, is far too long to allow me to cover them all, even briefly. But I will comment on a few of the models I feel are most suitable for the recreational shooter.
Mauser Model 98
I think that the best military action of them all (for sporting purposes) is the German Model 98 Mauser. This action has formed the basis of a great many custom built sporting rifles. It is one of the best bolt actions ever designed, and it heavily influenced the design of all subsequent bolt action rifles. Most "improvements" on the Model 98 design are in fact attempts to cut production costs--the Mauser 98 is an expensive action to manufacture.
German wartime production (both First and Second World Wars) was good at the beginning, but degraded as the war went on. Actions made late in either war are liable to be poorly heat treated and thus soft and unsuitable for sporting purposes. Peacetime production was uniformly good.
In Germany, Model 98 rifles were produced by Mauser, Kreighof, and Simson as well as by government arsenals. Model 98's were also turned out in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Poland, and perhaps other places.
The Mauser 98 is a better action than most modified Model 98 actions. The latter include the American 1903 Springfield, the 1917 Enfield, and the immensely strong Japanese Arisakas. The Model 98 locks at the front of the bolt by means of two large locking lugs, and cocks on opening. It handles escaping gas from a burst case better than the other military actions. It has a strong, one-piece firing pin. Its safety lug is small and strong. It is located forward of the bolt handle, and turns down into a recess in the receiver. It is a controlled feed action with a full-length extractor that takes a very large bite on the rim on the case. The ejector is fixed and mounted in the receiver. All of these features have been widely copied in subsequent actions, both military and civilian, but seldom are they all present in one action.
A good, sound Model 98 military rifle is well worth having, and worth spending money on to have it converted into a custom sporter. German Model 98's are normally chambered for the 8x57JS, a classic big game cartridge on the order of the .308 Winchester. The military "S" load drove a 154 grain FMJ spitzer bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2880 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2835 ft. lbs. With proper bullets there are not many animals it can not take.
The U.S. 1903A3 Springfield is also a decent action and it is adaptable to sporting purposes. The military stock has such a short length of pull that few adult shooters can comfortably use it well. A 1903 Springfield rifle almost begs to be re-stocked before it can be used for recreational shooting. In a pinch, a thick slip-on recoil pad can help extend the length of pull.
The action is a modified Mauser 98, modified in an attempt by the U. S. government to avoid paying Mauser royalties. Almost all of the modifications were retrograde, and in any case the ploy failed. Mauser took the U. S. Government to court and won. The Springfield uses a two-piece firing pin that is liable to breakage, a unnecessarily large safety lug on the bolt, a coned breech that leaves part of the head of the case unsupported, and it does not handle escaping gas nearly as well as a Mauser 98.
Many fine custom built hunting rifles have been based on the '03 Springfield action, particularly between the world wars, and if you find a nickel steel or double heat treated Springfield action in good condition it can serve as the basis for a fine custom sporter. Such an action was used as the basis for the American Custom Gunmakers Guild's 1903 Springfield 100th Anniversary presentation rifle, which is as elegant and beautiful a custom sporter as you can imagine.
The .30-06 cartridge, for which the '03 Springfield rifle is chambered, is the most popular all-around big game cartridge in the world. It is the largest and potentially the most powerful of the 20th Century infantry rifle cartridges and served the United States through both World Wars and the Korean War. The American M2 service load drove a 150 grain FMJ spitzer bullet at a MV of 2740 fps and ME of 2500 ft. lbs.
Lee-Enfield Jungle Carbine
The neatest surplus rifle for use "as is" for big game hunting is probably the British Lee-Enfield Jungle Carbine. It is no longer available as surplus, as far as I know, but it has become are so popular that new rifles of the type have been made to fill the demand. The Gibbs Rifle Company offers the Quest II Extreme Carbine, a newly manufactured Jungle Carbine clone in .308 Winchester caliber.
The original Lee-Enfield Jungle carbine is a shortened version of the standard SMLE infantry rifle, and was chambered for the .303 British round. These weighed about 8 pounds, came with a short 20 inch barrel, and had an overall length of about 40 inches. They were handy and hard hitting carbines. If I had to take a stock military rifle deer hunting, this would be the one I would choose.
The .303 British Mk. VII load drove a 174 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2440 fps and ME of 2319 ft. lbs. The .303 British has proven itself a fine big game cartridge all over the world with appropriate (expanding) bullets. Do not use military FMJ ammunition for hunting.
.30 M1 Carbine
The American M1 Carbine is a nifty little gas operated autoloader that was designed by Winchester as a substitute for both the Thompson sub-machine gun and the Colt M1911 service pistol. It was issued to tank crews during WW II, and became very popular with the troops because it was light and handy. The little rifle also served in the Korean War, and on into the early 1970's with some U.S. military organizations (including the USAF).
The NRA sold thousands of M1 Carbines to their members during the 1960's as part of the U.S. Government's surplus program. I passed up the chance to get one for around $50 in 1963, and I have regretted it ever since. One of my best friends was smarter than I, and still has his.
The .30 Carbine became so popular with civilian shooters that when the supply of surplus Carbines dried up, various manufacturers made new ones for the civilian market. The Ruger 10/22, the world's most popular rimfire rifle, is styled after the M1 Carbine. The little M1 Carbine is the lightest, shortest, and neatest of the surplus military rifles.
The .30 Carbine cartridge is not suitable for even the smaller species of big game. It drives a 110 grain FMJ round nose bullet at a MV of about 2000 fps. It is best reserved for plinking, home defence (with JHP bullets), and culling beasts of less than about 40 pounds weight.
Perhaps the best inexpensive and commonly encountered surplus rifles are the various Swedish Mausers. These include the Model 1894 (infantry rifle and calvary carbine versions), Model 1896, and Model 38. Swedish military rifles are of high quality and they are usually capable of very good accuracy if they are in sound condition. All are chambered for the excellent 6.5x55 cartridge, another plus.
None of the Swedish Mausers are based on the Mauser Model 98 action; among other differences they all cock when the bolt is closed. There is a brass roundel on the buttstock that is marked by the Swedish armory for bore diameter, bore condition, and whether the sights are set for the 160 grain RN bullet or the 140 grain spitzer bullet.
The Model 1896 is probably the most commonly seen Swedish Mauser. As military rifles go, it is a graceful example with a 3/4 length straight grip stock and a long 29" barrel. Its ladder type open sight is calibrated from 300 meters to 2000 meters! The Model 1896 action shares most of the Mauser 98's good features. The front locking bolt has the usual two large locking lugs, the extractor is the full length claw type, and the ejector is fixed in the receiver. The Model 1896 is the rifle that, more than any other, made the 6.5x55 cartridge's reputation.
I own a Mauser Model 1896 made by Carl Gustav and while I regard it as too long for most hunting applications, it is very accurate and great fun to shoot at the rifle range. Its stock has a high comb and a 14" length of pull. This makes it much more comfortable to shoot than many old military rifles, whose stocks are often too short for contemporary shooters and have excessive drop at comb. The 1896's weight and long barrel also help to minimize recoil and muzzle blast.
The Model 38 (for 1938, the year of its adoption) was made, I believe, by Husquvarna. It was the last model and probably the best for hunting. It is identical to the Model 1896, but came with a shorter barrel and an aperture (rather than open) rear sight. If I were interested in a reasonably priced military rifle specifically for hunting I would probably look for a Swedish Mauser Model 38. The action is relatively easy to drill and tap for scope bases, and many used examples will be found complete with scope mount and rings.
The 6.5x55 cartridge has an enviable reputation for accuracy. It makes a fine hunting cartridge for a wide variety of game, and its moderate recoil has endeared it to shooters around the world. There aren't many animals that can't be killed by a well placed 140 grain bullet from a 6.5x55 rifle. It remains the most popular moose cartridge in Scandinavia. The Swedish military load drove a 139 grain FMJ spitzer bullet at a MV of 2626 fps with ME of 2126 ft. lbs.
All of the military cartridges discussed above have been covered in much greater detail in my series of articles about rifle cartridges. These can be found on the "Rifle Information Page" of Guns and Shooting Online.
While no military rifle makes an ideal sporting rifle as-is, those discussed above are at least among the best. The .30 M1 Carbine makes a fine plinker and home defence or ranch rifle, and the Lee-Enfield Jungle Carbine makes a pretty fair deer and big game rifle if you are satisfied with iron sights. It is also a natural as the basis of a modern scout rifle. The 6.5x55 Swede is an excellent hunting cartridge, and with the addition of a telescopic sight a Swedish Mauser can adequately serve as an open country hunting rifle. The actions of the Mauser Model 98 and 1903 Springfield are especially valuable as the basis for upscale custom rifles, and all of these old military veterans are fun to shoot at the range as issued.
Copyright 2002, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.