Military Surplus Rifles

By David Tong

In the halcyon days of the mid-1970s, when I was involved in the Boy Scouts and started shooting, our scoutmasters decided that to earn our Marksmanship merit badge meant a trip into California's Mojave Desert, namely Red Rock Canyon. In those days, neither Scouting's national leadership nor our scoutmasters were terribly politically correct. While the merit badge manual might have insisted that actual shooting consist of .22 LR caliber, manually operated rifles at bullseye targets at known distances, they had other ideas.

What transpired in my case was they gave us a .22 to familiarize us with safety handling and noise. Then, they handed us a bunch of surplus military rifles, including a 1898 Krag-Jorgensen in .30-40, 1903 Springfield in .30-06 and K98k Mauser in 8x57mm. They also introduced us to plinking at tin cans.

Of course, even though my friends and I were in our teens, the recoil of a .30-06 or a 8x57mm Mauser was startling to us neophytes. Even though they tried to teach us the fundamentals of shooting (breathing, relaxing, sight picture, trigger squeeze, surprise break) there was much jerking of that loud lever and not a lot of hitting.

However, there were a lot of smiles. To the few of us who had some sense of history, myself included, there was nothing but smiles. We had pressed the triggers of rifles that had made history and this meant much more than shooting a .22, even though the .22 was an incomparably a better tool for the raw rookie.

My dad was patient and reasonably supportive. He took my brother and I to local gun stores in the San Fernando Valley (most of which have now been closed due to legislative and LE pressure). I used to see brand-new, surplus Argentine 1909 Model 98 Mauser rifles with bright metal, un-dinged stocks and perfect bores selling for $69. 1903 Springfields of various dates and models sold for about $150. M1 Garands were pricey, nearly $400, despite the large number manufactured.

We read about these rifles in old books and naturally wanted to own them. This was not too different from the attitude of returning veterans who wanted to shoot and hunt with them in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the time, they were so common we thought they could be bought and traded, because the supply seemed nearly endless. We were wrong.

Collectors began paying a lot of attention (and money) for original rifles. Many of these came from their respective country's factories with matching serial numbers on barrel, bolt, receiver, floor plate and stock. As the WWII generation began to fade into oblivion, the collectors became even more active in gobbling-up these old rifles.

My favorite British Lee-Enfields were nearly give-away priced back then. They were hard to turn into a scoped hunting rifle (sporterize, in other words). Old U.S. Krag rifles were the same way, as were Japanese Arisakas, Italian Carcanos, French Berthiers and Austrian Steyrs. None of these really caught on back then, as most collectors naturally went after the better known U.S. and German martial arms.

People had been sporterizing military rifles since the end of the First World War. It accelerated with the proliferation of decent telescopic sights after WWII and there was more extensive modification of these old warhorses.

There are two trends in these surplus rifles. If you find one that has been altered (stock cut back, barrel shortened, recoil pad or scope mount installed) it is best to leave it that way and go hunting with it. It will never again be original.

On the other hand, if it has what appears to be matching numbers and stock furniture, or if it comes with authenticating letters from a returning veteran who may have liberated it from its former owner from the ETO or PTO, you have a potentially valuable rifle, especially if it was used in a well known military unit.

These days there are much better sporting rifles with which to hunt, so I cannot see any reason to sporterize an old military rifle. The expense of doing so, including mounting a scope and installing a single stage trigger, would probably exceed the price of a new hunting rifle.

Given my respect for history, I would prefer to simply enjoy the old rifle as it is. Some of them are surprisingly accurate (the Swiss K31, Swedish M96 and Springfield 1903 with "C" pistol grip stock come to mind) and they should remain unmolested.

Many of them have rather short stocks and all of them have metal butt plates. Thus, they have a reputation for kicking hard, out of proportion to their power, which is admittedly considerable. (See Compared: Sporterized Military Cartridges and Compared: The .30-06 Springfield, .303 British and 8x57mm JS Mauser.)

In most countries that allow hunting, military calibers remain perennial favorites. Here in the U.S., the triumvirate of .30-06, .308 Winchester and .223 Remington are among the most popular of all centerfire calibers. In Europe, you will see the 6.5x55, 7x57 and 8x57, while in what was once the British Empire (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and much of southern Africa) the .303 remains popular.

Some military surplus rifles are still fairly inexpensive. None more so than the rather crude Russian Mosin-Nagant, the Italian Carcano, the Japanese Arisaka and to a lesser extent the British Lee-Enfield. Ammo for al of them is still available.

For the shooter with a historical bent, surplus military rifles remain a fine introduction to centerfire rifle shooting. You can even enter a local service rifle match, if you want to test your mettle as well as your metal.

2014 was the 100th Anniversary of the start of the First World War and all the veterans of that conflict have gone to their reward. This year (2015) is the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II, whose veterans are now dying at about a thousand per day. Soon their personal recollections will only be third-person memoirs.

I have enjoyed a lifetime of fun with these rifles; shooting them, learning about their history, their foibles and how they were used. I hope they will still have a place in the rifle rack of the future.

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Copyright 2015 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.