The Underrated Mosin-Nagant M38 Carbine
By Cole Wimer
My first step into the world of surplus rifles was a Mosin-Nagant M38 carbine. The Russian Mosin-Nagant M38 carbine was a shortened version of the Mosin-Nagant 91/30 battle rifle, which was used during World War I by Russia and World War II by the Soviet Union. The M38 carbine was produced from 1939 until 1944, when it was replaced by the M44 carbine. The year of manufacture is stamped into the front receiver ring and wartime production is typically pretty rough. M38's came with a 20.35 inch barrel, measured 40.1 inches in overall length, fed cartridges from a fixed, five round magazine that could be loaded from the top singly or by using five round stripper clips, and weighed only 7.2 pounds. Its light weight and short barrel gave it a (well deserved) reputation for excessive muzzle blast and recoil.
While this carbine does have its shortcomings, for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. In this article, I will try to sum up the benefits and drawbacks of this very affordably priced carbine, primarily as a shooter. That is, after all, why the Russian army issued them.
I went to a local gun show in February of 2008 with every intention of purchasing a Remington Model 760 or Model 7600 .30-06 carbine. I looked through all of the racks at the show, but was unable to find even one that was priced at less than $400, much less in good condition. On one lap around the show, I came upon a booth that was selling SKS carbines and other types of surplus rifles. Upon closer examination, I was able to ascertain that one of these "other" rifles was a bolt action with a single stack magazine and sights graduated out to 1000 something. Also apparent was the fact that this rifle was relatively short. It was covered in something yellow that appeared to be similar to ear wax.
I was able to convince my dad that he should fill out the paperwork and purchase aforementioned rifle. The dealer also included a cleaning kit, ammo pouch and sling. Then he threw in 20 rounds of ammo that he claimed would chamber in the rifle, which was my introduction to the 7.62x54R cartridge, also sometimes known as the 7.62x53R. It looks something like a rimmed version of the familiar .308 Winchester round. The actual bullet diameter is not 7.62mm (.308"), but 7.7mm (.311"), what the British would call a .303 caliber rifle. The total cost of the rifle and accessories was $130. That seemed like an exceptional price at the time, but I later discovered that similar M44 carbines and full length rifles could be had for as little as $70. I still preferred the fact that the M38 carried no bayonet, making it look more like a sporting rifle.
The ammunition booth at the same gun show was also selling boxes of 7.62x54R ammunition. The packages he was selling consisted of 15 rounds of ammo on three stripper clips that were wrapped in paper and string tied together. I purchased five of these for $7 each as well as two boxes of LVE 204 grain ammunition with soft point bullets at a MV of about 2440 fps. These were formidable rounds, to be sure. Fired in the 7.5 pound M38 carbine, these rounds kick like metaphoric mules.
I got the rifle home and broke out fine steel wool, Butch's Bore Shine and a hair dryer. I quickly learned how to take the gun apart for complete cleaning and frankly, this is not difficult. I will start from the beginning. First, make sure that the gun is unloaded. Then hold down the trigger and pull the bolt rearward out of the action. Next, remove the cleaning rod from underneath the barrel. Depress the front barrel band retaining spring. Then pull the front barrel band off the gun, lifting it around the front sight. Do the same with the rear band, using a screwdriver in the cleaning rod slot to pry it loose if necessary. Then remove the handguard. Use a screwdriver and remove the screw that is on the tang, then flip the gun over and remove the one in front of the floorplate. Press the floorplate release. Then, when the plate and spring assembly drops, compress the entire assembly and remove it from the pin on which it rotates. You will now be able to separate the stock and barreled action. Remove the spring in front of the trigger, remove the trigger and sear. Lastly, decock the bolt and turn the bolt head until it comes off the bolt. Then, remove the guide. You can remove the bolt body from the striker, but I have not needed to do so. Having gotten the rifle apart, clean the bore, steel wool away any rust and blow-dry the stock until all the Cosmoline comes out, and then reassemble.
About three weeks later, I purchased an original 1945 dated crate of 7.62x54R light ball ammunition. Containing 880 rounds in two separate sealed cans, it cost me $133. When I purchased the ammo, I also bought 25 steel stripper clips, made by Tikka, for $15. After acquiring this much ammo, I obviously needed to shoot some of it, so I did.
I took the M38 to the rifle range in Newberry, SC to fire it at the 100 yard line. Because of the impressive looking rounds and short barrel, I knew that the carbine was going to be loud, but I didn't know just how loud until I actually fired it. I opened the bolt and loaded five rounds of 7.62x54R into the magazine, making sure to keep the rim of every round in front of the one below it. I closed the bolt and took aim at the 100 yard bull's eye target, keeping the gun steady on the sandbags as I worked the military two-stage trigger through its ½" of take-up and final 15 pound pull. Finally, the sear let the striker go and the round fired, creating a shock wave that flattened the tall grass and drove the steel buttplate into my shoulder. The first shot round struck high, about a foot by my estimation, which is standard for a military rifle.
I began using the Kentucky elevation strategy to get my rounds on to the paper as onlookers stared in awe at the fireballs being expelled from the muzzle with every shot. After two clips worth, I gave up on bench rest shooting, as the rounds wouldn't go into a group smaller than four inches anyway, especially considering my Kentucky elevation. The recoil was stout, to say the least. I began resting the gun on a 4x4 post and fired another 55 rounds. All of these hit the paper, but in no particular place. One man was shooting a .300 Winchester Magnum and I can honestly say that the Mosin-Nagant was louder. After putting 65 rounds downrange at paper targets, I decided to put up a ½" thick steel plate that I had set up to swing when hit. The first round at 175 yards went almost all the way through, so I quit after that.
Back at the house, I went right to work cleaning the bore, not wanting to leave the corrosive fouling in the mirror bright bore for any longer than necessary. The bore of any rifle fired with corrosive primers should first be cleaned with hot water to dissolve the salt residue these primers leave behind. Like any high power rifle, the rest of the fouling was mostly copper and powder residue and I used quite a bit of Hoppe's No.9, Butch's Bore Shine, and Copper Killer solvent trying to get it clean. The cleaning kit that comes with the rifle is very good. It includes a jag that screws onto the rod and running a patch over that is sufficient to get the gun clean. My rifle had been counter bored, so the use of a bore guide is not mandatory, but I chose to use one, since it was included in the kit.
Loads for the 7.62x54R cartridge are indeed hot and I have been able to find Winchester USA, Sellier&Bellot, Igman, and Wolf Gold ammunition, all of which fires a 180 grain Soft Point bullet at about 2650 fps, no slouch. For reference, a Federal Power-Shok .30-06 cartridge fires the same bullet at 2710 FPS. I quickly realized that no game was going to fall with the open sights as they were, so I decided to do a little modification to them.
The little modification ended up being complete removal. I contacted S&K scope mounts and had them send me a scope mount for the M44 carbine that incorporated a Weaver style rail. Then I called Cabela's and ordered a 2x Truglo Red Dot scope. A pistol scope or a red dot is necessary because the scout type scope mount requires an extended eye relief scope. I chose the scout mount because it not require drilling and tapping the receiver, which I felt would destroy the historical value of the piece. After the rear sight pin, rear sight and rear sight spring were removed, the scope base attaches with a few screws and one oddly shaped nut. After the base was installed, it was no problem to mount the scope.
A Mosin-Nagant that will shoot three inch groups at 100 yards is a practical 200 yard deer rifle. It also has plenty of power for larger game, such as black bear and elk.
Now I will mention the rifle's shortcomings. The sights are the main drawback. They do not have enough adjustment latitude to allow the rifle to be zeroed for normal hunting ranges. Another is that it is a box magazine rifle chambered for a rimmed cartridge. If you do not load the rounds with each rim in front of the one below it will jam the rifle. A third disadvantage is the safety. I don't even attempt to use it. To set the safety involves pulling the cocking piece and accompanying 30 pound spring back ½", then turning it 90 degrees. The two-stage military trigger pull is so long and heavy that an accidental discharge is unlikely. (Carry this and all similar rifles in the field with the magazine loaded and the chamber empty. Do not chamber a cartridge until you are ready to shoot! -Ed.)
The upside is that you get a serviceable rifle of reasonable size and weight that fires a powerful cartridge for a very small investment. The price of ammunition is the other big advantage. For no other rifle caliber (not even 7.62x39 bought by the case) can you purchase ammunition as cheaply as 7.62x54R. This allows even the hunter who cannot afford a lot of ammunition at normal retail prices to practice with his Mosin-Nagant. Hunting ammunition, while not sold everywhere, is available and powerful. I can recommend the Mosin-Nagant M38 carbine to anyone who needs a reasonably handy and economical "knock-about" rifle. It is a powerful plinker and potentially useful as a hunting rifle. It is also a great way to start collecting military firearms.