Dossier Nagant Revolver

By Mike Hudson

Nagant revolver
Nagant Model 1895 revolver.

It was a bitterly cold and unusually quiet night early in 1942, and young Timofey Bogrov sat shivering in a slit trench on the frozen steppe outside Smolensk. The snow glistened like diamonds in the moonlight. For months the fighting in the area had dragged on, and now Bogrov was lost and unsure of his own position, much less those of his Red Army comrades or the Nazi enemy.

The only other occupant of the trench was a dead and nearly frozen Soviet lieutenant who had been there when Bogrov wandered in. The weary young soldier was on the verge of dozing off when, suddenly and without warning, three German soldiers appeared, jumping down from the edge of the trench. Bogrov glanced furtively at his Mosin service rifle, leaning uselessly against the wall a few feet away.

"Ruki werch, Ruki werch!" the German sergeant commanded: "Hands up."

Realizing that the patrol was looking for prisoners to interrogate, and staring down the barrel of the sergeant's MP-38 submachine gun, Bogrov quickly complied. He was relieved of his rifle and searched, although not as carefully as he should have been.

As the Germans gathered at the other end of the trench to talk among themselves, the young Russian reached into his greatcoat and pulled out the M-1895 Nagant revolver he had taken from the body of the dead lieutenant. He emptied the cylinder at his opponents, killing all three in a matter of seconds.

Later, Bogrov described the incident in his diary: "Captured a cigarette lighter, a gold ring, a fountain pen, two pipes, tobacco and a comb."

The Nagant revolver used by Bogrov had already been in the Russian service for nearly a half-century when Hitler launched his ill-advised invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Originally designed by the Belgian gunmaker Henri-Leon Nagant for use by Tsar Nicholas II's military, it would be an ironic twist of fate that it was also the weapon used to slaughter the Tsar and his family following the Russian Revolution of 1917.

And, aside from that conflict, the M-1895 had already drawn blood in the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, the Russian and Spanish civil wars, and during the Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland.

Early production guns were manufactured at the Nagant plant in Belgium but, after purchasing the patent rights in 1900, the Imperial Russian government began producing the revolvers at its Tula, Sestrortsk and Izhvsk arsenals. Production was continued by the Soviets after the revolution and altogether more than 3 million Nagants are believed to have been produced between 1895 and 1945.

The seven shot M-1895 is a light and handy weapon, weighing in at 29 ounces and measuring nine inches overall with a 4-1/4 inch barrel. While some critics have described it as "ungainly," others have admired its elegant lines and Old World workmanship. Its unique "gas seal" design employed a system in which cocking the hammer, either manually or in the double action mode, pushed the gun's cylinder forward so that the recessed mouth of the chamber entered the tapered rear end of the barrel. This effectively prevented the escape of gas from the gap between the cylinder and barrel that exists on more conventional revolvers.

While ballistics experts have questioned the effectiveness of this complication, in actual service there weren't any reports of the gas seal device causing functional problems.

The unusual 7.62mm Nagant cartridge itself was specifically designed for use with the gas seal system and featured an extended, slightly bottlenecked case that completely enclosed the bullet, giving the appearance of a blank cartridge. The round fires a 97 grain, flat-nosed lead bullet at 1080 feet per second, developing a muzzle energy of 290 foot pounds. Those ballistics are quite comparable to the modern .32 Magnum revolver cartridge.

While not in the class of the .45 ACP load used by American forces, the 7.62 Nagant compared well with or was superior to the various .32, 8 mm, and .380 handgun cartridges used by the German, Italian, French and Japanese services.

The Nagant revolver was a robust and dependable weapon, beloved by those who depended on it for their lives. "If anything went wrong, you could mend it with a hammer," one Russian officer noted.

Production was continued even after the introduction in 1933 of the Tokarev semi-automatic pistol, largely because the frigid temperatures in which the Soviet soldier generally found himself fighting often rendered recoil-operated arms useless. Production soared following the German invasion, and 120,000 Nagants were manufactured in 1941 alone.

During that first war year, things looked exceedingly bleak for the Soviets. The Nazis drove the Red Army out of Poland and plunged deep into Russian territory, occupying the Baltic States and advancing dangerously close to Leningrad and Moscow. In August of that year, following the appalling disaster at the Estonian seaport of Tallinn, Soviet officers were hard pressed to prevent a total breakdown of discipline among the troops.

A Russian journalist named Mikhail Godenko reported witnessing a chilling scene in Kronstadt one evening when a young sailor, drunk on shaving lotion, staggered down the street shouting, "Down with the Soviets!"

A commander drew his Nagant and shouted for the man to stop.

"What do you mean stop," replied the sailor. "You rats of the rear, where were you when we were fighting at Gatchina, at Detsoye Selo?"

"I'll shoot," the commander warned.

"Shoot, shoot ahead," the sailor screamed. "But tomorrow the Germans will be fighting in Leningrad!"

A single aimed shot dropped the sailor to the pavement, dead.

By autumn of 1941, the great arms making center of Tula, just 15 miles south of Moscow, was facing the direct threat of General Heinz Guderian's Panzer divisions. Laborers at the Tula Ordinance Factory set to work at disassembling the plant for relocation east of the Ural Mountains. On October 30 the Communist Party Secretariat ordered a combat division to be formed made up of 17 "Worker's Battalions," consisting mainly of the arms plant's already beleaguered civilian employees.

Official records for these units show that Nagant revolvers were the sole battle weapon of 145 members of each 675 man battalion. And those fighters must have considered themselves well armed, since more than 100 men in each of the units had only Molotov cocktails with which to turn back the German blitzkrieg.

Guderian's armored force was halted by these workers at Tula, in some of the bloodiest close quarters fighting seen up to that point in the war.

By spring of 1942, the Tula factory and its 60,000 workers had been successfully relocated east of the Urals, a massive accomplishment by any standard. Some Nagants of this vintage are today encountered which have been rechambered to accept the 7.62 mm Tokarev automatic pistol round, although it is uncertain whether these represent factory alterations, field experiments or postwar conversions in one of the various Soviet client states. The alteration can only be detected by careful examination of the weapon's cylinder, as no new markings were added to the outer surface to distinguish them. Actually, no caliber designations were stamped on any of the original M-1895 revolvers.

The Red Army placed a higher premium on handguns and issued them on a much wider basis than did the United States or most other Allied forces. As has been seen, this was often a matter of necessity. Either the soldier got a Nagant or he had no firearm at all. Still, this practice instilled a closer relationship between the handgun and the Soviet trooper than could be claimed by the average front line soldier in the west.

Soviet soldiers issued Nagants were required to be able to completely disassemble their revolvers for thorough cleaning and maintenance. Standing orders demanded that issue M-1895's were to be inspected and receive a general cleaning daily, even under the harshest of battlefield conditions.

Ironically, the Germans also deployed the Nagant in significant numbers on their Eastern Front. Having captured more than half of all existing Soviet supply dumps along with nearly 2 million Red Army soldiers in the early months of fighting, the Nazis began to actively recruit anti-Communists and others opposed to the rule of Josef Stalin from among the occupied territories.

In the beginning, these recruits were drawn from the non-Russian nationalities of White Russians openly antagonistic to Soviet rule. The prisoner-of-war camps were combed for Islamic POW's from the Caucasus and Turkestan, and divisions were later raised of Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians. An SS division was formed in Galicia, and a much-feared SS cavalry corps was made up entirely of Cossacks. More than a million men volunteered to fight on the side of the Germans, all outfitted with Nazi uniforms and captured Soviet weapons, including M-1895's.

When Nagants were issued to a Red Army unit, the first priority was to establish each weapon's point of impact. For revolvers that were to be issued to regular soldiers specially selected marksmen generally conducted the firing. In the case of Nagants issued to officers and NCOs, those to whom the particular gun was given did the firing.

Four shots were fired in single action mode, either offhand or from a rest at a range of 25 meters. It was expected that the resulting group measure no more than six inches in diameter, and be no further than two inches from the point of aim in any direction. The firing range commands seemed designed to prepare the soldier for the worst eventualities he might face. "AT THE DESERTER, FIRE!" was typical.

Thus zeroed, the bullet would strike dead on at 25 meters, 1.5" high at 10 meters and about 2" low at 50 meters. A contemporary Soviet manual issued with the Nagant advises that suitable targets included enemy soldiers at ranges of up to 50 meters who "suddenly appear out in the open."

Preference should be given to the "closest and most vulnerable" targets and "for the most reliable destruction of the enemy," the aiming point should be a vital spot, "the stomach, chest or head." The manual states that the competent soldier should be able to get off seven aimed shots in no more than 20 seconds. Cavalrymen were instructed to train their horses to the sound of the shot and "in peacetime, to the appearance of targets at which firing will be conducted."

By the spring of 1943 the tide of war had turned against the Germans and Nagant production began to decline in favor of the Tokarev automatic. Not only could the Tokarev be manufactured more cheaply, but also with far less exacting tolerances than those demanded by the old wheelgun. Even so, as the Red Army advanced, the M-1895 crossed through Poland to Vienna, and entered Berlin in April 1945, as Soviet troops took the city. At the end of the war ecstatic Russian soldiers fired them into the air in victory.

The end of the war did not mark the end of the venerable revolver's career, however. For as long as the T-34 battle tank was in service, Soviet crews were issued Nagants because its tapered barrel fit the firing ports better than the Tokarev and Makarov automatics.

American soldiers would face them in Korea, Vietnam and Grenada. Nagants have even turned up in the recent fighting in Chechnya, Serbia and Bosnia.

Once considered a rarity among collectors in the United States, the distinguished old sidearm is now reaching these shores in large numbers, thanks largely to the breakup and economic plight of the former Soviet Union. New, commercial ammunition is being manufactured by Fiocchi.

My own experience with the Nagant was a pleasant surprise. Firing both surplus Soviet target ammo and the newly minted rounds brought out by Fiocchi, I found the gun a delight to shoot. Once I got used to the heavy single action trigger pull necessitated by the Nagant's gas seal design, the revolver proved to be one of the most accurate fixed-sighted handguns I've ever used.

Coyote-sized targets would do well to keep their distance from a sportsman carrying an M-1895, as a killing shot out to 50 yards would be a relatively simple matter.

Ballistics as loaded by Fiocchi still outclass those of the various pocket automatics, and are on a par with those of the venerable .32-20 Winchester or the modern H&R .32 Magnum. The Nagant would make a fine choice as a trail gun, or as a weapon for home defense, although the cost of the cartridges to feed it would preclude much in the way of recreational plinking.

As for that, several manufacturers are now offering drop-in cylinders in .32 ACP caliber so shooters can bang away without breaking the bank. Of course, the original cylinder should be put back in and standard 7.62mm ammo used when needed for anything other than tin cans.

While some have asserted that the M-1895 was obsolete even at the outbreak of W.W.II, its effectiveness over the past century cannot be denied. On battlefields from Siberia to Saigon, the Nagant proved itself time and again. Its place in martial history is assured.

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Copyright 2007 by Mike Hudson. All rights reserved.