The Mighty Mosin Nagant

As anyone with the wits to say "powerful assault weapon" knows, the Kalashnikov is the most successful military small arm of all time, with over 100 million produced since its introduction in 1947.

But what's number two? Is it the Lee-Enfield, which had an active-duty life of over 60 years? The Model 98K Mauser, which percolated all over the world and served for more than five decades? The answer is a resounding "neither." It's the unlovely Mosin-Nagant, whose numbers are simply staggering.

The joint design of Captain Sergei Mosin of the Russian Imperial Army and the Belgian designer Leon Nagant, it was first issued to Russian troops in 1891. Since then, there have been 37 million made in the Soviet Union and Russia alone, plus many more turned out in other countries, including the U.S. And it's still in production. The Mosin has been used in 30 wars, and counting. Only the AK-47 exceeds it, and nothing else comes close to equaling it.

The Mosin is an unlovely rifle, even by military standards, but it has formidable virtues. Like all Russian/Soviet small arms, it can be turned out cheaply and in huge numbers. It's incredibly durable, requires little maintenance, is simple to operate, and is surprisingly accurate. You could put a Mosin into the hands of a Soviet peasant freshly yanked from his collective farm, give him little or no training in its use, (but give him a bayonet) and send him off to die, serene in the knowledge that he could do a great deal of damage before he gave up his life for the Rodina.

Or you could mount a 3.5X fixed-focus PU scope on a Mosin, put it in the hands of a sniper like Vasiliy Zaitsev, and watch him make the landsers creep and crawl to stay alive. (Zaitsev, a Siberian hunter and marksman who peed icewater, killed more than 500 Germans, including 11 Wehrmacht snipers, and made several shots at 1,000 meters.)

There were eight variants of the Mosin, including a long rifle, several carbines, and a sniper version. The standard barrel was 29 inches long; the carbine 20.2. The Mosin weighed 9 pounds or a shade less and could be either single-loaded or fed 5 rounds from a stripper clip. Effective range was listed as 500 meters, but the rear ladder sight was calibrated to 2,000 meters. Some Mosins were given a "battle sight zero" at the factory so that the soldier who was issued it could use the gun at short range without having to sight it in.

Part of the Mosin's effectiveness was due to its cartridge, the 7.62x54R. It employed a rimmed case, which was and is rare for a military round, but it was extremely advanced for 1891, firing a 150-grain bullet at 2,800 fps. The United States at that time was armed mainly with the .45/70, and would not develop a comparable load until 1906, when it modified the .30/03 cartridge into the .30/06.

Today, while you never see Springfield 03s or a Lee-Enfields sold in numbers and even Mausers are getting scarce, the Moisin is readily available, and if you are offended by its wooden stock, which is likely to be highly worn, you can buy a synthetic drop-in replacement. The rifle will need a trigger job, and a scope sight will help a lot, but it will still be one of the principal small arms that killed eight of 10 German soldiers in World War II. And although you will never know the name of the soldier to whom it was issued, it will serve you just as well as it did him.