This article is condensed from the Introduction of the author’s book “Collecting Classic Military Bolt Action Rifles.” It and his other books are available from Mowbray Publishing, 54 East School St., Woonsocket, RI 02895.
My first experience with military surplus guns occurred in the early 1960s when I accompanied an older friend to one of the many military surplus warehouses that were once so common along the East River docks in New York City.
Upon entering the dingy building we climbed a flight of stairs and entered a cavernous room in which stood rack upon rack of grease encrusted rifles: Mausers, Lee-Enfields, Mosin-Nagants, Arisakas, Carcanos, Mannlichers – you name it, they were all represented in this dimly lit loft.
We quickly passed over the expensive Krags, Springfields and Mausers – $39.95 was a lot of money to a high school senior back then – and made our way towards the “bargain” racks where we were told we could have our pick of any rifle for $15.95! Less adequately, my friend became reacquainted with the old Latin axiom Caveat Emptor – “Let the Buyer Beware.”
While I went on to become an ardent collector of military surplus guns, he spent the intervening years referring to them, one and all, as “…pieces of junk.”
Those of us who purchase military surplus guns should always keep one thing in mind: the newest bolt-action military rifle one is likely to encounter on today’s surplus market is close to forty years old, while some of them passed the century mark a decade ago. Time’s passage tends to have a deleterious effect on most things, and wood and steel are not immune to its ravages.
Regardless of the quality of the original materials and the skill of manufacture, the safety of any rifle approaching three-quarters of a century in age must be looked upon with skepticism – and that’s with those rifles that have been properly maintained.
Many years ago I purchased a No. 1 Mk. III* Lee-Enfield and upon stripping it down I discovered that the receiver had been manufactured by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield in 1911, modified (by someone) to Mk. III* specs in 1919 and re-barreled (by someone else) before being put into storage in 1944. A faint “50” was stamped inside the stock’s barrel channel indicating that new wood had been installed around that year before it was reissued again.
It bore markings that led me to believe that this military surplus gun has been used by the armies of three different nations during its career, meaning it likely saw service in World War I, World War II and possibly one or more of the intermittent Middle Eastern conflicts.
I owned a 104-year-old rifle that has been repaired, rebuilt, refinished, re-barreled and restocked by any number of persons – of unknown skill and ability. It had been carried, fired and received the tender loving ministrations–- with varying degrees of enthusiasm – of numerous volunteers, recruits and conscripts. It bears a plethora of markings, stamps and numbers, and while the bolt and receiver numbers match they are quite crudely stamped, something that does not normally cause confidence to rise in my bosom.
But, it should be remembered that this does not necessarily mean that my Enfield was unsafe. The bolt worked smoothly and locked up tight, the bore was worn but clean and the metal and wood in rather decent condition. There were no signs of abuse and it appeared that it had been properly maintained, at least by the most recent owners.
I had my gunsmith check the head spacing and he assured me that it was within specs. Test firing with some modern production mil-spec .303 ammunition showed it to be acceptably accurate. So what at first might appear to have been a “…piece of junk” turned out to be an interesting, and most shootable, classic military rifle.
With the lifting of the ban on the importation of military surplus guns that had been imposed by the Gun Control Act of 1966, large numbers of relatively inexpensive military surplus rifles are once again available on the U.S. market. And while rifles imported during this “Second Golden Age” of military surplus guns, would-be collectors should understand that there are several big differences between it and the first.
First of all, these rifles are now an additional forty-something years older. While some of them remained in service during that period, the vast majority remained in storage under conditions ranging from excellent to abysmal.
A decade ago, I saw unissued No. 4 Lee-Enfields still in the original arsenal cosmoline and wrappers on the same gun racks as surplus South American Mausers, many of which looked like they had been dredged up from the bottom of the Amazon river. When buying a surplus rifle, especially those that have obviously seen a bit of service, the purchaser should observe certain precautions:
Check to see if the serial numbers on the rifle match. The great majority of military surplus guns available today have been rebuilt several times and often parts numbers will be different. If you intend to shoot your rifle be certain that, at the least, the receiver and bolt numbers match.
If they don’t, you should assume the rifle was assembled from parts after it left storage and thus the headspace may be off enough as to make firing dangerous. Such rifles are fine for display but should not be fired unless they are checked over first by a competent gunsmith.
Check for hairline cracks on receivers and bolts and cracks or bulges on barrels. The latter are often under the stock but can sometimes be detected by careful examination of the inside of the barrel with a bore light.
Damaged muzzles will effect accuracy adversely and, unless small enough to be removed without damaging the collectible value of the rifle, those rifles with them should be avoided if you are looking for a shooter. Bore condition may or may not affect shootability. I have a number of shootable military surplus guns in my collection whose bores display a fair amount of wear.
Thin cracks in the stocks do not generally indicate misuse. Wood is adversely affected by age, moisture, solvents and lubricants and should not affect performance. But larger cracks, especially near stock recoil bolts, pistol grips and the thin sections along the magazine, could grow with use and even cause the stock to break when fired. Some arsenals used countersunk screws and bolts to repair such damage and the work is often well done.
But some military surplus gun dealers will attempt the same repairs, usually attempting to cover their crude efforts up with wood filler. Also avoid rifles whose stocks have been excessively sanded or scraped to remove dents, dings, grease and finish. This is usually indicated by the wood being humped up around, stock fitting, metal fixtures and other protuberances. Not only does this destroy interesting markings (some of which might increase the collector’s value of your rifle) but it can cause structural weakness to the stock itself.
Avoid shooting older military surplus guns that have been re-chambered or re-barreled from their original cartridge. While a 98-type Mauser in good condition can usually be safely converted from 7×57 or 7.9×57 to .30-06 or 7.62 NATO, the same cannot be said for similar conversions performed on earlier Model 93 and 95-type Mausers. Again, have a qualified gunsmith go over them with a fine-toothed comb before shooting them.
After purchasing your rifle detail strip it, clean it thoroughly and reexamine for all of the above.
Be certain that you are firing the correct ammunition in your rifle. There are any number of cartridges that can be chambered in rifles not intended for them. Once you have determined the correct cartridge for your rifle, use nothing but original surplus or – if available – new commercial ammunition for shooting.
At the danger of being repetitive, I must emphasize once again that under no circumstances should you attempt to fire military surplus guns until you have had its headspace and general condition checked over by a competent gunsmith. The additional expense is a small price to pay to avoid having it undergo major structural damage while you’re firing it!
Shooting military surplus guns can be a very enjoyable and rewarding experience. But as with any other activity related to firearms, it requires healthy doses of caution, patience and common sense.
Next month we will discuss the precautions that must be observed when using military surplus ammunition and the ins and outs of buying and selling military surplus rifles.