October 23, 2013
A couple miles south of Keene, N.H., in North Swanzey is LPR Gunsmithing. It's owned and operated by one of the premier bolt rifle mechanics on the east coast. Lawrence P. "Larry" Racine has been a top competitor in NRA High Power for decades and is a former member of the U.S. Palma Team. He also was a tool and die maker by trade — when there was still manufacturing in New Hampshire — and his expertise with a lathe is a major reason he is so good at fitting barrels. Savage rifles are his specialty.
A few years ago I stopped in to visit and he was fussing over a test barrel on a Savage action that caught my eye. It was stamped "7.62x54R." What he had done was chamber a spare Savage .308 barrel he had laying around for the Russian cartridge. A quick comparison of the 54R and .308 Winchester chamber prints will reveal that the old Russian cartridge is slightly larger in all dimensions except for neck length. Rechambering to 54R is a snap. There are, however, a couple issues that need to be addressed for a successful conversion.
The 54R is a rimmed cartridge and the Savage barrel was designed for rimless cases. Rimmed cartridges headspace on the rim but the rim must be exposed so the extractor can snap over it.
Larry solved this problem by machining a cone on the barrel breech so the case can headspace normally, but some of the rim is exposed so it will extract with the standard Savage sliding extractor. A look at the pictures will explain this modification better than I can describe it.
What about the bolt face? A quick measurement of the 54R rim diameter indicates it is very close to .300 Win. Mag., so the Savage magnum bolt head will work without modification. I have a switch-barrel target rifle with barrels in 54R, .300 Win. Mag. and 7mm Remington Magnum.
Another issue is bore diameter. Factory 54R bullets usually run .311 inches in diameter, which would be considered a non-standard bore here in the land of the .308. A rechambered .308 barrel will work, but there may be pressure issues with the fat bullets. I use my rechambered .308 barrel for shooting 54R reloads constructed with .308 bullets. Factory ammo is fired through a second .310 tube I purchased unchambered from McGowan Barrels. Larry cut the chamber and it shoots very well with cheap 54R ammo.
A third issue if you are looking for a repeater is feeding. The Savage was not designed to feed rimmed cases. One or two rounds may feed from the magnum magazine box, but reliability is suspect. More experimentation is needed to see if three rounds will feed from a modified magazine.
It would be nice if a U.S. firearm manufacturer would produce a modern bolt-action rifle chambered in 54R, but I'm not holding my breath. A manufacturer would have to buy or produce barrels with a non-standard bore diameter, machine the chamber end in a special profile and design a magazine that will work. Chrome lining the bore would be almost mandatory to protect it from corrosive military ammo. I would rate the chance of a major U.S. manufacturer producing a 54R bolt rifle as slim, but we can always hope that I'm wrong.
Here's a barrel marking that's sure to spark interest at the range. A whole lot of shooters will ask why, a few more will ask how and a smaller subset will ask, "How much?"
Cone on Breechface
Racine machined this cone on the breechface to allow clearance for the extractor to pick up the rimmed case head of the 7.62x54R cartridge. It headspaces on the shoulder.
Comparison with .300 Win. Mag.
A factory .300 Win. Mag. barrel, left, contrasts with the 7.62x54R barrel. Why would you want a Savage 110 chambered for a Russian cartridge almost 120 years old? Why not?
The rim of the 54R case is partially exposed when it is chambered. The Magnum bolt head for the Savage 110 nicely accommodates the 7.62x54R rim diameter.
Feeding from a magazine box designed for rimless cartridges is problematic. Using the Magnum box allows one or two rounds to feed, though not with perfect reliability.