Like many of you, I have purchased several rifles over the last decade, and with each purchase, I grabbed as much ammo as my bank account could handle. I prefer military surplus rifles and the cheaper the better. I enjoy their history and craftmanship; Plus, they can be pretty good shooters with some TLC and a good load. As long as they aren’t “shot out” so to speak. A “shot out” surplus rifle needs a new barrel and, most likely, a new stock. When I purchase ammo, I stick to the same brand and same load. Like the military, I don’t need dozens of different rifle/ammo combinations to remember. Recently, during my crew’s last trip to the range, the Fighting Kalashnikov Carbine Course run by Brushbeater Training, I noticed that our rifles had a variety of ammo for the same weapon type. In the realm of firearms, my biggest headache, was purchasing a Mosin-Nagant 91-30 and a grab bag of 900 rounds of 7.62x54r ammo. Sorting out my surplus Mosin-Nagant was a headache to say the least, but lesson learned.
I had three major problems with my Mosin-Nagant 91-30 after the first range trip.

  1. What went wrong with zeroing my Mosin-Nagant 91-30?
  2. Why was I shooting 6” groups at 25 meters?
  3. Why would it fire 4-5 round clover shaped holes and then throw a bunch of wild misses?

Being wholly unexperienced with this firearm, I fully disassembled it, including the bolt to see what the problem was. Starting at the barrel, I noticed no nicks or dents on the crown, which was my first guess. Next, I assumed it must be locking up incorrectly, eventually I learned that rimmed cartridges headspace on the rim, and the lockup felt solid. Following a complete detailing of the bolt I proceeded to polish the hell out of this weapon. I used burnishing compound on the chamber, receiver, the barrel, and the bolt parts that contact each other. When firing commercial poly-coated, steel case rounds to break in the barrel, and save my primary mil-spec cartridges, I noticed my bolt sticks hard, but not with mil-spec ammo, which operates quite smoothly. I inspected the weapon for bulging in the barrel, pitting, scaring, and any other undue damage to locate the source of inaccuracy. The weapon was completely covered in Cosmoline when I purchased it, so this process was a second pass/inspection to make sure I had successfully cleaned the Cosmoline completely out of the firearm. There was no Cosmoline to speak of. The weapon was in great condition. I cleaned the weapon and continued to triple check everything. I was, without a doubt, confused and annoyed.
Since I had the weapon fully disassembled, I decided to seal it up from the elements, paint it black, properly torque the screws, and bolt on a bunch of “upgrades” to the weapon. This involved a bunch of sanding, and quite a bit of measuring and drilling. It took some time but was a good practice project for more serious and expensive rifles. After the weapon was assembled, and the new optic was mounted, I decided that I must have solved the accuracy issue. Certainly, the iron sights were the problem, not the Amazon and Optics Planet parts I had bolted to the weapon.

Sadly, that was not the case… (Foreshadowing…)

I wasted another half-day at the range trying to zero this weapon, and I consistently had the same problem. A few good groups, and a bunch of wild misses that would sometimes produce groups. After returning from the range, I sent a quick text to a friend of mine, who is a trophied precision shooter, and he responded that it must be a problem with my ammo if the rifle looks good. He noted that it could be several reasons, most likely the ammo was old, and therefore the powders and primers were not burning consistently. This theory would explain the wild groups at 25 meters, but I didn’t have any hang fires or excessive ignition times. Plus, I don’t own a chronograph to test this theory. I was beginning to think that I had ruined this rifle in some way. His second answer is that that gun was made by commies and therefore useless. I disagree with this notion. Communists make some great weapons, most are composite designs of western tech, and are more than functional.
When I inspected my ammo at his request, I noticed that I had several different types of head stamps on just one handful of cartridges. The ammo, which is the copper washed, lacquer sealed, steel core, steel case variety turned out to be a mix of production lots. While they all looked exactly the same, I had two .50 caliber ammo cans mixed with 5 different lots of ammo. I had 400 hundred rounds of one, 300 of another, 80, 40, and lastly, 13 rounds of different headstamp. I sorted these rounds diligently, taking a considerable amount of time with a headlamp to correctly read the headstamps without straining my eyes too much. I separated the rounds over the course of an hour or more, loaded up my bandoliers with one, loaded the rest of my stripper clips with the same, and used doubled up ziplock bags to keep the other lots of rounds separate. I also tested all of my stripper clips after polishing the charger lips on the rifle. I threw away about 25% of the clips because they were impossible to feed into the gun. This was good practice, and, I loosened up and smoothed out the lips.
On my next range trip, I had one lot of ammo, all marked with the same headstamp. My groups were acceptable, printing a neat thumbnail sized cloverleaf group of 5 rounds at 25 meters. A few clicks left, right, up, and down produced a zeroed weapon. In another lesson, once my rounds had been sorted, I noticed that my Mosin-Nagant has a predictable thermal shift. I noticed that my groups would drift down and to the right slightly. After my first reload, I need to hold slightly up and to the left of my target in a predictable manor. The lesson here is simple, I shouldn’t fire more than 5 rounds, or my rifle is only useful for area targets and/or suppression of an enemy position. The weapon cools relatively quickly, especially in cold weather, but during the high noon sun of the summer, it can take a considerable amount of time to cool between 5 round groups. This can take almost 30 minutes with the bolt open. I considered pouring water down the barrel to cool the weapon faster and drawing a bore snake through to clear the water drops out so my point of impact will return to normal but did not bother testing it. I have no doubt this method will work and saw no sense in wasting the ammo during these times. I need to test this theory, but I decided to save the rounds for a zero confirmation at a later date.
In short, designing and building my Partisan-Nagant, was a little bit of a headache for what was supposed to be a $300 surplus gun with standard mil-spec ammo. I was certain the ammo would index on the factory zero, but that was wildly optimistic. I also made some mistakes. I should have sanded out the stock to make more room for the barrel, but there is no way to know, at this point, whether or not that would have worked. After a few range trips, I finally got it sorted out. I have two optics on the weapon, a red dot zeroed at 25 meters and a “Long Eye Relief Scope” zeroed at 25 meters plus two inches high. The LERS should connect somewhere around 300 meters with an 8” cone of fire, but I need to test this.
Using two optics, I have several options for zeroing my weapon. I can use the red dot for a close range zero or put a 100 meter zero on the red dot. For my scope I can put a long range zero on the weapon scope. I can also put one cold bore zero on the weapon, and another hot bore zero on the weapon. I can also make a DOPE book for this rifle and record the number of clicks for the scope. So that I can account for the thermal shift after a fixed number of rounds. Because the optics I chose are of a cheaper quality, the weapon requires a round or two to set the adjustment of the scope. But I have several options. I haven’t decided exactly how I am going to zero this rifle, but I think I will keep the standard 25 meter zero. The rifle, which looks like a Science Fiction prop, gets a few odd looks at the range, but the groups don’t lie. And the steel core rounds are not a joke.
The moral of the story is that you should sort your surplus ammo, and double check to make sure you aren’t mixing lots. Different lots of ammo have slightly different loading components, and they rarely connect on the same point of aim. It’s important to take the time to sort these little problems out now. Also, there is something to be said for having two optics on your gun. You can have two perfectly zeroed optics for known distance engagements. This gives you a high degree in certainty, and thus high morale, and in turn a high rate of success, when you are sabotaging, suppressing, or sniping. To date, there is no size of tree, nor species of tree, that has stopped one of these steel-core bullets in my testing. Which is considerable.
Let me know what you think in the comments. I am curious to know what your experiences are with surplus rifles.