The Milsurp Fantasy
By Corey Young
We all know that guy… “My Mosin is just as good. When the Government comes for our guns I’ve got a crate of em buried in my back yard.” Yea… that guy! You’ve meet him at gun shows, at the range, maybe even at a family cookout. However, the hard truth is that the vast majority of milsurp guns simply don’t have a place in modern day defensive applications.
This fact was vividly illustrated during The Gun Run’s match in South Carolina at The Sawmill Training Complex on June 25th. This match was unique in that competitors were offered a special “manual action” division to compete in. This division allowed for manual (bolt, lever, or pump) action rifles with iron sights to compete side by side on the same courses of fire as the more modern rifles that dominate this type of shooting competition. The only accommodation allowed for manual action firearms was a 30 second increase to the par time on a few stages to account for the small magazine capacities and slower reload times.
Only 7 competitors (plus another w/ a Garand) were brave enough to run the course using a vast variety of manual action rifles: A 1903-A3 Springfield, a Marlin lever gun, an Eddystone M1917, a Swiss G11, a Lee-Enfield, a Arisaka type 38, and a Savage Scout rifle were all put through their paces. While this is a small sample size, I believe it still provides some valid data points we can use to examine the usefulness (or uselessness) of milsurps in a dynamic shooting environment. I’ll concede that it is difficult to separate the shooter from the equipment in some of these scenarios. Training and familiarity play a big factor in just how effective someone can be with a rifle. However, I personally know many of the individuals and with the exception of myself, I don’t believe the rifle’s performance was constrained by the ability of the shooter. Plus, I don’t see anyone running El Presidente drills with their Mosin at the local range and with the elevated price of common milsurp calibers in today’s market I rarely, if ever, even see them at the range. So, in not so many words, nobody is training enough with these things to overcome their inherent limitations discussed below.
Ammo Capacity – Ha, what ammo capacity? The vast majority of manual action guns hold between 5-10 rounds. Sure, certain lever guns will hold more, but those are generally firing a pistol cartridge and not a rifle cartridge. Even then you’re still limited to around less than 15 rounds. Suppressive fire is a thing! There is a reason that “standard” capacity is now considered 30 rounds. These guns are just too round limited to be effective.
Reloads - Sure, some of these guns (the Enfield & Swiss ones generally) have detachable mags, but in almost all cases you’re stuck using stripper clips… and stripper clips suck. Enbloc clips are slightly better, but they also have their limitations. Mostly, finding them and keeping them in working order since they were designed to be used and discarded. Either way, whatever system you chose, they simply do not allow for as smooth and fast a reload as a box magazine. The shooter who did the best on the course with a bolt gun used a modern Savage Scout with a detachable magazine. So there is something to be said for bolt guns like the K31. However, I challenge you to find, and be able to afford, enough 6 round (or 10 for the Enfields) magazines for those rifles to carry a basic combat load of 210 rounds pre-stuffed into box magazines.
Length – These guns are as looooooong as a lazy summer day! This is one area where the shorter overall length of a lever gun really pays dividends. Moving in and around obstacles, in and out of cars, etc… can be nearly impossible with these full length rifles. One stage in particular really demonstrated this fact. There was a V-Tac board in a fairly constrained space and all of the longer rifles struggled to navigate that stage. Maneuvering a rifle with a 22”, 24” even 26” or longer barrel is difficult and will slow you down considerably. But you say… “Corey, I’m gonna be out in the woods, in the mountains running guerrilla ops like in Red Dawn” Ok, probably not but sure. Talk to any hunter about the difficulty of navigating heavy timber & brush with a rifle. It’s a pain and it slows you down.
Weight – I’m going to throw a curveball here as I don’t think the weight of the rifles themselves present too much of an issue. The weight of a 1903 Springfield, according to Google, is 8.7 pounds. The weight of an M4 Carbine is roughly about the same, maybe even heavier depending on your optic set-up (more on that in a minute). The bigger issue is the weight of the ammo. Sticking with the 1903; 60 rounds of .30-06 on stripper clips in a bandoleer weights 3.75 lbs. Compare that to 60 rounds of 5.56 in two 30 round magazines weighing exactly 2 lbs and you begin to see the point. A full basic combat load of 210 rounds of 5.56 weights about 7 lbs. The same ammo loadout of .30-06 would weigh over 13 lbs! Now this will vary of course depending upon which rifles you compare against each other, but lugging around twice the weight in ammo doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. This is before we even get into the cost of 5.56x45 vs .30-06 and what that might mean for your ability to train to overcome the limitations of the weapon system and stockpile enough for a rainy day.
Sights / Optics – Optics? Yea, good luck. There are some solutions to add modern optics to older guns but in general you’re stuck with iron sights. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage if you train enough with iron sights. The issue is that many of these rifles were designed to perform on the target range with the combat effectiveness of the sights as an afterthought. There are exceptions, of course. The K31 has great sights, as does the M1917. Mausers and Mosins, not so much. Also, most commercially available ammunition for these rifles will not correlate ballistic to the sight settings. So setting your leaf sight to 300 for a 300 yard target may or may not result in a hit. Finding good quality surplus ammo will solve this, but that is much easier said than done these days, not to mention the problem that on many of these rifles the lowest setting is 200 or 300 yards. So you better know your holds.
Follow-up Shots – This may seem obvious, but follow-up shots with a manual action rifle are difficult and slow. The disadvantage of this, particularly in a close in fight, should be easily apparent to all. Folks will often counter with “knock-down” power. Sure, there’s something to be said there about barrier penetration certainly. And it’s true that all of these cartridges, .30-06, .303, 7.62x54R, .30-30 if we include lever guns, are devastatingly effective and will kill anything in North America. They are so powerful that for some shooting them consistently and accurately becomes difficult as they are abused by the recoil shot after shot. There is a reason that CMP High Power shooters wear those fancy shooting jackets. It does help them “strap” into the rifle, but it also helps to absorb some of the recoil so they don’t beat themselves to death during a long day of shooting. This is more of an issue for some then others, but the heavy recoil must be considered particular when shooting from non-standard positions like a V-Tac board or weak handed where it might be difficult to get the rifle shouldered properly.
This isn’t to say these guns aren’t fun or they don’t have their place. Restricted environments such as states with onerous gun laws comes to mind. In that environment you could do a lot worse than a lever gun with 12 rounds of 357 magnum. However, if you’re not bound by such restrictions then why artificially handicap yourself. The milsurp fantasy is just that, fantasy fudd lore for folks who also think you don’t need to aim with a shotgun.
Overall, the highest anyone placed as compared to the other competitors using their shooting score only was 32nd. That same shooter placed 3rd (again just using shooting score) at the Night Ops event back in March. The simple fact of the matter is that a $600 S&W MP Sport with a $100 Holosun optic is a much more capable rifle than even the nicest classic bolt gun. Shoot them, collect them, enjoy them… just don’t be “that guy” and think they’re a viable option for serious situations.