I’ve never understood why more people don’t hunt with military surplus rifles. They’re inexpensive, rugged, easy to maintain, and ammunition is now readily available through the Internet. Understandably, a heavy rifle with iron sights leaves a lot to be desired if you’re hunting out West, but on the East Coast where the average shot is probably 75 yards or less, why not give the surplus rifle a go? Why not learn to shoot the old-fashioned way? Glass can fog up, lose its zero in the field, or put the hurt on your wallet, but iron (provided you know how to use it) will never fail you. And unlike lightweight yet overpowered modern hunting rifles, older service rifles are a pleasure to shoot because the extra weight absorbs more of the felt recoil, giving the shooter more of a push than a thump when fired. So for the more adventurous and budget-minded hunter, I recommend the following options.
Russian M44 Mosin Nagant
The M44, produced in the later stages of WWII, is the carbine version of the famous Model 1891, a Russian bolt action rifle that has been documented in armed conflict as recently as 2014 in the Ukraine. Next to the AK-47, the Model 1891 and its variants are among the most mass-produced firearms in history. With over 37,000,000 manufactured in the Soviet Union alone, it’s not hard to see why you can usually pick one up at a gun show for a little over $100. The round it uses, 7.62x54mmR, is a rimmed cartridge with a ballistic profile similar to the 30-06, which means it’s perfectly suited to taking big game in North America. While surplus rifles are a good thing, surplus ammo often is not. Spend a little extra and pick up some quality hunting ammo.
Swiss Schmidt-Rubin K-31
The Karabiner Model 1931 (K-31) is a straight-pull bolt action in 7.5x55mm Swiss (almost identical to a .308) that was the standard issue Swiss infantry rifle from 1933 until 1958. The straight-pull action is unique in that a round is chambered when the bolt handle is pulled directly back, rather than being turned or rotated. Among the era’s bolt actions, only the British Lee-Enfield had a faster rate of fire than the K31. Where the K31 outshines most WWII service rifles is accuracy, and the Swiss dedication to individual marksmanship is reflected in the K-31’s excellent machining, craftsmanship, and finish. In today’s market, you can get a pretty good K-31 for $400.
Yugoslavian or “Yugo” Mauser
This can refer to either the M24, the first Mauser-based rifled to be manufactured in Yugoslavia, or to the Zastava M48, a post-World War II Yugoslavian copy of the Karabiner 98K. The reason I’d recommend an off-brand Mauser over say a 1942 German K98 is that the former will run you about $300 while the latter, depending on its overall quality and manufacturer’s stamps, can fetch upwards of $1,000 at auction. While not exactly German-made, you’re still getting the robust and legendary Mauser-designed bolt action chambered in the powerful 8mm Mauser. You can’t go wrong with either.
Italian Carcano Model 1891/38
The Carcano achieved widespread notoriety when, according to the Warren Commission, a scoped 91/38 Carbine was used by Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate John F. Kennedy. Most surplus Carcanos will be chambered in 6.5x52mm Carcano, a round not unlike the American cult classic .257 Roberts. On today’s market, Carcano’s fetch anything from $150 to $400 depending on the chambering and level of wear. Overall the Carcano is a fine and handy bolt action chambered for a round perfectly suited to hunting white-tailed deer.
British Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk 1
The No. 4 Mk 1 was a late 1930s variant of the British SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) officially adopted by England for service in 1941. Chambered in the powerful and versatile .303 British, the action was known for its accuracy, durability, and high rate of fire. After the Mosin-Nagant, the Lee-Enfield rifle platform is the second oldest still in official service, and the .303 remains a popular hunting cartridge throughout the world, especially in Canada. Like the Mauser, the Lee-Enfield saw a post-war resurgence as a hunting
platform and modern “sporterized” versions without the original furniture can be had online for as little as $250.