Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Fruitcake of Firearms: The 1895 Nagant Revolver

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you are a firearms designer. Got it? OK. Now, imagine that someone you hate came to you and asked you to use your skills to design a handgun for him to take into combat. I mean, you really revile this person, he's the type of guy that just gets under your skin and makes your blood boil. Knowing this, picture in your mind the gun you would want to design for this person. Now, open your eyes. Did your gun look like this?

If not, then you weren't hating hard enough.

Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of Soviet weapons for three main reasons: they're simple, they're reliable, they're effective. Well, there's always an exception that proves the rule.What you see in the picture above might be the most ridiculous and ineffective military sidearm ever designed and fielded to a fighting force. Yet somehow, it was manufactured and issued for more than 40 years.

Yes, I'm talking about the 1895 Nagant Revolver.

This gun is only slightly less ridiculous than the Nagant. Slightly.

Believe it or not, I actually do like the Nagant. It's an interesting firearm with a great deal of history, serving in two World Wars and many smaller conflicts. It fires a one-of-a-kind cartridge. It's one of the few (perhaps only?) revolvers that can be sound suppressed. And it's ugly in a neat sort of way. But seriously, somebody just did not like the Russians at all when they designed this thing. Let's go back to the beginning, and you can judge for yourself.

Way back before the Soviets were the Soviets, we had the Russian Empire. In 1891, the Russians, ruled by Tsar Alexander III, adopted the Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 rifle. Just like its name implies, the Mosin-Nagant rifle was an unlikely collaboration of sorts between a Russian Army Captain by the name of Sergei Ivanovich Mosin, and a Belgian firearms designer known as Leon Nagant.The Russian Empire was satisfied enough with Nagant's design contributions to their new rifle, that they soon turned to him again to design a sidearm. Let me be clear: the Mosin-Nagant was and remains a great battle rifle. I own two variants of this weapon, and eventually will get around to writing about it. But, they say lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place, and the resultant 1895 Nagant Revolver proves it.

Leon Nagant went 1 for 2 on firearms designs, which is exactly 2 more firearms than I've designed, so...

In 1895, horse cavalry was still alive and well, and it was this environment in which Leon Nagant's firm designed his revolver. Cavalrymen had to be able to shoot on the move while controlling a horse, so rifles and even carbines were cumbersome as they required two hands to use. Swords, and pistols that you could fire with one hand made much more sense. Think back to every Western you ever saw with US Army bluecoats, and you know what I'm talking about. In addition to cavalry use, pistols were favored by officers, who also needed an easy handling, multiple shot firearm.

Now there were tons of good service revolvers around in 1895. In fact, the Smith and Wesson Model 3, a variant of which fired the .44 Russian, was one of them (and was the gun that the 1895 Nagant was meant to replace). But instead of going with what worked, for some reason, Leon had a gee-whiz moment. Sometimes gee-whiz moments result in amazing inventions. Leon's gee-whiz moment can best be described as a solution looking for a problem. The 1895 Nagant, as adopted by the Russian Empire, was a seven shot, single/double action, gas seal revolver. Gas seal, you say? Indeed. Mr. Nagant designed the revolver with a cylinder that pushed forward when the hammer was cocked. This feature, combined with the special ammunition the gun used, created a seal between the cylinder and barrel.

Like so.

So what's the big whoop? Even with the finest traditional revolvers, there's a small gap between the cylinder and the barrel. This is necessary for the cylinder to rotate. When the round is fired, the bullet leaps from the cylinder into the barrel, across that small gap. Gases escape through this gap (with more force than you might think), which means that velocity suffers as gases are what propels the bullet through the barrel. Additionally, depending on how cylinder and barrel line up, the bullet might "skip" onto the rifling, which can cause accuracy issues. Nagant's design prevented these issues. The gas seal allegedly boosted velocity by 10-15% or more, depending on who you talk to. It also is what allows the Nagant to be sound suppressed, if that's your sort of thing.

I know what you're thinking:  it sounds like a pretty neat idea. And it is. But in practice, it was just unneccessary, and it contributed to some problems with the gun. The standard 7.62x38r Nagant loading was a .30 caliber 98 grain FMJ bullet that moved at ~1,000 fps. That's not awful, but it's not very potent either. Certainly when compared to other cartridges of the time like the 45 Colt and even the .44 Russian, it was underpowered. The gas seal feature couldn't change that, and frankly wouldn't have been needed if the revolver had been chambered in a more powerful round to begin with. Addtionally, the moving cylinder complicated the action, which made for a lousy single action trigger pull and a functionally useless double action trigger pull. If you want stronger fingers, just dry-fire a 1895 Nagant in double action for a few minutes a day.

The 7.62x38r cartridge. Note the bullet seating and neck crimp which facilitated the gas seal.

Remember that this was a revolver designed in the age of calvary. Horrible trigger pulls don't help matters when you're galloping across the battlefield, trying to draw a bead on a screaming Cossack. But that wasn't the biggest problem with the Nagant. The Smith and Wesson Model 3 had a great feature that lent it well to its role: it was a top break revolver that could be unloaded all at once, and with one hand by depressing a lever and pushing the barrel against another arm. This ejected all spent cases in one fluid motion, and exposed the entire cylinder for a relatively rapid reloading. Not so with the Nagant. Here is how you unload and load the Nagant:

1. Unscrew ejector rod underneath barrel and pull it forward.
2. Rotate the barrel shroud assembly about 20 degrees ensuring two marks line up.
3. Flip down the loading gate on the right side of the revolver to expose the rear of the cylinder.
4. Push the ejector rod into the cylinder, eject the spent casing.
5. Pull the ejector rod forward and rotate the cylinder (it's not spring loaded!)
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until the revolver is empty.
7. Rotate the barrel shroud assembly back to it's normal position.
8. Push the ejector rod back into place and screw it in.
9. Load fresh cartridges one at a time, manually turning the cylinder.
10. Close the loading gate. You're ready to fire.

As compared to the S&W Model 3. 

As you can see, after the 7th round was fired you were better off throwing this thing at the enemy, because otherwise somewhere between steps 3 and 5 you would be cut in half by a cavalry saber or gunned down by someone using a more suitable firearm.

Or, you could just carry two. And a PPSh-41. And some grenades. Geez.

So, the Nagant had three big problems: It fired an anemic round. It had a horrible trigger pull which affected accuracy and rate of fire. And it was ridiculously slow to load and unload, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be on horseback, which you probably were. The one redeeming feature, the gas seal, turned out to work better in theory than in practice, and it actually contributed to some of the gun's other faults. The Nagant was supposed to have been phased out of service with the introduction of the excellent Tokarev pistol and 7.62x25mm round in the 1930s, but it stuck around, being produced through WWII and used by reserve and police forces after the war.

Despite all this, I really enjoy my Nagant. It was made in 1944 at the Izhevsk arsenal (the Tula arsenal being the other Russian producer), and I bought it for $100 in arsenal refinished excellent condition. It has a bright bore and came with a holster, lanyard, and cleaning rod to boot. As a child of the 70's and 80's who remembers when the USSR was the Evil Empire That Threatened the World (TM), it's fun to strap on my Commie belt with hammer and sickle buckle, and stuff a commie revolver with commie ammunition into my commie holster.  For $100, I think every gun enthusiast should own one, and it seems there's no end to the supply.

My 1895 Nagant in its rig. The holster and belt are post-war manufacture, but who cares? It's still cool.

The only problem with shooting it recreationally (besides the cramp you'll get in your trigger finger) is the cost of ammo: usually it's around $25 a box, and Wal-Mart doesn't carry it so that means shopping online is your best bet. Reload? Well, due to the unique design of the cartridge, reloading isn't easy. It's possible, but it's definitely not as straightforward as conventional cartridges, and I wouldn't recommend it for the beginner (I do it, with decent results). One really nice side effect of the gas seal system is that since there's no gas escaping in the cylinder, they don't get dirty, and you don't get carbon build up on the top strap of the revolver. This makes cleaning a breeze.

As you can see by the title of this entry, I liken Nagant's revolver to fruitcake: it was nutty and ulitimately undesirable. But Nagants have a long life (like fruitcakes). In fact, they're alive and well (like fruitcakes), and they've been re-gifted to us (like fruitcakes) from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Lastly, like fruitcake, once you get around to trying one, you might be surprised to find out that you actually like it a little. Go ahead, take a bite shot. What have you got to lose?

I bet you'll never look at fruitcake quite the same ever again.