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.


  1. I've thought about getting one for a long time (the revolver, not the fruitcake haha). I've always found the mechanism interesting and I would love to take one down and see how it works.

    And sometimes, fruitcake isn't all that bad. Thanks for the article.

    1. Had one years back (30 or so) , it was cool, have been thinking about it for the past year, and guess what, GANDER MTN. has them, so I dropped a buck and 1/2 and got one. You know they are fun to shoot, strange looker, and about everyone I know whats to try it and get one. I am so glad I decided.

    2. Good to hear that Gander Mountain is selling them. That should get more of them out in the "wild", which might make ammo availability/pricing better in the long run.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. They're one of the best mil-surp bargains out there, and the best WWII era bargain hands down in my opinion.

  3. Just picked one up last week and bought some brass 32 20 brass for it and the dies.

    Why would I wany one? Well I have a SWR octane 9 HD 2nd Gen. silencer. and the maker of the silencer has video of it shooting the 1895 suppressed.

    Do a search on 1985 nagant and SWR octane. you'll see why i paid 100 bux for the gun and 40 to get it threaded. the decible numbers don't lie....

    OH, on I side note I hear that if you polish the trigger you can get it from a 62 lbs pull up to about 73 lbs LOL

    armalite_ar50 (AT)

    for the laugh, I liked your article.

    1. I've actually had some success with improving the trigger pull: I placed a 55 grain, .224 bullet between the spring in the grip frame. It pre-compresses the spring for you which takes some edge off. Works fine, still enough juice to ignite the primers. I'll check out the suppressor, thanks.

  4. Out of curiosity, what did you do with the little screwdriver? Does it fit into the holster somewhere? This article made me laugh so thanks for posting it.

    1. Oddly enough, my kit didn't come with the screwdriver. I can't see any place to stick the darn thing in the holster, though.

  5. Great article. Shotgun news had an article a few years ago about reloading this cartidge and included details on how to make shotshells for it using .30 cal gas checks

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I have read alot about reloading this cartridge, and through trial and error have sort of developed my own procedure. I'm planning on a mini-entry later this month on it.

  6. Here is a horrendous example of the use of Nagant from Rayfield, Donald 2005 Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him, Random House New York ISBN-10 0375757716 ISBN-13 978-0375757716 which I am using to make a main point in my book in progress "Llove and War in Cuba:

    Fabio Grobart was disciple of Iron Feliks Dzerzhinsky

    In the 20th Century Cuba the most important communist agent, was not Fidel Castro, his half brother Raul nor Ernesto "Che" Guevara; it was Fabio Grobart, who was an agent, trainee and disciple of "Iron" Feliks, son of Edmundo, Dzierzynski (Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky) in early 1920's Poland. Dzerzhinsky was founder of the Cheka which gave rise to the organization known to most nowadays as the KGB.

    Yet, when I mention the name Dzierzynski, blank stares return my gaze. Donald Rayfield's book helps remedy this circumstance, section two "Stalin, Dzierzynski, and the Chaka" pages 52-104 and other places make the cruel plans and action of this multi-mass "hangman" come clear and vivid in its horror.

    There are many horrible examples of his minions killings, pages 78-79 presents the words of Vladimir Zazubrin (eventually also a victim) this horrible sample scene, ”White, grey carcasses (undressed people) collapsed onto the floor. Chekisty with smoking revolvers ran back and cocked the triggers immediately. The legs of those shot jerked in convulsions . . . Two men in grey greatcoats nimbly put nooses round the necks of the corpses, dragged them off to a dark niche in the cellar. Two others with spades dug at the earth. directing steaming rivulets of blood, Solomin. his revolver in his belt, sorted out the linen of those shot. He carefully made separate piles of underpants, shirts and outer clothing. . . . Three men were shooting like robots, their eyes were empty, with a cadaverous glassy shine. ... …”

    When Grobart came to Cuba, circa 1923, he deployed what his mentor, Dzierzynski, had taught him began a process that turned the Island into what it is today, a place of repression, of cruelty and poverty, all half covered up by the tattered paper and flicker of computer screen diatribes by Castro apologists, and communist fellow travelers. When Grobart died in 1994 in Cuba he was still a member of Castro’s inner circle.

    Donald Rayfield's book is a warning as well a history and should be read by all who worry about the future as well as the past.

    Laurence Daley

    1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing that. Best wishes for a successful book release as well!

  7. Nice article. These really are fascinating revolvers. I have no experience with the 1895 Nagant, but recently purchased an M1887 Swedish Nagant. Although they're close cousins, the 1887 has (in my opinion) a sort of elegant look to it, whereas (again, my opinion) the M1895 seems clunky and weird.

    1. I agree completely. The Swede Nagants look "better" all around. I always wanted to pick one up before I let my C&R license expire.

  8. There are many horrible examples of his minions killings, pages 78-79 presents the words of Vladimir Zazubrin (eventually also a victim) this horrible sample scene, ”White, grey carcasses (undressed people) collapsed onto the floor. Chekisty with smoking revolvers ran back and cocked the triggers immediately. The legs of those shot jerked in convulsions ..

  9. IO always thought of my little Ishie Nagant 1895 as the steampunk version of the S&W. Archaic and clunky but with enough character and interesting history to make it a great conversation piece. Paid $165 for mine. Came with two boxes of the weird yellow-boxed, CCCP ammo, holster and cleaning rod.

    Fun article. Nice to see someone actually do an article about a cheaper gun without slamming it into oblivion.

    1. I tell you, the people who turn up their noses at these don't know what they're missing. I need to add another one to my collection someday.

  10. I just picked one up for $125, the kit. And ammo for $5.75 a box of 14. And I found out there is a .32 acp cylinder available for it - if you can find one online. If anything, it is unique.

  11. That's not a bad price at all, you did well! I've seen the surplus ammo that's coming available, keep in mind it's corrosively primed. Make sure you clean the barrel with an aqueous solution to dissolve the caustic salts. I like to use 1:10 Simple Green solution. I swab the barrel with this as soon as I get home, and then blast out with WD-40. Then I clean as normal with Hoppe's No. 9. No rust on my surplus guns yet!

  12. An accessory so that most commonly available brushes and other cleaning tools may be used.
    pistol accessories

  13. I've heard the Russians claim that the gas seal helped with timing problems. I have a well worn vet bring back that has a really bad double action trigger pull on a couple of chambers due to wear, but single action and safety wise, no problem thanks to the gas seal system. If it had a cylinder gap it would probably be unsafe to fire. Probably a consideration when you're handing the weapon to a couple of million peasants.

    Also, when you compare the 7.62 Nagant round to it's contemporaries, the 8mm Lebel revolver, .38 Colt, or 7.5 Swiss, it's really not bad at all.

  14. 'whereas (again, my opinion) the M1895 seems clunky and weird.'

    Which is why I bought one for my wife, as she missed the Webley I had years ago. plus I have lots of 32-20 brass to reload with.

  15. Nagant M 1895 is a good and safe revolver. My built in 1919 and I love it.
    It is safe and accurate and will serve another 100 years
    Please note it was designed based on requirements of Russian Imperial Army.
    The loading one by one is one of the requirements
    No gap between cylinder and barrel allowed ( It would lead to misalignments)

    My S&W built around 70s, have a loose hinge and loose cylinder so it not safe anymore.

  16. Saturday I was at a Mosin Nagant 91/30 challenge (just for fun). The two organizers each had just purchased a Nagant 1895. We each shot the one made in 1944 as a practice shot. Then the one made in 1928. The trigger on the 44 was hard. The 28 not quit as stiff. I was high to the left on the practice and dead on on the second. Trigger pull makes a difference. That was a great article and a fun revolver.

  17. I bought one, and fell in love with it. Now I own 5 still looking for certain years. They grow on you, and they are accurate, and fun to shoot.

  18. I bought one a year ago for $175, along with a box of Fiocchi. I love the intricacies of the operational aspects of it and enjoyed firing it. Ammo is not very cheap though. Found a spam can of 1092 rds online and ran me $338 plus s&h. Did a little more shooting with the surplus and it did the same as the Fiocchi...high but tight. Love this neat little piece of history. Don't know about power but it definitely killed the target.

  19. I own one of these, and it works perfectly for its intended purpose (my intended purpose, that is) as a training revolver with either snap caps + a laser training device, or a live fire trainer. In the year I've owned it, I've GREATLY improved my trigger control, speed, and accuracy with my S&W .357 Model 649 snub with regular Nagant dry-fire laser training, and live fire (only occasionally with live fire, although I'm doing it more often since I picked up 500 rounds of Russian surplus for only $180.00!)
    So, I guess one man's fruitcake is another man's Snickers (or whatever analogy you want to use.)

  20. I have a 1915-1919 double action revolver that is wickedly accurate and is buttery smooth in single action-someone in the last hundred years must have worked it over. incredibly accurate and light trigger pull- shoots absolutely dead on- pretty good in double action too- took it apart and could see the spring has been thinned-nothing else obvious tho- got it online for $99 3 years ago- love it

  21. I hate to comment on old articles, but it always annoys me when people say that Leon Nagant was the Nagant for both the rifle and the revolver. Émile Nagant was the Nagant from Mosin-Nagant, and Émile (who contributed only three parts to what is more accurately called Mosin's Three-line Rifle) was lucky enough to be the older brother to Léon. He was lucky because i have always had the impression that Russia didn't appreciate theft of military secrets. Émile used a device called the "interruptor" (which prevented double feeding of ammo) in his design that was a competitor to Sergeant Sergei Mosin's rifle design. The problem was, said device was designed by Sergei Mosin in an earlier round of the trials for the new rifle. I have never found an explanation of why Sergei didn't include the feature in his design for that phase, but Émile was angry that Russia chose Mosin's design and stole Émile's stripper clip (the first type ever) and screw to attach the magazine spring the the magazine floorplate (the thrid part was the "interruptor"). Émile then went back to Belgium and patented the interruptor design... Which was considered a military secret and was not even designed by him. The impression that I got from there was that Russia wanted Émile dead (typlical of Imperial Russia) and Léon turned up with a revolver design to bribe the Russian government into letting Émile live. I imagine the discussion was like this (except in Russian):
    Léon: Please let my brother live, i will design an innovative new sidearm for you, royalty free!
    Russian General: Royalty free! What do you propose for your design?
    Léon: I have this great revolver design with a cylinder that slides forward so that that tiny little gap is closed up and it is much safer. I know a guy who lost a finger to the gasses from that gap. Also the cylinder has this great feature where you just flip it open to the side and you can access all of the chambers at once, it will make reloading so easy that...
    Russian General: NO! It must be loaded one bullet at a time, through a loading gate, like old black powder guns where the powder might fall out!
    Léon: That is stupid! I mean, as you wish General. The revolver will also fire without having to manually work the trigger! That will make it so much faster to fire!
    Russian General: NO! Only the officers will recieve such a gun. The rest would just waste their ammo with such a feature, and the trigger must be very difficult to pull, also to save ammo!
    Russian General: Could you? That would be great. Can you get us a prototype by the end of the year?

    The preceding conversation was an entertaining extrapolation of a very limited amount of information. I don't remember precisely where I found some of the information before the conversation, but the difference between Léon and Émile is readily available (the two owned a gun company together, so the mistake is understandable). A note that should be made is that I have no idea how Léon actually wanted to design the gun to be loaded, but, as mention by someone previously, the loading gate was mandated by the Russian Government.

  22. I got a Nagant about 4 years ago. If memory serves I paid $99.00 for it and got a holster and cleaning rod to boot. Nagant ammo? Don't need no stinkin' Nagant ammo. I shoot .32 S&W Long ammo in mine and have shot .32 H&R Mag in it but usually stick with the former. Works really well although the spent cases bulge a bit. Solved this by wrapping a small post it note around the brass before inserting the round into the cylinder. That seems to fill up the small, teeny space between the brass and cylinder wall. Also, I read somewhere, and I don't recall where, if you use this ammo to be sure and use jacketed ammo so lead doesn't slough off thereby fouling the gap where the cylinder moves forward and the forcing cone. My Nagant looks pristine and I believe it was arsenal refurbished as it was encased in cosmoline when I received it. It's fun to shoot.

  23. Instead of the usual "star" on the side of the M1895 Nagant, mine has a circle with a triangle inside it. Then inside the triangle is another demarcation, I cannot discern. Any information you can provide me, would be appreciated. Thanks.

    1. Hi John. You have a reworked Ishevsk Arsenal M1895. Ishevsk took over production circa 1942 when the Tula plant was overrun by the Germans. The Tula mark is the star; Ishevsk’s mark was the triangle (with arrow inside) and circle. The arrow is hard to see because your Nagant was rearsenaled and refinished, like so many others, after WWII. I have a 1944 Ishevsk myself.

    2. Awesome! Thank you for your information on that!