It was the night of August 30, 1914. General Alexander Samsonov treaded lightly from tree to tree under the cover of darkness. His eyes searched for German patrols, but the starlight scarcely penetrated through the darkened canopy above. Samsonov was the commander of the Second Army, one of two great Russian armies that marched into German East Prussia at the start of the First World War.
The Second Army operated independently from the First Army led by Paul Rennankampf, partially because they had different objectives and partially because Samsonov and Rennankampf had previously come to blows. Until two weeks ago, the invasion had gone well. But now, as Samsonov stopped and tried to suppress his asthmatic wheeze, he was on the run and his army destroyed.
The German Army, more than aware of the rivalry between the two men, went on the offensive and surrounded the Second Army at Tannenberg. As expected, Rennankampf’s First Army did not intervene. Now all the towns and roads were in German hands and the only way out was through the forests. But that night, Samsonov’s condition was slowing him down. He was also slowed by guilt for having failed his army. After his breathing had quieted, Samsonov walked off alone into darkness. A single shot cracked through the brush. In a state of shock, his companions groped in the darkness looking for the General. But knowing the noise would attract the Germans, they had to move on quickly.
Samsonov’s men escaped the trap and lived to fight another day. A German patrol found Samsonov dead in the forest with a bullet wound to the head, a Nagant revolver at his side. The Battle of Tannenberg was the first of a streak of battlefield losses that would lead to the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union. The Revolution put to rest any Victorian pretenses, but the revolutionaries clung to a piece of Victorian hardware–the M1895 Nagant revolver. The Nagant is a crude and quirky seven-shooter that would outlive both the Czar and the Soviet Union to be retired and surplused quietly nearly one hundred years after Samsonov’s flight. Here is the story of the M1895 Nagant and how it performs on the range.
Imperial Russia Rearms
After the French debuted the first smokeless powder rifle in their Mle 1886 Lebel rifle, every nation took notice and sought to make their own. Not only did this new powder make the firer invisible by its lack of smoke, but it was more powerful, effectively doubling the range over existing rifle rounds of the era. The smokeless powder revolution gave us such rifles as the Mauser, the Krag, and the Carcano. But it also paved the way for modern handgun designs. The 1890s saw refinements of proven revolver designs and the first attempts at a viable autoloading pistol.
The handgun Imperial Russia brought into the 1890s was the Smith & Wesson No. 3 Russian. This break-top single action was well-liked and fast to reload compared to contemporary gate-loaded revolvers fielded by Russia’s adversaries. It chambered the respectable, but now dated black-powder .44 Russian round.
In 1891, the Russians adopted the Mosin-Nagant three-line rifle chambered for the smokeless 7.62x54R round. The Russian government naturally wanted a modern companion piece in a modern smokeless cartridge, preferably with a double-action revolver for rapid follow-up shots. The subsequent trials were largely a contest between two Belgian gunmakers: Nicholas Pieper and Leon Nagant. Nagant has previously worked with the Russian government on the Mosin and laid out a design the Czar ultimately signed for formal adoption in 1895.
The Russians were not the first to adopt a Nagant revolver and on the surface, there is little difference between it and an Argentine, Belgian, or Swedish model. But it does hold seven rounds instead of six and has a unique gas seal cylinder/ cartridge combination. The handspring that powers the hand to rotate the cylinder also operates a cam that pushes the cylinder forward against the forcing cone before each shot.
The front of the cylinder is countersunk to help with the process and the new 7.62x38mm cartridge has a case that full envelops the bullet. The end of the brass case is forced into the forcing cone, achieving a full gas seal. This feature gave the revolver greater muzzle velocity over others that have a cylinder gap.
But even without this feature, the 7.62×38 round was surprisingly powerful compared to the first-generation of smokeless military revolver cartridges like the 8mm French Ordinance and 8mm Gasser. On the other hand, the Nagant was a gate-loader in an era in which swing-out cylinder revolvers like the French M1892 and Colt New Army were becoming available. Concurrently, smokeless powder had made the autoloading possible as well. By the turn of the 20th century, guns like the C96 Mauser, the Luger, and the Browning 1900 were gaining in military trials. The Czarist government would list some of these newer pistols as approved for private purchase, but the Nagant would remain government issue.
Two World Wars and Beyond
The 1895 Nagant saw service in the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Russia had over 400,000 Nagants at the ready when the First World War broke out. Production of the Nagant was largely uninterrupted by the Bolshevik revolution and it joined a myriad of foreign and domestic arms on both sides of the Russian Civil War (1917-22). The only appreciable change to the Nagant is that production of a single-action only NCO version of the pistol was suspended in favor of double-action. Most single-action Nagants were converted to double-action out of equity.
Starting in 1930, the Tokarev TT-series of semi-auto pistols officially replaced the M1895 Nagant in the Red Army’s service. But production of the Nagant continued uninterrupted through the Second World War until 1945, where it served alongside the Tokarev pistols. Ultimately, over two million Nagants were manufactured.
After the introduction of the Makarov PM in 1952, the Red Army dispensed with the Nagant completely. An unknown quantity was given to Communist China and Vietnam as war aid, but the lion’s share remained in the Soviet Union in the hands of police, security, and judicial personnel. The Nagant would remain in service into the 2000s, having survived both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.
Where to Find Your M1895 Nagant
Shooting the M1895 Nagant Revolver
Russian Nagants hit the American surplus market briefly in the late 2000s. Since then, the supply has dried up and the Nagants have inflated in price. The Nagant has since gained a reputation for being underpowered, inefficient to load, and crude compared to other handguns of a similar vintage. One curious attribute of the Nagant is that it is one of the few revolvers made that could theoretically be suppressed thanks to its gas-seal design.
I have owned a few Nagant revolvers over the years including this wartime production model made in 1944 by the Izhevsk Arsenal. It has all the hallmarks of wartime production with plenty of internal milling marks and a checkered bakelite grip. It, like most Nagants on the market, were subject to a hasty refurbishing process before exportation including a rather dull blue finish.
The 1895 Nagant may not be the smoothest looking or shooting handgun out there, but it ranks among the most interesting. The revolver is loaded by swinging the loading gate on the right side open and sliding in one cartridge at a time, indexing the cylinder by hand until the cylinder is full. After closing the gate, you are ready to fire.
Unless you have a rare unconverted NCO single-action Nagant, most can be shot by either cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger or simply pulling the trigger all the way through. The single action pull on the Nagant is short and stiff. My Lyman trigger scale measures the break at seven pounds. The double action pull is heavy, so heavy it exceeded the thirteen-pound limit on my trigger scale. I would guess my Nagant’s double action pull is about fifteen pounds. The trigger is rough, no doubt thanks to the refurbishing process, but also because the trigger not only indexes the cylinder and cocks the hammer, but it also drives the cylinder forward over the barrel to achieve the gas seal. You can mechanically feel the cylinder index and push forward, allowing you to stage the double action pull–if you can pull the trigger at all.
The sights consist of a milled groove on the top strap of the frame and a dovetailed front post. The sights are small but there is plenty of room in the groove to pick up the narrow front sight for shooting groups, but they are small enough to not notice in a fight. The Nagant harkens back to an era where revolvers were still normally shot in single-action by thumb cocking the hammer with the double-action option reserved for very close range where a perfect sight picture did not matter.
Shooting the Nagant revolver in single action is not as easy as a Colt or Smith, but its sights and excellent balance allowed me to hit eight inch steel plates out to thirty yards with ease. The heavy trigger pull did work against me further out, but I was able to hit a 1/2 size steel silhouette at fifty yards regularly. If you can pull the double-action trigger it is, at best, a seven-yard gun. I have plenty of trigger time on the Nagant and with revolvers in general and I can get good groups out to ten to fifteen yards.
There are a few different types of ammunition out there and I found the Privi Partizan 98 grain load to be the most accurate. In double-action, I could coax seven of those pills into a three-inch group at ten yards. The recoil and nose of commercial loads like these is low and even warmer surplus ammunition won’t bug the hand. While the shootability has its high and low points, the Nagant’s accuracy is more than sufficient for what it, and other combat handguns, were designed for.
Loading and shooting the Nagant is interesting, if not fun. But accomplishing the reload is a chore. The ejector rod is housed in the cylinder axis pin under the barrel. The knurled end of the rod is twisted, and the rod pulled from its housing and swung to the right side. Swing the loading gate open and run the rod through each chamber to kick out the empty case. The rod on the Russian Nagant is shorter than other Nagant models and the empty brass only comes partially out. Letting gravity be your friend and hitting the side of the case with the rod is usually good enough to completely throw the long 7.62 Nagant cases free. If you are using low powered commercial ammunition, you might be better served by simply pushing the empty case from the front of the cylinder to eject it instead of using the rod.
On Ammo Selection
The 7.62x38mm cartridge was designed specifically for the M1895 Nagant revolver and not much effort was put into making other firearms in the round. For a time, ammunition was scarce. In the early 2010s, a .32 ACP conversion cylinder for the Nagant was available. Other shooters realized that conventional .32 S&W would chamber, fire, and extract. It was also .32 caliber, like the 7.62 Nagant. .32 Smith & Wesson Long and .32 H&R Magnum will also work in the Nagant’s existing cylinder, but none of these rounds are long enough to achieve the gas seal. In fact, the generous sized cylinders of the Nagant can cause case failure using these ammunitions.
Fiocchi and Privi Partizan produce a genuine 7.62x38mm 98 grain load for the commercial market. These achieve the gas seal and are quite accurate, but these rounds are also loaded conservatively. I chronographed both loads from a distance of ten feet. Out of two five-shot strings, the average velocity was 661 feet per second for the Fiocchi load and 724 feet per second with the Privi load. This is very much in line with cartridges like .32 S&W Long and the M1895 Nagant has a reputation for being woefully underpowered for a combat handgun. But genuine Russian surplus ammunition is a different animal. It hocks a 108 grain bullet at 1087 feet per second for 283 foot pounds of energy. That makes it one of the more powerful service cartridges adopted at the time and puts it on par with modern .38 Special or .32 H&R Magnum in terms of power.
My M1895 Nagant revolver was made in 1944 during the later years of the Second World War. The Soviets made a lot of them because they had the productive capacity to do so, but by this time the design had gone already gone one war too many. Although quirky and small-bore compared to what Americans had during the First World War, it was far from the only gate-loader that was standard issue in 1914. It was a reflection of conservative military attitudes that valued sunk costs and undervalued new and unproven technology in favor of robustness. The Nagant is truly a Victorian-era handgun that was dragged along well into the 21st century partly because of availability, partly because of the Soviet insistence on wasting nothing, and partly because it works. While it doesn’t give the best possible shooting experience on the square range, with enough trigger time it becomes easier to appreciate why it stuck around for so long.