Vintage Semiauto Battle Rifles: We Test Three Proven Designs
Guns like the FN Model 1949, the Ljungman AG 42B, and the Tokarev M1940 (SVT) led to today’s outstanding military rifles, and owning one can represent a historical value for the shooter.
The United States was one of very few countries which, at the start of WWII, had its troops carrying general-issue semiautomatic rifles. Of course other countries developed and issued some famous weapons before the end of the war, but much of the development and refinement of semiautomatic rifles took place following WWII. Here we take a close look at three vintage rifles that boldly illustrate some early attempts by designers to develop a viable mil-spec self-loading rifle. We acquired an FN Model 1949, also known as the SAFN 49 or FN49 (our sample as issued to the Argentine Navy) in .308, a Ljungman AG 42B in 6.5 x 55, and a Tokarev M1940 (SVT) in 7.62 x 54R. Not all of them made the cut, so to speak, but some of their experimental features are still with us today.
The FN49 was not only a good mil-type rifle, but it was also a proving ground for some design features that were later incorporated into the world-famous FN FAL. The intricate, odd, and beautifully made Swedish Ljungman rated only brief mention in our copy of “Small Arms of the World,” yet it was a pure delight, once we figured it out. And the Tokarev M1940 saw service, but turned out to have been too lightly built for general military applications.
All of these three test rifles were wood-stocked weapons with blued or black-painted metal, and all came with slings. They all had bayonet lugs. Stock finishes varied from near-new with a suspicion of refinishing (the Swede) to fairly battered with many small nicks and dents (the FN). All seemed serviceable which, in light of their not-inexpensive price tags, was appropriate. We acquired our FN from Southern Ohio Gun (SOG), 800-944-4867. We arranged to test the Swedish gun through an FFL dealer, who had bought the gun at a show. The Tokarev was also acquired at a gun show, and was on loan to the magazine from the owner.
Let’s take a more detailed look at each of these historically important semiauto rifles.
The SAFN, or FN49, was designed by the same fellow who gave us the FAL, Dieudonné Saive. Our first impression of this .308-chambered rifle was that it had delightful balance. With its detachable magazine removed, it superficially resembled the Garand. It had no obvious nods whatsoever to the FAL, with the possible exceptions of the front-sight guards and the gas-tube-takedown button just in front of the front sight. One hidden similarity was that the FN could be adjusted to regulate the amount of gas bled to the bolt. Our specimen didn’t lock the bolt back regularly at first, so we thought the gas port had been adjusted for a round with different characteristics from our ammunition. Adjustment required removing a screw beneath the front sight, slipping the upper wood off, and turning a collar behind the gas port. However, on removal of the parts we found heavy grease within the mechanism. Accordingly, we field-stripped the rifle and totally cleaned it, something that should be done with all military-surplus rifles, in our opinion. These are commonly mothballed by immersion in hot, liquefied grease, most of which won’t appear on the outside years later.
The original Belgian SAFN had a fixed, not detachable, box magazine that held ten rounds. Loading was accomplished by inserting individual rounds and pressing them down, or by the use of stripper clips. This Argentinean rifle (Model 49) used a 20-round detachable magazine that was a quantum leap forward from the fixed 10-round box. The FN49’s mag looked a whole lot like a FAL magazine. One source told us the Argentineans successfully modified FAL mags to fit their version of the FN49, though we could not confirm that. We determined a brand-new metric FAL magazine would require extensive reworking to permit it to be used, unless the bolt-hold-open lugs were abandoned. The two types of magazine are similar. The FAL mag was of the same width as the FN49’s, but lacked the rearward extensions for the bolt-stop levers. The supplier of our test rifle, Southern Ohio Gun, has indicated no spare magazines are currently available, but the company is trying to obtain some. They may be available by the time you read this. The rifle came with a bayonet.
Saive actually began this design before WWII, but German occupation of Belgium halted all work on it until after the war. Then, apparently, it was a rousing success — at least until the FAL came along. Testimonial to the universal acceptance of this early semiauto FN design is the fact that it has been chambered in a variety of calibers including .30-’06, 7x57, 7.65, and 7.92, for sale to Egypt, the Netherlands, Venezuela, Argentina, the Belgian Congo, Luxembourg, Colombia, and probably several other countries. Our test rifle had been issued to the Argentine Navy.
Our FN’s metalwork was covered — inside and out — with black paint, which was seriously chipped or missing in many areas of this test rifle. We did not like this black paint. It was clearly intended as a protection against salt air, but for normal use it was not as good as bluing, we thought.
The stock, as noted, had numerous nicks and dings all over its surface. However, it appeared to be walnut, and had attractive grain beneath all the dirt and nicks. The inletting was excellent. The three-piece wood stock was all tight to the metal, including the upper forend pieces. A good wiping with kitchen cleaner did wonders for its appearance. We also cooked some of the oil and grease out of the wood over a hot electric burner, wiping off the excess with paper towels. Our simple efforts got us a rifle we could handle without needing a bath afterward.
The wood was well selected for strength, the grain running in the right direction through the pistol-grip area. The stock was also generously proportioned, and the wood was higher than the metal wherever the two met, so a careful refinish preceded by scraping could renew its appearance. If that were done, the application of black paint to the bare-metal areas would give this rifle a far better overall appearance. Be advised that many collectors don’t want you to mess with the original appearance, so you might be hurting the resale value if you refinish your rifle.
The well-protected front sight presented a flat-topped post to the shooter. It was adjustable for windage by drifting, though windage was also incorporated into the rear sight via opposing screws, just as on the FAL. The rear aperture sight was guarded by two stout ears. It was marked from 1 to 10 in hundreds of yards, and had a spring-loaded catch that added drag to the elevation button to help keep the aperture where you put it along the sight rail. This again was similar to the later FAL, though the FAL’s rear sight locked into distinct notches. There was a small cover on the right rear of the action that slid forward to cover the slot behind the bolt, to keep dirt out.
A couple of inches in front of the rear sight was a notch for stripper-clip-loading of the magazine. The bolt knob was cylindrical, hollow, and stout. In this design, gas was drawn off through a hole on top of the barrel about six inches from the muzzle. Via a piston and rod, force was exerted onto the bolt carrier. The carrier lifted the rear of the bolt upward out of its locking notch and pulled it all the way back in the usual manner, zinging out the empty and grabbing a new round on its trip forward.
With the magazine out of the rifle, the bolt could be held open by pulling it fully rearward and depressing a small lever on the left side of the action, just behind the stripper-clip notches. The safety was on the right side of the hefty trigger guard in the form of a forward-facing lever that, when applied, blocked the trigger and also made it difficult to get the finger onto the trigger. The rifle was set up to favor right-handers, but lefties could operate the safety with the thumb. The rifle had a cocking indicator in the form of a pin (actually the hammer-spring guide pin) riding in the front portion of the trigger guard. The cocked hammer forced the pin outward where it could be seen or felt.
The magazine release lever was activated by grasping the magazine normally and squeezing the lever forward. The magazine went in and came out easily, but was shaky-loose when in place. We had doubts whether the rifle would feed properly. The trigger pull was very much okay, and moved in a direction that corresponded with the natural movement of the trigger finger. When we measured the pull (7.3 pounds) we found it took almost 6 pounds to overcome the first stage. It broke with very little creep.
Overall workmanship was, we thought, excellent, but the chipped paint made it hard to evaluate the metalwork in some areas. Clearly, this weapon involved intricate and exacting machining in many areas, probably more so than on the Ljungman tested below, and that is something FN has always done well.
On the range,
Accuracy testing was done with Chinese surplus, brand-new Federal Match, and PMC Eldorado (Barnes X) ammo. We found out why we had missed the target from offhand. The front sight was way too far right. We drifted it back and got our groups centered easily. We did our serious bench testing from 50 yards in view of the winter weather and questionable daylight during our sessions. Our extrapolated results told us to expect 3" or better groups at 100 yards. The new Federal Gold Medal Match fodder did the best, as expected, and gave the lowest standard deviation of the tests. Post-cleaning, there were no failures of the bolt to stay open following the last shot.
This attractive and obviously well-designed and carefully constructed rifle, chambered for the 6.5 x 55 cartridge, presented a big problem. There were no instructions with it, and the rifle had no obvious bolt handle to permit opening it and clearing the action. There were, however, two bulges on the breech cover. The cover could not be pulled rearward, because it was already back as far as it could go. We shoved forward against spring pressure. The cover moved all the way forward until, with a click, all spring pressure suddenly ceased. The cover had become locked together with the bolt carrier and bolt. This assembly could be moved rearward against zero spring force. Early in its rearward motion the bolt carrier unlocked the bolt by camming it upward. The whole assembly then glided rearward in the action rails, revealing the chamber and the magazine.
The question remained, how does one get a round into the chamber, and get the assembly to unlock from itself? By diligent experiments with an unloaded rifle, we found that with the safety off, i.e., with the gun ready to fire, the combined bolt, carrier, and cover assembly would not move all the way rearward. The assembly stopped about an eighth of an inch before it struck the rear standard of the action. But with the safety on, the assembly would slide all the way rearward. We put the safety in the off (left) position and brought the bolt carrier sharply rearward against that stop. Zip, the bolt and its carrier shot forward, driven by the recoil spring contained within the cover.
According to an article in the March 1987 American Rifleman, we had discovered the “correct” way to manipulate this rifle. With the cover rearward and the bolt and its carrier forward, i.e., with the rifle fully closed, insert a loaded magazine. Shove the bolt cover all the way forward to lock onto the bolt carrier and bolt. Take the safety OFF (no, we didn’t like that feature at all), point the gun downrange, and bring the bolt/carrier/cover assembly sharply rearward. The bolt and its carrier will then fly forward to chamber a round, and you’re set to go.
In battle this might have made sense. When the bolt locked itself open after firing the last shot in a magazine, the combatant would then insert a fresh magazine, press slightly forward on the carrier and then pull it sharply rearward to chamber a round, and so could be back in the battle very quickly. On our home range we were careful to try this several times with only one round in the magazine before we trusted the sear to hold the hammer securely in its cocked position during all that banging of steel against steel.
We found it was possible to chamber a round with the safety on. With the bolt and its carrier locked together and loose in the action, insert a loaded magazine. Then, with the safety on (pointed to the right), push the bolt/carrier/cover assembly fully forward, chambering a round. Then, holding forward pressure on the cover, trip the small catch located at the rear of the carrier, releasing spring tension, and ease the carrier all the way rearward. We found that with practice, this could be done easily with one hand, and would most likely be the preferred method of chambering a round. However, we found the Norma round-nose ammo preferred to be slam-loaded. It resisted our efforts to ease the first round into the chamber.
One feature of this rifle that may of interest to collectors and gun students is that the gas from the cartridge impinges directly onto the bolt, much like the M16 and a few other designs, with no piston or pushrod in the way. A simple tube brought gas from the barrel port to the bolt.
Takedown was outrageously simple. With the rifle unloaded and the magazine removed, and with the bolt and its carrier forward and the action cover rearward (i.e., with the action closed), press forward slightly on the bolt cover until it moves forward about a quarter inch. Then place the safety lever in the center position and lift the entire rear action shield, together with the safety, up and out of the rifle. The action cover with its recoil spring and guide rod can be slid out, followed by the bolt and its carrier. It was necessary to slightly twist the bolt to get it out of the carrier. This simple and swift takedown permitted cleaning the bore from the rear, always a good idea.
The magazine was unique in our experience in that it had spring-loaded catches at both its front and back. The shooter needed to pinch them both aggressively to get the magazine out, and the double springs surely helped prevent the mag from falling out. There was a rubber-covered deflector on the right side of the cover to protect ejected brass (and possibly to reduce the noise of its ejection).
The wood finish was outstanding. The rifle’s owner told us he didn’t know if the rifle had been refinished. We could see possible evidence it had been, because some remaining nicks and discolorations were edge-softened and had finish applied over them. However, it was an excellent job, whether done by an arsenal or individual. It made the rifle far more appealing to the eye than the FN was, and we thought that was an argument in favor of carefully refinishing a military stock found in the condition of the FN’s. It surely made the Ljungman a pleasant rifle to inspect and test.
This was a long rifle, mandated by its odd action and by the 25.5-inch barrel. The stock appeared to be birch, with modest figure and tight grain. The rifle balanced about like a long iron poker, having none of the liveliness of the FN. The rifle had a wide, flat, leather sling affixed to the left side of the forend, and to a left-skewed ring at the butt stock. This made for comfortable carry with the rifle slung over the shoulder or across the back. Clearly the designers were aware the rifle would be carried that way much of the time.
The front-sight hood gave some protection to a flat-topped post. The front sight had windage adjustable via a screw that moved the sight post in its dovetail. The rear sight had a flat-topped notch. The sight picture was good, though not as nice as the FN’s aperture setup. For a military rifle, the front sight was not all that well protected, we thought. The rear had some protection in the form of low ears. The rear sight also had a numbered, click-stopped, set of elevation adjustments, selected by a big knob. With the sight all the way down, we got center hits at 100 yards.
Behind the front sight, easily overlooked by the casual observer, were a series of holes that formed a muzzle brake. This worked extremely well. There was only barely perceptible recoil from this admittedly heavy rifle, and its Swedish round was also less powerful than either of the two .30-cal rifles in this test. Still, we were pleased when our first three shots, two offhand and one kneeling, gave us a perfectly centered group of less than three inches at 75 yards. The excellent two-stage trigger required about 3.5 pounds to take up the first stage, and broke cleanly at 5.2 pounds.
The rifle’s design included provisions for a bayonet, though its locking lug did not at all look like what it was. We thought the bayonet lug was an alternate sling swivel mount until one of our source books told us different. A slotted cleaning rod was screwed into a recess beneath the muzzle. All the metalwork was well polished and nicely blued. The bolt carrier’s number had been altered, so we knew some metal parts had been refinished, but we doubted all the metal had been renewed. This rifle had no trap in the steel butt plate. (The FN had one that was similar to, but simpler than, that of the Garand.) The safety was a lever at the rear of the action that moved readily from side to side with thumb pressure. The rifle was nearly ambidextrous in its configuration. The inletting was quite good all around. The magazine, with its forward spring assembly and milled follower, was a costly item to make, we thought. It had a latch for easy disassembly, and thus more springs, adding still more to its cost. The magazine held ten rounds, but the rifle’s owner had a thirty-round mag for it as well.
We tested with Sellier & Bellot, Federal, and Norma ammo, and we got excellent accuracy with all of it. We had one double with Federal’s ammunition, which was not repeated. The double caused us to get hit in the forehead with gas particles, which got our attention. We could not reject the rifle because of this, but did caution its owner to be look out for the problem. Throughout our test firing, the bolt stayed open reliably after the last shot.
Another “long Tom” was the Tokarev model of 1940. Caliber was 7.62 x 54R. This was a slight improvement over the Tokarev M38, and featured a perforated-metal forward barrel cover, a slotted, wooden upper hand guard, a sporting-rifle-slim stock, and (once again) intricate and interesting machining that included a muzzle brake. It came with a web sling and bayonet, and a detachable 10-round magazine. The rifle had obviously been arsenal refinished, for there were inlaid wood repairs on both sides of the stock. The wood was orange colored, with some evident figure, and still showed areas of previous oil-soaking. The wood, which may have been walnut, was finished with a hard, thin, and brittle coating that came off easily. The metal was well polished and blued, though the bolt carrier was a purple-brown color.
One of the first things we noticed was the magazine release, which looked delicate with the magazine removed. However, it was hinged, so a blow would fold it rearward. During our shooting tests, we found out why it was so thin and also hinged. With it left pointing down, inertia caused the magazine to fall out despite the very light construction of the release. But with it folded, the magazine stayed in place. This was one more example of not having things just right when they were first designed.
The safety was a simple blocking device mounted behind the trigger. The sights were nearly identical with those of the Ljungman, a covered, flat-top front post and ladder flat-top rear with discrete notches for elevation. Markings were to 1500 yards. This was a relatively light rifle, tipping the scales at 8.8 pounds unloaded. Its cartridge’s power was on a par with the .30-’06, but our Garand weighed closer to 10 pounds, as did the FN49. We noticed the most recoil with this rifle of the three tested, yet it was by no means excessive.
The magazine was well made, simple and clean in appearance and apparently durable. It went into, and came out of, the rifle easily and positively. It held the bolt open after the last shot. The rifle was noticeably livelier than the Ljungman, not only because of its lighter weight.
This rifle, like the FN, had a provision for gas adjustment. What appeared to be the front of the barrel, with front sight and integral muzzle brake, was actually a separate assembly, screwed to the barrel. The rifle was gas operated, utilizing a gas piston and two operating rods to get force to the bolt carrier.
We tested with Russian surplus ball, Barnaul (Russian) soft-nose, and Czech ammo with a silvery tip. During our test firing, the magazine repeatedly fell out, as reported, until we folded the release lever. This seemed to us to be a remarkable flaw in a military weapon.
Gun Tests Recommends
FN Model 1949 (SAFN), $695. Our Pick. We liked this rifle quite a lot, not only because of its good looks, attractive wood, chambering (.308), fine balance and outstanding sights, and what appeared to be a chrome-lined barrel, but also because of its great historical significance. There was something inherently right about it, especially when compared with the FAL, the Garand, and even with the M14. This rifle was in that same company, we thought, which the odd Ljungman and Tokarev M1940 were not. The FN was in some ways before its time. It took a few more years and some redesigning before the FAL emerged to become the most prolific battle rifle in the non-Communist world, but many of the basics were already there in the parent FN49. If we owned it, we’d try to get Fulton Armory’s Clint McKee to work on the trigger, and that’s about all we’d change. And we’d shoot it a lot.
Ljungman AG 42B, about $800. Buy It. With continued manipulation of the odd action we began to get comfortable with this mechanism. This was a pleasant rifle, one that encouraged lots of shooting. The accuracy was surprisingly good, the rifle worked well, and we thoroughly enjoyed our experiences with the Ljungman. We were much impressed with this very interesting design and its skillful realization, and with the rifle’s fine trigger pull, workmanship, and accuracy. One of our testers remarked he’d like a shorter version of this rifle.
Tokarev M1940 (SVT) about $750. Buy it. The Tokarev proved to be pleasant enough during firing. There was one failure to eject, but it happened at one of the times the magazine fell out, and did not happen again. There was one failure to feed when we first shot the rifle, but that didn’t happen again either. The SVT’s accuracy was uniform with all ammunition tried. It was about equal to the other two rifles, we felt, for absolute accuracy. The trigger pull was very good, which helped us shoot the rifle. The sight picture was exactly the same as that of the Ljungman, and again we longed for the FN’s sight picture. There was nothing remarkable about this rifle, other than its being an important footnote in the development of USSR battle rifles. The Soviets found it to be somewhat less durable than desired, and also not all that easy to repair, and it was thus quickly outmoded. But it was, we thought, worthy of study as a significant milestone in arms design.