Surplus Rifles: Buy One, Think About Another, Pass On Two
Want to hold a piece of history in your hands for not a lot of money? First, check out our buy/donít buy recommendations on two 7.62 NATO guns, an 8mm Mauser, and a .303 British Enfield.
There is a bewildering array of surplus military rifles in various calibers, conditions, and prices. How can the gun aficionado choose from among them to find good buys, that is, rifles which function well, are acceptably accurate, and appear in large enough quantities to make looking for them worth the effort?
We recently bought a quartet of surplus rifles from Southern Ohio Gun, or SOG (www.southernohiogun.com,  944-4867), which, to our eyes, seemed to be in good to very good condition, and were available for around $100. The rifles were a $90 Lee-Enfield Ishapore 2A in .308 Winchester; a Lee-Enfield Number 4 Mark 1 in .303 British, $125; an 8mm Yugoslavian Model 48 Mauser, $200; and a Spanish Model 1916 Civil Guard Mauser, originally chambered for the 7mm Mauser (7x57) cartridge and later re-chambered for the .308 Winchester, which was the round we tested. It was purchased for $110.
The prices listed are dealer prices. SOG only sells to Federal Firearm Licensed dealers, so your costs may be slightly higher. The way this usually works, you arrange with a local gun retailer (with an FFL) or pawnbroker who deals in guns to order it from SOG or another distributor. Along with shipping charges, usually $10 to $15 dollars, the dealer will customarily mark up the gun 10 percent or more for his profit. Once it arrives, you will (obviously) have only one gun to choose from. Hopefully, it will be a good one. If you are not happy with the gun, the dealer can ship it back for you and try again for an additional charge.
If that route doesn’t work for you, there are other ways to obtain these firearms. The best option is to attend a local gun show and purchase one there. This strategy gives you the most choices and is price competitive. Also, at a gun show you can pick through many specimens of the same model to get the best quality for the money. Be sure to choose a reputable dealer who will allow returns if there is a problem. Because most gun shows are held on weekends, we suggest purchasing guns early on a Saturday and testing it the same day so that it can be returned to the show dealer on Sunday if there is a problem.
Another way to acquire surplus guns is to buy the gun at retail from a gun store or pawnshop. You will generally pay significantly more for these guns than you would if you went with the other options, but the return policy may be better if there is a problem with the gun.
If you plan to buy and perhaps sell surplus guns, you might also investigate getting a Type 3 Federal Firearms License (Curio and Relic). The license only costs $30 for three years. It allows you to pick up the phone and have any firearm on the Curio and Relic list (and there are hundreds) delivered to your door at dealer price. All of the rifles tested in this article are on the Curio and Relic list. You can find out more about this type of FFL at www.atf.treas.gov, or by contacting your local Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms listed in the blue section of the white pages telephone directory.
How We Tested
The task of separating the wheat from the chaff is basically the same for all four of these rifles. First make certain the gun is unloaded. Check the bolt for smooth operation and dry-fire the gun to check the trigger. Have the seller take apart the bolt so that you can look at the firing pin. It should not be pitted or deformed in any way. With the bolt removed shine a light through the barrel and look for rust and pitting. Corrosive ammunition has been fired through these rifles, and if they were not properly cleaned with hot soapy water and oiled afterward, the damage will be apparent. Some of the guns will have heavy grease in the barrel and receiver, which will need to be removed to get an accurate opinion of the condition of the barrel. Some of the rifles will have thicker lands and grooves present than others.
Choose the gun with the most rifling left in the barrel if all other factors are equal. Check to make sure that all parts have matching serial numbers and are in good condition. Generally, the serial numbers will appear on the receiver and bolt at a minimum and sometimes on several other parts. Having all-matching serial numbers not only ensures that the parts are optimally matched, but it also adds significant collector value to the gun. Collector value is also affected by several other factors such as: condition, date of manufacture, the factory it was produced at, special markings and designations, as well as many other factors. More information can be found in the Blue Book of Gun Values by S.P. Fjestad, which can be ordered at www.bluebookofgunvalues.com, (800) 877-4867.
After we had selected the units in this test, we took them to the range and fired rounds over a chronograph and at 100-yard targets to see which ones shot the best. We bought all surplus ammo, as described in the accuracy and chronograph tables. Here’s what we found —and what we think are the major areas of concern—you should look for in these surplus rifles.
Lee-Enfield Ishapore 2A, $90
The rifle tested was made in 1965 at the Royal Firearms plant in Ishapore, India (marked RFI). The 2A was originally chambered for the 7.62 NATO round, not re-chambered as many surplus rifles have been. It had a square-notch rear sight that was calibrated from 200 to 800 meters. Steel plates protected both sides of the rear sight. It was not adjustable for windage. The post front sight was shielded by steel plates on each side and was adjustable for windage, but not in a calibrated way. The barrel was fully shrouded with wood to prevent the shooter from burning his hands.
This rifle had the highest magazine capacity (12 rounds) of all the rifles tested. It had a detachable box magazine, but was typically loaded from the top using five-round stripper clips or one round at a time. It was also equipped with a bayonet lug.
One of the distinct advantages this rifle had over others is the ability to change the length of the stock. Most military rifle stocks came in one size. The Lee-Enfield rifle uses a unique two-piece stock design. The rear stock connects to a steel band just above the trigger with a single large flat-head bolt. The bolt can be accessed through the cleaning kit door in the buttplate. There are three different lengths of stock available (short, medium, and long). The stock that came on this rifle gave it a length of pull of 13 inches. Swapping it with the other Lee-Enfield rifle tested would have decreased the length of pull by about 1 inch.
The trigger had some creep and over-travel, but broke cleanly. The safety, located on the rear left side of the receiver, was awkward to reach. The front and rear sling swivels were located directly below the stock, which allowed ambidextrous use of the sling. The bolt functioned smoothly but took a little getting used to. Modern bolt rifles cock on open, but the Lee-Enfield rifle cocks on close, so it requires several pounds of pressure to close the bolt.
We experienced no failures to function with the reasonably priced non-corrosive, boxer primed (reloadable) ammunition. The 7.62 x 51 NATO ammunition can be found in most places that sell sporting goods, but our surplus test ammunition was purchased from Tennessee Guns, (www.tennesseeguns.com,  977-9707). The ammo cost $35 for 200 rounds. Surplus ammunition can be purchased through the mail if you provide a copy of your driver’s license to the seller. The ballistics are comparable to the 8x57 Mauser and the .303 British, but the .308 is rated for the highest chamber pressure of the three rounds. In our view, the gun’s accuracy could be termed fair to good, with the economical PMC 150-grain PSP scoring the best average group size of 2.2 inches.
Spanish Model 1916 Civil Guard Mauser, $110
The rifle tested was made in Spain. It was originally chambered for the 7mm Mauser (7x57) cartridge and later re-chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge. It has been proof tested for the .308 cartridge, but we would feel safer shooting the .308 round through the Ishapore rifle.
The rear sight was similar to the Yugoslavian Mauser and was graduated from 300 to 2,000 meters. It was not adjustable for windage. The post front sight did not appear to be adjustable for windage and had steel posts on either side of it. The last 11 inches of the top half of the barrel was exposed, showing the characteristic Mauser stepped barrel (the barrel abruptly changes to a smaller diameter close to the end of the barrel). The five-round magazine was the same as the Yugoslavian Mauser’s and is loaded in the same manner. The bolt functioned smoothly, but its 95 Mauser action was similar to the Lee-Enfield in that it cocked on close. The safety was in the same position as the Yugoslavian Mauser and was easy to manipulate. The front and rear sling loops were mounted on the left side of the rifle, which works well for right-handed shooters, but not for lefties. The trigger was smooth and broke cleanly. Accuracy was the worst in the group of rifles tested. The best average group size was only 4.4 inches with the Hornady 165-grain ammunition.
Lee-Enfield Number 4 Mark 1, $125
The rifle tested was made in 1942 by Savage Arms in the United States. It was marked United States Property on the receiver and was part of the Lend Lease program of World War II, which loaned rifles to Great Britain. That is why it was chambered for the rimmed .303 British caliber. Earlier versions of this rifle, also chambered in .303, were used during World War I. It has been battle proven without a doubt. It had the best rear sight of all the rifles tested, in our view. The battle sight was an aperture of approximately 1/8-inch diameter that was non-adjustable. When the rear sight was rotated up, however, a more precise 1/16-inch aperture appeared that was vertically adjustable from 200 to 1,300 yards, but was not adjustable for windage. The front post sight was protected by two steel plates and was adjustable for windage, but wasn’t calibrated. The barrel was fully shrouded by the wood stock.
The rifle had a 10-round detachable box magazine, and was loaded in the same manner as the Ishapore rifle, but it uses different stripper clips. The rimmed ammunition can sometimes cause a failure to feed, if the rim of the top cartridge catches behind the rim of the cartridge below, instead of in front of it. The bolt required several pounds of force to close because that is when the cocking occurs.
The trigger had the same feel as the Ishapore, but broke cleanly. The felt recoil is very similar to the Ishapore and is strong enough to make a slip-on recoil pad advisable. Accuracy was acceptable, we thought. The British surplus was just as accurate, on average, as the PMC 180-grain roundnose soft points, or about 2.9-inch groups at 100 yards.
The .303 British cartridge is in current production by the major ammunition makers, but the surplus ammunition is Berdan primed (non-reloadable) and corrosive. We purchased our surplus ammunition from SOG at a cost of $10 for 50 rounds in a bandoleer with stripper clips. The commercial ammunition was approximately $12 per 20-round box and can be obtained in most gun stores or at gun shows. All commercial ammunition used in these tests was obtained from Simmons Gun Specialties Inc., (800) 444-0220.
Yugoslavian Model 48 Mauser, $200
The rifle tested was made in Yugoslavia during the early 1950s. They were made on captured German machinery and are a slightly improved version of the kar 98 rifle. The rifle was chambered for the 8mm Mauser cartridge.
The Model 48 rifle purchased was in arsenal unissued condition (excellent). These rifles can be obtained in very good condition for $100 dollars. Unless you are a collector, it is not worth spending additional money for arsenal-quality guns.
The rear sight was a small V notch graduated from 200 to 2,000 meters. It was not adjustable for windage. The hooded-post front sight was adjustable for windage, but was not calibrated. All but the last 5 inches of the barrel was covered by the stock. The rifle had a five-round internal magazine and was charged with a five-round stripper clip or loaded one at a time. All of the parts were milled.
The bolt had a flat bottom side instead of being completely round as on the other guns, which made it slightly more ergonomic. The bolt functioned smoothly and was easier to manipulate than the other rifles tested because the 98’s action cocks on open. The safety, located on top of the bolt, was easier to reach and manipulate than it was on the other rifles. The front sling loop was mounted on the left side of the rifle and the rear sling loop was cut through the center of the stock. The sling is more easily used by right handed shooters, we found. The trigger was the worst of all the rifles tested, instead of breaking cleanly it clunked. Accuracy was fair at best with the PMC 180-grain RNSP (average group size of 2.9 inches) and worst with Turkish surplus ammunition (average group size of 5.1 inches).
The 8mm Mauser cartridge is in current production by the major ammunition makers, but the surplus ammunition is Berdan primed and corrosive. The Turkish 8mm Mauser ammunition tested had dead primers in 30 percent of the rounds.
Gun Tests Recommends
All in all, these rifles allow the owner to hold a piece of history in his hands for a very affordable price. Moreover, the chances of them going down in value are slim. We know of several surplus military rifles over the past several years that have doubled in value, but none that have gone down in value. Of course, if a large supply of rifles is found and imported from another country, the price will drop somewhat until the supply dries up again.
Outside the collecting aspect, there’s the shooting aspect. From our position, we would rather shoot guns for which there are readily available commercial sources of ammo. Also, we would rather have rifles that shoot better, rather than worse. Based on our testing, then, we came up with recommendations that could satisfy both the collecting and shooting aspects of surplus gun ownership:
Lee-Enfield Ishapore 2A, $90. Buy It. The .308 rifle we tested was well made, reliable, inexpensive, and was chambered in a readily available, inexpensive cartridge. If you plan to shoot the gun with any seriousness, you should change the notch rear sight to an aperture rear sight.
Lee-Enfield Number 4 Mark 1, $125, Conditional Buy. The rifle is just as good as the Ishapore, but the .303 British ammunition is not as readily available or diversified as .308.
Yugoslavian Model 48 Mauser, $200. Don’t Buy. The sights and trigger were lousy on our sample, and we were pretty picky in choosing it. Also, the ammunition is not as readily available or diversified as .308 rounds are. To shoot decently, the gun needs a new Timney trigger and an aperture rear sight, the cost of which would easily exceed what you paid for the gun.
Spanish Model 1916 Civil Guard Mauser, $110. Don’t Buy. It was not originally chambered for .308, and the magazine capacity is only five rounds, and it will likely cost more than the Ishapore. Also, the sights and bolt are not as good as the Yugoslavian Mauser. There are simply better surplus guns out there.