Throwback Thursday: Wanna Fight? The Top 5 Combat Rifles of All-Time

By Dave Dolbee published on in Firearms

What’s the quickest way to start a fight? Be conservative or liberal, black or white, American, a man, or the easiest way—just be me. Another way to start a fight is declare you have ‘the’ list of the best combat rifles from the last century. So come one, come all! I am challenging all takers to come up with a better list! It’s King of the Hill time, and I am looking for anyone who thinks they have what it takes to knock me off my royal throne.

My first step was to compile a list, which was harder than you may think. The first few entries came easy enough, and then a few more. Before I knew, the list grew into a leviathan—that was the easy part. The hard part came when I tried to whittle the list down to just five and then decide the order. Before I knew it, I was fighting with myself. The honorable mentions were many, but I’ll save them and see what the challengers offer.

Mosin Nagant

Mosin Nagant

Mosin Nagant M9130 Sniper Rifle

Mosin Nagant M9130 Sniper Rifle

The Mosin Nagant traces its roots back to 1891. During the past 120-plus years it has earned a reputation for reliability. Best of all, it is still available and one of the most affordable guns, so it fits any budget whether you are a collector or first time shooter. Packed with five rounds of 7.62x54R, the long-action bolt rifle has the knock down power for medium and big game, but is also ready to return to battle should the home fort need defending. Given the price, the Mosin Nagant is an ideal rifle to stash in the back of the safe, hunting cabin or even as an emergency truck gun.

M1 Garand

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M1 Garand, One Rifle to Rule Them All

M1 Garand, One Rifle to Rule Them All

Choosing the M1 was only tough because I carried the M14 and it did not make the list, although it is very high on the honorable mentions. There is simply something about a rifle that you served with that earns it an eternal place in your heart. However, the Garand revolutionized a generation and the “ping” of an empty en bloc clip is as sweet a sound as a touch of Hoppe’s No. 9 is to the nose. The M1 Garand saw action in WWII and Korea and many GIs would not have made it back otherwise.

The M1 can be stoked with eight rounds of .30-06. The M1 Garand should rightfully hold a higher place on the list, however, many find reloading difficult at best, especially under pressure. I have never really experienced this phenomenon, but I have watched enough shooters to say it isn’t the easiest.

Springfield 1903

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Springfield 1903

Springfield 1903

Dominant for the first half of the 20th century, the Springfield is another rifle chambered for the .30-06. Officially adopted as a U.S. military bolt-action rifle in June 1903, the Springfield 1903 saw plenty of action in WWI. Although it was officially replaced in 1937 when the M1 became standard issue, the Springfield 1903 still had a special place in WWII. In WWII as the battle lines changed and the sniper became a high-value infantryman, the 1903 was decked with a scope and viola! —instant sniper rifle. When you consider the 1903 Springfield’s history as a battle and precision rifle of its day, and the fact that it is chambered for the .30-06 how could you deem it any less than America’s penultimate rifle?

M-16

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Black Colt M4A1, barrel to the right on a white background

The modern M4 can easily be ranked above the AK-47, but over the course of decades, the AK-47 reigns supreme.

Here is a decision worth scrapping over—placing the M-16 lower than the AK-47. This fight is as old as the 9mm vs. .45 ACP, Navy and Marines vs. Army and Air Force or blondes vs. brunettes. Back in A school while in the Navy, the instructors used to write “RTFQ” on our tests. Well, it had to do with us not ‘reading the question’ close enough. We are talking the M-16 here, not the civilian AR-15 version. The M-16 features tight tolerances, plenty of capacity, spits its peas at a sufficient cyclic rate for combat, and dominates the accuracy column. The downside especially on early models during the Vietnam era was reliability. The design has been greatly improved and today’s M4 would take the AK-47 hands down (fortunately for our men and women serving, the M4 wins most battles), but when observed through the lens of history, the M-16 just can’t best the AK-47.

AK-47

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Camo AK-47 pointed to the left on a white background.

What can I say that has not already been written a million times? The AK-47 is the world’s assault rifle for a reason—it works!

It hurts to have to give the top spot to anything but an American design. However, tough as nails and proven the world-round, the AK-47’s reliability is legendary. In fact the design, with very few modifications, is still a leading combat rifle in too many countries to count. Generous tolerances allow you to bury the AK-47 in mud, pack it in sand, submerge it in the ocean or subject it to just about any other torture test you can devise, then pick it up, shake it off, pull the trigger and hear it go bang!—everytime…

A design, nearly 70 years old, that is still formidable on the battlefield, still in production, and cheap to produce is hard to beat, but if you want to call me wrong… put ‘em up and get ready to box!

What’s your list of the top 5 combat rifles of all time? Share it with us in the comment section and be sure to include your soft spot for any rifle you served with.

SLRule

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Dave’s writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersen’s Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersen’s Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

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Comments (413)

  • Otto H.R. Bartsch

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    OK, so let’s talk US and German Snipers for a moment, a WWII moment that is, at say 400yds/400m(437yds) respectively.

    US – 30-06 (.308) Springfield 03/03A3 or M1-C1/D-1 with WWII 2.5X scope
    German – 7.92 (.324) Mauser K98/K98k with WWII 4X, 6X or 8X scope.

    Yes, it’s just specs, but does anyone already begin to see the problem?

    Have to go, will continue later . . .

    Reply

  • Otto H.R. Bartsch

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    OK, so let’s talk US and German Snipers for a moment, a WWII moment that is, at say 400yds/400m(437yds) respectively.

    US – 30-06 (.308) Springfield 03/03A3 or M1-C1/D-1 with WWII 2.5X scope German – 7.92 (.324) Mauser K98/K98k with WWII 4X, 6X or 8X scope.

    Yes, it’s just specs, but does anyone already begin to see the problem?

    Have to go, will continue later . . .

    Reply

    • Chet

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      Otto my friend

      In WWI the US Snipers often carried a 1917 Enfield with a 2 power Weaver Scope. Not the greatest scope in the world but it did the job. Remember if you only have a 2X scope you use what you have and you make it work. It was a challenge I am sure, but the Brits (England and Canada) used the SMLE Mk 1 No 4 without scopes, and in later years they used SMLE Mk 4 No 1 in 303 British without a scope right up and even into Vietnam.

      My AR-15 does not have a US Military scope on it, they are only 4 power and 30mm. I have a Russian Scope from the middle late 1990s on it, more power and more field of view which lets more light in. But that does not make me a sniper, only a better shooter. I am sure there are some older military snipers that are better than me with that small scope I rejected. It takes practice….

      But point well taken.

      The scope does not make the sniper, its the man. When there is inaccuracy its not the gun but the shooter.

      Reply

  • icebear

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    What on earth is the 03 Springfield doing on that list? It’s a copy of the one that should be there in its place, the Mauser 98. And I’d probably substitute the Enfield for the Mosin.

    Reply

    • LEVELLER

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      @ Icebear.

      Wild Guess being Author’s Favorites! And recent Developments of Lost Documentation on the M1 Garand, M1903, 98k Mauser, and Lee-Enfield Mk. I’s can be Converted to use High-Capacity Magazines.

      Reply

    • Chet

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      The 03A3 is by far better than the M1 Garand and rates far above the Mosin Nagant. While I like the 98 Mauser the 30-06 is a better round. Now if the Germans had bored their Mausers out to 8mm 06 they would have been by far the heavier hitters!

      Reply

  • Chet

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    The M-16 has its place but I agree the AK is a better caliber choice. The M-16 was lightweight in Nam, but the AK did more damage when shot accurately.

    The introduction of the M1 Garande helped the troops compete with the Gew Mausers, but due to weak operating rods the loads had to be brought down pressure wise, so they kept the same powder charge and dropped the bullet weight from 165 grains to 147-149 gr. The Grande would not be my choice! I would replace it with the K-98 or Gew Mauser.

    The Springfield 03-A3 will always be my choice for a Sniper or Scout rifle even tho it only holds 5 rounds, load it up hot or light and it still performs! We used it as a preferred rifle in Nam even tho the M14 was more popular, and another fine weapon… too hard to keep the list to five!

    Reply

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