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 (406)

  • Bill

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    So, the ’03 rated higher than any of the mid to late 1890’s Mausers, even tho the ’03 was largely based on the previous Mauser model, the 1893 Spanish? Only real difference is Springfield felt the need to add the Krag’s cocking piece to the Mauser bolt, a questionable move. Don’t say the .30-’06 cartridge choice makes the ’03 better, either. 6.5 x 55 and 7 x 57 are just as good as military calibers as the ought 6 (maybe even better, as they have less recoil).

    Reply

    • Kivaari

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      Mauser added a “re-cocking” piece to the rifles. That little groove on the right side of the cocking piece is made to hook a cartridge case into so the firing pin can be drawn to the rear. It was a minor addition, that did not add a significant increase in manufacturing time and used less material. Except for old ammo I found that re-cocking is rarely needed. Certainly between 1890s-1940s, the likelihood of needing such a feature was more common. Primers are much better today.

      Reply

  • Big Bill

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    IF the day ever comes, and I find myself in “Zombie-land”….it will be my short scoped, (with night-vision), collapsible stock AR-15, my long scoped plastic stock Remington 770 (30-06), and my Glock 30 with S&W 686 (seven round cylinder, 357 Mag).
    With these trusted firearms, I have consistently shot with dependable accuracy and NEVER a misfire.
    I’m looking to add a AK to my inventory, but there are so many different countries making them that I don’t know how to decide which to pick. Any suggestions?

    Reply

  • david paolella

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    Hard to believe the british 303 (10 rounds) and the german mauser were not there’
    .

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      David – Great choices and I am a fan of the British .303 SMLE, but when you have to whittle the list down to only five…~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • Alan Goodale

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    I was a bit surprised that the M14 was not among the top 5 it had remained the top sniper rifle for the longest time through WWII and Southeast Asia and even later. I personally rate it at the top of any list for accuracy and dependability.

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Alan,

      Not a bad choice and it certainly made my short list, plus I carried the M14 while I was in the service. However, as I noted in the article it came down to the M1 and the M14 and historically, I went with the genus. ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

    • Alan Goodale

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      I also carried the M14 plus I also used it in competition shooting as part of an marksmanship team. The M14 was the most proficient sniper rifle with open sights of any rifle I have ever shoot. Matter of fact I have my rifle from my competition years and that is some 30 plus years ago.

      Reply

    • Kivaari

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      The M14 had a troubled history. It was a problem child with warped stocks, burning hand guards, poor quality control. When the Army adopted it to replace the M1 rifle, M2 carbine, M1911A! and M3A1 SMG, it was a silly idea. The secretary of defense made the right choice in replacing the M14, even though the early AR15 (not M16) was not developed enough. A great book on the subject is, “The Great Rifle Controversy” by Ezell. The findings of the Icord committee showed how flawed the army testing was.
      It took time but the M4 carbines, Mk12 and Mk18 are great weapons.
      If the AK had good sights, it would be a much better rifle than it is in its normal configuration.

      Reply

    • Chris Rodrigues

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      M-14 as a sniper weapon in WWII? Are you lost in a time warp??

      Reply

  • Rick

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    DAVE,
    As I sat here and read your article for the third time sir, I can only agree you made the right choices. I love my AR but would reach for my AK if headed out the door for real ‘business’. Thanks for a well thought out article.

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Thanks Rick! ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • JSW

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    Well, now… we’re talking the “best of all time”, then limit ourselves to one era. Not really sure how that works in “of all time”. Still, these are great choices for the 20th Century as they are all prototypes of that era.
    Going back a little bit, one would have to include the Spencer as being the Number One choice for “of all time”. Or was it the Henry? Gee… even farther back, the “Kentucky” squirrel rifle was a formidable weapon in the hands of all who used it. (Yes, we know the “Kentucky” was actually a “Pennsylvania”.) But should we exclude the Brown Bess just because it was a smooth bore? Gosh… “all time” is a long time…

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      JSW,

      Agreed, if we broke it up more by era the choice would be drastically different, but not too many Brown Bess’ to be had these days. ~ Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • Bill

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    I agree with all of your choices, except one. Picking the ’03 Springfield over the ’95/’96 Mauser, or (especially) the ’98 Mauser is flat wrong, IMO.

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Bill,

      Both made the short list of honorable mentions, and I own both ’96s and ’98s! ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

    • dennis mcgill

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      the 1903 Springfield rifle Was made off of the 98 mauser rifle , after Cuba we brought some home, liked the design , and mauser works Sued us for use of their patten design. we paid them for it . 1903-03.

      Reply

  • chefjon

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    I’m not sure where to squeeze it in, but the FAL deserves a spot. If I had to bump one, it would be the 03…but that still is a great rifle. Tough choice, but great list!

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Chefjon,
      No doubt about it, the FAL would be a great choice. However, I would say the FAL was more in line with the M1 and between the two I would pick the M1 hands down…~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

    • dennis mcgill

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      the fn-fal has a lot of small parts in the trigger group , some of which will stop it from working if lost,good strong gun.

      Reply

  • CherokeeScot

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    TOUGH CALL: Hardly any rifle is an all purpose. My love is still in .308. I do believe the 30-06 is just as good. More modern rifles pulls you around to the .308 though. Heavy load on the cartridges in the field as with the 30-06 so you then start to look more closely at the .223 variants. Im not choosing an AR in standard cal because at some point you may not be able to find ammo as readily. I do like the AR in .223. It works and has that advantage of light ammo to carry around. As I said, tough call. There just is not an all purpose rifle.

    Reply

  • G-Man

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    I feel sort of cool and comforted to know I own 3 out the 5 types listed here. I have several of each – Mosin Nagant, ARs, and AKs.

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      You are on the right track G-Man. ~ Dave Dolbee

      Reply

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