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)

  • Mason Hamilton

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    I’m surprised at your list of the bolt actions, the Mauser G98 three lug bolt action rifle is a better gun and probably more widely adapted by more armies and their soldiers. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauser)

    Reply

  • Bill

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    The DSA products are much later developments, and are all in the much more powerful 7.52 NATO round. Bigger cartridge, bigger rifle. The original Saive design was developed during WW II, and used the German 8 x 33 round. Smaller cartridge, smaller rifle, the concept behind both the AK-47 and AR-15/M-16.

    Reply

    • 1 ab urbe condita

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      @ Bill

      The 7.62x51NATO (7.82×51.2, actual) is virtually identical to the .308Win. The DSA SA58 should have no problem chambering to 7.62x51NATO.

      Reply

    • Michael

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      @ Bill

      Have you tried Hakim of Egypt. They make Reproduction FN-49’s in 7.92×57 and is rumored to make them in 7.92×33 Kurz too.

      Reply

  • Bill

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    And the real shame of it is the US bullied the rest of the western world into maintaining the outdated main battle rifle dogma with 7.62 NATO. If we had had any foresight at all, the genius of Saive’s original, small FAL would have been accepted across the board, or at least been the basis of the eventual rifle. Stamped parts, intermediate cartridge, lighter weight rifle itself, easy to break down and clean, all of the salient points the Russkies nailed with the AK-47. The M-14 and M-16 would never have seen the light of day. The “small FAL” would very likely STILL be in universal use.

    Reply

    • 1 ab urbe condita

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      @ Bill.

      What about the DSA SA58 PKP FAL Pistol in .308Win (7.8×51.18).

      Reply

  • StinsonbBeach

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    1 – AK
    2 – M4
    3 – 870
    4 – SKS
    5 – 700 / .308
    Just my HO…

    Reply

  • Manchu77

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    I think that the discussion could use some more distinctive parameters such as a particular era. My choices by era would be:
    Single shot-Remington Rolling Block
    Bolt Action-Lee Enfield SMLE
    Semi-Auto-M1 Garand
    1st Generation Assault Rifle-FN FAL
    Current-M16/M4

    Reply

  • widowmaker 1 - 5

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    The way I see things as far as my top five would be:
    1) M4
    2) M1A
    3) REM 870
    4) FN FAL
    5) AK 47

    Reply

  • Alan Smith

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    Personally, I would stick the Enfield in place of the Springfield ’03. Faster shooting, and was in service for much longer, over a wider range of services/countries, etc.

    Reply

  • sonny

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    I went thru MCRD in 1954 and was issued the garand. Like you I fired expert and carried the M1 or a thompson until 59. Also like you I ise an AK. It kicks like a .22 is as accurate as anything I have and at my age I’m not gonna shoot over 300 yrds. I don’t own an ar type rifle and see no reason ever to. My opinion is that these people who brag about them so much are wannabees and never had the time to really test the difference. I hunr elk, bear with a bar .399 mag, One shot, one kill!!

    Reply

  • StinsonbBeach

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    Amen…

    Reply

  • Bob

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    When I made the effort to become a US Marine in 1974, I was issued an M16 in boot camp. Having grown up with hunting and shooting. I found the M16 to be an accurate rifle to aim and shoot. Jamming was never an issue, do to us “boots” having to clean it daily. Of course at the age of 18, any new gun given to me to use,would impress me. Needless to say I qualified as an Expert shooter in boot camp, shooting the M16 rifle. The M16 hit what you aimed at, a very accurate shooting rifle. However, as of today I do not own a AR15. I own and shoot an AK47. Why? Because I found this rifle to be the best short range (300yds max.) rifle to shoot in any harsh environment. Where as the M16 was not. Even though the M16 could reach out further and touch you. I still will only own and shoot an AK47. If I wanted a long distance shooter, there are other rifles for that.I wanted a rifle that could punch through cider block easily, I prefer the AK47 and the 7.62X39 round for that purpose. Maintaining the AK47 is easier and cheaper than an AR15. AK ammo is cheaper too. And is more readily available.

    AND Yes, I know the AR15 is a very capable rifle and a better made rifle too. But, to me, the AK47 meets all of my needs.

    When you buy a rifle, buy the one that meets your needs. After all, you are the one shooting that rifle.

    Reply

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