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)

  • Jess

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    “…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.”

    It wasn’t a sweet sound to the soldier in a firefight. Even setting aside the popular myth of Germans somehow hearing the ping and focusing on that one empty rifleman (there’s no actual record of this happening), the sound of being empty is *never* a sweet sound to someone in a firefight.

    Reply

  • Kenn

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    The M14 an “honourable mention?” NEVER. Thirty lashes with a wet noodle if you were issued the M14, then deemed it should hold such a lacklustre position!

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      YOu are right. The punishment probably should be more severe…~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • CoyoteJoe

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    You list the Springfield and the Mosin-Nagant but not the Mauser? Prior to the AK-47 there were doubtless more Mauser rifles in the armies of the world than all other designs combined.

    Reply

  • Scott K

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    A bit biased arent we? Ak wins for sure for all the reason, realibility, durability, service life etc., with the m16 a close second as realibility the deciding factor. The Moisin desrves 5th simply for chambering the longest serving military round if for.nothing else other than reliability and durability. Where is the Kar 98? The springfield action is a copy of the Kat98. And the Kar’s realibility, accuracy and service life are at least as good if not better than the Springfield. And where is the Lee Enfield? It served in more theaters longer than any of these other rifles except the Moisin and has an action that is faster to use and has a larger magazine capacity than the others. And the argument for the Stg44 could be made simply for it’s revolutionary cartridge and design.
    Your list leaves a lot to be desired.

    Reply

  • John doe

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    Honestly I wouldn’t put the 1903 on there for a variety of reasons. Don’t get me wrong. It is historically a very significant war rifle. However the asking price for most of them, atleast the ones I’ve found, is usually well over the $900 mark. Parts a very hard to find.If anything I would list the m1a for that price or even the sks which is cheaper.Simply because reliability, functional usage, and parts are still easy to come by.
    If I had to list one more it would be a Schmidt Rubin straight pull rifle. Yes it’s odd, yes parts are hard to find, yes ammo is hard to find cheap BUT, that is a hardcore durable and accurate rifle.My experience with any swiss rifle has always been top notch. Very accurate. Very powerful. Not to mention one of the best looking war rifles I have ever seen.

    Reply

    • Steve in Detroit

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      Steyr M-95, since the straight pull Schmidt saw no real use in Imperial German or Austrian Army in WW1.

      Reply

  • Richard L Vie Brooks

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    I’d take out the Nagant and Springfield and put in there place #1 the mod 98 Mauser and #2 the H&K 93 . The Springfield was basically just a copy of the Mauser and the H&K’s feel and function right. That’s all I got have a great day.

    Reply

  • Vegas Johnny Mac

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    The longest serving and perhaps greatest infantry firearm was left off the list, probably because its not a true rifle. The British Land Pattern Musket served with the British Army from 1722–1838, over 115 years in front line service. The arm continued in reserve, colonial, and secondary troop service for another 50 years, and some are still found, albeit modified for brass cased ammo, in Nepal today.

    Reply

  • scott D Hunt

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    I disagree with the ak47 being in the top spot this is not vietnam era
    so you cant lunp the AK and fo. I will give you that they are reliableget the M4 has 10 to 1 kill rate over the old AK 47 between the spam can ammo and the poor accurate fire the M4 shoots the pants off the old girl. I will give you that the old girl is reliable but you can hearit cimming for a half a mile
    ans sray and pray just wont get the job done

    Reply

  • Chuck Cochran

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    Mosin Nagent over the K98? Sorry, but every MN I’ve fired has had accuracy/performance issues when compared to a Mauser. MN’s look like something made in shop class compared to a Mauser. Besides, you don’t see modern rifles based on the MN design, but just about every modern bolt action is a Mauser clone.

    Reply

  • Bill

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    Think you might have your signals a bit crossed. The Hakim in 8×57 was the result of the Egyptian gov’t. buying what amounted to an entire rifle factory from Sweden. The original design, the Swedish AG-42 Ljungman (sp?) in 6.5×55 was slightly redesigned into the Egyptian Hakim in 8×57. This was followed up by a smaller version called the Rashid (Rasheed?), in 7.62×39, the SKS/AK-47 chambering, not the older German 8×33.

    Reply

    • Michael

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      @ Bill

      I’m aware of the Swedish Influence. but I’ve heard that they produced 7.92×33 Kurz chambered Rifles of current models.

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Bill.

      I suspect more likely reason would be from groups like the “Einsatzgruppen” and ALL Egyptian Unit that Fought alongside the Waffen-SS from 1941-1945. And were Credited with the killing of ~2-Million Minorities, including ~1.3-Million Jew. Which they HATED with a Passion even greater than the Waffen-SS, and Loved the Mauser 98 in 7.92×57…

      Reply

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