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)

  • Meathead

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    I carried, and qualified with, an M1 in Navy boot camp, 1959 and I liked the balance and “feel” of the rifle. However, I own a .303 Enfield Sniper rifle and love the way it handles. I have taken deer and black bear with it and would not to hesitate to “take” a Grisly or a large moose with it. The .303 Enfield was a battle rifle, not an assault rifle such as the M4, AK47, etc.

    Reply

  • OttoB

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    See my ’03 Springfield comment above. Interesting K98 knockoff note, “Dangerous Game” rifles, think African Safari, are limited to a minimum cartridge size of the HH.375 rifle. The ONLY exception is the Mauser 9.3×62 (.366), of course with a Mauser 2-lug action, but mounted with 2 cross-bolts rather than one

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ OttoB.

      As I recall, the Largest Caliber Cartridge that can be Safely Chambered in a 98 Mauser is the 8x60mm S round…

      Reply

  • Frank

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    Honorable mention might be the SKS. Although not so much in major conflicts other than Vietnam, it was used by Russia, China, N. Korea, Albania, Poland, Yugoslavia and others.

    Reply

  • G

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    I can’t argue with your choices great article. AK-47 above M16 is maybe not the best choice IMO but how long has this argument been made. To hear it told by some the AK is flawless and never malfunctions – and the M16 is lucky to shoot. To the contrary I have seen many an AK fail in combat in I/A over the last 14 years. Also we only seem to talk about the M16 types problems that have been solved for 40+ years, the major issue not even being the weapon itself and during these arguments we all too often fail to mention the much more protracted teething issues with the AK.
    Also those sights. No doubt however the AK is a fantastic weapon. Thanks for a great read.

    Reply

  • Mel

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    Trained with the M1 at Parris Island, migrated to the M14 and then to the M16. Many of my fellow Marines lost their lives because when the M16 was initially distributed the rifle collected and held sand and mud causing many malfunctions. One of many poor decisions McNamera made to cut costs. How much extra does it cost to chrome a barrel. Today, the rifle is outstanding. There will always be a special place in my heart for the M1 and M14.

    Reply

  • Lord Humungus

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    Where are the HKs?

    Reply

  • bill knight

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    SMLE, M-1 Garand,M-98 Mauser,FN FAL,M-14. You said battle Rifle, not Assaut Rifle!

    Reply

    • Jack

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      Yes he did and should have included the M14 as next to the M1 the two best battle rifle’s ever !!!

      Reply

  • Waterhammer

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    Never seen so many comments to one of these articles before, read a lot of what folks are saying and I’m surprised that the .303 Enfield isn’t being mentioned much. 10 round capacity bests the k98 or the moisen, quick action, and mine is more accurate then my Springfield 1903 A3 and my Moisen Nagant. The .303 round itself may be inferior to the K98’s 8mm or the 762×54 of the Moisen, but it’s still used often in Afghanistan and served the British Army throughout the world wars. Thought it at least deserved a mentioning.

    Reply

    • Hoovmeister

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      You are quite right. Any rifle with this history deserves recognition. My Enfield is butter smooth, fast and still accurate after years and a sporter stock change. I couldn’t possibly equal the speed with a Mauser derived bolt configuration. But in this test we are mixing Bolts with Semi and full a
      utos so WTF what is the point of my objection.

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Hoovmeister.

      I believe the “British Mad Minute” STILL Stands as a World Record for a Bolt-Action Rifle for the Lee-Enfield SMLE as being 10-rounds in 6.5-seconds…

      Reply

  • Colonel G

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    There is absolutely no way you can substitute a 91/30 Mosin Nagant for the M98 Mauser. The 98 Mauser has no peers when it come to influencial design, worldwide distribution and refinement. The 98 along with it’s many variations and copies easily exceeded all other rifles in sheer volume of production, well over 100 million. Simply compare how many countries chose Mausers rather than Mosin Nagants – the numbers speak for themselves.

    Reply

    • Bill

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      Since the ’03 Springfield action was based on the Mauser, so in a backhanded way the Mauser made the list.

      Reply

    • OttoB

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      Mauser K98 successfully sued US ’03 Springfield for Patent infringements and then WW1 happened, Germany lost and Springfield never had to pay any penalties awarded. Punitive WW1 reparations along with the worldwide recession of the ’30s was, of course, THE primary cause for WW2 in Europe.

      Germany armed their armies with shorter K98k battle rifles until the much higher firepower of the StG44, the first true AR (StürmGewehr), became necessary for close combat. Russians copied the StG44’s shortened K98k based round (7.98×33) for use in their AK47’s Mosin-based round (7.62×39). Nuff said.

      Reply

    • Big Daddy

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      You are 100% correct.

      Reply

    • BUURGA

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      Where is the representative weapon from the muzzle loading days?

      Reply

  • Greg

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    Dave,
    Love the list and your passion for each of these venerable platforms. Agree that AK-47 must be #1. My only contention is with the Springfield, which is a superb rifle, but a derivative of my nomination, the Mauser. Given that after 120+ years the design and function have changed little, that there were dozens of variants, many, many countries that licensed or outright copied the design, it has to be my pick for #2, with the M-16 #3. Let the debate continue …

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Greg,
      I can’t disagree with your logic. Whittling it down to five is really tough, but the Mauser, with its claw extractor really set the stage for rifle design from the 1800s to today. ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

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