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)

  • shooter

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    I DISAGREE WITH YOUR PICK OF THE 1903 SPRINGFIELD, IT WAS A STRAIGHT COPY OF THE K98 MAUSER WHICH WAS A BETTER COMBAT WEAPON…

    Reply

  • Tony

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    While the list is accurate but not complete, I have to agree that leaving out the FN FAL is an oversight. A rifle that was NATO standard, reliable, powerful, still in production, been used by over 90 countries, and a cartridge easily available. It should have made the list. Maybe having a “Ten Best” would have been more suitable, as there are other rifles that should have made the list as well.

    Reply

  • Pete in Alaska

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    Hey Dave!
    As actual “have seen extensive combat and are proven platforms” I’m more interested in your 6th thru 10th place choices! In looking at your 1 thru 5 list I’m thinking that the Mauser M1908, FN/FAL, Lee-Enfield No.1 MkIII ,, StG44 and perhaps the M1 Carbine. Although I wasn’t a fan of the M16 I understand why it’s listed. I liked the CAR15 very much however but that’s another kinda list.
    Can we do a top 5 combat pistol list next month?
    Always a good read, Dave! You certenly know how to start a fight! LOL.

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Maybe not a fight, but a “spirited debate…” I’ll definitely serve up something on the top combat pistols for October! Thanks for the idea. ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • Bruce Mangels

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    Howdy, So if the AK47 is the best, where does the AK74 fit in? Superior in my opinion, yet so many shooters have still failed to learn of it, despite being the Russians go to rifle since 1974. Time to catch up?

    Reply

    • OttoB

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      Strictly Russian response to AR15 5.56 NATO “carry more ammo” parameters! :-(

      Reply

  • Mark

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    Just an FYI, Vasily Zaytsev was not a real person. He was a fictional character created by the Russian propaganda machine to embolden and give hope to their own troops while disheartening the Germans. They reported the actions of many Russian snipers as the acts of Zaytsev to make a super sniper figure. It was brilliant. So good, that many people today still think he was a real soldier. Of course the movie ” Enemy at the Gates” didn’t mention he was fictional, so that helps continue the confusion. Don’t feel bad, it’s a common mistake. Some time ago and writer for the NRA had to apologize for writing an article demonstrating that he did not know the truth either.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Mark.

      Try reading “War of the Rats”, the book in which the “ Hollywoodized” movie “Enemy At the Gates” is based on, Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev was a Sailor in the Soviet Navy, NOT the Soviet Army. And was Stationed in Vladivostok before War with the Germans began…

      Reply

  • Frank

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    Not sure what criteria you used to form your opinions. However the absence of the FN/FAL Stg58 from this list is IMHO a mistake. Still in use today, a far more lethal cartridge than any 5.56 could ever be. A more reliable weapon than the M14, easier to load the the M1, issued by more countries than the M1 or M14 ever were. While the M4 is sorta OK for CQB, its not very effective at much else.

    Reply

  • OttoB

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    DI “dirty breech” problems, that’s why HK does their NATO AR rifles (HK416/417) using SS piston action . . . NO direct gas in breech!

    Reply

  • ken

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    i can think of quite a few bolt guns that are far superior to the mosin. and yes i own a mosin as well. i agree that for the cost, it is a steel, and lets face it if it can be carried by expert snipers like Vasily Zaytsev and Lyudmia Pavlichenko it is good enough for me. but i still prefer the m24 (modified Remington 700 in 7.62x51mm). but then that is one of the weapons i used in my military time.

    also though i do love my Garand, i feel for you sir, the m14 is supposed to be the M1 perfected. having used both in training i would have to agree with that sentiment.

    Reply

  • gunny

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    I’m sorry the M16 has no place on any list of best combat rifles, as it’s not a combat rifle, but a flawed design in an anemic caliber. It’s best left to tacticool commandos and a range plinker. The rest of your list is spot on.

    Reply

    • Phil

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      Gunny hate to say it but you are dead wrong.

      Reply

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