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)

  • George Mimmis

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    You are 100% right!

    Reply

  • Frank Watson

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    Lee Enfield SMLE or ShtLE (which I have) in 1916 version. Shoot it regularly. Hard to beat the British 303 in 10 round magazines. Should have made the list.

    Reply

  • Chas.

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    “… 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…” BS!!

    Refer to the “Mud Tests” conducted by Desert Coyotes in 2014:

    Reply

  • Nick O'Dell

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    I know, I know; everyone wants to say “what about … ” Seriously, how can anyone write about the Top 5 Combat Rifles without including the Lee-Enfield? It was first adopted by the British War Office in 1895 and later modified with a shorter barrel, becoming the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, or SMLE (the barrel was shorter, not the magazine!) It was the standard-issue infantry rifle for British and commonwealth forces in both World Wars, and Korea.

    One of the great features of the rifle is the very smooth bolt action – especially when compared with the awkward and clumsy Mauser’s. To be accepted into the small professional British Army before WWI, an infantryman had to be able to hit a man-size target three football fields (300 yds.) away 30 times in one minute. It was commonly known as the “mad minute.” The soldier was trained to use the thumb and index finger on the bolt knob while the middle finger was on the trigger. The record was held by an NCO at 43 shots in the minute. Today, with optical sights and a semi-automatic action, this would be a breeze, but for a bolt-action one, which had to be reloaded twice during the mad minute, and using iron sights, it was outstanding.

    Another great feature that separated the SMLE from other bolt-action rifles was the 10-round detachable magazine, easily and quickly refilled by 5-round stripper clips. Actually, although not officially encouraged, many soldiers kept one extra round “up the spout” (in the receiver), allowing 11 shots before reloading – incidentally, three more rounds than the M1 Garand. Many an unfortunate enemy has heard ten rounds go off and said to himself, “now he must reload,” only to end up with a hole in his head from round #11.

    Again unlike its contemporaries, the SMLE’s magazine was detachable. In theory a rifleman firing from cover could have several filled magazines next to him and reload quickly in the same way that modern rifles like the AR 15 can be. In practice this was discouraged by command.

    The SMLE, outstanding in a century-old design, was still I use by Canadian Rangers as late as 2014, and is still in use by fighters in the Middle East.

    But you ignored this? It should have been #1 on your list.

    Reply

  • Allen Richardson

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    I agree with the three autos on the list, but I’d rate the SMLE above both the Nagant or the ‘03 Springfield. Higher magazine capacity and a much longer service life.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Allen Richardson.

      One other added Bonus of the SMLE!/? With the SMLE you can T=Keep the Trained Rifle on Target even while Rechambering a round after each shot. Other “Bolts” don’t have that advantage…

      Reply

  • Secundius

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    I know that Parker Ackley TRIED and Failed to Break the Arisaka type 99 Barrel!/? But DID anyone EVER success in Breaking the 1061 series Stainless Steel Chrome-Lined Barrel…

    Reply

  • R.W.

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    Well, I almost have 3 of the rifles listed; just slight variations. I have a Mosin 91/30, but not the sniper variety; and agree it’s a whole lotta bang (7.62x54R) for the buck. I have a Saiga IZ132 (7.62x39mm) made at Izhmash; so that’s my Kalashnikov pattern rifle, and if that dip$#!+ in North Korea somehow managed to land a warhead in my zip code, cockroaches and that rifle would probably be all that survived it. I love the Garand, but even in this day and age of lightweight materials that thing’s still a boat anchor. And I’m a .30 caliber guy with little use for .223; so I kill 2 birds with 1 stone by making my AR pattern rifle one with a chambering similar to the Garand’s .30-06, 7.62x51mm/.308. Not really sure why the 1903 is on the list; that spot should be taken by the Mauser K98.

    Reply

  • progun

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    well im not a war historian so i wont get into this debate directly. i will comment on my guns bc i stock two of these cartridges. my mini 30 w garand action wont shoot steel 762×39 which kind of defeats the purpose of shooting this caliber. Ruger makes this gun and the americans still cant compete with the ak47!. baffling. . so reliability wise ill take my ar15 over the ruger mini30 any day. lethality wise i wish i had an ak47 instead of the mini30. i just dont know why nato never switched to 6.8 spc.en mass. personally i think something btwn 6mm and 6.5mm would be ideal and better than 556. 6.56x45mm anyone?

    Reply

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