April 22, 2014
Reloading ammunition for the Mosin Nagant and other 7.62x54R-chambered rifles is an interesting prospect. While simple in the extreme — provided you can find appropriate components — and certainly a great way to get enhanced accuracy out of your rifle, many shooters consider it the pinnacle of foolishness due to the plethora of inexpensive surplus ammunition on the market.
Surplus 7.62x54R ammo can be bought by the case for less than $0.25 per round. While you can squeeze out reloads for about that same price, you can't actually reload for much less than that. So if you can't save money, and if reloading takes extra effort and time, why would you want to? Several reasons:
1. Enhanced Accuracy
Surplus ammo is usually old, and wasn't usually held to particularly high standards of consistency to start with. Newly-manufactured, match-grade factory loads can be costly and/or difficult to find. Bottom line, if you want to get the best accuracy for the money, reloading is your best option.
2. Rifle Maintenance
Surplus ammo is highly corrosive. Don't even think about leaning your prized rifle in the corner for later cleaning when you get home tuckered out from a day of vintage shooting fun — you should have scrubbed the bore before leaving the range. I've poured plenty of Windex and sudsy water down Mauser and Mosin Nagant bores, and frankly, I'd just as soon leave that to less obsessive shooters.
My conscience always challenges me in the middle of the night: Did I really get that Finnish M39 or pristine Mauser free of corrosive residue? Shooting handloads built with clean-burning, non-corrosive primers and propellant leaves morals out of it — go ahead and neglect your rifle's bore; it couldn't care less as long as nothing is insidiously eating it from inside.
3. Purpose-Tailored Reloads
Open up a whole new world with your vintage rifle: Most surplus stuff is full metal jacketed (FMJ) and isn't really suitable for use on big game. Meanwhile, most match-grade ammo is loaded with thinly-jacketed, hollow-point match bullets; so if you decide to add to your winter larder with your 7.62x54R, you're left searching high and low for ammunition with expanding bullets appropriate for big game. It can be found, yes, but it's not common and can be pricy.
On the other hand, handloading quality hunting ammo with projectiles well suited for big game is easy. Plus, you can load down with light bullets (such as those designed for the 7.62x39) for reduced recoil, load your own cast-lead projectiles, and so on. When reloading, the shooting world is your footstool.
4. Inexpensive Quality
Other than your time (come on — reloading is therapeutic!) you can handload ammunition for about the same price as you can purchase surplus stuff — and the quality of your $0.25-per-shot handloads will be far higher than that of surplus.
So, how does one get started producing these accurate, clean-burning, authoritative, versatile reloads?
Oddly, finding component bullets and reloadable cases is often the biggest challenge. Thanks to the plentiful surplus ammo available, bullet companies put low emphasis on building bullets for the 7.62x54R. The cartridge is spec'd for a bore diameter of 0.311 inch. Most bullet-makers usually offer at least one or two appropriate projectiles, but on today's scene wherein said companies are struggling to keep up with demand on more common bullets, few take time to regularly re-tool for obscure projectiles.
As a result, .311-diameter component bullets are currently scarce as hen's teeth. Not impossible to find, but scarce. If you find some you like, buy a bunch. I've been hoarding a few Sierra 180-grain Pro Hunter bullets that shoot well through my Finnish M39 Mosin Nagant — with five-shot 100-yard iron-sight groups averaging 1.73-inches when loaded with Winchester primers over Hodgdon Varget powder. Plus, Sierra's Pro Hunter is an outstanding hunting bullet.
However, let's say you've scrounged up a quantity of good .311-diameter projectiles, purchased a pound or three of appropriate powder (reference any good reloading manual), and stocked up on Large Rifle primers. Now you need reloadable cases in which to assemble all those goodies.
Surplus ammo, in addition to being corrosive, is generally non-reloadable (unless you get really creative, and I don't want to get into that). Why? The primers are Berdan type, meaning that you can't easily replace them.
To do it right, you've got to gulp your medicine and fork over some cash for good brass cases designed for Boxer-type primers. The good news is that they'll last almost forever — the low pressures that the 7.62x54R operates at put minimal stress on cases. Conservatively, you should get 10 or more reloads per case.
You can purchase cases in quantity on GunBroker, or sometimes get lucky and find them at your local gunshop. Another option is to purchase loaded, Boxer-primed factory ammo from Norma, Sellier & Bellot (S&B) or Winchester. It will cost you close to a buck a pop or even more (painful when you're used to paying $0.25 per shot for surplus), but the current factory ammo is great stuff and once you've shot it up, you have quality cases to reload.
Once you've got all the ingredients stacked on your reloading bench, proceed as you would when loading any other bottle-necked rifle cartridge — with one caveat: don't push pressure boundaries. There's no use harming your prized vintage rifle in an endeavor to milk an extra 75 fps out of your handloads. Reference good reloading manuals for data, and stick with it.
In my experience, most 7.62x54R rifles have fairly loose chambers. Decent reloads function through them pretty reliably. Also, you don't have to full-length resize aggressively — often you can leave the sizing die out a half turn or even more and still size your cases down enough to chamber easily without working your brass quite as hard, which helps longevity. The sides of this cartridge taper a lot, and a little less sizing can make a big difference.
5. My Recipe for 7.62x54R
Above I touched on the recipe for my favorite 7.62x54R handload. Here it is again, with some additional info:
I size S&B cases down just enough that they chamber easily in my 7.62x54R rifles, after which I prime with Winchester Large Rifle primers and charge the cases with 45.5 grains of Hodgdon's Varget powder. I've had excellent luck with Sierra 180-grain, .311-diameter Pro Hunter bullets, which I seat to 3.030 inches, just shy of the cartridge's 3.037 maximum overall cartridge length. Velocity out of the 27-inch barrel of my M39 Finnish rifle averages 2,520 fps, accuracy is excellent, and recoil polite.
Once cases and components are assembled and you've found a favorite load such as the one above, you'll wonder how you can ever go back to surplus ammo. After all, accuracy, low maintenance, and ammo versatility are quantifiably more desirable than cheap and easy.
If you have a great 7.62x54R handload, by all means please share it in the comments section below. Now get out and enjoy those surplus rifles!
One of the primary advantages of reloading is increased accuracy. While currently produced factory stuff from Hornady, Winchester, Norma, Sellier & Bellot, and such usually offer excellent performance, it's very expensive. You can build loads just as good at home, at a fraction the cost. This five-shot group was shot at 100 yards over a sandbag.
Sierra's 180-grain Pro Hunter is an accurate, versatile choice for reloading the 7.62x54R. Courtesy of it's heritage as a big game hunting bullet, its versatile, too. But they're not always easy to find on the market.
Finding all the necessary components is the hard part — the actual reloading is easy.
Powders and primers that work well in the .308 Winchester are usually suitable for use in the 7.62x54R, but always refer to a good reloading manual for powder charge data. Mosin Nagant actions aren't particularly strong, and there's no use blowing one (and potentially yourself) up trying to hot-rod one.
Shooting corrosive surplus ammo means you've got to deep-clean your treasured vintage rifle every time you take it to the range. Reloading with non-corrosive components is easier on you and a lot less dangerous to your rifle's bore and bolt face.
Once you're set up with dies, a few good reloadable cases, and the other necessary components, you can produce reloads (right) of much higher quality than surplus ammo (left), for about the same cost.
While surplus ammo is always good for a bit of fun plinking at the local gravel pit, once you start reloading you'll come to rely on your own handcrafted loads whenever accuracy and performance count.
Most reloading components are easy to come by. Some, such as reloadable cases with Boxer-type primer pockets, are harder and require a bit of an investment up front. These from Sellier & Bellot work splendidly.