Many of the military rifles that end of in shooters hands are a little bit above wall hangers said to be good shooters, but often come with defects that make them inaccurate at best or dangerous to use at the worst. Others can be functional and fine as well as perfectly safe but have features that make them a real pain to use and feel terrible with hard to use sights or controls.
Beyond the rifles basic condition of looks some military rifles have problems that make them a lot less than desirable from a practical shooting stand point. Even though the rifles came from the world’s leading military powers at the time, the rifles can often have metallurgical or design flaws in rifles from certain time ranges of their production runs. Low number M1903s and certain Krags being an example. Not to mention some are just bad ideas that came misguided military thinking. On top of that are rifles that can not be fired for lack of the now very rare ammo it takes to feed them.
When buying a surplus military rifle from a FFL or gun show the first thing you should do is look at the bore. If possible by pulling the bolt and pointing the muzzle at a bright light. Do not let the fact that the bore is nice and shiny trick you. Do to the magic of abrasives, many pitted bores have been brought to fool the unknowing. Look at the lands. It is the appearance of the lands that tells the tale when it comes to the condition of the bore. They will be flat on top and nice and sharp at their upper and lower corners. Other than that, slugging a bore will tell you of the barrel is within spec or has been polished with abrasives to hone its appearance for casual inspection from possible buyers.
A shot out barrel with make the gun inaccurate and near useless though very rarely make the gun unsafe to shoot. head-space on the other hand is another matter, Usually the result of a large chamber from wear or sloppy manufacture. Military rifles often have large chambers for reasons of function, but a rifle that will swallow a No-Go or filed gauge is not normal and is something you are risking harm with. Another issue are triggers. Usually military rifle triggers and very heavy but reliable. They can be effectively used with practice. Some however had sear let off that was all over the board and could not be counted on to work the same way twice. Miss matched parts, worn sear interface or problems with the cocking piece or bolt.
Following are some of the more common military rifles found on the market popular with shooters and some of the issues to watch out for.
The springfield M1903 has a history of manufacture that is recounted in enough places and books to make the head swim so I am not going to go into it here. High on the list is the well known issue with heat treatment on the early production of the M1903. The poorly done heat treatment left the receivers brittle and failures of the parts when in use. Sometimes shattering or breaking when tapped slightly by a metal rod. The problem is encountered in rifles numbered below 800,000. these rifles are very suspect and it is not worth the risk of shooting, Some may have been treated in a way to make them safe, but there is no way to tell and best to not be fired. The same problem exists with the rifles produced by Rock Island below 285,507. Most of these low numbered springfields were taken out of service a long time ago but they do show up at gun stores and gun shows, I have seen one turn up and a large show and a guns show in the past 10 years with both sellers having no idea ( or pretending not to know) the guns are unsafe to shoot no matter how good they looked. There is also a largish number of these rifles that were turned into “sporters” during years past and they should not be fired no matter how lucky the owner of the rifle may have been with it.
Another problem with the M1903 is the two piece firing pin which tends to break in a way that the tip protrudes from the bolt face. This condition can cause a primer to fire before the bolt lugs have engaged and lock the bolt into battery. An after market one piece firing pin can be bought to cure this issue easily. One design issue I have rarely hear mentioned is the knurled bolt knob. It should never be used to lower by hand to decock the gun on a loaded chamber This allows the firing pin to rest against the primer creating the risk of a discharge, Most custom gunsmith would remove this when making a custom sporter rifle from the ’03.
the M1917 Enfield rifle another popular rifle based on the British 1914 originally in .303 caliber, the rifle was chambered in 30.06 and issued to US troops to supplement and ended up being the rifle more widely issued during WW1. While it is ugly in some eyes. The large rear sight protecting hoods and the dog legged bolt being the biggest eye sore to some, the rifle is very tough and strong with some being chambered in large dangerous game cartridges. Many found in modern times will show very heavy use with badly worn bores. Usually the rifles with gun bores will out shoot the over rated M1903. The rear peep sight is much easier to use and is faster to use in fast combat conditions. The rear peep is a great aid to those whose eye sight is less than perfect.
the Type 99 Arisaka is the most under appreciate military bolt action rifle out there. Very strong and tough, PO Ackley’s destructive testing found the Type 99 to be the strongest military bolt action of them all. The 99 features a very strange but effective safety that requires you to press and turn with the palm to engage and disengage. While it sounds strange, with a few tries it very easy to get the hang of and is faster than some other safeties from the time. The stock looks like a reject 2×4 from the local drunken saw mill operator with what appears to be a crack in the stock. The “crack” was done one purpose and make the butt stock two piece and very strong in a clever design. Many like to joke about the rear sight that folds and has wings that fold out for hitting moving aircraft. The rear is very good in my opinion other than the useless anti aircraft side folding features. While it is further forward than a good rear peep, it does have a aperture rear sight that is large and fast to use, For further shots, you can fold it up in the ladder style like the M1903 with a smaller peep and markings for range. The 7.7 Jap rounds is in the same power range as the 303 Brit round and can give fine results when hand-loaded with match .311 bullets,. Price for factory ammo can run extreme or hand-loading. Original ammo is pretty much collector stuff and very pricey. One great feature on the Type 99 is the chrome lined bore. The finish is often rough with tool marks but it can be very well done and beautiful. In this case looks can fool you because if the Arisaka is in good condition , it is one of the best shooting military rifles.