What Are the Best Military Surplus Hunting Rifles?
Military surplus rifles have long been used for hunting. The years following the two world wars of the last century had a significant impact on much more than the borders of Europe. One of the many facets of life on our planet affected by those wars was the supply of firearms. We’ve probably all heard a story about someone bringing home a rifle from distant lands or some other fantastic story featuring one of the many surplus rifles that was either destined for or retired from the fields of battle.
Today, I hope to share a few of those stories, and how those once prolifically produced firearms have become treasured family relics and makers of forever hunting memories. Let’s dive into the top mil-surp rifles for hunting in no particular order.
In the summer of 1943, many manufacturing companies had switched from making sewing machines and typewriters to making rifles and handguns for the military – including the bolt-action 1903 Springfield. One of the rifles made that summer ended up in my father’s young hands many years later. Whether it ever went to war or spent its life crated in a warehouse somewhere is unknown.
But in 1964, my dad was a young man looking to get his first deer rifle. As I understand it, it was all the rage back then to sporterize these rifles, and my grandfather and his brothers had all gone through the same process to get an affordable rifle.
Dad purchased the rifle for what we would consider a pittance today and sent it to a local gun shop to have some machine work done to it. The iron sights and much of the unnecessary parts of the rifle were removed, and the receiver was drilled and tapped to accept the mounts for the four-power Weaver that was the best thing going in these parts. Dad purchased a stock kit for the rifle and began whittling away at it to fit his rifle.
My father hunted with that rifle almost exclusively from that year until 1992, when as a young boy I watched him shoot the last deer that rifle ever killed. Dad said it was always an accurate-shooting rifle, something I watched him confirm a few years back. He was shooting some of the same old 60s’ vintage ammo in paper boxes with single-digit price tags still intact. Sure enough, dad could handily print a five-shot group under an inch.
The sporterized rifle is five years older than dad, and yet it seems it could kill deer for another lifetime to come. It comes in around 8 pounds total and holds four .30-06 cartridges. It seems to like small and fast .30-06 loads like the 150 grain Silvertip from an old Winchester catalog. The 22-inch barrel has a 1:12 twist, optimized for the old military ammunition, but it was a good fit for dad’s old hunting hand loads.
The K98 Mauser
Next up on our list is another legendary rifle, this one came from a pre-war factory in Germany. The K98 Mauser was mass-produced by nearly countless other manufacturers that made both copies, clones, and their own rifles that mimicked the Mauser’s design. There are many things that made the K98 great. It utilizes a controlled-round feed system and claw extractor that make the rifle very reliable. A blind box magazine housed the cartridges, which for the most part were 8x57.
With so many Mauser rifles and its various descendants all over the world, it was naturally an easy choice to sporterize for hunting use. There are still countless rifles in circulation today, some of them completely rebuilt and changed into hunting rifles as well as completely untouched versions in their original military configuration.
Sometime after the war, this particular Mauser made its way to Minnesota. After being sporterized, it was used by several generations before it was passed down to a good friend of mine. Time had done its work on the bore, and it needed help if it was to shoot well enough to hunt deer. The rifle was re-barreled with an inexpensive Mauser barrel chambered in 6.5x55 Swede, a one-piece scope mount was added, and a new Sig Sauer scope was installed.
While it was being spun up to fit the action, we also had the muzzle threads cut to use a suppressor if desired. The only thing left to do was work up some ammunition to match this new barrel. I hand loaded some 140-grain Hornady hollow-point bullets, and we hit the range.
After a few shots, we had the rifle zeroed with its new scope. After some slight ammunition alterations, we got it shooting 1-inch shot patterns at 100 yards. We stretched the old Mauser out to some longer ranges as well, engaging targets at 400 and 500 yards. It was very satisfying to have this historical rifle shooting so well as to make a guy want to take it hunting as soon as possible.
I hope to not jinx anything, but this rifle has a date with an elk later this fall. But its value is far more to its owner than what it might be worth at a store– a gift from his grandpa that’s still customized to be his own. It’s a fine enough performer to come along on a hunt for the first time in maybe 20 years.
The 1917 Enfield
The 1917 Enfield comes from even further back in the past. This one in particular was made in August 1918. Over 100 years have passed, and this rifle is still in perfect shape – no doubt it has been cared for greatly.
The 1917 rifle was produced in even higher numbers than the 1903 in World War I and was distributed to militaries all over the world. It was chambered in different cartridges, but this Eddystone model began life as a .30-06. Destined to be sporterized in a machine shop back in the 60s, it lost its military sights and its original stock. The original trigger was also swapped out for a Timney trigger that still feels great even 50 years later.
The original Enfield was designed to cock on closing the bolt. That, too, was changed to better fit the standard manual of arms, and, lastly, the barrel was punched out to a .300 Winchester Magnum chamber. The large size of the Enfield action easily handles this larger cartridge, and the 12-twist barrel will stabilize most bullets in the 150 to 165-grain class, which is all it ever shoots. An aftermarket stock was carved and fit to the 1917 action and finished handsomely.
This particular Enfield comes in a little heavy if you compared it to a Model 70 from the same time, but it is still well within the limits of a hunting rifle. And with the magnum chamber, it likely has a much better reach than its old siblings.
Despite the rifle being 104 years old, it has only ever been used to kill one deer. The clean and crisp bore still looks brand new. I intend to work up a good load for it soon, and perhaps I will even take it hunting myself this fall.
Some may look down their nose at the old SKS, but they do so at their own misfortune. The Soviet creation has seen prolific production in various parts of the world and seen military service in a great many countries. The SKS utilizes a gas-piston-operated system to cycle, and it loads from its 10-round hinged magazine.
An inexpensive wooden stock and a simple mechanical sight system make the rifle ideal for quick shooting at relatively close ranges, such as under 200 yards. Many of them came with a bayonet affixed to the front of the barrel. This may be a little unnecessary for most North American hunters, so many have removed it.
My SKS, like so many others, came from China and is not exactly of a divine heritage as far as firearms go. Yet, I could hardly complain about it in the 20-something years that I’ve owned it. Purchased for a measly $100 back in the 90s, it even came with a few boxes of ammo and, for some reason, an AR-15 magazine. At the time, it was like all these other surplus rifle stories, it was a purchase of convenience due to the affordable price.
The SKS uses the 7.62x39 cartridge, which once upon a time I could have delivered to my door for under $100/case. The diminutive – some would say sluggish – round is still quite useful. It has been compared by many to the .30-30, which according to my grandpa would “turn a deer inside out.” Obviously, that is typical old-guy hyperbole, but you get the point.
Despite not having ever killed anything substantial with my SKS, I would absolutely feel confident shooting medium-sized big game with it. The Soviet cartridge loaded with 125-grain soft points would certainly be enough medicine to haggle a deer into the bed of my truck. Plus, with the old iron sights, I’ve never had any difficulty hitting dinner plate-sized targets as much as 200 yards away. So, while the SKS may not be a sharpshooter like my father’s 1903, it is still perfectly suitable for hunting. I suppose it would make a great hog hunting rifle.
There is an allure to these older guns, and using the tools of generations past seems to help tie us to their memory and practices. Whether you are looking for a historical piece or a less expensive option to hunt with, do not overlook these amazing old rifles. There is something to be said about craftsmanship from the past, and they most certainly don’t build things like they used to.