For all the advances in sidearms the world would see over the next century the Nagant revolver, designed by Leon Nagant of Belgium for the tzar of Russia, still has two things going for it that make it an outstanding handgun. But mostly, it’s that the M1895 ees strong, like bear.
Seriously, one of the most famous (and possibly made-up) quotes pertaining to the M1895, which was the military and police designation of the pistol, is that if anything ever went wrong with it you could just fix it with a hammer. Despite the fact that it is somewhat more complex than any American revolver, its chunky design isn’t prone to failure.
What makes it complicated is that cocking the hammer also pushes the entire cylinder forward, which inserted the end of the indexed cartridge to barrel. The bullets were actually seated below the rim of the cartridge, which was tapered to be smaller than the breach end of the barrel. As the bullet is pushed out of the cartridge, it presses the end of the case against the barrel and the revolver is completely gas-sealed. No forcing cone, no gap. The cylinder never builds up lead or other crap, and damn it if the revolver can’t be silenced.
Yes, in some ways it lags behind other revolvers. It has a fixed cylinder, so it needs to be loaded and unloaded one cartridge at a time. The majority of them were single-action only. The original M1895 design was double-action, but the military required their conscripts carry single-action, so the issued M1895 were mostly that; a few M1895s were made in double-action, but just for officers and police. Ironically, most of the guns that have been surplussed have since been converted to double-action, making the once-dominant double-action Nagants rare.
By Western standards, we’d say the cartridge was underpowered, but then again, the revolver carried seven shots. The truth is that for 1895, the 7.62x38mmR (its super-long to encase the bullet completely) was pretty significant, even if it was also chosen for non-ballistics purposes: to cut down on barrel-tooling hardware, the Russian Imperial Army went with the same bullet diameter as used by the Mosin-Nagant rifles (7.62x54mm).
Part of its negative reputation as an effective cartridge is that the modern ammunition made for it isn’t nearly as hot as the original stuff. Prvi Partizan’s modern ammo rolls a 98-grain bullet out the barrel at 700 feet per second. The military ammo fired a 100-grain ball at 1100 FPS, which is a whole lot more gun to deal with; comparable to a 9x18mm Makarov in flight.
But it’s the fact that it can be silenced that’s just so damn cool. Because the Nagant revolver fires (sub-sonic) bullets from a completely-closed bolt, even early silencers were very effective at making the gun choice for WWII scouts and operatives. Even German soldiers sought out Nagant revolvers for that very reason.
The Nagant also saw use in ‘Nam by VC soldiers and is still in service in Russia to this day. Not by many, but still, that’s gotta be a record.
The Nagant revolver is both a hunk of history and a revolver that simultaneously pushed the limits of revolver technology. It really hasn’t been surpassed by present-day revolvers in terms of operation. Because of the huge volume that they were produced in, it’s not too difficult to find and therefore shoot them. And if you can’t find 7.62x38mmR ammo, they will also fire .32 S&W and .32 S&W Long cartridges, as well as .32 H&R Magnum. And every so often, someone decides to sell .32 ACP conversion cylinders for fifty bucks or so.
If you get a chance to shoot one, silenced or otherwise, go for it. It’s served three different Russias and there’s no sign of stopping.