World War I seemingly caught everyone by surprise. No one seemed to have enough rifles when the war came knocking. Prior to the United States’ entry into the war, America was producing rifles for the British and then took a contract from Imperial Russia. Remington Arms and New England Westinghouse accepted the contracts to produce over three million 1891 Mosin Nagant rifles. These were called the Russian three-line rifle, caliber 7.62mm.
Yet, something unexpected soon happened. The communists took over in the October Revolution and immediately defaulted on the Imperial Russian contracts. With hundreds of thousands of Mosin Nagant rifles in stock, Remington and Westinghouse faced bankruptcy. The U.S. government swept in and purchased the rifles, saving both companies from going under. Now the U.S. government had hundreds of thousands of Mosin Nagant rifles and seemingly nothing to do with them.
That was until the Russian Bolsheviks negotiated an armistice with the Central Powers. With the German forces finally being free from the Eastern Front, they could focus their men and logistics on the Western Front, which could create a massive problem for the Entente.
Additionally, prior to Imperial Russia collapsing, the U.S. government had sent massive amounts of aid and supplies. Those supplies now sat in warehouses in Northern Russia. On top of all of this, the Czechoslovak Legion was stranded in Northern Russia along the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The North Russian Intervention Begins
Faced with these problems, the British and French decided that an intervention into Northern Russia was necessary. So, against the advice of his War Department, President Wilson agreed to send American forces to Northern Russia. Their goals were hazy, but they were to capture the stores of military supplies, aid the Czechoslovak Legion, and maintain a resistance on western Russia to tangle up German troops.
Portions of the 339th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army would become the American North Russia Expeditionary Force, also known as the Polar Bear Expedition. America wasn’t alone in not having enough rifles to fight with, but it now had a pile of Mosin Nagants heading to the homeland of the rifle and the 7.62x54R round.
The U.S. Army equipped its troops with the Mosin Nagants, complete with bayonets and stripper clips. Russians had designed the Mosin Nagant rifle to withstand the frigid conditions of a Russian winter. U.S. troops were deploying into Russia in the fall, which would quickly become the Russian winter. Famously, wars during the Russian winters don’t work out well for people other than the Russians. So at least the Americans could bring a Russian rifle.
The Mosin Nagant in American Hands
The North Russia Intervention might’ve been during a chilly time, but it was at a hot spot. Entente forces sided with Tsarist loyalists and often clashed with Bolsheviks. The 339th, aka the Polar Bears, performed extremely well against the Russian communist forces. They distinguished themselves with their American-made Mosin Nagants and the American fighting spirit.
On Armistice Day 1918, the Bolsheviks attacked, and the Battle of Tulgas commenced. Trotsky himself, under orders from Lenin, supervised the attack. His army of 1,000 red soldiers fought viciously. At first, they shoved back Entente forces, and the allies almost lost their heavy gun positions.
However, they stood undeterred, and they pushed back. They fought onward and engaged the attacking Communist force in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Those American soldiers made their Mosin Nagant rifles sing as they tangled with Russian forces. It was Mosin vs. Mosin at Tulgas. Allied forces killed 650 Bolsheviks while losing only 20 men. This author has worked a Mosin before and it’s a warhorse that likes to buck.
Beyond Armistice Day
This was not the last engagement between Entente forces and Bolsheviks. Even after World War One officially ended, the troops in the North Russian Intervention fought on. The reasons for staying and engaging the Russians seem hazy these days. British forces had tried to raise a White Army and train and arm them. However, their plan fell through when recruitment efforts failed, and mutinies occurred over and over.
While battles continuing to rage, the Entente forces weren’t gaining much ground. They often killed hundreds of Bolsheviks, but more and more seemed to keep coming. A war of attrition could not be won by the allies on the Russian front. Eventually, the North Russia Intervention ended, and troops were allowed to return home and celebrate the peace the rest of the world was experiencing.
The American Take on a Russian Rifle
American forces have always stressed accuracy, and the Mosin Nagant was never known for its superior accuracy. The rudimentary sights worked but were nowhere near as nice or as precise as the Enfield 1917 or Springfield M1903.
The rifle was never beloved by American forces. It was simply a tool that accomplished a task.
Like most things made in America, the Mosin Nagant rifles were well made. They reportedly featured blued metal and walnut stocks. Their reputation as the finest made Mosin Nagant variants stands to this day.
Many of the American Mosin Nagant rifles were left in Russia, and those that remained would be exchanged for 1917 Enfields and Springfield 1903 rifles as the 339th came home. American Mosin Nagant rifles did arm ROTC and National Guard units during the war as well. All of these rifles were eventually sold via the Civilian Marksmanship Program or were sent overseas to allied forces. Some were converted to .30-06 and sporterized or turned into cheap hunting rifles.
The tale of the American Mosin Nagant is a small and often overlooked part of American small arms history. These rifles now go for a pretty penny, especially if in their original condition.
The North Russia Expedition is fascinating and was the only time that American-made Mosins occupied American-made hands and kicked Russian asses.