Sawed-Off Rifles – Mosin-Nagant Part 1

Sawed-Off Rifles – Mosin-Nagant Part 1

From the Old West, to Prohibition, to the battlefield

By Dennis Adler

Rifles and shotguns that become, shall we say, “less than the sum of their parts” by being converted into unusual pistols or sawed off models present a unique substrata of guns. In the 1860s, percussion shotguns were made with short barrels for use on horseback by the Cavalry, but shotguns of all types were cut down with shorter barrels and stocks cut off behind the wrist to make them smaller and more concealable. Others were made as pistols from the start like the Ithaca-style double barrel in the center. Rifles also were given the barrel and stock cut for much the same reason, but the Winchester made for Steve McQueen’s character bounty hunter Josh Randall is the most famous cut down rifle of all time. At top, the Gletcher M1891 is a CO2 version of the early 20th century Russian Mosin-Nagant field-modified Obrez bolt action pistol.

Continuing on the theme of “Sweet Inspirations” it is safe to say that no one ever asked why you would saw the barrel down and cut the stock off a rifle or a shotgun, because the only people who did it already knew the reason. Most of the time it was either an outlaw or a lawman, and both for the same purpose, to conceal, either in a box or other cover, under a table, or on their person, a small but powerful weapon for use at close range. Sawed off shotguns came first, most prominently during the Civil War for mounted troops, later for lawmen, outlaws, and often mercantile shop and salon owners, especially in boom towns. By the end of the 19th century, sawed off shotguns and rifles were not that uncommon but used far less often than more conventional lever action carbines and short-barrel double guns and pump action shotguns.

Even the famous Springfield Trapdoor Rifle got the pistol cut. General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered Springfield Trapdoor rifles converted into pistols as part of proposed armament for cavalry during the early Western Expansion. Only two large caliber Trapdoor pistols were built, and two small caliber examples. The guns proved unsuitable but inspired a number of copies in the 1870s as well as a few after the turn of the century. In the early to mid 20th century a handful of surplus stocks were found in the inventory of the W. Stokes Kirk gun store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and were used to make a handful of original style Trapdoor Pistols from original rifles, like the example pictured. Both of the original Trapdoor pistols still exist, one in the Springfield Armory museum and the other in the Smithsonian.

Cut down double rifles, as opposed to double barrel shotguns, were something else altogether and were eventually built that way from the start in mid to late 19th century Europe. They were known as a Howdah Pistol. The technical description of a Howdah, as outlined by arms historian Robert J. Maze in his 2002 book Howdah to High Power is that of a “large-caliber (typically rifle caliber) handgun. Multi-barreled designs were initially favored for Howdah pistols because they offered faster reloading than was possible with contemporary revolvers.” They also offered the advantage of significantly larger calibers than a revolver could provide. For hunters in Africa and India the Howdah was regarded as the last line of defense against large game at close range. Although originally intended for use in only the “gravest extremes” during the late 1880s Her Majesty’s Royal Army officers adopted the Howdah pistol as a defensive weapon carried in the many far flung outposts of the British Empire. Staring down the twin barrels of a large bore Howdah was a foreboding sight. This was the same idea Ithaca had with its c.1922 smoothbore double barrel pistol, only for use with 12 ga., .20 ga. and 410 ga. shotgun shells, rather than rifle caliber cartridges.

In the early 20th century, lawmen in the West still found themselves on horseback but with more modern arms like Colt Model 1911 semi-autos and double barrel shotgun pistols like this Ithaca. Small, powerful and very effective at close range, many an outlaw chose to surrender to the double than run the risk of being blown down where they stood. Doubles similar to the Ithaca went as far back as the 1870s, and in Europe the design was known as a Howdah pistol with the guns chambered for large pistol and rifle cartridges.

What you see here is a modern copy of a Howdah style Ithaca shotgun pistol manufactured today in Italy by Pedersoli and based on the actual Ithaca 10-inch barrel length Flues Model break-open pistol introduced in 1922. They were manufactured in the U.S. through 1925 and an improved model was built until 1934. The grip shape is nearly identical including the integrated spur to stabilize the gun in the hand during recoil, (a design seen on many Howdah pistols), a sliding thumb operated safety and break-open lever.

While there were cut down rifles in the Old West, it is unlikely any were as distinctive as Steve McQueen’s Mare’s Laig in Wanted Dead or Alive. There were three different guns made for the series, all handcrafted by Kenny Von Dutch Howard, the third was McQueen’s own gun with an octagonal barrel (shown), which was used in publicity photos but not on the television series, the other two guns had round barrels.

As rifled barrel pistols designed today to fire a .45 Colt cartridge or chamber 410 ga. shotgun shells, the Pedersoli Howdah’s rifled barrel design and use as a cartridge pistol circumvents the federal regulations established in 1934 by the National Firearms Act (NFA). The NFA made ownership of a sawed off shotgun or rifle illegal without federal registration and paying a $200 tax. The retail price for the Ithaca back in the early 1930s was $40 and thus an additional $200 tax and a stack of government paperwork brought an end to production of the model Ithaca called the Auto & Burglar. The Pedersoli has resurrected the design as a handgun in a federally legal version. The original double barrel pistols were smoothbore shotguns, and like the original sawed off shotguns carried over from the Wild West, found a new use in the hands of 1920’s and ’30’s Prohibition and gangland mobsters until the federal government stepped in with the NFA. Ultimately, gangsters still used them and regular folks, who may have kept one at home or in a retail store for protection, either had to break the law to keep them, turn them in, or go through the process of obtaining a permit and paying the tax stamp fee.

There were three different finger lever designs as well, the third (shown) being similar to the other tear drop loop, while the other Mare’s Laig had a much larger “D” loop, which McQueen found harder to handle. The guns were all .44-40 Winchesters with a 6-round magazine. For effect, the studio filled McQueen’s cartridge loops with .45-70 cartridges, which could never have fit in a Model 92.

Sawed off rifles, on the other hand, were a pretty interesting commodity in the Old West, either made by a man with a hacksaw, a gunsmith, or in some cases by companies like Winchester, which called their short barreled lever action rifles the Trapper Model. They came with barrels as short as 12 inches (but with carbine length shoulder stocks). Examples like the cut down barrel and sawn off buttstock Winchester used by Steve McQueen in the television series Wanted Dead or Alive were “based” on real guns from the Old West, but made a bit more visually appealing with the large loop lever (like John Wayne used in the movies) and a custom belt holster so it could be carried on the hip and drawn as fast as a revolver.

The original Mosin-Nagant designed bolt action rifles built in the late 1890s were chambered in 7.62x54mmR with an internal box magazine. The Gletcher CO2 model in .177 caliber uses a removable box magazine that holds 16 steel BBs and the 12 gr. CO2 cartridge. The modified design of the bolt-action rifle cut down to a pistol has a 6 inch smoothbore barrel recessed 4.5 inches from the muzzle.

Now, imagine going back to the early 20th century and finding out that during the Russian Revolution, older Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifles were cut down in much the same fashion and used by Russian dissidents during the October 1917 revolution. Known as an Obrez the guns were mostly modified early Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifles with the stocks cut off behind the wrist and barrels shortened to as little as 12 inches, pretty similar to a lever action western rifle only with a cartridge magazine and a bolt action.

One out of three

Of this interesting trio of historic arms, only the Mosin-Nagant pistol has been reproduced as a CO2 model. Frankly, it is almost surprising that this unusual early box magazine, bolt action rifle designed by Russian military officer, Captain Sergei Ivaonvich Mosin and Belgian armsmakers Emile and Leon Nagant, would have been the gun of choice for being cut down. A bolt action pistol is not exactly a fast handling gun. Even more unlikely is that the Mosin-Nagant Obrez would become the basis for an air rifle pistol conversion. The Obrez designs varied from maker to maker with most crudely built and not well finished like the Gletcher Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 CO2 version.

In Russia, the rifles used to make the sawed off pistols were never actually called a Mosin-Nagant. The actual name was 3-Lineyaya Vintovka obr 1891g (3-line rifle, model of 1891). Original rifle production began in 1892 at the Russian ordnance factories at Tula, Izhevk and Sestroryetsk. The Model 1891 and subsequently improved models and variations were used by Russian (and later Soviet) soldiers through WWII, so it became a very famous infantry rifle. They were built in several versions for the Russian Army as a rifle (and sniper rifle), as a carbine and for mounted cavalry as a Dragoon with an even shorter barrel, probably the basis for the Obrez favored by irregular forces and partisans for its easy concealment under clothing. It was also popular with Russian organized crime for the same reason.

The magazine holds the CO2 valve body, 16 steel BBs and the CO2. It fits into the bottom of the magazine well. (It is shown facing the wrong direction to reveal the CO2 and BB loading channel.

This Gletcher model, which comes and goes from the Gletcher line, like the full-size M1944 rifle, is probably one of the most under valued and under rated CO2 models on the market today, and certainly one of the, if not the most unusual pistols ever made.

In Part 2, we will begin a new test of the 1891 pistol chronographing it with different types of steel BBs as well as Dust Devils to see how much performance and accuracy this unusual rifle turned pistol can deliver.

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