Sawed-Off Rifles – Mosin-Nagant Part 1
From the Old West, to Prohibition, to the battlefield
By Dennis Adler
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.