Laurie Holland takes a look at the 7.62x54R, a military veteran still in use today
The 7.62x54R is an increasingly popular cartridge in Historic Arms shooting. It’s a typical design late 19th century design: a full-power 30-calibre military number designed for magazine fed bolt-action rifles and early Maxim type machine-guns with canvas feed belts. In fact, thanks to its rimmed case it was conservative – some would argue obsolescent – by the time it was introduced in 1891. Mauser had already launched rimless 7.9mm (German) and 7.65mm (Belgian / Argentine) service cartridges.
First, let’s take a look at names and the confusion they can cause. The correct designation is 7.62x53R or 7.62x54R, the former used by Finland. That’s what it says on Lapua cartridge case and ammunition packaging, as well as in handloading data from Vihtavuori. Worry not, ‘53’ and ‘54’ mm cases are identical, and as the nominal length is 53.5mm, both descriptions are equally accurate. The ‘R’ suffix is often wrongly claimed to be an abbreviation for ‘Russian’. In reality, it comes from ‘Rand’, the German word for ‘rim’, and is used for all rimmed designs in the metric designation system. Outside of Finland, it’s often called the 7.62mm Nagant, Mosin-Nagant, or Russian. In the last case, there is a risk of confusion with the later, smaller 7.62x39mm Soviet era rimless cartridge as used in SKS, AK47 and later Soviet military rifles that is regularly misnamed. The 7.62x51mm (7.62 NATO) is no relation. It must not be confused with this elderly Russian soldier, nor should any attempt ever be made to fire it in a 7.62x54R rifle.
This tsarist imperial number has a unique attribute: it’s not only still ‘out there’ at the grand old age of 122, but is the sole Victorian cartridge design that still sees firstline military service, moreover in scores of countries’ armed forces. While we replaced our similar .303 with the 7.62mm NATO as long ago as 1957, those Soviet or Chinese built tanks that we see almost nightly on television news broadcasts from some trouble-spot or other still come equipped with a 7.62x54R coaxial machine-gun, irrespective of vehicle age and model. There are thousands of infantry general purpose MGs in the calibre in service too, and you might also find the semi-automatic 7.62x54R SVD ‘Dragunov’ sniper rifle where modern Soviet / Russian weapons are issued.
It wasn’t always so widely distributed, being restricted to Imperial Russia / the USSR and Finland until WW2. The creation of the postwar Soviet Bloc / Warsaw Pact military grouping saw most central and eastern European armies adopt it, as did the newborn communist People’s Republic of China. It was assiduously distributed throughout Soviet / PRC client states during the ‘cold war’, spreading it across the Middle East and Africa. Cartridges were widely manufactured – Soviet bloc countries, Albania, Finland, China, the Middle East, UK (Kynoch), and the USA at various times.
Sporting cartridges are currently manufactured by Lapua, Norma, Sellier & Bellot, Privi-Partizan (PPU) and Wolf, the last three in FMJ target shooting form. After a government ban on the sporting use of military cartridges was lifted in the 1960s, the Finns used it on targets, deer, and larger animals – bears and Scandinavian moose whose bulls can run to 1,000 kg. It was only marginally effective on the largest beasts, however, so was eventually supplanted by larger calibres. Current civilian use in the US and Europe is mostly by collectors of vintage bolt-action service weapons and, where allowed, the WW2 era SVT40 (Tokarev) semi-automatic rifle.
Surplus military ammo is widely available, cheap, and rarely accurate. It’s usually ‘corrosive’ (potassium chlorate primers), and barrels need to be washed out with water to avoid rusting. Beware of heavy-bullet high-pressure versions intended for machineguns, not rifles. PPU, S&B, and Wolf cartridges are non-corrosive as well as using better quality bullets. Actually, the 7.62x54R is one of the more accurate military cartridges of the 20th century: Lapua reckons it’s better than .308 Winchester for match shooting!
Another of this cartridge’s notable features is that it is one of only a handful of rimmed centrefire designs that still sees widespread usage, and the only one with military utility. It has a large rim at a nominal 0.564in diameter, with a marked bevel around its bolt-side circumference. I’m unsure what this was intended to do – maybe improve feed, or reduce the case area bearing on the bolt. The 7.62 Nagant is usually described as being in the same performance class as our .303 or the later 7.62mm NATO / .308 Win, but is more powerful. It has a longer neck and shorter, fatter body than its British contemporary, with its internal capacity running around 14 per cent (Table 1) higher than either of the other pair. CIP maximum average chamber pressure is 56,564 psi compared to the .303 at 52,939 psi; US .30-06’s 58,740 psi; below the .308 Win / 7.62 NATO with 60,191 psi.
Table 2 lists some Vihtavuori maximum loads for the Finnish 7.62x53R (.308 bullet) version alongside equivalent loads using the same bullets and powders in .308 Winchester and .30-06 showing how they compare. Even allowing for a 26in test barrel used for the 7.62x53R alongside 24in for the two US designs, it’s obvious its handloaded performance is closer to the .30-06’s than the .308’s. Incidentally, if you fancy a straight-pull SVD ‘Dragunov’ type rifle, fired cases extract easily using the short cocking-handle alone provided you keep your loads sensible – probably down to the considerable case-body taper allied to modest pressures. So in handloaded form, it is a better cartridge in this role than the .308W / 7.62 NATO.