RIA: Predecessor to the Mosin – the Russian Berdan II

Before adopting the M1891 Mosin-Nagant, the Russian Empire (like most major militaries) used a large-bore single-shot rifle as its standard infantry rifle. In this case, a .42-caliber rifle designed by American General Hiram Berdan (yes, the same guy who invented the Berdan primer). As with other Russian small arms of foreign design, the initial batch of rifles was imported while the major Russian arsenals tooled up, at which point domestic production took over. The Berdan II was a good if fairly unremarkable design for its time, and served the Russian military well.


  1. You mentioned the Russo-Turkish War. Here are some quotes from a British General leading the Turks:

    Lieutenant General Valentine Baker Pascha was an Englishman serving in the Ottoman army during the Russo-Turkish War, which transpired mostly in Bulgaria and effected their independence. He commented a number of times about the Peabody-Martini rifle:

    “As the gallant Prizrend left wing and Chasseurs were falling back, an accident had occurred which caused me some anxiety. The battalions under my command suffered from the serious disadvantage of being armed with different rifles. The good battalions of Prizrend, Uskubs, and Touzla still retained the old Schneider, whilst all the others had the Henry-Martini or rather Peabody-Martini, which was the new arm of the Turkish service, and infinitely superior.
    I had spoken, whilst at Kamarli, as to the advisability of these fine battalions changing arms with some of the bad Mustaphiz troops, but it was considered that the men at least knew their weapons, whereas there might not be time to instruct them in the new arm before some emergency would arise, and the idea had been abandoned.”

    “The troops of the Russian Guard opposed to us were all armed with the Berdan rifle, which, though rather inferior to the Peabody-Martini was far better than the Schneider.”

    “The Turkish infantry were being rapidly re-armed with the Henri-Martini, or rather the Peabody-Martini rifle. The contract for the delivery of 600,000 of these arms had been made in America, and was being quickly executed.”

    “As the Turkish infantry during the war were, for the most part, armed with a weapon almost similar to that which has been adopted in the British army, some slight mention of the merits of this arm may be of interest. My experience leads me to believe that the Henry-Martini, or Peabody-Martini, rifle is the very best weapon yet placed in the hands of a soldier on service; but the Turks were able to afford that which the poverty of England has not yet enabled her to achieve, namely, a sound and good cartridge which was entirely unaffected by weather or by the wear and tear of the campaign, the Turkish cartridge being formed of solid metal, and not made up, like those in use in the British army, from supposed purposes of economy. . . .
    Much has been said and written relative to the delicacy of the Henry-Martini rifle as a military weapon. The Turkish battalions were, as a rule, very deficient in armourers, yet the weakness of the Peabody-Martini, was never practically apparent.”

    From “War in Bulgaria: A Narrative of Personal Experiences, Volume 2” by Valentine Baker.

  2. I’d like to hear more about the purpose of volley fire and the tactical use of volley sights. Why bother to use secondary sights? Couldn’t one accomplish the same results with the regular sights?

    • Volley fire was used at extreme range (over 600 yards). The idea was to deliver plunging fire onto the mass of an advancing enemy infantry force before they could get close enough to begin direct fire, or just charge at the double.

      Volley fire sights were not intended for precisely-targeted fire at an individual enemy. They were intended to allow the soldier to elevate the rifle to the correct angle to deliver repeated, timed fire to a specific range, in concert with the rest of his unit, without concerning himself with whether or not the bullet actually hit a given target.

      The concept was very similar to the use of the longbow by the English at Crecy and Agincourt, as opposed to the use of the smoothbore musket at Waterloo. Just at about three times the range. (600 yards as opposed to about 200 with the longbow.)

      At Plevna in 1877, the Turks used volley fire with the Peabody-Martini to inflict roughly 15% KIA/WIA on the Russians at ranges up to 800 yards before they put aside the single-shots, picked up the Henrys and Winchesters in .44 RF, and got down to the serious business of rapid-fire shooting at point-blank range to break up attempts to get over their parapet. The combination inflicted casualties on a level not seen again until World War One.



  3. Talking about the Russia’s armament imports of the late 1800s, it’s not only the Berdan rifles and Gatling Guns – they also bought the S&W Model No.3 revolvers and General Gorlov is said to have revised the .44 S&W American round into what is even nowadays known as the .44 S&W Russian. These were also first bought from S&W (and Ludwig Loewe in Berlin) – then later were manufactured by the TOZ in Tula until late 1890s, when the pipsqueak 7.62 mm Nagant revolver replaced it.

      • The 7.62x38R Nagant historical Russian military load produced muzzle energies similar to .380 ACP (low end) or 9x18mm Makarov (high end), so it was quite adequate for a military self defense gun, even if clearly less powerful than .44 Russian and probably with less “stopping power”.

        • Soviet military load:
          6,7-7,0g @ 270-290 m/s (powder charge: 0,26 – 0,32g)
          which in imperial give:
          103.9-108.5 gr @ 886-951 fps (charge: 4.03 – 4.96 gr)
          assuming average values it give 268.52 J, it is close to .38 Special (158gr @ 770 fps)

          • is: “close to .38 Special (158gr @ 770 fps)”
            should be: “close to .38 Special (158gr @ 770 fps) which give 282 J”

          • Some sources give higher numbers than 290 m/s, up to 330 m/s and bullet weights going from 6.2 grams to 7.2 grams. 6.2 g (≈ 95gr) @ 330 m/s (≈ 1080 fps) would give 339 J (250 ft·lbf).

            I don’t know what’s the real truth about the numbers; nobody has probably measured a historical military load with a modern chronograph, and perhaps there has been some variations over the years of production. In any case and like Bojan wrote, the still available factory loads loads and C.I.P. pressure limits are based on the much lighter target load. Russian Wikipedia lists the different loads with GRAU indexes, but gives only a single muzzle velocity, so we are still left to to guess which bullet weight goes with it:


          • My data are from: Альбом конструкций патронов стрелкового оружия, Moscow, 1946

          • Yep, it is detailed source, all data for 7.62 Nagant:
            NAME: 7.62-mm cartridge with round-nose bullet for revolver “Nagant”
            CARTRIDGE MASS: 11.6-12.8 g (brass case)
            MUZZLE VELOCITY: 270-290 m/s
            MAXIMAL PRESSURE: 1085 kg/cm^2
            POWDER CHARGE: 0,26-0,32 g
            POWDER DENSITY: 0,31-0,45 g/cm^3
            POWDER USED: P-45 or Pl 10-10
            BULLET MASS: 6,7-7,0 g
            CORE MASS: 5,22-5,40 g

            This source don’t specify what P-45 powder is but I found following information: it is based on Пироксилин (I don’t know English name) i.e. [C6H7O2(ONO2)3]n and Potassium nitrate in 45 Пироксилин to 100 nitrate in terms of mass (for example 45 grains of Пироксилин and 100 grains of nitrate), flake shape: cylinder, ratio of flake length to flake diameter equals 1,9, flakes area 67,2 cm^2/g, it is described as пористый (which can be translated as porous or mushy or spongy or poriferous, I don’t know which is proper?)

            “modern chronograph”
            When it is clearly easier from user point of view, you can quite exactly measure muzzle velocity (as long as you know bullet mass) with other device, called ballistic pendulum, Ackley (that designer of various wildcat cartridges) give empiric formula: V = Mp / Mb * 0.2018 * D where V – velocity (fps), Mp – pendulum mass (gr), Mb – bullet mass (gr), D – horizontal travel of pendulum (inch), for more details see:

    • Original Nagant load was not weak at all, but today load is based on very mild target loads introduced in 1930s for competitions.

  4. My thanks to you Ian for this presentation.
    This rifle was my first gun (excluding the rusted solid S&W revolver with the round cemented into the cylinder) owned by me and given to me as a Christmas present by my long deceased sister and her husband. My brother-in-law (an artilleryman hero from the Pacific Theater [WWII]) was a great guy. I was in Junior high school then when they presented me the Berdan that previously resided in the loft rafters of a shed behind his mother’s home in rural California. I could not operate the Berdan’s bolt then because someone, sadly, had removed the bolt handle. Later a friend made a stainless steel bold handle and attached it permanently on the rifle. As dumb kids we’d fire the Berdan with small shotgun shells or black powdered 45-60 rounds. I thought it was Russian because of the double headed eagle and Cyrillic writing. If my memory suits me– I believe it was stamped “1873.”
    The rifle was sold by me decades later at a Phoenix gun show for a surprisingly high price!
    Thank you Ian for providing the rest of the story.
    ps:the rustedtite revolver I only had a couple of days as I was less than ten years old and someone thought I should not have it. Don’t trust anyone over 25 y/o! 🙂

    • “As dumb kids we’d fire the Berdan with small shotgun shells or black powdered 45-60 rounds.”
      BTW: Many Berdan rifles which were withdrawn from service were converted to shotguns.
      Following variants were available: 12 gauge, 16 gauge, 24 gauge, 28 gauge, 32 gauge, chambers length was 65mm or 70mm

  5. According to Barnes (Cartridges of the World, 6th ed.), the 10.75 x 58R aka .43 Berdan was mostly American-made in addition to being American-designed.

    Remington and Winchester made the bulk of the ammunition for the Tsar’s army up to the mid-1880s, and while production of the rifles was set up at Tula arsenal from 1874 on, most of the ones actually issued to the troops before about 1880 were made by Colt at Hartford, CN.

    As such, surplus Colt-made Berdan Is and IIs were fairly common in the “miscellaneous” section of most stocking dealers racks up through the 1970s. It seems that a fair number of them never got shipped because the Tsar never actually paid for them.

    Well, Colt had gotten rather badly stung on the Gatling/Gorloff deal. They made the guns, shipped them, and …. never actually got a “cheque” in return.

    Gorloff was apparently very good at looking innocent. And since his name was stamped on every gun, at his insistence as part of the contract, I’ve often suspected that most of what should have been Colt’s remuneration ended up in his pocket. (“Why pay the Americans? I designed it!”)

    Yes, he was the “project officer” on the Colt/Berdan rifle contracts, too.

    Of course, Berdan had gotten stung here at home, too. His trapdoor design predated the Erskine Allin Springfield, which “borrowed” a lot of its features- without crediting Berdan or paying him any royalties.

    He did enter his in the 1865 RfP competition for the new Army-issue conversion contract (.58 rifle-muskets to metallic cartridge), only to be accused of “plagiarizing” the Allin design- by Erskine Allin. Who of course also had Jacob Snider cashiered for daring to enter his design for a breechloading conversion. (Which frankly was a lot sturdier and safer than the Allin that was finally adopted.)

    Like Snider, Berdan ended up going overseas, in his case to Russia because Snider went to England. Unlike Snider, Berdan had the dubious distinction of designing rifles for an army with an irritating habit of losing battles.



    • “According to Barnes (Cartridges of the World, 6th ed.), the 10.75 x 58R aka .43 Berdan was mostly American-made in addition to being American-designed.”
      In Russia it caliber was stated as 4.2-line (.42″) due to different view what caliber is.
      V.G.Fyodorov states that initially rifle were .45″ but Russian officers required to lower it .42 and also some changes in rifle itself. He also point that rifle and cartridge were very accurate for that time and show table:
      –Radius of circle including best hits (50% of hits) in inches–
      Distance (шаг*) – 4.2 line rifle – 6 line needle rifle – 6 line muzzleloader
      200 – 2.1 – 6.0 – 8.0
      400 – 4.4 – 12.4 – 18.0
      800 – 9.8 – 31.6 – 35.4
      * – one шаг equals 71,12cm
      (this is table for “old Berdan”, now known as Berdan I)

      When “new Berdan”, now known as Berdan II, become available it was tested against “old Berdan” and Bavarian Werder
      –Shots fired in 1 minute, distance: 200 (шаг)–
      Weapon – Fired – Hits
      New Berdan – 15 – 12
      Old Berdan – 9 – 7
      Werder – 12 – 8
      –Shots fired in 2 minutes, distance: 500 (шаг)–
      New Berdan – 20 – 16
      Old Berdan – 17 – 9
      Werder – 10 – 8

  6. Some Technical data (from V.G.Fyodorov):
    /line is old Russian unit, 1 line = .1″)
    Berdan No.1:
    BARREL: 6 grooves, groove width equals groove depth (~1.65 line), one twist in 21 inches (or 50 calibers)

    Berdan No.2:
    BARREL: 6 grooves, inside diameter 4.2 line (lands), 4.4 line (groove), groove width 1.5 line, depth 0.1 line, number of twist in whole barrel: 1.5 (infantry) 1.22 (dragoon/cossack) 0.76 (cavalry carbine)

    • You can also see blueprints of Berdan rifles (and other Russian 19th century firearms) in Fyodorov’s book:
      You can download it here: http://dfiles.eu/files/gg7b01m0o
      It consist of two parts: description (VoorRusArmi19VekFedorov.pdf in pre-1917 Russian) and drawings (AtlasVoorRusArmi19VekFedorov.pdf), I hope that even if you don’t understand Russian that drawings will be helpful to understand Berdan rifles (Berdan 1 drawing starts at page 29 of pdf, Berdan II at page 33 of pdf)

      • 1. As a kid (early 1950’s) I was given as a prize in my grade school a book, that became my favorite for quite some time. Written by Vitali Bianchi, it was about the adventures of wild animals – mostly I would guess in the Siberian forests – and hunters, some of them quite young. In this context when I read the word “berdanka”, I thought this was some sort of small-caliber rifle for children (in Polish, and I suppose to some extent in Russian, too, the ending -nka or -ka is a diminituive one).
        2. Perhaps I am belaboring the obvious, but in none of the sources (admitted – they were all tertiary, or at best secondary sources – none of them a monograph devoted entirely to the M-N rifle) that I read about the history of Mosin-Nagant rifle, the question was raised about the contribution of Nagant and Mosin, respectively. In either case the importance of the Nagan-designed magazine seems to be acknowledged by both parties to the conflict. However, the contribution of Mosin sems to be taken for granted. What bothered me was that nobody mentioned the source of the bolt, or stated that it was an originalMOsin’s construction. Now it seems to me that, et least externally, the Mosin bolt resembles the Berdan II bolt. I will appreciate all informations on that score.
        3. Great video and comment, Ian! And great web-page, too!
        The last couple of years I had contact with Forgotten Weapons very considerably expanded my knowlege of the subject.
        Keep the good job and thank you,

  7. The bottom one is definitely a Martini, and the middle two are Berdan IIs.

    The top one is definitely a Krnka, which was a conversion of a .60 caliber musket to a centerfire cartridge similar to the early Snider-Enfield .577, but a bit bigger.

    The Krnka breech was similar to the American Joslyn, and that’s certainly what that one looks like;



    After the Krnkas were withdrawn from service around 1889-90, many were converted to inexpensive shotguns. A .60 caliber would work out to about 20 gauge, which was just starting to gain popularity with the advent of smokeless powder at the time.

    That probably explains what the Krnka was doing in the house. The homeowner’s shotgun.



  8. I buy used gun parts and I’m wondering if you have a pile of them to sell to me? I resell the parts. Mostly interested in rifle, pistol, WW1 & WW2 parts. Not interested in AR-15 style parts or parts that require an FFL transfer. I prepay all orders.

    Thank-you, Bruce.

    Bruce McAllister
    51479 Riverland Ave.
    PO box 3028
    La Pine, Oregon 97739

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