It’s the longest-serving centerfire rifle cartridge in active military service today, and has been used both by Soviet and American forces in the past. Its design hearkens back to the earliest days of smokeless powder cartridges, yet this classic design just keeps on plugging along. What is it? The Russian 7.62x54R cartridge.
The 7.62x54R cartridge was originally designed for the 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifles that became the standard service rifle in the Russian Empire. The cartridge continued to see service throughout the Soviet era, with Mosin-Nagant rifles, Dragunov sniper rifles, and numerous machine guns being chambered for the round. Even today, the cartridge remains in service with Russian forces and with numerous militaries around the world.
Like most cartridges developed in the 19th century, the 7.62x54R originally featured a round-nosed bullet. In the case of 7.62x54R, the bullet weighed around 212 grains and traveled at around 2,030 feet per second. That put its ballistic performance in line with similar cartridges such as the 8mm Mauser and (later) the .30-06 Springfield.
In 1908 Russia adopted a spitzer bullet, following the lead of Germany and most other countries. The new load, known today as “light ball” featured a 148-grain bullet traveling at around 2,800 feet per second from the barrel of the M91 Mosin-Nagant rifles. Later “heavy ball” loads featured spitzer bullets of about 182 grains that traveled at 2,600 feet per second from the M91. Those heavy ball loads are not suited for semi-automatic rifles such as the Russian Dragunov, Romanian PSL, and Yugoslavian M76, which will be excessively battered by the stronger recoil impulse of the heavy loads.
Many M91 Mosin-Nagant rifles were produced in the United States by Westinghouse and Remington and, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the tsar, many of those rifles and the ammunition made for them were pressed into service with US expeditionary troops who took part in fighting on the part of the Whites during the ensuing Russian civil war.
Mosin-Nagant rifles and 7.62x54R ammunition were available in the United States immediately after that conflict, but then faded into obscurity during World War II and the Cold War. Once the Soviet Union dissolved and the Warsaw Pact collapsed, vast amounts of surplus firearms, parts, and ammunition made their way to US shores. Among those were huge amounts of surplus Mosin-Nagant rifles and pallet loads of 7.62x54R ammunition.
At one point surplus 7.62x54R ammunition was almost as cheap as rimfire ammunition, with surplus ammo from various Eastern Bloc countries selling for less than 10 cents per round. Most of that surplus ammunition has dried up since then, however, and now surplus ammo generally costs close to 40 cents per round, versus 32 cents per round for the cheapest commercial 7.62x54R ammunition.
The 7.62x54R is a capable cartridge, comparable in performance to the .30-06 Springfield. While it is shorter than the .30-06, its wider case increases its powder capacity over similar short cartridges such as 7.62x51 NATO. Like the .30-06, there’s just about no game animal in North America that the 7.62x54R can’t take. Its gently sloping shoulder eases feeding, and the rimmed cartridge case makes extraction a breeze. The only thing to watch out for is rim lock, in which the rim of a successive cartridge becomes caught on the cartridge before it, causing a jam. Be careful when loading 7.62x54R ammunition into rifle magazines to avoid this.
Things to watch out for with 7.62x54R ammunition include the quality of surplus ammunition, as almost all of it is steel-cased. Substandard storage conditions over the past 60-70 years could result in split case necks, sticky bolts after firing, or other problems. In most cases, unless you stockpiled huge stashes of 7.62x54R ammunition over a decade ago, commercial ammunition or handloading is the way to go.
The era of cheap 7.62x54R rifles passed a long time ago too, as Mosin-Nagant rifles are no longer the $69 specials they once were. Now they often can only be found for $300 or more, in some cases more expensive than brand-new AR-15 rifles. But if you have a rifle chambered in 7.62x54R and a good amount of ammunition, you shouldn’t feel underpowered or undergunned in a survival situation.