Restoring Milsurps: A viable endeavor in the 2020s?
The moment that solidified my hobby of collecting and shooting military firearms occurred on a rainy afternoon in 2009. My dad and I aimlessly meandered into our local gun store and I began looking at the cheap rifles that lined the public “yeah you can touch these, who cares” racks that consisted mostly of milsurps. I was a middle school kid who liked Halo and Call of Duty and had a brief stint with airsoft so my interest and knowledge was middling at best.
I walked around trying to recognize things from Call of Duty or Counter Strike and since this was right around the release of World at War, my eyes landed on the long line of surplus Mosin Nagants. When I saw the price tag, I was amazed. $79.99? For a real gun?? That’s barely more than I paid for a crappy battery powered airsoft AK-47 a few years back. The fact that I could buy a rifle used in WWII for a weekend’s worth of mowed lawns opened my eyes to guns as an accessible hobby in a way I never saw before.
My parents were not interested in buying me any guns but my grandmother came through and gifted me a Mosin a few years later when I turned 17 and I fell down the rabbit hole hard after that. Within 2 years I had 10 guns, practically all Milsurp and practically all in a different country’s proprietary 30 caliber cartridge. Influenced by nutnfancy (this was difficult to type), I did something that would have made Ivan Chesnokov absolutely apoplectic: I bubba-ed by Mosin.
In my defense, it wasn’t too horrible. I didn’t mount a scope or put it in an Archangel stock, but I did lightly sand the original stock and refinish it with wood stain and polyurethane. Even more disappointingly, I sent the original bolt handle off to a guy I found on ebay to modify it to a PU-style bent handle. When I finished, I felt very proud and unique from my two other friends who followed my lead in acquiring Mosins that year, but after a I began accumulating more and more guns, the lowly Mosin slowly came to the range less and less until it was nothing more than a glorified wall hanger.
I went through a lot of cheap Milsurps throughout the early 2010’s, a good number of them sporterized due to the accessibility and cost. One of these was a sporterized Jungle Carbine I got for $250 at a gun show that I ended up selling to a friend. After selling off an unmolested 1950’s Long Branch No4 MKI years later, the fellow I made the deal with turned me onto a stock maker up in Canada who was doing walnut and beech reproductions of Enfield stocks, including for the Jungle Carbine. This piqued my interest enough to contact my friend who had thankfully shoved my Jungle Carbine into a closet and forgot about it. A deal was struck for the same price I sold it to him for in 2014- $300- and I bought the stock set from Prestigious Wood Stocks (https://www.prestigiouswoodstocks.com) for only another $200 more.
Around this same time I realized I was coming up on the 10th anniversary of owning the Mosin and decided I would finally get around to restoring it as well. This was enough to get me thinking about doing a write up about the pros and cons of Milsurp restoration but I was really sold a month ago when I picked up a cheap project SKS for $250. Below I’ll be brutally honest at how much each of these projects cost to try to give you an idea if restoring sporters/bubba specials is a viable way to get your hands on Milsurps for prices that least try to approach the pre 2012 market.
Project 1: Mosin Nagant
The Mosin, I pretty much decided finally that I would do at any cost. Part of what made me hold off 10 years to fix my mistake was that fact that I was going to pay well over what that gun was worth when I got it in replacing parts that I stupidly ruined. Finally I just bit the bullet and bought the stock and handguard from buymilsurp.com and the bolt handle from Numrich. Unsurprisingly, both parts went on without a hitch and required no fitting (I was a little impressed the Polish bolt handle was perfectly fine on the remainder of the Russian bolt parts, but not overly). This was a simple unbubbaing project that had no snags. It hurt my soul to spend over $100 fixing this, but seeing it in its original glory did ultimately make me end up feeling it was worth it.
Original rifle: 120
Stock stain: 15
Bolt fabrication: 75
Take off stock: 79
Bolt handle: 45
Total spent: $355
How I did based on the 2020’s market:
To be fair, I completed this back in 2021 and prices were a little cheaper than they are now in late 2022. But I take absolutely no pleasure in reporting that even when I spent over $350 on a gun that originally cost $120, I still came out pretty above the curve.
Project 2: Enfield No5 MKI (Jungle Carbine)
As I mentioned above, I bought this rifle at a gun show back in 2012 for $250. Removing the cut down No4 stock from the barreled action revealed the telltale lightening cuts, 600 yard ladder sight, and matching (except the mag) SUPER faint electro pencil numbering of an authentic Jungle Carbine from August of 1944. This was my fun lightweight knock around the farm rifle for a long time but when I got bored of it, I sold it to a no guns friend for $50 more than I bought it for. I was happily surprised when I called him up that it remained pretty much untouched in his closet since the day he bought it. I offered him his $300 back and snapped the above picture once I got it home. Prestigious Wood Stocks had a full Jungle Carbine set for $280 Canadian Pesos and free shipping to the US which happily reduced down to just over $200 USD.
Then, I hit a snag. The stock was not drop in and the wrist of the buttstock looked like it suffered a bad sprain and was swollen to double its correct width. This was no fault of Prestigious, I bought the cheaper unfinished set and they have to have a baseline dimension so that it will accept Enfields of multiple manufacturers and year ranges. I took it to a local gunsmith who said he’d charge me $100 an hour to fit the stock but gave no estimate for how many hours it would take. Pass. I then thought I’d research Enfield specialty gunsmiths to see if they even exist and ran across the website for gunsmith Karl Fry (http://www.redwolfgunsmithing.com/index.html). Karl told me up front he would try his best to keep the job around $300-350 and also provided some good advice on how to help keep the price of the project low and the turnaround time quick (making sure to have the correct No5 specific parts like the barrel band and sending the forend of the sporter stock so the support crossbolt can be salvaged and reused). It took him around 6 months to finish, but he kept true to his word and charged me $300 on the dot and even threw a couple of coats of boiled linseed oil onto a stock for a military style finish. The rifle came back and now truly looks the part. But the part did cost me a pretty penny.
original rifle (bought back): 300
stock set: 200
misc parts (repro buttpad, front barrel band): 60
How I did based on the 2020’s market:
I admittedly took a pretty hard hit on this one. While authentic, non Santa Fe cut down Jungle Carbines have always been collectible, over $850 was a pretty big pill to swallow. Even Gunbroker auctions are selling these for under $600 and Royal Tiger has had a steady number of them from their big Ethiopia shipment this year. It’s possible if I had hunted around for a used take off stock set, I may have been able to avoid the fitting/labor costs which cost as much as the sporter rifle itself. I’m chalking this one up to “worth it for the emotional/personal history attachment” angle. *cope*
Project 3: Type 56 Carbine
This Type 56 Carbine just kind of fell into my lap and was really only possible due to a “know the right guy/in the right place at the right time” sort of circumstance. This “right person” in question used to work at a gun store and snatched up this SKS in an older version of the Choate folding stock shown above with a removable magazine adapter and a barrel clamp bipod. He had intended on restoring this himself but never got around to it and now it was just taking up space. A deal was made and I walked away with the abomination for $250 (which suggests to me just how little he acquired it for originally).
This project had its share of snags but also some more lucky finds. The good first, prices for both stock/handguard combos and also the original factory 10 round magazines hover between $90-120. I found a magazine assembly on an auction site for $75 shipped and a local combloc enthusiast I’ve done deals with in the past traded me a good condition stock set for $50 worth of spare parts on my end.
Now, the bad. The person who originally dropped the SKS in the aftermarket stock truly earned the name “Bubba”. After removing the AR-15 style grip, I was greeted with a spring jutting out between the SKS factory bottom metal and the stock. Like the bottom metal was closed on a coil of the spring and another 5-6 coils were then just poking out like a tail. I can’t imagine this was an actual purposeful step when installing a Choate stock because A. it looked ridiculous and B. the spring loaded detent on the SKS bottom metal wouldn’t depress properly because of how tightly the spring was wedged. (At this point in my description, I’m really wishing I took a picture). Since I had no way of getting that off, I had to go in from a different angle too, I removed the bracket at the rear that held the folding stock on… until I realized it was held together by 4 screws and the 4th one was located directly underneath the folding hinge. Which required a specific tool to disassemble. At this point I decided the Choate stock was no longer worth trying to resell for $40-50 so I locked the stock open and ripped it and the final screw out of the back of the plastic forend, exposing the rest of the trapped spring. I cut out a path to the spring from the back of the plastic and freed it, enabling me to finally compress the detent and remove the trigger assembly from the stock and then the rest of the gun after that. I hurled the shitty Choate contraption across my basement which made me feel a little better.
The fun didn’t end there. The magazine insert (which must be long discontinued as I cannot find a trace of even the company engraved on it now) was not held against the receiver by the pressure of the stock as I was led to believe, but was actually booger welded to the hook on the receiver that holds the factory 10 round fixed mag in place. A steel punch knocked the adapter off without any trouble but it still required a little bit of deft dremel work to clean up the excess weld snot.
Also, I found to my continuing luck that the stock I had acquired was made for a Chinese SKS with a pressed in barrel instead of the threaded arrangement on mine. Bottom line was the crossbolt in the stock was contacting against the receiver rather than dropping down into a recess a few millimeters away where it met the barrel. A bit of hand filing the rear of the stock inlet gave enough relief for the action to drop in.
Finally, at the end of the road, the whole arrangement was thrown together and I think it looks rather nice. At this point I just need some stripper clips and a cleaning rod and I’ll be in business. I was able to take it out to the range just a couple days after and it ran flawlessly.
bubba special: 250
total: $375 (hopefully down to 350 if can sell the clamp on bipod)
How I did based on the 2020’s market:
Pretty good. Chinese SKS’s are still coming in from non-Chinese countries fairly regularly and places like Classic Firearms, Atlantic, and PSA are selling them between 400-500 but they are also cosmoline soaked and pretty rough. Given that mine was a military model with great condition metal and a clean stock, I think I did good but I openly admit a lot of that was due to having the right contacts.
These guns were bought by the previous generations for dirt cheap when a Mauser 98 for $20 was a no brainer when basic Remington 700’s were $75. Now that the days of mass production and synthetic materials are upon us and a Savage Axis will only set you back $350 complete with a Vortex scope, these old bargain bin guns have dried up and become collectable and appreciated for their original military heritage. There is a unique sense of pride with making a bad gun look how its supposed to, even if it isn’t a number matching perfect restoration. But is a restoration effort on these old guns worth it? I would say its really situation dependent and you need to find the right starting piece for the right price. It probably isn’t going to show up on auction sites either, you’ll have to comb estate sales and pawn shops for something that someone doesn’t appreciate. The other issue is the parts. While you used to be able to buy a whole tub of spare milsurp parts at gun shows for $20, as these guns have become more desirable, so too have the replacement parts and sites like Numrich and Liberty Tree Collectors reflect that.
The other factor that might make a project like this worthwhile is sentimentality. If your grandpa had a 1917 Eddystone he chopped the stock on and used to indian up on deer in the 70’s before he taught you how to shoot with it as a tike, I understand completely if does your heart good to buy a repro stock and lovingly touch it up with some Tung Oil to bring it back to it’s military roots while still being the old rifle that has personal attachment. Easier to justify a high price at that point.
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