Since firearms were first conceived, they’ve been used to fight wars, assassinate important people, protect their owners, hunt for food, and commit crimes.
All of that has, whether for bad or for good (and most likely a mix of both), inarguably altered the course of human history.
Some guns have had a greater impact than others, however, and some of those impactful guns proved more popular than others. Some were just a flash in the pan and some continue to intrigue people today, even if they are no longer available for purchase.
Today we’re going to talk about a few of history’s greatest and most influential firearms that you can still get, if not in their original version then at least in retro styles or reproductions.
Check out the table of contents below for a sneak peak at which guns we’ll be covering, then let’s get down to it.
Table of Contents
Let’s start with the oldest gun on the list, the Mosin-Nagant.
“Mosin-Nagant” is a Western nickname for the rifle; Its official designation is the 3-line rifle M1891, though Russians colloquially call it Mosin’s rifle.
Whatever you call it, this Russian rifle was designed and entered service all the way back in 1891, more than 25 years before the Soviet Union would form.
Throughout its history, the Mosin-Nagant was produced in massive numbers. This is especially true during World War II, when it was the standard issue weapon of the Soviet Army, history’s largest mobilized army. On top of this, the Soviet Union lent military aid to a huge number of other militaries and still other countries produced their own variants for their militaries to use.
Over time, approximately 37 million Mosin-Nagants were made in Russia alone and millions more were manufactured in other countries, including the United States, China, and Finland.
This rifle has seen armed conflict all around the world, including both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq. It’s also been on the front lines of more than a few civil wars, thanks to its mass production and wide distribution, including Russia, China, Cambodia, and throughout the former Soviet Union after its collapse.
The rifle was widely used as a standard infantry rifle, but it was also well-loved by snipers. It was the favorite rifle of sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, one of our favorite badass lady shooters, and was used by history’s deadliest sniper, Simo Häyhä.
Despite its age and the fact that production halted in 1965, the Mosin-Nagant is still used by somewhere around 30 militaries even today, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Syrian National Coalition, making it the longest serving military bolt action rifle still in service. It’s also still used ceremonially by the Russian military.
This rifle has been able to achieve such longevity because, especially compared to its original contemporaries, it’s among history’s most reliable and easy to maintain rifles. This not only appealed to militaries, but also to civilians who flocked to buy Mosin-Nagants for hunting, recreational shooting, and home defense from the time surplus rifles were first released for civilians after World War II.
Those same traits, coupled with its incredibly long service history, continue to draw civilian hunters, hobby shooters, and historical gun collectors to the Mosin-Nagant to this day.
Fortunately, all that mass production means that surplus Mosin-Nagants are relatively easy to find, especially through firearm sales websites like Guns.com and typically cost less than $600, though Mosin-Nagant prices vary based on the rifle’s condition.
2. Colt M1911
Next up is the Colt M1911.
John Browning, renowned gun designer, first began design work on the 1911 in the late 1890s for Colt in an attempt to create a self-loading pistol to replace the various revolvers used by the United States military at that point.
After more than a decade of designing and redesigning and multiple submissions into military field trials, the pistol was finalized and entered into service in, as you might expect, 1911 at which point it earned the designation Model of 1911. In 1917 this would be shortened to Model 1911 and in the mid-twenties the gun would receive its current official designation, M1911.
From then until 1989, the M1911 would serve as the US Armed Forces’ standard issue sidearm, but the pistol is still used today by US Navy, Marine, and Special Forces units, including Delta Force and the Marine Corps Spec. Op. Command. In fact, it’s been in every US military conflict since World War I and is the longest-serving firearm in US military history.
The M1911 is popular among law enforcement as well, used by the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT and SIS (Special Investigation Section) squads, FBI regional SWAT teams, and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.
Americans aren’t the only ones who love M1911s though.
Since its conception, in the past, the M1911 has been used by Canada, China, France, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union. Nazi German troops used (and prized) captured 1911s.
This pistol is still used today by many more countries’ armed forces, including Canada, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Thailand, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.
Civilian competition shooters also love the M1911 and it can be spotted in a wide variety of shooting events, such as IPSC, USPSA, and IDPA. It’s also a favorite for both recreational shooting and personal defense.
So why is the 1911 so well received among military, law enforcement, and civilians alike?
Simple: it’s powerful but also durable, reliable, and easy to maintain. This makes it an excellent choice for pretty much anything you could want to use it for.
These days, Colt isn’t the only company manufacturing 1911s, so you have plenty of options available to you. Check out our lists of the Best 1911 Pistols for the Money and the Best Affordable 1911s for a few options.
But for the most authentic 1911 experience, you have to go through the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP). Each year, the CMP sells a fixed number of retired or never issued 1911s to civilians.
These 1911s are in high demand, so the CMP sells them via a lottery. There are typically several times more numbers issued than 1911s available, so it may take a few years for you to get one (or you might get lucky and get one your first try) but if you want a true military 1911, it’s totally worth it.
If you don’t get lucky with the lottery, you can also try a CMP auction.
Keep an eye on the CMP’s 1911 information page to find out when and how you can submit to get your 1911 and when auctions are scheduled. Just a heads up, you can only get one per year, so don’t bother submitting multiple times and you should probably make sure you meet the CMP’s requirements for sale first.
Alternatively, you can keep an eye on other auctions and private gun sales to see if an original Model 1911 happens to be available.
3. Thompson Submachine Gun
Our next most senior firearm is the Thompson submachine gun.
The Thompson submachine gun has gone by many names, including Drum Gun, Annihilator, The Chopper, The Thompson, Tommy Gun, Trench Sweeper, Trench Broom, Chicago Organ Grinder, Chicago Piano, Chicago Typewriter, Chicago Submachine, and Chicago Style.
(You may notice that the Thompson is often associated with one city in particular.)
Whatever you call it, this rifle is famous among both shooting enthusiasts and laypeople. It’s known for its service in World War II, but probably even more so for its use by criminals and law enforcement alike during the Prohibition era.
William J. Helmer, a historian specializing in gangland topics, even described the Tommy Gun as “the gun that made the twenties roar.”
The Thompson got its start in 1916 when designer General John T. Thompson started the Auto-Ordnance Company to develop an “auto rifle” (semi-automatic rifle) to replace the bolt action service rifles that were being used by the armed forces as they fought World War I.
However, Thompson encountered some problems realizing his initial vision and in 1917 switched lanes to a machine gun that could be easily handheld and operated by a single person for use clearing trenches. This is where the Thompson got the “Annihilator” nickname, as the project was dubbed “Annihilator I.”
Prototypes were completed and ready to be sent to Europe the next year, but they never got a chance to see action: the war ended just two days before the prototypes were scheduled to ship.
In 1919, Auto-Ordnance renamed the Annihilator the Thompson Submachine Gun and decided to market it to civilians. Two years later and after some redesign, the Thompson entered the market as the M1921.
But at $200 (equivalent to about $2,860 in 2018), the gun was priced too high to see much success with that market. Fortunately for General Thompson and Auto-Ordnance, the gun had unexpected success with a different demographic.
Auto-Ordnance sold small numbers of Thomsons to the United States Postal Inspection Service (the law enforcement arm of USPS) and the Marine Corps.
This led to more sales to domestic police departments and even a few international sales. These sales were primarily to Central and South American law enforcement and militaries, but also included the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
The Marines used the Thompson during the Banana Wars in the Caribbean and Central America, as well as in China. With the IRA, the Thompson saw the final month of the Irish War for Independence, then the duration of the Irish Civil War.
But gangsters and the lawmen who opposed them are where the Tommy Gun gets glamorous. Two Thompsons, now held by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, were famously used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. Just a few years later, the FBI acquired Thompsons of their own following the Kansas City Massacre.
In fact, the popularity of the Tommy Gun among gangsters directly led to the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934.
As time went on, the Thompson began to see even more success, showing up in conflicts all around the world including World War II, the Chinese Civil War, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the Korean War.
During the second half of the twentieth century, however, that success tapered off, but the Thompson continued to appear in conflicts including the Vietnam War, the Troubles in Ireland, and even the Iraq War.
These days, Thompsons primarily serve as collectors items and a fixture of gangster films like “The Untouchables” (1987) and “Public Enemies” (2009). A Thompson reportedly owned by Bonnie and Clyde (though the claim couldn’t be verified) sold for $130,000 in 2012.
But if you aren’t a collector or just don’t want to deal with the hassle of legally acquiring an automatic weapon, you can still get a Thompson of your own.
Auto-Ordnance sells a variety of (semi-automatic, of course) Thompson sub-machine gun reproductions through Brownells. My personal favorite is the Tommy Gun Summit, which comes with a suppressor and a violin case-style carrying and storage case, but there’s a bunch that you can choose from.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
4. M1 Garand
Leading into the second half of our list is the M1 Garand, designed in 1928 by French-Canadian firearms designer John C. Garand while he was working for Springfield Armory.
After some modifications, the M1 Garand became the standard U.S. service rifle in 1936, three years before the start of World War II and five years before the United States would become involved after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Unlike other standard service rifles of the era, the Garand was semi-automatic. Shooters could fire eight rounds before having to stop and reload, while other service rifles at the time were bolt action and suffered from much greater recoil.
The M1 Garand proved to be a huge advantage for American troops. Americans weren’t the only ones with semi-automatic weapons, but the Garand had a greater capacity than others at the time like the Italian Carcano M1891 which could fire six rounds and the German Karabiner 98K which could shoot five rounds.
The British Army looked at replacing the Lee-Enfield rifle with the Garand before the start of World War II, but were concerned about its ability to handle muddy trench warfare.
Surplus Garands were supplied to a large number of America’s allies, including France, West Germany, and South Korea, even after the US began phasing the Garand out in favor of the M14 in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
It’s still used by certain militaries, but is mostly reserved for ceremonial use, such as by drill teams including the U.S. Marine Corp Silent Drill Team.
On the other hand, the M1 Garand is more widely used by insurgent and terrorist forces, including the Syrian National Coalition, the IRA, the Taliban, and Iraqi insurgents. The rifles these groups are using are generally those surplus rifles supplied to American allies.
While it’s certainly not great that these groups managed to get a hold of American arms, the fact that these Garands are still functional in combat use is a testament to the durability of the rifle.
Like with the Colt M1911, you can get an original M1 Garand through the CMP.
Fortunately, with Garands you can just place a mail-order and not deal with the hassle of a lottery, but rifles sell out quickly after they become available, so be sure to keep an eye out for new batches to come up for sale.
You can also buy up to eight per calendar year.
The AR-15 is probably the most famous firearm. We’ve certainly talked about it a lot. But you may not be familiar with the rifle’s history, which is basically fodder for a military-based workplace drama.
In 1956, after the M14 and M2 both proved to be no match for the AK-47 in the Vietnam War, the US Continental Army Command held trials for a new .223 caliber selective-fire rifle that weighed six pounds when loaded with a 20-round magazine.
The round needed to be able to at least match the wounding capabilities of the .30 carbine round and penetrate the standard US M1 helmet of the time at 500 yards, all the while not slowing to the speed of sound.
Armalite had previously submitted the AR-10 to army trials but it lost out to the M14 and ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. In an attempt to bounce back from that, Armalite scaled down the AR-10, called it the AR-15, and submitted it in the new trial.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a story where the underdog wins. Despite being three times more reliable, delivering greater firepower, and allowing soldiers to carry three times as much ammunition, US Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor opted to instead continue using the M14. Yes, the rifle that had already shown itself less than suitable.
Even more frustrated by this turn of events than you are reading about it, Fairchild, Armalite’s parent company, sold the rights to the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt in 1959.
Colt immediately redesigned the AR-15 to make it easier to mass produce and moved the charging handle from under the carry handle to the rear of the receiver, similar to the M14.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
At a demonstration in 1960, the AR-15 impressed Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Curtis LeMay, who ordered 8,500.
At the same time the Army continued testing the AR-15, finding that the .223 cartridge was easier to shoot than the M14’s 7.62mm NATO, the AR-15 had less recoil and was therefore easier to control than the M14, and that 43% of AR-15 shooters achieved Expert during marksmanship trials while only 22% of M16 shooters did.
When General LeMay was promoted to Air Force Chief of Staff in 1961, he requested another 80,000 rifles but General Taylor, who had been promoted to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and had a long history of butting heads with General LeMay, convinced President Kennedy to reject the request.
The decision wasn’t popular and in October William Godell, a senior worker in the Advanced Research Projects Agency, sent 10 AR-15s to Vietnam. Army personnel loved the rifles and 1,000 more were sent over the next year. Special forces pressed for the AR-15’s adoption in their reports, yet Army leadership continued to favor the M14.
Finally, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Kennedy had had enough and ordered Cyrus Vance, Secretary of the Army, to test the rifles head to head alongside the AK-47. Since the Army conducted them it’s probably not a surprise that testers were less than impartial and recommended the M14.
The AR-15 finally got its lucky break in 1963 when McNamara was told that the M14 couldn’t be produced in large enough quantities to meet the armed forces’ needs. In fact, the only rifle that could be was the AR-15.
So the superior rifle was finally adopted, not by its merits, but by default.
The AR-15 underwent a few modifications to be even better suited for service and the modified version was dubbed the M16. The Army finally recommended it for service, which seems like too little too late to me, but maybe I’m just petty.
A little later, Colt introduced a semi-automatic version for sale to civilians and kept the AR-15 name as an homage to the rifle’s history.
Colt’s patent on the AR-15 expired in 1977 and from that point on, pretty much every rifle manufacturer started making their own AR-15 style rifle, though Colt retained the rights to the “AR-15” title.
But for the classic style, check out Brownells Retro Rifles. The line has several replicas of the AR-15’s design at various points in its history, but I particularly like the points in history represented by the BRN-PROTO model, which replicates the very first AR-15 prototype made by Armalite, and the XBRN16E1 model, which replicates the AR-15 as it was when it was first widely adopted in 1963.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
These are a few of the historical greats that you can still buy for yourself, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
What are your favorite historical firearms? What other guns would you have liked to see included here? Let me know in the comments! For some other awesome options, check out the Coolest Guns from World War II and the Most Iconic Guns of the Old West.