Monday, August 19, 2013

What the heck is an "Arshin"?

Imagine you are now the proud owner of a classic Russian Mosin-Nagant M-91 rifle and are excited to try it out for the first time. So you take it out to the range, adjust the iron sights for a target 400 meters away and shoot at it. Upon shooting a few times, you examine the target and notice that you're not hitting where you're aiming at. Is there something wrong with the rifle? Actually, the answer may have to do with your misunderstanding about how the sight works.

A Konovalov type Mosin-Nagant adjustable iron sight.

In the above image, we see a Mosin-Nagant rifle sight called the Konovalov type. This sight acts as both a  tangent sight (for shorter ranges, marked as 4-12) and a ladder sight (for longer ranges, marked as 13-32). Note that the sight is sort of curved, as seen in the first image. Older Mosin Nagants have a flat shaped sight using the same idea.

The mistake that some people make is assume that these settings are in meters (e.g. 4 = 400 meters, 6 = 600 meters etc.) For Mosin-Nagants manufactured before 1930, this is not true -- in fact, these are calibrated in a unit called "Arshin" (plural: "Arshins" in English, "Arshiny" in Russian). So what the heck is an "Arshin" then?

To answer this question, we must go back to 16th century Russia, where this unit of length first originated. This unit was the Russian equivalent of the English "yard" measurement. Its actual length varied over the years, until Peter the Great standardized it in the 18th century to be about 27.95 inches long (or about 71.1 cm. or 0.78 yards). This continued to be how distances were measured in Russia until some time in 1925, when the Soviet Union officially adopted the metric system throughout the country. Konovalov type sights calibrated in arshins continued to be manufactured for some years after, until 1929.

Therefore, with older Mosin-Nagant rifles built before 1930, the sights were actually calibrated in arshins. Hence, when the slider is pushed to 4, the sights are set to aim at a distance of 400 arshins, not 400 meters. 400 arshins is approximately 285 meters, which explains why the rifle might not be shooting where the user expects it to!

Edit: The editor is indebted to Mr. Bernard Samartsev for his comments and corrections to the original article noted below.


  1. Hello! It's me again. I would like to add more info and corrections.

    Russian system was first standardized in January 29, 1649 by Aleksey Mikhailovich, then during the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725, exact data is unknown because the edict was lost), and then in October 11, 1835 by Nicholas I. Metric system became optional in the Russian Empire in June 4, 1899 and it was finally established in the Soviet Russia (RSFSR) in September 14, 1918 and in the entire Soviet Union (USSR) in July 21, 1925.

    Conversion from Russian to metric units established by the Soviet government:
    1 arshin = 71.12 cm (28 in). 400 arshins = 284.48 m (311.111 yd).
    1 line = 2.54 mm (0.1 in). 3 lines = 7.62 mm (0.3 in).
    Other name for the arshin is shag (шаг).

    Plural of arshin in English language is arshins (according to Wiktionary).
    Plural of аршин in Russian language is аршины (arshiny).

    Official military designations:
    3-line rifle, model 1891 or трёхлинейная винтовка образца 1891 года (1891-1917).
    7.62-mm (3-line) rifle, model 1891 or 7.62-мм (трёхлинейная) винтовка образца 1891 года (1918-1929).
    Rifle, model 1891/30 or винтовка образца 1891/30 года (1930-present).

    Correct last name: Konovalov (Коновалов). Konovalov sights were produced from 1910 to 1929 and they were calibrated in arshins. Production of new sights began in 1930 with M1891/30 rifles and they were calibrated in meters. These new sights were also installed on old M1891 rifles.

    Konovalov sight markings: 4-12 = 400-1,200 arshins; 13-32 = 1,300-3,200 arshins.
    M1930 sight markings: 1-20 = 100-2,000 meters.

    Correct pronunciations:
    Ahr-SHEEN (Ар-ши́н).
    Ko-no-VAH-loff (Ко-но-ва́-лов).
    MO-seen (Мо́-син).
    Nah-GAHN (На-га́н). Émile and Léon Nagant were French-speaking weapon designers from Belgium.
    Shahg (Шаг).
    Russian "A" sounds like the English "A" in the "Art" or "Army".

    If you need information and manuals (in Russian) for Mosin-Nagant rifles and carbines, then I'm always ready to help.
    Wish you wonderful day and best of luck!
    Bernard Samartsev.

    1. Thank you very much for your insightful comments, Mr. Samartsev. They are very much appreciated :).

      The Editor

    2. You are welcome!
      It seems my comment glitched or the font of your blog doesn't support stressed Cyrillic letters because stress signs are misplaced. You can edit my comment and replace stressed letters with non-stressed ones. These letters are и, о and а.

    3. Hi Bernard,
      Your font appears fine on my browser (Chrome 45.0.2454.101m on Windows 8). Perhaps other browsers render it differently.

      The Editor

    4. I believe it has something to do with my Firefox (41.0.1) browser. I'm sorry for the inconvenience.