The Main Artillery Commission (ГАУ) selected Leon Nagant’s gas seal revolver to replace the M1880 4.2 line Smith and Wesson revolver as their next service pistol with order № 156 on 26 June 1895. Once the revolver was accepted, it was planned to immediately put it into full scale production in Russia. However, the Russian weapons factories (Tula, Izhevsk and Sestroretsk) were already busy filling the first orders for the model 1891 rifle. Knowing this, the Russian government had written a clause into the selection terms that allowed for the possibility of an order for 20,000 revolvers to the winner, L. Nagant. This contract stipulated that the firm of L. Nagant would “render aid in organizing production” of the revolver in Russia. This stipulation also provided that the Liege factory must not only provide assistance with the mechanical preparation for production of the revolver (shop machinery, fixtures, moulds, templates/patterns, etc.), but was to also send their manufacturing specialists to modify and fine tune the manufacturing process of producing the new revolver in Russia. In consideration, the Belgian firm would be awarded a contract to produce 20,000 revolvers to be delivered during the course of three years, 1896-1898 (some information indicates the number of manufactured revolvers may have exceeded this number, but I believe that it is simply confusion with the commercial revolvers).
In detail: Revolvers produced at the factory of L. Nagant in Belgium have the Manufacturer’s mark on the sideplate shown at left. The manufacturer’s mark found on revolvers manufactured at the L. Nagant factory in Liege for the Imperial Russian Contract (1896-1898). 1897 would be the year of manufacture. All revolvers produced for the Russian contract from 1896 to 1898 have this mark, but unfortunately, so do the commercial revolvers produced at the Nagant factory in Liege in the same period and this has always created confusion. There is more information on the Commercial revolvers at the end of this section.
The identifiers for the Imperial Contract revolvers are: serial number range and year of manufacture, proper Acceptance Commission mark, Russian ‘К’ accuracy proof, full serial numbers on all of the parts, and Nagant factory acceptance marks. If all of these identifiers aren’t present, it is not an Imperial Contract revolver.
All of the Liege contract revolvers for the Russian government fall into the serial number range of 1-20,000. They were dated 1896, 1897 or 1898 and the serials ran sequentially through the years of the contract, i.e. they didn’t start over at the beginning of each year like later Russian production. It would appear from the serial numbers observed that almost half of the contract was delivered in 1898. The lowest observed serial number for 1898 is in the 11,000 range so the 1897-8 break would be somewhere between 9500 and about 11000. There have been no 1899 dated Imperial contract revolvers observed.
As with previous contracts with foreign firms the revolvers would be inspected by Russian inspectors and marked accordingly, so the best way to identify a Russian contract revolver is the Acceptance Commission (AC) mark and Russian accuracy proof. Both of these marks are found on the right side of the frame. The picture at left shows the correct AC mark for a Belgian contract revolver. Note the location of the AC mark directly above the side plate retaining screw instead of further to the rear like later Tula manufactured revolvers (1898 and early 1899 Tula production revolvers have the AC mark in the same location as the Belgian manufactured revolvers. In mid 1899 the AC mark on Tula manufactured revolvers was moved further to the rear of the frame).
The Russian accuracy proof consisting of a letter ‘К’ is found on the lower right side of the frame. The letter ‘К’ is for Кучность стрельбы or quality of shooting. The picture at left shows the location of the Russian accuracy proof as well as a good view of the Nagant factory mark - a version of the OTK mark put on the parts manufactured at the Nagant factory in Liege.
The Imperial Russian Contract revolvers have inspector proofs on the barrel, frame, cylinder and hammer. The Star over B proof has been observed on all Imperial Contract revolvers, however, it has also been observed on commercial production models as well. The letter ‘B’ is an inspector designator and is reputed to be the mark of the controller of Belgium.
The frame is proofed on the right side just behind the joint with the barrel. The frame proof consists of the Star over 'B' mark and the Perron Tower proof of Liege. The barrel is marked with the same Star over 'B' proof with the addition of the Crowned 'R' proof which was used for rifled barrels from 1894 until 1968. The cylinder is marked with the Star over 'B' and the Crowned Oval Liege (Final blackpowder) proof on its rear face. The hammer has the Star over 'B' and Perron Tower proof on the left side.
The Imperial Contract cylinders are proof marked on the rear face with a Crowned Oval with the letters E L G in it and the Star 'B' inspectors mark. The Crowned Oval is a final black powder proof. Most, but not all, commercial Nagants are proofed on the outside surface of the cylinder between the flutes. The Imperial Contract revolvers also have the serial of the revolver on the front face of the cylinder, a practice that would continue with Russian production. No commercial revolver has been observed with a full serial number on the front cylinder face. Note that this is the only instance of the Star over 'B' without the Perron tower proof.
This mark indicates that the part was manufactured within tolerance, a final inspection mark. It is equivalent to the OTK mark on the Tula manufactured revolvers and doesn’t appear to have been used on any of the commercial models.
The Nagant factory acceptance mark consisting of a script letter ‘N’ is found in 10 places on the revolver:
1. The frame (right side in front of the cylinder)
2. The barrel (left side on front sight base)
3. The trigger guard (left side front under serial number)
4. The trigger (right side top)
5. The hammer (right side)
6. The cylinder pin (front face right side of the revolver)
7. The backside of the cylinder pawl
8. The loading gate (front face above serial number)
9. The rear face of the hammer block (slider)
10. The side of the Breech block
One example 9402 (1897) does not have this mark on the hammer block or breech block, it may have just been missed?
The Liege manufactured revolvers differ mechanically from the Russian Tula manufactured revolvers primarily in the way the side plate is attached to the frame and the shape of the front sight (More detail of this is shown in the chapter on the start of production of the Russian manufactured revolvers).
The figures below show the frame, side plate and butt details from a contract revolver.
There are additional differences in the grip plates. The grip plates on the Liege contract revolvers for the Russians are different from the later Russian production in two ways. The checkering on the plates is finer. Belgian models were checkered at 20 pitch (20 lines per inch measured at right angles to the lines) or 1.25 mm per line, the Russian revolvers from original production 1898-1909 are checkered at 18 lines per inch. The commercial Liege manufactured revolvers are also checkered with the fine 20 line per inch checkering.
The second difference is the shape of the threaded steel insert in the grip plates for the attachment screws. The Imperial Contract revolvers have a lug or ear on the threaded insert pressed into the wood of the grip plate which would completely prevent the insert from rotating. This was a carry over from previous models of revolver manufactured at the Nagant factory at Liege. This feature is also found on some Liege Commercials, but not all. This feature would be lost with the start of Russian production. However, the grip plates of later Russian production do fit the Liege Contract revolvers.
An observation: the revolvers with the *B inspection and full serial numbers seem to have the lugged insert, as late as the 1900 marked commercials. Was it possible they were for military use?
Even though during testing of the new revolver no significant breakage was observed, in accordance with decision № 232 the Weapons Department of the GAU (ГАУ) ordered spare parts for the 20,000 revolvers. The order was as follows: screws for the ejector rod sleeve, connecting (side plate) screw and screw for the loading gate spring – 400 pieces (2%), cylinder pin, cylinder, breech block, hammer block, cylinder pawl, firing pin, firing pin pin, front sight, ejector rod, cylinder sleeve spring, main spring and loading gate spring – 200 pieces (1%), all remaining pieces 100 (0.5%). It was recommended that these parts be kept in one depot and distributed as needed. (Ref. Koldunov)
The Belgian manufactured Nagant revolvers gave good service and were used heavily. Very few of the original 20,000 contract revolvers have survived and the survivors have very little condition after many years of heavy use. They are almost, but not quite, parts interchangeable with the Russian manufactured revolvers. The side plates and frames will not mate up to their Russian counter parts, so when a frame or side plate was damaged, if the parts were not available, the revolver was probably written off.
Most, if not all, of the original Imperial Contract was for single action revolvers. It is currently unknown how many, if any, double action revolvers were supplied in the Imperial Contract – none have ever been observed. The single action revolvers were given to enlisted men, mostly signal troops. Enlisted men tend to not take maintenance of their side arms seriously. Officers have to look good, so they keep their weapons polished and greased. Double action commercial revolvers bought by officers would probably have survived better than single actions issued to combat enlisted men, but there is no way to identify a commercial model sold in Russia. It should also be noted that not all of the commercial revolvers manufactured in Liege went to Russia and survivors in good condition probably didn’t see service in the Tsar’s army.
The original Liege manufactured guns saw service in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), the First World War (1914-1917), the Russian Revolution and Civil war 1917-1924, Collectivization in the 20s and 30s, Sino-Russian conflicts, the Winter War (1939-40), the Second World War, then refurb and miscellaneous use in various iron curtain countries well into the 1970s and 80s. Since there were only 20,000 of the original Contract revolvers made it should not be surprising that survivors are rare.
The contract between Leon Nagant and the Russian government gave Russia the rights to manufacture the Nagant designed revolver in the Russian arms factories without paying royalties, but placed no restriction on the manufacture and sales of the Nagant revolver from the Liege factory during the contract period or afterwards. According to the observed serial numbers at least 50,000 Commercial versions of the Nagant gas seal revolvers were produced at Liege during the period of the contract, 1896-98. In addition to the 20,000 single action revolvers produced for the Russian Contract, Nagant sold the double action version of the same revolver to Russian officers either through the Officer's supply stores or through the Russian government itself and the Officer's firing schools. Officers were encouraged to purchase their own sidearms
The commercial revolvers produced in the contract period, 1896-98, were mostly, if not entirely, double action revolvers. As previously stated, it is unknown how many double action revolvers were delivered in the Russian Government contract, but the number was quite small. Officers trying to obtain an “Officer’s Model” revolver had to purchase their revolvers either from the military supply shops or from the government who purchased them from Liege and sold them through the Officer's firing school who was committed to obtaining them from L. Nagant. These were commercial revolvers, not contract revolvers. It would be well into 1898 with the beginning of production at Tula before the genuine Officer's model was available other than from Liege and private purchase.
We know what the Russian Contract revolvers look like, but do we know what the commercial revolvers sold in Russia looked like? A few revolvers were exported from the Soviet Union a number of years ago and a few of them were unmarked (not acceptance marked) Nagant commercial revolvers in very poor condition. No one really knew what they were except that they weren't contract revolvers. I wish I could examine them today!
Most surviving examples of the Nagant manufactured Commercials seem to be in much better condition than the few Imperial contract revolvers observed. This is most likely because they were not sold in Russia but someplace else. The ones sold in Russia were simply used up, just like their single action Imperial Contract counterparts.
The first variation are serial numbered up to around 50,000. These revolvers do not have full serial numbers on the parts and some parts are not numbered. They have the round, no lug, grip plate inserts and have inspector's marks of either a star over AR or a star over E (the star over E has only been seen on very high numbered examples).Some of the serial numbers in this sequence start with the latter 'E'. It is unknown if the E series is a separate series, or just a marking seen on some revolvers in the general sequence of numbers, but the E serials have been observed up into the E22000 range in 1898 production. The significance of this ‘E’ is still unknown (Export?).
Mechanically this variation is identical to the Imperial Contract revolvers other than being double action. Observed examples of this type revolver have been seen dated 1897 and 1898 with, by far, the majority being dated 1898. Production of the Imperial Contract military version started in 1896, so it is possible that there are 1896 dated examples. It would appear the the Nagant factory increased production in 1898 as the bulk of the Imperial Contract was also delivered in 1898.
There are three varieties of proof marks seen on the first variation. The early variety has a star over a letter inspector designator and the Tower of Perron. This is the same type of proof as seen on the Imperial Contract except that the inspector designator is *AR and not the *B seen on the Imperial Contract revolvers. The second marking type has the Lion over P.V smokelss powder proof which was introduced in 1898 in addition to the earlier style marks. The Lion over P.V mark was placed over the other old style marks. The hammer alone retained the older style mark with only the inspector designator and Perron Tower until almost the end of the production year. At the end of the year the Perron tower mark appears to have been removed from all of the proof marks. The observed example with the *E mark (Serial 48072 1898 production) has the lion over P.V, inspector designator and no Tower of Perron any place. This change appears to have occured between serial 40000 and 48000.
The proof marks on the first commercial variation always seem to include a Liege Oval proof mark on the outside diameter of the cylinder along with the appropriate proof mark and inspector designator.
The frame has a full serial number on the left side of the frame, but the balance of the parts have 2 or 3 digit serials. These were probably used as assembly numbers. Even the serial number found on the inside of the side plate of the commercial revolvers is usually only the last 2 digits of the serial number as opposed to the full number seen on the inside of the Russian contract revolvers.
This variation has not been observed after 1898! All of the revolvers observed from 1899 and 1900 seem to be second variation.
Many of these commercial revolvers were privately purchased and used by Russian officers, but are not true military contract revolvers.
The second basic variation of the Commercial that has been observed may or may not be an actual Commercial version. These are seen dated from 1898 through at least 1900. They are identical to the Imperial contract revolvers except for being double action, not having a full serial number on the face of the cylinder, the Nagant acceptance marks and the Russian accuracy and acceptance marks. Some have serial numbers starting with 'E' and they all have full serial numbers, without the 'E' on all of the other parts.
They all have the *B inspector designator, the lugged grip plate inserts and, even as late as 1900, do not have the Lion over P.V proof. This would indicate that these were probably not intended for the Belgian or European Commercial market. It is interesting to note the Lion over PV mark has not been seen on any post 1898 M1895 Commercial revolvers.
E1448 1898 production is a commercial revolver that except for not having the Russian AC mark, the accuracy and ‘N’ marks is identical to an Imperial Contract revolver. It has the *B inspector designator and serials on all the parts except the face of the cylinder. It was sent to a store in South America, Broqua & Scholberg in Montevideo.
It has been suggesteted that some of the revolvers of this model were made out of rejects for the Imperial Contract. This particular revolver doesn't seem to fit that characteristic and neither does any other revolver observed. The reason for that is the serial number is E1445 and if it were an Imperial Contract that would be an 1896 or 97 date. There are none of the other marks associated with the Imperial contract on any of the parts.
The commercial revolvers produced after the contract period, 1899 and later, seem to be in a new serial number range, presumably starting over at 1. These revolvers do not have the design changes that were implemented at the Tula factory for the 1898 Imperial Russian production. As previously stated the first variation Nagant commercials are not seen after 1898. Shown here is serial 1988 from 1899 production. It has full serial numbers on all visible parts and the *B inspectors marks and the old style proofs without the newer Lion over P.V mark. It is unknown how the cylinder is marked or if it has a serial number. Since it lacks the Lion over P.V mark it must have been intended for someplace other than Belgium or the Europen market. Is it possible that this was intended for Imperial Russia as an officer's model?
Serial E1967 1900 production is a completely military revolver. It has 2 crescent shaped marks on the left side of the barrel which could indicate some military contract (Turkey?). It is fully serial numbered and has the lugged grip plates. It does not have the Nagant acceptance marks or other marks associated with the Imperial Contract. It is unknown if it has the serial on the front face of the cylinder. Since this serial number is lower than the number shown on the previous two revolvers it is either a new series or the contract was given its own serial number group.
The loser of the competition for the new Russian revolver, H. Pieper, attempted to recoup his money lost in the development of his revolver during the competition by selling his revolvers commercially both in Russia and in Europe. In the beginning of 1898 Russia catalogues and stores showed an Officer's Model revolver under the name “Imperial approved three line revolver model 1895 functioning without the loss of powder gas, improved by H. Pieper (Pieper Patent)." It was asserted in the advertisements that each revolver had been approved by the official proper Royal Belgian verification commission and had its proof.
The Imperial government issued directive № 120 on 13 April 1898 which warned officers to not purchase these revolvers or any other non-approved model of revolver. It was "recomended" that officers purchase revolvers only from the Officers Firing school, which was committed to get revolvers from L. Nagant - a known supplier of acceptable quality revolvers. These revolvers were issued to officers who were required to pay for them from their own funds. In this case the cost of a revolver with 100 cartridges was established at 29 rubles. The General Headquarters issued this order effective for all troops.
The revolver cartridges produced by H. Pieper were also of less than sufficient quality. Under testing conducted on 28 May 1898, they showed less than acceptable muzzle velocity (approx. 212 m/sec), poor accuracy and weak penetration capability. Besides the testing of the Pieper cartridges, the weapons department of ARTKOM conducted testing of other revolver cartridges manufactured at various other factories. The testing showed that their ballistic characteristics failed to meet standards and during firing gave unsatisfactory results.
Government directive № 67 of 6 March 1899 recommended that revolver cartridges be obtained at the Officer’s Shooting school right up to the announcement of manufacturing the Nagant cartridge at the St. Petersburg cartridge factory. Gross production of revolver cartridges at the St. Petersburg factory was initiated in 1900. Cartridges produced there used semi-smokeles revolver powder produced at the Oхтенский powder factories ( weight of the powder charge – 0.41 g).
Question to be answered: The Pieper version sold in Russia is quite rare. Did it shoot a 41 mm cartridge like its predacessors or were they converted to shoot the standard 39 mm Nagant cartridge - the standard revolver cartridge of the Imperial Russian Army?
Early Russian production of the Nagant was mostly single action and officers were "encouraged" to buy their own sidearms. Spanish and Belgian Copies of the Nagant were available from Officer's Supply stores in St. Petersburg and other large cities as well as the officially approved Nagant manufactured double action versions of the new M1895.
The Spanish and Liege copies of the Nagant appear to be similar from the outside, but the copies are mechanically different and do not use the gas seal mechanism of the original Nagant, but do use the standard cartridge. Again, these copies were not officially approved by the Imperial government but were significantly cheaper. A Nagant manufactured revolver was around 25 roubles and a copy would be as little as 15-18 roubles.
Text of the ad:
Three line 9-shot Nagant revolver. Very good copy. Excellent quality finish. Accurate and powerfull. Cartridges loaded with smokeless powder and nickel-jacketed bullet in 7.62 mm caliber. Cartridge shown in actual size. Hard workmanship. The length of revolver with the handle 6 vershkov. Weight 2 and 1/8 pounds. Price 18 roubles
The same 7-shot revolver weights 1 pound and 75 zol. Price 15 roubles
100 cartridges - 8 roubles 50 kopeeks
Here is a probably Spanish copy of a Nagant like the ones sold to Russian officers at the end of the ninteenth and early 20th century. This particular pistol did see Russian service and its condition shows it - it is a wreck. It is chambered for the standard 7.62x38 mm round. The mechanism is significantly different than a real Nagant, the action is double action but there is no gas seal mechanism.