There’s something satisfying about being able to buy a historically-significant battle rifle for under $500. This is especially true if you live in Canada, where gun bans from the 1990s effectively knocked off most of the Cold War classics. The FN FAL family, all G3 variants, and most surplus M14s were banished to the safes of their owners, never to see the light of a range again.
That leaves us woefully under-gunned when it comes to serious battle rifles, but two affordable options exist in this frozen northern wasteland I call home. For just a few hundred canuck-bucks, you can set yourself up with a Russian refurb SVT-40 or a Chinese remake of the classic M14. The question is: which one?OutdoorHub is here to settle the debate: M14 vs SVT-40.
These two guns were arguably the last larger-caliber battle rifles fielded by the major powers of the Cold War before the rise of the iconic M16 and AK. Both the SVT and the M14 present some similar concepts, and each offers different possibilities.
Strictly speaking, what is a “battle rifle?” In contrast with most modern carbines and rifles chambered in calibers like 5.56x45mm and 7.62x39mm, battle rifles are typically chambered in the .30-caliber cartridges that were used in most World War Two-era bolt-action rifles. Battle rifles are typically semiautomatic-only (though some versions were available in full auto), built for military service, and feed from external box magazines. They primarily use iron sights, but can be fitted with optics. The Cold War was the golden age of battle rifles, with many NATO countries opting to field versions of the FN FAL and G3.
The SVT-40 was a little early for its time, though. The Soviet semiauto was originally intended to be the primary fighting rifle of the Red Army in the 1940s. But with the German invasion of the USSR and the dire need to arm 35 million men to beat back the Wehrmacht, there wasn’t a lot of time to produce intricate, hand-fit guns. The SVT saw plenty of use, but was overshadowed in terms of raw numbers by the Mosin-Nagant and PPSh-41. The Soviet plants in Tula, Izhevsk, and elsewhere only managed to produce 1,600,000 SVTs.
After the fall of Berlin, and when demobilized soldiers returned home, the rifles were rounded up. The Kalashnikov was on the horizon, and the entire Warsaw Pact was about to embrace the most recognizable firearm on the planet. The battle-worn SVTs were refurbished, sealed in cosmoline, and put into storage. Decades later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many SVTs began finding new homes in gun safes throughout the United States and other Western countries.
The good times didn’t last long for US collectors, though. A mutual trade treaty between the US government and that of the Russian Federation signed in 1996 forbade further import of the rifle by name. The Canadian government, on the other hand, never made such an agreement. And as long as it doesn’t share parts or components with the “bad guns” on our ban list, it’s good to go. So there are lots of SVTs in Canada, and they’ve sold for as low as $200 in the past. Most gun shops or gun shows will have a few kicking around in the $300 to $400 range.
The M305 is a recreation of the classic .308 Winchester US M14 battle rifle, but made in China by Norinco. The legend goes that the People’s Republic of China reverse-engineered the M14 to provide a deniable rifle for communist insurgents in the Philippines during the 1970s. These rifles are known as Polytechs in the United States, and imported in limited numbers. But since the Clinton ban on Chinese arms in 1993, they’re few and far between. The quality of Chinese-made rifles has fluctuated over the years, with some of the early models suffering from major defects. But thanks to constructive input from Canadian retailers, rifles built in the last 10 years will have you running and gunning in no time. Considering they run from $400 to $650, they’re quite attractive guns.
I came to a pretty simple conclusion after a few range trips and plenty of rounds through both guns: the SVT-40 is a better gun out of the box, but an M305 will take you farther if you’re willing to put in the time and money to upgrade it.
Make no mistake—the M305 is a rough start. Barney, a.k.a. Hungry, a Canadian shooter who’s been passionate about the platform since the 1980s and teaches workshops on the M14, asserts that “with a Norinco, whatever time you put into it you will only make it better.”
When US shooters remember the Polytech rifles, they’re picturing the mid-90s production that suffered from soft steel and sheared bolts.
In 2002 a Montreal metal testing lab took one of the Norinco rifles and tested the bolts. They came back 48 to 50 Rockwell C, identical to a true USGI part.
“The 2000-era bolts are fantastic.” Barney said, “All the receiver metal work is forged. The bolt is forged. Everything fits together. The Chinese have got the receivers right.”
A current M305 is a solid functional rifle, but it won’t produce the pin-point accuracy of a true US-made M14. To get there you have to unitize the gas system, tweak and test your rifle with different loads, and commit to identifying and replacing out-of-spec parts.
The SVT, on the other hand, only needs to be degreased from its long sleep in storage to be ready to hit the range. The hand-shaped stocks will already be fit, and the adjustable gas system means that a shooter can easily tune the rifle in the fields to suit their given ammunition load.
Both rifles ship with five-round magazines, but the SVT’s has a 10-round body that has been pinned to comply with Canadian law. This means that the size and shape of the 10-rounder is much easier to remove and manipulate that the tiny magazine supplied with the M305. But original and aftermarket SVT magazines are a rarity, while there are tons of M14-pattern magazines in circulation across North America.
The Chinese M305 comes with a basic polymer stock, which I was generally disappointed with. It is loose, rough, and not overly comfortable. I found the arctic birch stock of the SVT had a much better fit and finish. But there are also no aftermarket stocks for the SVT, while the M14 has dozens of upgrades available that range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over a thousand.
A shooter will run into a similar problem with ammunition. The 7.62x54mmR round of the SVT can be bought en masse in cheap surplus crates or as heavy 203-grain hunting loads. But the fluted chamber of the SVT and quality of ammunition means that you’re unlikely to be saving brass and creating handloads. On the other hand, the Chinese-made M14 can handle the pressure of civilian .308 ammunition. This opens the door to all kinds of premium loads, from 145-grain right up to 180-grain, complete with premium price tags.
Both rifles were built to be shot with iron sights, but can be upgraded to accommodate optics with affordable additions. The CASM mount from M14.ca provides a rock-solid rail, while the Corwin-Arms mount for the SVT can be installed with no modification or gunsmithing, preserving the collector’s status of the rifle. Keep eye relief in mind when choosing an optic! Battle rifles are typically rough shooters and the M305 I shot was outfitted with an AIM optic that pulls the shooter’s eye in quite close.
Both rifles have decent 4.5-pound triggers with a reasonable amount of uptake and a fair bit of reset.
Mass-wise, the M14 is only slightly heavier at 9.2 pounds, while the SVT sits comfortably at 8.5 pounds total.
Both of the rifles I shot were doing their best to produce modest 4 MOA groups. I’ve seen dedicated M14 shooters build 1 MOA guns with the right parts and loads. There isn’t a lot that can be done for the SVT, though. I sanded the barrel channel of the stock, and removed the heat shields that were impacting the barrel, but still shot 4 MOA with 203-grain soft points.
That brings me back around to my original conclusion. If you’re solely concerned about bang for your buck right out of the box, you get more starting with the SVT. But if you’re willing to put in the time and money to build it up, the M14/M305 can take you farther. But by the time you’ve created an M21 clone or assembled a Black Feather scout rifle, you’ve likely passed the $1,000 threshold. I don’t have anything against project guns, but at pennies per round, the SVT is the rifle that spends the most time in and out of my safe and won’t be sold anytime soon.
Images by Edward Osborne