CZ 527 vs Zastava M85; Eastern-Bloc Bolt Rifle Comparison
Let’s be honest. Does a bolt-action rifle chambered in 7.62×39 make a ton of sense? Many would say no, as it makes little sense to chamber a bolt-action rifle in a caliber that’s typically preferred by high-volume shooters who appreciate cheap and readily available surplus ammunition. But in reality, a bolt-action rifle in 7.62×39 has a lot going for it.
First off, there’s the most obvious benefit of having a huge amount of cheap ammunition available with which to practice. With surplus ammunition costing less than half that of commercial ammunition, it is easy to justify what some would call “excessive” target practice, not to mention it makes these rifles great additions to the range bag when you bring that inevitable new shooter out to the range for the first time.
Secondly, they are incredibly handy rifles. Due to the short overall length of the 7.62×39 cartridge, the action length required to feed and chamber the stubby round is shorter than even a conventional short-action rifle. As such, both of these rifles are considered to be “micro actions” by their respective manufacturers; “micro Mausers” specifically although the title may not be entirely deserved… but more on that later.
And thirdly, the 7.62×39 round is a perfectly viable hunting round. Its military service record overshadows its ballistics, but for all intents and purposes it hits with no less authority than a .30-30 and in many ways boasts superior flight characteristics. And with more and more manufacturers beginning to make expanding bullets in this calibre, it’s viability as a hunting round grows with each additional load and grain count that’s introduced.
So, given all those great reasons to shoot 7.62×39, it’s no surprise then that many manufacturers are now beginning to offer rifles chambered in this plentiful cartridge. But while American manufacturers like Ruger and Savage may make some great rifles, let’s be honest… if you’re going to shoot the quintessential Soviet round out of a rifle, don’t you want that rifle to have made in a former Eastern Bloc country?
And if you want that rifle to have been manufactured in a manner that’s probably not changed much since the fall of the Berlin Wall, look no further than the Zastava M85. Billed by Zastava as a “mini-Mauser” sporting rifle, the M85 is a simple bolt-action rifle with a five-round internal magazine with a conventional hinged floorplate. Available in both 7.62×39 and 5.56mm, and less commonly .22 Hornet (which comes with a detachable magazine, oddly), this rifle can also be found in a myriad of stock configurations ranging from the rollover comb pictured here to a standard ambidextrous monte carlo stock to a full-length Mannlicher style stock with a steel schnabel end cap. All M85s come with the same hooded front and adjustable folding leaf rear sights.
Given Zastava calls the M85 a “mini-Mauser,” having poked around the action on our test unit, we can confirm that they are half right; miniature it is. It’s hard to tell in photos, but the action is only slightly longer than the 7.62×39 round it chambers, and for comparison’s sake a 7.62×39 round is closer in length to a .308 casing alone than it is to a loaded .308 round! To put that in even better perspective, 7.62×39 is roughly 15% shorter from end to end than a .308 Winchester round, and a .308 Winchester round is roughly 15% shorter than a loaded .30-06 round. As such, the miniature action of the M85 is scaled down in such a way that it is to a conventional short-action as the short-action is to the conventional long-action. And that’s exactly what it feels like. Fitted with a 19.5” barrel, these rifles feel and carry like a shorter rifle, mostly due to the relative lack of mass associated with the shorter action. Of course, their intrinsic sense of spryness and light handling characteristics are not hurt by the light profile of the M85’s barrel; target rifles these are not.
However, whilst miniature, the action of the M85 is most decidedly not that of a Mauser-pattern rifle. First and foremost controlled-round feed, the single most identifiable and important of Mauser action identifiers, is not present here. If anything, the M85’s bolt is somewhat more akin to that of a Sako rifle, albeit with a Mauser style fixed ejector. And secondly, the massive full-length claw extractor that otherwise identifies Mauser-pattern rifles is also absent. Granted, there is a full length lug that runs along the bolt body where the traditional Mauser claw extractor runs, but the actual extractor resides above that lug and is modelled in the simple Sako style. Honestly, given the variance in 7.62×39 ammunition, this is probably a better arrangement anyway, as the Sako-style extractor can better deal with slight case variations and will be less beat up by hard surplus cases than the controlled-round feed and claw extractor system of a Mauser.
Overall, the rest of the rifle is basically as you’d expect. We were somewhat surprised by the relative thinness of the bolt head shroud, but being that the same bolt and receiver appear to be used for both 7.62×39 and 5.56 versions of the rifle, it really is to be expected. The trigger is a no-nonsense affair that boasts a wide array of adjustment, but is limited by the quality of machining; some rifles are reportedly capable of sub one pound consistent pull weights while others struggle to get below a four pound pull weights. Ours clocked in around 4.5 pounds, consistently, and we didn’t feel the need to adjust it. It should also be noted that the trigger pull is remarkably clean, with little in the way of grit, only slight creep, and a good crisp break.
Likewise, the quality of the finishing was very good. The bluing is deep and lustrous throughout and the receiver and barrel all appear to be well made. Obvious attention has been paid to all the would-be sharp edges on the receiver, and the bolt handle (although a tad small) has some nice knurling on a milled flat portion on its underside. Being of Serbian descent and hailing from a factory that once churned out everything from World War II-era Mausers to colonial cannons, it should come as no surprise that everything is steel; even the magazine follower is a solid chunk of milled steel. Oh, and did we mention the bolt handle is nicely excised to ensure ample room for a scope to be fitted? Add in the drilled and tapped receiver, and well-placed and easily manipulated safety, and the well-priced Serbian offering appears to give up little to its more expensive competition.
But the action is very rough. The bolt draw feels like its galling the receiver through half its travel, and when withdrawn, the bolt flops about ridiculously. Due to the off-axis leverage that comes along with pushing a bolt handle forward, it feels like you’re canting the bolt and driving the bolt into the left hand side of the receiver when you first start to close it, and we ended up getting into the habit of putting our thumb on the rear of the bolt to try and push it straight ahead rather than forward from the bolt handle. The bolt body belies its humble originals with plenty of tool marks and some poorly finished machine work around the lugs and extractor. And the internal machining? Suffice to say there was less attention paid to the sharp edges inside the receiver and we may have left a little blood in there when we cleaned it up.
So how does it shoot? Well… this particular one made it very difficult to tell, thanks to a rear sight that appeared to have been installed to the left of center over the bore. Furthermore, the factory iron rear sight had been drifted almost completely to the leftmost limit of its travel, which only made things more disconcerting. But, we loaded the magazine up, and went to work. And by work, we meant it, since that’s really the only term we can use to describe the process of closing the bolt. If it was a floppy, chafing affair empty, it certainly wasn’t a task made easier with the additional process of stripping rounds out of the magazine. And once we’d successfully chambered a round, headspacing on our available surplus ammunition was tight, and made for a bolt handle that was difficult to close. And after four rounds fired downrange, we cycled the bolt only to pull the trigger on an empty chamber. Opening the rifle to deduce the problem, we found the final round laying on the floorplate a healthy distance from the bottom of the bolt, preventing it from being picked up and pushed into the chamber. Eventually we traced this problem back to a broken magazine spring, which meant all further testing had to be done by feeding a single round into the chamber and closing the bolt.
Accuracy was a bit of a mixed bag as well. With the tightly headspaced surplus steel-cased ammunition we struggled to keep groups within 2.5” inches. The barrels are cold hammer forged, so they’re certainly durable enough, but they just do not seem to appreciate surplus ammunition. Our Federal 7.62×39 124-grain shot a bit better, and typically grouped around the two inch mark, but with a few less head-scratching outliers. Notably, the twist rate of the rifling inside is 1:240 millimetres, or 1:9.44 inches, which is the exact rate required to maximize the potential of the common 123- and 124-grain projectiles seen in this calibre. So we can only surmise that the most likely culprits of the variation in performance between the surplus and commercial ammunition lay in either the headspacing, powder charges and burn rates, or the projectiles themselves. We’re tempted to believe that the problem is the lattermost issue, as a 123-grain lead-cored commercial round has a projectile that’s between three and four millimetres shorter than its 124-grain steel-cored surplus compatriot, and the 1:944” twist rate strikes as us relatively slow. But then again, we’re not exactly ballistics engineers, so we’ll just chalk it up to the old “you get what you pay for” adage and say more expensive ammo is generally better.
Between the broken magazine spring, the general lack of finishing work on the bolt and the canted rear sight, it’s hard to give the M85 a passing grade. Of course, with our luck we probably got one of the more problem-prone examples of the breed, but nonetheless it remains a $550 rifle that simply doesn’t compare to the modern crop of affordable bolt action rifles. Produced in a thoroughly old-world factory where the closest thing to automation might be a coffee machine in the lunchroom, these rifles certainly bear witness to their old-world hands-on production, but in an era of CNC machining and computer-aided quality assurance processes we’re not so sure that’s a good thing. But all that said, while entry level rifles like the Remington 783 and Savage Axis provide more for less the options are far more limited when restricted to rifles chambered in 7.62×39, and in that particular field the Zastava M85 is at least is among the most affordable.
Certainly one of the most well-known and widely recognized bolt-action rifles firing 7.62×39 is the CZ 527. Like the Zastava, the CZ was also designed to serve as a micro-action rifle, but came in a wider variety of calibres than its Serb cousin. Although most commonly found in 7.62×39 and to a lesser degree .223 Remington, it can also be found in .17 Remington, .22 Hornet, .204 Ruger, .221 Fireball, and .222 Remington. By virtue of CZ’s larger distribution network and consumer following, 527’s are quite a bit easier to find overall than M85s, and as such have developed more of an aftermarket. Rings, aftermarket triggers, and even affordable aftermarket stocks are not hard to come by for the 527.
Wider popularity also means there’s more models available. In grand CZ fashion, however, the various models’ nomenclature gives no indication of how the rifles vary. There’s the Lux, FS, and Carbine models, which are all considered by CZ’s to be traditional European rifles, while the American, Varmint, and Prestige models are all designed to appeal to American shooters. The major difference between the European rifles and the American rifles are the stock and sights. European rifles have the signature “hump backed” comb of traditional European sporting guns and open sights affixed to the barrel, while American models have a straight-cut comb and no sights. We also think it’s worth noting that the American models come with 3-round detachable magazines, which sit flush with the stock, while the European models get the 5-round protruding box magazine pictured here. So if that magazine is something that bothers you, it is possible to replace it with a sleeker option. Oh, and as massive Mannlicher-stock fans, we feel obliged to inform everyone that the “FS” in the elusive model 527 FS nomenclature actually stands for full-stocked… so if you like a rifle that’s fitted to walnut from stem to stern, that’s the one to look for.
And although CZ doesn’t make the same claims to the mini-Mauser title as Zastava, the 527’s action actually is a Mauser in miniature. With controlled-round feed from the single-stack magazine and a full-length claw extractor, the bolt body looks almost identical to that of a conventional Mauser… albeit much, much smaller. Granted, some things are different, like the longer bolt lug on the right side, but all the earmarks are there; the extractor, the flat bolt head allowing for rounds to be picked up on the bolt face, and the fixed ejector slot. In fact, just about the only meaningful difference we can spot is the removal of the traditional Mauser wing safety on the rear of the bolt body. Preferring a slightly more modern system, CZ has moved the safety to the right side of the action, using a toggle-style safety that’s somewhat stiff to engage but easy to disengage.
In terms of quality and fit, the CZ is typical for a CZ bolt action rifle, which is to say that it’s very good. The machining is all well-done with no errant tool marks. The bolt body is well-turned, and everything from the lugs to the bolt face to the extractor are all the obvious products of computer-aided design and machining, with none of the slight imperfections you’d expect from hand-made pieces. The bottom metal is equally well-made, with a single piece of steel forming the graceful trigger guard and magazine well, and the machining work on smaller components like the serrations on the safety and the bolt release are all precise and finely cut. The sights are also very well made, with a ridiculously robust rear sight blade that’s actually set into a shank that’s integral to the barrel itself, and an excellent front post that terminates in a fine white dot.
However, the CZ takes a back seat to the Zastava when it comes to the quality of its finish. Where the Zastava shines with a deeply polished hue, the CZ comes across as a bit dull, thanks to less stringent polishing before being blued. Furthermore, the 527’s various edges haven’t been given the same treatment to soften them as the Zastava’s; probably also the result of less hand polishing. As a worked rotates the action under a polishing wheel, it makes sense that the wheel and compound would knock down some of the sharper machined edges, but since the CZ doesn’t go through this process its various machined edges are rougher to the touch.
But in terms of performance on the range there was no question the CZ was a superior rifle. The CZ’s bolt felt as if it was moving through butter most of the time, and was less wearing on the palm of the hand thanks to a larger bolt handle. And even though the CZ’s barrel profile is quite a bit heavier than the Zastava’s, it feels lighter in the hands, probably as a result of the 527’s more svelte stock. Were it our gun, we’d be tempted to swap the five round magazine in favour of a three round flush-fitting magazine in order to make the rifle carry a wee bit more handily as it balances right under the action, but it’s still a very sweet little rifle right out of the box. Overall, although it’s obviously the product of modern manufacturing, it still manages to feel old-world. We think that comes from the very positive manner in which all the tiny controls operate. The magazine and its respective release, for example, are very tightly fitted. Push the magazine home, and the stiff spring of the magazine release provides some tension, right up until it finds the magazine release notch in the magazine body. Then it snaps home with authority and locks that magazine in tight. The safety is the same. Pushed up and on, you can feel it moving into place against spring tension, but it overcomes that tension and settles into the on position positively. A bit of coercion to the rear, and that same spring tension takes over almost immediately, and the safety slides into the off position with a resounding snap.
And the accuracy. Oh the accuracy. We won’t bandy about. This gun is a sweet shooter. Off a bench, sans rest, we put five rounds of commercial ammunition into an inch with the stock iron sights and we’re convinced we left something on the table by not using a scope nor a rest or lead sled. And surplus wasn’t much worse, giving us groupings that consistently measured an inch and a half, again, through irons and unsupported. The reasons for this accuracy are, we think, two fold. First and foremost is the trigger. Employing CZ’s Single Set Trigger (SST for short), the trigger can be used as normal, and when doing so breaks at a totally crisp, totally creep free four pounds. But, push the trigger shoe forward to engage the set trigger, and the pull weight drops to a single solitary pound. And it’s entirely adjustable for pull weight in both normal and set modes, as well as creep and overtravel. The second factor in the rifle’s accuracy is the barrel and bolt. With a heavier barrel that’s shows crisp rifling and no other tool marks it stands to reason that it would prove accurate, and since the rifles are made on computer-controlled machines, the tolerances in the bolt, action, and barrel would be minimal so everything should be relatively true and square.
Admittedly, the removable magazine (although being very well made) is something of a pain to load both due to its narrow feed lips and the simple fact that it must be removed and loaded and then inserted into the rifle, as opposed to simply opening the bolt and stuffing rounds inside. It was also frustrating because it did not cooperate with our sticky lacquered-steel surplus ammunition. Due to a relatively weak magazine spring and the follower design, the fourth round consistently jammed up with surplus ammunition, as the lack of stacked rounds below and the flat follower would conspire to allow the round to nose down ever so slightly in the magazine. Then, as the bolt tried to pick it up, the round would simply be driven into the receiver just below the feed ramp. Yet another case for the flush-fitting three round magazines!
Beyond that, the CZ worked flawlessly, and with that set trigger was a real joy to shoot. Of course, it’s not exactly a bargain basement rifle, and even in the relatively basic carbine layout pictured here, tips the financial scales to the tune of roughly $900. But, in 7.62×39, these make a fine bush gun, with a big and hard-hitting projectile and the simple sight layout working in concert with the small, light and handy nature of the rifle to get on target quick. But best of all, when you’re back from your trek in the wilderness, you can just as easily take this rifle to the range and test your mettle as a marksman. With an excellent trigger and an obviously well-made barrel, it’s just at home shooting tight groups as it would be harvesting game.