Russian Military Rifles

The Russian Army in 1941 suffered from the problem that it had been caught at the start of a modernization cycle. It was in process of re-equipping with a semi-automatic rifle, the SVT, when the German invasion started and those plans had to be abandoned. The SVT was a full-size self-loading rifle chambered for the powerful 7.62x54R cartridge. In the event, the SVT proved to have severe problems, based around the fact that the Russian 7.62x54R cartridge was too powerful for the design. Although almost a million SVT rifles were produced, they were regarded as too fragile and too temperamental for use by average infantrymen and their issue was restricted to specialist forces such as Marines and paratroopers. Captured SVTs were highly prized by the Germans and Finns, the Canadians were happy to take a good number as unofficial Reverse Lend-Lease and even the Americans gave it some grudging respect. Yet the official view of the Russian Army remained that it was too fragile and complicated, something, which says a lot more about the Russian Army of the day than the SVT.

As the German invasion ripped into the Russian heartland, the need was for rifles, any rifles, almost at any cost. The SVT-40 was far more of a challenge to produce than the old bolt action it replaced, and prudence had already dictated that a respectable portion of the manufacturing capacity remain unconverted to the new weapon as insurance. Due to the size of the Red Army and the less impressive nature of its industrial base, plans for the widespread adoption of the SVT were abandoned and the old Mosin-Nagant M-91/30 re-entered production. The switch back to the M91/30 may have been a blessing in disguise; the rifle was exactly what the Russian Army needed in those desperate days, it was cheap, there were a lot of them in store, it was easy to make and use and it could shoot bullets. Mozzy-Nags (as the American troops arriving in Russia called them) were solid and reliable and that, at that point, was all that was asked of them.

Simple and easy to make as the Mozzy-Nag was, it still could not fulfill all the needs of the Russian Army. In those dark days finding recruits to defend Rodina was a much easier than providing them with the means to do so. As had been the case in 1914 Russias manufacturing capacity simply couldnt meet the demand of national mobilization, and the disruption caused by evacuating so much of Russian industry behind the Urals certainly didnt help either. The deficiency was made up by imported weapons, particularly from Canada. The Canadian Army was equipped with the Longbranch-produced Rifle Number 4 Mark 1*, a greatly improved variant of the old British Lee Enfield and chambered for .303 British. Production capacity at Longbranch greatly exceeded the requirements of the Canadian Army so the excess was allocated to producing rifles for the Russian Army under Lend-Lease. It turned out that the modifications to convert the .303 rifles to 7.62x54R were relatively minor (something that would become very important almost twenty years later) and the re-chambered weapons were quickly being loaded onto ships forming the convoys to Murmansk.

Of course, with 7.62x54R rifles being shipped to Russian troops in the Kola Peninsula and an identical rifle chambered for .303 being sent to the Canadian troops alongside them, the obvious happened on occasion. Numerous batches of .303 No.4s ended up being shipped to the Russians by mistake. The Russians, never known to turn down a good rifle, issued them to rear-echelon and other second-line forces indicating their non-Russian caliber by painting a large red stripe around the stock and forward furniture. Equally, .303 ammunition in Russian hands was tipped with red paint. Postwar, Red Stripe Enfields became sought-after collectors items.

In 1944, a shortened version of the M91/30 rifle replaced the original design on the production lines. This had the barrel reduced from 26 inches to 20 and was fitted with a permanently-attached triangular bayonet that hinged sideways when not in use. This M44 carbine proved to be as durable and reliable as the older full-length weapon and it is likely that it would have seen much greater production had events not turned against it. Unfortunately, at the same time, the Germans introduced their StG-44 and that made the M-44 instantly obsolete. As a footnote, the Canadians produced a shortened version of the No.4 rifle as the No.5 (sometimes known as the Jungle Carbine for reasons that defy easy explanation). Some of these, chambered for 7.62x54R were shipped to Russia and at least one batch of .303 No.5s joined them, being marked accordingly. These Red Stripe No.5s are exceptionally rare and fetch very high prices on the collectors market although potential purchasers are warned that most of the ones offered for sale are forgeries and never got closer to Russia than the Canadian Army Storage Depots.

One immediate response to the appearance of the StG-44 was that Canadian troops became inordinately prolific users of hand grenades, a veritable shower of No.36m Mills Bombs accompanying their every assault. The problem was that the Mills Bomb could kill a man further away then he cold could throw it. The zinc base plug has been known to cover a hundred yards or so. The need to throw it further caused an old friend, the EY rifle (a shot-out Lee-Enfield fitted with a grenade discharger cup) to reappear. With its heavier barrel the No.4 didnt need to have the fore wood reinforced with copper wire like the old No.1, but it could still fire the No.36m out to a very handy range. With the standard hand fuse a good operator could get a nice air-bust effect if the range was right. The Russians loved it and many of their No.4 rifles were converted to EY configuration.

The combination of a shortened, intermediate-power rifle cartridge allied to a selective fire, high-magazine capacity short rifle was immediately deemed a major tactical advance and a German military revolution. In reality, it was simply the first of a group of such weapons that were under development in the 1930s. In Russia, the concept had been anticipated as a result of the problems found in using the 7.62x54R cartridge in the AVT rifle. As a result of that experience, a new intermediate power cartridge had started development, the 7.62x39mm. This development also was formally halted in 1941 but work continued unofficially and the cartridge was standardized in 1943 as the M1943. In parallel, the Simonov group had produced a new short rifle using the new cartridge. This rifle was intended to fill the same niche as the M44 and was also classed as a carbine.

Designated the SKS, the first pre-production batch was issued to troops for trials in mid-1944 and received with great delight. It was everything the SVT was not, light, tough, reliable and easy to make. Production of the new rifle was assigned to the complex of new factories that were being built with American assistance and located along the Trans-Siberian railway. The first production version, the SKS-45 started to appear in numbers in mid-1945 and was initially issued to reconnaissance units. By late 1946, virtually all motor rifle and Guards Infantry units had the SKS with the Mozzy-Nag being progressively restricted to less privileged units.

The SKS was, however, only a partial solution to the problems caused by the appearance of the StG-44. The SKS was still a conventional rifle in that it had a ten-round fixed magazine that was loaded by stripper clips and was capable of semi-automatic fire only. By the early part of 1947, a new variant was being produced that had a 30-round detachable magazine and was capable of both semi-automatic and automatic fire. This was subject to a limited production run and received a limited issue but it was replaced by arguably one of the greatest classics of rifle design.

During the last years of the Second World War, the Russian Army had two self-loading weapons in use, the SKS (a scaled-down rifle) and the PPS-45 (a scaled-up submachine gun). A requirement arose to replace both these weapons with a single standard-issue rifle. In late 1947, Kalashnikov introduced his AK-47, an automatic rifle intended to replace both the SKS and the PPS-45. Although too late to see use in WW2, the AK-47 quickly became the standard Russian infantry rifle and has been very widely exported. In the mid-1950s, production shifted to the simplified AKM that used a greater number of stampings in its construction. This weapon remained in Russian service until the 1990s when it was replaced by the AN-94. The AN-94 rifle fired the same 7.62x39mm cartridge as the AKM but had an extremely high rate of fire that was moderated by a two-round burst limiter. This had the effect of ensuring that the target was hit by two shots in virtually the same place, a viable and effective way of dealing with body armor.

At this point, it is necessary to look at the changes that took place in the organization of Russian armaments production. Prior to the start of WW2 and the fall of communism in Russia, all armaments facilities had been state-owned and the weapons-designers were state employees. When the pragmatic regime of President Zhukov assumed power, the overriding criteria was that the system had to work and had to work well. That meant maximizing production while also freeing up design talent to develop new weapons and equipment. The first requirement meant that no major reorganization could be undertaken while the fighting continued, the second meant that it had to be. This conundrum was resolved by splitting the research and development side away from the production facilities. The latter remained state-owned but the former were established as independent groups. These became designated as Design and Consulting Groups with the system being that they were contracted to develop new weapons and, if their efforts were accepted, they licensed their products to the Russian government for production.

In the 1950s, this system changed. The design and consulting groups were merged with selected production facilities and the whole privatized to form a separate corporation. Thus, the famous Kalashnikov Design and Consulting Group merged with the factories producing the AK-47/AKM to form the privately-owned Kalashnikov Corporation with, of course, the redoubtable Mikhail Kalashnikov as its head. In addition to these new corporations, the Russian state continued to own the remainder of the production facilities and treated these as a war mobilization reserve. In effect, the new corporations gained the right to sell weapons designed under contract to the Russian armed forces abroad but gave the Government an automatic license to use any of their future weapons designs. This had the effect of subsidizing research, development and design with foreign sales while still maintaining a substantial production base.

The first product of the new system was a new designated marksman rifle for the Russian Army. The primary limitation of the AK-47/AKM was that it was short-ranged, its effective accurate range being limited to around 100 meters. To compensate for this, the Russian Army required a new automatic rifle capable of firing the old 7.62x54R cartridge that would be issued to one rifleman per squad as an extended reach weapon. Two weapons were entered for this requirement. The Dragunov Corporation (a group formed jointly by Dragunov and Simonov) offered the SVD (Snayperskaya Vintovka Dragunov), while the Kalashnikov Corporation offered the SVK (Snayperskaya Vintovka Kalashnikov). Both rifles were similar in general appearance with modernistic skeleton stocks and integral bipods plus provision for a powerful telescopic sight. The SVD was an entirely new design while Kalashnikovs offering was essentially a beefed-up AK-47 on steroids. After prolonged trials, the SVD was accepted primarily because its short-stroke action made it inherently more accurate than the long rod action on the SVK. The first rifles reached the Russian Army in time to be used in the liberation of Russian territory occupied by the German warlord state of New Schwabia. Although the SVK was rejected by the Russian Army, it was produced for export.

The initial SVK customers were civilians in the United States. This market demanded weapons chambered for the old .30-06 cartridge and it is a measure of the SVKs strength and flexibility that it was able to accommodate this cartridge. Later, as the US military introduced the .28-59 round, this made its way to the civilian sector and SVKs were chambered for this cartridge as well. However, the first military export sale of the SVK was to the Canadian Armed Forces. The old No.4 rifle was obviously obsolete by 1947 and a new rifle was required to replace it. The competition to select this weapon lead to a major doctrinal dispute between two schools of thought in the Canadian Army. One supported the intermediate-power cartridge fired from a weapon with full-automatic capability (the assault rifle)while the other stressed traditional marksmanship with a full power round fired from a semi-automatic rifle (the battle rifle). After much debate, the latter approach won the day.

The SVK finally won the competition in a decision that was as much political as anything else. Quite late in the selection process, the Canadian government specified that the old .303 cartridge was to continue in use on grounds of economy. This argument was immediately assailed on the grounds that any savings from keeping the old (and long regarded as inadequate) .303 round were marginal and mostly illusory. Although shifting to a new cartridge would mean some short-term expense, the long term gains in efficiency and fighting power would be worth it. Supporters of retaining the .303 round pointed out the merits of a full-power round, the greater reliability of rimmed rounds in extremely cold climates and the economies that would result from having a common rifle and machine gun round. These included removing the need to replace or rechamber the existing inventory of Bren and Vickers machine guns.

It quickly became apparent that argument was futile since the Canadian Government had made up its mind to retain the .303 round for political reasons of its own (probably to impress supporters of their efforts to slash defense spending). Since only the SVK could handle a rimmed round, it won the competition by default. This decision lead to recriminations over the years with some authorities describing it as the worst procurement mistake Canada had ever made while others applauded it as a return to sanity and the principles of good marksman ship.

The Canadian purchase was followed by Argentina which ordered the SVK in 7.65x54mm (Chile and Brazil both opted for the FAL chambered for 7x57mm, the low power of this round allowing them to adopt a full automatic option). Other sales were made over the years but the SVK always remained overshadowed by its smaller brother.

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