Weapons of the Red Army: Soviet Small Arms of World War II
When the Soviet Union faced invasion from Nazi Germany in 1941 its army was still utilizing the same basic bolt action rifle that had been carried a generation earlier during the First World War and the subsequent Russian Revolution and Civil War. However, the Red Army was already looking to develop new small arms, and by the end of the Great Patriotic War – as the Second World War was labeled to the Russian people – millions of soldiers would be equipped with these weapons. It would also serve to jumpstart the Soviet arms industry, which would in turn see the development of some of the most infamous firearms ever created.
Soviet small arms have always been known for being somewhat crude yet reliable. The firearms were not always the most innovative or even the most advanced, but they worked well and in conditions where other guns would fail. So reliable were some of these small arms that their German adversaries often preferred captured weapons over their own issued weapons – this was especially true of the PPSh-41 submachine gun.
While development had begun before the actual invasion, much of the production was done in wartime. Whereas German small arms needed to be produced in factories that could make weapons to very stringent tolerances, the Soviet firearms were produced in small shops and in some cases even under siege and isolation.
Here is a look at the key Soviet small arms of World War II:
Mosin Nagant Model 1891 Rifle
Arguably one of the most widely produced firearms ever (with the possible exception of the much later AK-47), some 37,000,000 were made between 1891 and 1965. The rifle has an interesting history in that it incorporated two designs and features from two different designers including Sergei Ivanovich Mosin, a captain in the Imperial Russian Army, and Belgian gun designer Leon Nagant. Each submitted rifles for a testing, and while Mosin’s rifle was selected, the modified version featured key details of the Nagant design including the fixed box magazine and the magazine spring. This rifle entered service officially as the Model 1891, and production began in 1892. The gun fired the 7.62x54mmR cartridge.
Interestingly, not only did it feature design aspects from a Belgian maker, but the first 500,000 rifles were produced by the French arms factory, Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Châtellerault. The rifle had its baptism of fire during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), and by this time some 3.8 million rifles were in service. The results were mixed, but gun historians say a larger part of this is that the infantrymen were not properly trained with this rifle.
Millions more were made during the First World War, and in another unique twist, the Russian demand far outpaced the supply, so much so that 1.5 million rifles were ordered by the Russian government and produced by Remington Arms in the United States. An additional 1.8 were further produced by New England Westinghouse. Many of these rifles didn’t make it to Russia before the Revolution and Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and thus were never delivered to the Russian government. Some were supplied to American and British expeditionary forces sent to Russia in 1918 and 1919, but many were later used by U.S. National Guard and ROTC units. These rifles, as expected, are widely sought after by collectors.
With the establishment of the Soviet Union, production of the Mosin Nagant increased and the gun underwent a few changes. The basic M1891/30 saw the barrel shortened by about 3.5 inches to the length of the “Dragoon variation.” This would be the standard issue weapon of Soviet troops when the nation was invaded by the Germans in 1941. Millions of rifles were produced during the war, and it remained the main small arm of the largest mobilized army in history with some 17.4 million being produced from 1941 to 1945. Numerous variations were produced notably a sniper version, and a carbine version that was introduced in 1944.
The Pistolet-Pulemyot Shpagina was in development when war broke out in June of 1941, and the gun was a follow-up to Russian gun designer Georgi Shpagin’s PPD-40, which interestingly enough had been first designed in 1934 but didn’t see widespread production until the Winter War with Finland. This gun proved to be reliable enough, but an easier to produce variation was needed – this would be the PPSh-41. Some six million PPSh-41s were produced during the war, as compared to around 19,000 of the PPD. Thus, the PPSh-41 was the most widely produced submachine gun of WWII (as compared to one million MP-40s that Germany produced).
The PPSh-41, as with the PPD, fired the 7.62x25mm pistol cartridge that was developed for the TT-33 Tokarev pistol. It was originally fitted with a 71 round drum magazine, which gave the gun its distinctive silhouette, and later a 35-round curved box magazine was made available. In an interesting twist the drum magazine was a copy of the Finnish M31 Suomi magazine, which also held 71 rounds. The PPSh-41 was durable yet crude, but looks could be deceiving, as the weapon could fire 900 rounds per minute. Because of its reliability it was often used by German soldiers, especially in the latter part of the war.
The PPS (Pistolet-pulemjot Sudaeva) or PPS-43 was developed by Alexei Sudayev as an even more low-cost submachine gun. It was developed for use with reconnaissance units, vehicle crews and support personnel. Unlike the PPSh-41, the PPS was completely made of stamped sheet-steel and could be machined in less than half of the time of the former. It entered service in small numbers during the Siege of Leningrad, and full production began in 1943. This model firearm also utilized the 7.62x25mm pistol round from a curved box magazine, which interestingly was not interchangeable with the PPSh-41 curved magazine and the PPS could not use the drum magazine.
The Samozaryadnaya Vintovka Tokarea (Tokarev Self-loading Rifle, Model 1940) or SVT-40 has often been mislabeled as the “Soviet’s take on the M1 Garand.” This isn’t exactly accurate, in part because gun designer Fedor Tokarev had been working on his design essentially at the same as the M1 was being developed. Suffice it to say that military planners around the world were working to develop a semi-automatic rifle for the infantry.
The resulting gun that Tokarev designed first entered service in 1938 as the SVT-38, using the same 7.62x54mmR cartridge as the Mosin Nagant, and it was first used in combat in the Winter War with Finland (1939-40). The results were not good, and the reaction from the troops was quite negative. Soldiers found the gun too long and cumbersome, difficult to maintain and worst of all, it had a removable box magazine that fell out at inopportune times. Production ceased on the SVT-38 (some 150,000 examples in total were reportedly made and issued), and the gun was redesigned and designated the SVT-40. It was lighter, and more importantly, simpler to produce.
The Soviet Union had planned to replace the Mosin Nagant with the SVT-40, and on paper one third of all rifles would be this model. However, a not so funny event occurred – namely a German invasion. This saw hundreds of thousands of rifles captured, and the Mosin Nagant,, which had been taken out of service, was reintroduced. This is also why so many SVT-40s flooded the market in the 1980s seemingly unissued! While production of the SVT-40 reached five and a half million by war’s end, it is worth noting that more were produced earlier in the war than later, as the weapon just didn’t live up to the demands of the Red Army. Basically, the problem was that the Soviets needed an easy to produce and reliable gun, and the SVT-40 proved to be neither.
DP-28 Light Machine Gun
The Pulemyot Degtyaryova Pekhotny (Degtyaryov’s infantry machine gun) earned the nickname “the record player” due its large drum magazine on top. Likely inspired by the Lewis Gun, this light machine gun (and by light it was meant that a single individual could carry it, because it really can’t be fired from hip as you see in video games) was introduced in 1928. It utilized a simple design with very few parts compared to other machine guns. As with other Soviet small arms it was also highly rugged and could be buried in dirt and still work. It also used the 7.62x54mmR cartridge (thus a light machine gun as it fired a rifle round rather than a heavier round) and fired from the drum magazine rather than from a belt.
The magazine proved to be a major detraction however, as it took longer to change magazines, which were also difficult to reload. With just 47 rounds in each magazine the guns had a limited amount of ammunition available to the shooter, but in fairness this was still greater than the 20 round magazine of the American BAR or 30 round magazine of the British Bren Gun. Unlike with the Bren, the DP-28 did not feature a changeable barrel, so the firearm’s lower rate of fire, and magazine changing time helped reduce the risk of the barrel overheating.
The Maxim was actually the first practical “machinegun,” and the Imperial Russian Army had been one of Hiram Maxim’s first (and arguably most loyal) customers. The Russian versions of the Maxim, designated the M1910 were chambered to fire the 7.62x54mmR round. These were mounted on the Sokolov mount (sometimes with gun shield), which made moving the heavy machine gun easier, but it was still fairly cumbersome. The M1910 was used throughout the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, through World War II and in the Cold War in China, Korea and even Vietnam. There seems to be no exact number of how many were actually produced.
One unique variation of the M1910 was the Maxim-Tokarev, which was a light machine version. It discarded the water jacket, and shortened the barrel and mounted it on a bipod. Only about 2,500 of these variants were produced.
The Soviets looked to replace the M1910 Maxim with the SG-43, which was also chambered for the 7.62x54mmR cartridge. While a wheeled mount version, much like the M1910, was produced the gun was also fitted for tripods and vehicles, including tanks. It proved to be a reliable weapon, but as it was more of a defensive than offensive weapon it was overshadowed to some extent by the other Soviet small arms.
SKS and RPD
Two final firearms worth noting are the SKS (Samozaryadniy Karabin Sistemi Simonova) and RPD (Ruchnoy Pulemyot Degtyaryova). While technically not a true World War II firearm, the SKS semi-automatic carbine was developed at the tail end of the war by Sergi Gavrilovich Simonov while Vasily Degtyaryov worked on the RPD. These are both notable as they were among the first small arms to be chambered for the 7.62x39mm M43 round, which the Soviets developed in response to the German’s 7.92x33mm Kurz ammo that was used for the StG44/MP44 (Sturmgewehr). Soviet arms designers saw the benefits of this intermediate cartridge and looked to create their own version. This would be the 7.62x39mm.
The SKS was developed as a semi-auto carbine – much like the U.S. made M1 Carbine – but it only briefly served as a first-line rifle, being replaced with by the now infamous AK-47, which also utilized the 7.62x39mm round. The SKS however remained in second-line service for decades and as a ceremonial arm. The RPD ironically was ready for mass production at the end of World War II, but did not reach this stage until 1953. It remained in use as a light machine gun throughout the Cold War.
Peter Suciu is executive editor of FirearmsTruth.com, a website that tracks and monitors media bias against guns and our Second Amendment rights.