The Soviets – Early Post War Rifles: Cold War Small Arms, Installment 2

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The Soviet experience during World War II differed greatly from that of the United States. Whereas the U.S. suffered virtually no direct attack on its soil (save for a few Japanese balloon bombs and one or two long range ship-based planes), the Soviet Union was ravaged by Germany, Hungary, Romania, Italy, and Bulgaria. After decidedly losing World War I, and then nearly losing World War II, the Soviet Union viewed the buffer states of Eastern Europe as a legitimate barrier between itself and an aggressive West. The Soviets viewed the combination of conventional ground forces and tactical- and operational-level air power as the primary threat against its sovereignty throughout the Cold War. While the United States began the post-war period with a “nuclear mindset,” the Soviets did not. Even after testing their first successful atomic bomb in 1949, they continued to emphasize the conventional battlefield in Europe — to such an extent that NATO (basically the U.S.) didn’t consider it possible to win a conventional war against the Warsaw Pact until Air-Land Battle in the late 1970s.

As such, the Soviet Union and its allies invested significantly in the development of small arms in the immediate wake of World War II, while new designs in the U.S. languished due to disinterest or the “not made here” syndrome. This put the Soviets ahead for some time in small arms, especially vis-à-vis the United States.

Photos exist of Soviet troops using the first SKS (Samozaryadny Karabin sistemy Simonova) rifles, alongside the RPG-1 (a copy of the German Panzerfaust), in April and May 1945. A few lucky buyers actually acquired a 1945-dated Russian SKS, when those entered the U.S. on the surplus market years ago. The SKS was the first leap forward for Soviet small arms at the end of World War II. Compared to the M1 Garand, the SKS was lighter, afforded faster target acquisition, and had a slight ammunition capacity advantage. Also, the intermediate 7.62x39mm M43 cartridge (inspired by the 7.92x33mm Kurz developed by Nazi Germany, and not surprisingly possessing the same weight of projectile), as cycled through the SKS’s gas operating system, produced much lower recoil. And the semi-permanently attached bayonet meant the user always had it handy, even if it was seldom used.

The SKS, however, was not the invention that delivered the Soviet small arms industry its great leap forward after the war. That distinction goes to the now most well-known and proliferated rifle in the world: the AK (Avtomat Kalashnikova)-47. While an argument about the inspiration for the AK-47 endures, this author contends that the geometry of the MP 44 series was definitely a factor. Those who are familiar with both will recognize that, ergonomically, the AK is not as user friendly as the MP 44. Further, although its piston layout is similar to that of the MP 44, the AK produces a significantly different recoil impulse, due to major internal mechanical differences. Those differences make the AK less controllable, especially when employed in full auto, and to a lesser extent in semi-auto.

From its inception, the AK-47 significantly outperformed the outdated M1 Garand, except at long ranges, where the vast majority of soldiers were ineffective anyway. Additionally, the 7.62x39mm M43 intermediate cartridge offered a significant weight advantage over the .30-06, while the AK itself allowed riflemen to toggle between full and semi-auto fire. But most importantly, the AK was simple and effective. It was and is one of the most reliable battlefield weapons available to the infantryman. It isn’t finicky: you can clean it with diesel fuel on a string, lubricate it with gently used motor oil, and it’s good to go. Its parts are generally robust and, contrary to the popular conception, it is accurate when properly zeroed and fed. Its detachable magazine was leaps ahead of the clunky en-bloc clip system of the M1, and unlike the Garand, the AK-47 worked well in frigid and wet environments.

In retrospect, Soviet development of the AK-47 is almost an embarrassment to the United States, although the West was not without its share of forward-thinking design engineers. In the next installment of “Cold War Small Arms,” we will discuss what could have been with U.S./NATO small arms design.

A Shot Show Story

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So, gunslinger, you finally got your pass to SHOT. You have arrived. You are now the envy of all your friends — headed as you are to Vegas for a week of guns, gear, 24-hour casinos, and cheap buffets. You book a room at a grossly inflated price, and scope out some good chow on the internet. Who knew seafood was so popular and available in the middle of a landlocked desert? Sushi too! Awesome.

You head out shopping before the trip. Your wife buys new outfits for special occasions, why shouldn’t you? Besides, you’ll need to look the part, and those $800 tac-pants will last a lifetime as long as you don’t do anything tactical in them. You also might need a new hat. Or maybe two, and with lots of Velcro for morale patches. And you’re definitely going to need a new man purse — I mean, “tactical urban utility and light assault rig,” for all the critical swag you’re going to haul out of there. It’s like trick-or-treating for adults, and you’re going to need extra luggage to get it all home.

You arrive the night before the show begins. VEGAS BABY! For a man-at-arms like you this is really the ultimate fantasy getaway. To make it any better you’d have to ride to the Sands Expo in a convertible Cadillac with longhorns on the front, Larry Vickers riding shotgun, and a resurrected Col. Jeff Cooper in the back seat autographing people’s 1911s. As you leave your hotel en route to a delicious steak dinner, you stop and ask the reception lady to put you down for a 4 a.m. wakeup call. You’ll just be out a little while. A nice dinner, a beer or two, and then off to bed.

What is that noise? Oh please make it stop. Why do I feel like I’ve eaten sand? Why is my head pounding? That noise! Make it…CRAP! My wake-up call! Out of the rack! Where’s the coffee maker? Why is there a hole in my new $800 tac-pants? Oh well, at least there’s not a tiger in the bathroom. Three cups of coffee and a large-greasy-breakfast-with-extra-bacon later, you’re on your way across the hotel lobby, down the stairs, and through the causeway to be the first attendee in line to enter the exhibit hall on this fine morn…Oh! Or maybe the 20,000th in line? That’ll have to do. Either way, this is going to be awesome. You pick up a program and check out the map, download the app, and calculate how much time you can spend with each exhibitor. It turns out your high school algebra teacher was right: you are using it. And if you move from booth to booth in an orderly, proficient, and military manner, and spend no more than 45 seconds with each vendor, you will see it all! This is a super-feasible plan, especially since you can just use the bathroom once you get back to the hotel.

Your head begins to clear as opening time nears. Finally, the sweltering sea of humanity begins to surge through the door. Showtime! You slip in through the mass of people like a ninja. The chatter begins immediately. You are overwhelmed with the smell of freedom: machined aluminum, annealed brass, and four hundred new miracle lubricants, all designed by former DEVGRU guys, that will finally make your M4 as reliable as an AK. You run into three marketing guys festooned with cameras, phones, charts and maps, and having six different conversations simultaneously. You dive for your first killer bit of swag: an awesome hat that an attractive young lady has just set out at the booth of one of the prestigious black rifle companies. But a 6-year-old kid beats you to it by a nanosecond. He smiles. The booth lady smiles. And you try to smile, as you grab one of everything else that wasn’t nailed down. You don’t really know what you have, but your now bulging tactical urban utility and light assault rig indicates you have a lot of it.

After 4 hours of booth-browsing on the first floor, you realize your ambition to hold it all day was misplaced, and you make for the head. Approaching the urinal, you are both disappointed and a little disgusted by how many “marksmen” gone before you were unable to hit their targets. Now you feel better, but still dehydrated. You pull out a couple bucks for a Coke. What? $5.00?! Are you serious?

You briefly leave the exhibit hall to try and catch a celebrity appearance, and you run into those marketing guys again. Do they EVER stop talking or shooting video? Nice guys though. As you edge toward your hero’s table, you run into about a quarter of the current SHOT Show attendees, who apparently had the same idea. You hold your phone up as high as you can and snap a fragmentary picture of the man who most decent USAF satellite photo analysts with over 20 years of experience would probably confirm is the guy you’re dying to meet.

It’s mid-afternoon on day one, and you’re already tired. Your plan to surgically strike every booth at the show has not survived first contact with the enemy. You resort to random wandering for a bit. You’ve got two more days, after all. Your man purse…rather, your tactical urban utility and light assault rig, is getting heavy. It’s so noisy on the floor you almost have to yell at everyone you talk to, and half of everybody is coughing and hacking away. Good thing you’re healthy and fit, and have been drinking Coke! You’re also getting hungry. You check your credit card balance. What did you spend on dinner last night? And what’s the deal with this apparent $500 cash withdrawal?

Better hit the cheap buffet. You plow through the line and then you see it: sushi. Is there any better way to capitalize on a buffet? You pile on the rolls like a fat kid invading a chocolate factory. Awesome. Back to the floor for a while. You think you see Travis Haley, but then the crowd obscures him. There’s always tomorrow. Time for some rest.

You wake up the next morning feeling a little off, but you head to the show anyway to resume your conquest. There are those weird marketing guys again. You notice the stubble and the black circles under their eyes. And the skinny one looks kind of wobbly. Then the smell hits you. Do these guys ever bathe? Your stomach revolts. You sprint for the head, where the next 20 minutes are a hazy, murderous blur. But here is where the built-in knee pads really redeem the $800 tac-pants purchase, and now that you’ve put the tac-pants to real-world use, there’s basically no difference between you and a special operator. You crawl back to your room, remembering the sushi. How far did that fish travel to market, and how long was it sitting out? You manage to ring the front desk about a 9 a.m. wake-up call. Tomorrow you’ll pace yourself.

You wake up feeling a little better and you go to make coffee. You take a sip and try to swallow that life-giving tar-bean nectar. It feels like razorblades. You look in the mirror. Your eyes are red, and your nose is running. You remember the hand sanitizer, and gargle it. This is SHOT Show.

The G3: More Notorious Ancestors

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The MG 42 is perhaps the most infamous general-purpose machine gun in existence. While the Maxim and Vickers guns have been around longer, the MG 42 and its immediate predecessor, the MG 34, changed the way machine guns were made. The new general-purpose machine guns were sleeker, lighter, and much more ergonomic than the clunky, modified variants of existing guns, such as the MG 08/15 and the abysmally awkward M1919A6.

The MG 42 had a remarkably high rate of fire that earned it various nicknames, the most famous of which is probably “Hitler’s buzzsaw.” While its official rate of fire was 1,200 RPM, the actual rate could be as high as 1,500 RPM in some instances. If you’d like some help visualizing this, go to the Knob Creek Gun Range in April or October and experience it first-hand. While impressive, 1,200-1,500 RPM is also somewhat wasteful, and user training and experience were critical to maximizing the MG 42’s effectiveness.

The high rate of fire and, more importantly, the MG 42’s reliability, were due to its revolutionary roller lock action. The roller lock system was virtually a complete departure from every machine gun operating system devised to that date, and its performance was impressive. In fact, the MG 42 was such an impressive machine gun that it is still in active service around the world in the guise of the MG 3, a 7.62 NATO-chambered weapon that otherwise differs only in its reduced rate of fire and, to a minor extent, cosmetically.

German engineers continued to work with and modify the roller lock system throughout World War II. Some developments led to speculative and prototype designs such as aircraft-mounted machine guns with rates of fire exceeding 5,000 RPM. Arguably the most noteworthy modification came at the very end of the war with Mauser’s obscure, but very important Gerät 06H, more commonly referred to as the StG 45(M). While outwardly the StG 45(M) looked much like the StG 44, internally it was fundamentally different: a modified roller lock system — halbverriegelt, meaning “half-locked,” which added the “H” designation to “Gerät 06.” The design was promising, but it created some interesting pressure problems that were overcome by fluting the chamber.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

There is some debate as to how many StG 45(M)s were actually produced during World War II. Most sources agree the number was well under 100. You can go check grandpa’s attic for one, but don’t hold your breath. However, its design did turn a number of heads at the end of the war, as did those of many late-war German weapons that were incredibly advanced for 1945. Most of the advanced designs ended up in the hands of the Americans, Soviets, British, or French. The French even “moved” Mauser to France, including many of its personnel.

Interestingly, however, following World War II the StG 45(M) got the most attention in Spain, where an obscure scientific and engineering group, called The Center for Technical Studies of Special Materials, decided to turn the StG 45(M) concept into an unprecedented new service rifle.

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