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.