Saturday, February 24, 2018

A Tale of Two Tokarevs: The TTC and M57 Pistols

My appreciation for Soviet and Eastern Bloc firearms is, by now, well known, as one can tell from the multiple articles I've written on them. In those articles, I've mentioned the 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev cartridge, and indeed the Tokarev Pistol itself. I've gone into some detail about the origins and merits of the cartridge, and covered two firearms that used it. Heck, I've even written about the Russian revolver that preceded the Tokarev cartridge and pistol, as well as the sidearm and cartridge that succeeded them. But somehow I've avoided giving the TT Pistol its due. It's past time to correct that.

In a iconic photo, a Soviet Officer leads his men with his TT-33 drawn.

Developed by Fedor Tokarev, the TT-30 (and improved TT-33) were, as I stated, intended to replace the obsolete-as-issued 1895 Nagant revolver, which you can read my take about (warts and all) here. Born in czarist Russia in 1871, Tokarev entered into the Imperial Russian Army and eventually earned a commission. As an army officer, he oversaw the manufacture and modernization of Russia's military arms through the Great War. His first notable contribution to firearms design occurred in 1910, when he engineered a conversion of the Mosin-Nagant 1891 Three Line Rifle which allowed it to fire semi-automatic. But it wasn't until 1930, at age 59, that he developed the TT pistol that would arm the Soviet forces in the Great Patriotic War. Yes, at a point in life when lesser men are contemplating retirement, Fedor Tokarev was just hitting his stride. He followed up his TT pistol (by this time well into his late sixties!) with the excellent SVT-38 and SVT-40, which became the Soviet Union's first reliable, mass produced semi-automatic battle rifles. Later in life, he consulted on the development of the Pistolet Makarova, and opined on the merits of Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK-47. When Fedor Tokarev died at the impressive age of 96, he had been awarded the Soviet Union's highest honors and was still writing articles and commentary on firearms design. 

Fedor Tokarev, Hero of Socialist Labor and general bad ass, shows off his SVT-40 and impressive mustache.

A single action, semi-automatic affair, the TT pistol was of course chambered in the 7.62mm x 25 Tokarev cartridge, and was fed by an eight round magazine that could be easily dropped with a push button release. This was in stark contrast to contemporaries like the German P.38 and (perhaps inexpicably) the later Makarov PM, both of which employed slower, but more deliberate heel magazine releases. Tokarev's early design, the TT-30, was slightly modified and issued en masse starting in 1933 as the TT-33. Primarily issued to officers (as most pistols were and are), it served alongside the Nagant revolver throughout WWII. I imagine the officers who carried the Nagant were justifiably envious, and probably constantly bugged their comrades to "trade" sidearms.

A wartime manufactured Soviet TT-33. The TT pistol lacked an external safety, meaning it was carried in condition three until needed. The half-cock is *not* a safety, despite what Internet Commandos might tell you.

Tokarev's pistol was your stereotypical Soviet design: it was simple, it was reliable, and it was effective. But, unlike some other Soviet designs, the TT pistol was also slim, sleek, and relatively modern. Some folks say it's a flat-out copy of the M1911, or the model 1903: neither of those statements are true. It's a fact that the TT-33 used Browning's short recoil design, complete with barrel link and bushing. But, compared to JMB's masterpiece, the TT had a different style bushing, lacks a grip safety (and frame safety for that matter), and most interestingly, it has a very different firing mechanism. The TT has a simplified hammer, sear, and mainspring assembly that any illiterate peasant conscript can instantly remove from the weapon. This allows the pistol to have its vitals replaced in seconds, making maintenance in the field an absolute breeze.

Considering the Russian Army's past (and present) fondness for vodka, easy maintenance is a Good Thing (TM).

The Soviet Union produced nearly 2 million TT-33s, phasing it out of front line service in favor of the Pistolet Makarova in 1952. When comparing the two pistols, the PM is certainly the more modern design, but I've always wondered what the Soviets were thinking when they replaced the 7.62x25mm cartridge with the 9x18mm Makarov. Ballistics wise, the 7.62x25mm is easily superior. It seems many of the Eastern Bloc nations felt the same, because they manufactured their own variants of the TT-33 in the 1950s, and they continued to issue them as front line pistols throughout the Cold War. Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia all produced the TT pistol and ammunition. In recent years, a great many of these Eastern Bloc pistols have found their way to American shores. Though actual Russian TT pistols are pretty rare and tend to command high prices, the Polish, Romanian, and Yugoslavian pistols are more available and comparatively cheap. I've acquired two Tokarev variants over the years, both interesting in their own ways: a Romanian TTC, and a Yugoslavian M57.

East meets West in this photo taken at the end of WWII. Note the Soviet officer with TT-33 with wood grips (far left), and P.38 in the hand of the US lieutenant. The Soviet captain and US lieutenant seem to be quite, um, fond of each other.

Produced at the famed Cugir factory, the Romanian TTC is almost a straight copy of the Soviet TT-33, with the only real difference being the machining of the slide serrations. Fit and finish is good, with the main serial numbered parts being the firing mechanism, the frame, and the barrel. My Romanian shows a manufacture date of 1953, and upon close inspection, it appears to have been arsenal refinished at some point. Unfortunately, the examples we see today in the US have been marred. In order to comply with the Gun Control Act of 1968, an ugly hole was drilled into the frame, and a basic trigger blocking safety was added prior to importation. This detracts from the aesthetics of the gun, but no moreso than the import mark that's also required by the same law. These are things that US collectors have to live with, BECAUSE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!! Thanks, LBJ.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, (rank: Asshole First Class), surrounded by his harem of Lesser (but equally dangerous) Assholes, signs the 1968 Gun Control Act into law. Sigh.

The Yugoslavians made a few additional changes with their version of the TT pistol. First, and most noticeably, the M57 has a longer grip, which allows it to hold nine rounds in a single stack magazine instead of eight. The longer hand grip also has the added benefit of giving ham-fisted individuals (I'm not one) another half-inch or so of real estate to hold onto when firing the weapon. The Yugo Tokarev boasts a full-length guide rod with captured recoil spring, a good feature for a military issued sidearm as it's harder for soldiers to misplace springs. The front sight is dovetailed into the top of the slide rather than brazed, and is therefore both replaceable and drift adjustable for windage. Along with these positive changes, there's one I don't care for: a magazine disconnect safety. This "feature" effectively disables the firing mechanism when a magazine is removed from the pistol. The idea is to prevent accidental discharges, and a secondary reason might be that if someone's grabbing for your gun, you can drop the magazine and render it harmless. Both of those sound more like malarkey than reality to me, and the "feature" goes against the Soviet mantra of simplicity: it's just something else that could go wrong at the worst possible moment. The M57 has its own add-on external safety as well. This one is better thought out than the one on the TTC: it looks more like a safety you'd find on a 1911, so it doesn't detract from the gun's appearance as much. From what I can tell, my Yugo M57 was made in the 1980s, toward the end of the Cold War. Though all the numbers match and the bore was like new, the slide has a plum tone to it, and shows wear internally, indicating an aresenal rebuild at some point.

My Two Toks. Top: Romanian TTC; bottom, Yugoslavian M57. 

I prefer the Romanian TTC over the Yugsolavian. My TTC is better fitted (if not finished) than the M57. The bushing to slide contact is tight and the trigger is excellent, (I estimate about 4-5 pounds), two things I can't say about my Yugo. I don't know if this is the rule or the exception, but it is the case with my two particular pistols. I don't find the short-ish grip to be a problem in my medium sized hands, and I can shoot 2" groups at 10-15 yards without too much concentration with the TTC. The trigger on my M57 is much heavier than the TTC, and despite all the other upgrades over Fedor Tokarev's original design, I just don't shoot that well with it. It's possible to disable the magazine safety on the M57, and some say this will give you a better trigger pull. However, based on how the mag safety works, I'm not convinced it would make much difference. Don't get me wrong: the Yugo is not a bad gun by any stretch, and I appreciate the Yugos wanting to improve it and make it their own. But in my opinion, the M57 is classic case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Apparently, this flow chart was not available when the Yugos built the M57.

A few years back 7.62x25mm surplus ammo was widely available and cheap; alas that is no longer the case. Fortunately, good commercial ammo is available (though not cheap), but reloading is an option and unlike some rounds, there's ample data and dies available. As for the guns themselves: I haven't seen Romanian and Polish TTs in quantity for about 3 years now. Yugo TT type pistols are still relatively plentiful today, and very good to excellent ones can be had for $250. As with all surplus firearms, the supply will dry up sooner or later, and people will be wistfully talking about how they should have "bought a crate when they were $150". Don't be one of those people. Buy one, two, or six today. After all, they aren't making any more of them. Or are they?

The Zastav M70AA!

A visit to Zastava Arm's website does show several models available for sale. These are newly manufactured, with various small changes to the safety mechanism. The M70 models are chambered in 9mm Luger, which makes for an economical shooting pistol. I've not handled any of the new civilian Yugo Tokarevs, but they might be worth checking out if you're interested, and they're likely better finished and fit than the surplus guns on the market these days. In the end, I think Fedor Tokarev would be pleased to see that his basic design is still in production after all these years, and is being sold around the world.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Heavy Metal: The Suomi KP/31

Ah, the sub-machine gun. Much like the drive-in movie theater, the pay phone, and the typewriter, sub-machine guns are a useful, if not revolutionary item whose time has passed. As I mentioned when I wrote about the PPS-43, they're more of a curio these days than anything else, but as a military history and firearms enthusiast, they continue to interest me. The 1930s and 40s were the heyday of the sub-gun. Every major power on the globe used them, and many smaller countries as well. And with good reason! Sub-guns bridged that gap between a battle rifle and a pistol, a gap that only someone who has worked in a military support or leadership role knows so well. For your consideration, I present one such gun that excelled in its niche: the Suomi-konepistooli 31 (Finland automatic pistol 31).*

A beautiful specimen with some honest wear. Note the figuring in the arctic birch stock.

Perhaps you remember Aimo Lahti, the famous self-taught Finnish firearms designer. No? Then go read about the pistol which bears his name.  One of Lahti's most prolific and successful designs was the KP/31 submachine gun. An early-ish sub-machine gun design that was developed during peace time, the KP/31 was somewhat of a labor of love. At the time, Finland's submachine gun was the foreign produced Bergmann. Lahti didn't think much of it. He wanted to develop a cheaper, more reliable weapon on his native soil. Lahti developed a prototype in 1922, but could not get state financing to proceed further. Collaborating with other Finnish Army officers, he raised capital and established his own private company, where work began in earnest. Their initial result was the KP/26, a rather odd looking gun with a highly curved magazine, and chambered in 7.65mm Luger. The Finnish Army wasn't much interested in submachine guns at the time, and the KP/26 was far from perfect, so the military procured only a few examples. As such, the KP/26 never really saw combat, and was relegated to Civil Guard and home defense roles.

The weird KP/26. You can see the influences this weapon had on the later KP/31.

This KP/26 had some reliability problems and was finicky about interchanging magazines between weapons, neither of which are characteristics that are desired in a firearm meant for military service. So, Lahti and team went back to the drawing board. They retained things that worked well (like the quick removable barrel) and eliminated those that didn't, including the curved magazine and odd stock. Internal enhancements to the bolt cured the reliability issues, and with a caliber change to 9mm Parabellum, the KP/31 was born. This time the military paid attention. Lahti sold the production rights for his new gun to the famed Tikkakoski company, and Finland had its first, viable, mass-produced submachine gun in 1931.

KP/31s being built at Tikkakoski. Note the barrel jackets still in the white. Photo courtesy of

The KP/31 was a blowback operated, open bolt, select-fire weapon with a non-reciprocating charging handle, and it was a built like a tank (perhaps from a tank?). Stamped sheet metal parts? Surely you jest. This thing was forged, and parts were milled out of solid steel. Even unstressed parts like the barrel jacket were machined. Topped off with a hardwood stock of arctic birch, the KP/31 was no lightweight. It tipped the scales at nearly 10 1/2 pounds, empty. This was nearly a pound more than a  M1 Garand! Slap a loaded 72 round drum magazine into the KP/31 (and you should!), and weight increased another 3 pounds. Lahti had given birth to a heavy baby boy. The upside to all of this steel meant that the gun was extremely durable and built to last.

This young lady doesn't seem to mind the weight of her KP/31 variant (with coffin mag), which is possibly a Swiss export model. The gun, not the lady.

The Finns put the KP/31 to good use against the Soviets in the Winter War and Continuation War. The gun fired ~900 rounds per minute, and as mentioned, had a unique quick change barrel which made it capable of long periods of sustained fire. Initially equipped with 20 round magazines, the Finns quickly realized this was inadequate and adopted a 72 round drum magazine, and then an interesting four column 50 round "coffin" magazine. Standard load-out during the Winter and Continuation Wars was either five drums or seven coffin mags, giving a soldier quite a bit of firepower. Typically, one soldier per rifle squad was equipped with the KP/31, making it the squad automatic weapon of its day.

Patent drawings of the original 40 round (later 72 rd) drum magazine (left), and quadruple column "coffin" mag (right).

Ergonomically (other than the weight), the KP/31 excelled. It came naturally to the shoulder, the wood stock provided a solid cheek weld, and it had a longer barrel and sight radius than its contemporaries. The weight of the gun actually did have a positive impact: it minimized felt recoil, but reports from the field showed that muzzle rise could be a problem. To counteract this, the barrel jacket was given an integrated compensator. This added about 2 inches to the already long-for-its-kind 12.5" barrel. Reportedly, Lahti was vehemently opposed to this modification as he felt the compensator decreased muzzle velocity and hurt the gun's reliability. All told, the Finns produced roughly 80,000 KP/31s and associated variants (some of which, like the tanker and bunker models, were really cool), with a very small percentage being exported. The gun stayed in front line service until the 1960s, when it was replaced by an AK style assault rifle known as the RK.62. Still, KP/31s were kept as reserve weapons until the late 1990s. Because the damn things just worked.

The Finns loved their Suomis (center), but they weren't above using captured guns like the excellent PPS-43 (left). Safety note: placing one's hand over the muzzle of an open bolt sub-machine gun is an especially bad idea.

Thanks to a myriad of restrictive laws, it's extremely difficult and expensive for an average American citizen to own a fully functioning KP/31. Thanks to American ingenuity, however, the average American can own a pretty cool facsimile of one. In recent years, a firm called TNW Firearms procured a large quantity of demilitarized KP/31 "parts kits". These were basically KP/31s that had been disassembled, with the receivers torch cut per BATFE specifications, but the rest of the gun was largely left intact. Taking these parts and a newly manufactured upper receiver, TNW re-built the KP/31, turning it from an open bolt, select fire submachine gun into a closed bolt, semi-automatic carbine. Outwardly, the only real distinguishing difference between TNW's semi-auto Suomi, and the real deal, is the barrel extension welded onto the original Suomi barrel in order to bring it to NFA mandated 16" length. I acquired mine about two years ago, which was toward the end of the production cycle. That's right: TNW no longer makes these guns. I asked them a while back if they'd make more, and their response was that they would not, since parts kits with serviceable barrels and stocks are no longer available in quantity. The price? About $500, and that included a sling, one 72 round drum magazine, and a 36 round stick magazine (the 36 round magazines are post WWII issue, and they work quite well).

With the 36 round stick magazine. Note the barrel extension is only slightly longer than the barrel jacket. Worth SBR'ing?

Overall, TNW's rendition of the KP/31 is a nice piece of kit. The stocks are like new and all metal is freshly Parkerized in dark gray (the originals were blued). You can see where they did some welding work, but though it's visible it's not what I'd call sloppy. Function? Mine's perfect. Some early TNW guns were striker fired and reportedly had issues; mine is hammer fired. The trigger pull is about as heavy as the gun (no exaggeration here, I'd estimate it's a good 10 pound pull), but ignition is positive. My gun has the integrated compensator on the barrel jacket (so-called SJR version). Best of all, TNW retained the quick-detach barrel system. Meaning, this gun is a prime candidate for a short barreled rifle conversion: once you pay the requisite $200 tax and receive approval on your ATF Form 1, you can attach an original Suomi barrel in seconds. I've not done that to mine as yet, but may get around to it someday. From the shoulder at 25 yards, the gun is as accurate as you could want, and will make short work of any tin cans on the berm. Firing a 72 round drum from this position does get a little tiring, but you probably won't care because of how much fun it is. If you can still find one, and you're someone who appreciates history and military firearms, I highly recommend picking up this iteration of one Mr. Lahti's greatest designs. You won't regret it. 

The last known picture of Aimo Lahti, taken 3 weeks before his death on April 19, 1970. He lives on through the firearms he created.

*For a treasure trove of info on Finnish weapons, including the KP/31, visit, the main resource I used for this blog entry.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Adventures in Reloading: The 7.62x38mmR Nagant

There's still at least a dozen guns in the safe that I've not written about yet, but it's the dead of winter. We got 10" of snow last weekend in the Shenandoah Valley. Though I've done a bit of shooting in December and even one cold day in January, for me winter is really about getting ready to shoot when it warms up. So, I've been puttering around, checking inventories and determining what I need to load. Recently, I acquired another Nagant M1895, this one birthed in 1915, making it a cool 100 years old. Wanting to shoot the old girl, I checked my stocks, and discovered I was nearly zero balance on ammo. Time to fix that.
And then there were two. Top: 1915 M1895 Nagant, bottom: 1944 M1895 Nagant (Izhevsk)
When I bought my first Nagant, a 1944 Izhevsk, I didn’t like that factory ammo was hard to get, fairly expensive, and surplus ammo (at the time, anyway) was non-existent.  Internet commandos told me that the Nagant revolver could shoot the .32 S&W cartridges, and even the more modern .32 H&R Magnum, “without problems”. To that, I say Nyet, Comrade, that's not where you should be trying to save rubles. It’s never good practice to shoot a cartridge in a gun for which it wasn’t designed, so I discounted that “option” immediately. Besides, .32 S&W rounds aren't generally stocked at your local Wal-Mart, so that wouldn't help anyway. Reloading seemed the obvious choice. I do it for every other cartridge I shoot, and I wasn't about to let the peculiarities of the 7.62x38mmR change that. I decided that my criteria for reloading the Nagant would be as follows: the cartridges I made would have to be safe (good), inexpensive (cheap), and provide a gas seal (fast). Basically, I wanted a factory-type cartridge for less money, just like with any other reload, with no compromises. That's doable, right?
I like Venn diagrams, but this one is making excuses so I set out to prove it wrong.
Long story short, after some exhaustive internet research, in which a great many men opined, but only a select few spoke with Truth, here’s what I wound up with:
  • Brass: Once Fired Prvi Partizan 7.62x38r
  • Bullets: Grafs .308 98gr copper plated DEWC
  • Dies: Lee .30 Carbine Sizing Die, Lee .30 Carbine Powder Thru Expanding Die, Lee .32-20 Bullet Seating and Crimp Die (modified), #19 Lee shell plate
  • Powder and primers: IMR Trail Boss, CCI 500 Small Pistol Primers
Tools of the trade: Lee .32-20 seating/crimp die (disassembled), Grafs .308 98gr DEWC, and IMR Trail Boss

*DISCLAIMER: I am not a ballistics expert. Actually, I have a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science. If that doesn't scare you off, then I salute your bravery, but know this: following anything I've written after this point is completely at your own risk. If you are unwilling or unable to accept personal responsibility for your decisions and any potential negative consequences resulting thereof, then click here.*

The Dies: You could spend more money (a lot more) on bonafide 7.62x38r dies, but my “inexpensive” criteria ruled that out. Internet commandos told me I could use .30 carbine dies, and they were actually right! I already had a set of 30 carbine dies, and they resized the brass to within a couple thousandths of the factory rounds. Purchasing a .32-20 seating/crimp die was cheap. But Lee Precision had the *audacity* to design their .32-20 seating die to seat a .32-20 bullet, so alas, it wouldn't place the bullet deep enough in my 7.62x38r case in order to give me the coveted gas seal. So, I again deferred to the internet, which told me to cut a section of bolt, and put it inside the die to give some extra length to the seater plug. Lo and behold, it worked perfectly, the internet commandos are 2 for 2! The #19 shell plate came from my 9mm Luger die set, and the small rim of the 7.62x38r case fits it nicely.
Cut a 1/4" piece of bolt and drop it in the seating screw. Then reassemble. A *spent* .22 cartridge case could also work.
The Bullets: Projectiles were an easy choice, after researching. The Nagant’s bore diameter is a subject of debate amongst those who like to debate such things, but I'm not interested in debate, just facts. Here's the truth: the surplus Soviet ammo that I acquired mikes out at .308, so that’s what I went with. No sense arguing with Ivan, he knows best. Sure, I don’t doubt that you could use a lead bullet of .310-.311 diameter without problems, but the weight and caliber of the Grafs bullets are nearly perfect for the Nagant revolver (apparently Grafs has them made specifically for that purpose), and they were pretty cheap at $10 per 100.
The Powder: This part was somewhat of a leap of faith for me. Designed for cowboy action shooting, IMR Trail Boss is a fluffy, donut shaped, fast burning powder which fills cavernous revolver cartridge cases nicely. Believe it or not, IMR actually encourages you to experiment with it, which is both refreshing and kinda scary at the same time. The gist of the link above is that as long as you don’t compress it, you can pretty much fill any cartridge case to the end of the bullet, and have safe pressures. That would be a max load; taking 70% of that volume gives one a starting load. I settled on a load of 3.5 to 3.8 grains. I knew I wasn’t going to get top velocities, but I also knew I wasn’t going to blow up the gun or myself, so hooray. And the Nazis and Red Army deserters I'm shooting at are made of paper, so velocity isn't much of a concern. Primers were a no-brainer; I used what I had on hand, but to avoid confusion, any small pistol primer will do.
They're like little, gray, explosive donuts. Breakfast of champions.
The Process: I load everything on a Lee Classic Cast Turret Press. In my opinion, if you’re only going to own one press, this is the one to buy. It’s a great compromise between a progressive and single stage, and still allows you to load larger rifle cartridges (up to .30-06 with auto-indexing!) without any trouble. I set the sizing and expander dies up normally, and run the cases through as my Lee Autodisk Pro dispenses the Trail Boss. Seating the bullet and getting the appropriate crimp takes a bit a of time to set up correctly, but once it’s done you won’t need to touch the dies again. Here's how I do it:  First I screwed the seating die in to provide zero crimp, then I adjusted the bullet seating screw to seat the flat nosed wad cutter about 0.06” below the case mouth. This is a bit deeper than the commercial factory loads (but shallower than the ~0.08" below flush surplus bullet), but it’s necessary to get the correct crimp. Without a crimp, the cartridge will be too fat to enter the Nagant’s “forcing cone” (it doesn't have one, hence the quotes), and you won’t be able to cock the revolver.
This is a good indicator that your crimp is small enough to allow the round to chamber when you cock the hammer.
Once seating depth was where I wanted it, I backed out the adjustment screw completely, and screwed the die in about one full turn. I ran the cartridge through it and inspected my crimp. You really don’t need to crimp the case mouth too much…again, just enough to allow it to provide the gas seal. You want to use the least amount of crimp possible in order to prolong case life. I test fitted my completed cartridge after removing the cylinder from my Nagant . If it fits, place the cartridge back into the press, run up the ram and adjust the seating depth screw down until it touches the bullet. You’re done, and can now seat bullets and crimp the cartridge mouth in one smooth stroke for all subsequent cartridges.
From left to right: Ivan's cartridge (surplus), Fiocchi commercial, and mine (reloaded Prvi Partizan). The top of mine is shiny because I buffed with 000 steel wool so you could see the crimp better.
So, how do my reloads shoot? Better than I do, which is actually better than it sounds. The heavy single action trigger on the Nagant doesn't lend itself to accuracy, as I mentioned, but my rounds shoot at least as good as the surplus stuff, and a mite bit better than the commercial offerings. I don't have a working chronograph right now (I don't want to talk about it, so don't ask) but I estimate my loads are moving around 700 fps. Yeah, it's slower than mil-spec, but it's safe, and the cases drop right out of the cylinder, ready for reloading again. And for less rubles. How much less?
  1. Used brass: Free! (after the first shooting, anyway)
  2. Bullets: 10 cents per round ($10 per hundred)
  3. Powder: 1.5 cents per round ($16 per 9 oz can)
  4. Primers: 3.5 cents per round ($35 per 1,000)
Total: 15 cents per round, which works out to $7.50 per box of 50. Compare that to $22 per box of 50 for commercial ammo, or $13 for surplus, and we have a winner.
Score one for the proletariat!
You might be saying "but, an estimated 700 fps? That's not even close to Russian factory spec. You didn't satisfy the "fast"criteria!" OK.  I'll admit that's up for debate. But, my rounds are at least as fast as the commercial offerings out there, if not a bit faster. I'm sure I could get them closer to the 950-1,000 fps range of the Russian surplus if I used a different powder, but I don't have much inclination to try. I'd love to see real data on pressures and velocity from a major bullet manufacturer, or even better, a powder company, but until then it's Trail Boss for me. Regardless, there's something inherently Russian about reloading the 7.62x38mmR in this way: my reloads are definitely reliable and economical. I think the Party would be pleased, no?
And that's all that *really* matters, right?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

El Rifle de La Guardia Civil: The M1916 Spanish Mauser

Spain’s history with weapons manufacture is a long one. Since pre-Roman times, the Iberian peninsula has been known for its production of high quality steel swords. Indeed, an especially hard, durable type of steel produced in Spain for bladed weapons became known as Toledo Steel. Over the years, the sword gave way to the firearm, and Spain continued its tradition of fine weaponry. Even during the dark years of the Franco dictatorship, Spain developed the excellent the CETME rifle, which influenced other countries firearms designs. Firms like Astra, Star, and Llama produced interesting, affordable, and reliable firearms that were exported around the world. Smaller companies (like Ugartechea) made high end, double barrel shotguns that were works of art. Yes, a mere quarter century ago, Spain was a major player in the industry. Alas for Spain's firearms industry: today, it is but a pale shadow of its formal self. But once upon a time....

A battered M1916 Mauser. If only it could talk.

Our subject today is a Spanish workhorse, an example of a firearm that started with a then-remarkable 19th century design, and ended up as a...well, 19th century design. The M1916 Mauser wasn’t a revolutionary rifle, and it’s not a very valuable or sought-after collector piece today. It didn’t fire a shot in World War I, or World War II (as Spain was neutral in both conflicts), and to my knowledge, there aren’t any cool Sergeant York-esque stories about its use in combat. It didn’t boast amazing fit and finish or exceptional accuracy. Actually, as far as bolt action Mauser pattern rifles go, it’s pretty Plain Jane. So why bother owning one, let alone writing about it? Simple: this rifle has character, longevity, and yes, an interesting history in its own right.

I enjoy both history and The Princess Bride. Sadly, the "History Channel" features neither.

I've blogged about two Spanish Mausers before: the very important M1893, and the interesting FR-8. Think of the M1916 as the M1893's little brother, so to speak. Its action is pure M1893, which to refresh your memory, is a "small ring" Mauser design that cocks on closing (which I prefer to the later, stronger 98 action which cocked on opening). Originally chambered in the hot-for-its-day 7x57mm Mauser cartridge, the M1893 wasn't the strongest bolt action on the block, but it didn't really need to be. It was smooth and fast, and worked great with moderately powerful cartridges. At the beginning of the 20th century it was still formidable if not cutting edge. The M1893 rifle had been developed before the advent of Spitzer bullets, and like most rifles of its day it had a very long (29”!) barrel to take full advantage of early smokeless propellants to generate maximum velocity and therefore range.  In the late 19th century, many armies issued rifles, short rifles, and carbines, with the latter two types going to cavalry, engineer, and artillery troops who (it was thought) wouldn't need the range of an infantryman, and whose duties meant that a cumbersome long rifle would just get in the way. As powder technology improved, militaries realized they could standardize on one rifle type with a shorter barrel length for all troops, without having performance suffer.

Enter the M1916. Spain had long since had a license to produce the M1893, a German design, at its famous Oviedo arsenal. So, it wasn't hard to start churning out shorter rifles based on that design, but with a 21” barrel, a turned down bolt, and a few other minor changes. Many aging M1893s were re-arsenaled, and had their barrels cut down to size, but Spain produced new rifles as well.
My Chilean 1895 Mauser standing in for a M1893 (top,) compared to my Spanish M1916. Note the turned down bolt, sight ears, and sling attachments as key differences.
The M1916 was born during a rather tumultuous time in Spanish history. The country had been steadily losing standing as a world power for decades, something that started slowly with Napoleon’s invasion, and ultimately culminated in the Spanish American War in 1898. Defeated and humiliated, Spain ceded the last major pieces of its once vast empire. The loss of its colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines left a profound mark on Spain. Spaniards struggled to find a sense of identity amidst the change, and reflected on their decline. In the aftermath, Spanish government changed hands multiple times, alternating between monarchy, republic, and dictatorship. These governments were either ineffective or brutally repressive, and sometimes both. Spanish nationalist thought competed with regional separatism, and as the 20th century dawned, the ideals of communism, socialism, and fascism further divided the Spanish people. Poor economic conditions, ineffective government, a lack of national unity, and a host of other factors all brought this situation to head in 1936, and Spain went to war against itself as elements of the Spanish military revolted against the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic.

Franco's Nationalists in a machine gun position. At least one Nationalist has a M1916  (rear).

At the outbreak of war, both the M1893 and M1916 were standard issue, and Spain had roughly 497,000 serviceable rifles on hand. Prior to the war, the leftist government feared a military coup (smart). As a result, the army was only given enough rifles for routine things like guard duty and some training (smart). The Spanish government stored the remaining rifles with their bolts removed, and then in turn stored those bolts in a separate location (not smart). This backfired spectacularly when the government decided to arm the Red mob as a defense against the advancing Fascist Nationalists, and then realized they had no functioning weapons. Only about 10% of the rifles in the hands of the Reds had bolts, and dear God, think of the headspace issues! Needless to say the Fascists were able to quickly over run the storage areas and seize many rifles and bolts while the Reds struggled to arm themselves, chamber rounds effectively, and to not have rifles blow up in their faces when fired.*

Republican soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. The rifle with bayonet is a M1916 Mauser. This photo was likely staged after the fact.

The M1916 saw extensive service on both sides during the war. Of course, we all know that the forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who is still dead) ultimately prevailed, and this instituted nearly forty years of fascist rule in the country. Despite Franco’s militarism, he did keep Spain out of WWII, and like all good dictators, he quickly busied himself with securing his seat of power and rebuilding Spain’s military. Spain’s arsenals took to building newer Mauser type rifles, patterned after the German K98k, and chambered in the more powerful 8x57mm Mauser cartridge. The M1916 was relegated to second line work, and issued to La Guardia Civil, the quasi-military national police force of Spain. The Guardia Civil was instrumental in bringing peace and stability to Spain, and indeed the time from 1939 to the early 1950s is known as Spain's "silent war". The M1916 served on, seeing judicious use against both common criminals and remnants of the Republican forces. The rifles were stamped with the Guard's crest: a crossed sword and fasces.

These, um, ladies are modeling the crest of La Guardia Civil. I'm pretty sure those uniforms aren't regulation.

So the M1916 found a second lease on life. As time went on, Spain began working on the CETME rifle and standardizing on the 7.62mm NATO cartridge (though the country wouldn't officially join NATO until 1982). A great many M1916 Mausers (some of which, you remember, were converted M1893s) were converted to fire the 7.62x51mm NATO round. So the M1916 now had a *third* lease on life. The conversion process of these rifles is interesting. Instead of fitting new barrels to the rifles, Spain did something a little different. The existing 7mm barrels were removed from the receivers. Approximately 6mm was cut off the back end of the chamber so it could accommodate the shorter NATO round vs. the 7mm.  Then, the entire barrel was bored out, rechambered, and recut with .308 rifling. These barrels were then reinstalled and headspaced. This method required no new parts to be made, and no waste, but resulted in an effectively new barrel. Spain both converted existing M1916’s to 7.62mm NATO, and rumors persist that it made new ones as well. Serial number records are sketchy, and many serial numbers were wiped all together in the rebuild process, so it's difficult to say.

Converted M1916s were stamped "Cal 7.62" on the receiver. The "6" often came through weak, making it look like a "5".  Also, note the hole drilled through receiver and bolt. This bled off gas in the event of a case failure.

Eventually, like all surplus rifles, the M1916s were sold off. A great many arrived in the US in the late 1980s, and almost immediately generated controversy among collectors. The brew-ha-ha focused mainly around whether or not the converted rifles were safe to shoot. Much ado has been made over the years about the quality of Spanish steel/metallurgy, small ring Mausers, the difference between 7.62mm NATO, .308 Winchester, 7.62 CETME, etc. Google it, if you want to go crazy. I will not go into it, except to say I shoot mild handloaded 7.62 NATO rounds through mine, and it has not blown up in my face or shown any signs of lug setback. Speaking of mine, it’s the nicest one I’ve ever seen. The numbers all match, the bluing is 100%, the bore is mirror bright and razor sharp, and the stock is arsenal-refinished perfect. It looks as close to brand new as you can get, but the bolt face does show wear, so it was obviously converted from an existing M1916 at some point. I paid $370 for mine three years ago, which some people will say is flat crazy. Good for them. These days, I see beat-up, mismatched examples with worn bores selling for $170 on up, but I don’t see pristine M1916s selling at any price. It’s light, it’s handy, the recoil isn’t that bad with handloads, and it can hold 2” groups at 50 yards all day long with the crummy Mauser sights. Frankly, I love it.

The crest on my M1916. It's not the least bit fascist at all.

A last word on these neat little rifles: Spain converted the M1916 through the 1960s, but that wasn't it for the durable little rifle. Remember the FR-8? It had a sibling, the FR-7. As I mentioned, the FR-8 was made from Spanish M43 Mausers. Well, the FR-7 was made from M1916 Mausers in much the same fashion. So, if you’re paying attention now, it was theoretically possible for an M1893 Mauser to have been converted to a M1916, then converted to fire 7.62 NATO, and then chopped up and re-made into a FR-7. Longevity, thy name is Mauser.
*For more on the Spanish Civil War and the weapons that were used, I recommend this article by Dan Reynolds at this excellent site: 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

When Revolvers Ruled: The Colt Official Police/Colt Commando

It’s a fact of life: we live in the Age of the Plastic Fantastic, the ubiquitous black polymer semi-auto . I’ve complained about this before and won’t bore you all with doing it again, but things weren’t always this way. No sir, for most of the 20th century, indeed up until the mid 1980s, it was rare to see anything but a traditional double-action revolver in the holster of a law enforcement officer.  I have a certain appreciation for the revolver, one that goes past mere romanticism and nostalgia. A revolver, and a man who trains with one, is worthy of respect. It takes determination, skill and practice to shoot one well, and to reload it under stress. Those who take the time to really master the revolver can do some pretty amazing things with it, and you'd be a fool not to consider them well-armed men.

Jerry Miculek does things with a revolver that most folks can't do with a machine gun.

Back in the day, if you wanted the best American made revolver, that meant you wanted a Colt. Colt's Manufacturing had a long history of supplying the US military with revolvers, going back to the mid 19th Century. The arrival of John Moses Browning’s immortal M1911 cooled the military’s demand for wheel guns, so in the aftermath of WWI Colt was looking for an alternative market for its excellent revolvers. Fortunately, this was nothing a little creative marketing and re-badging couldn't fix. Colt already had a solid medium frame revolver it had released in 1908, known as the Army Special (which the Army didn't use and didn't want). So, in 1927, the Army Special was slightly modified and renamed the Colt Official Police.

A pre-war Colt Official Police in its original box.

Obviously targeted at law enforcement (no pun intended), the Official Police was a traditional, medium frame, six shot double action revolver with fixed sights. It could be had in several calibers, finishes, and barrel lengths, but the most common configuration was a blued model with a four inch barrel chambered in .38 Special.  In this chambering, the 4" Official Police launched a 158 grain lead round nose bullet at about 780 fps.  That’s considered a bit pokey today, but at the time it was considered more than adequate firepower for the average constable. Law enforcement quickly took to the "new" revolver, and as its name suggested, the Official Police became the de facto standard issue sidearm for police departments across the nation. Even J. Edgar Hoover’s boys adopted it. Colt produced over 400,000 Official Police revolvers, almost edging out donuts as the nation’s most popular cop accessory.

Stereotypes. They exist for a reason, folks.

Like all guns produced in the early twentieth century, the Official Police was a looker. Checkered walnut grips with Colt Medallions and high polished blue finishes (the famous Colt “royal” blue) were factory standard.  Nickel was an option as well. It’s unheard of for a cop gun to get that kind of treatment these days, and I suppose it was really kind of superfluous even then, but the pre-war Colts are really beautifully made pieces. This beauty was matched, if not exceeded, by its functionality.  In the days before Jeff Cooper’s Modern Technique, police officers were trained  to shoot one handed, single action, “bullseye” style. Here, Colt was king. Its single action trigger pull was peerless, as its firing mechanism was hand-fitted and honed to perfection by skilled craftsmen.  

Andy Garcia (aka George Stone, The Untouchables) demonstrates a 1930's style police officer shooting stance with a Colt Official Police

In addition to having great accuracy, the Official Police was strong, being +P rated before there was such a thing as +P rating. In 1930, a good 5 years before anybody had heard of a “magnum” revolver cartridge, Remington introduced the .38 Special High Speed (or .38/44). This was nothing more than a souped up .38 Special with increased velocity, ostensibly to give police better penetration against barriers like car doors. Smith and Wesson’s Military and Police revolver (Colt’s main competitor) couldn’t handle the pressures generated by the new round, so they only approved its use in their heavier N frame revolvers. Colt, on the other hand, tested the round and simply announced that all Official Police revolvers were good to go with the new cartridge…no new gun needed.  Score another point for the Colt.

Smith and Wesson's 38/44 Heavy Duty. Pretty, but Colt didn't need no stinkin' N frame. Further tweaking of the .38 Special would bring about the .357 Magnum in 1935.

At the outbreak of WWII, the Official Police had been in production for 14 years and was still going strong. The advent of the war was about to change things, though. As the country geared up for conflict, the US Government identified a need for revolvers to arm security personnel at critical factories, warehouses, and defense installations.  Colt was contacted to supply these guns. The Official Police was perfectly suited for this role, but it had a problem: all that hand fitting and spit and polish required skilled labor, and lots of it. This made the revolver rather expensive and slow to produce. The Army Ordnance Department balked at this, so Colt made some cosmetic changes to the gun for economy’s sake. The high-polish blue was eschewed in favor of a matte Parkerized finish, checkering on the trigger and cylinder catch was removed, and the nice walnut grips with medallions were replaced with brown checkered plastic stocks. Colt's marketing department creatively referred to these stocks as “Coltwood” (which I liken to me painting a hunk of lead yellow and calling it “Jimgold”, but I digress). The end result of these changes was that Uncle Sam's cost for an Official Police dropped from $28 to under $25 (that’s $410 vs.  $365 respectively in today’s dollars).  At a roughly 11% discount, the savings added up quickly. Given its military intent, Colt christened the “new” revolver the Commando, and began shipping orders in late 1942. After two new names, the old 1908 "Army Special" had finally made the big time.

My Colt Commando. It's in remarkably good shape, with only minor finish wear on the high points.

There aren’t any cool Sergeant York stories about the Colt Commando. To my knowledge, nobody ever earned a Congressional Medal of Honor using it. It was never used to kill 20+ Germans at close range, and nobody stormed the Atlantic Wall on D-Day with one.  That’s not to say they didn’t see any action: General Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly carried one in Europe, and Colt made 2” and 4" barreled Commandos that were issued to the OSS.  But it’s true that most of the Commandos that were produced served out the war quietly at home, in the holsters of security guards at various defense plants, or on merchant marine vessels.  In total, Colt produced about 50,000 Commandos, ending production in late 1945.

For many years, the Commando was overlooked in collector circles, and could be had for a song. With the surge in demand for pretty much anything WWII related, that’s since changed, and prices have gone up. Since most Commandos spent more time being carried than actually shot, they tend to be in pretty good shape. I’ve seen decent examples go for north of $700 at gun shows. I picked up my Commando in an online auction years ago for considerably less than that. My Commando appears to have had an easy life: it has about 97% of its original Parkerized finish, a sharp mirror-like bore, tight lock-up, and yes, the “Coltwood” grips are in mint condition. I don’t often shoot it as I find the grip to be a bit small for my hand, but the last time I had it out, it shot some 158 grain lead semi-wad cutters quite well. The single action trigger breaks like glass. The double-action is smooth and quite serviceable, but the pull gets heavier toward the end, which can contribute to diminished accuracy.

Note the GHD and "Flaming Bomb" Ordnance acceptance stamps. GHD stands for Guy H. Drewry.

After the war, Colt resumed production of the Official Police with the high polish blue finish and some minor tweaks, but for some reason they kept the Coltwood grips until the mid 1950s. Regardless, the revolver never recaptured the same success in the post-war period. Smith and Wesson’s Model 10 was making inroads with law enforcement due to its lower cost and better double action trigger. By the 1950s, combat pistol training was coming into vogue, with Weaver stances and two handed grips, and the Colt’s excellent single action trigger was rendered irrelevant. In 1969, Colt discontinued production of the Official Police, citing rising production costs and sagging sales. The good news is that these guns are still readily available on the secondary market, and are some of the more affordable Colt double action revolvers out there. More than just an “old cop gun”, the Official Police is one of the quintessential revolvers of the 20th century, and is sure to delight history buffs, firearms enthusiasts, and yes, cranky old men who sigh wistfully about the days when craftsmanship meant something. And frankly, I love that.

Part of the old Colt factory in Hartsford, CT, where American craftsmanship helped win wars.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Better than an AK: the Czechoslovakian Vz.58

"What kind of AK-47 is that?" said some guy at the range. I picked up my rifle and showed it to him. "Actually, it's not an AK at all. It's a Vz.58".  The guy grunted and walked away. I guess he didn't want to hear about one of the finest military rifles to come out of Eastern Europe since, well, the AK-47. That was fine with me...I go to the range to shoot guns, not to talk about them. When I want to talk guns, I do it here.

Czech soldiers practicing with this month's subject: the Vz.58. Note the different stock configurations.

As I mentioned in my article about the Vz.52 pistol, Czechoslovakia never really warmed up to Soviet hardware (or Soviet politics for that matter). The Vz.58 is just another example of the Czechoslovakians doing it their way, and a fine example it is. The Soviet Union had standardized on the M43 cartridge, also known as the 7.62x39mm Soviet, in the aftermath of WWII. The first Soviet rifle chambered for the new cartridge was the excellent SKS. I've not yet written about the SKS, but I will: it's a fine weapon in its own right, though some would argue it was obsolete the day it was fielded. Regardless, the USSR wanted all of its "buddies" to use the same ammo. Czechoslovakia, being Czechoslovakia, didn't adopt the SKS. It had its own rifle with its own cartridge: the Vz.52.

The Vz.52 rifle, not to be confused with the pistol of the same designation, was similar to the Soviet SKS in form and function, but unlike the SKS it accepted detachable box magazines, and it was chambered in the unique 7.62x45mm cartridge rather than the M43. The 7.62x45mm round had slightly better ballistics than the 7.62x39mm, owing to increased case capacity, but the Soviets were having none of that crap. If the M43 was good enough for Russia, it should be good enough for *everybody*, so, the Vz.52 was modified in 1957 to shoot the 7.62mm Soviet cartridge. This made everyone happy, except the Czechoslovakians.

A mint condition Vz.52/57. These are in high demand amongst collectors and routinely fetch over $1k at auction.

The Vz.52/57 was in front line service for only a short while, as by this time the Soviet Union was fast replacing its semi-automatic SKS carbines with Kalashnikov's amazing assault rifle. As the Vz.52/57 was a stop-gap weapon, not many of them were made, and of those, most saw little if any use. The real focus was on the next big thing, which had been in development since 1956. Produced at the famous plant in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the Vz.58 was a true assault rifle. When it was issued in 1958, the major Western powers were still years away from having anything equivalent to it, despite the fact that the AK-47 had been in production for a decade. Please don't argue with me about the FAL, or M-14, or G3: they are not assault rifles.

To the layman, the Vz.58 and AK-47 appear nearly identical, right down to the 30 round "banana" clip magazine. Looks are where the actual similarities between the two weapons end, as internally and mechanically, they are totally different designs. I would not dare to impugn the late, great Mikhail Kalashnikov's accomplishments, but the Vz.58 improved upon his AK-47 in many ways. For starters, all Vz.58s were built with a milled receiver. Early Kalashnikov carbines had milled receivers, but were soon replaced by the AKM variant with a cheaper, stamped sheet metal receiver. Milling receivers slowed production and increased cost, but made for a more rigid firing platform, which translates to better practical accuracy. Another difference was the Vz.58's gas system. It was a short stroke system, a la the SKS. This system was easier to maintain and with less movement, contributed to greater accuracy. The Vz also had a modular stock system allowing quick changes, a more ergonomic safety/selector switch and charging handle, a last round bolt hold-open feature, and a two-pin tool-less take down system. Fully loaded it was about a pound lighter than the AKM, thanks in part to its aluminum magazines, which offset the increased weight of a milled receiver, and these magazines could be charged via standard stripper clips, unlike the AK.

"I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense about how great the Vz.58 is. This interview is over!"

The Czechoslovakians had a real winner on their hands with the Vz.58. They made about a million of them, which in the grand scheme of things, isn't really that many. Early rifles had beech wood furniture, but soon that was switched over to the cheaper (and in my opinion, better looking) wood-impregnated plastic stocks. This furniture is known (affectionately?) as "beaver barf" by Vz.58 enthusiasts and collectors. It's durable, lightweight, and in keeping with communist tradition, economical. The Vz.58 served both the Czechs and the Slovaks through the Cold War and beyond, with the Slovakian military only just starting to phase out the weapon in 2011.

A Slovakian soldier with a folding stock Vz.58 in Iraq. I served alongside them in 2003-2004.

As a select-fire, foreign made weapon, mortal men are prohibited from owning true Vz.58s in the United States. However, it's still legal to own the next best thing. For some time, a company called Czechpoint USA has been importing semi-automatic versions of the Vz.58 to our shores. Known as the SA Vz.58, these rifles start as 100% Czech made weapons, with milled semi-automatic only receivers and new hammer-forged, chrome-lined barrels, along with original parts. Due to ridiculous 18 USC 922r legislation, the rifles have to be modified and a certain number of parts must be replaced with US made equivalents so that the rifle is legal to sell. For the Czechpoints, those parts are the sear, disconnector, trigger, magazine follower, and magazine floorplate. Everything else is Czech made. The Czechpoint SA Vz.58s are finished in a charcoal black semi-gloss coating (the originals had a battleship grey paint), have had their bayonet lugs ground off (due to dumb laws, see above), and the barrels have a permanently attached muzzle extension to make them compliant with the National Firearms Act of 1934. This gives the Czechpoint version a 16" barrel vs. the ~15.5" originals. The end result is a close, but not exact copy of the original design.

Top: My Czechpoint Vz.58, versus my new JRA Polish AKM. Both are beautiful, functional firearms built with original and new parts.

I purchased my Vz.58 before the "assault rifle" scare of 2013, and I'm glad I did. It's a beautiful piece, and it shoots very well. I've not tested it for 100 yard accuracy, but at 50 yards it's dead to nuts with 1-2" groups. The rifle has eaten steel cased ammo, my reloads, and soft point round nose hunting ammo without a hiccup.  Frankly, I'd prefer a metal trigger (the US part is made of polymer), but since it's a striker fired (rather than hammer fired) weapon, it's not a big deal. Speaking of polymer, lately Czechpoint has been importing rifles without the traditional beaver barf stocks, because the supply of good quality, matching colored originals has dried up. The more recent imports have  black plastic hardware in the shape of the originals. I was lucky to get my rifle before this switch happened. I like the beaver barf, it's got a neat commie look and feel to it.

A close up of the wood-impregnated plastic, AKA "beaver barf".

You may have also heard about the "Vz.2008" rifle. These have been offered at ~$500 by many dealers lately. It's important to note the difference between these and the Vz.58: the Vz.2008s are Century Arms International builds, using some original Vz.58 kits. They feature new, US made receivers and non-chrome lined button rifled barrels, and are entirely assembled in the US. Though they're reportedly decent guns for the money, they are not quite as "authentic" as the Czechpoint rifles. The upside is they cost about half as much, and they do feature the beaver barf forestock and handguard, though most all recent builds feature the folding steel buttstock.

Let's just say that CAI has a checkered reputation for quality among military gun enthusiasts.

The Vz.58 is an interesting piece of Cold War history, and a fine example of a Warsaw Pact nation thumbing its nose at the USSR. I truly admire the Czechoslovakians for doing it their way. Though not nearly as famous as the weapon it's often mistaken for, the Vz.58 is seeing somewhat of a popularity surge these days as surplus rifle parts are turned into "new" semi-automatic weapons. I'd encourage any firearms and/or history enthusiast to czech check one out, and soon...before they're all gone.