Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Warrior for the Ages: The Colt Model 1911

"In the middle of the fight a German officer and five men done jumped out of a trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. They had about twenty-five yards to me and they were coming right smart. I had only about half a clip left in my rifle; but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off, too. I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn’t time to think if that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me. Then I returned to the rifle, and kept right on after those machine guns."  -Corporal Alvin C. York, excerpt from "His Own Life Story and War Diary"

Sergeant Alvin York, the most decorated American Soldier of WWI, and a true hero.

As a firearms enthusiast, a history enthusiast, and a former military man, I've not seen, heard, or read of a better example of the pistol's role in combat than the one penned above by the legendary SGT York. The pistol that he used with such blistering effectiveness was, of course, the Colt Model 1911, and is this month's subject.

To be honest, I've been hesitant to write about the 1911, because there's been so much written about it already. On top of that, last year when I started my blog, the 1911 turned 100 years old, and every gun magazine out there celebrated the centennial with scores of articles. And with good reason: the Colt Model 1911 occupies a special place in the hearts of American gun enthusiasts. Even the few shooters who don't like it have great respect for it. It has the distinction of being the world's longest serving military firearm, and one whose design has been essentially unchanged since its adoption a century ago.

A battle-tested, early example of the Colt M1911

The history leading up to the adoption of the 1911 is just as fascinating as the 1911 itself. The turn of the 20th Century saw the United States becoming more powerful, and the real beginning of its influence on world events. The late 19th century was the twilight of the Age of Imperialism, with the great European powers jockeying with each other for control over land and resources. The United States, itself a former colony, wanted in on the grab. Europe had a huge head start, naturally, so there was little time to lose.  America had dabbled in "local" imperialism for years, fighting with Mexico and the Indians, and ultimately extending its borders from sea to shining sea, but there was more out there. In 1898, the United States, pressured by influential types such as Theodore Roosevelt, involved itself in the Cuban War for Independence against Spain, which eventually resulted in the "mysterious" sinking of the battleship U.S.S Maine, and ultimately the Spanish American War (or as I like to call it, "SpAm").

Teddy called it a "splendid little war". I like my name better.

Regardless of what you call it, the Spanish American War was a brilliantly executed piece of political maneuvering that used the American people's public sentiment and support for the Cuban rebels to advance the U.S. government's agenda. On that note, some conspiracy theorists even accused the U.S. of sinking the Maine intentionally to start the war (they were the 9/11 Truthers of their day). Anyway, the U.S. won the war, and acquired territories previously held by Spain to include Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillipines (the latter of which was "purchased" for the princely sum of $20 million, or about $700 trillion in Obamabucks). In my article about the Mauser Modelo 1895, I mentioned that the Americans' Krag-Jorgensen rifles were outclassed by the Spaniards' superior Mausers. Well, it wasn't just American rifles that were lacking during this period.

The U.S.'s current sidearm at the time was the Colt New Army Model 1892. The New Army was a beautiful revolver, and it had some nifty features for its day. It was the U.S.'s first truly reliable double action revolver, and it sported a swing out cylinder which facilitated rapid unloading and reloading. It had officially replaced the older Colt Single Action Army and its weak and unreliable double action derivatives.

The Colt Model 1892 "New Army" Revolver in .38 Long Colt. It would later be chambered for other calibers, to include the .45 Colt.

Along with the new sidearm came a new cartridge: whereas previous American pistols were chambered in the manly .45 Colt, the New Army was chambered for the .38 Long Colt. The new cartridge fired a 150 grain, .357" bullet that moved at about 770 fps. Compared to the older .45 Colt, which fired a much larger and heavier 255 grain bullet moving at over 900 fps, the .38 Long Colt just didn't measure up. And not just on paper, either: during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, The U.S. Army received multiple complaints regarding the cartridge's inability to stop charging Moro guerrillas  even at very close range. One such report after the war stated the following:
"Antonio Caspi, a prisoner on the island of Samar, P.I. attempted escape on Oct. 26, 1905. He was shot four times at close range in a hand-to-hand encounter by a .38 Colt's revolver loaded with U.S. Army regulation ammunition. He was finally stunned by a blow on the forehead from the butt end of a Springfield carbine." - Col. Louis A. LaGarde
Not a glowing endorsement of the .38 Long Colt, for sure. In fact, it was so bad (how bad was it?) that troops in the Philippines were re-issued the older .45 Colt revolvers to provide a little more "knock-down" power. 

Weebles Moros wobble, but they don't fall down. Maybe it's the large feet?

The U.S. Army, surprising soldiers everywhere by actually listening to the troops on the ground, decided that a completely new pistol and cartridge were needed. In 1904, the the Army's Ordnance Department conducted the controversial Thompson-LaGarde tests, in which numerous cartridges and firearms were tested on livestock. The results of the test concluded that the minimum effective pistol combat caliber was .45", preferably fired from a semi-automatic handgun. The first reliable semi-automatic pistols were just starting to come into their own at this time, for both civilian and military use. The Germans had designed and fielded the the Mauser Model 1896, and later the P-08 Luger. The Austrians were fielding the interesting Steyr M1894 pistol. The U.S. had previously tested these most of these designs and found them lacking in one form or another. Now, given the concerns with the 1892 New Army, the Chief of Ordnance authorized a new round of semi-automatic pistol trials. No fewer than six companies submitted designs. These six were quickly whittled down to three: Savage, Germany's Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), and Colt.

Savage's design was interesting, but due to reliability issues it never really had a shot. Ha!

Long story short: Colt won, which is a good thing, because there's something just not right about a Luger P-08 firing the 45 Auto cartridge. Colt's design was the brainchild of the greatest firearms designer ever to walk the face of planet Earth: John Moses Browning. Mr. Browning was the Amadeus Mozart of firearms engineering. At the age of 13, he built his first firearm, at 24 he was issued his first patent, and upon his death, he had designed more than 128 firearms. His influence on firearms design was far reaching and long lived: rifles, shotguns, pistols, machine guns, etc., his designs are still being used in the manufacture of new guns the better part of a century after his death. His genius was limited only by the manufacturing processes and technology of his day. One wonders what he would develop were he alive in the 21st century. GLOCKs might not be so boring, for starters. But I digress.

John Moses Browning, the Father of Modern Firearms, and an all around stand-up guy.

Mr. Browning's design was approved and adopted in the year 1911, and in proper U.S. military fashion was christened the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911. The 1911 was in part based on earlier Browning designs, to include his 1903 pistol, but with improvements and refinements to handle the beefier .45 Auto cartridge, which was also a Browning design. On that note, the .45 Auto and the .45 ACP are the same cartridge. Purists will tell you that the .45 Auto moniker is the correct term for the cartridge, as the "ACP" stands for "Automatic Colt Pistol", and is therefore a description of the gun, not the cartridge. Anyway, Browning's pistol featured a short recoil design and was fed by a 7 round detachable magazine. The barrel had locking grooves that interfaced with identical grooves in the top of the slide, a simple design that provided a strong lock-up. The .45 Auto it fired had appreciably better ballistics than the old .38 Long Colt, sporting a 230 grain bullet moving at about 830 fps from the M1911's five inch barrel. Not quite up to .45 Colt level ballistics, but close enough, and in a modern semi-automatic, single-action platform to boot. And the pistol just plain worked. The test bed allegedly fired over 6,000 rounds, and when it got hot it was immersed in water to cool it down, after which it was fired again. There were zero malfunctions. The result was that Colt received another lucrative military contract. The U.S. Army immediately placed orders for the new pistol, and the Navy and USMC weren't far behind.

A Browning pistol used in the 1907 field trials. With modifications, it would later become the M1911.

A mere three years after the M1911 was adopted, a Serbian terrorist (or freedom fighter, depending on your point of view) by the name of Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Mr. Princip killed both the Archduke and his wife, and before Europe knew what was happening, the seeds of its entangling alliances bore fruit, and the entire continent declared war on itself. The Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I, or as I like to call it, The Stupidest War Ever Fought and What A Damned Waste of Good Men and Machinery it Was, Too eventually ensnared the United States as well, despite the public's and our government's intentions to stay out of it. Regardless, in 1918, after a few years in service, the M1911 was going to war.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a FN Model 1910 (designed by John Browning) and chambered in the anemic 7.65mm Browning cartridge. I told you that Browning was influential.

It was during WWI that Sergeant York earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, in part for his judicious use of the M1911 against a squad of Germans, of which he wrote about and I quoted in the beginning of this article. Alvin C. York wasn't the only one to use the M1911 in such a fashion. Word of its effectiveness as a manstopper spread quickly, and the M1911, quite unlike the 1892 New Army, was widely praised by those who used it. About the only problem the U.S. military had with the M1911 is that there just weren't enough of them. The shortage was bad enough that the War Department commissioned a run of New Army type revolvers chambered in - wait for it - the .45 Auto. Since the .45 Auto was rimless, these revolvers were loaded using a stamped sheet metal device known as a moon clip. The moon clip, as its name suggested, was a round piece of metal that clipped onto the base of .45 Auto cartridge, allowing it to be used in a revolver. The "new" revolver was christened the M1917 and was produced by both Smith & Wesson and Colt, each being a slightly different design. Later variations of the the M1917 had a "lip" machined into the cylinders so the .45 Auto cartridge could headspace on the case mouth as John Browning had intended. This eliminated the need for moon clips, but made extraction of spent cases somewhat time consuming, as they were still rimless. Indeed, after the war as these revolvers were surplussed  ammo companies introduced the .45 Auto Rim, which was functionally identical to the .45 Auto except for the addition of a rim which both rendered moon clips unnecessary and allowed for an expeditious extraction.

A Smith & Wesson M1917. Note the cartridges inserted into the moon clips to allow proper headspacing. A side benefit to the moon clip is that it offered speedy reloads.

Back to the M1911. As great as Browning's design was, there was some small room for improvement. Using feedback from combat veterans who used the M1911, these improvements materialized in the form of the M1911A1. The main differences were a shorter trigger with a grooved/stippled surface, relief cuts on the frame to make squeezing the trigger more ergonomic, an extended grip safety which better protected large hands from being cut by the slide while in recoil, and an arched mainspring housing on the rear of the grip strap. These changes were rolled out in 1927. Since the changes were relatively minor, the M1911A1 didn't replace the M1911; it merely supplemented it. But, it didn't really matter. What use were pistols anyway, because everyone knew that after WWI, the War to End All Wars, that there would never again be such a large scale global conflict. I mean, it was inconceivable that anyone would have the stomach for war after what happened in WWI, right?


In 1939, Germany, under the leadership of the semi-democratically elected Adolf Hitler, declared war on Poland and simultaneously gave birth to the Blitzkrieg. This particularly irritated the rest of Europe, because they'd been capitulating to Hilter's demands (perhaps partly because they knew they screwed Germany in the Treaty of Versailles), but the invasion of Poland was the last straw. Feeling like fools (and deservedly so) once again Europe declared war upon itself, a mere two decades after the end of the War to End All Wars. And once again, the United States found itself drawn into a conflict across the pond. We all know what happened in the intervening years, and those that followed. Our boys went to war, and the M1911A1 went with them. Once the Italians, Germans and the Japanese were licked, the M1911A1 had a brief respite before it was called into action again on the Korean peninsula  Not too terribly long after that, it went to war in a place few Americans had even heard of: Vietnam. When the Vietnam War finally ended, the M1911 was old enough to collect Social Security. It had served admirably in every conflict the US was involved in for the better part of a half century. Most of the pistols in the inventory had been rebuilt and re-arsenaled at least once, and the guns were starting to wear out. I read an article in American Rifleman that in the 1980s, the Army enacted specific safety restrictions on chambering the pistol as worn sears had caused a few pistols to go full-auto on the firing line.

A WWII era M1911A1. Note the changes to the frame, trigger, and mainspring housing vs. the M1911.

Going into the Reagan years, the old war horse was tired, and some murmured that it needed to be put out to pasture. So after the better part of a century with the M1911 strapped to the hips of military men, the call went out for a replacement. You would think that the solution would be to make more new 1911A1s, or perhaps develop a 1911A2, right?  Alas, such things were not meant to be. A new round of pistol trials was authorized instead. The U.S. was under great pressure from NATO to standardize on the 9mm Parabellum cartridge for its sidearms. Additionally, from a logistics standpoint, standardizing on the 9mm made sense: the round was about half the weight of the .45 Auto, and since it was smaller and lighter a soldier could carry about twice as many rounds. The problem was that more doesn't always equal better. Dozens of gun rag writers have written countless words about the .45 Auto vs. the 9mm Parabellum, and I have no desire to repeat that here. Suffice to say, that after the pistol trials were over, the US military had a new sidearm. To add insult to injury, not only was the new pistol chambered in 9mm Parabellum, it was a foreign design...a design from a country that the 1911 had whooped into submission 40 years earlier! Italy's Beretta Model 92 was officially selected as the replacement for the 1911, and was christened the M9. Seismic activity was reported that night as John Browning did somersaults in his grave.

Pictured above: the general consensus in the military and firearms community when the US adopted the M9.

Many folks were unhappy with the new development. Some of this unhappiness centered around the performance of the 9mm Parabellum in its FMJ military loading vs. that of the .45 Auto, some of the discontent centered around the political reasons for the Beretta's adoption, and some of it was due to early reports of catastrophic failures with M9's subjected to heavy use (these later turned out to be a bit unfair, actually). While the rank-and-file troops had to accept a foreign pistol in a foreign caliber, the special operations community was, well, special. They decided that the 1911's tour of duty was far from over. The Marines in particular, being well known for doing things their way, were not pleased. Though no new 1911A1 frames had been manufactured for forty years, the Marines began to salvage as many serviceable pistols as possible. They took off-the-shelf commercial parts and began an extensive rebuild program. In 1985 the Marines fielded what they called the M-45 MEUSOC pistol. It became the official sidearm of USMC Force Recon elements.

Marines armed with the M45 pistol. Note the differences between the two guns, indicating they were built at different times.

So the 1911 got a new lease on life, of sorts. It continued to serve with Special Operations units through the remainder of the 20th Century. Since no new frames had been made since the end of WWII, it was entirely possible that a Marine could enlist and be issued essentially the same sidearm that his father or uncle had carried before him. This also posed a problem, because the pistols, reworked as they were, were still damned old. As the 1911 turned 100 years old, the USMC did the only sensible thing it could do: it adopted the M9 Beretta it ordered new 1911s.

In August 2012, 101 years after its initial adoption, and 27 years after the M9 officially replaced the 1911A1, Colt was awarded a $22.5 million contract to produce up to 12,000 new 1911 pistols for the United States Marine Corps. The new M45 included many updates that had long been standard fare for civilian 1911s: an extended beaver tail protect the hand, Novak sights, a skeletonized "commander" style round hammer, a more ergonomic thumb safety, forward and rear cocking serrations on the slide, and an integrated Picatinny rail on the frame brought the 1911 into the 21st century. The new pistol is finished with a modern coating that's highly resistant to corrosion, scratches, and abuse. Despite all the changes, the pistol still is very much a 1911 at heart: it functions exactly the same as John Browning's original design.

Pictured above: the Colt M45 Close Quarter Battle Pistol. I want one.

I am fortunate enough to own two fine examples of the 1911. Both of mine are replicas, not GI Issue. Which is fine by me, because I can shoot the heck out of both of them without fear of breaking a collectible gun. Collectible 1911s and 1911A1s go for $1,700 - $3,000 on average, which is a lot of scratch.

My replicas cost considerably less. The Colt you see on top is a quite faithful copy of a WWI issue 1911, a real version of which is pictured at the top of this page. Colt made them to celebrate the 1911's centennial. Many collectors bought these and never shot them. I bought one for $900 and have put close to a thousand rounds through it. The finish shows a little wear (the black oxide used faithfully duplicates the original finish, which was not known for durability), but I find this adds a little character and makes me want to shoot it more. The Auto-Ordnance 1911A1 below it is a mostly cosmetically correct copy of a WWII era 1911A1. It's probably as close a replica as you can get, and the price was right at only $500. It's rock solid reliable and I enjoy the heck out of it.

Top: My Colt 1911 "Black Army" Replica. Bottom: My Auto-Ordnance 1911A1 Replica.

Shooting the 1911 can be a bit daunting for those without handgun experience. I wouldn't recommend it as a first gun for anyone. It does take a little practice to get used to it. With full power GI loads, it can be somewhat of a handful. Recoil is brisk but not sharp or painful. The best way I can describe it is that you know you're shooting a gun when you fire a 1911. However, the natural heft and pointability of the design makes shooting quite enjoyable. John Browning really got the ergonomics right with this gun: it simply feels good in the hand. Even with the tiny GI sights, a decent marksman can shoot quite accurately with the 1911. I generally prefer the 1911A1 over the 1911, but it's almost too close to call. My hand fits the arched main spring housing of the A1 just a bit more.

If I had to pick one word to describe how I feel about the 1911, that word would be "timeless". In this day and age of polymer-framed, striker-fired black handguns, the 1911 does more than hold its own. Nearly every American firearms manufacturer makes a variant of John Browning's pistol; indeed, many foreign companies do as well. In fact, there's a good deal of quality, inexpensive 1911 guns coming from the Philippines right now, which seems fitting since the 1911 was carried by the Americans who liberated that nation from the Japanese. Those black plastic guns have their charms, for sure, but I don't know if they'll stand the test of time like the 1911 has. If I was a betting man, I'd bet that in another hundred years the 1911 will still be around. It truly is a warrior for the ages.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Franken-Mauser: Spain's FR-8

Recently, I blogged about the last production Mauser rifle made, the Yugoslavian M48. When I wrote that article, I was a bit torn about the title, for a couple of reasons. First, the last "true" Mauser made was the German K98k, made in Germany, by Germans. Secondly, the M48 wasn't the last Mauser-type rifle fielded to military and police forces. Yes, it was the last newly manufactured military Mauser-type rifle, but if you want to get technical (and I do), there was at least one other Mauser design that was fielded after the M48: the Spanish FR-8.

Our subject at hand: the Spanish FR-8

The FR-8 has an interesting history. As I mentioned in my blog about the M48, after WWII there were literally thousands and thousands of Mauser and Mauser-type rifles scattered about Europe. During the war, all the major powers had fielded semi-automatic rifles with varying degrees of success, and after the war bolt-action rifles were old news. Spain had emerged from a bloody civil war in 1939, with a new fascist government under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Franco and his fascists were brutal, but not stupid. He managed to keep Spain "neutral" during WWII, which was a smart move because there was no way Spain could have held off either the Axis or the Allies when Franco took power. As a result, his was the only fascist government to survive WWII. The Generalissimo went about rebuilding his country, one step at a time, while also taking steps to "normalize" things. Well, as normal as a fascist dictator can get, anyway.

Our top story tonight: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Franco was keen to modernize Spain's military, and that meant semi-automatic rifles like the rest of the world. In the 1950's, his goverment commissioned the development and fielding of the famous CETME battle rifle. The CETME was actually designed by a German (most good things in the '50s were), and as such it became the basis of sorts for the even more famous Fabrique Nationale FAL, also known as "the right hand of free world". The CETME, after all the bugs were worked out, was chambered in the "new" 7.62 x 51mm NATO cartridge. It went into production in 1957 and remained Spain's main battle rifle (in various forms) until 1999.

The CETME "C" model, considered the definitive version, chambered in 7.62 x 51mm NATO, was fielded in 1964

It took Spain a while to perfect and field the CETME in significant numbers. This posed somewhat of a problem, as the most modern rifle in Spain's inventory was the M43. The M43 was essentially a clone of the German K98k Mauser that Spain had produced under license. Like the K98k, it was chambered in 8 x 57mm Mauser, which didn't match up with the new 7.62mm NATO chambering of the CETME. Now, the M43 was a fine rifle in its own right, but this was the 1950s, dang it. Nineteenth century firearms technology just wasn't going to cut it anymore. That being said, Spain did have thousands of M43s, and it would have been a crying shame just to throw them all away. So what to do?

Pragmatism prevailed. Spain selected the best of its M43 rifles and began a rebuilding and refurbishment program that would make efficiency experts smile. The old 8mm Mauser barrels were removed, and new 18.5" CETME barrels chambered in 7.62mm NATO were installed. These were actual CETME barrels, complete with flash hider and front sight post. The magazine follower was modified to facilitate chambering the shorter7.62mm NATO cartridge, stocks were cut down and modified, and a new aperture style rear sight was welded to the old M43 receiver. Provisions were made for CETME bayonets, and all metal parts were freshly Parkerized. A nip here, a tuck there, a few thousand volts of electricity, (not really) and when it was all said and done, Spain breathed new life into the M43. It was reborn as the FR-8.

Top: FR-8. Bottom: M43. I like to think the "FR" is an abbreviation for "Frankenstein".

The looks of the FR-8 can perhaps best be described as "ugly, but in a cool sort of way". It's kind of like it doesn't know what era it belongs in. It's bolt-action, but it has a peep site, a flash hider, an abbreviated stock, and a funny looking tube under the barrel that resembles a gas tube for a semi-auto rifle. Some have called it "a bolt-action assault rifle", which considering its CETME parts, is probably another fairly decent description.

The "gas tube" pops out with a spring button, and the front cap (which doubles as the bayonet lug) unscrews.

The "new" FR-8s were primarily issued to the Spanish Guardia Civil, which is the equivalent of a federal police force, and some made their way to reserve military units as well. Obviously, the FR-8 was far from a new rifle. There was alot of Mauser left in the old girl: the five round internal magazine, the bolt, and the trigger system were essentially straight out of 1898. Still, the FR-8 had some interesting characteristics due to its CETME heritage. The sights were one of them. The rear sight had three apertures, for 200, 300, and 400 meters. It also had a more traditional Mauser style notch sight for 100 meters. These four options allowed a rifleman to adjust for elevation by simply rotating the rear sight to the correct pre-set aperture for the desired range. The front sight, also a CETME part, was also simultaneously adjustable for both elevation and windage, but this required a special tool. The tube under the barrel actually served as a mount for the CETME bayonet. This tube could also be used to store small cleaning supplies for maintaining the rifle. Lastly, the flash hider had notches to accept 22mm NATO rifle grenades, further extending the versatility of the weapon. The FR-8 saw light peacetime duty into the 1970s, at which point the old Mausers were finally put out to pasture.

Left: 100 meter notch sight. Right: 200 meter aperture sight. Apertures were changed by rotating the sight.

Alongside the FR-8, Spain also manufactured the FR-7*. Functionally identical the FR-8, the FR-7 was built from older, weaker Model 93 Mauser actions. Because of this, there's a bit controversy and debate in shooting circles about whether or not the FR-7 is safe to shoot. If you remember, the 1893 Mauser was originally chambered in 7 x 57mm, which generatated pressures of about 46,000 psi. The 7.62mm NATO round generates at least 50,000 psi of pressure, and depending on what you read, possibly more. I *personally* believe that the Spanish would not field a rifle that would immediately blow up in your face, but that it's entirely possible that lug setback and resultant headspace issues could occur from sustained firing, which could eventually cause a catastrophic failure. Considering the role of this rifle, they wouldn't see much use, so they were probably "safe enough". There's few, if any such concerns with the FR-8, as it was based on the stronger, more modern 1898 Mauser action.

Top of my FR-8's receiver, complete with crest.

I was fortunate enough to acquire a FR-8 from a local gun shop about a year and a half ago. Based on the overall condition of the piece, I don't believe it had been fired since being re-built in 1957. It had a sharp, pristine mirror bore, matching numbers, and it came with a nice CETME bayonet.. I took one look at the $350 price tag on it and snapped it up immediately. Shooting the FR-8 is familiar and different at the same time. The action works like any other Mauser, but the light weight, short barrel, and chopped stock give it a different balance and recoil. One point of note: it's easy to cut up your pinky on the rear sight when cycling the bolt, so pay attention to your technique.

My FR-8 shoots very well. Though it's a strong weapon, it's also old, so I feed it mild reloads. It seems to really like 150 grain FMJBT rounds moving at about 2,200 fps. This is a nice, accurate loading that is plenty good for punching holes in paper, and it saves wear and tear on both the rifle and my shoulder. FR-8s have become somewhat more collectible as of late. Like all mil-surp firearms, there's initially what seems like a huge supply, and then they disappear and the price goes up. If you're fortunate to come across one, keep it!

My FR-8 with bayonet. The green canvas bag is an action cover I found at a gun show that fits FR-8s and CETMEs

The FR-8 is unique weapon that efficiently filled a gap in Spain's military. By re-using old Mauser rifles and retrofitting them with new CETME parts, the Spaniards were able to field a cost-effective second line battle rifle that was similar enough to the CETME so as to make as smooth a transition as possible. In a sense, the FR-8 is the Frankenstien of Mauser rifles: it's a dead thing that was chopped up and rebuilt with new parts, and ultimately reborn as something both familar and new. Personally, I get a kick out of the fact that Paul Mauser's design just refused to die quietly.

The original designer of the FR-8

*For additional information about the FR-7 and FR-8, check out this excellent webpage::

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Fruitcake of Firearms: The 1895 Nagant Revolver

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you are a firearms designer. Got it? OK. Now, imagine that someone you hate came to you and asked you to use your skills to design a handgun for him to take into combat. I mean, you really revile this person, he's the type of guy that just gets under your skin and makes your blood boil. Knowing this, picture in your mind the gun you would want to design for this person. Now, open your eyes. Did your gun look like this?

If not, then you weren't hating hard enough.

Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of Soviet weapons for three main reasons: they're simple, they're reliable, they're effective. Well, there's always an exception that proves the rule.What you see in the picture above might be the most ridiculous and ineffective military sidearm ever designed and fielded to a fighting force. Yet somehow, it was manufactured and issued for more than 40 years.

Yes, I'm talking about the 1895 Nagant Revolver.

This gun is only slightly less ridiculous than the Nagant. Slightly.

Believe it or not, I actually do like the Nagant. It's an interesting firearm with a great deal of history, serving in two World Wars and many smaller conflicts. It fires a one-of-a-kind cartridge. It's one of the few (perhaps only?) revolvers that can be sound suppressed. And it's ugly in a neat sort of way. But seriously, somebody just did not like the Russians at all when they designed this thing. Let's go back to the beginning, and you can judge for yourself.

Way back before the Soviets were the Soviets, we had the Russian Empire. In 1891, the Russians, ruled by Tsar Alexander III, adopted the Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 rifle. Just like its name implies, the Mosin-Nagant rifle was an unlikely collaboration of sorts between a Russian Army Captain by the name of Sergei Ivanovich Mosin, and a Belgian firearms designer known as Leon Nagant.The Russian Empire was satisfied enough with Nagant's design contributions to their new rifle, that they soon turned to him again to design a sidearm. Let me be clear: the Mosin-Nagant was and remains a great battle rifle. I own two variants of this weapon, and eventually will get around to writing about it. But, they say lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place, and the resultant 1895 Nagant Revolver proves it.

Leon Nagant went 1 for 2 on firearms designs, which is exactly 2 more firearms than I've designed, so...

In 1895, horse cavalry was still alive and well, and it was this environment in which Leon Nagant's firm designed his revolver. Cavalrymen had to be able to shoot on the move while controlling a horse, so rifles and even carbines were cumbersome as they required two hands to use. Swords, and pistols that you could fire with one hand made much more sense. Think back to every Western you ever saw with US Army bluecoats, and you know what I'm talking about. In addition to cavalry use, pistols were favored by officers, who also needed an easy handling, multiple shot firearm.

Now there were tons of good service revolvers around in 1895. In fact, the Smith and Wesson Model 3, a variant of which fired the .44 Russian, was one of them (and was the gun that the 1895 Nagant was meant to replace). But instead of going with what worked, for some reason, Leon had a gee-whiz moment. Sometimes gee-whiz moments result in amazing inventions. Leon's gee-whiz moment can best be described as a solution looking for a problem. The 1895 Nagant, as adopted by the Russian Empire, was a seven shot, single/double action, gas seal revolver. Gas seal, you say? Indeed. Mr. Nagant designed the revolver with a cylinder that pushed forward when the hammer was cocked. This feature, combined with the special ammunition the gun used, created a seal between the cylinder and barrel.

Like so.

So what's the big whoop? Even with the finest traditional revolvers, there's a small gap between the cylinder and the barrel. This is necessary for the cylinder to rotate. When the round is fired, the bullet leaps from the cylinder into the barrel, across that small gap. Gases escape through this gap (with more force than you might think), which means that velocity suffers as gases are what propels the bullet through the barrel. Additionally, depending on how cylinder and barrel line up, the bullet might "skip" onto the rifling, which can cause accuracy issues. Nagant's design prevented these issues. The gas seal allegedly boosted velocity by 10-15% or more, depending on who you talk to. It also is what allows the Nagant to be sound suppressed, if that's your sort of thing.

I know what you're thinking:  it sounds like a pretty neat idea. And it is. But in practice, it was just unneccessary, and it contributed to some problems with the gun. The standard 7.62x38r Nagant loading was a .30 caliber 98 grain FMJ bullet that moved at ~1,000 fps. That's not awful, but it's not very potent either. Certainly when compared to other cartridges of the time like the 45 Colt and even the .44 Russian, it was underpowered. The gas seal feature couldn't change that, and frankly wouldn't have been needed if the revolver had been chambered in a more powerful round to begin with. Addtionally, the moving cylinder complicated the action, which made for a lousy single action trigger pull and a functionally useless double action trigger pull. If you want stronger fingers, just dry-fire a 1895 Nagant in double action for a few minutes a day.

The 7.62x38r cartridge. Note the bullet seating and neck crimp which facilitated the gas seal.

Remember that this was a revolver designed in the age of calvary. Horrible trigger pulls don't help matters when you're galloping across the battlefield, trying to draw a bead on a screaming Cossack. But that wasn't the biggest problem with the Nagant. The Smith and Wesson Model 3 had a great feature that lent it well to its role: it was a top break revolver that could be unloaded all at once, and with one hand by depressing a lever and pushing the barrel against another arm. This ejected all spent cases in one fluid motion, and exposed the entire cylinder for a relatively rapid reloading. Not so with the Nagant. Here is how you unload and load the Nagant:

1. Unscrew ejector rod underneath barrel and pull it forward.
2. Rotate the barrel shroud assembly about 20 degrees ensuring two marks line up.
3. Flip down the loading gate on the right side of the revolver to expose the rear of the cylinder.
4. Push the ejector rod into the cylinder, eject the spent casing.
5. Pull the ejector rod forward and rotate the cylinder (it's not spring loaded!)
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until the revolver is empty.
7. Rotate the barrel shroud assembly back to it's normal position.
8. Push the ejector rod back into place and screw it in.
9. Load fresh cartridges one at a time, manually turning the cylinder.
10. Close the loading gate. You're ready to fire.

As compared to the S&W Model 3. 

As you can see, after the 7th round was fired you were better off throwing this thing at the enemy, because otherwise somewhere between steps 3 and 5 you would be cut in half by a cavalry saber or gunned down by someone using a more suitable firearm.

Or, you could just carry two. And a PPSh-41. And some grenades. Geez.

So, the Nagant had three big problems: It fired an anemic round. It had a horrible trigger pull which affected accuracy and rate of fire. And it was ridiculously slow to load and unload, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be on horseback, which you probably were. The one redeeming feature, the gas seal, turned out to work better in theory than in practice, and it actually contributed to some of the gun's other faults. The Nagant was supposed to have been phased out of service with the introduction of the excellent Tokarev pistol and 7.62x25mm round in the 1930s, but it stuck around, being produced through WWII and used by reserve and police forces after the war.

Despite all this, I really enjoy my Nagant. It was made in 1944 at the Izhevsk arsenal (the Tula arsenal being the other Russian producer), and I bought it for $100 in arsenal refinished excellent condition. It has a bright bore and came with a holster, lanyard, and cleaning rod to boot. As a child of the 70's and 80's who remembers when the USSR was the Evil Empire That Threatened the World (TM), it's fun to strap on my Commie belt with hammer and sickle buckle, and stuff a commie revolver with commie ammunition into my commie holster.  For $100, I think every gun enthusiast should own one, and it seems there's no end to the supply.

My 1895 Nagant in its rig. The holster and belt are post-war manufacture, but who cares? It's still cool.

The only problem with shooting it recreationally (besides the cramp you'll get in your trigger finger) is the cost of ammo: usually it's around $25 a box, and Wal-Mart doesn't carry it so that means shopping online is your best bet. Reload? Well, due to the unique design of the cartridge, reloading isn't easy. It's possible, but it's definitely not as straightforward as conventional cartridges, and I wouldn't recommend it for the beginner (I do it, with decent results). One really nice side effect of the gas seal system is that since there's no gas escaping in the cylinder, they don't get dirty, and you don't get carbon build up on the top strap of the revolver. This makes cleaning a breeze.

As you can see by the title of this entry, I liken Nagant's revolver to fruitcake: it was nutty and ulitimately undesirable. But Nagants have a long life (like fruitcakes). In fact, they're alive and well (like fruitcakes), and they've been re-gifted to us (like fruitcakes) from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Lastly, like fruitcake, once you get around to trying one, you might be surprised to find out that you actually like it a little. Go ahead, take a bite shot. What have you got to lose?

I bet you'll never look at fruitcake quite the same ever again.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Last Mauser: The Yugoslavian M48

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Mauser rifles, and for good reason. Paul Mauser's designs were some of the most influential and lasting contributions to firearms development in the late 19th and early 20th century, and indeed, many of these contributions live on today in modern hunting and target rifles (like the Winchester Model 70). Millions of Mauser and Mauser pattern rifles (I'll explain the difference later) were produced, and to this day, you can bet that someone, somewhere has one of Paul Mauser's progeny in his hands, ready to do violence to those who would oppose him. I don't say this to glorify war, but merely to state a fact: Mauser rifles were and remain very effective weapons.

Thousands of Russian captured Mauser rifles in stacks during WWII, awaiting refurbishment.

The Mauser design reached its zenith in 1898 with the appropriately named Mauser Model 98. The new rifle was adopted as Germany's battle rifle, and variants of the '98 were sold to countries around the world This design was a signficant departure from the earlier 1893/1895 design I wrote about here. It had a new, stronger bolt with no less than three lugs that locked into the receiver at different points. As such, the '98 action could handle whatever cartridge you threw at it, and Paul Mauser provided that cartridge in the form of the 8 x 57mm Mauser. The grand daddy of modern cartridges, the 8mm Mauser pushed a heavier, larger diameter bullet at higher velocities than the 7mm Mauser used in the 1893 designed action. The cartridge was originally designed with a .318" diameter projectile; this was later changed to a .323" bullet which remains the current diameter to this day. The 8mm Mauser cartridge served admirably in two World Wars and was chambered in everything from bolt action rifles to crew-served machine guns. The Germans even used it in their fighter planes. The standard loading was a ~150 gr bullet at 2,900 fps, making it the most powerful battle rifle cartridge of its day.

A Gewehr 98 with bayonet and ammunition.

I mentioned earlier that there are Mauser rifles, and Mauser pattern rifles. Paul Mauser's first successful repeating bolt action rifle, the Model 1889, was oddly enough not adopted by the German military. Instead, it was Belgium who placed the first orders for the new rifle. Belgium also got the rights to manufacture the Model 1889 themselves, in their own country. This of course made sense for various reasons, not the least of which is that you don't want a powerful rival like Germany being the sole source of your military hardware. At any rate, this stipulation resulted in the creation of Belgium's state run firearms company, Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre, otherwise known as FN. FN had a long relationship with Mauser, and produced its own variants of Mauser designs for export around the world. I consider the rifles produced by FN and other manufacturers (licensed and unlicensed) to be Mauser pattern rifles, while the rifles produced in Germany by Ludwig Loewe and DWM (who both owned Mauser) are properly referred to as Mauser rifles. The difference amounts to little other than semantics in most cases, but there are some Mauser inspired designs that are unique to these licensees. The M24 was one such design.

Not to be confused with the M249 SAW, also a FN design. This picture is of a Soldier I served with in Iraq in 2004.

FN was a bit ahead of the curve on some things, and they made good use of their license to use Mauser actions. In 1924 FN released the appropriately named Model 24. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia purchased these rifles to equip its military. The M24 was based on the Mauser 1898 action, but it sported a barrel that was about 7" shorter than the Gewehr 98 rifle. Additionally, the action was shorter by about 1/4" of an inch. This took a total half inch of travel off of the bolt, which in theory meant that the action could be manipulated a bit faster. This shorter length action is known as the "intermediate length" receiver. The M24 was a beautifully built short rifle in its own right, a good 11 years before Germany would officially adopt the legendary K98k that was the mainstay battle rifle of the Werhmacht in WWII. Some very nice variants of the the M24 were made, such as the so-called M24/30 Venezuelan contract rifles, one of which I am fortunate enough to own.

Top: My M48B Yugoslavian Mauser. Bottom: M24/30 Venezuelan Contract Mauser. Generally, the Venezuelan is worth about three times the Yugoslavian. I prefer the Venezuelan for its superior fit, finish, and 7mm Mauser chambering.

World War II was the bolt action rifle's last hurrah, and as the Cold War loomed, millions of Mauser and Mauser-pattern rifles sat in armories throughout Europe. Some stayed in storage, some were relegated to second and third line civil defense forces, and some were sold as surplus to poorer countries. By the 1950s, the major powers in Europe had fielded semiautomatic and select-fire weapons for their militaries. It looked as if the bolt-action was dead and gone, but there was some life in the old girl yet.

After the war, Yugoslavia went Red along with the rest of Eastern Europe, and the new Communist regime went about preparing itself for the inevitable WWIII. Bolt action rifles were better than nothing, and Yugoslavia wasn't exactly overflowing with cash, so the old M24s were arsenal refurbished, often given new barrels, and stamped with the new Yugoslavian crest. The "new" rifles are known as the M24/47, with the 47 indicating the year of the refurbishment program. Alongside the 24/47, Yugoslavia produced new rifles built on FN tooling. These new bolt action rifles are known as the M48. Yugoslavia made them from 1950 to the early 1960's, and mechanically they were the same as the 24/47. They did receive a couple of minor upgrades from the 24/47 that were inspired by the German K98k (of which the Yugos captured many and also refurbished). Like the K98k, the M48 featured a turned-down bolt which supposedly made it easier to manipulate from certain positions, as well as a new stock with a sling cutout instead of sling swivels.  A cup-style steel buttplate was also adopted. The M48 would accept the K98k sling and bayonet, but most other parts were incompatible as the M48 had an intermediate-length receiver, like the M24 before it. Most of the M48s that were made were put into storage soon after manufacture. I speculate that this is because the Yugos were fielding their variant of the semiautomatic SKS at about the same time. That's not to say that the M48 just collected dust: some saw combat during the recent unpleasantness in the late 20th century that saw the dissolution of Yugoslavia, indeed, variants of these with custom stock carvings are sought after by some collectors.

A Yugoslavian M48 with stock art. Soldiers do all kinds of things (ranging from constructive to disgusting) to stave off boredom during war.

Yugoslavia made at least three variants of the M48. The first rifles featured all-forged steel parts. To cut costs, the M48A was developed, which substituted stamped steel for the magazine floor plate. The M48B (which was still marked the M48A for some reason) featured more stamped parts, such as the magazine follower, trigger guard, trigger, and upper barrel band. A variant of the M48B known as the M48BO was also made, without crests or markings of any kind. Some speculate that these rifles were made with the intent to fulfill contracts to somewhat, er, unpopular nations, and the Yugos wanted to retain a degree of anonymity. I don't know if I believe that. From what I've seen, the later rifles have a nicer fit and finish to them, despite the stamped parts, but all variants are tough as nails.

A pristine M48. These are getting harder and harder to find as the years go by.

In the late 90's, the M48s were surplused and sold, with a great many reaching American shores. As I mentioned, a good number of them arrived in nearly new condition, coated in a thick layer of preservative grease. Often these rifles came with accessories such as slings, ammo pouches, and bayonets. When they first hit the market, you could snap up greasy, unissued specimens for under $100. Alas, those days are long gone. Believe it or not, these rifles stirred up a bit of controversy when they were imported. The turned down bolt and stock cut-out of the M48 made it resemble the K98k to the untrained eye, and some unscrupulous individuals have used this to their advantage over the years to deceive the ignorant. These folks have stretched the truth in advertising, often referring to these rifles as 98ks, which is inaccurate. Mitchell's Mausers, a company of somewhate ill repute in collector's circles, also advertised these rifles as having teakwood stocks. Because everyone knows about the vast, lush teak forests of Yugoslavia, right?  It would be most unusual for a country that was making bolt action rifles to spend money to acquire teak stocks for them. Most collectors now agree that the M48 is stocked from elm, not teak, so don't be deceived. They're also sometimes advertised as "Serbian" Mausers, which is probably done to make the rifle sound "fancier", as many people don't equate the word "Yugoslavian" with quality.

I can't imagine why.

Fortunately, Yugoslavian guns and Yugoslavian cars are two different animals. Nowadays, unissued examples of the M48 without accessories go for $350 and up, depending on the variant. I acquired a M48B model about a year ago in that range, but mine came with a sling. It was coated in Grade A Communist Cosmoline, and it was a flat out pain in the ass to get it all out. Especially the stock. The grease hasn't improved the wood's integrity the last half century, and though elm is reasonably hard, it splinters fairly easily. Therefore I wanted to treat the stock as gently as possible. I wiped the stock down with odorless mineral spirits, but the cosmo had soaked in over the years. So, I placed the stock in a black trash bag, and during the hottest days of summer I put the bag in the back window of my car. After a half hour, I pulled out the very hot stock and wiped off all the cosmoline that had sweated out. I repeated this five or six times, until finally it was as good as it was going to get. Some folks will tell you to sand the stock, or use EZ-Off oven cleaner, or even a dishwasher. I'll pass on those methods. Sanding affects collector value and changes the shape and character of the wood, and the latter two methods can cause lasting damage to the wood fibers themselves. Those methods may give you a "cleaner" looking stock, but the potential cost is too high in my opinion. I would advise you stay away from Mitchell's Mausers if you're looking for a collectible M48; they have been known to heavily refinish the stocks on the rifles they sell. They look nice, but authentic they ain't.

Shooting the M48 is good fun. Out of all the Mauser and Mauser pattern rifles I own, it's the roughest in the fit and finish department. That's not to say it isn't well made, it's just not quite as refined as some of the pre-war, German or FN made variants. The bolt on the M48 is stiff but reasonably smooth, and the trigger is somewhat heavy. It's zeroed for 200 meters but with the right handloads, it shoots to point of aim at 100 yards. With the typically crummy Mauser style sights and practice, I can shoot 3-4" groups. Your mileage may vary. The sights and trigger really limit the potential of the rifle in my opinion. If you're a masochist, full power Yugoslavian surplus rounds are available for sale. Yugo cartridges are topped with 196 grain FMJ bullets that move at 2,600 fps, and they kick like a pissed-off Clydesdale. I recommend a butt pad such as Pachmayr's excellent slip-on Decelerator when shooting this ammo, unless you think a bruised and sore shoulder makes you more of a man (hint: it doesn't). This surplus ammo is corrosively primed, so clean your rifle immediately after shooting with a solvent that's designed to dissolve caustic salts. I rarely shoot corrosive ammo, but when I do I use a 1:10 Simple Green solution to dissolve the salts, spray the parts with WD-40 to remove any water (did you know the 'WD' stands for 'water displacer'?), then clean as normal with Hoppe's #9, and lastly follow up with a light coat of Break Free CLP. I haven't had any rust yet.

Even at $350, the M48 is still a bargain in my opinion. If that's too much for you, Very Good to Excellent examples can be found for $250-$300 if you shop around. It's a piece of Cold War history with a long and interesting pedigree, and no serious collection is complete without one.The M24/47 is very similar and usually a bit cheaper, but they're much harder to find in excellent condition with all matching parts. This is the last military issue Mauser pattern rifle that was ever made. These rifles are rugged, reliable, and reasonably accurate, and therefore worthy to bear the legendary name of Mauser.

As the Boers would put it, keep "Vertroue in God en die Mauser" or, "Faith in God and the Mauser."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sudayev's Sub-gun: The PPS-43

So far, we've talked about pistols and rifles. What else is there, you may ask? How about machine guns? Submachine guns, to be precise. Everybody likes submachine guns, right?

If not, then you are reading the wrong blog. Pictured above: a well-used PPS-43.

It may not surprise readers of this blog to learn that in addition to being a fan of old things that go boom, I'm a fan of old movies in which things go boom. Yes, I'm talking about older WWII classic films, like The Guns of Navarone, The Longest Day, Patton, Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, etc. What's interesting about these films (besides the fact that they're just plain fun to watch) is that they are often historically inaccurate, but quite revealing at the same time.

Also quite revealing: Ingrid Pitt's oufit in Where Eagles Dare. Clint Eastwood looks just miserable, doesn't he?

Typically, in these types of movies, there's a least one scene in which a bad guy struggles with what's meant to be a seen as an old, obsolete bolt-action rifle. While said baddie is struggling in vain to chamber a round and shoot, the hero or heroes deftly fills him full of nice round holes with a submachine gun. In fact, all the heroes (and yes, many of the villians) are equipped with these wonderous weapons of destruction, and they usually make short work of the bad guys with them (while firing hundreds of rounds without ever changing magazines or experiencing malfunctions, but that's a whole 'nother topic altogether).

Lee Marvin with a M3 "Grease Gun" in The Dirty Dozen. Even Chuck Norris was afraid of Lee Marvin.

What's revealing about this is that the submachine gun, at close range, was and is an absolutely deadly weapon. What's historically innaccurate about this is that submachine guns were nowhere near as ubiquitous during their heyday of WWII as Hollywood would like you to believe. Oh, and that "obsolete" bolt action? That was the ubiquitous firearm in those days. Something that the submachine gun does share in common with the bolt-action rifle, however, is that they are both weapons whose time has past. It may seem odd to put two totally dissimilar guns in this same "obsolete" category, but it's true. There once was a time when submachine guns did play a significant role on the battlefield, much like bolt-action rifles. While this is no longer the case, it is much less of a reflection on the effectiveness of the submachine gun as it is an indicator of convergence. More on that later.

The submachine gun is a handheld, lightweight, and fully-automatic weapon usually chambered for a pistol cartridge. It allows a high volume of effective fire at close range with little felt recoil and good control. Submachine guns filled a gap between pistols and machine guns during a time when nearly all fully-automatic weapons were crew-served. Submachine guns gave combat leaders, combat vehicle crewmen, paratroopers, and commandos a handy, compact, and lethal weapon with which to rain down death on their enemies. Despite what Hollywood wants you to believe, they were not generally issued to the rank and file infantry grunt, but they did see use by every major power on Earth during the Second World War.

Readers of this site know that I am a fan of Soviet weapons. The USSR's first widely successful submachine gun was the PPSh-41. The PPSh-41 fired the lethal 7.62 Tokarev round at a blistering 900 rounds per minute and was fed from a 35 round stick or a 71 round drum magazine. It fired from an open bolt and had a selector switch which allowed semi-auto fire as well as full auto. In true Russian tradition, 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev cartridge was an improved copy of the German 7.63 Mauser round. The Soviets had adopted it as their issue pistol cartridge in 1933. Essentially, the Soviets took the 7.63 Mauser round and loaded it with more powder. This produced higher pressures and therefore greater velocity than the 7.63 Mauser. The Soviets had created a sort of mini-rifle cartridge, both in appearance and performance. The 7.62 x 25mm sported an ~85 gr FMJ bullet that traveled at roughly 1,450 feet per second out of a pistol. Penetration was excellent at these velocities; indeed, the standard loading of the 7.62 x 25mm is capable of defeating Level II body armor such as that found in modern Kevlar helmets and vests. When fired out of a submachine gun with a considerably longer barrel, velocities approached 1,700 fps. Translated to energy, that's about 520 foot-pounds of force, which is greater than that of the 9mm Luger or 45 Auto, and is just trailing the .357 Magnum. Impressive. Most impressive.

The 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev, as loaded by Soviet bloc nations. This appears to be Bulgarian surplus.

The PPSh-41 was a deadly piece of hardware, for sure. Built in typical Soviet fashion, it was cheap, rugged, reliable, and effective. A peasant conscript could be quickly trained to fire and maintain it, and it was relatively fast and easy to produce (which is a plus when your country is overrun by Nazis). The Soviets found the PPSh-41 to be so effective that they armed entire divisions with it. That's right. At a time when most infantry units were equipped with bolt-action rifles and a few crew-served machine guns, the Soviets fielded some infantry units with nothing but submachine guns. Crazy or genius? Well, when you consider the nature of fighting on the Eastern front, it makes sense. Engagement distance was considerably shorter in Russian cities, and when fighting against an entrenched German force in an urban environment, volume of fire mattered more than range and accuracy, and hit-and-fade operations were preferable to sustained engagements. The submachine gun was nearly perfect for this type of combat.

Russian partisans with their PPSh-41s. The PPSh-41 is also known as the "PaPaShaw" for obvious reasons.

The PPSh-41, despite its charms, wasn't perfect. Simple as it was, it did require skilled labor and a good bit of precious steel to make. Also concerning was its very high rate of fire. At 900 rounds per minute, your average Soviet conscript could dump a 71 round drum magazine in about five seconds, or a 35 round stick mag in about half that time...and the 71 rounders had a reputation for less than stellar reliability. In combat, your warfighters are only as effective as the logisticians who support them, and the PPSh-41 could burn through some Class V in a hurry. The Soviets needed a more economical sub-gun.

"I was thinking, we need a new submachine gun. Make me one by next Friday, or I'll kill your family."

Enter Soviet patriot Alexei Sudayev. In response to Mother Russia's requirement, he designed a weapon which some consider to be the finest submachine gun of WWII. Like the PPSh-41, Sudayev's sub-gun fired from an open bolt and was chambered for the potent 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev. It was made entirely of steel (primarily of sheet metal stampings, including the folding stock) yet required only half the metal of the PPSh-41. This simplified construction also reduced machining time by more than 50%, meaning that about two PPS-43s could be made for every PPSh-41. In addition to economy, the PPS-43  was lighter than the Papashaw, and the folding stock made it handier as well in close quarters. The rate of fire was reduced to ~600 rounds per minute vs. the PPSh-41's 900 rounds per minute. It dispensed with the selector switch of the Papashaw, being full-auto only. The PPS-43 was fed by a 35 round stick magazine. In a strange oversight for Soviet weaponry, it was incompatible with either the stick or the drum magazines for the PPSh-41. I've always thought this odd, considering the economical requirements that drove the development and fielding of the PPS-43. It seems to me that designing the new gun to accept the old gun's stick magazines at the very least would have been a no-brainer, but there it is. Go figure. Regardless, the PPS-43 was a great success, and in addition to the Soviet Union, it was produced in China and Poland after the war.

Soviet soldier with the PPS-43. The PPS-43 was developed, produced, and fielded during the Siege of Leningrad.

Major military powers no longer issue submachine guns to their general troops. What happened to it? Well, in the late 1940's a Soviet by the name of Mikhail Kalashnikov designed a weapon known today as the AK-47. Though most historians credit the German StG 44 with being the world's first assault rifle, it arrived too late on the battlefield in WWII and in too few numbers to make any real waves. The AK-47 had a much greater impact. Inspired by the StG 44 concept (if not design), the AK sounded the death knell for the submachine gun and changed the face of warfare. With the advent of the AK-47, the modern assault rifle had arrived, and with it the "convergence" I spoke about earlier. The AK-47 could do everything the submachine gun could do, and more. The AK-47 fired an intermediate rifle cartridges, making it more powerful than sub-guns but with comparable weight and recoil, and they could be made in multiple configurations with shorter barrels and folding stocks.  In traditional Soviet fasion, the AK was cheap, rugged, and effective, so it should come as no surprise that  it quickly became the standard issue weapon of the Soviet military. Most other militaries followed the Soviets' lead (some taking longer than others).

The sub-gun isn't totally dead, though. It's still an amazingly effective personal defense weapon, and as such, various submachine guns are employed by private security firms around the world. I saw more than a few contractors in Iraq armed with H&K MP5s, and I considered them well-armed men. Special forces units still use sub-guns as well, when the mission parameters call for them.

The Sturmgewehr 44, credited as the world's first assault rifle, and the beginning of the end for the submachine gun.

For a private citizen to acquire a functioning PPS-43 today requires a lot of cash and alot of red tape. But for much less money and hassle, you can own the next best thing. In 2010 a Polish company called Pioneer Arms began developing a semi-automatic version of the PPS-43 for commercial export. As I mentioned above, Poland had adopted the PPS-43 after WWII and produced it under license, so the country was no stranger to the design. Named the PPS-43C, these "new" guns were made from original PPS-43 parts with new manufactured upper receivers and a modified fire control system that converted the open bolt, full-auto only design to a closed bolt, semi-auto design that looks virtually identical to the original sub-gun. Additionally, the stock was "permanently" fixed in the folded configuration. These modifications mean that for BATF purposes, the gun is considered a semi-automatic pistol, which makes it legal to own for mortal men in most of the USA. I bought one from Southern Ohio Gun for the princely sum of $290. It came with a cleaning rod and two original 35 round magazines. That's a small price to pay for a piece of history, especially considering the red tape and extreme expense you'd have to go through to acquire an original PPS-43.

Top: PPS-43C; Bottom: Original PPS-43. Note the modifications to the lower receiver and firing mechanisms

The conversion is fairly well done, and while it's not the most reliable gun in my collection, it's tons of fun to shoot. Occasionally the gun will have a problem with the hard primers of military surplus 7.62 x 25mm ammo (likely due to the conversion, the original PPS-43 didn't have a firing pin, but a small nub on the bolt face that slammed into the primer), but commercial or reloaded ammo works great. Considering almost all of the surplus 7.62 x 25mm ammo has dried up, proper function with commercial stuff and reloads is a plus. Aiming the PPS-43C without the benefit of the folding stock is a little bit awkward, but shooting from the hip is fun and easy. There are gunsmiths who can reactivate the folding stock if you complete the proper BATF paperwork and pay the fee, which will turn your PPS-43C into a registered short barreled rifle (SBR). Considering this process costs as much as the PPS-43C itself and opens yourself up to government scrutiny, it's something I've not seriously considered, but it is an option.

The PPS-43C field strips just like the original. It's so easy, even a conscripted peasant could do it.

Though often overshadowed in history by the MP 40, the Thompson M1, and the PPSh-41 itself, the PPS-43 was a highly effective weapon. The Soviets liked it enough to replace the PPSh-41 with it, and given the advantages it offered over the Papashaw, it's easy to see why. China also licensed the design and produced their own version of the PPS-43 for its military. The Finns flat-out copied the design and used it as the basis of their own submachine gun, the M/44, which other than being chambered in 9mm Luger, was virtually identical to the Soviet PPS-43. The gun, like other Soviet firearms, has been found around the world in the hands of, shall we say, "paramilitary" groups, which is a testament to its design and function. The fact that any law-abiding American citizen can own a semi-auto version of this weapon for a few Benjamins is fantastic. There are other submachine gun conversions out there as well for fairly reasonable prices. If you enjoy historical weapons, check it out, and slay a few paper Nazis of your own for the Motherland. It's good for the soul.