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.