Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cold War Warriors: The Pistolet Makarova

For some reason, Soviet firearms fascinate me. I own several. Maybe that’s because I grew up during the latter half of the Cold War, when Reagan and Gorbachev were household names and daily headlines. At any rate, one of the benefits of winning the Cold War is that we get to play with their guns. Soon after Communism fell, the former governments of the Iron Curtain realized they had a cash problem. They also realized they had several metric tons of weaponry that they, as our “new friends”, could unload on our markets. Which brings us to this month’s subject at hand: the Makarov pistol, or if you prefer in Russian, the Pistolet Makarova.
A PM in its natural habitat.

Sometime after WWII, the Soviet Union felt the need for a new sidearm. Through most of WWII and after, the standard pistols of the Soviet Army were the Tokarev TT-33 and the 1895 Nagant Revolver.  The Tokarev was a fine pistol in its own right, and fired an interesting cartridge (both of which I will discuss in due time), but it was getting a bit long in the tooth. Its basic design was similar (but not copied from) to the American Colt 1911 pistol. As for the 1895 Nagant…well, let’s just say it was obsolete the day it was invented, and again, I promise I’ll elaborate on that statement later (*update: it's later. Click the link for my take on the Nagant).

In Soviet Russia, pistol fires you!

There’s an old anecdote (almost certainly untrue, but poignant nonetheless) that illustrates a fundamental difference between the West and the USSR.  The story goes that during the Space Race of the 50s and 60s, NASA procured specially designed pens so our astronauts could write in zero gravity. These ‘space pens’ (which you can still buy) employed a patented pressurized ink cartridge which allowed them to write at any angle, and yes, even in zero gravity. Cool, right? Go 'Merica! Ingenuity and all that!
Well, the USSR obviously had a space program, too, and a need for a space-age writing instrument as well. So what was the Soviet solution? How did cosmonauts write in orbit without the benefit of the amazing American space pen?
They used one of these: 
Soviet Space-Age Pen. Lenin would be proud.

In the world of firearms, the Makarov PM is a pencil.  It has very few parts, and some perform multiple functions. For example, the magazine retention system and release is an extension of the hammer/trigger spring, which itself is just a curved piece of stamped metal .  The safety/decocker also holds the free-floating firing pin in place, and the slide stop does double duty as the ejector for spent casings. Fewer parts means both cheaper to make and more reliable since there’s less stuff that can break. It’s something that engineers these days seem to forget at times. Keeping in line with simplicity, the PM works using a blowback system, so there’s no complex lock-up or linkage with moving parts needed. 

See? Very few parts. Well, for a pistol, that is.

To recap, the PM was simple, which made it cheap, reliable, and rugged, so it’s not hard to understand why the Soviets adopted it in 1951. Along with the PM, the USSR adopted the 9 x 18mm Makarov cartridge, which sported a ~95 grain, .363 diameter round nose FMJ bullet that moved at 1,000 fps. This makes the 9x18mm a bit better than the .380 ACP which is so popular in pocket guns these days, and quite a bit less powerful than the 9mm Luger, which was what the majority of NATO used at the time. Except for the US, of course. 
Left: 9mm Luger. Right: 9 x 18mm Makarov.

My PM is of Bulgarian manufacture (the USSR, East Germany, and Bulgaria were the primary users of the PM) and was made in 1983. I bought it at a gun show in what appeared to be unissued condition with two, eight round magazines, two sets of grips (neither of which I use), and a holster with cleaning rod. I forget exactly what I paid for it, but Bulgarians go for around $275-$350 depending on condition. The guns, not the people.

My PM with custom wattle grips finished in red shellac, from

Shooting the PM is fun. It’s easily one of my favorite handguns. It feels good in the hand, points naturally, and is superbly accurate. Even with the small military sights, a decent shooter can get some respectable groups out of the PM, and if bouncing a can around on the berm is your cup of tea, the PM serves quite well there too. The PM’s trigger isn’t anything to brag about, it’s your standard two-stage military trigger with some take-up, but it breaks clean. The double action trigger actually isn’t that bad, it’s a bit heavy but fairly smooth. One thing I really like about the PM is that cleaning it is a breeze, thanks to its simple construction and chrome-lined barrel. I liked my PM so much, I ordered a set of custom grips from Marschal Grips, a company in Hungary. The Marschalkos do some fantastic work that’s well worth the somewhat lengthy turnaround time. The grips aren't cheap, but few things that are good, are.
Though this may be heresy, I prefer the PM to its Western counterpart, the Walther P1. Though the P1 is more powerful thanks to its 9mm Luger chambering and has better sights, the PM’s simplicity, natural pointability, and heft win me over. I admit, I shoot a lot better with the PM than I do the Walther, so the fun factor definitely tilts toward the PM there. All in all, the PM is another affordable way to own a piece of history, and no serious collection is complete without one. Besides, this guy seems to like his alot.
In the Russian Army, this is what passes for a smile.