Monday, December 23, 2013

Прощай, Михаил Калашников

That is, farewell, Mikhail Kalashnikov. A living legend, he passed away today at the age of 94. Inventor of the famed AK-47, its variants (such as the RPK), and its successors, Lieutenant General Kalashnikov's designs have been produced around the globe. He'll live on through the millions upon millions of rifles that bear his name, past, present, and future. Rest in peace, comrade.

Kalashnikov and his progeny. The world will never be the same.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Scandinavian Shooters: The Lahti L-35 and Husqvarna M/40 Pistols

Pistols don't win wars.

That's not to say they don't play an important role. Indeed, a good pistol can be the difference between life and death on the battlefield, especially in close quarters combat situations (think Sergeant York). But as renowned firearms instructor Clint Smith said, the primary purpose of a handgun is to allow one to "fight your way back to the rifle you never should have laid down." If we accept Mr. Smith's view as an axiom (and many do), that leaves us with some criteria we'd want in a good fighting pistol. Since the combat pistol's role is to suppress or delay the enemy rather than destroy him, it needs to have adequate power and accuracy. Hand cannons or target pieces are overkill. Secondly, as the pistol will likely be employed under extreme duress, an ergonomic design that can be quickly put into action is important. And finally, since the pistol is literally the last line of defense between one and the grave, it must be reliable. For your consideration, I present the Lahti L-35 and Husqvarna M/40 as two such pistols.

This month's subjects from top to bottom: the Husqvarna M/40 and the Lahti L-35.

Historically speaking, Scandinavian firearms have an air of uniqueness about them that intrigues collectors. Both the Swedes and the Finns have taken otherwise ordinary weapons, fine examples that they were, and improved them to fit their specific needs. The Swedes did this with the Model 1896 Mauser, (a derivative of the 1893/1895 design) and the Finns elevated the Mosin-Nagant 91/30 to a higher class, culminating with their M/39 rifle. Our subjects at hand this month, however, were born and bred in Viking country, from the ground up. In my view, this makes them some of the most interesting semi-automatic pistols ever fielded to a fighting force.

The mainstay pistol of the Finnish military for the first part of the 20th Century was the Luger P.08, chambered in 7.65mm Luger. In Finnish service, it was known as the M/23 Pistol. Luger pistols, as I mentioned in my first post about the Walther P1, are ergonomic weapons that border on being works of art, but their design doesn't lend them to being rock-solid, reliable combat pistols. Indeed, they can be quite finicky. Besides, the 7.65mm Luger caliber, while interesting from an enthusiast's point of view, was obsoleted soon after it's introduction due to Georg Luger's development of his famous 9mm cartridge in 1902. The Luger pistol's shortcomings illustrated the need for something uniquely Finnish, and besides, who wants to rely on another country to equip one's fighting forces?

A German made M/23 Luger, complete with shoulder stock and holster.

Aimo Lahti to the rescue. Finland's most famous firearms designer, Mr. Lahti's story is an interesting one.  Born at the turn of the 19th century (itself an exciting time for firearms development), he quit school at an early age and went to work in a glass factory. Being bored with school but fascinated with the workings of firearms, he literally taught himself how mechanical engineering and firearms design. Honing his craft as a Master Armorer in Finland's army, he created one of the finest sub-machine guns ever: the Suomi M31. By the time he died in 1970, he had over 50 firearms designs to his credit, ranging from the pistol to the anti-tank rifle. I like to think that he and John Browning are hanging out somewhere, drinking vodka and arguing the merits of each other's designs. Perhaps I'm a romantic.

A Finnish soldier with Lahti's Suomi M31. Photo credit: E. Voutilainen / SA-kuva

Lahti's pistol was adopted in 1935 and is appropriately designated the L-35. To the untrained eye, The L-35 resembles the Luger M/23 which preceded it in Finnish service. Like the Luger (and Nambu pistol), the L35 has a sharply angled grip frame, which has the effect of reducing felt recoil (not that the 9mm Luger is going to break your wrist), something which can contribute to increased accuracy. Similar to the Luger, Lahti's new pistol was a single action design with an internal hammer, eschewing the double-action designs that were being tested and fielded elsewhere in Europe at the time.  Fed from an eight round detachable box magazine, the L-35 sported a loaded chamber indicator, great sights (for a mil-spec pistol, anyway), an ergonomic thumb safety, and the most interesting piece: a bolt accelerator system. This handy feature ensured positive cycling in the brutally cold Scandinavian winters. In sub-zero temps, bolts could stick, but the bolt accelerator gave the L-35's bolt a firm, rearward push. It worked quite well, which was fortuitous, because it arrived just in time for the Winter War with the USSR.

"I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle. And Finland."

The Winter War kicked off right after WWII did. Germany invaded Poland, and the USSR invaded Finland, hoping to regain territory it lost during the 1917 communist revolution and resulting civil war. The Soviet Union's shameless land grab didn't go unnoticed by the international community, which expelled the CCCP from the useless League of Nations. Oh no! More importantly for our purposes, Finland's next door neighbor, Sweden, took note. It sent aid in the form of money and troops. I've read that the money that Sweden sent was twice the amount of Finland's defense budget at the time. As far as troops go, since Sweden was technically neutral, only "volunteers" could be "sent" to aid Finland. Roughly 10,000 of these "volunteers" of the aptly name Swedish Volunteer Corps (which was also comprised of Danish and Norwegians) fought alongside their Nordic kin in the Winter War. Many of them saw the Lahti L-35 pistol in action, and it won their respect. The war didn't end the way either the Soviet Union or Finland wanted it to end, but in my opinion, Finland came out ahead. They inflicted massive casualties against the Soviets, and proved their mettle.

If the L-35 had a downside, it was that it was costly to produce, which meant that not many of them made it into the hands of Finnish soldiers by the Winter War. The pistols that did make it to the front lines served well, and Finland continued to produce the gun into the 1950s. Indeed, it remained the issue sidearm of the Finnish military until 1980s, when it was replaced with FN HP-DA, better known to most folks as the Browning BDA. Eh.

The BDM was a somewhat uglier, double-action version of the Hi-Power. AKA a solution looking for a problem.

Much like the Finns, the Swedes were using a “third party” pistol design prior to the Winter War. The primary Swedish pistol in service was the Browning designed FN 1903 pistol, chambered in the obscure 9 x 20mm semi-rim.  The Swedes had purchased 10,000 of these pistols in 1907, and later obtained a license to manufacture it themselves.  In Swedish service, this pistol was appropriately designated the m/07. The m/07 served adequately, but as the 1930’s came to an end was simply outclassed by nearly every other military pistol in Europe. The alarming Winter War, so close to Sweden’s border, and the general deteriorating condition on the continent convinced the Swedes it was time to upgrade their gear. The Swedish Volunteer Corps experiences with the L35 in the Winter War, and Sweden's cooperation with the Finn government and military made the L-35 a natural choice.

Even the Swedish Chef gave the L-35 tvu thoombs up, fur sure.

Sweden quickly licensed Lahti’s design and began producing it domestically as the Husqvarna M/40. The pistol was affectionately (or not so affectionately?) nicknamed “The Iron Stove”, which referred both to its hefty weight and Husqvarna’s reputation as a builder of domestic products. Check your garage, you may have a Husqvarna chainsaw there. Anyway, Husqvarna’s product was very similar to Lahti’s pistol, though to cut costs and streamline production, some features were removed. The loaded chamber indicator was quickly scrapped, the nifty bolt accelerator was changed a couple of times, and on some later guns removed altogether. Not all the changes to the design were “bad”:  the barrel was given an integral outer “nut” at the breech end to facilitate barrel changes (a great feature), and the trigger guard was enlarged to better accommodate the heavily gloved hands of Swedish soldiers.  About 100,000 M/40’s were produced from 1940-1946.
L-35 (top) vs. a late production M/40. Note the changes to the top of the slide, barrel, and trigger guard.

Sweden had the good fortune to remain “neutral” during WWII, so the M/40 didn’t really see much action. Like the L-35, it quietly served as Sweden’s front-line pistol until the 1980s…when something unfortunate began to happen. In the 1960’s, Sweden switched to a more powerful loading of 9mm cartridge in an effort to standardize pistol and submachine gun ammunition. While this made sense logistically, the hotter ammo beat up the M/40, ultimately proving too much for the gun to bear. Cracks developed in the slides and bolts of the M/40s, forcing the Swedes to remove them from service in the 1980s. This left the Swedish military without a sidearm.  Have no fear: it’s John Browning to the rescue! Remember the m/07? Well, it was called up from retirement to serve as a substitute sidearm until a new pistol could be procured. Sadly, all of Sweden’s military M/40s were melted down in the 1990's due to safety concerns, a rather ignominious end for a really cool pistol (there’s an Iron Stove joke there somewhere, I’m sure). It was officially replaced by a somewhat new, relatively unknown pistol: the GLOCK 17.
Just in case you needed another reason not to buy one. Poor little guy.

It's been said that the Swedes used sub-standard steel in the M/40’s compared to that used in the Finnish built L-35, and that this was another contributing factor to the cracked bolts and slides. There’s some evidence to show that nickel was in short supply during the war and that the first Husqvarna guns had problems as a result, but I’ve read that this was fixed. Even if it wasn’t fixed, I don’t know that it’s fair criticism, as M/40’s didn’t start to disassemble themselves en masse until the switch to the hotter ammo. I just find it hard to believe that the Swedes would make nearly 100,000 of these pistols out of junk steel. Granted, I’m no metallurgist, but I know a teeny bit about history: in the late 19th century the Swedes were so particular (and proud) of their steel making abilities that they stipulated to none other than Mauser that all m1896 rifles had to be made from superior Swedish Steel. But that’s another story.
The Mauser Model 1896. Thing of beauty. Write-up coming soon....

Sweden also exported 13,500 M/40 pistols to Denmark for use with that country’s military and police forces. Most Denmark pistols were made toward the end of the production run and were known as the M/40S in Danish service. They’re easily identified by the “D” prefix stamped in front of their serial number, as well as the Danish crown on the frame with HV marking. For collectors concerned about the safety of the M/40, the Danish contract pistols are a good buy. They weren’t subjected to the same use and abuse as the Swedish issued pistols; indeed a great many of them were exported as surplus in excellent condition. I was fortunate to acquire one of these pistols from the noted dealer a few years back. It came with three magazines, a very battered leather holster, a cleaning rod, and a magazine loading tool that doubles as an emergency screwdriver. I rate the condition at 98-99%, with just a trace of holster wear on the high points of the gun. Mine also has the bolt accelerator, not that I'd need it in the temperate Shenandoah Valley. The gun wasn’t exactly cheap, but not much is these days. Plan on spending more than you would on a GLOCK, and less than you would on a Colt 1911, and you're in the ballpark.

My M/40S with loading tool. Like the Luger, the M/40 and L-35 had provisions to attach a shoulder stock, but this wasn't used.

Some may scoff at idea of the loading tool, calling it a crutch for inexperienced shooters or those with weak thumbs. Trust me, this thing isn’t a luxury: it’s a necessity. Due to the ergonomic grip angle of Lahti’s design, the magazines require a heavy spring to ensure reliable feeding. There's a circular knob on the side of the magazine that you need to depress to load the single stack, 8 round magazine. The tool does this for you. You can try to do this without the tool if you want, but good luck getting more than 4 rounds in it without cursing and sucking your bruised thumb/fingers.  Use the tool, or risk looking like one at the range. It’s your choice.
I’ve put a couple hundred rounds of mid-power handloads through my M/40S (no cracks yet!), and I’ve been suitably impressed with its performance. It fits naturally in the hand, is very comfortable to shoot, has great sights (for a mil-spec pistol, anyway), and is reasonably accurate. It also field strips and cleans easily. The trigger is a bit mushy and long, but not very heavy In fact, it almost reminds me of the trigger pull on certain striker fired pistols that are so popular today. Perhaps that's damning it with faint praise. Still, it's miles better than my VZ.52's trigger.
In collector circles, the L-35 carries a premium over the M/40, usually to the tune of a few hundred bucks. This is due mainly to the connection to the Winter War (and Continuation War), the relative scarcity of the piece (~9,000 pistols total) and the higher quality (actual or perceived) over the M/40.  I won't lie: I'd like to have both someday, but for now I’m happy to own a derivative of the L-35, and a fine example at that. It’s certainly one of the more unique firearms of the period, and is a worthy addition to any WWII or Cold War military gun collection. For that, Mr. Lahti, we thank you.

It's hard to overstate Aimo Lahti's contribution to firearms design in general and Finland's defense in particular.

For more fantastic information about the M/40 and its variants, please visit the following sites: