PPsH-41 Submachinegun: The Weapon Russia, China and North Korea All Loved
The PPsH-41 submachinegun undoubtedly reigns as an icon of the Soviet war machine in World War II, immortalized in combat photographs and in films such as Cross of Iron and The Tin Drum. Like the T-34 tank and the Il-2 Shturmovik attack plane, the “Pepsha” or “Papasha” (“Daddy”) was not only a rugged marvel of mass production, but performed well compared to more expensive contemporaries. Both the Red Army and later the Chinese and North Korean armies would employ the “burp gun” on an unprecedent scale.
Submachineguns began to appear near the end of World War I to help soldiers clear out trenches in brutal short-range assaults. These short barreled, highly portable automatic weapons usually employed the simple blowback principle in which the gasses expelled by a low-powered pistol cartridge both propelled the round out of the barrel and pushed back the weapon’s bolt, allowing a new round to pop up into the chamber to be fired once the bolt sprang back into place.
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Despite the fame of weapons like the Tommy gun in interwar years, submachineguns were relatively expensive and only effective at short combat ranges below 150 meters, so armies adopted them only in modest numbers to supplement slow-firing but more accurate bolt-action rifles in general use. Typically, a single submachinegun might be assigned to a squad leader, though certain elite special operations units employed them in larger numbers.
The Red Army’s first submachinegun, the PPD designed by Vasily Degtyaryov, was inspired by the German MP18 and employed 7.62x25 millimeter Tokarev pistol cartridges. However, the PPD was labor-intensive to produce due to its milled-steel parts and only ninety thousand were issued by the time production ended in 1942, with most factories having been overrun by the invading Nazis.
Prior to that, the Soviets fought the bruising Winter War of 1939–1940, in which well camouflaged Finnish ski infantry equipped with excellent Suomi submachineguns decimated Soviet units in ambushes. Afterwards, the Red Army prioritized developing an effective submachinegun that could be cheaply mass produced.
Designer Georgy Shpagin took the PPD design to the chopping block, trimming away several components and innovating through the use of a stamped-metal body and perforated barrel jacket to speed production. If necessary, the weapon’s barrel could even be fashioned by simply chopping the barrel of a standard Soviet Mosin-Nagant service rifle in two. The resulting design was ideal for rapid fabrication by unskilled factory workers in just five to seven hours, half the time it took to produce a PPD. By the end of 1942, 1.5 million PPsHs had been produced.
The metal parts were lined with chrome for easier cleaning and reduced barrel wear, allowing the weapon to function with very little maintenance even under rough conditions. A simple lever also could switch the weapon to fire semi-automatically.
While other World War II powers also adopted crude mass-produced submachineguns like the British Sten, the German MP40 and American M3 Grease Gun, the twelve-pound PPsH was a sturdier beast than more expensive designs. While the German MP40 machine pistol had a cyclic fire rate of five hundred rounds per minute and used thirty-two-round magazines, the Papasha could cycle 900 rpm and employed a large seventy-one-round drum magazine. A heavy wooden stock and a leather breech buffer helped absorb the bolt’s heavy recoil; combined with a barrel compensator to reduce muzzle climb, the PPsH was more accurate than the PPD. You can see the weapon’s scary rate of fire in this video.
In fact, the PPsH hosed bullets so quickly it could be difficult to control. Nonetheless, captured PPsHs were popular with Germany infantry. The Wehrmacht liked the weapon so much it even re-chambered many PPsHs to accept 9-millimeter Parabellum rounds, designating them the MP41(r).
The Papasha began arriving in quantities to Soviet troops in 1942, in time to be employed effectively in brutal close-quarters street fighting in Stalingrad. Not only were most battles fought within the shorter effective range of submachinegun, but they were much handier when fighting inside buildings than long bolt-action rifles.
Beyond the cities, the Soviets employed human-wave tactics to overwhelm Axis defensive positions. Vast tides of Soviet conscripts would sweep out of the woods towards Axis positions bellowing Uraah! If enough survived the answering storm of machinegun and artillery fire to make it to Axis trenches, they would sweep away the defenders in storm of automatic fire.