Key point: Snipers are always trying to find ways to defeat body armor.
The Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine has provided a wealth of experience to the Russian military. One of the hallmarks of these engagements is the continued use of sniper tactics. As a result, the modern Russian sniper has evolved far beyond the relatively primitive technology used during the Cold War. Most notably, significant attention has been given to sniper systems that have the ability to penetrate body armor. There are currently three sniper systems in current use by the Russian military that pose a significant threat to American troops wearing body armor. Taken together, these systems cover all possible ranges in an engagement: the SVDK, various .338 Lapua systems and the ASVK.
The current Russian standard sniper weapons in 7.62x54R—the SV Dragunov and the SV-98—are soundly defeated by American body armor. Both rifles fire the 7N14 armor-piercing sniper round (152gr at ~2750fps) and 7N13 armor-piercing rounds. These rounds have similar specifications to the M2 AP Ball (150gr at 2740fps) specification, which the ESAPI/XSAPI rifle plates currently in use by the U.S. military are rated to stop.
To counter this, the Russian army developed the SVDK rifle. The “K” stands for “Krupnokalibernaya,” indicating that the SVDK is of a large caliber. The express purpose of this rifle was to defeat targets that wear heavy body armor. The SVDK was based on the civilian Tigr-9 hunting rifle chambered in 9.3x64mm Brenneke. This cartridge was originally designed to hunt big game in Africa, including elephants. On the basis of this round, the Russians developed the 7N33 sniper cartridge, which pushes a 254gr projectile with a steel core at 2526fps, which is 40 percent more powerful than the prior 7N14 sniper armor-piercing round. The increased power of the SVDK’s cartridge is evident in a comparison of their magazines. It also is issued with a variable zoom 3-10x 1P70 “Hyperion” optic, which is an upgrade from the standard 4x fixed zoom PSO-1 issued with the regular SVD rifles. The SVDK also comes with the folding stock of the SVDS rifle, as well as an integral bipod. Overall, the SVDK provides a powerful semi-automatic sniper system that can defeat body armor within 600m, at a relatively light weight of 6.5kg. There are no comparable NATO systems to the SVDK.
The medium-caliber Russian sniper systems that can counter body armor are the various rifles they field chambered in .338 Lapua. While the Russian use of .338 Lapua is largely due to .338 being a superb round for long range shooting in general, the average .338 round is extremely powerful, with around double the energy of the 7N14 7.62x54R round. No known currently fielded body armor is known to stop an armor-piercing .338 Lapua round. While Russian snipers are known to use .338 rifles from European manufacturers, notably the Austrian Steyr SSG 08, Finnish TRG 42, and British AI AWM rifles, this is changing. Recently, the indigenous Orsis T-5000 has come to prominence. The 7.6x51mm NATO version of this rifle is combat tested with Iraqi SOF. Russian and Chinese snipers have competed and won with this rifle in competition, however, it has yet to be officially adopted into service in the Russian military. According to some reports, it has been tested in the “Ratnik” future soldier system. However, the T-5000 is not without its issues. During IWA-2017, the .338 Lapua T-5000 display model was shown having considerable issues opening the bolt, suggesting that Orsis may not have fully worked out the production of this new rifle in .338 Lapua. Kalashnikov Concern has also developed a .338 Lapua rifle based on the SV-98: the SV-338. This rifle has not seen adoption or testing.
Regardless, the proliferation of .338 Lapua rifles in Russian service means that they have a formidable ability to defeat body armor at long ranges, and the Orsis T-5000 and SV-338 show that Russia has at least a limited capability to produce these rifles internally. There are many NATO equivalents to this capability, as many NATO nations field sniper systems in this caliber. Notably, the Remington MSR is in American service as USSOCOM’s Precision Sniper Rifle (PSR), it is chambered in .338 Lapua (with the option to quickly change to .300WM and 7.62x51mm NATO).
Other Russian rifles that can counter body armor are the ASVK and ASVKM (army sniper rifle, large caliber) sniper systems. Originally developed alongside the SVDK in the 1990s as a proper anti-material long range rifle, it saw larger adoption over its rival .50 caliber rifle, the OSV-96. The ASVK has seen use in Syria and Ukraine. The ASVK is a .50 caliber (12.7x108mm) bullpup anti-material/sniper rifle. Due to its caliber, body armor and even most cover cannot protect from the ASVK. Unlike Western bullpup anti-material rifles, like the Barrett M95 where the bolt handle is on the bolt behind the trigger, the ASVK has the bolt handle in front of the trigger, allowing for easy and rapid actuation. Recently, the ASVK has been developed into the ASVKM (ASVK – Modernized). It incorporates lighter materials, lowering the weight to 10kg. This is 3kg lighter than the U.S. military’s M107 sniper rifle. The modernization also improves the muzzle brake and barrel life. Unlike the SVDK and the .338 Lapua rifles which have largely seen service only in specialized units, the ASVKM is seeing widespread adoption. Rifles were delivered to GRU special forces units in early 2017, they are also planned to be provided to airborne and mountain infantry units. While NATO has analogs to the ASVKM, not many are as compact or as light as it due to the ASVKM’s unique skeletal design and bullpup layout.
To conclude, while Russians continue to largely field sniper systems that American body armor is resistant to, in the SV98 (accepted into service in the airborne troops in 2015) and SVD, they possess many systems that are capable of defeating American body armor at all ranges. From an adapted semi-automatic elephant gun to skeletal bullpup .50 caliber rifles, these sniper systems may appear unorthodox but are highly lethal.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues. Follow him on Twitter: @izlomdefense. (This first appeared in December 2017.)
Image: Wikimedia Commons.