Key point: Russia is ready for tough wars.
As the successor to the Soviet Army, the Russian Ground Forces inherited vast stocks of small arms to arm and equip a much smaller ground force. Stored in arsenals across eleven time zones were large number of sidearms for officers, vehicle crews and political commissars alike. These pistols, as well as new designs, arm today’s Russian army providing both a weapon for self-defense and a badge of authority for those wielding them.
One of the earliest Soviet Army issue handguns was the Tokarev or “TT” automatic pistol. (Note that in this context the term “automatic” refers to the loading process, not the firing process. Users of so-called “automatic” pistols must still pull the trigger for every shot fired.) Outwardly the Tokarev was utilitarian and unattractive—in other words, fitting very much into the Soviet military aesthetic. Like most Soviet weapons it was dead simple to use and reliable, though its lack of a safety required vigilance against an accidental discharge.
The Tokarev weighed 1.86 pounds loaded and took a magazine of eight M30 7.62mm pistol cartridges. Internally it borrowed elements from John Moses Browning’s pistol designs, including the 1911, using a swinging link to unlock the barrel from the slide on recoil. Most Tokarevs can even fire 7.63mm Mauser used by submachine guns and the famous “broomhandle” Mauser pistol—after all Soviet engineers had designed M30 based on the Mauser cartridge.
The Tokarev was produced by the Tul’skiy Oruzheynyi Zavod, Tula factory, which is where the “TT” nickname came from. Production in the Soviet Union ceased in 1952, but not before an estimated 1.7 million Tokarevs were manufactured. Variants were made, licensed or not, in Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, China and North Korea.
The next Soviet handgun also took inspiration from abroad. The Pistolet Makarova (PM) was a Soviet copy of the German Walther PP (Polizeipistole, or Police Pistol), one of many handguns issued by the German army in World War II. The Makarov, as it was informally known, was a copy of the PP/K series using fewer parts to simplify the manufacturing process. The result is a pistol that resembles a less attractive version of James Bond’s famous Walther PPK. The Makarov was adopted in December 1951, just as Tokarev was winding down.
The Makarov was both more compact and lighter than the Tokarev, with a shorter barrel. The pistol was chambered for the Soviet 9mm pistol round, a local design whose chief advantage seemed to be to prevent the Makarov from using foreign ammunition. The Soviet round is believed to have been developed from a German round, the 9mm Ultra, and is power-wise is fairly anemic by service pistol standards, somewhere between the 9mm Parabellum and the .380 ACP. Like its predecessor the Makarov carried eight rounds in the magazine.
Like all Soviet small arms, the Makarov was distributed far and wide beyond the Soviet Union, to client states and revolutionaries worldwide. Armies from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe used and still use the Makarov, and American troops have encountered the pistol in Afghanistan, Grenada, Laos, Iraq, North Vietnam and Syria. The Makarov also armed Soviet vehicle crews stationed in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and would have rolled west with the Soviet Army and the Warsaw Pact if the war had ever turned “hot.” In 1990 the PMM, a newer version that featured a 33 percent larger magazine was introduced.
In the 1990s, Russian weapons designer Vladimir Yarygin introduced his Pistolet Yarygina or “PYa” pistol. Known as the MP-443 Grach, or “Rook” in Russian army service, PYa is a mixture of old and new designs. Like the TT, the new handgun is all steel and uses an internal mechanism reliant derived from John Browning’s Browning Hi-Power pistol. The pistol uses a modern “double action” design, which means that a single, long trigger pull will both cock the hammer and fire a round. It can also function as a single action pistol, with both hammer cocking and trigger pulling separate actions. Unlike the TT, the pistol accepts 9mm Parabellum cartridges, the standard 9mm cartridge in use worldwide.
Unlike the safety-less TT, the PYa both an external safety that locks the slide—another John Browning innovation—and a second, internal safety that prevents the firing pin from falling forward without the trigger being pulled. Like most modern “double stack” pistols, the PYa’s magazine holds eighteen rounds, more than twice as many rounds as its predecessors.
Although the PYa is more modern than previous Soviet/Russian designs, the current configuration lacks more recent features in Western pistols, including an under barrel rail for attaching lasers and flashlights, a loaded chamber indicator, and a decocker that uncocks the firing pin. First introduced into Russian Armed Forces use 2003, introduction of the PYa has been slow due to the large number of PM/PMM pistols already in use.
Russia’s service handguns are simple, rugged and reliable, made to be built—and used—in wartime. While they may lack the amenities found in many modern American pistols, such as the U.S. Army’s new M17 Modular Handgun System, an emphasis on functionality means they will get the job done under extreme conditions.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.