The Soviet Union was one of the most powerful collections of states that ever existed. Born in the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Union boasted one of the strongest armies on Earth.
It was a repressive regime that killed millions of its own citizens and saw itself as surrounded by ideologically incompatible and hostile states. It maintained a large standing army ostensibly for defensive purposes, but that did not stop it from invading neighboring Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland.
The Soviet Union placed a premium on science, technology and industrial production. As a result, the USSR fielded some of the most advanced weapons of its time, in large numbers, with millions continuing to serve today.
The Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 assault rifle, a simple infantry weapon, has almost certainly killed more people than all the nuclear weapons ever used. With its curved banana magazine and rakish profile, the AK-47 is the most recognizable assault rifle of the post–World War II era. Approximately 75 million AK-47s have been built.
The AK-47 took design cues from a number of guns, particularly the German Sturmgewehr StG-44, the world’s first true assault rifle, and the American M-1 Garand rifle. The advantages of the AK-47 were that it combined a newer, lighter 7.26-millimeter bullet with full automatic operation in a durable, dependable package. The weapon was lightweight, easy to disassemble and easy to shoot.
These attributes made the weapon excellent for “wars of national liberation,” and in addition to arming the Red Army and Warsaw Pact countries, the AK-47 was liberally distributed to groups ideologically aligned with the USSR. Millions continue to serve with armies, guerrilla movements and terrorists today.
Typhoon-class Ballistic Missile Submarine:
The largest submarines ever built, the Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarines formed a large part of Russia’s nuclear deterrent at sea. At 574 feet long and displacing 24,000 tons, the massive submarines were three times larger than the American Los Angeles–class attack submarines and nearly ten thousand tons heavier than their counterparts, the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines.
The Typhoon class of Soviet submarines was an innovative design, stationing twenty SS-N-20 Sturgeon submarine-launched ballistic missiles in front of the sail instead of behind it. Each SS-N-20 was equipped with ten warheads. Six Typhoon-class subs were built and later went on to serve in the Russian Navy. One remains in service as a test ship for the Bulava missile.
The Typhoon class was the inspiration for the submarine Red October, from the novel The Hunt for Red October. Red October differed from the class in being even larger, having twenty-six missile tubes instead of twenty, and incorporating a magnetohydrodynamic propulsion system.
T-55 Main Battle Tank:
Introduced at the end of World War II, the T-54 medium tank was the first of an entirely new line of Soviet main battle tanks. It featured a new hull and suspension system, new turret and was armed with a 100-millimeter main gun. The T-54 was an excellent combination of firepower, protection and mobility.
A series of modifications—including making it capable of fighting on the nuclear battlefield—resulted in the T-55 designation. The T-54/55 series was the mainstay of the Soviet Army from the end of World War II until the introduction of its descendant, the T-62. Indeed, in addition to the T-62, the newer T-64, T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks are direct descendants of the T-55.
Total production numbers for the T-55 vary wildly, with between 42,000 and 100,000 built by the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact states and China. The T-55 was widely exported to Soviet client states, including the Warsaw Pact countries, North Vietnam, Cuba, Syria, Egypt, Angola and more than a dozen others. Obsolete but cheap and easy to maintain by today’s standards, the T-55 is still in service across Africa.
Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber:
Nicknamed the “White Swan,” the Tu-160 was the last strategic bomber built by the Soviet Union. With its swept wing, white paint scheme and beaklike nose, it’s not hard to see why.
The Tu-160 was designed to be a stealthy bomber capable of operating at night and in adverse weather conditions. It was to be a penetrating bomber, like the Tu-22M Backfire before it, capable of using stealth and a low-altitude mission profile to infiltrate NORAD airspace and launch nuclear cruise missiles. After a lengthy development period, the first Tu-160 flew on December 18, 1981.
The Tu-160 can carry twenty-two tons of ordnance in two weapons bays, including the Kh-55/AS-15 “Kent” nuclear cruise missile. Similar to the American Air Launched Cruise Missile, the AS-15 is a small, subsonic cruise missile with pop-out wings that carried a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead. The Tu-160 can carry twelve AS-15 missiles.
M1938 122mm Towed Howitzer:
The Soviet Union relied heavily on artillery during World War II. Towed artillery—particularly mortars—was inexpensive, easy to produce and had a powerful effect on the battlefield. Statistically, artillery is the biggest killer on the battlefield, and so artillery provided the best bang for the buck for Stalin and the Soviet High Command. Thirteen thousand artillery pieces were deployed by the Soviet Union at Stalingrad. During the Battle of Kursk, more than 25,000 guns, mortars and howitzers were amassed to stop the German offensive.
The M1938 122-millimeter towed howitzer was the most common heavy artillery piece in the Soviet Army and is representative of Soviet artillery in general. The M1938 had a range of 11.8 kilometers and could fire a 21-kilogram high explosive shell at five or six rounds per minute. During the war, each Soviet infantry division was assigned up to thirty-two M1938 howitzers, meaning even a lowly division could hurl 4,032 kilograms of HE shells per minute.
Like all Soviet weapons, the M1938 can be used as an anti-tank weapon, depressing its barrel to engage enemy tanks that have achieved a breakthrough. A total of 19,266 M1938s were built, mostly during the war.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he co-founded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.