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PPSh-41 – the Gun That Saved Mother Russia

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When you conjure up the image of a Soviet soldier during World War II, chances are you envision him bundled up against the winter and carrying the PPSh-41 submachine gun.

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That's an accurate representation. Although most Soviet frontline troops carried the bolt action Mosin Nagant rifle, even as late as 1945, the PPSh-41 was second to that in sheer numbers. This iconic submachine gun was seen in dozens of video games, movies and TV shows – notably the 1976 World War II classic Cross of Iron, where it is carried by Soviet and German soldiers alike.

The weapon was both feared and respected by the German soldier in WWII, and was used with great effect in the Korean War. There it was again feared and respected, but this time by Allied/UN forces — including the American GI. U.S. troops encountered it again decades later in Vietnam, and the gun saw significant use in other places as well: the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, various colonial wars in Africa, the Sino-Indian War and most recently in the Yugoslavian wars.

Ex Historiam: Origin of the PPSh-41

At the simplest it would be safe to say that the PPSh-41 was the right firearm for the job at the right time — when it was needed most, in fact. While it wasn't rushed into service, it was built based on experience. Like the Soviet Red Army soldier who was to wield it, the submachine gun was fairly basic and rugged.

In many ways the PPSh-41 has been compared to the T-34 tank, which was similarly less refined than its German counterparts. Both however proved superior on the battlefield. The irony is that while the T-34 actually came about from years of testing, the PPSh-41 was quite a reactionary concept.

The PPSh-41 bears more than a passing resemblance to the Finish-made Suomi KP/31 (literally “Machine-Pistol Finland”). That particular gun was unique in that it featured a 71-round drum magazine, wooden rifle stock and fluted jacket over the barrel. It is easy to see that the Suomi KP is a descendant of the German designed MP-18/28.

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The Suomi KP/31 proved to be a reliable small arm in the Winter War against the Soviets in 1939/40. The gun's 71-round drum magazine was adopted by the Soviets for use with the PPD and later PPSh-41 (Collection of the author)

This Finnish gun was designed by Tikkakoski Oy, and was known for its accuracy and durability. Though it was expensive and time consuming to produce, Finnish military doctrine called for one KP/-31 and one light machine gun in every infantry squad. This gave even the smallest Finnish formations extra firepower in close quarters fighting, and would prove to be an ideal weapon during the Winter War with the Soviets in 1939-40.

The Soviets expected a quick and short war with Finland, but instead fought a brutal three month campaign. However, it provided the opportunity for the Soviets to learn hard, valuable lessons that would help it in the war to come with Germany. It also helped the Red Army better understand the need for a squad submachine gun.

The Soviets had developed the PPD (Pistolet-PulemyotDegtyaryova) in the mid-1930s. Designed by VasilyDegtyaryov – the creator of the DP-28 light machine gun – the PPD-34/38 was also likely inspired by the German's MP-28. This Soviet weapon featured a wooden stock, fired from an open bolt and was capable of selective fire. It was chambered in 7.62x25mm, the same as the Tokarev TT-33 pistol. After encountering the KP/-31 the Soviets even adopted a drum magazine for the PPD when they introduced the updated PPD-40.

Today the PPD-40 is often confused with its replacement, the PPSh-41. For all that the PPD-40 brought to the table as a reliable compact submachine gun, it was not without issues. As with the Finnish weapon, the PPD-40 was labor intensive to manufacture and expensive. The Soviets needed a cheaper weapon and the result was the PPSh-41.

Weapons designer Georgi Shpagin took the PPD design and simplified it. He made it easier to produce by using stamped metal parts instead of milled parts, and successfully reduced the number of components from 95 to just 87. The time to produce a single weapon from start to finish was cut from 13.7 hours for the PPD to around 7.3 for the PPSh-41. During the war production was even further reduced where Mosin-Nagant rifle barrels were cut in half to make two PPSh-41 barrels!

In many ways it was the gun that saved Mother Russia.

Says Adrian Stevenson, a collector of Soviet small arms and Soviet WWII re-enactor,

“It had a high rate of fire which is useful and option of semi auto is an asset. The biggest flaw is the drum magazine as it takes a long time to fill if you are under pressure. The adoption of the stick magazines was a much better idea. The vertical ejection of the cartridge cases is a minor flaw as these sometimes cascade around you, if you fire a long sustained burst.”

Soviet Buzz Saw

The PPSh-41 saw its baptism of fire in June 1941 when the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union, which of course spurred additional production. Though it was never was as widely used as movies, TV shows and video games might suggest, by war's end factories were producing 3,000 of them every day. According to estimates more than 6,000,000 PPSh-41s were produced between 1941 and 1947 – and some 1.5 million were made in 1942 alone.

Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Retired), military history consultant and president of Warriors Inc. explains.

“If I was looking strictly at line troops, most still had the Mosin Nagant by the end of war. However, most squads had at least one and the storm trooper units that the Soviets employed had whole squads with nothing but the PPSh-41.”

In this way it was the small arm that helped win the war for the Soviets.

“It is the kind of gun soldiers in the field like,” adds Dye. “It has a simple blow back operation and it feeds from drum and stick mag.”

This isn't to say the design was perfect. For one thing as anyone who watched a few war movies set on the Russian Front or played a similar themed video game can attest, it was hard to hold.

Dye explains.

“The troops who used it loved the drum magazine because it held a lot of ammo. This important because it could burn through the ammo, but it has drawbacks. That drum magazine took time to load. It is noisy, has to be cranked and it would rattle. This is why it was an assault weapon, not one used to sneak up on the enemy.”

By accounts the Germans loved it. This is again notable in movies like the aforementioned Cross of Iron and the German made Stalingrad – both have German squad leaders using the Soviet weapon over the German made MP-40. This is not a case of someone taking cinematic liberties.

The Germans captured large numbers of the PPSh-41 and even converted many of these to the standard German 9x19mm Parabellum. Under this conversion the PPSh-41 was redubbed the MP41(r). Interestingl,y the Germans could not keep up with the efforts to modify all the captured ones, so instead supplied 7.63×25 Mauser ammunition for use with the unconverted weapons. These were designated as MP717(r). The main difference was that the German ammo was somewhat less powerful overall to the Soviet versions. The modified ones could be utilized with the MP-40 stick magazines.

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The PPs-43 was introduced as even simpler design. It was used throughout the Cold War – and has been reissued in a semi-automatic version like the one above (Collection of the author).

The PPSh-41 may have been simpler and more cost effective to make than the PPD, but as the Soviets were fighting literally for every inch of ground, their military planners realized further efforts were needed to spur production. Alexei Sudayev offered an effective solution: the PPs-43 (Sudaev's submachine gun). It was similar in design but featured all stamped metal parts – excluding barrel – instead of a wooden stock and utilized a stick magazine only.

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This display at the Prague War Museum shows a late-World War II Soviet soldier equipped with a PPs-43 (Photo: Peter Suciu).

Post WWII Use

Just as the weapon was feared by the Germans on the Russian Front, it was dreaded by American and allied forces who faced it in Korea. One major difference was that it was used there in much wider numbers – as original PPSh-41s were supplied to North Korea and Red China, while China produced a licensed copy as the Type 49/50.

It proved especially ideal in the winter months – where the weather was as rough as almost anything on the Russian Front a decade earlier.

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The PPSh-41 was used by the Pro-Communist Hungarian forces after the city was liberated by the Soviets in 1945. This particular firearm is at the collection of the Budapest Military Museum (Photo: Peter Suciu)

Says Dye,

“We found them common as snowflakes in Korea. The weapons operated very well in the cold weather of the short bolt and short stroke. It didn't overheat and it could handle the cold very well, so it worked ideally in those low temperatures. And with so many on the battlefield these became ubiquitous by war's end.”

It was in Korea where American and Soviet small arms first truly went to head-to-head, and the PPSh-41 has been often contrasted against the U.S. M1 Garand and M1 Carbine. Those American weapons had an advantage in range, but in terms of pure firepower the Soviet weapons outclassed and outgunned those of the GI.

That was a sentiment noted by then infantry Capt. (later General) Hal Moore, who faced the weapon in Vietnam.

Says Dye,

“We saw all the time in the early part of Vietnam. It was common for the Viet Cong units to rely on Mosin Nagant carbine rifles and the PPSh-41. That gun was all over the place. It really became the early symbol of the guerrilla fighter.”

The PPSh-41 was supplied by the Soviets and Chinese to various revolutionary movements around the world in the decades after World War II, but ironically was also used against the Soviets during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Many period photos show that it was a favored weapon of the Hungarian resistance fighters in Budapest.

Just as pro-Communist forces used the PPSh-41 in Budapest, so too did anti-Soviet forces in the 1956 uprising. A display at the Budapest Military Museum shows how the weapon was commonly used among the pro-democracy freedom fighters.

Interestingly, by this time the Soviet Red Army was being equipped with the AK-47. The era of the World War II weapons had passed, leaving the PPSh-41 as a gun whose best days were behind it. As Dye noted, it would still find use in revolutionary conflicts, but after 1956 most of the Warsaw Pact nations would be supplied with newer weapons such as the AK-47 or SKS.

Adrian Stevenson explains the transition.

“The PPSh41 was a great weapon, but not truly innovative. It was a product of its day. It was the PPS that took the design process forwards with stamped metal construction and fewer parts. Thus being cheaper and quicker to build. This whole concept led the way to the AK-47 and the AKM.”

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Before being replaced by the AK-47 or ARK the PPSh-41 was carried by various Warsaw Pact armies during the Cold War. This display at the Powder Tower room at Prague Castle shows a 1950s vintage Czechoslovakian Infantryman in walking out uniform with a PPSh-41 (Photo: Peter Suciu)

PPSh-41 in Popular Culture

While many American small arms appeared in movies as the Second World War raged, so too did the PPSh-41. Its earliest appearance in a movie was likely the 1943 Soviet made war film Two Soldiers. The first time the weapon was seen in a western movie was one set during the Korean War rather than WWII. That film came, The Hunters, came out in 1958 and starred Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner. The guns used in the movie may have been actual firearms that were captured in Korea. The weapon was seen again a year later in the film Pork Chop Hill where it was carried by various Chinese soldiers, with both 71 round drum magazines and 35 round stick magazines.

It would make further appearances in such notable films as the 1964 horror film The Last Man on Earth and in the 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. The joke is on the makers of the latter film of course, as by then Soviet Marines should have been carrying AK-47s!

One other notable appearance of the PPSh-41 was in the 1968 Vietnam War movie The Green Berets. While it isn't seen in any combat scenes, the weapon appears early in the film in one scene where “captured” weapons are on display. The PPSh-41 in this scene is identified as a “ChiCom K50 submachine gun” but it features the drum magazine, while the ChiCom versions usually were seen with a stick magazine. It is believed that “prop” was actually a weapon captured in Korea rather than Vietnam.

Its use in these Cold War films is actually understandable, says Dale Dye, noting,

“Before film makers became familiar with AK-47 it was the PPSh-41 that represented the East.”

The first appearance of the PPSh-41 in a World War II setting in a western-made film was likely the British-made 1973 film Hitler: The Last Ten Days, starring Alec Guinness. In some scenes Soviet troops can be seen wielding the weapon.

Cross of Iron was likely the first large frontline World War II film that featured the weapon in use – by both Soviets and Germans alike. The PPSh-41s used in the Sam Peckinpah film were likely supplied by the Yugoslavian military. They provided much of the equipment for the production.

The PPSh-41 was seen in many other films, and also appeared in such TV shows as Mission: Impossible, M*A*S*H and even Stargate– with the latter suggesting alien cultures had considered a similar design. It has also proved to be a popular weapon in such video game franchises as Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Battlefield.

Movies and games have confused one point too – namely how you're supposed to hold this thing. That, says Stevenson, can be daunting.

“While holding the gun by the bottom of the drum magazine is not a natural position to adopt, it does work fine in practice. Holding the gun by the stock behind the magazine is an option but it is easy to catch the finger ends on the fast moving cocking handle. But the 35 round stick magazine solved these minor issues as the magazine could then be held.”

For collectors today the PPSh-41 might not be as common as those snowflakes that Dye alluded to, but there have been parts kits and even various semi-automatic versions offered for sale – as well as replicas, dummy guns and airsoft versions for those without the deep pockets for a real one.

PPSh-41 Specs

Type: Submachine gun
Caliber: 7.62x25mm Tokarev
Weight: 8 pounds
Length: 33.2-inches
Barrel Length: 10.6-inches
Capacity: 35-round box, 71-round drum
Fire Modes: Full Auto/Safe

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