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The SVT-40 – the First Soviet Semi-Automatic Rifle

A common saying during World War II was that the British paid in time, the Americans paid in equipment, and the Soviets paid in blood. That is probably true, if grossly simplified, but we should remember that Soviet equipment — notably the T-34 tank and PPSh-41 submachine gun — played a major role, just as their soldiers did.

Ex Historiam – SVT-40, the First Soviet Semi-Automatic Rifle

A largely forgotten piece of Soviet equipment is the SVT-40, their first large scale attempt at a semi-automatic rifle. Ironically, despite the advantages that the weapon offered, it was largely withdrawn from service by war’s end . Despite this, it remains an important part of Soviet small arms design.

The Samozaryadnaya Vintovka Tokarea (“Tokarev Self-loading Rifle, Model 1940”), has often been mislabeled as the Soviet’s take on the M1 Garand. This isn’t exactly accurate, in part because gun designer Fedor Tokarev had actually been working on his design at the same as the US was developing the M1.

SVT-40’s Origins

Military planners around the world were working to develop a semi-automatic rifle for the infantry, and a number of concepts were being considered. There is another key difference that should be highlighted –Garand spent 15 years developing the M1, and that was really his greatest success. It can’t be overstated how important this design may have been, but John Garand was no John Browning, who had multiple successful designs to his credit.

Tokarev Fedor RS
The Soviet master gunsmith and arms designer FedorTokarev. For his efforts he was awarded the Hero of Socialist Labor award and the USSR State Prize. (Photo Credits: Edubilla.com)

By contrast Fedor Tokarev had already made a name for himself as the designer of the TT-30 and TT-33 self-loading (semi-automatic) pistols. This concept was similar to – and likely based – on Browning’s blowback operation. It utilized Browning’s short recoil titling-barrel system, but also employed a simpler hammer/sear assembly than Browning’s M1911.

Tokarev had long been considering the benefits of a semi-automatic rifle. In fact, while a master gunsmith for the Imperial Russian Army in 1910 he submitted a conversion of the bolt action Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifle for semi-automatic operation. This never really advanced beyond the prototype stage, but he remained a gunsmith for the Red Army after the Russian Revolution.

In 1927 he designed a submachine gun prototype, but in the ’30s turned his attention back to the semi-automatic rifle platform. That first design entered service in 1938 as the SVT-38, using the same 7.62 x 54mmR cartridge as the Mosin-Nagant.

If the TT-30/33 arguably resembled the Browning 1911, the SVT-38 was not exactly a copy of the M1 either. It featured a gas-operated action along with a gas cylinder cup, which made it rather complex by Soviet standards. This new rifle saw use in combat in the Winter War with Finland (1939-40). The results were not good however , and the reaction from the troops was very negative.

Soldiers found the gun too long, too cumbersome, and too difficult to easily maintain. Worst of all, it had a removable box magazine that fell out at inopportune times. Another concern for soldiers was the SVT-38 inability to handle corrosively-primed ammunition well – and as shooters today know, Eastern Bloc ammo has always tended to be rather corrosive. This meant the weapon needed frequent cleaning, something that the Mosin-Nagant didn’t need, and thus something soldiers weren’t accustomed to doing frequently (if they were inclined to do so in the first place).

SVT Prague

Production of the SVT-38 was halted in early 1940 after some 150,000 of them were built. Today this early semi-automatic rifle is highly sought after by collectors.

A seeming failure of this magnitude could have been the end for Tokarev, but as Stalin’s purges had already left the military woefully unprepared for the coming war with Germany, the arms designer was given another chance. He went back to the drawing board and redesigned the rifle, which was designated the SVT-40. It was lighter, and more importantly, simpler to produce.

Soviets-SVT-40 RS

The SVT-40 in Wartime

The weapon was rushed into production in the fall of 1940. The Soviet Union had planned to replace the aging Mosin-Nagant – which had been updated as the Model 1891/1930 with a shorter barrel and stock –with the SVT-40. On paper one third of all rifles were intended to be this model.

SVT-4-5 RS
The Mosin-Nagant 91/30 (top) remained the main battle rifle through World War II, but NCOs and elite forces were issued with the SVT-40 (bottom) – (Photo: Peter Suciu)

However, a not so funny event occurred – Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. In the opening weeks of the war hundreds of thousands of rifles were captured, and the Mosin-Nagant, which had been taken out of service, was reintroduced. The bolt action rifle was far easier to manufacture and required less training to employ.

The value of the PPSh-41 was noticed at the same time.  This provided the necessary firepower for close quarter fighting. This, along with the ease of their production, gave the bolt action and submachine gun priority. Subsequently there was a slowing in production of the semi-auto.

In 1941 a little over one million SVT-40s were produced. The number built each year declined as the war continued. Rather than bring out the more advanced and effective semi-automatic rifle – or the Great Patriotic War as it was known in the Soviet Union – the Soviets continued to focus on the bolt guns.

In total about 1.6 million SVT-40s were produced. Less than 52,000 were an extremely rare sniper variety. The weapon was largely issued to non-commissioned officers and to personnel of certain elite units. Perhaps the greatest thing the SVT-40 had going for it was that it used the same ammunition as the Mosin-Nagant. This ammunition was also used in the DP-28 light machine gun.

Because machine guns were in short supply, and the Soviets were still relying on the wheel-mounted Maxim (and later the SG-43), a fully automatic version of the SVT was produced. It was similar in concept to the American BAR (Designated as the AVT-40, it was externally similar to the SVT-40, but featured a shorter stock and modified safety that acted as a fire selector. This modification proved to be a failure as the automatic fire was quite uncontrollable and the rifle suffered breakages as a result of the increased strain.

Even with its main improvements the SVT-40 was still far from perfect, as noted by Max Popenker, firearm historian for the World Guns website:

“The SVT-40 had some design flaws, such as overly complicated gas regulator with too many settings for an average grunt; too light overall design, and problematic receiver/stock fit which resulted in problems with accuracy; it was also sensitive to powders used in ammo, and didn’t particularly like U.S. powders supplied through Lend Lease.”

However, it did offer significant advantages to those NCOs lucky enough to be equipped with one. Added Popenker,

“On the positive side, it offered much more individual firepower, and thus was liked by more trained/educated/technically savvy people, such as marine infantry, and some snipers who worked medium distances and liked to pick several Nazi targets per one engagement.”

The SVT-40 was not a clone of the M1, but the Germans encountered it long before they ever suffered from the attention of the Garand, so they actually used it as the basis for their own semi-auto rifle. The Germans also prized captured SVT-40s.

“Germans also liked SVTs and used it whenever they could, because their own semi-auto rifles either were non-existing or sucked big time, like the G41; The Germans even copied SVT gas systems to their more or less successful G43/K43 rifle.” (Popenker)

The Legacy of the SVT-40

Finland and other German allies also utilized captured SVT-40s. However, unlike the PPSh-41 and other wartime small arms largely exported to “revolutionary” states early in the Cold War, the semi-automatic rifle was withdrawn from service and put into storage. Some were reportedly used by Cuban revolutionaries, but whether those came from the Soviet Union is unclear.

Several thousand SVT-38s and SVT-40s were imported to the United States from Finland after that nation retired them from service in the late 1950s. These were the first and likely only examples to reach American market until the 1990s, when the rifles in storage were finally sold by the post-Soviet Russian Federation.

The SVT-40 has not particularly made much of a mark in popular culture outside of the former Soviet Union. The rifle appeared in the 1941 Soviet film In the Rear of the Enemy, which was set during the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), but didn’t appear in a western-made film until 2001’s Enemy at the Gates. There it can be seen carried by Red Army soldiers in the background. Its most notable presence on screen in recent years was in the lackluster Russian-made film Stalingrad. An SVT-40 is carried by one of that movie’s main characters.

The rifle has made a bit more of an impact via video games, appearing in such titles as Call of Duty: United Offensive, Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty: World at Wars, and the Red Orchestra series.

SVT-40-6 RS
A comparison of the SVT-40 (top) with the SKS (bottom). It is easy to see that SVT design may have influenced the basic features of the SKS, but the two rifles differ in many ways (Photo: Peter Suciu)

It has been suggested that the SKS was at least partially based on the SVT design, but apart from being semi-automatic and have a similar outline – with the SVT being far bigger – the two weapons have few functional similarities.

 

In the end the SVT-40 was simply a rifle that had more promise than was feasible to exploit at the time.

SVT-40 Specs

Type: Semi-automatic battle rifle
Caliber: 7.62x54mmR
Weight: 8.5 pounds
Length: 48.3 inches
Barrel Length: 24.6 inches
Capacity: 10-rounds detachable box magazine
Fire Modes: Semi-automatic
Action: Gas-operated short-stroke piston, titling bolt
Muzzle Velocity: 2,720 – 2,760 ft/s
Effective Range: 550 yards (500 meters)


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