The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Zenit Photosniper FS-3: Smile, Wait For The Flash


Cameras and imaging equipment are ubiquitous in the modern world, where anything and everything seems capable of recording an image. However, this wasn’t always the case, largely due to the nonexistence or limitations of cameras themselves. 

While there have been methods of projecting images onto surfaces with something called the camera obscura for more than 2,000 years, the first camera and film combination that could successfully capture an image wouldn’t come about until the early 19th century. 

With results that were rudimentary, combined with images sometimes taking hours to imprint themselves, they mostly existed in the realms of early scientists and affluent artists. In fact, the ability to capture an image wasn’t even publicly known or mentioned until the mid to late 1830s. 

The usefulness of capturing an image wasn’t lost on people at the time, and advances in both optics and image capture began to rapidly improve.

As with many new technologies, at first photography was expensive and specialized — this was still a long way from having a camera (and a supercomputer) in your pocket 24/7 — but it wouldn’t be too long before the military uses of such a capability became apparent. 

Though art depicting battlefields has probably existed since two groups of people went at it with sticks, the first real photographs of war were taken by an unknown photographer during the Mexican-American War in 1847. 

Far from the images taken by embedded journalists and combat camera soldiers we’ve become accustomed to in the 21st century, these initial photos were largely of the edges of war: gravesites, portraits, and post-fight landscapes. Film at the time was still too crude to capture dynamic scenes and people in motion, set amongst the gunfire and charging infantrymen.

The most photographed war in the 19th century was the American Civil War, and though dozens of photographers were involved (both private citizens and those employed by the United States and the Confederacy), there still weren’t any shots of active battlefields for the same reason as the Mexican-American War — exposures simply took too long. 

The 300mm Tair-3AS lens is modified to attach directly to the stock system as well as a focus wheel that can be easily manipulated with the support hand.

The use of balloons for aerial reconnaissance wasn’t uncommon during the American Civil War, but the combination of aerial recon and cameras didn’t coalesce until the early 20th century, when film became sensitive enough to produce images with far shorter exposure times. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the reality is a clear photograph can be worth considerably more than that: words rely on the observer and the notetaker — if they miss something everyone else will miss it too.

Using handheld cameras for intelligence and reconnaissance is younger than aircraft. One of the first dedicated collection systems designed for military use was the Photosniper system.


“What caliber is it?”


The first experimental Photo-sniper system, the FS-1, started being developed in 1937 in Leningrad by GOI (State Optical Institute) in the Soviet Union and was quickly followed by the FS-2 for military service. Only made until 1945, it’s estimated that under 500 original systems were ever manufactured in the first place, with an extremely small number currently in existence. 

The Zenit-ES is a manual 35mm camera with a secondary shutter mechanism on the bottom. The eyepiece is also specifically designed for the Photosniper system.

Starting in the mid-1960s, KMZ began manufacturing the Photosniper under their Zenit line. Called the FS-3, these systems were used for clandestine work by the KGB, military intelligence collection, and also export. Ultimately Zenit would produce more than 20 variations of the Photosniper.

If you think it looks like a 35mm camera attached to a rifle stock, you’d be exactly right. 


Just as with riflescopes, the higher the magnification of the optic, the easier it is to induce visible shake and wobble into the system. While this can be annoying in-person, it can be devastating when taking a picture, as even today film typically requires more exposure time than your eyes — to say nothing about decades past. 

With modern lenses and cameras, we have assorted vibration reduction systems, everything from in-body and in-lens units to complex gimbal systems, but these are relatively new — to say nothing about the 1930s. 

The answer then, as it often is today for both cameras and rifles, is a tripod or other form of stabilization, such as a bipod or monopod. But for soldiers on the front lines (or KGB agents in the field), a tripod is both heavy and conspicuous. 

One of the reasons a rifle is more accurate than a pistol isn’t really the longer barrel (that’s more for velocity) but the additional stability you get from that stock being pushed into your shoulder, more points of contact, and perhaps even some additional tension brought by proper use of a sling. 

Form follows function, and the same reason the trigger on a rifle isn’t on the top/right like a camera is the same reason the Photosniper has a trigger like a rifle. Also, the more you can shorten training time, especially when it comes to conscripted troops, the better off everyone is.  

The Russians were neither the first nor the last to make a camera with gun or gun-like parts and ergonomics, especially in this era. 

Leitz of New York made the Leica Rifle in the late 1930s, which had a stock of its own. Several models came out of Japan, first a machine gun that shot photos instead of lead for training, along with some more esoteric cameras indistinguishable from a space pistol like the DORYU 2-16. 


The Photosniper is more than just a simple stock; it’s a complete kit for use in the field. Packed in a Soviet steel proto-Pelican for protection, the complete set includes a modified Zenit E (named the “ES”) 35mm camera, a two-piece stock system, Tair-3AS 300mm f/4.5 lens for primary use, a smaller Helios-44 58mm f/2 lens, a filter set, two metal reloadable 35mm film canisters, spare lens cover, and a pair of screwdrivers. 

The Photosniper comes with colored filters for different lighting situations; exactly how useful these are greatly depend on both the film and the photographer’s skill.

The special modifications made to the Zenit E camera include a stud on the bottom to act as a second triggering mechanism and a slightly more-rearward viewfinder for best use when shouldered. The Zenit E is a fully manual camera, requiring the shooter to set exposure, focus, take a shot, and advance film all on their own. 

It does have an integral light meter (very important in the days of film) that doesn’t require batteries. This Zenit has a somewhat limited range of shutter speeds, though there’s a “bulb” mode for long-exposure shots to maximize low-light capability. 

The Tair-3AS 300mm lens (roughly 6x normal human vision) uses a large hand-turnable screw with two indexing pins to attach to the stock. Another change from the standard Tair-3 is that the lens focusing system is placed forward and on the bottom, for easy use with the support hand when shouldered. In use, this location was completely natural and ergonomic, proving that the Russians are indeed capable of user-friendly designs, even if they don’t seem to apply it to their weapons.

Inside its own proto-Pelican Soviet steel case, the Photosniper kit comes with a camera, stock, lenses, filters, and even tools and reusable film canisters.

For safe storage when not in use, both the stock and the Tair lens are secured directly to the container with a screw mechanism. The camera is intended to be placed in the box while wearing the 300mm lens. The additional lens and filters (along with protective covers) screw directly to the box with M42 threads, while the tools do the same through the use of spring steel clips. 

The smaller Helios-44 lens, intended to capture images from shorter distances, is actually popular in some photography circles for portrait work because it’s an inexpensive, fast lens. Due to the idiosyncrasies of a Soviet semi-sandboxed design, the Helios can capture some quixotic images. While this ain’t great for covert surveillance, there’s application in the world of art. 


Though anyone can take a well-exposed shot with a modern cellphone, thanks to the latest image sensors and computational photography, when it comes to physical film it can be a different story entirely. 

Users of the Photosniper would likely be using black and white film rather than color; B&W is less vulnerable to environmental damage such as extreme heat and can also be developed in austere conditions — in a pinch you can even use beer or coffee as a successful developer. 

It’s not like a KGB agent will drop off their covert surveillance photos at a 1-hour-photo lab in a strip mall.

So long as you understand the nuances of film and manual photography, the Photosniper can produce some excellent photos. But the real draw isn’t the old Zenit camera or lenses (those can be purchased on eBay for practically pennies) but the stock system itself. 

They cost less than you think, but if you partake, be careful where you use it, because it could also be a novel way to get shot by police. 

Enter Your E-Mail to Receieve a Free 50-Target Pack from RECOIL!

NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOIL

For years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included).

Get your pack of 50 Print-at-Home targets when you subscribe to the RECOIL email newsletter. We'll send you weekly updates on guns, gear, industry news, and special offers from leading manufacturers - your guide to the firearms lifestyle.

You want this. Trust Us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to the Free