Confessions of a Gun Addict: The Czech RV-85 Flare Launcher
By Will Dabbs, MD

When I was seven I got my first gun; the basement version Daisy lever action BB gun. I wore it completely out. At thirteen I bought my first handgun, a cap-and-ball 1851 Navy kit gun that I built in my parents’ garage with hand tools. My first AR-15 was purchased with money earned as a janitor in a print shop at sixteen. Dad had to sign for that one. My first two machine guns were on my twenty-first birthday. It was my wife a few years later who first suggested I might have a problem.

The study of addiction is a fascinating thing. The typical addict usually denies that he has a problem at first. I did. Eventually as his tolerance develops to his substance of choice he must obtain more and more of it or move to harder stuff to keep functioning. Money management can become a challenge as perspective is lost and priorities begin to blur. In many cases simply acknowledging the problem is the biggest hurdle.

I fear I may have developed a problem with guns.

The semi-auto black rifles led to submachine guns. Submachine guns led to assault rifles. Assault rifles led to belt-feds. Throughout it all there were the little experiments with handguns, suppressors, and precision rifles just to keep things spicy. Just when I thought I had finally found the edge of the envelope, something else came along to titillate the senses all over again. This was, of all things, the Czech RV-85 teargas launcher.


The RV-85 was designed and built at the BRNO factory during the 1980s. It is a classic relic of the Cold War. Originally designed to fire rocket-assisted, barrier-penetrating teargas rounds, this weapon occupies that murky space just above marine flare launchers and just below true grenade launchers. There were approximately 2,500 of these guns produced in what was then Czechoslovakia. Roughly 1,000 of them made it into this country to be sold as non-firearm flare launchers.

The RV-85 is 37 inches long and sports a 19.75-inch barrel length. Depending upon where you get yours the launcher can include some fascinating accessories. The bargain version comes with nothing more than a spare firing pin. The deluxe setup includes a sling, a cleaning kit, a soft case, a spare parts set, and, of all things, a test target.

The beauty of the RV-85 is its bore diameter. At 26.5 mm it is the rough equivalent of a 4-gauge using the classic English shotgun measurement system. This puts the bore just a tad larger than one inch. To put this into perspective, a standard 12-gauge has a bore diameter of about .72 inches. Should you not already be aware of it, shotgun gauges are so determined by the number of pure lead balls of a given bore diameter that make up a pound. 28, 20, 16, and 12-gauge shotguns are described thusly. Therefore should the RV-85 be called upon to fire a single lead ball, that ball would weigh a full quarter pound. Wow.

The reason the RV-85 transfers unrestricted as a non-firearm is based upon the fact that there is no commercially available antipersonnel ammunition available in this country. There are rumors of rocket-assisted armor-piercing rounds being produced in this caliber overseas but we will obviously never see them here.

Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder

What sets the RV-85 apart from other flare launchers available to U.S. shooters is its robust construction. The RV-85 sports a fit, finish, and construction that are, in a word, gorgeous. The receiver is milled from a massive chunk of steel. The barrel is thick and heavy and incorporates beautiful chrome plating along its length. The entire gun is finished in a deep heavy blue. The wood is custom grade and beautifully finished. Overall, this thing is built like the proverbial brick outhouse.

The rear sight is flip adjustable for 50, 75, and 100 yards and meticulously constructed. The front sight is robust and guarded with a heavy hood. There is a scope mounting recess incorporated into the left side of the receiver. The breech breaks open like any conventional break-open single barrel shotgun with a thumb lever. Rotating the ample thumb lever to its stop in a counter-clockwise direction cocks the firing pin. There is a sliding safety button incorporated into the front of the trigger guard in the manner of the M1 Garand. The safety resets itself to the safe position each time the weapon is cocked.

I have had a flare launcher or two over the years in my personal stable. In my experience the 37mm varieties that mimic the military M203 version are nifty looking but fairly flimsy. The welds are thin and the firing mechanism little more than a spring-loaded firing pin that must be cocked manually via a small handle protruding from the side of the receiver. To make mine more robust and a better mimic of the military variant involved a fair amount of welding and redesign. After this transformation was complete there was still very little of interest to shoot through it. The RV-85, by contrast, simply oozes potential.

Don’t Get Carried Away

A word of caution is in order at this point. Unlike the M203 facsimiles mentioned above, the RV-85 is built like a serious firearm. The action and barrel look like they could handle almost anything a clever firearms enthusiast might shove in its gullet. Herein lies the danger. As an unrestricted flare launcher the list of things one might legally fire out of this rig is quite limited. Commercial flares and smoke rounds are fairly readily available and are not prohibitively expensive. Anything that exudes even a hint of an antipersonnel flavor, however, instantly transforms the launcher into an unregistered Destructive Device that is, in the eyes of the law, not unlike having an unregistered M79 grenade launcher or 75mm pack howitzer lying about the gun room. For the attentive and meticulous gun owner, however, there are some fascinating options available. Be careful, be conservative, and be legal with the fodder you might feed this gun and it can be great fun.

Taking It to the Next Level

As previously mentioned, in its raw state projectile selections for the RV-85 are fairly limited. For real fun, however, bite the bullet, engrave the receiver, fork over the $200 and a Form I, and register the launcher as a Destructive Device. On my particular launcher, the purchase price was less than the cost of a tax stamp. In this configuration, the sky is just about the limit.

In DD configuration the RV-85 system can take advantage of a variety of novel products available online. These projectiles include plastic shot cups that look like 12 gauge wads on steroids. The resulting amalgam may then be loaded with lead shot, ball bearings, flechettes, or anything else the responsible and conservative gun owner might dream up. There are also milled plastic projectiles that incorporate fins in the base to enhance distance and accuracy. The enterprising recreational shooter can really get the creative juices flowing with the RV-85.

Now that we have discussed projectiles, there are some fascinating casing options available on the web as well. The most interesting shells are turned from aluminum and threaded such that the cartridge itself breaks down into two parts for cleaning. The base of the cartridge incorporates a machined well that accepts a standard 9mm casing. To load these rounds one primes and charges a 9mm case and then loads it into the base of the aluminum cartridge using a copper disk ahead of the pistol cartridge. This arrangement yields an effective facsimile of the high-low pressure cartridge design utilized in the familiar 40mm family of ammunition designed for shoulder-fired military grenade launchers. For those without access to a ready supply of these copper disks, one can still get impressive results using medium-weight cardboard disks punched out with a spent 9mm casing as a template. Loading data is provided with the aluminum casings or is available on the internet. Stick to it and the RV-85 will not be even inconvenienced by chamber pressures.

Like most things in the field of truly advanced gun collecting, the RV-85 is best suited to the NFA-savvy gun owner who is conservative and responsible. This gun rests firmly on the very outer legal edge of unrestricted flare launchers and the irresponsible owner could easily find himself in jail or dead if he fails to treat this undertaking with the proper respect and attention to detail. For the responsible gun addict who takes his time and plays by the rules, however, the RV-85 can bring a whole new dimension to the range experience. Under the right circumstances, a seasoned gun collector can find hours of fun waiting for him for a relatively trivial investment. These guns are going fast and at the time of this writing are ridiculously inexpensive from a variety of sources. As is the case with many foreign-made niche firearms of this sort, however, they assuredly will not last long.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (May 2012)
and was posted online on April 13, 2012


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