By Dean Roxby
In September 1916, in Cambrai, France, the British Army unleashed the tank for the first time. Their German opponents were caught completely by surprise by these mechanized monsters. Eventually, the German engineers came up with the first example of what would come to be a new class of weapons system, the anti-tank rifle (ATR). This first example of an ATR was the Mauser Tankgewehr M1918, firing a 13.2x92mm cartridge.
In the years after World War I and on into the early years of World War II, several other countries designed their own anti-tank rifles. Britain had the .55 Boys, Germany designed several models using the 7.92x94mm high velocity round, Finland created the mighty Lahti L-39 in 20x138 Belted, and the Soviet Union introduced two designs that used the 14.5x114mm round. These two designs were the bolt action PTRD-41, and the semi-auto PTRS-41. This article will focus on the bolt action PTRD.
The Protivo Tankovoye Ruzhyo Degtyaryova (Anti-Tank Rifle Degtyarov) was designed by Vasily Degtyarov (1880–1949) (note that a letter “a” is added to the person’s name to indicate possession, in the same manner as an “apostrophe s” is added in English). Both Degtyarov’s PTRD design and Sergei Simonov’s PTRS were introduced into Soviet service in 1941. Approximately 190,000 PTRDs (along with 60,000 of the more complicated semi-auto PTRS) were produced during 1941 and 1942. (Some sources suggest as many as 400,000 of both total). As with all anti-tank rifles, the PTRD and PTRS rifles quickly became obsolete with the thicker armour of newer tanks. However, they were often used in an anti-material role until war’s end. In fact, both types were encountered in the Korean War, being used by the communist North Koreans.
The PTRD-41 was produced at the V. A. Degtyarov plant in Kovrov, Vladimir Oblast, Russia on the Eastern European Plain. This factory also produced such guns as the DP-28 light machine gun, the PPD-40 submachine gun, as well as guns from other designers such as the SVT-40, PPSh-41 and the SG-43.
Although referred to as a bolt action, the PTRD has an unusual method of operation. It is manual loading but auto ejecting. Upon firing, the barrelled action and bolt are locked together as expected. However, the buttstock is separate from the receiver, and contains a large recoil spring within a hollow tube. This allows both the action and bolt to recoil rearwards against the buttstock. As the action travels rearwards, the bolt handle contacts a steel plate mounted to the buttstock. This cam-plate forces the bolt handle upwards, camming open the action. As the recoil spring housed within the buttstock overcomes the recoil forces, the barrelled action is returned to its normal forward position. The bolt remains rearward however. It is this movement that ejects the fired case, as the case is held back by the massive bolt, while the receiver is driven forward by the recoil spring.
The gun has a very basic, cheap, crude appearance. It is not much more than a very long pipe with a few bits welded to it. The fundamental open iron sights are offset to the left, thereby requiring a right-handed firing position. The rear sight has a flip-type open sight with settings for 400 metres and 600 metres. A massive muzzle brake caps off the barrel. The buttstock is equally sparse resembling the padded portion of an underarm crutch, and is covered with heavy stiff leather. The cheek rest is a piece of steel that extends out from the steel buttstock tube, and is fortunately covered with a similar thick leather wrap. A simple carry handle clamps around the barrel at the balance point and a bipod is attached just forward of the balance point. The bipod folds rearward along the barrel when not supporting the gun. A free standing pistol grip consists of a simple 1/4 inch plate welded to the receiver and adorned with two pistol grip panels made of roughly finished lumber. Although a crude design, the particular example shown here is in very good, near new condition. The stitching and leather work is in fine condition, with no rips or tears.
This particular gun was imported into Canada in 2005, as part of a group of several dozen PTRDs and a handful of PTRSs. They came out of either Albania or Ukraine (both countries have been suggested). This one was sold by Wolverine Supplies, in Manitoba, Canada. Marstar Canada, of Ontario also sold them around the same time.
Wolverine had originally intended to re-barrel the single shot PTRD rifle to .50 BMG, thereby offering a moderately priced .50 BMG rifle to the Canadian market. The intended price was planned to be around Can$2,000. However, upon closer inspection, it became evident that this was going to be a major undertaking. So, rather than re-barrelling them, they were sold as is for Can$1,500 for the PTRD and $1,800 for the PTRS. Although these guns were not re-barrelled as it was not cost effective, it is certainly possible. During the Korean War, an American Army Ordnance officer, William Brophy, did just that to create a long range sniping rifle engaging targets at distances of between 1,000 to 2,000 yards.
This firearm is considered a Non-Restricted firearm in Canada. This puts it in the same class as basic hunting rifles and shotguns. This may come as a surprise to U.S. readers, as the same gun would be classified as a Destructive Device and subject to registration and a US$200 tax stamp every time it is bought and sold. As this author wryly notes, in Canada small is scary (handguns are tightly controlled), while in the USA, big is scary. Different countries, different laws.
The 14.5x114 round used by both the PTRD and PTRS is a substantial cartridge. The original API (Armour Piercing Incendiary) projectile weighed approx. 1,000 gr. (approx. 64 gram), and had a listed muzzle velocity of roughly 3,300 fps (approx. 1,000 m/s). The original BS round had a tungsten carbide core. A similar API round, the B-32, had a hardened steel core; the ballistics were similar. The 14.5mm round boasts an impressive 24,000 foot pounds energy (~32,000 joules). Although the round is still produced for other guns, it is almost entirely HE or incendiary, so cannot be imported into Canada. It was only very recently that this author fired the gun for the first time. During research for this article, another owner generously offered 10 rounds of his own reloads, with the understanding that the (scarce) empty cases be returned afterwards.
My impressions of firing it are that it is not nearly as bad as expected. I admit to being somewhat apprehensive the first time I shouldered it. I recall a conversation with an elderly German WW2 vet who found a PTRD in Russia. He described it as being whacked on the shoulder with a hammer. I found it to be quite tolerable.
The anti-tank rifle concept was a very short lived idea, from the very end of WW1 to early WW2. As tank armour increased, the ATR quickly became obsolete, replaced with bazookas and panzerfausts. However, the 14.5mm round survived to see service in a new class of heavy machine gun, the KPV. No other ATR cartridge survived beyond the end of WW2. The irony is that even though the round is still in service in many countries, this author has yet to obtain a single live factory round. A recent rumour suggests that some ball ammo may be imported in a year or so by a reputable importer. However, similar rumours in the past have failed to happen. Nevertheless, even if the above mentioned rumour does come to be, there is the concern that the ammo is loaded to higher chamber pressures than the original BS and B-32 rounds, as this new ammo is certainly for the KPV and ZPU multi-barrel anti-aircraft gun. Although accurate load and chamber pressure data is scarce, the fact that even though the cartridge looks and measures the same externally, the modern ammo is loaded hotter than the WW2 anti-tank rifle rounds and creates a dangerous situation if fired in the PTRS or PTRD. If this new ball ammo does actually arrive in Canada, it may well need to be disassembled, the charge reduced slightly, and then reassembled.
The anti-tank rifle concept represents an interesting time in history, when a man with a rather large rifle could take on a tank. The PTRD is one of only a very few members of this exclusive class of firearms.
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