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Surplus Review: April 2008, The Soviet SVT Tokarev Rifle

By Frank Iannamico

The United States was one of only two countries that entered WWII equipped with a modern service rifle. The U.S. Infantryman had the distinct advantage of the 8 shot semiautomatic 30’06 M1 Garand Rifle. In September 1941 the U.S. adopted another semiautomatic design, the 15 (later 30) round detachable magazine M1 Carbine. The carbine fires a small, less powerful .30 caliber round. The M1 carbine, however, was not intended to serve as a front line infantry battle rifle. Slightly over 6 million M1 and M2 Carbines, and about 4 million M1 Garand rifles were manufactured during WWII.(950,000 additional Garands were manufactured during the Korean War).

Even though the United States issued the semiautomatic M1 Garands and carbines in large numbers, the WWI U.S. bolt action rifle, the 1903 Springfield, was also issued. Production of the WWI era rifle resumed in late 1941 to keep up with an ever growing demand for weapons. The 1903 design was slightly modified for faster production. The new design was designated the model 1903A3. The 1903A3 was manufactured by Remington and Smith Corona. The 1903A3 rifle remained in production until February, 1944.

Large numbers of U.S. made rifles and carbines were supplied to the United State’s allies during the war under the Lend Lease Act of March 1941. U.S. semiautomatic rifles that were captured by the Axis powers proved to be very popular and highly regarded among their troops.

The British forces during the war were mainly equipped with the bolt action .303 caliber Enfield rifles. The latest version produced during WWII was the No. 4 MKI. Older versions were utilized as well. Australian troops also carried the Enfields. The German Wehrmacht’s main infantry rifle was a modified WWI Mauser design bolt action rifle, the 7.92x57mm Karabiner 98 kurz. Over 14 million Kar.98k’s were manufactured.

The Germans choice for arming the majority of its soldiers is somewhat surprising, because they had developed so many other revolutionary weapons for their forces. The MG34 and MG42 machine guns, the FG42, MP38/40 submachine guns, the MP44 midrange Strumgewehr, and a modern double action semiauto pistol, the P-38. Yet their main battle weapon was an 1898 designed bolt action rifle! The Germans would soon realize their blunder when they faced the firepower of the semiautomatic Russian SVT Tokarev, and U.S. M1 Garand rifles. Hitler was convinced that the K98 was a suitable infantry weapon based on his experience as a German corporal in WWI. The Germans developed a few semiautomatic rifles later in the war, the G41, K43, and G43. None of the German semiautomatic rifles were an outstanding success, or issued in large numbers.

The Japanese used the Mauser type action Arisaka rifle to equip its Imperial Army. It too, was an antiquated design dating from 1905. There were two major models the Type 38, that fires a intermediate 6.5mm round, and the Type 99 that fires a more powerful 7.7mm round. Over 10 million Arisaka rifles were produced in many rifle and carbine configurations. Although hampered by a small 5 round internal magazine, the Arisaka is an extremely accurate firearm.

The Russians, like every other nation involved in the war, issued an outdated bolt action firearm, the pre WWI designed, 7.62x54R caliber 1891 Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle. There were several versions of the Mosin-Nagant issued during the war, including sniper variations. Slightly over 12 million of the bolt action Nagant rifles were produced. Despite the large amount of various weapons manufactured, the Mosin-Nagant endured as the main battle rifle of the Russians in WWII. The bolt action Mosin-Nagants were supplemented by the Soviet PPSh41 submachine guns. The Soviets highly favored the submachine gun. The subgun was easily and cheaply produced, and was well suited for their battle strategy.

Although the U.S. M1 Garand is often thought of as the most prolific semiauto battle rifle of WWII, the Russians used semiauto battle rifles in far greater numbers. The Soviets issued the semiautomatic SVT38 SVT40 and the AVT Tokarev rifles, designed by Fedor Tokarev in 1938. Tokarev was probably best known for his earlier weapon design, the semiautomatic TT33 Tokarev pistol.

The Tokarev SVT38 design was slow getting into production because of technical problems, but by late 1939 the rifles were being issued in quantity to the Red Army. The AVS 36 select fire rifle proceded the SVT Tokarev rifles in Soviet service, but reliability problems led to the adoption of the newer SVT design. The same breakage and reliability problems the AVS36 had would also be encountered in the SVT 38/40 rifles.

The Samozariadnya Vintovka Tokareva, (self loading Tokarev Rifle) or the SVT rifle, was first used by the Soviets in their brief 1939 winter war with Finland. The war only lasted from November 1939 until March 1940, but the Russians learned some very valuable lessons about tactics and weapons. It wasn’t long until reliability and breakage problems began to surface with the SVT38 rifle. Many problems were directly attributed to the 7.62x54R cartridge, it was simply too powerful for the rifles design, and secondly it used a rimmed cartridge case. Rimmed cases are less than ideal for feeding in a magazine feed semiautomatic weapon.

Modifications to the SVT38 design soon followed resulting in an improved version, the SVT40. The actual changes were somewhat minor. Looser tolerances were allowed in the manufacture of the parts to make the rifle less susceptible to dirt and jamming. A new one piece stock replaced the fragile two piece stock of the SVT38 that was subject to cracking. The weight of the SVT40 was also reduced. The new improved Tokarev SVT40 also proved to be a less than adequate design.

There were also sniper variants of the SVT produced. The rifles that were chosen for this task had barrels that were carefully manufactured to closer tolerances than the average service rifles. The sniper versions were equipped with either the PU or PE Russian scopes. The rifles that were slated for use as sniper weapons can be identified by grooves cut into the receiver for a scope mount. These rifles supplemented the older, but more accurate, bolt action Mosin-Nagant sniper rifles.

Another variant of the Tokarev rifle was also produced out of desperation during the war. This model was the select fire Avtomaticheskaya Vintovka Tokareva or simply the AVT. The AVT rifle is basically an SVT40 with a modified trigger group that allows both full and semi automatic fire. The stock was strengthened at the wrist area and has an additional cut for the fire selector. The selector is the safety lever behind the trigger. The left position is semi auto, the middle safe, and the right position full auto. The AVT’s cyclic rate is an extremely fast 750 to 850 rounds per minute, that will empty the 10 round magazine in less than a second. Full auto controllability is slightly more challenging than the 7.62 NATO U.S. M14 rifle. Production of the AVT version was halted in 1943.

The AVT select fire rifles were only issued to carefully selected soldiers, and were to be used when there was inadequate heavy machine gun support. Standard operating procedures and the 10 round magazine strictly limited use to short bursts. It may seem odd that the Russians would use a rifle design that was somewhat delicate to begin with, and make a fully automatic version. Partial reasoning behind the full auto AVT rifle was the acute shortage of belt fed machine guns. One has to realize just how desperate the Russian situation was when the Germans were overrunning their country.

Interestingly enough, 8 fully transferable AVT trigger packs were registered in the early 1980’s by DLO manufacturing. They were comprised of all Russian parts and are on the Curio and Relics list.

The Germans captured many of the Russian SVT rifles from the Eastern Front and effectively used them against their former owners. The German designation for the Tokarev rifle was the 259r or the 258r Selbstladegewehr. The Germans tried during the entire war to develop a successful semiautomatic battle rifle. The most successful German semi-autos were the G43 and the K43. Oddly enough, these German rifles had many features directly copied from the Russian SVT.

The SVT38/40 Tokarev Rifle was manufactured at Tula and Izhevsk arsenals in Russia. The rifle has a very long 48.1” overall length. Weight varies between models. The SVT38 weights 10.8 lbs., the SVT40 9.48lbs. and the full auto AVT 9.24 lbs. The magazine is detachable and holds 10 rounds of the 7.62x54R ammo. There are slots machined into the receiver cover for loading with stripper clips. The weapon is gas operated and has a variable gas port. The Tokarev rifles uses a cammed/tilting bolt that locks into a bolt carrier. This bolt design was later used in the Belgian FN49 rifle. The manual safety feature on the Tokarev rifles is marginal at best, and consists of a lever that does nothing but physically block the trigger when applied. Caution should be used when handling a loaded Tokarev rifle even when the safety is on.

The barrel has an extension made of thick sheet metal. This extension provides a platform to mount the flash hider, front sight and bayonet lug. The chamber of the weapon is fluted to make extraction easier, especially in situations were the weapon was not maintained regularly. The rear sight is a small shallow U notch tangent design, graduated to 1500 meters. The front sight is a hooded post. Accuracy is an unspectacular but Soviet combat acceptable 4.0” group at 100 yards.

The Russian standard battle rifle cartridge in WWII was the 7.62x54R. This round was equivalent to the U.S. 30’06. The 7.62x54R uses a 149 grain full metal jacket projectile, that averages 2850 feet per second. This round dates from 1891 and has a rimmed cartridge case. Muzzle energy is 2687 foot pounds.

The SVT38, SVT40 and the AVT rifles proved to be complicated and somewhat unreliable. The long length made it awkward and clumsy. Additionally, it was difficult to field strip and maintain, especially in the winter when wearing gloves. The root problem was the Russian Army wanted a modern lightweight automatic rifle, but wanted to retain the WWI full power cartridge. Russia, like the United States, simply did not want to abandon the full power battle cartridge. Eventually, the Russians would concede, and adopt the 7.62x39 midrange cartridge and the SKS45 rifle by the end of the war. It would take the United States another 20 years and the M14 rifle to realize that a full power cartridge in a light, shoulder fired, automatic weapon was simply not feasible.

Production of the SVT rifles was reduced more each year as the war dragged on, and finally ceased in late 1944. Even so, close to 6 million of the SVT38, SVT40 and AVT rifles were produced. This figure is almost 2 million more than the number of the U.S. M1 Garands produced during WWII.

The Russians, realizing the advantages of the semiautomatic battle rifle, continued trying to develop a suitable design to replace the troublesome SVT. In 1945 near the end of the war in Europe, the Russians began field testing a new semiautomatic design, the aforementioned SKS45. The war in Europe ended before the SKS would get into full production. The SKS rifle would later become famous during the Vietnam War. The Tokarev SVTs would remain in service for many years after WWII. Many were eventually issued to Soviet satellite nations as military aid.

Today, many SVT rifles have been imported by Century Arms from Russia, where they had been refurbished and stored for many years. Most of these weapons are in very good to excellent condition. Those rifles bearing “Sa” markings were captured and used by the Finns. The Finns had allied with the Nazis to regain territory they lost to the Russians during the earlier Winter War in 1939. Although there were a large number of SVT38 rifles produced, the SVT40 is the most common version available in the United States. The Tokarev Rifles are on the BATF Curio and Relics list.

The Soviet SVT rifles are a very interesting piece of important WWII history. Although the rifle is described as fragile, this was partially because of the hard use and neglect the rifles endured during the war. The Russian Tokarev SVT rifle was the most prolific semiautomatic battle rifle used in WWII. Still, it will always live in the shadow of the highly successful U.S. M1 Garand rifle.

Special Thanks to: Mark Manovich, Bob Bowman Trident, East European Collectibles and Military Surplus

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N7 (April 1998)
and was posted online on July 7, 2017

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