The Guns of Spetsnaz: Internally Silenced Handgun Ammunition
By Maxim Popenker

As discussed in previous articles on the subject, by the early 1970s, Soviet Spetsnaz troops and specialized KGB personnel (which acted both in and out of country) already had some highly specialized and practically noiseless pistols with the 7.62mm S4M and MSP. The key problem with both of these was that either one was nothing more than a 2-shot derringer, which was more or less adequate for a last-ditch self defense weapon for secret agents, but certainly insufficient for Spetsnaz or KGB anti-terrorism units operators (the USSR also had its share of political terrorists, airplane hijackers and all other types of dangerous and organized crime).

Therefore, in the late seventies a requirement was set to develop a multi-shot, self-loading compact weapon that would fire internally silenced ammunition. The problem, however, was that existing ‘noiseless’ ammunition was either overly bulky (as in the case with the 7.62x63 PZAM cartridge), or badly suited to self-loading applications (as in the case with the 7.62x37 SP-3, which had a protruding telescoping piston and a case that was expanded at the neck during the discharge). Consequently, work commenced with development of new ammunition that was better suited for self-loading applications. Since the users of the proposed weapon were intended to operate in circumstances where foreign criminal investigation of results would be irrelevant, it was decided to use a specialized bullet optimized for penetration and stopping power at relatively low velocities. The new cartridge featured a flat-point, cylindrical bullet 35mm (1.38 inches) long, made of mild steel, with a brass driving band at the front. When fired, this bullet is said to penetrate a standard steel military helmet at 25 yards and still have sufficient killing power to disable the helmet’s owner. The new cartridge, designated as SP-4 (Spetsialnyj Patron 4 - Special cartridge 4), employed a bottlenecked case 42mm (1.65 inches) long, with short neck. The case is made of steel and is copper washed. When loaded, the bullet is fully seated in the case with its flat tip being flush with the case mouth. Below the bullet there’s a short steel piston, which separates the powder charge and the bullet. The piston’s diameter is larger than that of the cartridge mouth/bullet diameter, so when the powder charge is fired the piston jams itself in the cartridge mouth, sealing powder gases inside the case. Like its predecessor, the SP-4 cartridge uses standard primers which are securely crimped in the base. The cartridge is devoid of any headstamps or markings, save from a ring of red lacquer around the primer pocket in the base. The muzzle velocity of the 9.9 gram (153 grains) bullet is about 200 meters per second (655 fps).

With the new ammunition on hand, designers at the TSNII TochMash (Central Institute of the Precision Machine Building, the prime Soviet/Russian developer and supplier of Spetsnaz-type arms) commenced development of a new semiautomatic pistol to fire it. It took about three years to design and refine a quite unusual and unique firearm, which was adopted in 1982 as PSS (Pistolet Samozaryadnyj Spetsialnyj - special self-loading pistol): official military index 6P28. It was quite compact, being even shorter than the standard Makarov PM pistol, and featured a 6-round detachable box magazine, which greatly increased firepower compared to the earlier 2-barreled noiseless pistols. This pistol was soon issued to military Spetsnaz units that were to operate behind enemy lines, and to specialized KGB units, such as the famous anti-terrorism unit ‘A’ (better known as ‘Alpha’ group). Today the PSS can be found in armories of a large number OMON and SOBR (SWAT-type) units across the Russia that are engaged in operations against terrorism, separatism, organized crime and drug trafficking. Originally top secret equipment, today it is widely known among Russian gun enthusiasts and professionals alike, and offered for export to qualified foreign government buyers through the Russian state arms export agency, RosOboronExport.

Based on interviews with law enforcement operators who use the PSS in their line of duty (operating against drug dealers and armed separatists in the more troublesome parts of Russia), the PSS gets quite positive reviews. It is compact, reliable, and quite quiet when fired. It is often used to dispatch guard dogs and armed sentries, as well as during room clearing when entering especially tight corners. This author also was told that the PSS is a preferred ‘last resort’ weapon for many LE officers operating against terrorists in Chechnya, as it can be readily concealed, to be used in case of attempted capture of said officer by terrorists. (The proposed future of those officers, if captured by terrorists, is usually quite short and extremely painful).

While the PSS was quite successful for its intended purpose, it left something to be desired, and in around the turn of the 21st century the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) sponsored the R&D program called “Vorchun” (Grumbler). Exact requirements of this program were never published in the open press, but its final result is a rather unique sidearm, developed by the late Igor Stechkin - author of several weapons, including APS and APB machine pistols described in previous articles. This new weapon, known under its factory index OTs-38, as produced in Tula by KBP (instrument Design Bureau), looks like a more or less conventional double action revolver - until you take a closer look. It was officially adopted in 2002 but first displayed in public several years later.

OTs-38 fires the same 7.62x41 SP-4 noiseless ammunition as the PSS pistol described above, but it does not eject the fired brass automatically, and has a specially designed trigger unit with manual safety that allows for “cocked & locked” carry, which is impossible with the PSS that has a decocking safety borrowed from the Makarov PM pistol. Thus, the OTs-38 allows for more accurate first shots (at least in theory). It also has a built-in integral laser pointer, which may or may not have any real value for a special-purpose weapon like this, but nonetheless is a cool thing to have. In any event, the OTs-38 seems to be well favored by the personnel who use it (mostly in some territorial anti-terror units of Russian MVD and FSB). This author was unable to test fire either the PSS or the OTs-38, but was told by officers who did that the PSS is ‘almost noiseless’ (due to the slide cycling back and forth with a noticeable, although not loud, sound), and the OTs-38 is almost perfectly noiseless, with the only sound produced by the gun itself being the click of the hammer falling on the firing pin. In both cases the sound of discharge of SP-4 ammunition is almost inaudible, with no visible flash or smoke. Fired cases remain hot and under dangerous pressure from inside for some time after the discharge, but once cooled down, can be handled safely.

Description of the PSS Pistol

The PSS pistol is made almost entirely of steel except for the grip panels, which are plastic. The action is of more or less the usual blowback type, but the barrel is made from two parts. The front part of the barrel is rifled and fixed to the frame. The rear part, which contains the cartridge chamber, is allowed to recoil inside the frame against its own spring for a short distance. The slide return spring is located above the barrel, around the guide rod. When the pistol is fired, the rear part of the barrel and the slide initially recoil together. This is necessary to use the friction of the bullet, as it leaves the cartridge case and enters the barrel, to push the chamber and slide back for the reloading cycle. After some 6 millimeters (about 1/4 of an inch) of travel the rear part of the barrel is stopped against the frame and the slide recoils alone; as soon as the barrel stops, it then returns to battery under the pressure of its own spring, while the slide still moves back. At the very end of the slide recoil cycle, it catches the sliding barrel part to use its mass as a brake, to slow down the recoil and decrease the sound of the moving parts hitting the frame in their rearmost position. The extraction and ejection cycle is standard and, while all this may sound rather complicated, the gun actually works quite well. The trigger is double action, with an exposed hammer and a slide-mounted safety/decocker (overall trigger and safety design is similar to that of Makarov PM pistol). The magazine is single-stack, and the magazine release is located at the base of the grip. The sights are fixed; the rear sight blade is dovetailed to the frame.

Description of the OTs-38 Revolver

The OTs-38 resembles a traditional double-action revolver, but it has many uncommon features. First, it has a more or less common exposed hammer with double-action trigger, but the action is fitted with an ambidextrous manual safety, with levers located on either side of the frame, which allows for safe “cocked & locked” carry. Next, the OTs-38 fires from the bottom chamber of the cylinder, as opposed to most revolvers that fire from upper chamber. Therefore, the barrel axis of the OTs-38 is relatively low and muzzle jump is minimal. The large cylindrical housing located above the barrel of the OTs-38 contains an integral laser pointer/sight. The cylinder fixture is also of most unusual nature. The cylinder axis is hinged to the frame at the front, so once the cylinder release (at the left side of the frame) is pushed forward, the cylinder can be swung open to the right and forward (while on most modern revolvers cylinders are swung down and to the left). Upon the opening of the cylinder, an automatic ejector partially withdraws the clip with rounds (or empty cases) from cylinder. This unusual cylinder mounting is essential to provide minimum play between the firing chamber in the cylinder and barrel throat, since the SP-4 bullets are of pure cylinder shape, and thus cannot self-align itself with the barrel upon firing, unlike most conventional bullets that have conical or an ogive nose shape. Since SP-4 ammunition is rimless, it is loaded into the OTs-38 using special flat clips that hold 5 rounds together. As said above, the OTs-4 is fitted with an integral laser sight. It is also fitted with traditional fixed iron sights that have contrast white inserts.

PSS Specifications:

Caliber: 7.62x42 SP-4
Weight unloaded: 880 g (with integral laser sight)
Length: 191 mm
Barrel length: n/a
Magazine capacity: 5 rounds in special flat clip

OTs-38 Specifications:

Calibre / ammunition used: 7.62x42 SP-4
Weight, empty: 850 g empty
Length: 170 mm
Barrel length: n/a
Magazine capacity: 6 rounds

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V14N2 (November 2010)
and was posted online on February 24, 2012


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