Guns of the Spetsnaz: Pistols Firing Internally Silenced Ammunition
By Maxim Popenker

Soviet Spetsnaz troops played a key role in Soviet military doctrine, in both local operations (mostly in third world countries such as Afghanistan) and in possible global war in Europe. In either case, Spetsnaz required, among other things, weapons that could be used with at least some degree of stealth. The silenced 9x18 PB pistol, as well as 9x18 APB machine pistol, filled the bill for military-type silenced pistols, but only to the certain extent.

What is even more important to our story is that there was another customer of highly specialized small arms within the Soviet ‘power’ system - the all-mighty Committee of the State Security, or the KGB in short. Among other things, the KGB was deeply engaged in secret espionage and counterespionage operations across the world, with many undercover agents looking for western secrets while trying to keep Soviet secrets from Western rivals. This game, obviously, was quite dangerous and undercover agents sometimes were required to protect themselves with lethal force while maintaining maximum stealth. Another part of the game was political murders and termination of defectors, which also required highly specialized weapons for stealth execution.

The father of the current breed of such weapons in Soviet service was Igor Stechkin, author of the famous APS machine pistol. During the mid-fifties, he was requested by KGB to create a deep-concealment weapon, disguised as something that looks completely safe, and firing poison-tipped bullets without any noise or flash. To achieve the latter effect, Stechkin employed a rather old principle of capturing hot powder gases (prime source of the sound and flash during the discharge) within a confined space. The first attempts to produce weapons using this idea in the USSR can be tracked to just prior to WW2, when Soviet designer Gurevich converted a Nagant revolver to fire saboted .22 caliber bullets. Each bullet was loaded into standard 7.62mm Nagant cases using 7.62mm sabots. The muzzle of the revolver was fitted with a second cylinder with a tapered bore (7.62mm at the rear, 5.6mm at the front), so, when gun was fired, the bullet was able to pass through the front cylinder, while the following sabot was jammed in the tapered bore and captured most of the powder gases inside the barrel. After a short while both cylinders (mounted on the same extended axis pin) could be rotated for the next shot. After shooting, captured sabots were to be pushed out of the front cylinder manually. Of cause, such a system was extremely bulky and complicated. It also must be noted that simpler versions of the same concept were known (or at least patented) well before Gurevich. The author was able to find a U.S. patent No. 692,819, dating back to 1902 and titled “Means for effecting noiseless discharge of guns,” which describes a cartridge that contains an internal piston to capture powder gases within the cartridge case, once the piston has moved all the way to the front of the long case, pushing the bullet out with some energy.

The first noiseless cartridge developed by Stechkin was designated SP-1 (Spetsialnyj Patron 1 - Special Cartridge model 1). It was based on a 9x18 case, loaded with a special bi-caliber bullet and small piston, which was located between the bullet base and powder charge. The bullet had a front part of 7.62mm caliber, with the base being of 9mm caliber, and it was intended to be fired through the squeeze-bored barrel with decreased caliber muzzle. That way, the bullet base was squeezed to the 7.62mm and then free to exit the bore, while the piston was jammed in the bore, capturing powder gases inside the barrel. Of course, this system was to be used only in manually loaded single-shot weapons, and one such weapon (recently declassified) was made to imitate a tin cigarette case, with three 9/7.62mm barrels and firing mechanism fitted inside.

The SP-1 cartridge never went past the prototype stage, but within several years Stechkin designed his next internally silenced cartridge, known as SP-2. This one also contained a small powder charge behind the piston, but this time powder gases were to be captured inside the bottlenecked cartridge case, which looked somewhat similar to that of the 7.62x39 M43 round. Since the pusher piston was relatively short, and before discharge seated deep in the cartridge case, the bullet had to be made long, but relatively light. To achieve this, Stechkin used a metal jacket taken from an unassembled 7.62mm pistol (7.62x25) bullet and fitted it with an aluminum core that extended back from the jacket to rest on the piston.

This round apparently was produced in very limited numbers and used in some ‘Q-style’ weapons, such as the three-shot pistol disguised as a tin cigarette container. Also, it was probably used in the earliest model of the more convenient-looking two-barrel derringer-type pistol, which served as a predecessor to the MSP pistol described below.

The following part of the history is very dim at its best, but what is known is that in around 1965 the KGB, as well as its most important rival within the Soviet intelligence system, the GRU (Intelligence Department of the General Staff, Soviet Army), both adopted the “noiseless pistol complex,” which consisted of the integrally silenced 7.62mm cartridge, known as PZ (Patron “Zmeya” - “Snake” cartridge) and the 2-barreled, derringer-type pistol known as the S4. The PZ ammunition, which was the heart of the system, consisted of the machined steel case 63mm long, with screw-in base. It featured a tapered inner bore, with a single stage pusher piston inserted from the rear. A small amount of special propellant was loaded behind the piston, and the base was securely screwed in to form an air-tight, variable volume container for powder gases. The cartridge base itself was a complicated subassembly as it contained a standard primer, a small firing pin behind it, and a screw-in bushing to keep the primer and pin in the base under the pressure of powder gases. The projectile was inserted from the front. It was a standard 7.62mm pointed bullet as used in 7.62x39 M43 ammunition, with possible intent to fool the investigators and make them look for a sniper that fired an AK or SKS rifle from a stand-off distance, rather than to look for a secret agent that shot the target from almost point-blank range. Over time, the PZ cartridge evolved through several minor variations in the shape, design of the base plug and primer retaining arrangement, with the definitive version known as PZAM. It is believed that this weapon complex saw at least some use in the hands of the GRU Spetsnaz during the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, and, in modified form (S4M pistol and PZAM ammunition) it can still be found in the armories of certain highly specialized units within the Russian Military and Internal Affair ministry.

Being more or less effective, the S4M apparently still left something to be desired, especially from the point of view of the plain-clothes agents of both KGB and GRU. Both pistol and ammunition were too heavy and bulky for intended use, and during the late sixties Igor Stechkin returned to his drawing board with the intent to design a more compact weapon of comparable performance. He started with the ammunition. The limiting factors in size and weight of the internally silenced ammunition are the strength of the case (which has to withstand high pressures without bursting even when removed from the chamber) and the length of the piston, which takes space between the bullet and the powder load. The case strength issue was apparently solved with the use of a special propellant of somewhat reduced power and by allowing the case to be fire-formed at the neck by the moving piston when fired, and the piston length was decreased with adoption of the two-part telescoped piston. Of course, the two-part piston is more complicated and thus expensive to make, but during the Soviet times KGB budgets were never short for new toys, and, in fact, it is possible that the overall new cartridge was still less expensive than the PZ series due to the use of a single-piece drawn steel case with conventional primer (crimped in the base) instead of the multi-part machined steel case of the PZ series. Load for the new round was the same M43 bullet, weighing 7.9 grams (122 grains), but the muzzle velocity dropped to about 145 m/s (475 fps), resulting in muzzle energy of only 83 Joules (61 Ft-Lbs) - about 2 times less than that of .32 Auto/7.65 Browning ammunition. This performance may look quite marginal at its best, but one must remember that this ammunition used relatively heavy pointed bullets, which provided better penetration than lighter, blunt-nosed pistol bullets, and, not less important, that this gun was to be used by highly trained personnel that knew where to put each bullet for maximum effect.

With new ammunition on hand (index SP-3, metric designation 7.62x37), Stechkin and his team at the Tula arms factory then developed another derringer-type, break-open pistol with two barrels, which was adopted by the KGB and Soviet military in 1972 as MSP (Malogabaritnyj Spetsialnyj Pistolet - small special pistol), and it still remains in limited service with elite units in Russian law enforcement (mostly in anti-terrorism units).

Shooting the Guns

The author was only able to fire the MSP, as the military facility which had both MSP and S4M in its reference collection was out of PZAM ammunition at the time. Loading the clip with two rounds was a relatively simple operation. The pistol was then loaded with the clip and cocked using the lever. Firing commenced from 15-meters range; off-hand. The noise of the firing was almost unrecognizable even in the indoor range and without earmuffs, and the loudest sound came from steel backstop behind the target being struck by the bullets. It is easy to imagine that, if being fired in the streets even in the quiet time, the shots will not be noticed unless someone will directly spot either the gun or the fallen target. The accuracy was rather acceptable - both bullets struck about an inch one from another (spaced vertically) very close to point of aim (about 2 inches below POI, in fact, but I personally would attribute that to the inaccuracy of the shooter rather than the gun). Penetration was not tested, but it seems that it was considered adequate for its intended purpose by those who used this gun in the line of duty.

S4M Noiseless Pistol

The S4M is a two-barreled pistol with tip-up barrels. Cartridges are loaded and unloaded in pairs, using a specially designed steel clip. The pistol has neither ejector nor extractor, as the clip is removed manually during reloading. The trigger is single action, concealed hammers being cocked manually by pulling down a special lever, located at the base of the grip. A manual safety is located at the left side of the frame, above the grip and, quite unusually, has three positions - topmost is for safe, middle is to fire only one (bottom) barrel, and bottom position allows firing both barrels consecutively by pulling the trigger twice. One might only speculate the reasons for this arrangement. Sights were fixed, with drift-adjustable rear blade. The barrel lock lever was located on the left side of the frame behind and slightly above the trigger. Not surprisingly, the gun is devoid from any manufacturer or model markings or proofs. Ammunition is also devoid from any headstamps and markings.

MSP Noiseless Pistol

The MSP is a two-barreled pistol with tip-up barrels. Cartridges are loaded and unloaded in pairs using a specially designed steel clip. The pistol has a special extractor that retracts the clip with spent cases partially from the gun, and then the clip is removed manually. The trigger is single action; concealed hammers being cocked manually by pulling down and to the rear a special two-piece lever located at the base of the trigger guard. A manual safety is located at the left side of the frame just behind the trigger. Sights were fixed with drift-adjustable rear blade. The barrel lock lever is located on the left side of the frame behind the breech area of the barrel cluster and must be pushed up for unlocking.

Like its predecessor, the MSP is devoid of any manufacturer or model markings or proofs. Ammunition is also devoid of any headstamps and markings.

MSP Noiseless Pistol

Trigger type: Single action
Caliber/Ammunition: 7.62x37/SP-3
Muzzle velocity: 145 m/s (475 fps)
Weight empty: 530 g (18.7 oz)
Length: 101 mm (4 inches)
Barrel length: N/A
Capacity: 2-rounds in separate barrels

S4M Noiseless Pistol

Trigger type: Singe action
Caliber/Ammunition: 7.62x63/PZAM
Muzzle velocity: 170 m/s (557 fps)
Weight empty: 600 g (21.2 oz)
Length: 147 mm (5.8 inches)
Barrel length: N/A
Capacity: 2-rounds in separate barrels

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V13N11 (August 2010)
and was posted online on March 16, 2012


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