Alexander Vershinin has a breezy article on the 1916 Avtomat of Vladimir Grigoryevich Fyodorov, a gun generally recognized to be the first exemplar of a class that would be known as “assault rifles.” They are generally defined as being:
- Shoulder-fired weapons;
- Firing from a detachable box magazine of 20 or more rounds;
- Capable of selective fire; and,
- Using an “intermediate” cartridge (more powerful and longer-ranging than a pistol’s, less powerful than a late 19th/early 20th-Century infantry rifle’s).
- And usually of an “intermediate” size between submachine guns and infantry rifles: about 30-40″ long or roughly 1m, with a barrel of 14-20″ or 35-50 cm.
The classic Assault Rifles (MP/StG 44, AK, AR-15) all meet this standard, and the Fyodorov is close. Its cartridge, the 6.5mm Japanese cartridge, was less powerful than Russia’s standard 7.62 x 54mm rifle round, but really was a full-sized infantry cartridge.
If the Soviet-era legend is to be believed, it was Tsar Nikolai II who hobbled Russian production of the automatic rifle from the outset.
“We don’t have enough ammunition,” he supposedly told the designer as he presented blueprints for the new weapon. But this story is far from the reality – the automatic or assault rifle was in fact developed in Russia almost entirely by lone gun enthusiasts before the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The subtext to what Vershinin is saying is that, as every Russian and student of things Russian knows that Soviet-era sources are often loaded with myth and morality stories. They’re full of mighty workers and peasants (think Stakhanov), tragic and doomed heroes (a Russian specialty, think Pavlik Morozov), and bumbling functionaries of the ancien régime, like the Tsar in the above story. It seems improbable that Nicholas would inject himself into Army ordnance decisions, but maybe he did. You didn’t need to have a Tsar to have your Army reject some progressive idea, though. The records of other countries, which had neither absolute monarchs nor revolutionaries determined to remake man himself, are full of questionable ordnance decisions, often made by some brigadier or colonel in the armaments end of the professional army.
The vanguard in this field was Vladimir Grigoryevich Fyodorov, who wrote his name into the annals of gunmaking as the designer of the world’s first assault rifle.
The idea of arming infantry with rapid-fire automatic weapons was born in the upheaval of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war. Light machine guns had begun to appear on the frontlines and quickly demonstrated their effectiveness. If it were possible to equip each man with such a weapon, his value as a fighting unit would be multiplied manifold.
Now here Vershinin seems to be on to something. The Russo-Japanese War was a little-studied (in the West, anyway) bloodbath that saw the debut of the murderous weapons (breechloading artillery with recoil systems, machine guns, barbed-wire entanglements) that would make all three fronts of World War I into a Brueghelian nightmare.
The Avtomat was ahead of its time, but the Imperial Russian Army seemed to recognize that and equipped some units with the new weapon. It passed out of general use, but turned up in small numbers during the Russo-Finnish winter war of 1940:
Vershinin frames the design history — it was originally designed as a long rifle for Fyodorov’s own 6.5 mm cartridge, and only later cut down to carbine size and adapted to use stocks of captured Japanese ammo — and notes that historians today can only speculate as to why the gun went out of service. People at the time probably knew, but the Russian Empire was facing defeat, collapse, a tragic and bloody Civil War, and a destruction of archives and loss of talent to exile on a scale seldom seen. Vershinin, a historian himself, lists some of the possibilities. Perhaps some day, some archivist will find the answer, written in Fyodorov’s own hand.