Category Archives: Rifles and Carbines

How they’re improving the M4

Generic M4 as issued in 2013. To be converted to M4A1.

Generic M4 as issued in 2012. To be converted to M4A1 by 2014. (PEO Soldier).

The Army intended to have a two-pronged approach to infantry weapons: a new Individual Carbine, and continuing improvement to the M4, which was “good enough” and expected to soldier on for many years — for one thing, a new carbine would have to be built, and the Army already has more than a half million serviceable M4 and M4A1 carbines. But as we’ve seen, the IC design bake-off cratered when none of the experimental new guns matched (let alone beat) the reliability of the M4 controls. Much like a medical trial is canceled if the experimental group does markedly worse than the controls taking a placebo, the Army called off the IC competition.

Of course, the subtext to the decision is the command climate in Washington, where the SecDef’s view of the Army is something to slash and bleed of a “peace dividend” for higher-priority domestic redistribution. But even the Pentagon’s crack flacks, whose mission brief is to make Capitol Hill and the press believe five impossible things before breakfast, would have a hard time selling Congressional and media skeptics on a new rifle that wasn’t as reliable as the old one.

So. the IC competitors are now, in most cases, back at the drafting station trying to wring more reliability out of their designs (some of which are pretty mature designs selling internationally, some of which borrowed their maturity by being largely M4s anyway, and some of which are both).

Without decimal places, modern US weapons are 100% reliable. Running out  the decimal places, the M4 is 99.983% reliable (the 3 repeats infinitely) in terms of MRBS (1/6000). (The SAW is even better, with “four-nines” reliability: 99.9957% (1/23,400 on stoppages). Any engineer will tell you that those numbers are hard to beat, and in fact, they’re murder to improve. It is much easier to get the gun from one stoppage in 30 rounds to one in 300. It is more difficult to take that from 300 to 3000. To take it to one stoppage in 6000 required decades of work by hundreds of engineers in government and industry, and hundreds of (mostly) minute tweaks to rifle, magazine, and ammo. To get from 6000 to 6100 is going to be tough; by now the graph of effort to result is proceeding nearly vertically.

The rifle is a resonant system, and changing any one component may influence any others. And when your system that reliable to begin with, any random change is more likely to lead to more unreliability. This leads to what academic Charles Perrow has defined as “normal accidents” in the book of the same title. Perrow noted that as systems got more complex, interventions meant to eliminate observed failure modes and increase reliability and safety are increasingly likely to introduce new and unintended failure modes. He points out these unintended consequences in, for instance, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. The same mechanisms were at work in the American Airlines Flight 587 disaster in New York City in 2001. Because several accidents have involved inflight upsets, American arranged for its pilots to undergo upset-recovery training in aerobatic airplanes. The pilot flying 587 applied the control forces he learned in the nearly indestructible Extra aerobatic airplane, in a relatively fragile Airbus, with fatal consequences. Nobody saw it coming — but Perrow saw that coming.

M4 Carbine Improvement Timeline. Click to embiggen.

M4 Carbine Improvement Timeline. Click to embiggen.

Despite the difficulty and the ever-present threat of unintended consequences, several interdependent teams of experts continue to work to massage the M4. The manufacturers’ engineers, the Naval Surface Weapons Systems facility in Crane, Indiana (which works, among other things, joint SOF weapons), and the Army’s Ordnance experts and Program Executive Office for Soldier Systems (PEO Soldier) all continue to pursue the combat asymptote, the perfectly reliable weapon.

So what non-random changes are possible, and what are in the pipeline for the individual weapon? Of these various sources of improvements, PEO Soldier is the most forthcoming about its plans. Crane is imbued with SOF reticence, and manufacturers seek to keep proprietary improvements away from their competitors. So let’s look at PEO Soldier’s plans for the M4 series:

The first thing the Army is doing is long overdue: it is dumping the awful Colt-designed (and Army-demanded) three-round-burst mechanism. (The only reason the burst mechanism was specified was to avoid spending money teaching combat soldiers to fire accurately on automatic). The burst mechanism didn’t reset to zero, meaning you could be set on burst and get one, two, or three shots per pull, depending on what your last burst consisted of. And the trigger pull is different depending on where the burst mechanism is in its cycle. The elimination of burst is part of an overall conversion of all fielded M4s to the formerly SOF-specific M4A1. Along with full-auto capability instead of the crappy burst, the principal benefit is a thicker barrel that is slower to overheat (and, unfortunately, slower to cool off. In engineering, there is no such thing as a free lunch). PEO Soldier:

There are several benefits to upgrading M4s to M4A1s. Compared to the M4, the M4A1 has full auto capability, a consistent trigger pull, and a slightly heavier barrel. The heavier barrel is more durable and has greater capacity to maintain accuracy and zero while withstanding the heat produced by high volumes of fire. New and upgraded M4A1s will also receive ambidextrous fire control.

The ambi fire control will be welcomed by southpaws, and will be useful in some urban cover as well. But the best news in Phase I is the banishment of burst.

Along with the conversion of the extant M4s to A1s, the Army is setting up a contract for new M4A1s, with 24,000 in the initial order. The contract is set up so that the other services can also order carbines against it — A1s or the original M4s if they prefer a crappy trigger. The conversion process is going to take place Army-wide, starting in July or August.

Phase II explored two possible areas of improvement — Bolt Carrier Groups and Rails Systems. The Rails component has not had a winner announced yet, but the BCG competition, with 11 firms competing for the prize, ended much as the Individual Carbine competition did, and for much the same reasons: none of the new contenders could beat the current champ:

PM SW completed its best value M4 bolt and bolt carrier assembly competition in April 2012, though the competition was scheduled to conclude in summer 2013. More than six months of testing and evaluation determined that none of the 11 competing designs met the overall requirements outlined in the solicitation. The M4’s current bolt and bolt carrier assembly outperforms the competing designs in the areas of reliability, durability, and high-temp/low-temp tests. The Army saved nearly $2 million as a result of the early completion of the competition.

Not surprising. The only change we’d make to the present M4 BCG, if we were kings, is largely cosmetic: we’d return to a satin chrome finish. That makes it stupid easy to clean the bolt and carrier, an important thing on a gas impingement gun that uses its bolt carrier as a cylinder and bolt as a piston.

Phase III, according to a briefing PEO Soldier presented(.pdf) in 2011 (which has an earlier version of the M4 Continuous Improvement slide shown above), is a further evaluation of the M4A1 operating system.

In other words, they’re institutionally unhappy with a weapon that’s very, very good. Other improvements continue, but PEO Soldier is in a bit of a jam: past improvements to the M4 system have been so successful that almost any further attempt at improvement degrades some aspect of the weapon’s performance. It’s not an entirely bad jam to be in: “Help, our gun’s too reliable!”


The system tells us that this is the 1,400th post on, which launched January 1, 2012. We hope some of them have been of interest and of use to you. Expect more of the same. -your Eds.

How reliable are US small arms?

Thing is, it works: M4 Carbine with accessories used by Big Green. Click to, etc.

Thing is, it works: M4 Carbine with accessories as used by Big Green about 10 years back (the accessories are also under continuous improvement). Click to, etc.

One gets weary of seeing forum commandos and gunshop experts spouting nonsense about current issue weapons. Most usually, this is in the form of bad-mouthing the M4A1, a weapon most of them have never fired, and praising alternatives from the elderly M14 to the HK 416, which is basically a very heavy piston M4 with a nicer finish. Generally, these guys’ knowledge of the M14 and 416 is limited to reading puff pieces in gun magazines, although some of the M14 guys carried them in the early sixties.

We’ve been told that the M4 jams all the time, and that combat soldiers have died trying to clear their jammed M4s as they were overrun, that the M855 and 855A1 ammunition is not lethal at combat ranges, that some M4 features like the forward assist prove its inferiority, and that limited adoption of 7.62mm special purpose weapons like the M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle (EBR), the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS) or the Mk17 Special Operations Combat Rifle – Light (SCAR-L) show that the M4 is obsolete.

Similar vituperation and calumny is directed against the M249 SAW, some of which have been replaced in USMC service but the M27 IAR, an HK 416 variant. The Marines made that decision for tactical reasons, not because of dissatisfaction with the M16 platform (which should be obvious, because the 416 is, after all, 90%+ good old M16).

The M4 (not A1) with standard accessories: Knight's RAS and BUIS. Click to embiggen (wallpaper worthy!)

The M4 (not A1) with standard accessories: Knight’s RAS and BUIS. Click to embiggen (wallpaper size!)

It’s hard to put a finger on why this body of opinion has such lasting power on the internet. It does not square with personal experience of most of these weapons. Some of the stories are not true — the story of dead men with jammed M4s are a recyling of a durable story that actually did occur in Vietnam, but as we’ve previously reported, that happened to a unit that taught their troops that the M16A1 required no maintenance at all. We never experienced an M4 jam (or M16 jam for that matter) that was not due to magazines. Likewise, while basic training and the soldier skill books teach activation of the forward assist as some sort of Santeria appeasement of the Gods of Firepower, we never needed or used the thing, which was added only at the insistence of Army purchasing bureaucrats in the early sixties. They wanted a way to force the bolt closed on an oversize or bulged cartridge, something you could with the op rod on an M14 (or M1 rifle and carbine). This was actually how they killed the US FAL. The forward assist was superfluous then and it’s more superfluous now, with the 60s ammo problems long since worked out.

The units that experienced problems (for example at FOB Wanat) were using M4s as sustained fire weapons in magdump after magdump at near cyclic rate. While it’s understandable why they did that, in that particular circumstance, it’s not a duty cycle within the design envelope of any shoulder-fired infantry weapon and an hour of sustained cyclic-rate firing will cause damage to almost any air-cooled weapon.

As far as jamming is concerned, here’s what the Army says about their reliability requirements versus their results on the M4 series carbines.

The reliability requirement for the M4 is 600 Mean Rounds Between Stoppage (MRBS). The demonstrated current reliability is over 3600 MRBS as a result of our continuous improvement program.

That’s pretty consistent with our experience on flat range, combat range, and in combat operations. That might explain why the Individual Carbine contestants have had such heavy sledding — you not only have to beat those numbers, but you have to beat them by a wide enough margin to justify the costs and logistic stress of a rifle change-over. (Radical rifle change-overs have generally failed in wartime. Britain dropped the superior P14 and went back to the Enfield in WWI, Russia backed off and Germany never went all-in with semi-autos in WWII, Japan and Italy got caught with their logistical pants down in mid calibre-change, the US Army was hesitant on breechloaders and repeaters from 1860-1895 or so).

Now, there are other parts of that 2009 document that are less impressive (the M4′s cumulative testing amounts to 8 million rounds — not a lot when you consider the tests span some 17 years as of that doc’s date), but there are some interesting facts that you might not have known about the M4. For instance, here’s what went into the product improvement program:

To date there have been 62 improvements to the M4, which include improvements to the trigger assembly, extractor spring, recoil buffer, barrel chamber, magazine and bolt.

That’s the stuff that Big Green’s ordnance shop signed off on (there have actually been 30 more improvements since the 2009 letter). There’s more stuff happening at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana, for the special operations world, and new ideas are often shaken down over on our side before being thrown over the transom to the big Army. The Army with its hundreds of thousands of troops is less inclined to tinker and experiment.

The M249 likewise is performing well, as far as reliability goes.

The M249 SAW, the Army’s Squad Automatic Weapon, has a reliability requirement of 1200 MRBS and yet today demonstrates a reliability of over 23,400 MRBS.

And it, too, has been product-improved in a number of ways. Bottom line: these are pretty darn good guns.

At the time of the letter, in 2009, the Army planned to run contests for several improved weapons. As it is, these contests are being squeezed between the low budget priority given the land forces and the military in general, and the general satisfaction with  present weapons. That’s what just killed the Indiidual Carbine competition dead as a mackerel.

The Army … plans full and open competitions for an improved modular hand gun, a subcompact personal defense weapon, a new individual carbine and a longer range sniper rifle. The individual carbine competition will address current, emerging and future threats.

The Army has since fielded the M2010 .300 Win Mag sniper rifle, and SOF have other long-range options, so that test came off successfully (after all, the 2010 is basically an M24 with a railed chassis and the heavier chambering, and this expansion possibility is why the 24s were built on a magnum-ready long action from day one). Given the weight and compactness of a lightly-accessorized M4, the PDW is most unlikely to find a niche in the US Army. Pistols take up a lot of mindshare in the gun culture, but in the military they are secondary (if that!) weapons; it will be hard to justify replacing the M9, which is adequate to its de minimus combat task..

The letter was signed by COL Doug Tamilo and approved by BG Peter Fuller. Read The Whole Thing™ and expect a follow-up on more recent M4 improvements.

Note to readers: the Tokarev stuff promised this week is taking longer than expected as we wrangle images.

What happens when a .50 fires out of battery?

This photo, from Armslist, appears to show the mishap firearm.

This photo, from Armslist, appears to show the mishap firearm. Click for full-size.

The various .50 caliber rifle and machine gun cartridges are not trifles. One 18B of our acquaintance earned the nickname Nine Fingers in a moment’s carelessness with a loose round. (He’s not the only one. Here’s a gruesome weapons safety-of-use message from a couple of years later – via ENDO). You might expect that from a round that has 200 to nearly 300 grains of powder. With the .50 everything happens in greater volume and under greater pressure, which makes the quality of gun very, very important.


Mishap gun after the accident.

Mishap gun after the accident. Arrows show witness marks where the fast-moving bolt (r.) contacted the receiver and stock.

We’re about to see what happens when a .50 is not well engineered or constructed, and we’ll also cover ammunition as a possible contributing factor.

In recent years there has been a flowering of new .50 designs… 30 years ago it was Barrett or lump it. (That isn’t necessarily bad. The Barrett is a safe, sturdy, and reliable weapon). Now there are many kinds of .50s on the market. Along with the semis, there are bolt action mag-fed guns and a variety of single shots with nearly as many action designs as there are manufacturers. Some of the singles use a Mauser-like bolt with extractor and ejector, but others use a “shell holder” bolt, where a machined slot in the bolt holds the cartridge rim in place before, during and after firing, dispensing with the cost and complexity of an extractor or ejector. The price of this simplicity comes in the complexity of, and time to execute, the normal manual of arms. In a throwback to 1870s breechloader convenience, you remove the bolt from the weapon, slide any spent cartridge out of the shell holder, slide the cartridge into the shell holder in the bolt, and then ram the bolt/cartridge assembly home, turn it to lock, and fire.

That’s an inelegant design, but it’s perfectly safe, if the designers and manufacturers do their job of engineering, substantiation, and manufacture — and if users use good ammo.

Good ammo is hard to come by for .50s. Surplus blasting ammo is reliable and safe but generally falls short of the guns’ accuracy potential. It’s built for machine guns and meant to be fired at planes, vehicles, or groups of troops in a “to whom it may concern” manner.  Match ammo, on the other hand, is usually reloaded, either by end users or small shops or companies. So one risk you take is with reloads, which even in a factory production setting do not get the statistical quality control that, say, ATK applies to their military contract rounds.

And then there’s the quality of gun. This gun is a Vulcan. Vulcan was formerly known as Hesse. Hesse made a series of very low-quality receivers for guns built on surplus parts kits — everything from FALs to ARs to 1919A4s. And every one of these was prone to failures, and the firm’s customer service — under whatever name — was dreadful. So then, Hesse (and later, Vulcan) got into .50 BMG rifles. Their guns sell for a low price point. Unfortunately, that encourages people who can’t operate Google or Bing to buy them. With the results you see here, and some results you don’t.

The Vulcan, also, has a chamber that, while it varies from gun to gun, is tighter than the military specification for machine-gun chambers. What this means is not all surplus ammo will chamber; max-milspec-length rounds may fail to chamber, like a no-go gage.

Vulcan and Hesse bolts, oldest to newest. Source: Outlaw Performance .50 Vulcan page.

Vulcan and Hesse bolts, oldest to newest. Source: Outlaw Performance .50 Vulcan page. (Click for +)

The bolt in this particular gun is at least the fourth design of the the Vulcan/Hesse .50 bolt. The first one had two lugs, oriented at 90 and 270 to the side you slide the cartridge in the shell holder. The second had the same 2-lug bolt head and an improved rear area. The third, which was in early Vulcans, used an interrupted thread, but the fine thread doesn’t seem to have been sufficient for safety. The fourth and current bolt head has three lugs much like the ones from the early Hesse bolt, but arranged equidistant from one another (120 apart) around the bolt head. Vulcan says the bolt is machined from 4140 rod stock, but the surface finish of one we examined looked like a casting.

But the bolt itself didn’t let go. What appears to have happened in the latest case is that the gun fired out of battery. The firing pin free-floats in the bolt, and when the shooter rammed the bolt home, the pin’s own inertia was enough to fire the cartridge in the chamber, before the luckless shooter could turn the bolt and lock it. We haven’t seen even a picture of the inside of the mishap gun’s chamber, but we’ve seen other Hesses/Vulcans, and there’s a lot of tool marks and roughness in there.

In the current accident, the bolt firing out of battery exposed another limitation of the Hesse/Vulcan design (and all shell holders that we know of, really): there’s no secondary bolt retention. If the gun fires out of battery, the bolt is coming back with half the energy that propels the .50′s usual ~700-grain widow makers, and that’s exactly what happened here. The bolt struck and seriously injured the shooter. The blast, flash and burn from the uncontained powder and fragmented cartridge case also injured him; he was left blind and missing several fingers, although his blindness seems to be easing and they are cautiously optimistic he will recover his sight. Several fingers from his left hand were a different matter, as they couldn’t be found. (It is possible, but not known for a fact, that he was resting his left hand on top of the Vulcan’s stock, and the fast-moving bolt tore his fingers off on its way to breaking his shoulder).

Why did the gun fire out of battery in the first place? What none of the four bolt designs did include was one simple, five-cent component that would have prevented this accident: a firing-pin return spring. This spring is especially important if you’re going to fire ammunition that’s loaded with more-sensitive commercial primers than if you only plan to shoot surplus ammunition. Without one, it’s possible for the firing pin to jam in the forward position, like the fixed firing pin on an open-bolt submachine gun. Well, open-bolt subguns can be set up like that, because (1) they’re chambered for low-powered pistol cartridges, and (2) many of them are designed to use advanced primer ignition, where the gun fires as the bolt is closing. Again, no harm done in a gun that’s designed to be “locked” by the weight and inertia of the bolt. In a gun that absolutely, positively must be locked to fire, it’s a mortal error.

As veterans of Special Forces, still involved with the community today, we can assure you that this promotional claim is a great calumny. We never would use this garbage.

As veterans of Special Forces, still involved with the community today, we can assure you that this promotional claim is a great calumny. We never would use this garbage.

In the mishap Vulcan, the base of the .50 casing remains in the shell holder of the bolt. The rest of the casing became shrapnel, and the bolt itself became a deadly projectile. This man is extremely lucky to be alive, and he’s luckier yet if he recovers his vision.

Yes, a Barrett is four times or more what one of these things goes for, and even other single-shots like the McMillan cost much more money. What are your eyes worth? Your life? This guy very nearly answered that question, inadvertently.

Other Vulcan/Hesse .50s have blown up before, apparently. So have other makes of .50, but none of the top-name guns, as far as we know. This one at ENDO also looks like an out of battery fire, and seriously injured its shooter. It’s interesting because it was an AR-style single-shot bolt gun, that was not a shell holder design. On the other hand, it was made by an outfit we haven’t otherwise heard of, called “BOHICA Arms.” (BOHICA is an ancient military acronym for “bend over, here it comes again.” Not exactly a confidence-building company name. But hey, they’re not Vulcan/Hesse/Blackthorne).


ARFCOM thread (as usual, a thin layer of genius floating on a lake of retardation).

Vulcan Armaments. The same Bubba the Gunsmiths that comprise Vulcan also appear to have operated as Hesse, Blackthorne, Frozen North, and probably other names. Name changes for the same reason that Chevy’s small shitbox car has a new name every few years: the public gets wise. Vulcan claims to be a supplier of guns to Special Forces. It is not. And you have to love their warranty policy: KMAGYOYO. (“Based on the Magnuson-Moss Warranty act, Vulcan Group Inc. offers no warranty on its product line.”)

Armslist ad with this rifle for sale in 2010.

Collecting “The American Gun” Part 1: Intro

American-GunChris Kyle’s book The American Gun, reviewed here, purports to tell the history of the US in ten guns. The thought crossed our mind: what would it take to make an entry-level collection of them? 

  1. The Kentucky long rifle (18th C.)
  2. The Spencer repeating rifle (1858)
  3. The Colt Single Action Army (1873)
  4. The Winchester 1873
  5. The Springfield M1903
  6. The Colt Model 1911
  7. The Thompson Submachine Gun (1919)
  8. The M1 Rifle (1936)
  9. The .38 Special police revolver (1920s)
  10. The M16 Rifle (1963)

We set the following parameters: representative examples. For auto weapons, semi equivalents. For very expensive weapons, replicas and restorations. We looked only in GunBroker. Over the next 10 days, gun by gun, we’ll show you what we found — and then wrap it all up.

The designs of Fyodor Tokarev

Tokarev TT-33

Typical photo of a TT-33 pistol. Note similarity to the 1911 and other Browning designs, and the absence of thumb or grip safeties.

The Russians, perhaps fortunately for the people who might otherwise still be dominated by Communism, never developed a genius along the lines of John M. Browning. (Kalashnikov, for all the universality of his design, was a one-hit wonder compared to John M., who had paradigm-shifting pistols, sporting and military rifles, shotguns and crew-served weapons in service before he was done). Russia’s versatile designer, their nearest match for Browning, was probably Fyodor Tokarev. Tokarev was working after Browning’s most productive era, and like most gun-aware folks in the middle 20th Century, was aware of Browning’s designs. But he also was able to come up with some original ideas of his own, and in a time — the 1920s and 30s — that the Soviet Union tried to make its name as a beacon of progress, an inventive, well-trained engineer with an interest in self-loading firearms had a guarantee of employment.

The Tula-Tokarev pistol of 1930 and 1933

Tokarev’s first semi-auto design was pretty dreadful: it was a conversion of a Mosin-Nagant, and he was soon back to the drawing board. In the 1920s, he improved the Maxim machine gun and also worked on an auto pistol design. In 1930, the Red Army (as it was still called) adopted his pistol as the Tula Tokarev or TT. It is now called the TT-30 to distinguish it from the later (and much more common) TT-33.

The Tokarev pistol, a short-recoil semiauto, clearly borrows heavily from Browning. The locking system, using a camming lug pinned to the barrel at one end, and retained by the slide stop pin at the other, to pull the barrel down and disengage lugs atop the barrel from the slide, allowing the slide to cycle to the rear. But even here, Tokarev made one great improvement: instead of being restricted to the top of the slide, the Tokarev’s lugs each form an annulus around the barrel. This lets the barrel lugs be made rapidly and cheaply.

That’s not the only advance in the TT. The lockwork was completely unlike any other pistol. For one thing, Tokarev dispensed with a manual safety. For another the feed lips and the lock mechanism including the sear, disconnector and hammer all came out of the pistol all came out of the frame as a single unit for cleaning and maintenance.

Early Tokarev pistols are well-made and, to the surprise of some collectors, any in good condition are well-finished with a deep Prussian blue. While there is a lot of criticism of Russian manufacturing, the fact is that pre-1941 Russian manufacturing could match the nation’s Global rivals for quality. Where the Russians had problems, was manufacturing the vast quantities of small arms required by the enormous Red Army. In the First World War, this embarrassing state of affairs led to Russia having to import weapons from Switzerland, France and United States. Between the wars, Russia industrialized on a massive scale, but the German invasion of June 1941 overran the manufacturing centers of several industrial Soviet republics, and left Soviet industry in disarray.

There were numerous small running changes on the production line during the decades of Tokarev pistol production. One of the most visible was not a specific change, but a general degradation in aesthetics, with rougher machine cuts, less polish, and more manufacturing errors left in the gun, so long as they didn’t affect functioning. In other words, after the disruptions of 1942, the the finish quality of Tokarev pistols declined abruptly, but the pistol remained the simple, reliable weapon it had originally been designed to be. It remained in production for many years after the war, and machinery to produce the pistol was supplied to the entire Communist bloc.

The Tokarev rifle of 1938 and 1940

SVT-40 tokarevIf the Tokarev pistol was a clever adaptation of Browning’s recoil-locked system to the needs of Russian troops, conditions and especially manufacturing, the Tokarev rifle was something else entirely.

The first version adopted was a submission in a competition to replace the troubled AVS-36. Simonov entered an updated AVS, and Tokarev entered the rifle that would be adopted as the SVT-38. After some teething problems of its own, it was updated as the SVT-40.

The SVT used a short-stroke piston design and a tipping bolt. In fact, it is uncannily like the Semi-Automatic FN (SAFN) rifle that John M. Browning’s protegé, Dieudonne Saïve, was developing for FN at the same time, but the SAFN, which would be delayed by the war, was fed by stripper clips. As a rule of thumb, the SAFN was more robust and had a better implementation of the gas system.

The SVT, being chambered for a powerful rimmed cartridge, was one of the earliest uses of a fluted chamber to avoid cartridge adhesion, which was a problem in prototypes. (indeed, even with the flutes it can be a problem with an SVT, especially a rusty one. Be prepared to knock out steel cases with the cleaning rod, after the extractor merrily tears a divot out of the cartridge rim).

The SVT was designed with great attention to ergonomics. It was designed to be light and handy, which it was, despite its length. The stock, barrel and gas system were all places where weight savings was paramount. The receiver was also rather light, but the bolt and bolt carrier are massive hunks of steel; just looking at them makes you think thoughts like Stakhanovite overproduction, Five-Year Plan, and, of course, Chelyabinsk Tractor Works. Think that if you may, but most Tokarevs were made at Tula. (Izhevsk is in the number 2 spot).

It fed from a 10-round box magazine with a latch that would be emulated by the AK, as would be its sights. It had a compensator and ventilated handguards which give it a unique, and somewhat menacing, appearance.  One delightful feature was a small hole at the rear of the receiver, which allows the weapon to be cleaned without risking damage to the muzzle crown.

All SVTs were, originally, grooved for scope mounts, which may make them the first gun in history to have this feature. The scope mount was quite unnaturally high, and allowed use of the iron sights below the scope. Despite the provision for an optic, the SVT never had sniper-level accuracy.

The SVT did not survive the war. Wartime production called for more Mosin-Nagants and cheap subguns, and it took too much time and skill to build, test, and train with the SVT. Some 15,000 were captured and pressed into service in Finland, and others in German service. Today, there are believed to be seven to fifteen thousand Tokarevs on the US civilian market.

Tokarevs Today

The Tokarev pistol and rifle have not been in military service for many years. Pistols survive here and there as second line or personal weapons, but they’re not good choices for self-defense, particularly not the Russian ones with their absent manual safeties. The rifles, amazingly, were carried on the books of the Civil Guard of Finland as late as 1958. At that point, the Finns withdrew the old guns, most of which had been carefully maintained, and sold them to Interarms, which in turn sold them in the United States. If you encounter a Tokarev with the Finnish SA marking, and no import marks, it probably came from this batch.

More recent Tokarev imports include pistols modified to have a thumb safety, and rifles that were arsenal refinished somewhere. The pistols with safeties came from China (pre-1989) and Romania. These late-import guns can be distinguished from the earlier batches by the import marks, and in the case of the rifles, many of them have blued bolts, something they never did back in the USSR.

There are occasional rare variants of both guns: examples being the Tokagypt 58 9mm pistol, and the SVT-40 carbine version.

The ATF from time to time places obstacles in the path of surplus pistol importation, but there are many more Tokarev pistols than rifles in the country than Tokarev rifles. Both Chinese and Russian-made examples were sought-after souvenirs in Korea and Vietnam, and a wartime bringback is the most likely source for an example that is not import-stamped. It was also possible at one time for GIs to bring back personal firearms acquired overseas on an ATF Form 6, but it’s unclear if they ever admitted a Tokarev this way. Nowadays, military judge advocates have done their best to stamp out the concept of war trophies, and they tend to to approve the import of cartridge firearms, so there is a fixed supply of military Toks of both kinds.

Tokarev lived to nearly 100 and was honored on his death with a statue on his grave and a plaque explaining his importance as a gun designer.

This week, we hope to take an in-depth look at a Tokarev pistol and rifle.

A correction: Syrian Snipers have CHINESE .50s

Some time back we posted that the Syrian jihadis had gotten hold of Accuracy International AS50 .50 caliber sniper rifles. We posted several pictures, and sure enough there was a greater variation between various examples of the AS50 than there was between the Syrian weapon and the AS50. Here’s the video again

But we were probably wrong. According to CJ Chivers, best known for his New Journalism style book about the AK-47, the weapon is a Chinese M99. A close comparison of the video from our older post to pictures of the M99 shows that Chivers is correct, at least about those particular rifles in the video. Look at the video (screenshot below), and compare it to the image from the M99 from Max’s ( is one of the more authoritative small arms sites out there).

This is the Syrian jihadi shooting the .50.

This is the Syrian jihadi shooting the .50.

This image from World.Guns.RU shows the ChineseM99 from the same angle.

This image from World.Guns.RU shows the ChineseM99 from the same angle. The scope is different, but the gun is the same.

The scope is different, in the two pictures, but the gun is the same. The two bright metal scope mount fasteners are the same on both guns (although some of Chivers’s photos from Syria show round black fasteners on Syrian rebel M99s). Both the M99 and the AS50 have an extensible stock with upper and lower rails and a gap in between. But the daylight between the upper and lower rail on the AS50 is rectangular. On the Chinese M99, the daylight between the upper and lower is irregularly shaped — just like the Syrian jihadi’s gun. The reason for this appears to be that the protrusion from the upper rail is the adjustment lock that must be pressed to slide the stock in or out. See below:

syrian_50_sniper_closeup chinese_m99_closeup_wg_ru

The M99 is an export weapon, used by China in 12.7×108 but exported in both that round, used in the DShK and NSV among other weapons, and 12.7×99 Browning. The weapons in use in Syria are reportedly chambered for the Russian 12.7x108mm round. The rounds are ballistically equivalent.

The gas and bolt systems of the two guns are also different. The Chinese M99 uses a direct impingement system, often used in .50 sniper rifles to reduce weight, and a rotating bolt. The AI weapon uses a short-stroke gas piston and a tipping bolt (like a Tokarev, Simonov or Saïve design). According to’s specifications, the Chinese weapon is about 2.1 kilograms (4.6 pounds) lighter than its British counterpart.

Many people still think the People’s Liberation Army of China is still the Korean War vintage levée en masse, poorly equipped, barely trained, and armed with crude hand-me-downs to be thrown away in human-wave attacks. That image wasn’t even true in 1950 (except, perhaps, of former Kuomintang formations that shuffled up the line to death with Communist formations in their rear), and it’s positively not true in 2013. In our experience, Chinese weapons were even before 1990 often the best finished and most trouble-free of the guns made in the Eurasian communist nations. In the decades since, they’ve only gotten better.

The Past is Another Country: Evans Rifle

The Evans Rifle was made in several versions in the late 19th Century. It had a patent date of 1868, but production of several versions lasted from 1873 to 1879, when the company went paws up.  It doesn’t look like the classical lever-action rifle — after all, this was the high-tech of the day, and they were inventing the classical lever-action as they went — but to our eyes it’s beautiful.


But what sold nearly 15,000 Evanses into a market saturated with war surplus guns wasn’t the eye appeal, but the firepower. It was the assault rifle of its age, toothsome enough even today to make, say, Mike Bloomberg wet his bed: a .44 caliber, black-powder repeater with a 34-round magazine. It resembles a hammerless Spencer, but is larger (and it has a hammer, just an internal one. Like the Henry/Winchester and unlike the Spencer, operating the lever charges the rifle and cocks the hammer. The guns were available as rifles and carbines in several levels of finish. The weapon does not appear to be as robust as its contemporary Winchester lever-actions (which had their own issues).

It was designed by a dentist, Warren R. Evans, with the help of his brother, and until the rise of Bushmaster, it was the only rifle mass produced in the state of Maine, at Mechanics Falls, to be precise.  (Bushmaster is gone, decamped to Ilion, NY when a five-year stay-put guarantee to the former owner ran out; its former plant is now home to Windham Weaponry, which reminds us, we have something to say about them, soon).

Evans Rifle MagazineThe magazine forms the load-bearing structure of the butt, with wood trim above and, in the later models, below, to make it resemble a traditional rifle. The magazine is the most unusual feature of the Evans, and is often described as a rotary magazine. It isn’t, really; you see rotary magazines in the Savage 99, the Johnson 1941, and the Ruger 10-22, and you can see they’re nothing like the Evans. The Evans mag is more properly called a helical mag; it moves the cartridges towards the breech with an Archimedean screw. In this, it resembles the Calico, the Russian Bizon,or various Chinese and Nork AK mags.

Screen shot 2013-05-26 at 2.55.49 PMThe Evans was not, then, an evolutionary dead end, although it was dormant for a century. There is some proof those later inventors were aware of it (two Calico patents cite Warren Evans’s patent). There’s never been a reproduction, even though at the time the gun was well-received and was endorsed by none other than Indian fighter Kit Carson. Fortunately for collectors, Evans Rifles are well-represented on the market. With about nine to twelve main variations, a complete collection of Evanses is not an unattainable goal, for someone that wants to have a really unique collection.

Several antique dealers have Evanses in stock; as pre-1898 antiques they can ship without legal formalities to most states and even some foreign nations. One such dealer is antique-arms specialist Jimmy Amburn, whose Evanses can be seen here; he also informs us he has an extensive supply of spare parts.

The Evans fired one of two proprietary .44 caliber cartridges, and this article (whence we lifted the magazine photo) has some vintage case-making and loading rules of thumb. We’d be very surprised if anyone has fired one of these in a long time. Then again, if we had one, or Ian at Forgotten Weapons did, you bet your life we’d shoot it. With a string, first time.

An Evans is reportedly a challenge to the gunsmith’s art. One of its little peculiarities is that it has quite a few screws and almost no two are the same length — but they are all the same diameter and thread. This kind of design is just asking for bad assembly, given the sheer quantity of Bubba The Gunsmiths who have had the chance to handle these in the last 1.2 centuries or so. This may be why Evans rifles in pieces, or pieces of Evans rifles, are less rare than intact examples. The springs are also prone to fatigue and overload failure, and the mechanism in general is intolerant of Bubba’s gorilla-grip approach.

M1 (etc) Carbine overhaul manual

… we may as well share with you the overhaul manual on the M1/2/3 carbines. You know, these things:

M2 Carbine

This edition of FM 9-1276 was published in 1947 and it contains a lot of useful information, including the overhaul flow chart we’ve already shown you, and the very interesting inspection and rebuilt-weapon serviceability standards.

Most gun-culture types have a certain fetish for MilSpec and seem to think that military specs are always higher that civilians’ standards. Well, it depends on the civilian! But the military has looser requirements than you might think, and one characteristic of these requirements is that a weapon in the hands of troops is not required to meet standards of a weapon freshly rehabbed, or one being mothballed (figuratively) for that matter. For example, when the M16A1 was standard issue, one could be turned in for higher-echelon maintenance if the barrel was shot out. How shot out? The depot didn’t want to see it if it could still achieve seven (!) minutes of angle. Needless to say, crappy-shooting M16A1s were pure hell for a unit armorer to get rid of.

There are a few examples of this very, very low bar attending to the M1 (and M2 and M3) carbines. One of the most interesting is the high tolerance for pitting in the inspection standards. A barrel was only unfit if the pits were wider than a land or a groove, or longer than 3/8″. Pitting across most of a groove? Well, that was OK, then. Just so long as it’s not all the way across.

Anyway, here goes:


Why Carbine parts don’t match

If you pick up a typical M1 Carbine (or almost any US military surplus weapon, but let’s stick to carbines for reasons that will become obvious) at a gun show, you’ll find that it’s a mélange of parts from various makers and vintages. But occasionally, someone will have a gun that is, for example, all Inland parts. Obviously, the first one is a parts-gun junker, and the second one’s “as issued” back in W-W-Two, right?


carbine-overhaul-flowchart-1947Maybe not right. It could actually be the other way around: the first gun is just the way some GI carried it in WWII or Korea, and the second was carefully assembled from parts to catch a collector’s eye. Whaaat?

It has to do with how carbines were handled, maintained, and redistributed in the theaters or war and in the Zone of the Interior, as the US was still often called in the mid-20th Century. The flow chart on the left (which you’ll probably have to expand to read) spanned two pages of the M1/2/3 Carbine overhaul manual (FM 9-1276) and explains the steps in an overhaul.

Not every gun got overhauled, but every time Ordnance units got their hands on a gun, it was considered for it. To decide if they needed to do it, they had to inspect the gun, of course. Ordnance got guns when they were turned in by armorers as having “issues”, turned in as entire unit sets by traveling units, recovered from battlefields and field hospitals (to this day, if you enter a hospital with a weapon, some Gorgon of a nurse will take it away from you, muttering incantations to the Gods of Geneva), and various other means fair and foul. At lower echelons, any guns passing inspection or readily reparable would quickly go back out to line units as battlefield replacements.

Guns that needed depot attention would be greased up in Cosmoline and packed together in wooden crates, and shipped to that facility, where they’d enter the top left of the chart. They’d be taken out of the crates, which themselves would be sent to a specialty shop for repair and reconditioning, and dismantled. Individual parts would be inspected — some by eyeball, and some using gages — and repaired, if possible; serviceable parts whether from inspection or repair benches would be refinished and then go to a central parts bin.  (U/S parts were discarded).

In addition to the parts from the incoming carbines, the parts bins also held parts acquired under replacement-parts contracts, some makers of which never made complete carbines, only individual parts. None of the parts in the bins were labeled to a particular serial number of carbine. It was by way of this parts bin that most USGI carbines became mixmasters.

M2 Carbine

A very few parts were not removed from a carbine in this process. If the front and rear sights were serviceable, they stayed on board (Carbine rear sights were staked firmly in place, four times; front sights are simply a bear to remove and replace). And if the gas system worked and wasn’t visibly corroded, it wasn’t always disassembled. It’s possible to test the carbine gas system, on a field-stripped weapon, by the simple expedient of plugging the chamber with a finger or thumb, and blowing into the muzzle.

At the other end of the depot’s small arms bay, technicians (probably different ones from the ones stripping carbines at the intake end of the production line) would assemble carbines from the refinished, repaired or recertified parts in the parts bins. It had to pass a complete inspection and a live-fire function test, or it was repaired until it did. After test firing, the weapon was cleaned, inspected again (and sent again to the repair bench if need be, in which case it would be reinjected  at the test-fire station again), and greased and packed.

Then, cases of carbines (the same cases that carbines came in in, after they, too, were overhauled and repaired as necessary) were shipped to users worldwide, or stored in the depots until called for. The cases held 10 M1 or M2 carbines, and weighed 83 pounds, measured 39 3/8 x 10 3/4 x 10 3/4 inches, and displaced 4 cubic feet; 10 M1A1s in the same case weighed 91 pounds.

As you see, this means that the odds are astronomical against any carbine that has been through this process still possessing parts made by its original maker. Modern guns are made with precision, interchangeable parts with almost zero hand fitting, and this high-throughput WWII-vintage overhaul system took maximum advantage of that.

So if you have an Inland carbine with all Inland parts (or Winchester, etc.) then that gun either has never been through the overhaul process, or has been carefully reassembled by some collector, carefully hoarding parts over the years. And there’s no really obvious way to tell; even a couple of late-carbine parts might have been refitted to an early carbine at the unit level, and the Air Force, which kept toting carbines into the 1960s, was especially slapdash about rebuilds and repair parts (a tradition they kept up with M16s and GAUs).

Our advice: don’t get too wound up about Carbine originality — if you do, you’re probably going to get fished sooner or later. The officers, signalmen, medics, mortarmen, support troops and others who toted these in every theater of war, didn’t worry overmuch about these details. Neither should we.