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
If 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.
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.