The Red Army owed a great debt of gratitude to Fyodor Vasilevich Tokarev (1871-1968). His design genius provided it with several of the most modern small arms it fielded during World War II.
Tokarev, who was born a Don Cossack, displayed an interest in firearms early in life and by age 9 was working for an itinerant gunsmith. In 1884 he found work as a gunsmith’s apprentice. Because of the natural talent and technical aptitude Tokarev displayed, his district council selected him to be a student at the Novocherkassk Military Vocational School. After four years he graduated as a noncommissioned officer and was appointed the master armorer of the 12th Don Cossack Regiment. He later returned to the Novocherkassk school as an instructor and eventually qualified for admission to a cadet academy. He was commissioned upon graduation.
Between 1908 and 1917, Tokarev worked at the imperial arsenal in Sestroretsk, where he tested his first selfloading rifle designs in 1910 and 1914. He spent World War I at Sestroretsk, working his way up to assistant director. After the Revolution, he continued at this post despite being a former imperial officer.
Tokarev became adept at the political chicanery that characterized postrevolutionary Russia. In 1919 the new Communist leadership appointed him senior engineer of the Izhevsk arsenal, and two years later he was transferred to the Soviet Union’s premier arms-making facility, at Tula.
During World War I, the Russians had been unable to produce enough small arms and were forced to purchase them from any and all sources. Weapons of Japanese, French, Italian and American manufacture, as well as captured German and Austrian arms, all came into Russian/Soviet service, producing a mindboggling problem of supplying ammunition and spare parts. After the Revolution, the Soviet armed forces inherited the quartermaster’s nightmare. In the handgun category alone, the following (among others) were in service: revolvers—7.62mm M1895 Nagant, .44 Smith & Wesson “Russian” and 8mm Austrian M1898 Rast & Gasser; semiautomatic pistols— .45 M1911 Colt, 9mm FN M1903, 7.65mm FN M1900 and M1910, various models of the 7.63mm “Broomhandle” Mauser and large quantities of captured German P08 Lugers, plus Austrian M.07 and M.12 Steyr pistols. The Soviet standard M95 Nagant revolver, a woefully antiquated 19th-century design, was still in production at the Tula arsenal but could not be manufactured in sufficient numbers to meet demand.
To correct this problem the Red Army committed itself to a standardization and modernization program, with one priority being the development of a modern semiautomatic pistol. The best designers were all assigned to the project and given a great deal of freedom to pursue different technological avenues. Besides Tokarev, such well-known Russian small-arms designers as V.G. Federov, V.A. Degtyarev, S.A. Korovin, I.M. Kolcsnikov, S.A. Prilutsky and V.P. Konovalov were soon busy developing semiauto pistols to enter in their trials.
Although Tokarev was deeply involved in designing a semiauto rifle, he also began work on a pistol design and submitted a prototype in 1929. It was really closer to the concept of a machine pistol, with a long barrel, forearm and 2w2 shot, charger-loaded magazine in the grip. That design was quickly rejected as impractical, so Tokarev turned to the tried and true Browning system for his next and most successful pistol. The Soviet army held trials during the summer of 1930, and Tokarev’s pistol was judged superior to pistols entered by Korovin and Prilutsky, and equal to the Walther, Browning and Luger pistols used as control pieces. The test committee ordered 1,000 pistols for extended trials. When trials showed it was a sturdy, reliable weapon, it was adopted as the Pistolet Tokareva obrazets, 1930g, or TT30 (Tula-Tokarev 30). About 93,000 were produced at Tula by 1936.
The TT30 was chambered for the Soviet 7.62x25mm Type P cartridge, which was very similar to the venerable 7.63mm Mauser pistol cartridge and was loaded with an 86-grain full metal-jacketed bullet with a velocity of approximately 1,400 feet per second. This round had become popular in Russia because of the large numbers of Mauser “Broomhandle” pistols used during World War I and the Revolution. As the Soviets had settled for all 7.62mm caliber small arms, the same machinery could be used to produce pistol, submachine gun, rifle and machine gun barrels, an important consideration.
The TT30 was based on the proven designs of John M. Browning. The slide and barrel are locked together by two lugs on top of the barrel mating with grooves on the inside of the slide.
The barrel moves rearward with the slide and articulates on a link to drop down and unlock, allowing the slide to continue rearward, ejecting the empty case and cocking the hammer. A recoil spring, mounted on a guide, rides under the barrel and then pulls the slide forward, picking up the next cartridge from the magazine, chambering it and locking the barrel and slide together again.
This method of operation and the magazine and magazine release were copied directly from the famous Colt M1911 pistol, while the barrel bushing and recoil spring closely resemble those on Browning’s earlier FN M1903 pistol. As both of these pistols had been in Russian/Soviet service since World War I, it was only natural that Tokarev should use them as models.
Tokarev’s unique contributions to the design were a unitized hammer-lockwork unit that could be removed from the frame in one piece, and cartridge feed lips that are part of the pistol frame, not the magazine. The first innovation simplified field stripping and repairs, while the second reduced feeding problems.
Soon after production got underway it was suggested that Tokarev further simplify the pistol to reduce manufacturing time and costs. This was accomplished by replacing the locking lugs on the barrel with two circumferential bands that were turned on a lathe when the barrel was manufactured. The TT30’s removable grip backstrap was also replaced with a solid frame, and the trigger unit and spring were simplified. The modified pistol was approved and adopted as the Pistolet Tokareva obrazets, 1933g, or more simply the TT33. Production began around 1936, and by the outbreak of hostilities with Nazi Germany almost 400,000 had been produced. The TT33 was to prove an eminently practical and popular combat handgun. Manufacture continued at Tula until late 1956.
The TT33 is a flat, angular pistol with a steep grip-to-barrel angle. It has an overall length of 7.7 inches with a 4.6- inch barrel and weighs 1 pound, 13 ounces empty. The box magazine holds eight rounds of ammunition, while the sight consists of a narrow blade front and a rather high U-notch rear. The only safety is a half-cock notch on the hammer, which sits high and has deep grooves to facilitate thumb cocking. While early production pistols were very nicely finished with composite grips marked with the Soviet star emblem, those produced during World War II were rough products with a cheap phosphate finish, machining scars, plain wooden slab grips and poorly fitted parts. But TT33s were products of their Browning heritage; they worked, and kept on working under harsh conditions. They were the most common Soviet handguns used by Soviet forces during World War II, although the Russians could not produce enough TT33s to meet demand.
It was discovered that the TT33’s reciprocating slide prevented it from being fired through the observation ports of Soviet tanks. So the M1895 remained in production until 1945 to supply armored troops and as a substitute weapon for the infantry.
Many TT30s and 33s were captured by the Finnish and German armies during the war and were issued to their troops to fill the demand for sidearms. The Germans went so far as to give the Tokarev pistol an official Fremden Gerät designation, the 7.62mm Pistole 615(r), and they produced steel-cased 7.63mm Mauser ammunition for it (and the large number of captured Soviet submachine guns also in use).
After the war TT33s were supplied to the armies of Soviet satellite nations and allies. Manufacture soon began in Red China, Poland, Hungary, North Korea and Yugoslavia. North Korean and Chinese forces used them during the Korean War, while Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops carried them throughout the Vietnam War. The TT33 and its clones became common in the Middle East, Cuba, Africa, Asia and elsewhere. While the Soviets adopted the 9mm Makarov pistol in 1951, the TT33 remained in service until the late 1950s.
Several Eastern bloc nations never adopted the Makarov and continue to produce and issue Tokarev pistols today. China, Yugoslavia and Hungary also produced them in 9mm Parabellum for export sales.
Despite the impressive ballistics of the 7.62x25mm cartridge, the TT33’s small, light bullet led to its being considered underpowered by Western military standards, which favored larger 9mm, .38- and .45-caliber cartridges. But service under climatic extremes continues to prove the Tokarev’s worth. It is fair to say that the TT33 follows in the finest tradition of Russian/Soviet military weapons: simple to produce, simple to maintain, extremely rugged and more or less idiot proof.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.