PPSh: The Russian Tommy Gun

After the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Russian Red Army was in desperate need of  weapons to stave off the attack. The solution they adopted was the PPSh-41 submachine gun, which was crude and cheaply-made, but it was effective, and became an icon for the battles of the Eastern Front.

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A PPSh on display in the Brevard Veterans Memorial Military Museum, Titusville FL

By the beginning of 1939, Joseph Stalin knew that sooner or later he would be fighting a war with Adolf Hitler. He also knew that he wasn’t ready for it. To buy himself time, he signed a Non-Aggression pact with Germany (which both sides knew would not last.) Then, to secure the city of Leningrad, Stalin approached the government of Finland and offered to exchange a portion of Finnish territory in front of Leningrad for Soviet territory further south. The Finns refused the offer and began making diplomatic approaches to Germany. In response, the Soviets invaded Finland in November 1939. The Finns resisted valiantly but were pushed back and forced to ask for an armistice in March 1940, giving the Soviets the territory that they wanted.

But the “Winter War” with Finland exposed some severe shortcomings in the Red Army. One of these were their rifles. The Red Army was armed with Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifles designed in the last years of the 19th century. Although they were excellent long-range sniper rifles, they were slow to fire, and did not hold much ammunition. During urban fighting in Finland, the Russians were stymied by Finnish units armed with their Suomi KP-31 submachine guns. Unlike the Russian Mosin-Nagants, which fired full-size rifle ammunition, the smaller and lighter Finnish submachine guns used pistol ammunition. It was less accurate and had a shorter range and less stopping power than the Russian rifles, but in the close-range combat associated with urban warfare, its enormous rate of fire more than made up for this.

The Soviets decided that they needed a submachine gun of their own, and began to produce the Degtyaryov PPD-40. This used standard Russian Tokarev 7.62mm pistol ammunition. But when the Nazis invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Soviets found that they could not produce the PPD-40 quickly enough. In desperation, they sought a new design that could be built cheaply in large numbers.

In response, Soviet gun designer Georgi Shpagin (a former carpenter who had been drafted and trained as a gunsmith) took the basic structure of the PPD-40 and modified it. Shpagin kept the simple but reliable open-bolt blowback action, but changed nearly all the internal parts of the Degtyaryov design (most of which had to be manufactured by a lengthy and expensive process of milling and machining). His new version had fewer parts, and these could be produced by simple stamping and then assembled by unskilled factory workers. To produce barrels quickly, factories began cutting down the standard Mosin-Nagant 7.62mm barrels and using them for the same-caliber submachine gun (rechambering them for pistol cartridges instead of rifle cartridges). The new receiver assembly was hinged so it could be opened easily for cleaning and maintenance. The submachine gun was fed from a 71-round drum magazine, and could be selectively fired either one round at a time in semi-auto mode, or with a continuous stream of bullets in full-auto. It was adopted by the Red Army as the PPSh-41 (Shpagin Machine Pistol Model 1941) and began production in November 1941.

Within a few months, factories were churning out PPSh’s at the rate of 3,000 per day. Entire Red Army companies were equipped with the submachine guns (along with a few Mosin-Nagant rifles for sniping). The troops referred to it fondly as either the “Peh-peh-shah” from its Russian initials, or as the “Papashah”, the Russian word for “Daddy”. By the end of 1942, when the German advance had reached Stalingrad, over 1.5 million PPSh’s had been produced.

In 1943, a number of changes were made to the Shpagin. The drum magazine proved to be unreliable–it had a tendency to jam if it were loaded to full capacity, and the thin metal from which it was stamped was easily bent or dented. So the 71-round drum was replaced by a 35-round box magazine instead, made with thicker metal and a stronger spring (although so many drum magazines had already been issued that most infantrymen continued to use them right to the end of the war). It was also noted that while in combat the Red Army troopers usually left their PPSh’s on fully-automatic for greater firepower, so the newer versions were made without the select-fire semi-auto option, which also simplified and quickened the manufacturing process. Each gun could now be produced in about five hours. By 1945, the PPSh was one of the most widely-produced firearms of the war, with over 6 million copies. When Red Army troops stormed Berlin in May 1945, most of them were carrying PPSh’s.

At the end of the Second World War, Stalin immediately found himself fighting a Cold War with the west, and he once again turned to the PPSh. Armies in Eastern Europe were equipped with the submachine guns, continuing even after the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle was introduced a few years later. When the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, Mao began producing his own copies of the PPSh, under the Chinese designation Type 50. The Russians also licensed North Korea to produce its own PPSh’s, under the designation Type 49. Both versions saw heavy use during the Korean War. The Chinese also provided a number of Type 50 Shpagins to Vietnamese guerrillas fighting the French, and when the US intervened in the Vietnam War in 1964, the North Vietnamese manufactured their own version known as the K-50. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, bootleg versions of the Shpagin, often made by local gunsmiths, found their way across Africa, where they were used by various insurgents. Even today, old PPSh submachine guns still turn up in the hands of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

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