Weapons: The Land Of Broken Dreams

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July 29, 2019: After five years of effort, Russian weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov is ready to begin production of a much-needed replacement for Cold War era army and police 9mm pistols. The older pistols were obsolete when the Cold War ended in 1991. The new PL-15 pistol was designed by Russians who had been creating modern pistols for commercial and competitive target shooting customers. In addition the PL-15 was the first pistol developed and manufactured by the Kalashnikov company. Development was paid for by Kalashnikov with the assurance that if it was all it was supposed to be the government would order large quantities for the military and national police. That, apparently, is not going to happen.

There may be some orders but now Kalashnikov has to accept the fact that the PL-15 is another victim of low oil prices and economic sanctions that have crippled the economy since 2014. The defense budget has shrunk and procurement of less essential items, like a new pistol, have gone from threatened to nothing in five years. The official government position was that the economy was going to turn around but it hasn’t. Kalashnikov will have to depend on orders from export customers and patriotic Russians seeking to possess what is likely to quickly become a collectible.

This all began in early 2014 when, at the urging of the government, Kalashnikov began working hard to perfect its version of a modern 9mm pistol. Within a year they had prototypes of the PL-14 which demonstrated that Kalashnikov could provide a quality Russian made pistol to replace more than a million older (1950s and 1970s) designs that are still in wide use by military and police personnel. This was a welcome effort because Russia has never been able to produce a pistol that met military or police needs as well that pistols created in the West.

The PL-14 was a 9x19mm weapon that weighed .8kg (1.76 pounds) empty, had a 127mm (5 inch) barrel and a 15 round magazine. Kalashnikov likes to build modern weapons that can survive a lot of abuse and still function. The AK-47 is the best-known example of this attitude. Thus in addition to having many of the innovations pioneered by Western designers, Kalashnikov built a pistol that could better withstand not being cleaned frequently and often using poorly made ammo. That helped sell the AK-47 to export customers and many of these budget-minded buyers are still out there looking for ruggedness, reliability and low price. The PL-14 was meant to supply that along with modern touches like a standard accessories rail under the barrel to appeal to upscale users who can afford expensive accessories. There were some criticisms from the many Russian police, military officers and commandos who have been buying foreign 9mm pistols since the 1990s. Glocks have been a big favorite while but orders were small and considered “special equipment” for special operations soldiers and police units and quantities purchased (hundreds of pistols) were not large. Pistols for senior military officers were often paid for by the user as a luxury accessory. Meanwhile over a million soldiers and police were still carrying (and many were rarely using) pistols that were also sought by antique weapons collectors. The few troops and police who had obtained and used Western pistols had used the Internet to share their opinions with soldiers and police still using antique pistols.

The PL-14 was originally designed using suggestions from police and army veterans and special operations troops. Still, it was not ready for mass production and suggested changes were so extensive that by late 2015 the pistol got a new name, the PL-15. This is the PL-14 with modifications made based on feedback from hundreds of PL-14 users who received an initial production run of the PL-14 for field testing by soldiers and police. The PL-15 was available in lighter (aluminum or polymer) frames, had ambidextrous controls and an adjustable firing mechanism. Many changes were obviously to attract Russian customers who have tried Glocks and other Western models but would buy Russian if the pistol were competitive on looks and performance. The PL-15 looked promising but the late government orders were delayed so Kalashnikov decided to continue the field testing and tweaking program for a few years until the promised large government orders were placed. Preparing for mass production would be expensive and while Kalashnikov was profitable, their profit margins were shrinking because of declining government orders. Exports were keeping the company solvent even though the development of the new pistol had been paid for by Kalashnikov, not the government. Kalashnikov expected to know the extent of government orders by 2018 but the word was that, at best, the government was only able to provide the smaller orders that had been going to Western manufacturers for modern pistols. Since 2015 the value (in Western currencies) of the Russian ruble had sharply declined and Western imports became a lot more expensive and the government shifted to Russian products as much as possible. So there would be some orders for the PL-15, just not enough for mass production and the higher profits that would mean for Kalashnikov.

Meanwhile, most police and military users of pistols would have to make do with their infrequently used antiques. Since the 1950s the most common pistols used by the Russian military, and many police, has been the Makarov PM followed in 2003 by a small quantity of the unpopular MP-443 design. Neither were competitive with Western designs. The MP-443 itself was meant to replace the Makarov PM, however, lack of money in the defense budget, plus lack of user enthusiasm, meant few were bought and many Russian troops are still using the 1950's era Makarov PM.

The MP-443 used the world standard 9x19 pistol round, including the locally produced, hot loaded 7N21 armor-piercing round. MP-443 is a 0.59 kg (1.30 pounds) empty, 184mm (7.2 inch) long pistol with a 112mm (4.4 inch) barrel and a 17 round magazine. While it's a relatively modern weapon, it is not as easy to handle as Western 9mm pistols and had a shorter (112mm) barrel than most Western 9mm designs. It was not popular with Russian users who knew about the Western competition. The PL-15 was considered a “Western” design coming from a respected Russian firm. Kalashnikov had customer acceptance but not the expected big orders.

In 1951 the Makarov PM was introduced to replace all the 7.62mm pistols used during and before World War II. During that conflict, Russian troops captured a lot of German 9mm pistols and preferred them. Unfortunately, the Russian government wanted to improve on the German 9mm designs and one aspect of that was using a non-standard 9x18mm round and a small (8 round) magazine. The Makarov PM also had a short (94mm) barrel and while adequate for executing prisoners and other close-range situations, was not much better than the World War II pistols. Later models had larger (10 and 12 round) magazines and a few other tweaks but the Makarov PM was always considered second rate.

Yet the Makarov PM was seen as a major improvement on the World War II era Tokarev 7.62mm pistols. Even before World War II the 7.62x25 pistol round was losing out to the more compact, slower moving 9x19 round. Both were developed in Germany. The 7.62x25 pistol round came first in the 1890s and was simply a shorter, much less powerful, rifle cartridge. While popular at first it was largely displaced in 1902 with the development of the 9x19mm round. The 9mm round was shorter, had less of a kick (less propellant) and allowed for the design of more compact and easier to handle pistols. Meanwhile, the Russians developed a more powerful 7.62x25 round that had more propellant, higher velocity and used steel core bullets (that had more penetration) for their popular World War II submachine guns. This 7.62x25 Tokarev could fit in pistols using the less powerful 7.62x25 round but was not safe to use that way. A weapon had to be sturdy enough to handle the 7.62x25 Tokarev safely. Any pistol firing the Tokarev round was heavier and had quite a recoil compared to 9mm ammo. Meanwhile, the 7.62x25 Tokarev proved outstanding in Russian submachine guns. Despite its larger (longer) size and greater kick, the 7.62x25 Tokarev continued to be popular as a pistol round in some parts of the world but for most pistol users the 9mm (or American .38 caliber) was preferred. Russia stopped making it 7.62x25mm pistols in 1954 because users were eager to get the new Makarov PM. Even though many were disappointed in the Makarov PM it was considered an improvement over the Tokarev round pistols.

 


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