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Fedor Tokarev
1871 - 1968

In the world of Russian gun designers, most conversations begin and end with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle whose derivatives account for something close to 20% of the world's total supply of guns. While it's kind of hard to compete with that type of name recognition, there are still a number of designers, engineers, and gunsmiths from that part of the world who made important innovations in that realm. One such designer was Fedor Tokarev (Фёдор Токарев), who has the distinction of being responsible for the creation of what has become one of the most common pistols on the planet, namely the TT30/TT33. His legacy is so tied up with this particular handgun that it is universally referred to as the Tokarev.

Fedor Tokarev was born on June 14, 1871, in a village called Egorlykskaya near the Don River in the Southwestern portion of what was then the Russian Empire. Little is known about his early life, so we'll have to fill in the blanks. He was apparently born into a poor Cossack family, which makes sense when you consider that even today, Egorlykskaya seems to be far away from anything interesting. A Google image search for the town returns almost no results other than fields, the industrial detritus typically associated with abandoned Soviet infrastructure, and thumbnail previews of smiling young people from social networking and dating websites. Cossacks have always had something of an ambiguous relationship with Russia, typically living in their own communities apart from everyone else. At the same time, Cossack fighting men have -- since at least the 16th century -- formed an important part of the Russian military, being among the most feared and respected troops in the Russian armed forces. The separateness is on display even here, however, as Cossacks traditionally maintained a completely distinct military hierarchy and training regimen down to the names of the different ranks of soldiers.

As a boy, Fedor Tokarev learned the art of blacksmithing. It is impossible to overstate the importance of having a good grasp on metalworking concepts for aspiring gunsmiths; this knowledge is essential when you're dealing with a product that functions only when small explosions are tightly contained within a thin layer of metal. Tokarev was extremely fortunate in that one of his main teachers was a man named Chernikov who had designed a .60 caliber muzzle-loading rifle some years earlier -- it was evidently the last of its type to be accepted for service in the Imperial Russian military.

For Tokarev, it must not have been a particularly difficult decision to embark on a military career. In a culture where military service was (and essentially still is) pretty much the natural condition for young men and since Egorlykskaya was not (and essentially still is not) exactly a hub of activity, there were few other options. Tokarev applied for and was accepted to the Novocherkassk Military School in 1888. While there, he put his training as a smith to good use and graduated as a non-commissioned officer in 1892 with an assignment to the 12th Don Cossack Regiment. His time with the 12th was apparently a good experience for him since within a few years he was able to return to Novocherkassk with the rank of Master Armorer -- a rare feat for a 25 year old.

In 1900, Tokarev was promoted to Lieutenant and returned to the 12th as the regiment's master gunsmith. This was an extremely important time for arms development in Russia. Less than ten years previously, the bolt-action M91 rifle had been accepted for general service as the main infantry rifle for the Russian military. The M91 was an infinitely better gun than its predecessor, the Berdan M1870 single-shot percussion rifle, but it was not without its issues. Russian soldiers were given the M91s en masse without any real training in maintenance and operation with predictably bad results in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. After a lot of soul-searching due to Russia's defeat in that conflict, it was decided that the M91 was in dire need of improvement. For much of the early 1900s, Tokarev had been consumed by the concept of semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons. He correctly guessed that they were the way of the future and decided that he would make them his primary area of concentration. He took a job at the official Imperial artillery proving ground, giving him greater access to both resources and professional attention.

With this in mind, Tokarev on his own initiative began working on a semi-automatic version of the M91 in 1910. The M91 has an internal magazine capacity of 5 rounds and as a bolt-action, requires a manual manipulation of the bolt after each shot is fired to eject the spent shell casing and chamber the next round. The bolt design of the M91 is not particularly sophisticated and sometimes requires a Herculean effort of force to rotate properly, especially when compared to smooth contemporaries like the German Mauser Gewehr 98 or the Japanese Arisaka Type 38. The premise behind most automatic weapons -- whether semi or fully -- is that pulling the trigger expels both the bullet and its shell, and the gun's physical reaction to this is to chamber the next round (whether through recoil, a gas piston, or any other number of ways). For semi-automatic guns, this means a pull of the trigger is required every time the user wants to expel a round; for fully automatic guns, this means one trigger pull is sufficient to expel multiple rounds in sequence until the magazine empties.

Since this had to be done cheaply, Tokarev decided that it would be better to retrofit existing M91 rifles with a few simple modifications instead of making entirely new specimens. To accomplish this, he fashioned a new bolt carrier group that would fit inside existing receivers and put a cylindrical piece of sheet metal over it. He submitted this design in 1911 and while it worked, it was extremely ungainly (the additions to the receiver protruded several inches back from it, interfering with the grip) and was still too expensive to implement. He tried again in 1913 with a similar result. The next year, however, World War I started and Tokarev was forced to put his personal projects on the backburner after he was assigned as the chief quality control inspector at the Imperial Small Arms Factory in Sestroretsk.

Russia did not fare particularly well during the First World War. While allied to France and the United Kingdom, Russia was in the middle of its own domestic crises and simply could not afford to field, equip, and feed an army to rival the significantly more technologically advanced German Empire or its ally the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Russia's precarious position got even worse when the war became an even bigger drain on an already moribund economy. By 1917, both the military and domestic situations were dire; the Tsar Nicholas II attempted to reassert his control by dissolving the Duma (Russia's parliament), which had the opposite effect and led him to abdicate the throne. The Tsardom was effectively abolished at that point, and rival political groups vied for power. This led to the Bolshevik Revolution in October of that year, which dislodged the more moderate Provisional Government and caused the beginning of the Russian Civil War. Needless to say, a hasty and humiliating retreat from the other war raging in Europe was agreed upon by the new leader of Russia, Vladimir Lenin.

The historical record is strangely silent about Tokarev during these extremely eventful years. While the Cossacks broadly supported the removal of Nicholas, they did not necessarily agree with the aims of the Bolsheviks to institute socialism throughout the country. Indeed, the Cossacks were on the front lines of the anti-communist forces known as the White Army that formed the bulk of the resistance to the Bolsheviks. At a time when both Cossacks and Imperial officers were being purged (or simply deserting) from the Russian army, Tokarev somehow became the senior engineer at the Izhevsk small arms factory in 1919. Why or how this happened is completely unknown. Tokarev may have opportunistically predicted that the White movement was doomed and signed up with the Bolsheviks. It's possible he was a true believer in the goals of the Bolsheviks. He may have been intimidated into doing it. Maybe he was angry at having had his designs not taken seriously by the Imperial administration. Perhaps he was completely apolitical and he just wanted to live his life following his chosen vocation. Who knows? There is a dearth of English-language material about his life and even the Russian-language resources aren't too illuminating about this period of time either.

Regardless of what happened, Tokarev was apparently easily reconciled with the new government, demonstrated by a transfer to the much more vital Tula factory in 1921. In 1925 -- relatively late in life -- he had his first major design success when he created a new version of the American Maxim machine gun. The Maxim had been adopted by the Russian military in 1910 as the M1910. The M1910 was chambered for the same 7.62x54R round used in the M91 to promote interchangeability, but it was extremely awkward to transport and use. It was often mounted on wheels or simply tossed on the back of horse-drawn carriages. Tokarev realized that the gun was only heavy and difficult to maneuver because of its external features; he took out everything unnecessary for its operation and maintenance, added a rifle-style buttstock, and mounted a retractable bipod on the front of the barrel. The Maxim-Tokarev was produced in relatively limited quantities (perhaps fewer than 10,000) but it demonstrated the designer's unconventional approach to design and helped to cement his reputation in the newly formed Soviet Union.

Tokarev's next project was a new submachine gun design. Submachine guns are carbine-sized weapons capable of fully automatic fire chambered for common handgun rounds (typically the same round used in a particular armed force's standard sidearm). The American Thompson Submachine Gun, for example, is chambered in .45 ACP because the main pistol used by the U.S. military at that time was the M1911 which used the same bullet. The Russian/Soviet army at that time had the misfortune of using a terrible revolver known as the Nagant M1895. The Nagant M1895 used a weird 7.62x38mm round that actually had the bullet completely recessed into the cartridge. This was meant to create a better seal between the round and the barrel to add more power to the bullet as it left the gun, but it really stemmed from a poor and unnecessarily complicated design on the part of Léon Nagant that caused bad gas leaks with pre-existing rounds. The Tokarev M1927 SMG was chambered in this godawful round. The Nagant M1895 never really set the world on fire with how awesome it was, but it was what they had, and the military philosophy of the time demanded that Tokarev's design accomodate it.

Predictably, the M1927 did not function particularly well. There were multiple issues, including failures to extract, failures to feed, double-feeding, and run-of-the-mill jams. Tokarev did the best he could with what he had, but the limitations of the 7.62x38mm chambering were made plain during the trial period. Most of the world's armed forces were moving away from using revolvers as sidearms, and had been for some time. Tokarev probably took this failure personally, but it opened another door for him. It was directly as a result of the M1927's rejection that Tokarev was able to develop his signature firearm.

All firearm enthusiasts will tell you that you have to design a gun around the bullet that it's going to fire. Léon Nagant took the opposite approach, designing a bullet around a gun, and the results speak for themselves. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Tokarev researched what was working well in other countries and spent some time brainstorming. During World War I, Russian soldiers came into contact with the semi-automatic German Mauser C96 pistols. The C96 (aka the Broomhandle) is one of the ugliest weapons ever created, but it worked very well and was so popular that many Russian soldiers "lost" their Nagant revolvers and picked the Mausers off of dead German soldiers. The C96 used the 7.63x25mm round, however, meaning that bullets for it were not in heavy supply, so the captured Broomhandles were primarily curiosities and war trophies. Most Russian and Soviet weapons of the time (and indeed, for many years into the future) used .30 caliber bullets, the metric designation for which is 7.62mm. Seeing the effectiveness of this proprietary cartridge, Tokarev modified it into the .30 caliber 7.62x25mm round, today known as 7.62 Tokarev. While almost identical to the Mauser round, the slightly smaller Tokarev round was faster and more powerful, and based on its predecessor was extremely well suited for a semi-automatic weapon.

Now that Tokarev had the bullet, he needed the gun. He again turned westward for inspiration and seized upon two designs by the famed American gunsmith John Moses Browning, the Fabrique Nationale Mle 1903 and the Colt M1911. The 1911 uses what is called a short recoil action, meaning that when fired, the gun's slide moves rearward while the barrel basically stays in place; this allows the next round to be chambered quicker and more easily. Tokarev's gun would take this type of system and put it in a body that more closely resembled the Mle 1903. Tokarev's design was tested and officially accepted for use in the Soviet Red Army as the TT-30: the Tokarev Tula model of 1930. The TT-30 was redesigned somewhat in 1933 (mainly for economic reasons to streamline manufacturing) and reissued as the TT-33. It became the standard sidearm for Soviet officers. Ironically, the TT-33 saw much greater use outside of the USSR, mainly because it was obsolete by the 1950s with the introduction of the Makarov pistol. Like all outdated Soviet weaponry, it was given relatively inexpensively to client states and rebel groups in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. At least 2 million TT-33s have been produced and it is still manufactured and in use in many places. More recent production runs have seen it chambered in the much more common 9x19mm round, mainly for civilian collectors in the United States.

An unintended side effect of Tokarev's new cartridge was that it would later allow the Soviet Union's enemies to use their own weapons against them. By the time World War II came to Russia, many Soviet weapons were chambered in 7.62 Tokarev. When the Germans captured these guns, they were surprised to learn that their 7.63 Mauser rounds would work in them, albeit with a slight -- but not unacceptable -- drop in accuracy. Because of the pressures created by the 7.62 Tokarev round, though, the reverse was not true. Using a 7.62 round in a 7.63 gun often results in an explosive discharge that can render the gun unusable and seriously injure the user. These issues may have played a part in the USSR's later decision to phase out their weapons chambered in 7.62 Tokarev and to focus on calibers with little or no chance of interchangeability. However, this problem would not become known until several years in the future and would not damage Tokarev's reputation.

Fresh off of this victory, Fedor Tokarev seemed well-positioned to win the next small arms contest playing out in Russia. By 1935, there was a great interest at the highest levels of the Soviet government to find a general-issue replacement for the M91. The replacement had to have the main characteristics of the M91 -- inexpensive, durable, chambered in 7.62x54R, and easy to use -- but be semi-automatic. Since Tokarev already had a significant amount of experience working with this very concept, he felt confident that his entry would win. Unfortunately, however, the government chose a weapon designed by one of his employees, Sergei Simonov, and ordered a production run of over 30,000. The AVS-36 quickly proved to be deficient in that it was difficult to maintain and very easy to get dirty. Tokarev's design was accepted in 1938 and became known as the SVT-38. While an improvement, the SVT-38 eventually developed the same issues in addition to a slight problem with the detachable magazine: it fell out of the gun at inopportune times for no real reason. Finally, Tokarev was able to address the flaws in his design and the much improved SVT-40 was rolled out in 1940. As a reward for his service, Tokarev was named a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet and later awarded the Hero of Socialist Labor medal. The SVT-40 is probably Tokarev's best gun: it is relatively light, easy to use, and extremely accurate. Indeed, something like 50,000 of them were specifically produced for use in the sniper role, which was a considerable innovation at a time when long-distance accuracy was thought to be achievable only with a bolt-action rifle. While over a million of them were made, the German invasion of 1941 and the resulting economic crisis made it impractical as a universal replacement for the M91, which reentered production at that time.

After the war, trials were held to replace the TT-33. Tokarev's design did not win and it was replaced by the 9x18mm Makarov pistol in 1951. Tokarev seems to have retired from gun design around this time, concentrating more on his administrative duties and writing technical articles. His articles did much to promote the career and the gun designs of Mikhail Kalashnikov, an endorsement from which the younger gunsmith certainly benefited. Tokarev died in 1968 from natural causes at the age of 97.

In some ways, Fedor Tokarev was both extremely lucky and extremely unlucky. While his designs were accepted as replacements for both the main infantry rifle and the main sidearm of the Soviet military -- meaning that literally every frontline infantry soldier would theoretically carry two guns he created -- world events prevented this from happening. By the time World War II was over, the weapons engineered for the conflict were already obsolete. The SVT-40 was replaced by Simonov's SKS carbine and even that was replaced by the AK-47 a couple of years later. Considering the majority of his guns were based on pre-existing weapons, Tokarev's design approach probably could not be described as "revolutionary." His ability to improve these guns, however, was certainly creative and was likely born out of a desire to incorporate the best of what was already out there with the prevailing Soviet arms philosophy that emphasized familiarity and economy. While the TT- 33 is definitely his most famous invention, the development of the 7.62 Tokarev cartridge was probably his most important. This odd round, somewhere in the middle between a pistol and a rifle cartridge, saw widespread use throughout the Second World War and laid the groundwork for the intermediate calibers that would later become the main type of ammunition used in modern assault rifles.

The primary source for the biographical information in this writeup was the official Fedor Tokarev website. It is available in both English and Russian, though both are lacking in content.

Technical Sources:

The World's Assault Rifles, Gary Paul Johnston and Thomas B. Nelson.
Hornady 7th Edition Reloading Handbook
Personal experience.

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