There are some weapons that have become so identified with an era or organization that one only needs to lay eyes on them to be reminded of the same. The Soviet PPSh-41 is one such weapon. Its ribbed, chromed barrel, drum magazine, sturdy wooden stock, and downward sloping muzzle are all instantly recognizable. If an historian had to pick one infantry weapon to symbolize the Red Army of the Second World War, he would unhesitatingly pick the PPSh-41 (affectionately known as “Pah-pah-sha” to its users).
Many–if not most–of the submachine gun designs of World War II were developed under duress in the early years of the war and rushed into the hands of swelling infantry battalions. The British Sten gun and the American “grease gun” were largely ad hoc affairs that had little going for them other than the fact that they could put out a stream of lead at the enemy in combat. The PPSh-41 is something of an exception to that rule. Its genesis is traceable to the turbulent 1920s and 1930s, when the weapon’s direct predecessor, the little-known PPD-1934/38, was introduced. The PPD-1934 was introduced in 1934, and incorporated some features of the wonderful Finnish Suomi m/1931 and the German MP18.
The PPD was eventually overshadowed by its more famous descendant, but it did introduce some features that would become the norm in Soviet weapons design for many years. These were the chromed barrel (a feature that reduced the need for cleaning), the 71-round drum magazine, and the ability of the weapon to take a 24-round box magazine. But the design lessons learned from the PPD were not lost on the architects of the PPSh-41. The basic design was ready by 1940, but wide issuance did not really begin until 1941 and 1942 in the wake of the German invasion.
The overall design was nothing short of brilliant, it must be said. The PPSh-41 was Soviet design philosophy distilled in nearly pure form: it was simple, able to be produced in almost any decent machine shop, incredibly durable, and accurate enough to get the job done. The weapon had a high rate of fire, but used felt or leather blocks to absorb some of the action in the breech, as well as a downward sloping muzzle to reduce (in theory) muzzle climb during firing. A heavy wooden butt added to the shooter’s control during firing. A small selector switch just before the trigger controlled whether the weapon was on “full auto” or “single shot.” Its basic specifications were:
Length: 32.6 in.
Weight (loaded): 11.9 lb.
Cyclic rate of fire: 900 rpm
Muzzle velocity: 1600 ft/sec.
As was standard practice, the barrel was chromed (an idea taken from the PPD-1934); but the initial demand for the PPSh was so great that many of the early models were constructed without this feature. In the dire emergency created by wartime conditions, manufacturers simply cut down old Mosin-Nagant rifle barrels and fitted them for the task. Necessity is the mother of improvisation.
But once the Soviet front-line units got their hands on the PPSh-41, they preferred it to the exclusion of nearly every other alternative. Whole battalions of men armed with the PPSh-41, advancing in tandem with the T-34 tank, became an indelible image in the action on the Eastern Front from 1942 onwards. By the end of the war, it is estimated that over 5 million PPSh-41s were in circulation. The gun could withstand all manner of abuse, including immersion in dirt, snow, mud, and sand, and still fire when needed.
But the surprising history of the weapon does not stop there. The PPSh-41 has the apparently unique distinction of being adopted by two opposing belligerent nations at the same time. For when German forces made their initial advances into Russia, they captured vast stocks of PPSh-41s and ammunition. The Wehrmacht was so impressed with the gun that it adopted it itself: in a pinch, the PPSh-41 could fire the German 7.63-mm Mauser round. The Germans also recalibrated many captured examples of the gun to fire the 9mm cartridge, and preferred to use it whenever possible.
With the end of the war in 1945 and the rise of the assault rifle, submachine guns began to fade from the scene. Military planners had come to want an infantry weapon that had a greater range and accuracy than that which a submachine gun could provide. But the PPSh-41 lingered on the international scene for many years in Eastern bloc nations; it saw significant service during the Korean War. Even today, the PPSh-41 would make an ideal security or police weapon.
It was the most successful submachine gun ever designed.
To learn more about innovation, take a look at my book Pathways.