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Dragunov's SVD in Soviet-Afghan War - myths and reality

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The SVD or Dragunov Sniper Rifle is one of the most iconic pieces of the Soviet cold war era small arms. And there is no accident here - it is a truly beautiful rifle. It has a unique and clearly distinguishable look, thanks to its carefully carved wooden parts.

The rifle has played a significant role in the Afghan War, just as it did in the majority of the wars that have been taking place in the 90s and 00s. It has gained its fair share of popularity both in the regular militaries and guerillas as well as on the civilian market. As of now, the rifle is on its way to history, due to the small numbers of them left in the post-Soviet arsenals and tiny modern-day production numbers.

If you are really into SVD and other Soviet weapons, do not hesitate to check out publication on the Soviet Infantry Weapons of the Afghan War.

SVD
Reenactment photo

However, as we are dealing with history, this is exactly the right topic for today. The rifle is listed in our article about all of the infantry weapons used by the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. This, in turn, is part of the work for our upcoming book on the Soviet small arms used in the Soviet-Afghan War.


Bried history of the SVD

After the Second World War, the overall doctrine of the Soviet Army changed drastically. Looking back at the successes of the maneuver warfare of the later stages of the war, Soviet generals were under the impression that the trench warfare was gone for good this time. For that reason the sniper culture which developed to high levels during the war, by such notable snipers as Vasilyi Zaycev was mostly forgotten. Abandoning practical knowledge is not something unusual for the russian army, but we will have to get back to this in another article, as it is a very broad topic.

Soviet infantry of the 1950s
Soviet infantry of the 1950s

What really concerned the higher command is the very small distance of the effective fire which the infantry was able to cover. At the time, in the 1950s, regular section and platoon-sized formations were armed with AK, SKS, and RPD. These weapons could give an effective cover to a maximum of 500 meters, which would be halved in a real firefight. The ability to actually reach the enemy at longer distances seemed necessary and for that reason, the SVD was developed.


Order of issue of the SVD to the units of the 40th Army

After being developed in the late 1950s, the SVD rifle was adapted and went into production in mid-1963. The rifle was rather complicated. Not only for the soldier but for the Soviet industry in general. This weapon required very precise machinery as well as it was designed to be supplied with an optical scope. At the time, the Soviet industry had a very limited capacity for optics production.

Mosin sniper rifle equipped with PU-1 scope in hands of the man from 56th DShB in Afghanistan
Mosin sniper rifle equipped with PU-1 scope in hands of the man from 56th DShB in Afghanistan

All in all, the supply of rifles to the armed forces was limited. Providing each infantry platoon with an SVD and a PSO-1 scope was not an easy task to be completed in a short period of time. The way to adapt to this was traditional for the Soviet Army. They supplied all the modern and updated equipment to the military units stationed on the European side of the Soviet Union as well as those located in Europe. All others - the unit stationed deep inside the Soviet Union, as well as those located in the Asian part of the country, were usually equipped with outdated equipment. Sometimes really outdated.

Soviet border guard with SVD
Soviet border guard with SVD

The units located in the Turkmenistan Military District were among those unfortunate ones who weren't just equipped with old stuff but actually had to go into real combat with it. There were a number of examples of outdated weapons, vehicles, and equipment that were used in Afghanistan, but since we are concentrating on the sniper rifles let's stick to them. In the first year of the invasion - 1980, the majority of units within the 40th Army did not have SVD in their armories. It is incredibly hard to find any photos of SVD being used at the time. In later years, from 1982 onwards, they were well supplied and became common enough for every ground battle group to take one on a mission when it was required.


Usage and modifications of the SVD

The SVD proved to be a useful asset in the mountains. While AK-74 and it's 5.45 bullet were a much better weapon for such terrain than a 7.62 AKM, the effective range of fire was still somewhere between 200-300 meters. It would take a really experienced soldier to hit designated targets at a higher distance. Meanwhile, SVD with its 4x PSO-1 scope could easily double the effective range. On top of that, the PSO scope provided much-needed optics for general observation. The number of binoculars in the units was limited and it would usually be just officers who had access to them.

Afghanistan through the view of PSO-1 scope
Afghanistan through the view of PSO-1 scope

What could also be installed and frequently used on SVD rifles are the NSPU and NSPUM night vision scopes. While being 1st generation only, they could still provide some value on the battlefields of Afghanistan. It was mainly possible due to the low amount of green zones in some areas - 1st generation night vision works reasonably well in the open when your eye is not distracted by bushes and trees.

NSPU scope installed on SVD rifle
NSPU scope installed on SVD rifle

In terms of modifications - not much was done by the soldiers. These were the Soviet 80's - the goods on the civilian market were limited and the weapon stores had little to offer. However, some soldiers would install bipods on their SVDs. While it might seem impractical for today's standards and generally wrong from the ballistical point of view, these paradigms were unknown to Soviet grunts at the time and they were experimenting. The bipods used on the SVDs were either detached from PKM or RPK or, in some cases, detached from the captured RPD machine guns. All of them were more or less equal in performance.

And, of course, the bandage and the ersmarch's tourniquet were attached to the buttstock of the rifle - as per usual fashion at the time.

SVD with RPD bipod installed
SVD with RPD bipod installed

Myths about the SVD

There is a certain number of myths strongly associated with the SVD and its performance in Afghanistan. Some of them are to be covered in this article.

The first one is the incredible reliability of the rifle. It mainly comes from it's resemblance to the AK, which, in turn, is considered as the most reliable automatic rifle ever made. While this is a highly controversial statement, the SVD is pretty much a completely different mechanism. Due to the higher precision of the moving parts, the dusty atmosphere of Afghan mountains was not helping the gun to cycle. I am not saying it was not reliable - that would be just wrong, but to keep the rifle in working order would take a lot of effort from the soldier. A lot of attention was to be paid to magazines and ammunition. Saying all that, we have to make a note of the rifle's milled receiver, which is, of course, much better for both the long-term reliability and performance of the weapon.

svd afghanistan
Soviet sniper after a firefight where he has lost his comrad

Another myth comes from the movies and media of 80s and 90s. For some reason, at the time, the SVD war was portrayed as the most favorable weapon of the mujahadeen and generally all Islamic fighters. While none of them would turn out the SVD if they had a chance to use it, during the period of the Soviet occupation it was not a common firearm for the mujahadeen. There is no evidence that SVD clones were supplied to them and getting one as a trophy from the Soviet forces was an incredibly rare event. During the war, there was a very limited number of times when mujahadeen managed to destroy the whole Soviet unit and had a chance to properly loot them. Yet again, this would be a perfect rifle for a mujahideen sniper, given the attached scope and availability of the ammunition.

SVD Afghanistan
Modern day taliban with SVD

The final myth is a very common one and can be found in almost any article which has the words SVD and Afghanistan in it. The myth states, that the longest confirmed kill in Afghanistan was done by Sergeant Vladimir Ilyin, from the 345 Parachute Regiment. It is stated, that in 1985 he killed a mujahedeen commander from 1350 meters. Needless to say, there is no evidence either of this event or the existence of this sergeant. The whole story seems to be made up from scratch and then just reposted from one article into another.

SVD NSPU
The third myth is usually accompanied with this photo for no particular reason. It is very likely that this was not even taken in Afghanistan

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In Sir Rodric Braithwaites book "Afgantsy" (well worth reading if you haven't already) the section dealing with the opening phase recounts veterans accounts of the Mujahadeen pinning down Soviet patrols using long weapons such as Mausers, Lee Enfields etc that outranged the Soviet AK's and, where possible, afterwards seizing the fallens AK's and dumping their old single shot weapons. This apparently triggered the Soviet High Command to issue SVD' on a 1 in 4 basis - ie. A 4 man patrol would carry 3 AK's and one SVD. It was not unknown in later phases for the SVD count to be higher depending on the nature of the operation, units involved etc. In a relatively short time this decision tu…

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Vlad Besedovskyy
Vlad Besedovskyy
Jul 11, 2023
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Hey, thank you for your comment! I have read "Afghantsy" very long time ago now, maybe ten or so years ago. Will have a look at it again

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