The panama hat is probably the biggest icon of the Soviet-Afghan War, alongside other classic visuals such as AK-74, BTR-80, and RD-54. But not many people know, that the panama hat was not introduced in Afghanistan, but instead has a long history of service within the Soviet Army. This article, which is part of a bigger list, will discover the history of the Soviet panama hat, as well as its use in Afghanistan.
Where it all started with the Soviet Army panama hat
The panama hats have been around for quite some time. It is unclear if they were officially adopted, but the photographic evidence suggests that they were in more or less large-scale use since the 1920s. The cuts of panamas that appear on the photos from this time period are different, which probably means, that there was no official order for the exact measurements of one and the units would order this headgear for themselves in limited quantity.
Model of 1935 and 1938 panama hats
By 1935 the practice of using panama hats in the Red Army was somewhat officialized by adopting a "subtropical lightweight helmet", as it was officially called by the NKVD border guards. These types of Soviet army panama hats can be easily distinguished by ventilation holes situated around the massive green star. It goes without saying, that these panama hats are impossible to obtain nowadays.
Looking at the practice of NKVD border guards using this old new type of headgear, the Armed Forces of the USSR - the Red Army decided to adopt similar hats for themselves. It was largely a copy of the NKVD version, but the ventilation holes were placed differently. The insignia - a star, was also of a different color (red) and these panamas came in two shades - regular khaki and grey for armor troops.
This panama hat, which we can be called Model 1938, was used until the mid-1950s, mainly in the subtropical areas of the Soviet Union. It even saw some action on the battlefields of the Second World War, as well as during some relatively small military skirmishes against Japan in 1936 and especially 1939.
Model of 1955 and 1961 panama hats
This M1938 panama was also used after the Second World War, until 1955, when a new model was adopted. This new panama hat was generally similar to the previous one (as most panama hats are similar to each other anyway). The main differences were the positions of the ventilation holes, which were now moved to the top and back side of the hat, as well as the new chinstrap - it was now made from plastic, rather than canvas. The ventilation holes were no longer metal but instead sheathed. These Panamas are designated M1955 for collecting purposes
Alongside the usage of this regular M1955 panama hat, another one was introduced in 1961. It was designed for officers. It was made from felt and was issued on a very small scale during a very short period of time. Due to its material, it is very easy to fake one, so be aware if you are looking for an original one which is extremely hard to get.
Model of 1974 classical Afghanka panama hat
But the most common one today and the best known to the modern military public was introduced in 1974. This new Soviet army panama hat once again had metal ventilation holes (although, the first iterations didn't). The shape of the headgear was changed as well - instead of being perfectly circular, it was now closer to a cone.
This M1974 panama was the only one used in Afghanistan throughout the whole war. They were produced in two factories - Ivanovo and Ahunbabaevo. The first one is rare now and is distinctive by the emerald green inside of the panama hat.
The regular panama, which is good to go for the Soviet-Afghan war reenactment or airsoft is still quite available in its original form and there are dozen of really good replicas available.
The KLMK-colored PV KGB panama hat
Since this is probably the biggest guide on the Soviet army panama hats on the web, we will try to include as many as there were. One of the more curious examples would be the camouflaged panama designed for and issued only to PV KGB border guards. It was quite different in the cut when compared to the regular one - the top of the hat was not pointy, but flat, and the whole structure of the hat was stitched. It also featured a button on the side which made this panama hat to be more comfortable when shooting with the right hand.
These panama hats were introduced circa 1977 along with the camouflaged uniforms for the border guards. The panamas in the same cut but of the plain color were also made but in much smaller numbers. As of today, both panama hats are quite rare, and not many good replicas are available either.
The rare and weird - TtSKo panama hat and the stitched M1988
To complete the story we would need to discuss two more pieces of headgear. The first one is the butan camouflaged panama hat. It is believed that it was introduced in 1988 to complete the set of tropical uniforms issued to the Soviet Naval Infantry. It was made in the exact same cut as the regular M1974 panama hat but in a TtSKo color pattern.
The second panama hat in discussion is the so-called M1988 version, which was the exact copy of the PV KGB camouflaged panama hat, but with two buttons instead of one and from slightly different cotton material. These panamas were produced in khaki and grey colors and were never issued in the Soviet Army - well, at least there is no photographic evidence found yet.
Bonus section - how to spot a fake Soviet Army panama hat
In this section, we will talk about the M1974 panama hat, as the most common one. It also has the biggest number of repros and fakes. Regarding all other models, to be on the safe side, you should assume that any panama sold is a repro until proven otherwise. Yet here is the instruction for the M1974 version.
There were three tailor factories, which produced these panama hats in Ivanovo, Tashkent, and Volgograd. I have never seen any fakes of Volgograd or Ivanovo hats, so if yours has a stamp of either of these then it is most likely an original. The Tashkent ones would have the name Ахунбабаев (Ahunbabaev) on the stamp. The original stamps were usually black, white, or red (in that order). The replicas usually follow this pattern and they have pretty good stamps on them.
What you should pay attention to:
Gross blunders - wrong number of ventilation holes, or them being misplaced, wrong cut, not Soviet fabric.
Modern-looking ventilation holes. The original ones would usually be pale green in color which is now cracked because of age.
The inside anti-sweat fake leather band. Soviet-produced fake leather does not last forever. So if the panama hat you are holding has a really new and shiny thing - it is fake. Sometimes they also make them from the canvas.
Unused condition. This one is a bit of a stretch, but I have around 35 original panama hats and only one of them came unused.
Overall, I strongly advise using replicas for airsoft or reenactment purposes. Killing an original in a field is a sin. But it has to be a good replica.