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Pistols - why so unpopular? Top-3 reasons why Soviet soldiers avoided using pistols

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Soviet Army has used some of the most iconic pistols of the second half of the 20th century. Given the size of the Soviet Army, these were also some of the most mass produced pistols in history. However, when going through photos or memoirs about the Soviet-Afghan War, it is extremely uncommon to find anything on pistols. The best you can do is to find officers armed posing with holsters on the base or during the parade. But finding a picture of a pistol on an actual operation is a real gem.

All this might sound really counterintuitive for those, who are not familiar with how the Soviet Army worked in reality. Especially when comparing to other armies in different periods - for example, US troops in Korea or Vietnam would sometimes even bring their own handguns from home with them! And it is not uncommon to see a pistol as part of one's loadout for the patrol.

There were three main reasons for the Soviet not to use hand fired weapons in Afghanistan. And before we dive in, here is a quick reiteration of those pistols which were readily available for Soviet troops in Afghan.

If you want to learn more on Soviet equipment in Afghanistan, check out our book on that - Uniforms and history of the Soviet Airborne in Afghanistan. And in case you are really into Soviet weapons, we have something else to offer - Soviet Infantry Weapons of the Afghan War.

1. PM - "Pistolet Makarova"

PM pistol Afghanistan
March 1980, 5th MSD. PM behind the belt of an Afghan Army soldier. note how Soviets on the sides decided on having extra mag pouch each.

The most common and the most recognizable pistol designed in the Soviet Union. Pretty much the only pistol a regular serviceman would have to deal with, especially in the later part of the 20th century. Was issued to all officers and to some soldiers, depending on their specialization.

2. APS - "Avtomaticheskiy Pistolet Stechkina"

APS pistol
Soldiers of the Air-assault battalion of the 66th OMSBr posing with their weapons

A gem of many modern day collections. This pistol is so big and heavy that it can almost be called a submachine gun. And this is the role he was designed for! The idea was to issue those soldiers who wouldn't really need an AK but still had to defend themselves with something.

3. PB - "Pistolet bezshumniy"

PB pistol
Soldiers of the 860 MSP with PB pistol

A remodeled PM with integrated silencer. Does its job really well - shots are really really quiet. Wanted by many collectors nowadays, but is extremely hard to get.

4. APB - "Avtomatickeskiy pistolet bezshumniy"

APB pistol and NRS-2 knife
Soldiers of the 668 ooSPN unit with their weapons. Note NRS-2 shooting knife on the front guy

Slightly modified APS, with added thread at the muzzle to screw on the silencer. Comes with wired stock and cool holster.

soviet afghan war pistols
Captured and appropriated pistols

Apart from these four handguns, Soviet soldiers and especially officers would sometimes get their hands on the captured stuff. These could include both older Soviet designs, like TT and Nagan, but any other model could pop up just as likely. Anyway, let's finally get to the reasons, why pistols were so unpopular with the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Pistols are useless in the mountains

That is one of the most common reasons I have found in the memoirs. The effective range of the PM is 50 meters. On a good day at a shooting range. If you can effectively hit targets with it in combat from 25 meters - that would be outstanding result. Then again, firefights on such distances weren't common during Soviet-Afghan war. Most battles would take place either on the roads or in the open - green zone or high up in the hills. And then again, Makarov's pistol and some ammo would weight around one kilo. That's the same as two full mags for an AK. So why choose 20-30 inferior rounds from an inferior weapon, when you could take another 60 for your main rifle?

Soviet officer with PB pistol
Soviet officer with PB pistol

No proper training on pistols in the Soviet Army

Of course, the modern standards for pistol effectiveness are much higher than during the cold war. Soldiers of the past were trained on some lousy videos, while modern armies are watching John Wick. However, Soviet Army was lagging behind in this aspect even back then.

The training on handling PM would usually consist of some shooting range time. Usually with limited ammo. Pistol training back in the day was considered more of a sport discipline. Unlike with the AK, pistols were almost never used in some combat simulations even for officers. Soldiers would rarely get their pistols on hand for the exercise. And unlike their American counterparts, Soviet people never had a chance to own handguns for themselves - there was no "pistol" culture among citizens and this affected the Army as well.

So overall, a regular Soviet officer just was not sure that he can use this weapon to his advantage. Thus he would prefer some extra grenade or two.

Mujahadeen with custom TT pistol
Mujahadeen with custom TT pistol

Everyone was afraid of loosing his weapon

This common fear does not only apply to the war in Afghanistan. By the Soviet laws, loosing a weapon would easily get you behind the bars. During wartime you could face the firing squad. Luckily for some, war in Afghanistan was not considered "wartime", but ending up in a jail wasn't a preferred option either.

I personally know an officer, who was doing patrols in a city in the USSR in late 1980s. By the statute and by common sense, he was supposed to carry his pistol with him. However, he never took it from the armory. As he said:

"It is highly unlikely I would use a weapon in a public area. Even without anyone wounded or killed, I would get in trouble. But having a weapon on you makes you a perfect target for those, who would like to acquire a firearm. Loose-loose situation."

Loosing equipment was a big concern in the Soviet Army. For this reasons, soldiers were very rarely issued pistols for tactical exercises - simply because it is too simple to loose one. So when in December 1979 soldiers of 345th Paratrooper Regiment were issued with everything, including pistols, they knew that everything is about to get real.

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