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Kalashnikov's Predecessors

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A boom of intelligence about the enemy's weapons came during the summer of 1943. Compared to captured German aircraft and tanks, an "automatic carbine" captured at Kholm, as it was called in the reports, didn't seem as impressive. However, the consequences of its capture for the Soviet small arms industry were not just significant, but, without a shadow of exaggeration, grandiose. 

The trophy that was captured was the MKb.42(H), a prototype produced by Haenel undergoing army trials in the Wehrmacht's 93rd Infantry Division. The Main Artillery Directorate of the Red Army (GAU), who ran into many problems in development of an automatic weapon for the old rimmed rifle round, appreciated the potential of a new type of ammunition. In part, during the discussion of prospective systems for 1944, the following was mentioned:
"The need to resolve the issue of creating light, portable, reliable, and robust automatic weapons is exacerbated by the fact that maneuver actions at short range require active participation of all infantry weapons during the most heated part of the battle (such as an assault). Further development and research in this direction needs to be aimed at creating an automatic carbine that uses model 1943 ammunition with a 30-35 round magazine, weighing no more than 5 kg, with an effective range of up to 1000 m. At the same time, develop a belt-fed light machinegun using the same round."


Degtyaryev's RPD-44 light machinegun.

Interestingly enough, some variants of the requirements for the first assault rifle use the term "heavy submachinegun". The weight requirement, despite being a hard one to hit, was more for something similar to a modern RPK rather than an individual rifleman's weapon. Perhaps the GAU created a backup plan in case of failure to develop a new light machinegun. 2-3 "heavy submachineguns" with bipods per squad combined with semiautomatic carbines firing the same round could create a good density of fire even without a machinegun.

Tankers as an impartial judge

Trials of the RPD-44 light machinegun and Sydayev's AC-44 assault rifle carried out in September of 1945 at the Main Armour and Tank Directorate (GABTU) proving grounds are a good evaluation of the designers' success. Since the GABTU and GAU were independent organizations on the same level, the GABTU's trials can easily be considered impartial. 

The weapons tested had the following characteristics:


AVT-40

DP

PPSh-41

RPD-44

AS-44

Total mass (with magazine, without bayonet), kg

3.9

8.8

4.65

7.25

5.2

Length with bayonet, mm

1465

-

-

-

1240

Length without bayonet, mm

1226

1272

842

1035

1000

Magazine capacity

10

47

71

100

30

Practical rate of fire, RPM

25

80

150

190

127

Effective range, m

1500

1500

500

1000

800

Mass of one round, grams

22.8

22.8

10.77

16.2

16.2


There were no surprises during the trials. The machineguns, submachineguns, and assault rifles worked normally. The testers pointed out the fact that the AS-44 throws spent casings up to 12 meters away. On one hand, this was good, since the automatic mechanism had energy to spare. On the other hand, it wasn't safe to stand next to the shooter.

Precision trials had some unexpected results. The RPD-44 had similar precision to the DP at ranges of 100, 300, and 600 meters. The AS-44 did not perform as well. Bursts of 3-5 rounds could only be fired while lying down and using the bipod. At 600 meters only half of the prorotypes could land all the bullets on target. Even at 100 meters, acceptable results were achieved by only 3 out of the 10 samples. At 300 meters, these three had a spread of 1.5 meters.


Sudayev's AS-44 assault rifle.

The effective rate of fire for the RPD was 191 rounds per minute, which was more than twice as good as the DP. The AS-44 could fire an average of 128 rounds per minute.

Firing while moving was the next step. The shooters received eight magazines in bags. It was permitted to stop while reloading. Firing was performed at 150-300 meters against target #23, "anti-tank gun". 16 our of 240 rounds hit the target, or 6.8%, while moving at a speed of 1 m/s. The low effectiveness was caused by "effect of the rifle's recoil on the shooter's shoulder".

Two Sudayev's assault rifles were tested for reliability. The first did not survive the test. The extractor broke after 5640 rounds. This sample had 20 jams at that point. The second sample performed much better. Only 19 jams (0.19%) were experienced after firing 10,270 rounds (10,000 + 150 trials + 120 to determine precision).

Sudayev's prototype in a museum.

In conclusion, the testers stated that, overall, "the 7.62 mm RPD-44 machinegun and AS-44 assault rifle meet the requirements of modern warfare". Sudayev's gun was recommended for service in submachinegunner platoons. One can confidently say that, if the war had dragged on, "our answer to the Sturmgewehr", an improved variant of Sudayev's AS-44, would have been on the battlefield in the fall of 1945 or even sooner.

Other candidates

The first assault rifle competition that Sudayev won was just as heated as the competition of 1946-47. For instance, F.V. Tokarev presented his own entry. The AT-44 was based on the AVT automatic rifle, converted to use the model 1943 round. However, trials showed that the weapon inherited the flaws of its predecessor. The AT-44 was prone to slamfires and tearing of the casings. The trials ended with the failure of the receiver, also not an uncommon situation for the AVT-40.

G.S. Shpagin also made an attempt to get his revenge after losing the 1942 contest to Sudayev. Like Tokarev, Shpagin was betrayed by his faith in proven solutions. He picked a blowback mechanism, which worked wonderfully in his submachineguns. However, the bolt had to be heavier due to the enlarged round. It weighed 1.2 kg, at an overall weight of 5.5 kg. It was impossible to effectively control a weapon where such a large portion of the mass moved back and forth. The lifespan of parts also left much to be desired. Others learned from his mistakes. Shpagin showed that a blowback mechanism does not work for intermediate rounds.

7.62 mm model 1943 round and magazines.

A.A. Bulkin's project was much more original. In 1947 his weapon would reach the final trials, remaining Kalashnikov's main opponent until the very end, but the weapon proposed in 1944 was closer to his 1942 machinegun. The magazine was even still attached at the top. Nevertheless, Bulkin's assault rifle had a good chance at victory.
"The main feature of this design was a rational layout of the lock, which was achieved by rotating the bolt by three stops. The frame, pushing on the stops, performed the rotation and the locking. This did not only effectively solve the problem of tearing casings, but allowed one of the most important parts of the assault rifle to be stamped from a steel sheet rather than milled."
As you can see, there was no shortage of competitors, both experienced and unknown, but undeniably talented. However, it was Sudayev's weapon that was chosen as the best. His main trump card, as with the submachinegun, was reliability. This was partially done by creating a receiver with large openings and small area of contact surfaces.

The main cause for the drawbacks of the assault rifle were caused by pursuit of the GABTU's requirements for a "heavy submachinegun". Meanwhile, the GAU decided that the belt-fed RPD-44 was the most suitable for a section machinegun. The AS-44 turned out to be too heavy for an individual rifleman, and since the war was coming to a close, there was an opportunity to wait for a more optimal solution. Sudayev was a favourite in the new assault rifle race, but there was a different fate in store for him. Others finished what he started.


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