The Arms&Hunting Expo Moscow, which takes place annually in October in the Gostinny Dvor Expo Center, is, to quote Russian Hunting Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Mikhail Krechmar, a way to tell what the next year will be like for the Russian hunting and hunting gun industry. This is, of course, only partially true: like any attempted futurology, an analysis of the expo can’t account for black swans. Allowing for this, let’s see what’s going to be in store for the Russian civilian gun industry as of October 2018.
I make an emphasis on “civilian”, because most of the firearms industry development these days is focused on the military. I don’t really care for guns people design to kill one another, but the Russian public has fewer and fewer money to spend on guns, and the government is pumping more and more money into the defense industries, so it’s only natural that businesses turn their attention to the more profitable sides.
The Kalashnikov Concern, the parent company that owns the Baikal brand and a number of manufacturing enterprises (it’s complicated) made headlines with their decision to skip the Arms&Hunting Moscow 2018. Cynically speaking, this is a reflection of KC’s perpetual identity crisis: they just can’t make up their collective mind whether they want to be Russia’s biggest and baddest military arms maker, or Russia’s biggest and baddest military and civilian arms maker. Pragmatically, the Kalashnikov Concern doesn’t really need all these expo appearances, brand zones, and other marketing stuff to sell their share of MP-27 and MP-155. There will always be Russian hunters who’d buy them even if they be sold in hidden outlets accessible by invitation only.
Their place was taken – so far only in terms of floor space – by TOZ. One of the world’s oldest gunmakers did its best to pretend it was alive and kicking, though the exposition was, on close examination, pathetic. An “anniversary edition” TOZ-34, made to commemorate the factory’s 305th birthday in 2017, couldn’t hold its own even against a regular grade TOZ-34 from, say, 1968. TOZ hasn’t produced any new hunting shotguns since 2011; still, there are rumors that we may yet see TOZ-branded (if not TOZ-made) guns in the future.
TsKIB mirrored the big brother’s attitude and approach. They somehow managed to sell a few of their sniper rifles to Russian National Guard, and are very proud about that, but can you order a bespoke bespoke hunting gun from them? I cornered their Marketing Director, and after a brief interrogation, got an answer. It was “No”. You can walk into their store and buy a gun that’s on sale there. Even a citizen of a foreign nation could do that (although the red tape required is something else!). But to order a gun to your specification you’ll gave to go to a rival young Tula outfit: the Levsha-T.
The Levsha-T is one of the first civilian gunmakers in the country (after 1991), and the only one yet that makes true hunting shotguns. They have started with a sidelock over/under, with an original barrel hinging and lockup that is somehow in between the Woodward and the TsKIB. They asked not to print photos of the insides of the sidelock before they had it properly patented. Now the patenting is apparently secured, and here you go. This idea, borrowed from an obscure Izhevsk side-by-side from 1944, allows the user not only to remove the lock from the gun, but also to completely disassemble it without any tools!
Now Levsha-T also offers box lock design, that works on coil springs. The guns could have steel or alloy receiver, and in the latter variant they are very light and well balanced. In fact, the 20 gauge with 650-mm barrels that I’ve handled surprised me as it was actually too light – at least, it felt rather muzzle-light, and if I was ordering one, I’d go for 28″ or 725 mm barrels. Later I had a chance to talk with a person who actually ordered one, and he was of exactly the same opinion.
Levsha-T deserves praise for active and stubborn growth, but it’s not free from criticism either. While they position themselves as “Best”, the attention to detail leaves some room for improvement. Some of their guns are decisively kitsch (see below), although others are better. The wood-to-metal fit isn’t precisely on the “wood grows out of metal” level yet either. Levsha-T guns are good enough for CNC-machine made guns, but not good enough for best quality; if they want to get to the world level, they ought to send someone for an apprenticeship at one of Britain’s or Italy’s top names.
At this point we’re (almost) done with Russian hunting shotguns in the proper sence of the term, and are moving out to rifles, with a transitional stop at two shotgun rounds that are currently responsible for more developments in the Russian hunting gun industry than everything else put together. The .336 TKM is the 7.62×39 case necked up to about 9 mm, and the 9.6 Lancaster is the 7.62×54 Mosin case necked up to 9.6 mm. Both have been given different shoulder shapes so that the 7.62 mm ancestors could not be fired in the guns chambered for the new rounds.
The thing about these two is that, even though they look like rifle rounds, and in fact deliver rifle-like ballistics (the .366 TKM makes for 150 meter big-game rifle, the 9.6 mm Lancaster reaches out to about 250 or so), due to a loophole in Russian gun laws they can be legally obtained on a shotgun license. In Russia, a rifle license can be granted only after five years of shotgun ownership, and is more difficult to get in other respects as well, so the guns for these two rounds are very popular.
Every single rifle model that fires 7.62×39 and 7.62x54R has been rechambered for them, including the Mosin rifle, SKS, Saiga, Vepr, the civilian versions of the SVD and AKM (the latter, of course, without full auto and with limited mag capacity). Even Zastava now offers their M70 carbine for 9.6 mm Lancaster. And these rounds may become the boot in the door for a few new makers.
Techkrim, the Izhevsk-based ammo maker that introduced the .336 TKM and the 9.6 mm Lancaster rounds, is most famous (and occasionally notorious) in Russia for their ammo for non-lethal self-defense handguns. Now the company decided they also want to make guns. They offer .336 TKM inserts for 12-gauge shotguns, and have developed a single shot based on MP-18 but with an improved trigger. They had plans to put guns together out of assembly kits obtained by IzhMech, but rejected the idea as they found it cheaper to make the guns from scratch. We may see their first double-barreled shotguns on Moscow Arms&Hunting 2019 if everything goes as planned.
The ADAR company of St. Petersburg has been known for a few years already as the maker of AR-type rifles. They put them together with the help of international cooperation, with barrels from Molot, bolts from (if I’m not mistaken) Israel, and handles and stock of their own make (the company grew out of the stockmaker that I already covered in this blog). ADAR is one of the few companies that make an AR-type rifle with a traditional walnut hunting stock.
I have read American gun bloggers ridicule ADAR for their pricing policy. Tell you what, now with economic sanctions most AR producers can’t sell their wares directly to Russia, and any roundabout way doubles the price. Add import tariffs, and the price of an ADAR suddenly becomes a bargain.
But I was much more impressed by their most recent development – the Ladoga rifle. If I were an American journalist at an American gun show, I bet this thing would follow me home. It is a slim, light and compact straight-pull action. I believe it’s an AR-type bolt working from a rear-mounted handle. So far the Ladoga is chambered only for the .366 TKM, but ADAR promises it will be available in 7.62×39 and the 6.5 mm Grendel in the nearest future. If the short action version takes off, ADAR has plans to design another one for the .308 Win as well. I’ll be looking out for those.
Another interesting gun for the .366 TKM was offered by Molot. The Gornostai (the word translates from Russian as “stoat”) is a compact, light carbine, that weighs but 2.7 kg (about 6 pounds) with iron sights. The .336 TKM will never be a varmint round, and a 150-meter big-game hunting rifle doesn’t need tack driving accuracy, so the decision to make the gun as light as can be makes perfect sense. Gornostai will also be offered in .223 Win and 7.62×39.
Molot, as a matter of fact, was the most popular Russian gun maker on the expo, and from opening to closing hours the booth attracted an impenetrable crowd of viewers. Those who weren’t interested in the Gornostai and its big brother Eger, a bolt-action rifle for the .308 Win class of cartridges, flocked around the AK-type rifles and shotguns. The new for 2018 entry in this category was a multi-caliber Vepr that comes with three barrels for three different rounds: 7.62×39, 6.5 mm Grendel, and .336 TKM. The rationale between this choice of chambering from the consumer’s perspective is not immediately obvious; apparently, Molot has chosen the path of least resistance to experiment with the concept of replaceable barrels. Multi-caliber rifles are popular in Russia, because they offer a way around the 5 rifles and 5 shotguns ownership limit, and this thing may sell for this reason alone.
If there’s something I regretted on the expo, it was that I didn’t get to play around with another new Molot development: a 12-gauge on the short recoil system. Positioned as a gun for those who can’t make up their mind about the gas or inertia dilemma – a non-conformist’s shotgun, if you will – this thing is unlikely to ever reach mass production. So more the reasons to want to play with one, but the duties on the Russian Hunting Magazine’s booth and crowds around the Molot’s exposition didn’t let it happen.
Another weapon I missed seeing is the new .22lr rifle from Ataman. This Russian producer of air guns is slowly making its way into the firearms market. Last year they introduced a bolt-action .22lr rifle that was nothing special. This year Ataman showed a bullpup semiautomatic that is quite ingeniously designed. For just one example, the biggest problem with bullpup guns is that if they’re made for a right-handed shooter they don’t work for left-handed one, and vice versa. This one converts from right hand to left hand and back in 30 seconds – all it takes is to replace one part!
My own attitude to all these developments is ambivalent. I’m glad to see new Russian hunting guns and gun makers. But on the other hand, too bad that the driving force behind them is political issues, namely increasing international isolation of Russia and growing militarism of the current government. These issues aren’t forever: Russia is too deeply integrated into global affairs to cuddle and lock the outside world up like North Korea, and, as opinion polls registered in 2018, the Russians have had enough of the undeclared war against the “West”. Sooner or later, the status quo is bound to change, and when it happens, will the new players be able to find themselves between returns of the import and the opportunities for the export?
Only time will tell.
Main photo credit: Georgy Rytov / Russian Hunting Magazine