Russian Hunting Shotguns

Export of Soviet Guns Part III.

Part I. The 1960s.

Part II. The 1970s.

I’d like to reiterate here that these posts are very far from the complete account of Soviet shotguns export. A full account of the issue would probably bring me a doctorate in Economics. The three posts are more like the starting point of an investigation, what I know by now.

Raznoexport 5

Late 1980s Raznoexport catalogue cover featuring 1966 vintage MTs 6.

Along the 1980s, with the combination of plummeting oil prices and the effect of economic sanctions, the Soviet economy was going from bad to worse to catastrophic. Soviet Government looked for sources of hard currency everywhere. However, there was a big problem. By 1990, as states a paper quoted by Egor Gaidar in his Collapse of an Empire (mandatory reading for everyone interested in the collapse of the USSR), only about 12% of Soviet manufactured products were competitive on the world markets (and for 47% of those overseas customers had serious quality complaints). Apparently, Soviet hunting shotguns were in the 12%, but their actual competitiveness is an open question. Continue reading

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Russian Hunting Shotguns

Export of Soviet Guns, Part II.

Part I.

Export was a big deal for Soviet gun works, because it allowed them a chance for something they couldn’t otherwise get – contacts with foreign (preferably Capitalist) countries. People who never lived under the Iron Curtain can’t imagine what it meant to even know someone who routinely went abroad and could bring you blue jeans or the Beatles LP. In every provincial Russian town there used to be a riddle “What’s long and green and smells of consumer products?” (answer: the train from Moscow), but Tula is only a couple of hours ride from the capital (where you could more or less get anything), while Izhevsk is about 1000 miles away from anywhere.

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Exhibition grade Izh-12. Photo by http://www.baikalinc.ru

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Russian Hunting Shotguns

Export of Soviet Guns, Part I.

Soviet and Russian gun export is perhaps the most difficult chapter to write, because information is barely available. On the Russian side, it is classified, first because the makers all belonged to the military-industrial complex, and lately as commercial secret. On the importing side, it has to do with numerous companies, some of them no longer exist. At this stage, I don’t know even know how to approach this problem, and perhaps the best way to start is to put down what I know by now (December 2015).

Raznoexport calendar

1988 promotional calendar

The beginning.

The export of Russian hunting shotguns did not begin until 1960s. In fact, before the second part of 1950s production capacity of domestic gunmakers wasn’t sufficient to satisfy even local demand, and the country imported scores of shotguns (mostly from East Germany). However, by 1960-1962 it became evident that the collective farm based agricultural system couldn’t feed growing urban population. The USSR had to import large quantities of food, and needed hard currency; all industries were ordered to come up with ideas for export merchandise.

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Russian Hunting Shotguns

Grandpa’s Izh54

The day before the opener of 1968 my grandfather unexpectedly found himself in possession of a brand-new shotgun.

Like everywhere else in the USSR, the hunters in the construction company where he worked were united into a club, which meant, among other things, they could use one of the company trucks when they went hunting. The person who drove the truck decided he might as well start to hunt, too, and asked Grandpa to help him buy a second-hand shotgun. Grandpa called his friend, the manager of the only sporting goods store in their little town, who told him they had just received a lot of export-grade Izh-54. So, he sold his old gun to the truck driver, came over and picked a brand-new one for himself. Back then, buying a shotgun was as simple as handing over the right amount of cash.

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About ten years later Grandpa was diagnosed with cancer, and he gave this gun to his son-in-law (my Dad) – that already required registration. Grandpa beat the desease, and in fact lived another 35 years afterwards, but the gun remained in Dad’s possession (he still has it). One day when I was 4 or 5, Dad set up an improvised target, shouldered the gun in a kneeling position, and had me tuck the stock under my arm and press the trigger. Before I got my own gun, I used to borrow Grandpa’s Izh54 from Dad for my first hunting exploits, and in fact killed my first duck with it.

"Made in USSR" in Latin characters made Grandpa believe the gun was export grade.

“Made in USSR” in Latin characters made Grandpa believe the gun was export grade.

A curious fact about Grandpa’s gun was that the sporting goods store manager convinced him it was an export grade, while it actually wasn’t. Some export grade guns did in fact show up on the domestic market, because the factories would always made a little more than the dealers expected to take. However, the export grade action parts had jeweled finish, like custom guns (and the guns were assembled with custom grade tolerances) while Grandpa’s gun has regular blued parts. Then, the serial No of Grandpa’s gun consists of only one letter and four digits, while export guns had a second letter stamped in front of the number on the rear lump on the barrels. Last but not the least, the export grade would be mentioned in the gun’s tag, and the gun would be priced 15% over the standard grade. Yet, the tag for Grandpa’s gun showed only the regular price of 90 rubles (around $150 in the 60s money).

The blued cocking lever and only one letter in the serial No on the lump bespeak a standard grade.

The blued cocking lever and only one letter in the serial No on the lump bespeak a standard grade.

The only thing that may suggest export grade of the gun are the “Made in USSR” inscriptions in Latin characters, roll-stamped on both sides of the action box. These inscriptions were adopted for the export grade guns since the early 1960s. As the action was case-hardened, engraving and all markings on it had to be done before it was hardened. With IzhMech’s practice of making huge stock of part in advance, actions bound for Export guns would often be sent for general production. Most Soviet people believed, not without reason, that only the best goods were exported – and salespersons didn’t miss the chance to make a sale on that. Even planned economy couldn’t win over the salesperson’s natural propensities.

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Russian Hunting Shotguns

A Brave Experiment with Design.

“Tulka” – a hammer double, usually in 16 gauge, made by Tula Armory (TOZ) – was an iconic Russian hunting shotgun. However, by mid-1970s, the demand for this type of weapon diminished. TOZ reacted with TOZ 54 (made in 12 gauge only).

TOZ 54 b

Angular hammers and locking lever, and a beavertail fore-end, were supposed to give this gun a “modern” look. The consumers, however, were not amuzed.

TOZ 54 a

This model was made for export. However, the “Made in USSR” inscription on the trigger plate is not a reliable indicator of the gun being an export grade. Lots of standard grade guns made for domestic market had similar inscriptions.

TOZ 54 c

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Russian Hunting Shotguns

“50 Years of October Revolution” Series.

Some Internet pictures of IzhMech (Baikal) Izh-54 – one of the lot made to commemorate the 50th years anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967.

Interestingly, this lot of 500 guns was meant for the export, and is in most likelihood the “American Lot” from the legend.Whether it didn’t make the trip to the West because of the insufficient quality of the wood or not, I don’t know.

The gun features gold-inlaid (in Vassev‘s improved dovetail technique) combination of Russian for “50 years 1917-1967” and some visual improvisation on the topic of Soviet symbols (such as hammer and sickle). But the rest of the action is not covered with scroll. That marks the transition between the first generation of Izhevsk gun decoration, where tight scroll filled all spaces in the action free from game scenes, to the current style, where the areas surrounding the inlaid or relief-engraved image are left undecorated “to highlight the main theme”.

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The Legend of the “American Lot”

A recent post on doublegunshop.com reminded me of this story, one of many legends connected with the export of Soviet guns. I tell it as is, and can’t vouch for its authenticity.

After the success of guns engraved by Beloborodov and Vassev on Montreal World Expo in 1967, the American exporters thought that a higher grade of Baikals could sell well in the States, and asked their Soviet partners if they could make it – engraved, and with extra fancy wood.

This last request puzzled the IzhMech employees. For them, there were three grades of wood – birch, beech and walnut. That walnut could be “extra fancy” was a bit of a surprize. Still, a challenge is a challenge. The supplies of walnut blanks was ransacked, those which look most fancy were chosen, and a lot of 100 guns – model Izh-54 – was made.

And the exporter turned it down.

What you call “extra fancy wood” is not what an American customer expects from a high-end gun, they explained.

The “American Lot” stayed at the factory and was sold quietly to the factory management’s friends, relatives and ‘connections’.

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