April 10, 2020
By David M. Fortier
The Cold War years saw the development and introduction of a number of interesting designs which can be considered early Personal Defense Weapons or PDWs. These compact weapons were intended to be issued to military troops whose job specialty did not require or allow them to carry a full-sized rifle, but might require something more than a standard service pistol. At the same time, due to their very small nature they were a natural for employment by elite commando or Special Forces units, for certain covert missions. Noteworthy examples of this breed include the Soviet 9x18mm APS “Stechkin” machine pistol, Polish 9x18mm pm wz.63 ‘Rak’, US 9mm Parabellum M11 submachine gun and the Czechoslovak 7.65mm vz. 61 Skorpion. Of this group, the Czech vz. 61 Skorpion stands out due to its small size, interesting design and the cartridge it is chambered for.
While the Cold War has long passed, the Soviet Union a memory and the Warsaw Pact disbanded, the Samopal vzor 61 (Submachine gun model 1961) Skorpion is still with us today.
The example seen here is a semi-automatic variant offered by Recon Ordnance Company. Established way back in 1975 by Jerry Prasser, Recon Ordnance Company has earned an enviable reputation by offering a unique array of fascinating NFA Machine Guns, Destructive Devices and semi-automatic firearms. Down through the decades Recon Ordnance Company has imported and sold thousands of machine gun and rifle parts kits. They also addressed the M11 submachine gun’s well-known magazine reliability issue by developing a reliable steel magazine and putting it into production. Recently, they even facilitated the importation and rebuilding of 200 German MP 44 reproductions using US compliant parts.
Among their many interesting offerings is a line of Czech manufactured Skorpion semi-automatic pistols. These are available in the original .32 ACP (7.65mm) as well as .380 ACP (9x17mm) and 9mm Makarov. Manufactured by Czech Small Arms (C.S.A.) located in Jablunka, Czech Republic, this semi-automatic variation of the vz. 61 Skorpion is imported into the US by Czechpoint, Inc. of Knoxville, TN. A fascinating piece, it will be of interest to any collector or shooter intrigued by the Cold War and Warsaw Pact small arms. It is a piece of living history with a design which reaches back to a forgotten era.
Before I delve into the semi-automatic variation seen on these pages, let’s examine how and why the original vz. 61 submachine gun came to be. I find the Skorpion interesting because at just 10.6 inches in length it is one of the few designs to successfully meld a pistol with a submachine gun. Unlike most submachine guns or machine pistols in this class, the Skorpion is actually controllable on full-automatic. Not surprisingly, its ability to be small, light and yet quite controllable on full-automatic is partially due to its odd .32 ACP chambering. Its diminutive caliber though is also its Achilles’ heel. So why did the Czech military feel the need to acquire a submachine gun of such small size, and chambered for what today seems like an unimaginable choice?
The Genesis of our story begins in 1958 with the Czechoslovak Ministry of the Interior. This department oversaw the country’s internal affairs and was helmed by Rudolf Barák. Now, keep in mind that Czechoslovakia had been the last Eastern European Democracy. It fell to Communism in 1948 and was firmly under the Soviet sphere of influence. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had been brutally put down, and was still fresh on people’s minds. In just a mere 10 years Czechoslovakia itself would experience their “Prague Spring” with people taking to the streets in mass protest only to have their hopes dashed by a Soviet ordered invasion.
In 1958, the Czechoslovak Ministry of the Interior came up with a list of requirements for a new “multi-purpose submachine gun” for “special security activities”. The new design was intended to be fielded by law enforcement and internal security forces. The specifications called for a weight of between 2 pounds 3 ounces and 2 pounds 10 ounces. Overall length with the stock folded was to be just 9.8 inches, and 17.3 inches with the stock unfolded. It was to have an effective range of 100 meters. Interestingly, it was to have two different magazines available for it, a short one holding 8 to 10 rounds and a longer one holding 20 to 25 rounds. It needed to be selective-fire allowing use as both a pistol and as a submachine gun. Lastly, it needed to be chambered for 7.65mm Browning (.32 ACP).
Examining the requirements put forth we can see they desired something very specific. They wanted an extremely small and very light automatic weapon capable of being used on semi-automatic as a pistol and on full-automatic with the stock deployed. The short magazine would facilitate both covert use and holster carry while the higher capacity magazine would suffice for bursts on full-automatic. The very light weight and relatively small size would allow it to be easily carried, even in a holster.
What about the seemingly “odd” requirement for it to be chambered for a “pocket pistol” cartridge? While this appears very out of place today, it wasn’t really in 1958. Designed by none other than John Moses Browning, the 7.65mm Browning, also known as the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol, actually predates the 20th Century. It was introduced in 1899 by Fabrique Nationale and was the first pistol cartridge Browning designed. The first pistol chambered for it was Browning’s M1900. The cartridge itself is a semi-rimmed straight-walled case. Case length is .680-inch, rim diameter is .358-inch and base diameter is .337-inch. Overall length is .984-inch and it is loaded with a .309-inch diameter projectile. Standard bullet weight is 71 grains. Typical performance is a 71-grain FMJ projectile at 900 fps which generates a rather ho-hum 128 ft-lbs of energy.
Intended for use in simple blow-back operated pistols, the 7.65mm Browning went on to become extremely popular after its introduction. In Europe it was widely adopted by both police and military forces. The French Army issued over a million 7.65mm Ruby type pistols to front-line combat units during World War I and Nazi Germany issued large numbers of 7.65mm pistols during World War II. Many law enforcement units issued 7.65mm caliber pistols down through the decades. In respect to our story, the 7.65mm cartridge was in current Czechoslovak LE inventory in 1958. As the caliber was already in widespread use, it seemed natural to chamber the new weapon for it.
The Czechoslovak arms industry went through a transition in the early 1950s as industry was nationalized. The old system of independent design shops came to an end. In their place the Czechoslovak Communist Party built a large centralized and specialized research and development center which was originally named Konstrukta Brno. With the new R&D center came strict new rules on what organizations could request new firearms to be designed. The Ministry of the Interior lost its ability to do so and had to submit their request for approval by the Ministry of National Defense (MND). This was done in the fall of 1958.
Unexpectedly, the small arms experts with the MND became intrigued by the Ministry of the Interior’s concept. Not only did they issue an approval, but they decided it would also see service with the National Army. While initially the army only planned on ordering a small number for certain intelligence units, they did come up with some fairly important recommendations which had a notable effect on the finalized design. With the design approved it was sent to Konstrukta Brno for work to begin.
Now, this is where fate stepped in and played an unexpected role. When the design specifications reached Konstrukta Brno all the senior designers were already tasked with important small arms projects. There were no senior designers available to take on the new project. So, instead it was given to a young but talented engineer named Miroslav Rybář?. While Rybář? had worked on various projects before, he had never led a design team. This would be his first individual project with his acting as team leader. At this point in our story I must point out that Rybář? was not solely responsible for what became the vz. 61 Skorpion. Thirteen engineers participated in the project. Among them was a respected designer named Otakar Galaš. Galaš made important contributions, including solving an accuracy issue encountered when shooting beyond 25 meters. Not be forgotten is Jiří Čermák. While Čermák did not actively participate in the project he shared ideas with Rybář?, including the concept for the rate reducer.
From start to finish, the project lasted only from February 1959 to the summer of 1961. It’s interesting to note Rybář? actually wrote his doctoral thesis on the Skorpion and successfully defended it at the Military Technical Academy in Brno. Another tidbit is Galaš would wear a Skorpion hidden out of sight in a shoulder rig beneath his suit jacket during meetings. Then he would suddenly open his jacket and draw the pistol, thus demonstrating just how concealable it was.
Prototypes of this new design, designated Š-59, were first produced in 1959. Differences between it and the final design consisted of: folding stock was permanently attached, shape of the pistol grip, and minor differences in the bolt, extractor, trigger guard, and magazine catch. Quantities of the final version were produced for military trials in 1962. After successfully completing military trials the new design was adopted by the Ministry of Defense as the Samopal vzor 61 (submachine gun model 1961). It was placed into production in 1963 by the Ceska Zbrojovka arms factory in Uhersky Brod.
Having made it through the history of its development, let’s take a look at the design itself. The vz. 61 Skorpion is a select-fire straight blow-back operated submachine gun which fires from the closed-bolt position. Its small size, 10.6 inches long with the stock folded, and light weight, only 2.8 pounds, was achieved by using a telescoping bolt and a low-powered cartridge. Due to the light weight of the bolt, an inertial rate reducing device is fitted. This brings the cyclic rate down to a reasonable, but still high 850 rpm. The rate reducer is neatly hidden inside the wooden pistolgrip.
The rate reducer operates as follows: when the bolt reaches the end of its rearward stroke it strikes, and is caught by, a spring-powered hook mounted on the back plate. At the same time it drives a lightweight, spring-loaded plunger down into the pistol grip. The plunger passes through a heavy weight which is left behind because of its inertia. The plunger, having compressed its spring, is driven up again and then meets the descending inertia buffer. This slows the plunger which, at the end of its travel, rotates the hook and releases the bolt.
Low profile ambidextrous bolt knobs are fitted on each side of the piece and a selector lever is mounted on the left side. Feed is from 10 or 20-round detachable double-column box magazines. While the bolt remains locked open after the last shot, no bolt release is fitted. However, a manual bolt catch is placed on the left side of the frame just in front of the trigger. Just above this is the push-button magazine release. Sights consist of an adjustable front post and a flip rear sight with a ‘U’ shaped notch graduated for 75 and 150 meters. A simple wire buttstock is fitted which folds over the top of the piece. If not required, this can easily be removed to further reduce the size of the weapon.
I have spent a bit of time behind the vz. 61 Skorpion submachine gun and a number of years ago one was featured on a Guns&AmmoTV segment where Richard Venola and I tested its controllability. In plain language, it is a very fun submachine to shoot. The cyclic rate is high, but this allows it to place a slew of hits on target in rapid succession. Getting short bursts is not difficult. Accuracy on semi-automatic using the stock is very good. I had no problem making hits on a man-sized target at 100 yards, which is about as far as you’d expect to use a Skorpion. Downside is the limited magazine capacity. The 20-round magazine always seems to run dry just as the fun is really getting into full-swing. The vz. 61 can be very effective when properly utilized on full-automatic at the pistol distances it was intended for.
In Czechoslovak service the vz. 61 Skorpion was looked upon as a sort of Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) which offered greater capability than a conventional service pistol. Thus, it was issued to armored vehicle crewman, truck drivers, low ranking staff officers and Special Forces units. The idea being that it would be almost as light and easy to carry as a standard service pistol, but would provide a much higher hit probability past 15 yards with the stock extended. When fired at close range on full-automatic multiple hits in rapid succession would still prove effective despite the small cartridge.
While used by the Czech military, Yugoslavia and a number of other countries around the world, the Skorpion was also a favorite of Marxist and leftist terrorist groups. It’s easy to conceal nature combined with its full-automatic capability made it a useful tool for assassins and hijackers. Due to this, the Skorpion became popular with certain terrorist groups in the 1970s. In the untrained hands of groups like the Red Army Faction and PLO the Skorpion proved less effective, but made for eye-catching propaganda photos.
Now let’s jump to today and the pistol seen on these pages. Of the three calibers offered by Recon Ordnance Company I selected to review the original in 7.65mm Browning (.32 ACP). The Firearms News’ review sample arrived packed in a foam-lined hard case and came with two 20-round magazines, one 10-round magazine, spare wood pistol grip, cleaning rod with brush, a pretty good manual and a Czech Small Arms sticker. Also included by Recon Ordnance Company is an original folding stock. This cannot be attached to the pistol as-is, but will snap onto the front sight protectors, like the originals, in the folded position for display. If an owner should decide to register their pistol as a Short Barrel Rifle (SBR) and pay the $200 tax, they could then bolt-on an adaptor offered by Recon Ordnance Company, and easily attach the stock.
Popping it from its case I noted it to be a nicely made and well finished piece. The upper receiver is pressed sheet metal while the lower is machined steel. Barrel length is 4.6 inches. The controls and sights are the same as the original. The only difference being the safety is marked ‘0’ for Safe and ‘1’ for Fire with no full auto position. Internally the pistol has been modified to preclude full automatic function and the now unnecessary rate reducer is not present, although its compartment remains.
In the hands, the Sa vz. 61 Pistol is a fairly large piece. While the Skorpion is very small for a submachine gun, it makes for a rather heavy and poorly balanced pistol. All the weight is forward of the grip and the bore-line is fairly high. The handgun it most closely mimics in feel is probably a Mauser 7.63mm C.96. Although large with a unique feel, it is not unwieldy. It is what it is.
The sights are typical Combloc, with a simple adjustable front post and a flip rear sight with a small ‘U’ notch. The rear sight has two settings: 75 and 150 meters. The notch is rather small, doesn’t allow much light on either side of the front post and is best suited to younger eyes. They are well-protected from knocks and blows though by protective ears.
Operating the vz. 61 pistol is rather straight forward. The double-column dual-feed steel magazines are easy to load. Of course, the 10-round model is more compact but the 20 rounder provides more fun. Simply insert the magazine straight up into the magazine well until it locks into place. You cannot retract or release the bolt with the safety on, so rotate it forward to ‘1’. The safety rotates over 90 degrees, so this can be a bit awkward at first. Grasp both charging handles, pull smartly to the rear and release. You are now ready to have some .32 ACP fun. While the bolt locks back on the last shot there is no manual bolt release.
Putting the vz. 61 Pistol to work on the range proved quite enjoyable. I started by getting familiar with it engaging silhouettes at 15 yards. As to be expected recoil is very light and easy to control. The trigger on this example was OK. A two-stage design, it was fairly light but crunched along through the second stage until it released. The sights though are nothing to write home about, but like the trigger, they work. I rattled through a few magazines and then headed to the bench.
To check the vz. 61 pistol’s accuracy, I fired it from a rest at 25 yards. I used four loads during testing. These consisted of Winchester’s 71-grain FMJ and 60-grain Silvertip JHP, Federal’s 65-grain Hydra-Shok JHP and Hornady’s 60-grain XTP. Four 5-shot groups were fired with each load and velocity measured at the muzzle using a LabRadar Doppler chronograph. Accuracy was actually quite good from the bench. Hornady’s 60-grain XTP JHP took top honors averaging a quite respectable 2.2 inches at 968 fps. Winchester’s 60-grain Silvertip load averaged 2.5 inches at 1,036 fps while their 71-grain FMJ shot slightly looser averaging 2.8 inches at 860 fps. Federal’s 65-grain Hydra-Shok averaged 3 inches at 960 fps. I must state though that my groups were plagued with the 4+1 syndrome with a single flier opening the groups.
Impressed by the 25 yard groups, I decided to see if I could hit a LaRue silhouette at 50 yards. Shooting offhand provided me with five easy hits. So, I walked back to 75 yards and tried again. The Skorpion had no issues and I made five more hits. Walking back further I tried it again at 100 yards. Here the sights got the better of me, keeping in mind these are reduced half-size targets. I only scored two out of five times. I also noticed the sound of the 32 ACP’s impact on steel at this distance was, how shall we say, unimpressive.
While the vz. 61 Skorpion is fun on the range, you are always left with a bit of an empty feeling inside. Staring at it you know it has more potential. The question is, how do you unleash it without an SBR Tax stamp? Well, it’s actually quite simple, thanks to Custom Smith Manufacturing. If you remember I utilized a Custom Smith Manufacturing adapter to mount an SB Tactical Stabilizing Brace onto a Pioneer Arms PPS-43C pistol in a previous issue. They make a wide range of adapters and components and they offer a combination optics/brace mount for the vz. 61! Better still, it’s a direct bolt on which takes only a couple minutes to install.
Custom Smith Manufacturing’s vz. 61 adapter is a piece of rugged polymer with a short section of 1913 rail at the rear for a brace and on the top for a compact red dot sight. To install I removed the two threaded plugs at the rear of the pistol’s frame. Next I test fit the adapter. It was just a tad over-size on one surface, so I broke out a file. Removing just enough polymer for a perfect fit took about 45 seconds and it mated up perfectly. It’s locked in place using the two included screws.
Next, I pirated the side-folding SB Tactical FS1913 stabilizing brace off my SIG Sauer Rattler pistol and bolted it onto the vz. 61. The change in personality of the Skorpion was instant. Adding a compact Burris AK Optics red dot sight took it a step further. It immediately transformed from an awkward over-size pistol with Combloc sights into a stellar plinker and recreational toy. Fun factor went through the roof and it pegged a solid 11 on the “Let me try that” meter. With the FS1913 brace folded to the left side of the receiver its overall length is only 12.2 inches. With the brace unfolded overall length is 20.8 inches. Weight with the brace, red dot sight and empty 20-round magazine is just 3.7 pounds.
Handling and balance with the SB Tactical FS1913 brace installed are excellent. The red dot sight is vastly more practical than the original iron sights. Practical accuracy, especially at speed and running drills, is noticeably enhanced. Recoil is so light that it’s easy to stay on target as you chew through a 20-round magazine. The red dot and brace combination drastically reduce the effort required to make fast hits on a man-sized target at 50, 75 and 100 yards.
Running the vz. 61 Skorpion through a variety of drills proved to be great fun. The 20-round mags provide a decent reserve of ammunition and the pistol ticks along nicely when fed ball. Jacketed Hollow Points pose a problem when it comes to feeding. None of the JHPs I tried fed reliably. The gun was designed around Full Metal Jacket ammunition and that is what I suggest using. Ejection is vigorous, straight up in the air like a C.96. If you wear something with a hood don’t be surprised if you find a number of empties in it. Practical accuracy is quite good. Testing in low light showed it to have a small amount of muzzle flash when firing the 71-grain Winchester FMJ load. Overall the Recon Ordnance Company vz. 61 Skorpion proved to be a fun plinker with a mild report and hardly any recoil.
I would not recommend the vz. 61 as a practical defensive firearm. Its inability to reliably feed JHP ammunition combined with the poor terminal performance of the .32 ACP cartridge should eliminate it from consideration. But, as a collector’s item to fill out your Combloc collection, it is something to consider. It’s nicely made, reliable with FMJ ammunition and quite accurate. Price is a fairly reasonable $696 or $796 with a threaded barrel. (Recon Ordnance also offers semi-auto receivers for $295 and Skorpion parts kits for $375 if you prefer to build your own.) Best of all though, it is a whole lot of fun. The Custom Smith Manufacturing stabilizing arm brace adapter is just $45.95 while the SB Tactical FS1913 brace is $199. These items take the vz. 61 Skorpion to a whole new level of fun.
Recon Ordnance Company
Custom Smith Manufacturing
VZ. 61 SKORPION
- Caliber: .32 ACP
- Operation: Blowback from Closed bolt
- Trigger: Two-Stage
- Length: 10.6 inches
- Weight: 2.8 pounds
- Barrel: 4.6 inches, 6-groove RH twist
- Feed: 10 and 20-round detachable box
- Sights: Front: Post adjustable for Windage and Elevation
- Rear: Flip sight for 75/150 meters with “U” notch
- Finish: Blue
- MSRP: $696.00