October 08, 2021
As ubiquitous as the Makarov pistol has become since the importation of large numbers from Germany and Bulgaria, there was a time when it was legendary but virtually unknown in the USA, and that was only 30 years ago. I remember attending the National Automatic Pistol Collectors show a couple of years after the US intervention in Grenada. One of the pistols on display was a Soviet Makarov presented to a Cuban officer on Grenada and captured by a US soldier. For me, it was the star of the show despite the presence of hundreds of other exotic automatic pistols.
It wasn’t the first Makarov I’d seen. That was a Chinese Type 59 captured in Laos during the Vietnam War. I had a chance to shoot it, though Makarov ammo was very hard to find. I also used it for a while in a class I did for government personnel and certain business people who were going to be working in dangerous places. Included in the more advanced government class were techniques for disarming an aspiring kidnapper and turning his weapon against him. Typical ComBloc weapons available throughout the third world were normally used, as well as Western ones that were widely distributed. Once the trainees had learned to render the weapon safe or ready to fire and understood its controls, I had them fire some of the weapons. However, since I did not have a supply of 9x18mm ammo, I just had them disarm, point and dry fire the Type 59. It was important to teach the basic manual of arms with the Makarov, as it is counterintuitive for those who have used a Walther PP or PPK, and some government trainees had.
From the time I had first learned about the Makarov I wanted a Russian one. I never wanted copies of Colts or Smith & Wessons, so why would I want a copy of the Makarov PM? By 2002, reportedly more than five million Makarovs had been produced in the Soviet Union/Russia, but about the only Russian ones that had entered the USA during the Cold War and its aftermath were ones captured in the third world. By the 1990s, some of the Baikal IJ-70 versions of the Russian Makarov came into the USA. I don’t like those the same way I don’t like AKs with thumbhole stocks, no bayonet lugs and other politically correct features.
A few Makarov PMs pistols were imported but “by mistake.” Both East Germany and Bulgaria had purchased Russian PMs as well as producing their own copies of it. Some of these came in with the Makarovs actually produced in East Germany and Bulgaria. The one I shoot all of the time, and used for shooting tests in this article is actually stamped “Bulgaria” as part of the import markings. But it’s as Russian as caviar and vodka.
Some fanciers of Makarovs actually consider the East German version, the Pistole-M, the best of the Makarovs. I think that’s based on the typical belief in German craftsmanship. The Bulgarian ones are considered serviceable as well. I still prefer the Russian ones.
I’ve actually used all three of those when I used to work in some third world countries and wanted a pistol chambered in 9x18mm to “blend in.” To be honest, I never really noticed much difference in reliability or accuracy among them, though I normally only had a chance to shoot the pistol at hand enough to make sure it functioned and the sights were somewhat on at 50 feet. Often, the pistols came with the typical flapped holster with built in magazine pouch. I didn’t use those. Mostly, I stuck the pistol in one pocket and the loaded spare magazine in another.
Over the years I’ve tried to read anything I could find on the Makarov. Its genesis was after World War II as a replacement for the 7.62x25mm TT-33 Tokarev pistol. The 9x18mm cartridge was based to some extent on the Walther 9x18mm Ultra round, though they are not interchangeable. The 9x18mm Ultra uses a .355-inch bullet, while the 9x18mm Makarov uses a .365-inch bullet. The 9x18mm Makarov cartridge falls between the 9x17mm (.380 ACP) and 9x19mm cartridges in power. It offers more power in a pistol of blowback design.
The Makarov PM owes many of its design features to the Walther PP/PPK. It has a fixed barrel and disassembles in the same manner. However, as is typical in Russian pistols vis-à-vis German pistols, it is simplified with fewer parts. Also, as I mentioned earlier, operation of the de-cocker is counterintuitive to anyone trained on the PP/PPK. With the PP or PPK, when the cocking lever is in the down position it drops the hammer and prevents firing. With the PM, this is reversed: when the de-cocking lever is in the down position, the pistol may be fired with a DA-trigger pull or the hammer may be cocked for a single-action shot. In the up position the hammer will be dropped from the cocked position and the action will be locked. Russian contacts have told me they are trained to either carry the pistol with the de-cocking lever up locking the action, then to flip it down as with a safety to fire the pistol, or to carry the pistol with the lever down and an empty chamber, then rack the slide to bring the pistol into action.
The design from Nikolay Fyodorovich Makarov was adopted as the new Soviet service pistol in 1951 and designated Pistolet Makarova (PM). Actually, there were hundreds of pistols produced for trials prior to 1951 and prior to 1953 when the PM entered full production. Over the next few years, the design was tweaked as issues arose after it entered service, including introduction of a new frame in 1955 that eliminated some machining and reduced weight.
Based on use with Soviet advisors in Africa and elsewhere, use by proxies in various parts of the world, issue to Soviet troops in Eastern Europe and combat service in Afghanistan, small changes in the PM were made over the next 30+ years. Among the ones noticeable if an early PM and a later one are compared is the enlargement of the ejection port to enhance reliability. Other changes were to make production simpler and less expensive.
Izhevsky Mekhanchesky Zavod or IZHMEKH (ИЖМЕХ) continued to produce PM pistols after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Experimentation to improve the Makarov had taken place during the Soviet era and continued. As early as the 1960s, prototype Makarovs with polymer frames had been developed, though they had not gone into production. However, the experience in Afghanistan and automatic pistol development in other countries had indicated that the Makarov lacked the magazine capacity of more modern designs. Soviet troops would also likely face an enemy wearing body armor in the future, so more penetration was needed.
In 1990 the Pistolet Makarova Modernizirovannyy (PMM) or Pistol Makarov Modernized was introduced this. This was built with a wider magazine well to take a 10 or 12-round capacity magazine. In addition to increasing capacity the Russians also increased the pistols performance. A new 9x18mm load was introduced designated 7N16 (57-H-181CM) which featured a lighter steel core bullet and a significantly higher muzzle velocity. Whereas the standard 9x18mm 9 Pst (57-N-181S) ball load drove a 93-grain FMJ at 978 fps the new load fired an 85-grain bullet at approximately 1,377 fps.
To delay the slide opening with this new heavier load, spiral flutes were cut in the chamber walls of the PMM. I have been told by ex-Spetsnaz contacts that they were issued PMM pistols, but with the standard loading. The double column Baikal IJ70 based on the PMM was imported but with politically correct features. I’d love to own a real military issue PMM but find the IJ70s offensive.
I’d estimate I’ve fired over 5,000 rounds through Makarov pistols and have my own list of pros and cons. On the pro side, the Makarov is typically Russian in toughness and reliability. I can’t honestly remember a malfunction with a Makarov except a couple times when the only ammo available was unreliable. In the early days of my Makarov shooting, the only ammo I could get was corrosive. So, to keep my Makarov functioning I cleaned it with boiling water and/or GI bore cleaner after a shooting session. That was a good incentive to do a lot of shooting each time I took a Makarov out. Since I shoot non-corrosive Red Army Standard or Sellier & Bellot in my Makarovs these days, I don’t worry about such an intensive cleaning. In fact, while working on this article I fired around 500 rounds through my PM over two sessions without cleaning it. I can argue this was to test reliability and it was, but it was also partially laziness since I knew it was going with me the next weekend. In any case, it functioned flawlessly. And, it has now had a thorough cleaning and oiling.
When in Russia, I was given an abbreviated version of Spetsnaz Makarov training, which entails a lot of shooting while on the ground. Part of the technique is to assume the kneeling position by stepping forward and dropping to engage. With practice it works fairly well. They also had me go to ground and shoot over my head while on my back, then roll from side-to-side to engage. When shooting my PM for this article I did some of the drills again, they were easier on my knees 20 years ago!
Another pro for me is the Makarov feels good in my hand. My hands are medium-sized, but I have known Mak users with big hands who found the grip too small. For a military pistol, I like a lanyard ring and the PM has one on the left side. However, in concealed carry that same lanyard ring can snag; hence, it’s both a pro and a con. The slide release button is easily hit with the support hand and sends the slide forward smartly to reliably chamber a round. Having said that, I was trained that pulling back the slide and releasing it is faster and insures a reliable reload. However, since the PM has a stiff spring, for most, using the slide release is probably more reliable. Speaking of pulling back the slide; if you haven’t noticed, the PM has more serrations on the right side of the slide than the left to allow a surer grasp for a right-handed shooter chambering the round with the support hand.
Another pro is the 9x18mm Makarov round. The standard 57-N-181S military cartridge, which most of the commercial loads available approximate, offers a 93-grain bullet of .365 diameter at 978 fps, giving better power than a .380 ACP round. I only rarely could find some of the more deadly Russian loads, such as the RG028 designed to defeat body armor, the SP-7, a high velocity load designed for enhanced stopping power (at 1,378 fps only recommended for a PMM), or the SP-8 low penetration load reportedly designed for Russian air marshals. Actually, the only one I ever managed to acquire when carrying a PM in “faraway places with strange sounding names” was the RG028. I’ve seen hollow point 9x18mm ammo from some manufacturers but have not done any tests to see how well it expands. The Glaser Pow’RBall supposedly expands well, but I haven’t tried it.
At one time, a pro for me was that I could sometimes acquire a Makarov and some ammo in places where it might be desirable to use a weapon not firing a standard Western cartridge. Unfortunately, it was often easier to acquire a Tokarev TT-type pistol, which had the advantage of a cartridge with excellent penetration but lacked a safety. Of course, I now hate the imported Toks with an added safety. A Tokarev should be the way a TT was in The Great Patriotic War!
Among the cons of the PM is recoil, which is definitely more noticeable than with a PP/PPK. For the person who carries one for self-defense and only occasionally fires a few magazines full with it to keep current, this shouldn’t be problem. However, I was firing 250 rounds in a session while preparing this article and my hand definitely showed some wear and tear.
I shoot well and quickly with the PM at 50 feet. At 25 yards I keep my shots in the center of mass on a silhouette target, and at 50 yards I get enough hits on a silhouette target to make it “uncomfortable.” But, the PM’s sights are only “adequate.”
Because I carried a PPK as a backup gun for years I am very used to its de-cocker, so the reverse operation of the PM’s de-cocker means that I have to put on my thinking Ushanka to remind me I’m carrying a PM. Another con is the bottom mag release. With practice you can learn to push the release button and drag the empty mag out to do a mag change, but it certainly isn’t fast. Since I carried a SIG P210 as a long-range second pistol for quite a while, I am used to bottom mag releases, but they still slow reloads.
An interesting aspect of the Makarov for me is the array of holsters that were available, especially for the Russian ones. There’s the standard compact flapped type with integral mag pouch and loops for the cleaning rod/tool. These are actually handy little holsters if you don’t need your PM in a hurry. In Russia I saw militsiya who had just one of these holsters on their belt but no handcuffs, ASP baton, rubber gloves, pepper spray, manual of politically correct terminology, etc.
The Russian Navy has a similar holster but of a drop design with vertical straps coming down from the belt. A contact in the Russian Naval Infantry (Marines) sent me a neat camo jacket that has a holster built into the inside of it. He told me he could roam around the docks in a foreign port armed without anyone realizing it. He is about my size and it fits so I’ve worn it a couple of times with my PM inside. I know, Leroy Mitty!
The Spetsnaz had some neat webbed holsters. I’ve been meaning to get one of those. I do have one of the early pebble-grained PM holsters. It’s basically the same as the latter flapped holsters but much more attractive. There’s also a Russian EFA-1M holster for the PM. It was allegedly designed for the Spetsnaz. It is very Russian, though, as it is designed to carry the PM in condition three. Pushing the pistol down and out the bottom of the holster chambers a round and cocks the hammer, thus presenting it ready for an immediate shot. Drawing it upward from the holster presents it in condition three or, if a round is chambered and safety off, ready for a DA first shot. I need to try that one, too.
I don’t have an East German Pistole-M, but if I did I’d want one of the Strichtarn (aka Rain Drop) camouflage pattern cloth holsters. I have one of the East German Stasi shoulder rigs that I have used to carry a Makarov. It’s also interesting to note some of the East German Strichtarn pattern field jackets came with an internal cloth Makarov holster pocket.
I haven’t really discussed the Chinese or Bulgarian Makarovs much, though most of the comments about the Russian or East German ones will apply. The Bulgarian ones are certainly the bargains and the ones most readily available right now. Norinco Type 59 Makarovs have been imported and can be found; however, because they are scarcer they often sell for higher prices than a Bulgarian or East German one. Quality of the Chinese Makarovs is not considered any better than the Bulgarian ones as far as I know and certainly not of the East German ones. Prices for Russian models are always the highest because such a small number were ever imported into the USA. Although I like the Russian ones, their quality is not markedly superior to the others.
The Makarov has had a long service life. It was adopted while the USA was still using the 1911 pistol and lasted through the Beretta M9 and into the SIG M17/M18. However, the PM has a replacement as well. As of 2003, the 9x19mm Yarygin PYa has replaced the PM as the standard service pistol of the Russian armed forces. However, the PM remains in service still with some military units, with police and with private security agencies. The Colt 1911 remained the standard US Army pistol for 74 years, while the PM lasted for 52 years. However, handguns seem to endure in Russian service. When I was in Russia almost 20 years ago there were still some Russian police armed with the Tokarev TT and the railroad VOHR security guards had M1895 Nagant Revolvers. These usually weren’t in the large metro areas but in smaller towns, but they were still in use. The Makarov should hang around in some official holsters for decades to come.
I’ve been fascinated by the Makarov PM since I first read about the pistol. I always liked the Walther PP and PPK and they had an influence on the PM. But, knowing it was in use with the KGB, GRU, VDV, MVD and other interesting minions of the old “Evil Empire” made it compelling. I like the PM’s typical Soviet/Russian functionality, simplicity and durability. It’s definitely one of the most iconic military pistols of all time. The symbol of Soviet power has often been a drawing of a Soviet solider holding aloft an AK47, but who’s to say he doesn’t have a PM in his pocket?
Makarov PM Specifications:
- Operating System: Blowback
- Caliber: 9x18mm Makarov
- Trigger: Double/Single Action
- Safety: Slide mounted decocker/safety
- Overall Length: 6.3 inches
- Barrel Length: 3.8 inches
- Weight: 26 ounces
- Magazine Capacity: 8 rounds
- Magazine Release: European “Heel” type
- Sights: Blade front, notch rear
- Finish: Blue
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About the Author:
Leroy Thompson was born in St. Louis, Missouri and has continued to use it as his base of operations, though he has lived overseas at times. He has an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and graduate degrees in English from St. Louis University and University College London. He has trained military and law enforcement personnel in various countries and has written 53 books and more than 3,000 magazine articles on military, law enforcement, and firearms topics.