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Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm

The development of Soviet Subsonic cartridges and the 9x39mm for Spetsnaz use.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm

The lineage of this silenced 9x39mm 9A-91 rifle and its subsonic ammunition can be traced back to early Soviet projects from the late 1920s. (Photo courtesy of Vitaly Kuzmin)

In 1908 the first silencer was patented by Hiram Percy Maxim (the son of the famous machine-gun designer). It wasn’t long after that work began in the Soviet Union to create a noiseless weapon. In 1931 two amateur designers known as the Mitin brothers, Ivan and Vasily, were granted USSR patent No. 19494. Their idea was to lock the powder gases within a limited space and it was later developed into the famous captured piston cartridges. In 1940 a silencer designed by the Mitin brothers for the Soviet Model 1891/30 7.62x54mmR rifle passed military testing and was adopted.

Dubbed “Bramit” (for Mitin brothers) it was issued with a special subsonic 7.62x54mmR cartridge. Identified by a green color coding on the bullet tip and cartridge base, it had a velocity of 853 fps to eliminate the sonic crack. Tens of thousands of Bramit silencers were fielded during the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Issued to commando troops, reconnaissance teams and guerrilla forces, these early silencers provided the Soviet Army with important practical experience. These early crude subsonic 7.62x54mmR cartridges laid the foundation for the development of much more sophisticated subsonic military cartridges in the years that followed.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
A Bramit silencer mounted onto a Mosin M1891/30 rifle. These were issued to special troops, scouts and commandos during World War II and tens of thousands were fielded by the Soviet Army. Photo by Pohjoispaa.

7.62x39mm M1943 Subsonic 57-N-231U Cartridge

In 1954 the development of a “Noise-and-Flameless” (PBS in Russian) silencer and subsonic ammunition system for the 7.62x39mm M1943 cartridge was undertaken. The Central Scientific and Research Institute for Precision Industry were tasked with developing the new cartridge. This process was supervised by the developers of the M1943 cartridge, Nikolay M. Elizarov and Boris V. Semin. The main problem they had to overcome was obtaining a sufficient effective firing range while maintaining a subsonic velocity. This required noticeably increasing the bullet weight to 194 grains.

In 1955-1956 the “PBS + cartridge” system was tested leading to a refinement in the bullet design to enable it to pierce a helmet or two steel body armor vest plates out to 400 meters. The bullet diameter was increased to .313 inch versus .310 inch of the standard cartridge. A dual core design, it featured a high-carbon tool steel penetrator in the nose sitting on top of a lead base. In 1959 the PBS silencer and 7.62x39mm subsonic 57-N-231U cartridge system for the AKM assault rifle was adopted by the Soviet Army. Large-scale production of this cartridge was launched in 1962 at the Klimovskiy Forging Factory. Starting in 1993 the bullet has been produced with the core made of soft low-carbon steel, the same as the 5.45x39mm bullet for the 7N6 cartridge.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
The PBS silencer and 7.62x39mm subsonic 57-N-231U cartridge system for the AKM assault rifle was adopted by the Soviets in 1959 and saw heavy use in Afghanistan.

Cartridge Specifications: 7.62x39mm subsonic 57-N-231U

  • Bullet weight:  194 grains
  • Bullet length:  1.32 inches
  • Muzzle velocity:  961-1,017 fps
  • Muzzle energy:  398-446 ft-lbs
  • Maximum pressure:  17,068 c.u.p.
  • Bullet identification markings:  Black bullet tip with green belt
  • Notes:  AKM assault rifles equipped with the PBS system were replaced by the “Vintorez” (“Screwcutter”) sniper rifle after its adoption in the inventory.

5.45-mm 7U1 Subsonic Cartridge

In 1968 the development of a special 5.45x39mm cartridge with subsonic muzzle velocity for noise-and-flameless application was launched by the Central Scientific and Research Institute for Precision Industry. The designer of the 5.45x39mm 7N6 cartridge, Lidya I. Bulavskaya, was appointed to lead the ammunition project. Alexey S. Neugodov was charged with the design of a silencer. Her requirements were to develop a cartridge dimensionally identical to the standard 5.45x39mm cartridge but with a muzzle velocity not over 984 fps. Required performance was to pierce a helmet at 400 meters.

This proved to be a complicated task due to the light bullet weight and low velocity. Personal protective equipment piercing ability was ensured by an 80-grain bullet with a hard-alloy core. The project was finished in 1984 and the cartridge designated 7U1. In 1985 the Minister of Defense issued an Order for the Soviet Army to adopt the 5.45x39mm short-barreled Kalashnikov assault rifle with the silencer (AKS74UB) and the 7U1 reduced muzzle velocity cartridge.

Cartridge Specifications: 5.45-mm 7U1 Subsonic Cartridge

  • Bullet weight:  80 grains
  • Bullet length:  .98 inch
  • Muzzle velocity:  984-994 fps
  • Muzzle energy:  172-176 ft-lbs
  • Maximum pressure:  13,286 c.u.p.
  • Bullet identification markings:  Black bullet tip and green belt.


9x39mm Cartridges for Silenced Weapons

Development of an entirely new silenced sniper rifle system began in the late 1970s. The desired combat capabilities of the new system named “Vintorez” (Screwcutter) took until 1983 to establish. Initially the 7.62x39mm 57-N-231U subsonic cartridge was experimented with. This cartridge had sufficient energy to inflict casualties at up to 400 meters. However, testing revealed the 57-N-231U subsonic cartridge was not capable of meeting the accuracy requirements.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
While the Soviets adopted a 194-grain Subsonic 7.62x39mm load in 1959, dissatisfaction with its accuracy and terminal performance would lead to the 7.62x39mm cartridge (Left) being necked-up to become the 9x39mm (right).

In an attempt to improve accuracy the 152-grain projectile from the 7.62x54mmR 7N1 sniper cartridge was loaded into a M1930 7.62x25mm pistol case. Testing of this combination revealed unsatisfactory terminal performance. Next a new 7.62mm subsonic cartridge was developed using a necked up 5.45x39mm cartridge case shortened to 28mm. A dual core projectile similar in design to the 7N1 and weighing 163.5 grains was developed and driven to a velocity of 984 fps. The new cartridge was designated the RG-037, but it proved unable to meet the new requirements of penetrating personal body armor at 400 meters.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
One project involved loading the 7.62x25mm pistol case with a 152-grain bullet from the 7N1 7.62x54mmR sniper load. L to R: 9mm, 7.62x25mm with 7N1 projectile and .22 LR. Photo by David M. Fortier.

The failure of the RG-037 cartridge led to the development of a new cartridge based upon the 7.62x39mm case necked up to accept a 9mm (.362 inch) projectile. The cartridge was named SP-5 (7N8 by GRAU (Main Ordnance Directorate) index) and was designed by Nikolay Zabelin (product engineer) and Lidya Dvoryaninova (technician). The bullet was equipped with a soft low-carbon steel front core and a lead rear core. Batch production of SP-5 cartridges was launched at the Klimovskiy Forging Factory and thereafter at the Tulskiy Ammunition Plant.

Cartridge Specifications: 9x39mm SP-5(7N8)

  • Bullet weight:  250 grains
  • Bullet length:  .98 inch
  • Muzzle velocity:  984-994 fps
  • Muzzle energy:  485-520 ft-lbs
  • Maximum pressure:  39,825 c.u.p.
  • Armor piercing ability:  5mm thick steel plate is 90% pierced at 100m
  • Bullet identification markings:  None

The 9x39mm SP-6 cartridge for the “Val” (“Rampart”) submachine gun system was equipped with an armor-piercing bullet designed by Yury Frolov (product engineer) and Elena Kornilova (technician). Unlike the SP-5, the high-carbon steel core protrudes from the bullet’s jacket and its rear is encased in a lead liner. Batch production of SP-6 cartridges was launched at the Klimovskiy Forging Factory (Klimovskiy Specialized Ammunition Plant nowadays) and thereafter at the Tulskiy Ammunition Plant.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
The inability of subsonic 5.45mm and 7.62mm cartridges to meet the performance requirements lead to the development of the 9x39mm, L to R: SP5, SP6 and SPP. Photo by Alexander Sergeev

Cartridge Specifications: SP-6 Cartridge 

  • Bullet weight:  250 grains
  • Bullet length:  1.61 inches
  • Muzzle velocity:  984-994 fps
  • Muzzle energy:  470-503 ft-lbs
  • Maximum pressure:  39,825 c.u.p.
  • Armor piercing ability:  7 mm-thick steel plate is 90% pierced at 100m
  • Bullet identification marking:  Black bullet tip

In 2002 the development of 9x39mm cartridges having enhanced penetration was launched: a SPP cartridge was designed to replace the SP-5 cartridge and a BP cartridge with an armor-piercing bullet to replace the SP-6. In 2004 batch production of BP cartridges started and SPP production began in 2006. Both cartridges’ projectiles have a dual core: a high-carbon tempered steel penetrator in the nose and lead filler in the base.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
The (top) VSS Vintorez and AS Val are integrally suppressed 9x39mm rifles with an effective range between 300 and 400 meters. Photo courtesy Vitaly Kuzmin.
Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm

In 1995 a 9x39mm PAB 9000 (armor-piercing assault rifle cartridge) cartridge was developed at Instrument Design Bureau (city of Tula). The PAB 9 cartridge differs from the SP-6 cartridge by its bullet design. The PAB 9000 bullet has an enlarged core diameter and is slightly longer (over 1.7 mm). The bullet weight is 265 grains. The cartridge was designed for the 9A-91 compact assault rifle and the VSK-94 silenced sniper rifle, though it was not envisaged to deploy this cartridge for the VSS rifle and AS submachine gun. This cartridge was produced at the Tulskiy Ammunition Plant from 1995 to 2003 at the request of the Ministry of Interior; nevertheless it was not adopted for the Armed Forces. Following the 7N9 and 7N12 cartridges appearance the PAB 9000 production was halted.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
Due to its low pressure and mild recoil impulse the 9x39mm cartridge also works very well in compact weapons like this 9A-91. Terminal performance is said to be impressive. Photo courtesy Vitaly Kuzmin.

In 2012 a commercial version of the 9x39mm cartridge was developed. This was loaded with a bimetallic jacketed lead core bullet.

Cartridge Specifications: Commercial 9x39mm

  • Bullet weight: 240
  • Muzzle velocity:  1,000-1,030 fps
  • Muzzle energy:  534-570 fps
  • Maximum gas pressure:  36,980 c.u.p.

The first combat deployment of the 9x39mm “Val/Vintorez – SP-5/SP-6 cartridge” system goes back to the First Chechen War (1994 – 1996). The Spetznaz units were equipped with these silenced sniper rifles. One of the Spetznaz company’s commanding officers described this system as close to ideal for their special missions to be properly implemented. In one of the special operations the company’s troopers armed with the VSS rifles managed to inflict five casualties to the militants before the rest of them realized what was happening. A Spetznaz officer commented, “Day and night scope sight, armor-piercing ammo and effective integrated silencer availability offered the opportunity to execute most missions which might occur for the Spetznaz units. For example, the VSS rifle is ideally suited to execute a classic mission to eliminate a sentry. After receiving 9x39mm VSS rifles I immediately sent all my 7.62x39mm AKMs with PBS silencers back to storage”.

Soviet Subsonic Cartridges and the 9x39mm
Although beyond the scope of this article it’s interesting to note Soviet silent captured piston cartridges were developed from a Mitin brothers patent from 1931.

Another commented, “The VSS rifle is indispensable for urban hostilities especially at night. Your adversary does not see or hear a thing. One can fire as on a shooting range at distances up to 300 meters”. During the Second Chechen War (1999 – 2000) one marksman armed with a 9x39mm VSS rifle laying in ambush managed to eliminate a whole team of militants before they located where he was firing from.

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