December 10, 2021
It was an uneven fight to be sure. A pair of Soviet soldiers armed only with a large caliber rifle versus a German tank. If they opened fire at too great of a distance, their high velocity 14.5mm AP ammunition would fail to penetrate the tank’s thick armor. So the Soviet anti-tank rifle team would have to wait and hold their fire until the enemy was perhaps 200 meters away. With nerves of steel they’d watch the panzer, and accompanying infantry advance right up to their position. Then when the time was right the gunner would squeeze off a carefully aimed shot. He had to ignore the jolting recoil, terrific report and immense muzzle blast and concentrate on his target which was moving and firing as it came. Each shot had to count and was fired at a specific weak point such as a vision slit, fuel cell or suspension component. As soon as they opened fire the 14.5mm’s huge muzzle blast and blinding muzzle flash would immediately expose their position to enemy return fire. The enemy tank crew would rain high explosive shells and machine gun fire down onto their position as its supporting infantry maneuvered to get within grenade range. In the early years of the war though, the 14.5mm anti-tank rifles could punch through German armor and played an important role in turning the tide of the war.
The history of Soviet anti-tank rifle development and production is an interesting tale filled with what might have been. The Soviets had developed practical and effective anti-tank rifle ammunition prior to the war. They could have fielded large numbers of effective anti-tank rifles to their troops before the German invasion. These would have played a key role in the opening stages of the war. The question is why didn’t they?
The Soviet’s began testing light anti-tank weapons in the early 1930s. Anti-tank rifles were of interest due to their simplicity, ease of manufacture, economical nature, portability and ability to be deployed by a two-man crew. One of the first effective designs tested was developed by Leonid Vasilyevich Kurchevsky in 1931 and refined over the next couple of years. This was an innovative 37mm anti-tank recoilless rifle. Unfortunately, HEAT warheads had not yet been invented and the low velocity did not provide the armor-piercing effect required.
On 13th March 1936 the USSR People’s Commissars Council passed a special resolution concerning the development of anti-tank rifles. New designs were to be capable of penetrating 16mm of armor plate at a range of 600 meters and have a weight of not more than 77 pounds. Over the next two years over 15 different models were designed but not one actually met the combat requirements. Many were not only grossly overweight, but lacked the required penetration. Some of these “rifles” were chambered for a low velocity 37mm cartridge others for the 12.7mm shVAK cartridge. All fell short.
In response to these failures the November 1938 issue of the Artillery Committee of the RKKA Artillery Directorate’s Journal opined: “In the forthcoming warfare tanks will be deployed en masse appearing unexpectedly using every favorable condition to their advantage… It is a must to equip infantry companies with anti-tank weapons which can stay with these units under any combat and ground conditions. Such a weapon is the anti-tank rifle, appropriate in weight and suitable for a team of two soldiers to handle in combat. The general combat requirements which should be met by an anti-tank rifle are as follows:
1) Lightweight, good mobility, easy to camouflage.
2) Ability to penetrate light tanks with 20mm of armor at ranges up to 500 meters with an impact angle of 60 degrees or better. Such requirements might be met by a 14.5mm rifle having a bullet weight of 64 grams (988 grains) and muzzle velocity 1,000 m/sec (3,281 fps)”.
Work on a suitable 14.5mm anti-tank rifle cartridge had begun in 1934. Before suitable samples were created it was decided to begin production of anti-tank rifles for testing and evaluation of the rifles themselves. One such rifle was designed by V.K. Sholokhov (expert of the Scientific and Research Proving Ground for Light Weapons – NIPSVO) using the Mauser system as the basis and chambered for the 12.7x108mm cartridge for the Degtyarev heavy machine gun. Sholokhov’s rifle was basically a copy of the World War I vintage Mauser T-Gewehr rifle design altered to fit the Soviet cartridge. It was equipped with a muzzle brake and a recoil pad. While simple to manufacture the rifle performed poorly during testing due to the poor penetration of the 12.7x108mm cartridge.
In 1938 the new 14.5x114 mm cartridge design was completed. It had a 114mm long brass case and was equipped with an armor-piercing incendiary B-32 bullet. The incendiary compound was located inside the nose of the bullet. Behind this was an AP core made from hardened steel. The 14.5x114mm B-32 cartridge was penetrating with confidence 20mm thick armor plates from 90º to 20° at 300 meters.
In August-September 1939 comparative tests of a 14.5x114mm Rukavishnikov (designed in NIPSVO) and Vladimirov (designed in Bureau-2 lead by Degtyarev in Kovrov) anti-tank rifles were implemented. Both rifles were self-loaders. The Rukavishnikov rifle was a gas-operated, magazine-fed weapon with the breech locked by a rotating bolt. The Vladimirov rifle was a recoil-operated, magazine-fed rifle with a rotating bolt system.
Both samples were quite close in weight: The Vladimirov PTR (anti-tank rifle) weighed 49 pounds versus the Rukavishnikov PTR’s 52 pounds. The Vladimirov PTR developed a higher velocity due to its longer barrel, 3,379 fps compared to the 3,317 fps of the Rukavishnikov PTR. In accordance with the comparative tests results both samples were considered relatively equal but a number of stoppages were disclosed with the worst of them being an empty case left jammed in the chamber. Finally, the NIPSVO selected the Rukavishnikov design.
In October 1939 the Defense Committee issued a resolution to adopt Rukavishnikov’s design and ordered it into production. In 1940 Plant No. 2 began production of the first batch of 50 Rukavishnikov PTR rifles. Designer Vladimirov though did not agree with the NIPSVO choice. He considered the Proving Ground decision was based on the fact that Rukavishnikov had been their employee, and sent a letter to Stalin. Therefore, a commission headed by Boris L. Vannikov, the People’s Commissar of Armament, was established to check Vladimirov’s challenge. In June - July 1940 the proving ground tests were replicated with both rifles failing. Due to this the Defense Committee adopted a resolution to phase out the 14.5-mm PTR and its cartridges and end their production.
There was another reason though why the Soviets, at this crucial point in time, decided to abandon anti-tank rifles. They had been led to believe the latest generation of German tanks was not only heavily gunned, but also heavily armored. So heavily armored in fact that not only were their 14.5mm anti-tank rifles useless against them, but so to were their 45mm anti-tank guns. Due to this belief the Soviet’s stopped all work on their anti-tank rifle project. The reality was they had been duped. The majority of the German armor in 1940 was actually light tanks of the type easily knocked out by a 14.5mm.
With the outbreak of war and the German invasion with massed armor the question of anti-tank rifles was once again raised. Only this time it was Stalin himself who brought it up in a tirade. Stalin was furious that the Red Army lacked effective anti-tank weapons and fully realized Soviet ordnance officers had undervalued the usefulness of anti-tank rifles and overvalued the armor protection of German tanks. He ordered not one but two new anti-tank rifles be designed immediately, and added “They had better be good”.
Sergey Simonov and Vasiliy Degtyarev, both accomplished small arms designers received orders to being work immediately. Incredibly just 22 days later working examples had been designed, fabricated and were firing live rounds on the test range. In August 1941 Sergey Simonov presented a gas-operated semi-automatic clip-fed 14.5x114mm anti-tank rifle of his own design. From the 6-12th of August the Simonov PTR was tested at the NIPSVO and the results shown were better than the improved Rukavishnikov’s. On 29th August 1941 the Simonov Anti-Tank Rifle - PTRS was adopted by the GKO (State Defense Committee) Ordinance. Simonov’s Anti-Tank rifle represented a scaled-up design of a preliminary semi-auto 7.62x54mmR M1938 rifle which participated in the contest with Tokarev’s design. Simonov’s design would later be scaled down to become the 7.62x39mm SKS-45 carbine.
In July of 1941 Vasiliy Degtyarev started to work on an anti-tank rifle design. On 27 and 28th of August two versions of Degtyarev’s self-loading rifles were tested in competition with Simonov’s and Rukavishnikov’s, but with no success for Degtyarev. In September an improved version of Degtyarev’s rifle was ready. He rejected the magazine feeding to simplify the construction of his rifle and made it into a single-shot auto-ejecting anti-tank rifle. In Degtyarev’s design the bolt was unlocked and opened by recoil. However, the loading and locking process was performed manually.
The extremely simple and economical construction was an important aspect of Degtyarev’s design. This allowed it to be put into serial production almost immediately. In October of 1941 Plant No. 2 in Kovrov produced the first batch of 522 Degtyarev Anti-Tank Rifles (PTRD).
In 1941 the line of 14.5x114mm cartridges was expanded with the addition of an armor-piercing incendiary BS-41 bullet. In comparison to the B-32 bullet, the BS-41 was equipped with an armor-piercing super hard tungsten alloy core which allowed it to penetrate 30mm (1.2 inches) of armor and ignite the fuel behind it at 350 meters. This performance allowed the BS-41 load to be used effectively against any German armored vehicle, including the Panzer Mk III and Mk IVs of the time. Both of these top-of-the-line German tanks could be penetrated by the 14.5mm BS-41 load.
Lieutenant-General Ivan Kamara wrote, “The first experience in using the anti-tank rifles occurred on 16th November 1941, in the 1075th Infantry Regiment (8th Guard Infantry Division), in the region of Petelino-Shiryaevo, where eight rifles were used in the battle. They were fired at enemy tanks at 150-200 meters. In that battle two medium tanks were destroyed. In subsequent battles, the anti-tank rifles were successfully used against light and medium enemy tanks. Fire was usually laid out to 250 to 400 meters…In the battle for Lugovaya Station on 8th December 1941, an anti-tank rifle company of the 35th Infantry Brigade put four tanks out of action, including one in which 18 penetrations of the turret were found.”
471,726 anti-tank rifles were produced by the USSR during the WWII, including 293,164 PTRDs and 178,562 PTRSs. The largest quantity of anti-tank rifles was produced in the City of Kovrov, some 239,460 PTRDs. 133,026 anti-tank rifles, including 91,375 PTRSs were produced in Izhevsk. Over 140 billion 14.5x114mm cartridges were produced for heavy machine guns and anti-tank rifles during the War as well.
For more than two years following the German invasion the 14.5x114mm anti-tank rifles were the main means of anti-tank infantry defense. Lieutenant-General Kariofilly who commanded the artillery of the 4th Ukrainian Front reported to the Chief of GAU-Army Ordnance Department: “…the use of PTRs with armor-piercing incendiary BS-41 bullet are showing great results in penetrating the side and rear armor and tracks of German main battle tank Mk IV. It is also the most efficient weapon against light armored tanks, personal carriers and vehicles at short ranges”.
Chief of Staff of the 1st Baltic Front, Colonel-General Kurassov estimated the PTR combat deployment effectiveness in the following way: “The case record of PTRs in wartime shows they were most effective in the period up to July 1943 when the enemy operated light and medium tanks and our battle formations were relatively less supplied with anti-tank artillery munitions. Since the second half of 1943 as the enemy initiated deployment of heavy tanks and self-propelled guns supplied with the powerful armor protection, the PTRs combat effectiveness was greatly reduced. Nowadays the PTRs, having good accuracy of fire, are engaged mostly to counter the enemy’s weapon emplacements, armored vehicles and personnel carriers”. In January of 1945 anti-tank rifle production came to an end. By the end of World War II only 40,000 anti-tank rifles were left in the Soviet Army.
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This article was originally published in the 2017 issue of Book of the AK47.