November 18, 2021
There was excitement in the air at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. The final minutes in the 300-meter Free Rifle event were ticking down, and a crowd was building. Word was spreading that a shoot-off was taking place between Robert Bürchler and an unknown Soviet marksman. Bürchler was one of Switzerland's finest riflemen, but who was this Anatoli Ivanovich Bogdanov? The last time a Russian team had attended the Olympics was in 1912 when the Tsar was still in power. The Soviet Union had never attended, so their athletes were a mystery. But now after firing 40 shots prone and 40 shots kneeling, the mysterious 21-year-old Bogdanov was in the running for the Gold Medal. An excited crowd grew behind the two shooters as they stood side-by-side, carefully firing their last 40 rounds offhand. With only seconds left on the clock, Bogdanov made a final check of the wind, shouldered his rifle and broke the final shot. Bürchler’s score stood at an impressive 1121, a full 17 points ahead of the top American competitor. But in the end, Bogdanov took the lead with a score of 1123, winning the Gold Medal for the Soviet Union.
Bogdanov would win another Olympic Gold Medal in 1956, but our story isn’t about him. No, our story is about the man who designed and built the 7.62x54mmR S-49 Spartacus rifle Bogdanov used to win Olympic Gold in Helsinki, Yevgeny Fyodorovich Dragunov. Here in the United States, Yevgeny Dragunov is known for one thing, his highly successful SVD sniper rifle. Little else though is really known about him. So with the help of a close friend, his wife, children, neighbor, colleagues and students were interviewed in Russia to provide a detailed and accurate look at his life for readers of Firearms News.
Our story begins in revolution torn Russia in the city of Izhevsk in 1918. Izhevsk is the city of the gunsmiths and home of one of Russia’s most important arsenals. It had also been the home of Konstantin Semionovitch Sokovnikov and his wife whose maiden name was Berdisheva. Sokovnikov was a respected gunsmith who had given his wife, son and young daughter, Zinaida Konstantinovna Sokovnikova, a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. His son, like many young men joined the revolution and became an important Bolshevik. This influenced Zinaida to also support the Reds.
Like Zinaida, another key player in our story, Fiedor Vladimirovitch Dragunov also had an older brother, Peter, who was an important Bolshevik in the region. His brother was in charge of the committee running Glazov. Fate brought Fiedor and Zinaida together on the 8th of August 1918 when an uprising began to drive the Bolsheviks from Izhevsk and Votkinsk. Workers took firearms from the factory's stores, and officers from the Veteran's Union began to organize workers in military units. The Reds were either killed or fled from the city.
During the fighting retreat Fiedor was shot through the lungs and saved by Peter. He survived and it was Zinaida who nursed him back to health. The Whites were eventually driven out on 12th November 1918. As he recovered the two fell in love and lived together. However, they never married, as Fiedor was utterly committed to the Revolution. He had studied in St. Petersburg and worked there as a draftsman before the war. Fiedor had taken part in the October Revolution and was rewarded for his service by being one of 1,000 young Bolsheviks chosen to receive a free education in administration at an industrial university in St. Petersburg in 1919.
With that, the couple parted, Fiedor would devote his life to the people. Zinaida would become a mathematician, teacher and on 20th February 1920, she gave birth to their son, Yevgeny Fyodorovich Dragunov. She would never marry and never have any other children. Instead, they loved from afar and wrote to each other constantly from 1919 until Fiedor passed away in 1958. They saw each other on occasion but they were never united.
Zinaida raised her young son in her family’s two-story middle-class home. Both her brother and the father of her son were important Bolsheviks, so her home was never confiscated. She worked as a mathematics teacher at Izhevsk Metal Factory and as a tutor. Well educated for the city, with a nice home, she raised her son as best she could. She did well as Yevgeny grew big and strong while also excelling in school. As a boy he took after his grandfather, the gunsmith and began a lifelong love affair with firearms. He became involved in competition shooting and hunting at an early age. During this time period, the Soviet government financed shooting clubs, rifle ranges, coaches, equipment, rifles and even ammunition and targets. So he had the opportunity to receive instruction on the fine points of being a marksman. He learned traditional shooting positions, the use of a loop sling, how to read wind and how to handle the stress of competition, and he loved it all. More than anything, he loved an accurate rifle.
He had a knack for science and graduated from school two years early in 1934 at the age of 14, rather than the standard 16. Doing so actually created problems for him when he tried to attend college. At the time students were required to be at least 16 years old to enroll. So the first college he applied to declined to even allow him to test. But at 14 Yevgeny was already the size of an adult, so when he applied to the Izhevsk Mechanical College they didn’t pay attention to his papers. They just accepted him due to his exceptional test scores expecting him to be older than 16. However later on the error was caught and he was asked to produce his birth certificate or face expulsion. While he was an excellent student, rules were rules and there didn’t seem to be any recourse.
In desperation, Zinaida contacted Fiedor for help. His father, an old Bolshevik who had risen in importance since the October Revolution, was now a man with some influence. Even though he had never met his son, he quickly pulled in favors and the college decided to make an exception. Yevgeny graduated from college in August 1938 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. From college he went straight to work at the city’s famous firearms factory. He worked there on the production line until he was inducted into the Soviet Army for his mandatory service in 1939.
Following his medical and physical examination Yevgeny was initially sent to an artillery unit. By this time he stood over six feet tall and was strong as an ox, so the Red Army felt he could best serve his country in a heavy artillery unit hauling shells. However, his education, work experience and natural aptitude soon led to his transfer to an Army weapons repair shop. He was stationed in the Far East on the border with the Japanese Empire. Here the Soviet Army was preparing for another round after pummeling the Japanese in 1937.
Yevgeny was only required to serve three years, but this all changed when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941. He spent the war years maintaining and repairing a wide variety of weapon systems including small arms and artillery. This included not only Soviet weapons, but a wide variety of foreign weapons as well. During the war years he received a comprehensive first hand education on the rigors small arms were exposed to in combat. He saw first-hand which designs broke, which didn’t and deduced why. He became very critical of Simonov’s work as an example. This knowledge and experience would prove invaluable in later years.
Yevgeny enjoyed and excelled at his work and rose in rank to become a Senior Armorer when the war finally ended in 1945. Upon receiving his discharge from the Soviet Army in December 1945 Yevgeny headed straight home. By January 1946 he had entered as a Master Gunsmith at Izhevsk’s weapon factory. However, rather than returning to his old position on the production floor Yevgeny was redirected to the prestigious Arms Design Bureau. This was due to his practical wartime experience.
Yevgeny had another reason for rushing back to Izhevsk after the war, a tiny sweet girl named Lidiya Nikolaevna Serebriakova. Lidiya’s older brother and Yevgeny were friends before he went to college. Since they were buddies he was always around and he saw Lidiya often. While he was attending college they became very close, but then he left for the Army in 1939. They were further separated in 1941 when the war began. During these years Lidiya aided the war effort by working at a steel mill producing steel alloys. She worked in the QC department testing rolled steel in its final stage. An opportunity arose though when the Moscow University was evacuated to Izhevsk. This provided her the chance to attend classes, and she studied Cartography (map making). When the University returned to Moscow she moved there and continued her studies.
When Yevgeny finally returned from the war in 1946 they met again. Both realized they had been thinking of the other for the entire six years. They were married in 1946 and settled in to begin life together in his mother’s two-story home. She was tiny and he was a very big, strong man, so they made for an interesting couple. They had their first child, Mikhail Evgenievitch, a short time later in 1947.
While Izhevsk was tasked with producing huge quantities of weapons during the war, things changed dramatically with the end of hostilities. The factory had been working four shifts to produce up to 11,000 rifles every 24 hours. Peace brought a sudden change to producing civil products. Even so Yevgeny had projects to work on. His first job at the design bureau was to develop a bolt-action carbine for the Army’s new intermediate cartridge. His next was to ‘modernize’ the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant Model 1944 carbine. However the writing was already on the wall regarding bolt-action combat rifles and neither of his designs went beyond the prototype stage.
In 1948 Lidiya gave birth to a daughter, Elena Evgenievna. This year also marked an important event when Evegeny finally had the opportunity to meet his father. This took place in Izhevsk when his father came to visit. Having written to him since a child, he now had the chance to show his father the man he had become.
The same year he began work on a new military project. Yevgeny had been tasked with improving the Mosin-Nagant Model 1891/30 Sniper rifle topped with the PU scope. With the assignment came the requirement to make the rifle faster to reload. Drawing on his experience from the war and as a competitive shooter he got to work. The first thing he did was toss out the standard heavy scope mounting system, thin barrel and infantry stock. Next he fitted a barrel with a heavier profile which weighed 1.1 pounds more than the standard barrel. He changed the rear sight, made a two-stage trigger and designed a new more ergonomic stock. Finally he designed a new mounting system for the optic which both lowered it and placed it to the left. This provided just enough clearance to allow loading with stripper clips. When finished, his rifle actually weighed less than the standard sniper rifle. Completed in 1949 his 7.62x54mmR MS-47 Modernized Sniper Rifle performed well, but was not adopted for service. While it offered an improvement, the Soviet Army was awash in PU snipers and was more concerned with fielding a new advanced combat rifle.
At this point Yevgeny’s career took an interesting twist. He switched from working on military projects to sporting and hunting rifles. The trigger for this was an invitation for the Soviet Union to attend the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Still recovering from the Great Patriotic War and rebuilding Eastern Europe left the Soviet Union ill-prepared to attend. In 1948 Soviet marksmen didn’t even have a suitable 300-meter competition rifle to compete with. If Stalin was going to send a team to the Olympics he was going to do it right and bring home Gold Medals. Plus, if Soviet marksmen were going to compete, they would do so with a Soviet designed and built match rifle.
So, an urgent request went out around the Soviet Union for the country’s best gunsmiths and armorers to design suitable match rifles. This was an opportunity Yevgeny could only have dreamed about. Here was the chance to put all his knowledge and skill to the test designing a match rifle that would go head to head with the best the world could muster. Using the experienced gained working with sniper rifles he began work on what would become the S-49 Spartacus. The heart of the rifle was a modified Mosin action forged in Izhevsk in 1948. To add rigidity to the design it was a single-shot with a solid bottom in place of the opening normally milled for the magazine. To this was added a carefully hand-made barrel with a 1-12.6 inch twist selected for its uniformity and accuracy. This was a medium heavy profile with a carefully cut crown. The barreled action was dropped into a handsome competition stock carefully carved from a hand selected wood blank. The bolt was carefully fitted and polished and the trigger was designed to give a crisp break. Testing revealed the addition of a barrel band noticeably reduced group size. Accuracy for this period in time and the ammunition available was excellent. The rifle not only shot well, but it was a handsome piece with nicely executed checkering, bluing and final finish.
After rigorous testing, in 1949 Yevgeny’s rifle was selected to represent the Soviet Union. This provided the rifle team with enough time to begin practicing for the 1952 Olympics. It was the first long range competition rifle developed in the Soviet Union. The adoption of his rifle in 1949 led directly to Yevgeny being able to purchase a small house in 1950. Up until this time he and his family had been living with his mother. Two women under one roof likely led to the purchase, but being a good son his new home was only a short walk from his mother’s. This ensured his children could spend quality time with their grandmother.
These were good years for the Dragunov family. He was hard at work designing competition and hunting rifles. Over the years he designed 27 different rifles. In 1952 they had another daughter, Liudmila Evgenievna. When his rifle won a Gold Medal at the Olympics in the hands of Bagdanov it brought him additional recognition. Two years later in 1954 his wife Lidiya, possibly with some help from her husband, became a mechanical engineer and designer at the Izhevsk plant for motorcycle production. The following year in 1955 they had a son, Aleksey Evgenievitch. 1955 was a sad time though due to a change in the firearm laws. Up until that point, as an accomplished and ranked competition shooter he had been able to own and keep not only a personal shotgun but rifles as well. When the law changed he was forced to give up his 7.62x54mmR and .22 LR rifles, but he retained his shotgun.
In 1958 two events took place. His father passed away and he was selected to design a new semi-automatic sniper rifle. He undertook this project with his assistant and best friend Yuri Aleksandrov. Yuri would later go on to design the AL series of balanced rifles. The GRAU (Glavnoye Raketno Artilleriyskoye Upravleniye- the Chief Missile and Artillery Department of the Soviet Ministry of Defense) commissioned four design teams to take part in the sniper rifle competition. They were led by Mikhail Kalashnikov, Alexander Konstantinov, Fedor Barinov and Yevgeny Dragunov. Mikhail Kalashnikov developed two models which proved unsatisfactory before dropping out of the competition.
The project the GRAU commissioned Yevgeny to take part in consisted of more than simply to develop a rifle with a scope attached to it. They required a weapon that would be completely reliable under the worst possible conditions, with a high accuracy of fire and substantial range. The fly in the ointment was that they also required it to be lightweight, compact and semi-automatic. During an interview with David Bolotin, Yevgeny said looking back, "The principle difficulties we encountered arose from the necessity to resolve all sorts of contradictions. It is sufficient to say that to achieve reliable action in difficult conditions it is necessary to have the largest practical gaps between the moving parts; at the same time, to achieve the best possible accuracy, everything must be fitted together with minimal tolerances. In addition, weight needs to be low, but the best accuracy requires a rifle to be as heavy as possible- within reasonable limits of course. There were a lot of other contradictions, big and small."
Yevgeny's first prototype, designated the SSV (Snayperskaya Samozariadnaya Vintovka-Sniper Auto-loading Rifle) was completed in 1958. This prototype slowly evolved over the next five years as its short-comings and faults came to light. The final result was a rifle with unmistakable looks. Utilizing gas operation with a short-stroke piston and a rotating bolt the SSV evolved into the rifle we know today as the SVD. Since its adoption on July 3, 1963 the SVD has become an iconic symbol of semi-automatic sniper rifles.
Yevgeny received the Lenin Prize for developing the SVD. More importantly in 1964 his family moved into a large modern apartment. Their previous home lacked running water or indoor plumbing and relied on a wood stove for heat and cooking. Now they were living comfortably by Soviet standards of the day. A gift of appreciation from the government, it was again just a short walk from his mother’s home. The kids loved it.
During the late 1960s and 1970s Yevgeny worked on a number of military projects. One was developing a Designated Marksman Rifle in 5.45x39mm. This resembled a scaled down SVD feeding from AK74 magazines. Accuracy was claimed to be 2.5 times better than an AK74, but it was not adopted. He also developed the PP-71 KEDR submachine gun and an advanced compact lightweight assault rifle called the MA (Malogabaritniy Avtomat). The MA had a number of novel features including the use of modern synthetic materials and how the bolt carrier rode on the weapon’s spine rather than inside the polyamide receiver. But it lacked the parts commonality the military desired and so was not adopted.
Generous and unpretentious, Dragunov lacked the ego some of his peers were infamous for. He was known to be a man with a strong sense of duty who was extremely loyal to his friends and disciples. Plus, he wouldn’t allow rude behavior in his presence. This led to problems when in 1988 Ivan E. Semenovih, a man he had mentored, was promoted to run the Arms Design Bureau. His personality made the bureau’s atmosphere toxic. Despite being in charge of highly educated and skilled people, many with important government awards for building important defense products, he treated them intolerably. Yevgeny quit in protest after having devoted most of his life, 42 years, to the Izhmash Arms Design Bureau. His time with Izhmash had come to an end.
While Dragunov influenced many, he considered himself the student of Vladimir Grigoryevich Fyodorov. A Tsarist ordnance officer, Fyodorov is best known for designing perhaps the world’s first assault rifle, his 6.5mm Avtomat. A true visionary for his time, he became the father of Russian and Soviet automatic weapons design. Dragunov carefully studied his works and memorized parts of his writing. He kept his book like a Bible on his desk. Unfortunately, he never had a chance to meet Fyodorov, who was removed in 1954 for promoting small caliber automatic rifles over the 7.62x39mm and 7.62x54mmR. He was simply too far ahead of his time.
This leads us to consider the man himself. What was Yevgeny Fyodorovich Dragunov like as a person? This is perhaps the most important question anyone could ask. First and foremost he was a family man who was devoted to his wife and children. The trust between Yevgeny and Lidiya was absolute. Despite being around young and attractive women much of his career Yevgeny never strayed and remained devoted to his wife. He also loved his children and spending time with them. From an early age he brought them to the shooting range and taught them marksmanship. Plus he took them hunting. He was a hands-on type of father, one who enjoyed reading to them and cooking for them.
Cooking? Yes, the designer of the famous SVD sniper rifle loved to cook. He would joke with his wife that men are better cooks than women. It was something he not only loved to do, but he was also very good at. He had many recipes for meat and fish and, of course, he also loved eating. Plus, he enjoyed a bottle of good Russian vodka now and again.
His friends and colleagues remember Yevgeny being humorous, even when talking about serious issues. He loved writers such as Jaroslav Hasek, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Leskov and others who wrote in a humorous style. As an example, Anton Chekhov always used humor even in sad situations. Yevgeny was using Chekhov’s technique in life. He loved many classical Russian authors, but all were famous for writing in a humorous style. He had an incredible memory and could quote at length from his favorite books.
He also loved entertaining his friends and colleagues. Friends were always welcome at the Dragunov home. The people he worked with were always coming over to socialize, bar-b-q, dance and share. His home was almost like a social club. On the surface it simply looked like a good time. But Dragunov was actually mentoring an entire generation of designers and engineers, including Gennadiy Nikolayevich Nikonov. Every holiday there was a get together at his home. He welcomed many people to such events, from his own industry as well as people from different factories and departments. His kindness and humility was legendary. Even today when people are asked about him their facial expression will suddenly change, a smile will cross their lips and a twinkle will appear in their eye as they suddenly launch into their favorite story about Yevgeny Dragunov. He was a man who looked after and took care of his people.
In 1991 he was invited to continue his work on the Kedr submachine gun by the government. He readily agreed and began work at Izhmekh (Izhevsk Mechanical Plant). It was not to be, he passed away three months later on August 4, 1991. His son Mikhail, who had followed in his father’s footsteps, completed the design and it was placed into production.
Yevgeny Dragunov Trivia
- He enjoyed smoking a pipe packed with Herzegovina Flor, the same tobacco as Stalin smoked.
- He was a student of Vladimir Grigoyevich Fyodorov and kept his book Evolution of Firearms on his desk at work and home.
- Yevgeny wanted to be remembered in a jovial manner by his family. He asked them to remember him by eating his favorite food, Pelmeni, on his birthday, 20th February, every year.
Yevgeny Dragunov’s Favorite Recipes
Courtesy of Lidiya Dragunov.
Steak a la Dragunov
- Start by slicing steak into strips less than 10mm (.39-inch) thick
- Tenderize it using a hammer
- Pepper and salt both sides
- Crack and mix several eggs in a bowl
- Soak the meat in the egg mixture
- Place in a hot frying pan
- Flip often while cooking for approximately 5 minutes
- Remove from the pan and send straight to the plate
Very tasty and tender!
Fish a la Dragunov
- Clean and prepare a number of fish (Yevgeny used small local fish from the local lake)
- Place your fish mixed with sliced onions into a deep frying pan with high sides
- Do not add water while frying
- The juices from the fish and onions together will form a soup
Serve and enjoy!
Much thanks to Lidiya Nikolaevna Dragunova, her children Mikhail, Elena, Liudmila and Aleksey also Raisa Tukova-Yanulis and many others who made this article possible.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the Author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.