Kalashnikov Reveals a Replacement for Its Famed Sniper Rifle
Does this mean no more Dragunovs?
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
For more than 50 years, the Russian army has fielded a beastly semi-automatic sniper rifle called the Dragunov. Now the rifle’s developer has pulled back the curtain from its potential replacement, the SVK, at a major Moscow arms show.
The SVK is a semi-automatic 7.62 x 54R-millimeter weapon designed to support infantry on the battlefield. Kalashnikov Concern — which absorbed Dragunov maker Izhevsk in 2013 — claims the SVK “was designed with input from active duty snipers of several Russian Special Forces units.”
The rifle is ambidextrous and has an inverted, U-shaped steel receiver, according to the company. The SVK’s stock is a polymer, unlike the classic Dragunov’s wood — but modern versions of that famed rifle use polymers, too. The new rifle has a foldable buttstock for easier carrying.
The SVK’s piston— which enables the rifle to cycle a fresh round into the chamber after each shot — is a short-stroke gas system … similar to the Dragunov. But the model on display in Moscow is still a prototype.
The biggest departures from the Dragunov (besides look) appear to be ergonomic and an all-around modular design. The SVK is certainly more compact than its spindly predecessor. Kalashnikov claims the new gun can handle 20-round magazines, more than the Dragunov’s 10-round boxes.
Keeping with the modular approach, the SVK comes with integrated Picatinny-style rails, allowing the rifle to fit a variety of high-powered scopes. And Kalashnikov is developing it in two versions so it can fire 7.62 x 51 NATO and 7.62 x 54R rounds — the latter also fired from the Dragunov.
These rounds have different sizes and performances, and developing the SVK for both means the company is aiming for the export market, as the former cartridge is more common abroad.
Mechanically, there is nothing revolutionary here. Modern firearms have progressed so much in recent decades, there’s not much room for improvement. Enthusiasts of classic, distinct Russian rifle design might bemoan the SVK’s physical resemblance to the U.S.-made SCAR family.
The SVK even has a similar piston system to the SCAR, which reduces recoil and makes for a more stable weapon. Although short-stroke systems are relatively complicated, with more moving parts, than long-stroke pistons.
Kalashnikov also unveiled a modular, bolt action and long-range sniper rifle called the VSV-338, which the company claims is accurate up to 1,500 meters. The Russian army has not adopted either, and the SVK is currently undergoing factory trials.
Kalashnikov developing new sniper rifles should come as no surprise. The Kremlin has invested heavily in the specialty, part of a broader modernization of the military that accelerated after 2011. The Russian army has trained hundreds of dedicated snipers, sending dozens of them at a time to a remote training site in Armenia.
Russian snipers have an uneven history. They played an outsized role during the World Wars, and the Red Army further mythologized their exploits in highly propagandistic accounts. They still proved devastating to the Wehrmacht.
Their importance declined during the Cold War, according to Lester Grau and Charles Cutshaw writing in Infantry magazine. Envisioning large-scale conventional assaults in Europe, the Soviets shuttered their dedicated sniper schools in 1952 and introduced the Dragunov in 1963.
Because of the Dragunov’s smaller size and its mechanisms, it has a shorter range than a true sniper rifle. However, the Dragunov can fire faster, thus more effectively forcing enemy soldiers to keep their heads down. This suited Soviet doctrine which envisioned snipers supporting infantry on the attack.
Soviet marksmen also trained to pick off important people such as officers, artillery observers and soldiers manning crew-served weapons. They even practiced aiming for the cockpits of helicopters flying too low.
But the wars in Afghanistan and especially Chechnya were wake-up calls for the Soviet and Russian armies. Instead of masses of NATO troops, Russian soldiers encountered guerrillas with radically different tactics characterized by the pervasive use of snipers.
In Chechnya, rebel fighters grouped up in three-to-five-man teams armed with sniper rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The job of the machine gunner was to distract the Russians and draw their fire — leaving them and their vehicles open to the sniper and RPG gunner, who stayed hidden.
Chechen snipers left wounded Russian soldiers alone, waiting until rescuers appeared in the open … before opening fire.
“One of the most important elements of the hostilities in Chechnya was a sniper war,” Ariel Cohen wrote in a 2014 report for the U.S. Army War College. “Snipers were heavily relied upon on the Chechen side, and the Russian federal forces responded in the same way.”
However, these changes did not render Dragunov-style weapons obsolete. After all, Chechen rebels fought with the same guns. There is still a role for marksmen carrying shorter-range, semi-automatic rifles with large rounds and high-powered scopes.
But since that war, the Russians developed and adopted several different longer-range rifles specifically to make up for those shortcomings.
Now with Russian troops increasingly active, there are more snipers trained and ready to fight, with more new weapons — of different varieties — on the way.