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The Soviet 91/30 PU – Sniper Rifle of the Red Star

 

Words and pictures by Mick Toal

For many military longarms collectors, a sniper rifle is the ultimate acquisition. However, such rarity and precision comes at a cost, and, should a sniper rifle ever be found on the market, the price generally precludes any impulse buys. But don’t despair, there are still a few sniping weapons with very colourful histories out there for an accessible price, and, whatsmore, they are also great fun and cheap to shoot – the Soviet 91/30 PU. Perhaps best known the world over as the non-speaking star of  that Hollywood interpretation of the Battle of Stalingrad – Enemy at the Gates – the 91/30 PU was made in greater numbers than any other sniper rifle in history. But that’s not to say they are common, or uninteresting – entering service with Russia late in 1942, the 91/30 PU remained in Soviet service until at least the early 1970s, the rifles took part in all the pivotal Cold War conflicts of the latter half of the last century - including the Middle East, Korea and Vietnam – and they were manufactured post-war by Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Although originally designed to help repel the hated German invader from Mother Russia’s soil in the darkest days of World War II, these weapons were later wielded by enemies of the Aussie Digger and US ground forces, who encountered and captured more than a few examples in Korea and during the Vietnam conflict.

 

FIRST A BIT OF HISTORY

The longest continuously serving military rifle in history, the Mosin-Nagant was adopted by Imperial Russia in 1891 as the M1891, better known in the West as the Model 91. It takes its name from the designers of the combined major components – Russian Army Captain  Sergei Ivanovich Mosin, and Belgian weapons designer Leon Nagant, who developed the magazine and feeding system. From this original “cavalry stopper” long arm chambered in the 7.62x54 Russian cartridge – which more resembles a pike when its cruciform bayonet is attached – grew a family of basic but effective rifles and carbines manufactured by several nations (including France, Finland and the United States) which are still in limited mainstream service throughout the world today.

 

The 91/30PU sniper rifle is an adaptation of the 91/30 rifle, which, as the nomenclature suggests, is a 1930 upgrade of the Model 91. Although the functional and robust bolt and magazine remained essentially unchanged, the 91/30 was fitted with an upper hand guard, reinforced sling slots replaced the original swivels, and the rear sight was re-calibrated from Arshins (basically an infantryman’s pace measuring 0.71 metres (0.78 yards) to metres, with a maximum range of 2000 metres. The barrel length was reduced from 790mm (31.6 inches) to 717.5mm (28.7 inches), reducing the overall length of the rifle from 1284mm (51.37 inches) to1213mm (48.5 inches), the original unprotected blade foresight was replaced with a windage-adjustable hooded post and the barrel bands – originally tightened into position by integral screws - were replaced by simple metal bands held in place by spring fasteners in the stock.Manufactured at the Tula and Iszevsk arsenals, the first 91/30 rifles had hexagonal receivers with “low walls” - a scallop cut out of the left side in the interests of saving weight.

 

Later in the decade round receivers started to appear, and during World War II production was further simplified with the introduction of the plain “high wall”, without the cut out, on which all PU sniper rifles are based.

BORN IN BATTLE

Unlike the other belligerents, Soviet Russia had a well established sniper rifle manufacturing and training program in place when Germany forced its entry into World War II with the launch of Operation Barbarossa invasion in 1941.Based on the low wall 91/30 rifle with a hexagonal and round receivers, there were at least three sniper rifles using different chamber and bolt body scope mounts. Ironically, the Soviets received the bulk of their sniping expertise from military exchanges with the fledgling Nazi regime in the 1930s, and the PE and PEM 4-power scopes mounted on the first 91/30 sniper rifles was a direct copy of a design by the famed German optical manufacturer Zeiss. However, as fine as these earlier Soviet sniper rifles were – to the point they were prized items often pressed into service when captured by the German invaders, who often had to rely on civilian target and hunting rifles pressed into service as sniping weapons – Russia could not produce them in the quantities demanded by a massively expanded military, fighting with its backs to the wall against a professional and determined enemy. 

Thus in 1942 work began on a sniper rifle that could be mass produced.

 

Although in widespread use by the Soviets during the early days of Operation Barabarossa, production of the 91/30 sniper rifles had been halted in favour of the manufacture of the self-loading SVT 40 “Tokarev” sniper rifles mounting a lighter, and far simpler, 3.5-power “PU” telescopic sight. However, the self loading rifles had accuracy problems that were never resolved, and in 1942 the Soviets turned their attention to developing what would ultimately become the most widely manufactured and longest serving sniper rifle in history – the 91/30 PU, which mounted a simplified variant of the telescopic sight developed for the SVT 40.

 

The first examples of the 91/30 PU were churned out from the production lines in Tula and Iszevsk late in 1942, and the weapons remained the frontline sniper rifles for the now-defunct Eastern Communist Bloc until they were superseded by the infamous self-loading SVD Dragunov - which is chambered for the same calibre, and remains in service - in 1962.

THE 91/30 PU SNIPER RIFLE

 

Without exception, all 91/30 PU sniper rifles are based on “high wall” round receivers. The bulk were based on actions manufactured in1942-1944, with a very few were made from 1945-1947, and some as late as 1958. Poland and East Germany refurbished Russian-made examples until at least the late 1960s, and Hungary manufactured its own version of the 91/30 PU – known as the M/52 – from at least 1952-1954. The Czechs also produced a sniper rifle similar to the 91/30 PU concept – the VZ54/57 –  which had a different stock, scope mount and a Czech-designed 2.5 power telescopic sight. Compared with the PUs, these rifles are extremely rare. As with all Communist Bloc weaponry of the Cold War era, 91/30 PU sniper rifles were delivered in substantial numbers as military aid to bolster Communist causes in the Middle East, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan and Korea. 91/30 PU sniper rifles were captured from Chinese and North Korean troops during the Korean War, and Hungarian-manufactured examples in particular were encountered in Vietnam.

Due to the secretive nature of the Soviets during the Cold War era, the subsequent manufacture, and re-manufacture of the weapons by numerous satellite states, and the chaotic state of the former USSR since the Iron Curtain finally came down, definitive manufacturing figures for 91/30 PU sniper rifles are hard to come by. According to German author and respected Mosin Nagant rifle authority Karl-Heinz Wrobel, the Iszevsk arsenal produced 53,195 91/30 PU sniper rifles in 1942, and a total of 275,250 when manufacture ended in 1958, when 100 PU rifles were made. A small batch of 50 was apparently manufactured in 1948, and one 1947 example is known to exist, which is in Wrobel’s collection. Numbers made at Tula, which only manufactured PU rifles in 1943 and 1944, are not known, although rifles from this arsenal are without a doubt much rarer than Iszevsk examples. Hungary only apparently manufactured 91/30 rifles from 1951-54, and the author has only encountered M/52 sniper variants dated from 1952 onwards, with the highest serial number recorded being 7700, which could be a reliable indicator of the number of the weapons produced.

 RECOGNIZING A PU SNIPER RIFLE

 

As with the war-time manufacture of the weapons of any nation, there is a noticeable difference in the finish of 91/30s from the World War II era, although later war examples of the 91/30 PUs are generally built to more exacting standards than their standard issue counterparts. Some years back quite a few PU scopes and mounts were sold in Australia and the US, and standard 91/30 rifles fitted with these optical sights and a modified bent handle may be encountered, along with a host of counterfeits manufactured in past decades. Due to the huge variations in the manufacture and refurbishment processes of the genuine rifles, some fakes are hard to pick, but many are obvious.  

It is not unknown for 91/30 PU rifles to be fitted with post war-manufactured scopes and mounts – some dated in the late 1960s – during arsenal refurbishment.  

Some recognition rules of thumb for authentication are a finer, almost polished, finish on the receiver, a crisper and lighter trigger pull, and wear of the scope and mount which matches the rest of the weapon. Many of the Russian-manufactured PU sniper rifles have a number with at least seven digits stamped into the left side of the chamber just above the wood line. The significance of this number is obscure – some collectors suggest it’s the rifle’s original scope number, others a manufacturing batch number – but examples of former 91/30 sniper rifles which have been converted back to standard rifles invariably have this number ground off or crossed out by the arsenal during remanufacture. Like the original serial number, this number is hard to fake, as it often has Cyrillic letters.  

All PU type sniper rifles are fitted with a two-piece “self centering” scope mount. The base mount is attached to the left of the bolt body with two screws, and set into a perpendicular position with two hefty locating pins drilled into the left side of the receiver at either end of the base mount. Once the mounting screws are tightened, they were each concentrically drilled, and held in place by a locking screw. At the front of the mount is a ball socket and at the rear is a locking screw with knurled grip, and captive elevation adjustment screws, the lower one of which was often punched into place after zeroing by an armourer. Slid in from the rear, the scope is secured in the one-piece detachable mount’s split rings by three screws – two in the rear band, and one in the front. On the inner face of the detachable mount, which mates up against the base mount, are two small ramps, which are ground down by the armourer during factory zeroing to adjust the windage (this is important, as the post of the PU scope wanders about within the field of view during adjustment with the scope’s range and windage dials). To fit the detachable mount to the base the main screw and upper elevation adjustment screw are loosened, and they are tightened to secure the mount into its factory zeroed position. Soldiers were forbidden from detaching the scopes from the rifle, which remained the sole domain of the armourer.

Many Russian rifles and their optical sight components have been re-built during their many years of service, and this is generally indicated by a box with one or two diagonal crosses on the timber – which is generally roughly finished with hand-brushed shellac - and many of the metal components. It is common to encounter Russian PU rifles with what is apparently a rifle serial number, scope number, or both, hand engraved into the detachable scope mount, but it is also not unknown for that component to be unmarked, apart from a non-descript manufacturer’s stamp. These markings were probably applied according to the policy of the unit the rifle was issued to, and is not an indicator of any particular rifle or scope component manufacturer. It is not uncommon for components from different arsenals to be used in the manufacture, and re-building, of Russian PU rifles.

THE ISZEVSK 91/30 PU

By far the most commonly encountered 91/30 PU sniper rifles were manufactured at Izsevsk, and they are readily recognized by the arsenal’s hammer and sickle within a wreath on top of the chamber, and a number with at least seven digits and Cyrillic characters stamped into the left side of the chamber. Iszevsk manufactured components -  right down to the barrel bands and butt plate - have a triangle with a fletched arrow inside stamped into them.  

THE TULA 91/30 PU  

Tula-manufactured rifles are readily recognized by the distinctive five-pointed Soviet star containing a fletched arrow stamped into the chamber. Like the Iszevsk  PUs, they often have a number stamped into the left side of the chamber, but all types of Tula  91/30 sniper rifles generally have Cyrillic letters resembling “C” and an upside-down “U” – a marking which represents “Snayperskya Provernaya”, which translates as “tested for use as a sniper”.  

THE HUNGARIAN M/52  

Hungarian M/52 sniper rifles are the rarest examples of the PU family, and, since standard Hungarian 91/30 rifles are even rarer than their scoped cousins, the author is not aware of any counterfeit examples. They are readily recognized by their higher standard of manufacture, a deeper blue/black finish of all metal, and a profusion of “02” (apparently the Eastern Bloc designation for Hungarian manufactured weaponry) stamps on just about every component of the weapon - right down to the shaft of the cleaning rod. Unlike their Russian cousins, the author has found no evidence of any number being stamped on the left side of the chamber, likewise the scope mount components – which also display finer attention to detail during manufacture - are generally unmarked, save for customary “02” stamps.

 

The marking on the rifle’s chamber are utilitarian – an 02 above the year of manufacture and then the serial number, which is generally two letters followed by four digits. To date the author has only encountered M/52 rifles with BC prefixes. Stocks of M/52 rifles inspected by the author in Australia have the customary 02 marking on the right side of the butt and are coated in a durable dark brown finish. There is also evidence of “blonder’ – almost yellow – timber on unissued rifles in collections in the United States. Like the Russian rifles, the Hungarian stocks have a brass-reinforced “dog collar” sling mount slots. M/52 rifles can be fitted with an all leather sling, or webbing varieties in varying colours – again the 02 marking readily denotes their origin. Hungarian scopes are identical to the Russian PU optics except for the markings – on all examples seen by the author, all markings are in white with the scope number being a “41” (apparently an indication of Hungarian-manufactured optics, also seen on military issue binoculars), above a four digit year of manufacture, and then a serial. There is also another four digit number, indicating the serial of the rifle the scope was issued with. Hungarian M/52 rifles have been encountered with Russian manufactured scopes or mounts, but whether these came together in the various countries the weapons were exported to as military aid during re-build programs, or the components were fitted to rifles without optical sights by civilian collectors can only be conjecture.

 EX PU SNIPER RIFLES

 

Perhaps the most affordable, and common, examples of a PU sniper rifle for your collection are the ones that have been arsenal re-finished and re-issued as standard rifles. They are readily recognized by their plugged scope mounting holes, which are often hard to spot from the outside, but are obvious from inside the receiver once the bolt is drawn back. Another sure giveaway is a crossed out number stamped into the left side of the receiver – sometimes ground off - and the “C” and inverted “U” found on Tula sniper rifles. Some former snipers will have the cut out for the scope mount on the stock repaired, more often the complete stock was replaced during re-building. Whether they were worn out, or surplus to requirements, the author has been unable to determine a reason these rifles were retired, but bore condition can vary from well-worn to almost unfired. Like other 91/30 PU sniper rifles, the exact number converted is not known, but they are far more readily encountered than intact examples. From a batch of 100 91/30 rifles from varying eras recently imported into Australia by Lawrance Ordnance in Sydney four retired PU sniper rifles – three Iszevsks and a Tula – were found. One of these rifles, a 1943 Iszevsk with an excellent bore and a re-numbered standard 91/30 Tula bolt, is now in the author’s collection.

THE PU SCOPE

In keeping with Soviet war time austerity, the PU scope is basic, but robust and effective. With a magnification of 3.5-power and 169mm (6.7 inches) in length and weighing 270 grams (9.5 ounces), the PU is a simple design with a European three post reticule. With the scope fitted, all 91/30 PU rifles were issued with an roughly woven cloth action shroud with a leather strap which passed through the trigger guard, which doubled as a case for the scope when it was removed with the detachable mount. Each rifle also had a set of leather scope caps, although examples in East German service have been encountered with plastic caps linked with black elastic cord.

 

 

Like the rifles, there are huge variations in the optical sights, with wartime dated markings varying from the Soviet hammer and sickle in a pentagon, through to later examples with just a serial number, and new and refurbished scopes with multi-coated lens elements. The windage dial, on the left of the scope is calibrated plus and minus to 10, and the elevation dial is marked out to a (very optimistic) 1300 metres. As with many European scopes of the era, the cross hair does not remain centred, but shifts with adjustment. The PU scope has been adapted for a variety of heavy weaponry, including 14.5 anti-aircraft guns and 12.7mm machine guns, and these can generally be recognized by extra increments on the elevation dial – 91/30 scopes stop at 13, whereas heavy macine gun scopes often go up to 22 - although they have an identical three post reticule.

 

There is a significant difference is the finish of war-era and post war mount components – particularly on the inside of the detachable scope mount – and many 50s-60s manufactured base mounts have a square fore end, as opposed to the rounded corners found on war era examples.

 

A PU FOR YOUR COLLECTION

When it comes to collecting firearms, items are often worth what the seller is prepared to let it go for, and what the buyer is prepared to pay for it. Like all sniper rifles, genuine 91/30PUs are not cheap – while decent Russian 91/30s can still be found in store racks for as little as US$100, expect to pay (at least) more than US$700 for a particularly fine example of a PU. Although rarer, Hungarian M/52s don’t seem to be as desirable to collectors as unrefurbished Russian war time examples, although this could change. Retired sniper rifles can bring a higher price, but more often than not you will encounter one being sold as a standard 91/30. But when you compare the price of the former communist rifles with the price of their contemporaries such as the British and Canadian No 4 (T) .303 and the Holy Grail of any Australian collector, a Lithgow Mk No 1 MkIII* HT – of which only 1612 were made – a PU could be just the starting point for your collection of sniper rifles, and a great conversation piece with a long and colourful history.

The author would like to thank Simon Lawrance of Lawrance Ordnance,  Anthony Miller and Svetlana Dachanova of the Commemorative History Society in Australia and Sydney collector Michael Melliar-Phelps for their assistance in compiling this article.













  
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