One of the most interesting weapons to come out of the Soviet era is, without a doubt, the Dragunov SVD rifle. Everything from the design to its intended use and menacing name drives the weapon’s appeal. It’s become a favorite of video games and movies, even being named in FX’s television show Snowfall. The Dragunov strikes at the hearts of not only gun nuts but the general public’s too. Today we are going to break down the mysterious Dragunov SVD, its design, purpose, and why calling it a sniper rifle might not be accurate.

Just a Big AK, Right?

When you look at the Dragunov from the outside, it’s easy to say it’s just a big AK. It looks like two Soviet gun designers hooked an AK up between two tractors and stretched it until they got the Dragunov. The assumption is easy to make when you look at Soviet and even Russian Federation small arms design.

Guns like the RPK and even the PKM take cues from the AK series of rifles. As such, you’d imagine they did the same with this rifle. However, you’d be wrong. The Dragunov SVD is a much different rifle. Instead of the long-stroke gas piston system the AK uses, we see a short-stroke gas piston design. Short stroke gas systems make the firearm a little easier to shoot accurately and reduce its weight.

The Dragunov - Don't Call It A Sniper Rifle
Wikimedia Commons

The Dragunov has very little in common with its AK counterparts. Soviets installed a two-position gas regulator that allows the weapon to swap how much gas cycles the action. Setting one allowed the rifle to work in normal operation, and setting two allowed it to work when heavily fouled, with low power ammo, or in frigid environments.

Heck, the rifle even features a last-round bolt hold open, a feature that AKs lack. AKs use stamped receivers, but Dragunovs used machine receivers for additional accuracy. So, this rifle should not be considered an AK Variant.

That being said, it does share some features with the AK. This includes the side safety, dust cover design, iron sights, and the early AK variants’ wood furniture.

Breaking the Dragunov Down

The Dragunov was intended to be a squad support weapon that allowed a Soviet rifle squad to expand their range to 600 meters. As such, it needed a full-powered rifle caliber. The Soviets already had piles of the 7.62x54R round sitting around from World War II and they had continued using it in medium machine guns. So, it made sense to chamber the new rifle in this proven, powerful, and bountiful cartridge.

The 24.4-inch barrel would make use of that powerful caliber and guarantee it could reach peak velocity before it left the barrel. The heavy-hitting 7.62x54R would be comfortable to the shoulder with its gas-operated semi-auto action and the fact the Dragunov weighs 9.48 pounds unloaded.

The Dragunov - Don't Call It A Sniper Rifle

It’s not a compact weapon as you’d imagine, and clearing rooms with a 48.2-inch long gun wouldn’t be an easy task by any means. The rifle utilizes a detachable box magazine that holds 10 rounds. That’s a low capacity, admittedly, but it allows the shooter to get tight to the ground in a prone position. If you look at the Dragunov, notice that the magazine extends as far as the pistol grip. Any further and your prone position would be higher.

This big rifle slowly leaked out of the Soviet Union. Samples were found in Vietnam, and eventually, it became much like the AK in terms of widespread use. Soviets used them in Afghanistan, and in turn, Afghans used the same rifles against Americans. In my time in Afghanistan, I saw Soviet-era Dragunovs in use by Afghan National Army Snipers, with and without optics.

The Dragunov - Don't Call It A Sniper Rifle

The Dragunov has been adopted by Eastern European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and African countries and sees use anywhere the AK finds itself.

The Dragunov Isn’t a Sniper Rifle

Calling the Dragunov a sniper rifle is generous. It’s nowhere near as accurate as a rifle designed for sniping needs to be. With high-quality ammunition, the Dragunov can score about 2 MOA. I imagine the Soviets weren’t issuing high-quality ammunition. While many label the Dragunov a sniper rifle, it was never intended to be. The Soviets called it a squad support weapon, and Americans would call it a designated marksman’s rifle.

In many ways, the Soviets were ahead of the time with this idea. American forces didn’t become serious about DMs until the Global War on Terror. The Dragunov is designed to hit a man-sized target at 600 meters in infantry combat, with skilled shooters reaching out to 800 meters.

The Dragunov - Don't Call It A Sniper Rifle

A Dragunov-equipped soldier could provide effective and precise suppressing fire, extend the squad’s effective range, and even pick off more valuable soldiers. A Dragunov man could take out a machine gunner, radioman, or squad leader in the midst of a firefight. It was never intended to do what American snipers are trained to do.

Originally the rifle was issued with a mere 4X optic. That’s not a lot of power for reaching out and touching someone like an American sniper. But for a designated marksman in 1963, it was a helluva lot of power. Again, the Soviets were thinking ahead when issuing the Dragunov to Soviet Infantry.

The Models

The Dragunov has been around since 1963, and as such, it’s been updated as time passed. While the internal system remains the same, additions to the platform, have allowed it to keep up with modern use.

The SVD 63 – The Original Dragunov

While fielded initially with wood furniture, it evolved and adapted over time to accommodate polymer furniture and more powerful optics.


This variant featured a tubular metal folding stock and was designed for paratroopers. The SVDSN is the same gun with night vision capability.


The Russians took an SVD and bullpupped it into a much shorter platform for Russian special units.


An upscaled Dragunov designed to chamber the very powerful 9.3x64mm 7N33 cartridge.


The most modern Dragunov features a slightly shorter 21.7-inch heavy barrel with an adjustable folding stock and a redesigned dust cover that also mounts optics.

A Beast Worthy of its Name

The Dragunov is a beast worthy of its somewhat fearsome name. It’s an interesting look at Soviet infantry tactics. It’s truly fascinating to see how far ahead the Soviets were thinking.

The Dragunov powers on in modern combat and will continue to show up in hotspots for years to come. It’s a powerful, accurate, and reliable weapon, but don’t call it a sniper rifle.