Whether you’ve encountered the Dragunov in the field, a documentary, or even in the Call of Duty videogame franchise, it’s no secret that the semi-automatic Soviet-era rifle is one of the best firearms ever to be designed and produced by the Russians. From its natural appeal and aesthetic in its wooden stock to its reliable long-range accuracy, today, we’re going to discuss a bit of the historical context that went into designing this rifle!

Standard SVD Dragunov. HokosCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Who Designed The Rifle And Why?

In response to the rising usage of submachine guns on the battlefield, the Red Army thought they were losing important high ground leverage in engaging enemies long-range. While these submachine guns (SMGs) were definitely effective in close-range, trench combat, SMGs do not offer the same long-range cover fire infantry soldiers needed to push forward with gaining objectives.

Some of these SMGs included the infamous World War II PPsh-41 using the 7.62x25mm known as the “papasha” (daddy) gun, which uses the same rounds as the Tokarev pistol. Machine guns like the DP-28 and DS-39 were also standard, high rate firearms that could lay sufficient covering fire, however sacrificing accuracy for the rapid-fire rate.

The armies of the West had rifles that could shoot at ranges exceeding Soviet weapons, which meant Russian troops would have to advance over several hundred yards under accurate fire before their own weapons could be employed.  In a close-in fight, like an urban environment, the AK had a distinct advantage in house-to-house fighting, but in closing in on that town or city, they faced getting shot to pieces by longer-ranged Western small arms.

So then, the Soviets faced a dilemma. How do they equip their infantry troops with both battle rifles and sufficient long-range cover fire to cover the advance of their troops across open ground? This is where the development of the Dragunov comes in.

From 1957 to 1963, a competition was held to develop a rifle that designated marksmen in the Soviet Army could use, that was cost-effective (meaning it was cheap enough to mass-produce), and could engage enemy targets faster than enemy riflers.

The answer to this problem was the first Dragunov rifle model 1963, designed by Yevgeny Dragunov, a man whose family line comprises gunsmiths. Mainly a sporting rifle designer, he was not a stranger to military service as he had served in the military in 1939. He defeated Sergey Simonov, the designer of the SKS carbine, and Aleksandr Konstantinov for the rifle competition. Mark the irony of a Communist country like the USSR holding a “competition” like free-market Capitalists.

Familiar But Different Rifle Design

The Dragunov rifle has a striking similarity to the AK47 cosmetically in its furniture placement and the pistol grip housing the trigger group, but, the AK-47 is a rugged, cheap to produce and operate assault rifle not meant to be a marksman’s rifle, while the Dragunov was made for precision(As the Soviets viewed it) marksmanship. You see, the average Russian soldier was not really trained as a marksman, he was expected to shower the enemy with rounds from his AK47 while pushing in as close to the enemy as possible.  In contrast, the U.S. Army and especially the Marine Corps trained on and prized marksmanship at range. So in a sense, the Dragonuv was intended to give a Soviet soldier a rifle as capable as the M-1 Garand or M-14 was in the hands of  Marine or Army GI trained to hit targets at distances of 600-800 yards

The U.S. and USSR  looked at snipers in the post-WWII era very differently.  America did not have specially trained snipers until after the Vietnam War. Believe it or not, snipers were widely disdained in both militaries because they killed at range and without warning to the other side.  There was something about it that seemed unsporting somehow in war.  In WWII, German snipers were especially hated by American GIs and were generally executed upon being captured. During the Normandy campaign, quite a few German paratroopers were executed by our troops because their camouflage smocks and unusual helmets marked them as snipers to American soldiers.  Word was passed down to stop shooting paratroopers who surrendered to them, but they were not told to stop shooting snipers they caught red-handed. General Omar Bradley himself said that he didn’t mind if snipers were treated a bit more roughly than other prisoners were.

So while the Dragonuv is often called a Sniper Rifle, it really wasn’t designed to be one and Soviet units equipped with them did not employ them as such either. In the 1970s a Soviet rifleman equipped with the Dragunov would often find himself firing tracer and armor-piercing ammunition rather than the more precise 7N1 round. If you still doubt me, consider that the Dragonuv was equipped with a fitting for a bayonet and you wouldn’t expect a sniper in a carefully prepared concealed position to break cover to participate in a bayonet charge, would you? In proxy conflicts during the Cold War, it was used by troops in third world countries as a sniper rifle, not by design but by necessity as it was the only thing offered for sale by the Soviets that could come close to fulfilling that role.

The Dragunov was built to extend the range of an infantry squad or platoon on the assault and to serve as a defensive element when static. As a matter of standardization, it used the 7.62x54mmR rounds leftover from World War II but was pretty revolutionary in its design as a purpose build precision rifle.  The Dragunov was semi-automatic rather than a bolt action and held 10 rounds with a bolt hold-open feature on the last round to make reloading faster.  It was equipped with PSO-1 optical sights with an illuminated reticle with a rangefinder and could be adjusted for windage and elevation. Perhaps most innovative was the IR filter on the sights which could detect early versions of American infrared lanterns used on its own sniper rifles. The barrel at 620mm allows the cartridge propellant to burn properly, thus increasing projectile velocity and accuracy.   It was found that the Dragonuv was actually a much better rifle than the standard ammunition it was made to shoot, so the Soviets created a special match-grade version of the 7.62.x54mm round in the 7N1 cartridge in 1967, the Dragunov could be very precise in the hands of a trained shooter who had the right ammunition for it,

The Dragunov could deliver accuracy out to 800 yards, the AK was good out to 330 yards to 350 yards.

Where Has The Dragunov Rifle Seen Action?

Ever since the Warsaw Pact, the Dragunov has seen multiple wars wielded by different nationalities, mostly by former Soviet countries even till today. In fact, over the years, the Dragunov rifle has been subject to numerous upgrades as it is considered lightweight and highly effective in combat. It is also relatively cheap to make and care for in the field.  In contrast to Western rifles that have to be kept spotlessly clean to shoot well, the Dragunov seemed made to be abused. The shooter could even select how much gas was used to cycle the piston with a setting for a dirty rifle, using low-powered rounds in very cold weather.

You may have seen the rifle in recent memory when it was fielded by the Afghan National Army and more notoriously by the Taliban. Saddam’s forces and Iraqi insurgents in the early 2000s saw a clone model of the gun named “Al-Qadissiya” heavily based on the Dragunov SVD and the Romanian designed PSL-54C. In fact, Saddam owned a gold-plated version of the cloned Dragunov. From 1955 to 1975, it was used by the Vietnamese People’s Army, and more so used by various nations today, including the Philippines, Russia, Senegal, and even China.

Newer Versions of the Rifle

Standard Modern SVDM. Vitaly V. KuzminCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Few changes have been made to the original Dragunov of the 1950s. However, this doesn’t mean that countries have not been trying to improve it. The 2020 Russian upgrade, The SVDM is otherwise known as Snáyperskaya Vintóvka sistém’y Dragunóva Modernizirovannaya, features new muzzles and chrome-fitted barrels. The stock, handguard, and grips are now made with polymer, making it more lightweight than its original counterpart. Lastly, it also features a Picatinny rail and an adjustable rail to improve its sights.

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Other weapon variants include the 1990 Snayperskaya Vintovka Dragunova Skladnaya (SVDS), also known as the sniper rifle version despite the fact that the Dragunov is not a sniper rifle. This version has a folding stock, synthetic pistol grip, and a heavier barrel for more durability. Alongside this version is the SVDSN, or the night vision version for paratroopers.

The Russian SVU rifle is a shortened version of the Dragunov equipped especially for the Special Forces of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Another Russian variant would be the SVDK, which uses 9.3x64mm Brenneke cartridges.

A New Challenger To The Dragunov?

Since 2016, there has been a talk of replacing the Dragunov rifle with the Chukavin SVCh or the SVK. Interestingly, the firearm is also designed by Kalashnikov Concern. How does it pose a threat to the legendary Dragunov? Well, for starters, it has a range of 1,600 yards and uses 7.62×51mm NATO, 7.62×54mmR, and .338 Lapua Magnum making it more versatile than the traditional Dragunov.

With various sight options, and multiple weight reductions, will this mark the end for the Dragunov, the weapon of choice for designated marksmen in the Red Army?