While growing long in the tooth, the SVD Dragunov sniper rifle remains popular with Russian troops. Here’s it’s shown with some tools of the trade.
by David M. Fortier
Like the cartridge that it chambers, the SVD (Snaiperskaya Vintovka Dragunova -Dragunov Sniper Rifle) has become rather long in the tooth. Adopted on July 3, 1963, this elderly Russian sniper rifle design is now over 40 years old. To be blunt, for a military sniper rifle still in front line service with a major power, this is ancient. To put this into perspective consider this: when the SVD went into service with the Red Army, English snipers carried .303 No. 4(T) Lee Enfields while Americans had a motley collection of Springfield M1903A1’s, A4’s, .30 M-1C’s, and D’s. Yet 40 years later, this self-loading sniper rifle, affectionately known as the “oar” by the soldiers, remains highly popular with Russian troops. Considering the amount of recent combat this rifle has seen, it says much for the basic design.
It’s also interesting to note just how little this rifle has changed over the decades. Although it has been upgraded with modern synthetic furniture, and a folding stock version has been introduced, it basically looks as it did 40 years ago. The SVD has not stagnated though, and one very important aspect of this rifle that has been recently updated is its issue ammunition. While the SVD still chambers the standard 7.62x54R cartridge, a new dedicated sniper load (designated 7N14) was placed into production in 1999. This new load replaces the 7N1, which had been operational with Russian forces since 1966. So while the rifle looks the same, it received a new load developed expressly to decrease dispersion and increase penetration.
The 7.62x54R “Russian Rimmed” has the distinction of being the longest serving military cartridge still in general issue with a major power. Adopted in 1891, when American units were still saddled with black powder .45-70’s, it has seen our .45-70, .30-40 Krag, .30-03, .30-06, and 7.62x51mm come and go as rifle rounds. The first major combat the 7.62x54R saw was during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The original load utilized in both rifles and machineguns featured a 210-grain roundnose FMJ. While quite deadly, it was found to be somewhat wanting. The two main complaints being a rainbow-like trajectory and poor accuracy at battlefield ranges. When Russian Ordnance officials began working on improving the 7.62x54R in the spring of 1906 they quickly adapted the new German “Spitzer” design to fit their needs. The culmination of their work resulted in the Lyokhkaya pulya obrazets 1908 g or Model 1908 Light Bullet. This was a 148-grain Spitzer with a lead core and a tombak jacket. It featured a higher velocity, flatter trajectory and increased accuracy over the load that it replaced. This was the standard ball round used during World War I and the Revolution.
Following the Revolution, the fledgling USSR consolidated itself and then developed two new 7.62x54R ball loads that were adopted in 1930. The first, Type L, was developed for use in rifles and was a slightly improved version of the 1908 Light Bullet load. This had a 148-grain FMJ projectile with a brass-plated jacket made from iron with a cannelure. The second load was developed expressly to increase the range and effectiveness of the M1910 Maxim machinegun. This load was topped with a 182-grain spitzer boattail and designated the M1930 Heavy Bullet Type D (Dal’noboinaya or Long Range). The new bullet was designed by Dobrzansky and Smirnsky and was intended to allow the Maxim to be used in the indirect fire role out to 4,500-5,000 meters. To enable the new Type L ball loading to be differentiated from the Type D Heavy Bullet load they received a color code on their projectile tip. Silver for the Type L and yellow for the Type D.
With the passing of the Maxim machinegun, its long range fire roll having been usurped by mortars, so to the M1930 Heavy Bullet Load faded away. With the obsolescence of this load the need to color code ball ammunition disappeared, and was subsequently dropped in Russian service. The Type L load was eventually replaced with an improved 148-grain FMJBT load with a steel core. Referred to as the PS (Steel Core) Light bullet, or simply LPS, it featured improved penetration. It was modernized, as the Russians say, in 1988 to the ST-M2 pattern.
While the SVD is capable of firing the standard 148-grain ball round in a pinch, accuracy will be poor. This is due to the (relatively) low quality of standard ball ammunition. Similar dismal accuracy results are also noted when firing a US M24 sniper rifle with M80 ball ammunition. It’s a simple fact that precision (whether Match or sniper) rifles require ammunition of the highest quality and consistency to reach their potential. The Soviets were well aware of this and developed a specialized load specifically for the SVD.
With the adoption of the SVD a design team headed by Victor Sabelnikov was tasked with designing a new 7.62x54R load. This was to decrease the dispersion of the new rifle while at the same time increasing its lethality. The result of their work was the 7.62x54R 7N1 Sniper load. Externally the 7N1 looks identical to standard steel cased LPS ball ammunition. There is no color coding on the bullet tip or primer annulus, and no specialized head stamp to differentiate it. The headstamp simply consists of “188” (Novosibirsk Low Voltage Equipment Plant) and year of manufacture. For all intents and purposes it appears to be regular ball ammunition. Pulling a projectile one notes that the 7N1 is topped with a 152-grain FMJBT projectile. This is loaded on top of a charge of extruded powder in a Berdan-primed steel case. In standard Russian practice the primer is corrosive.
Externally comparing a 7N1 projectile to a standard ball projectile one finds both projectiles feature a copper washed steel jacket, but there the similarities end. The 7N1 projectile is slightly longer and features a more pronounced boattail with a noticeable hollow base. Cutting the projectile in half quickly reveals the 7N1 to be a well thought out sniper load. Sectioning it reveals an air pocket in the nose (similar to Sabelnikov’s later 5.45x39mm 7N6). Below the air pocket is a 37.5-grain mild steel cone-shaped core of 0.269-inch in diameter and 0.520-inch in length. This sits on top of a 72.6-grain lead “knocker.” These are pressed into the jacket leaving a hollow base with a depth of 0.100-inch. Overall projectile length is 1.275-inch and diameter is 0.311-inch. During flight, due to the air space in the nose, the projectile’s center of gravity is toward its rear. However, upon impact the lead knocker pushes the steel core forward into the air pocket and changes the weight distribution of the projectile. Thus destabilized, the projectile will yaw instead of simply punching a .30 caliber hole in someone. While not new, the British did something similar with their .303 British MK VII ball load prior to the First World War, this design is effective. This is an obvious attempt to increase the wounding potential of this FMJ projectile.
To increase accuracy this load was manufactured to much tighter tolerances than standard ball ammunition. The Russians claimed an increase in accuracy of 2.5 times over standard ball ammunition when fired from an SVD Dragunov. My own testing has shown that to be a reasonable claim. Muzzle velocity from the SVD is 2,723 fps, with the trajectory closely matching that of standard LPS ball. To identify this load it must be in its original packaging as Factory 188 also produces ball ammunition. It comes packed 20 rounds to a paper packet, 22 packets to a metal tin, and two tins per wooden case for a total of 880 rounds. The wooden shipping crates, hermetically sealed metal “Spam” cans, and individual paper packets are all distinctly marked “SNIPER” in Cyrillic. This is the load that was used throughout the war in Afghanistan and in Chechnya.
In the 1990’s the Russians launched a Program for the Modernization of 7.62mm cartridges. One of their goals was to improve the penetration of the various 7.62x54R loads. At this time the 7BT-1 Armor Piercing Tracer was developed and placed into production in 1998 replacing the 7T2M Tracer load. At the same time the standard 7N13 7.62x54R ball cartridge was given enhanced penetration via a pointed hardened steel core. This was adopted in 1999 as 7N26 and is now the general issue 7.62x54R load. At this same time, 1999, a new FMJBT load for the SVD, designated 7N14, was placed into production. It was developed from combat experience gained with the 7N1 and has replaced the earlier load in Russian service.
Like all Russian 7.62x54R Sniper and Match ammunition it’s produced by Factory 188, also known as Novosibirsk Low Voltage Equipment Plant (30A Stantsionnaya St., Novosibirsk 630108, Russia. Phone: (3832) 41-9367, 41-3555). The 7N14 was developed to provide the Russian sniper an armor-piercing bullet with the accuracy of a Match cartridge. This is to overcome the proliferation of modern body armor. The new load features a steel jacketed 0.311-inch diameter 152-grain FMJBT projectile with an AP core. Cases are copper-washed steel with corrosive Berdan priming. Muzzle velocity, at 2,723 fps, and trajectory coincides with the older 7N1. Penetration though is substantially improved over the older load. As an example, firing at a 10mm-thick grade 3 steel plate placed at 250 meters, the 7N14 achieved 100% penetrations while the 7N1 was defeated.
My introduction to this new load came on a small shooting range in Izhevsk, Russia. I was testing IZHMASH’s new SV-98 sniper rifle, and the test ammunition provided was 7N14. As I examined it, Vladimir Stronskiy gave me an inside look at this new load. Mr. Stronskiy is an engineer at Izhmash and known for creating superbly accurate target rifles. One of his designs being the Record-1, which is well respected in Europe. This rifle, in the form of the 7.62x54R Record CISM, teamed with 200-grain EXTRA Match ammunition (produced by Novosirbirsk) was used by the national select of the Armed Forces of Russia to win the International Military Games in 1995 and the World Championship in 1996. Stronskiy also based his SV-98 sniper rifle on his Record-1’s action. Very friendly and good-natured, Mr. Stronskiy is the type of man any serious rifleman would love to talk to. Although I had to speak to him through an interpreter, it was abundantly evident that this was a man who had spent his life crafting wood and steel into fantastically accurate rifles. Snuffing out a non-filtered cigarette, he proceeded to show me his rifle.
For test ammunition I was given a number of 20-round packets of 7N14. These were simple brown paper packets holding 20 rounds in four 5-round stacks with the ends stapled shut. Each packet was plainly labeled “SNIPER” in Cyrillic. Opening a packet revealed plain looking FMJ ammunition. If you found some of these in the dirt you wouldn’t look at them twice. Examining a cartridge I noted that both the case mouth and primer annulus was coated with a red sealant. Our test ammunition was manufactured by Factory 188 in 2000. Asking him about it Stronskiy replied this new load offers a substantial increase in accuracy over the older sniper load due to higher consistency, especially in powder charges. However, he said this military load is still not up to the accuracy level of commercial “EXTRA” Match ammunition used in competition.
Although I did not have the chance to test this load out of an SVD Dragunov I did fire it out of the bolt-action SV-98. Testing was performed at 100 meters with an ambient temperature of 68 degrees F. Five-shot groups were fired both off the bench and from the bipod. Firing prone off the bipod with nothing under the butt, I averaged 0.625-inch. Firing off the bench, Marc Krebs of Krebs Custom Inc. averaged 0.5-inch with the best group coming in at 0.375-inch. Recoil from this load was very mild, out of a suppressed bolt-gun. While I was impressed that the rifle could print 1/2 MOA groups, I was more impressed that it could do it with the issue steel case sniper load. This said much for the quality of the issue ammunition.
Having researched it, examined, and tested it, my view of this load depends upon its application. For use 600 yards and closer by a Designated Marksman at the squad or platoon level this load should perform well. The accompanying chart shows it has the ability to penetrate light cover, body armor, and chest pouches filled with steel Kalashnikov magazines to put down an adversary. Recoil in a SVD will be the same as for 7N1, fairly light, allowing quick follow-up shots. As far as accuracy is concerned, the rifle, not the ammunition, will be the limiting factor. From an SVD in good shape which hasn’t had its crown or bore damaged from improper cleaning with a steel cleaning rod, accuracy should run around 1.5 MOA. I have been told by an active duty MVD sniper that this load has the same dispersion at 800 meters as ball does at 300 meters out of the SVD. I would take this with a grain of salt, 800 meters is a long ways. Regardless, this load will allow a marksman armed with an SVD to support his squad/platoon with aimed fire beyond the capabilities of their AK-74M’s. The value of such a concept is finally getting another serious look by our own military. If the dedicated sniper load is not available, a very real possibility in a combat environment, the trajectory closely matches LPS ball. This, theoretically, would allow ball ammunition to be substituted for the sniper load without having to do a math problem to compensate for the trajectory.
As distances increase I am less impressed by this projectile’s capabilities. For “Western style” sniping from 500-1,000 yards I feel the 152-grain weight is a drawback. The most difficult hurdle a sniper faces before taking each shot is correctly estimating wind deflection. The further the distance to the target the more accurate this calculations must be to ensure a hit. With a relatively poor Ballistic Coefficient, approximately .4 at 2,723 fps, and moderate velocity this projectile will not buck the wind well. As an example in a 10 mph Full Value crosswind the 7N14 will be deflected 38.6 inches at 600 yards, 76 inches at 800 yards, and 129 inches at 1,000 yards. In comparison a 175-grain Sierra fired from an M24 will be deflected 32 inches at 600 yards, 61 inches at 800 yards, and 103 inches at 1,000 yards. In this regard a heavier projectile, along the lines of the old 182-grain M1930 Heavy Bullet Type D projectile, would hold velocity better and have less wind deflection past 500 meters.
I would not underestimate this combination though. A skilled sniper who is adept at reading the wind and estimating range would be a very real threat. While the 7.62x54R is certainly no 6.5/.284 it should be given proper respect out to 800+ meters. Keep in mind that the cartridge, though old, has proven accurate enough to have won Gold at the Olympics. Luckily, the low magnification 4x PSO-1 makes locating and hitting targets past 600 meters very difficult with this sniper rifle. That being said, a friend who served in the SPETsNAZ during the war in Afghanistan reported engaging out to 1,000 meters. In urban combat the semiautomatic-action and detachable magazine of the SVD, combined with the wide FOV of its scope and the armor-piercing capability of this round, would make it a very real threat.
Now in the 21st Century the 7.62x54R continues to soldier on. Like a dinosaur misplaced in time with its fat rim and long tapered case, it appears out of place with contemporary military cartridges. Yet while Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union have both faded into oblivion the cartridge that served them is alive and well. It will carry on in sniper rifles and GPMG’s well into the foreseeable future.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V7N10 (July 2004)