By David M. Fortier
As US troops are presently engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, SAR is presenting an interview of special interest with a former Soviet SPETsNAZ trooper who served in Afghanistan from October 1985-February 1987. We shall call him Andrei. He provides a fascinating look at the Russian experience and the weapons they carried.
SAR: Give us a brief run down on your military background, length of time in Afghanistan, position, and rank.
Andrei: When I was drafted I asked to be sent to an airborne unit, which was granted. I had three jumps prior to my military service and during basic training at airborne school jumped 24 times, including two freefalls and one night jump. At this time I was an athlete involved in “Sambo” (Editor’s note: a highly respected martial art, similar to Greco-Roman wrestling and Judo.) and due to this I was selected and transferred to a SPETsNAZ unit. I had volunteered to serve in the 40th Army in Afghanistan and served my first six months as a sniper. I then requested a transfer and served the remainder of my time as a rifleman in our assault group. I spent 23 months in the Soviet Army with 16 months in Afghanistan and held the rank of Private.
SAR: Did you receive any special training prior to your deployment?
Andrei: Yes, mostly ambush, mine placement, and mine retrieval. Also sniper training for me personally, and mountain training as well. This lasted for three months.
SAR: Can you outline your time in Afghanistan?
Andrei: I arrived in Afghanistan on 23 October 1985. I served in the North East part of the country in the provinces of Takhar, Baglan, and Kunduz. I served mostly in Takhar, which is now the general area of operations of the Northern Alliance. My unit was tasked with cutting off the Afghan’s supplies by stopping their convoys and caravans. We would receive information a convoy or caravan would be coming through a certain area and set an ambush up for it and wait for it to arrive. This was our main task. A small percentage of our operations were so called “address” operations, meaning that we would get information that an armed detachment of rebels would be doing R&R or something in some village and we would be called in. We would then work in conjunction with “Greens” (Afghan government troops) or a battalion of infantry or airborne troops to blockade the village and annihilate any of the resistance fighters. I was evacuated from Afghanistan, after being wounded in combat during a special operation conducted by my unit, on February 17, 1987.
SAR: What was the size of the unit you normally operated with and your weapons?
Andrei: Typically 22 people or somewhere around there. There were five officers, four NCOs, and the rest sergeants and privates. We broke down into three basic groups. For fire support we had three PKMs, two SVD sniper rifles, and four RPK74s. We had one AGS17 that we would take or sometimes leave, depending on the operation due to its weight. If the convoy is small there was no need for that weapon. We carried two RPG-7Vs if the convoy had vehicles, with enough rockets. Each group would have about 3-4 RPG18s we called “Fly”. The standard rifle was the 5.45x39mm AKS74. Two of these per group had a GP-25 grenade launcher for a total of six. Plus there were two 7.62x39mm AKMSs per groups with PBS suppressors. At this time there was no subsonic 5.45x39mm ammunition so we used the 7.62x39mm AKMSs. Subsonic 7.62x39mm ammunition was difficult to come across also, and they used the regular rounds as well. Every man carried no less than 450 rounds and most people carried 600 rounds on them. Snipers carried around 150 rounds of 7.62x54R sniper ammunition. Spare magazines for the SVD were extremely hard to come by. Five were issued; I carried seven along with a Stetchkin machine pistol in its holster/stock stuck in the outer pocket of my pack. I carried three 20-round magazines for the Stetchkin. When I carried an AKS74 I carried nine 30-round magazines. Only five were issued, the other four I traded for or captured.
SAR: I’d like to talk a bit you about the small arms used in Afghanistan, so why don’t we start with pistols. How was the 9x18mm Makarov pistol regarded?
Andrei: Well, the officers and some of the sergeants were issued them. The best way to put it is the way one of our officers did, he said, “It’s the most excellent gun there is, it’s reliable, functions well, light and compact and comfortable. Yes, it’s the most excellent gun there is…….for suicide. You should only carry one round in it.” That’s what he said (laughing) but that could be said about all handguns. All the officers carried AKs into combat. But it was extremely considered cool by soldiers to have a handgun. However most of the officers didn’t even carry them into combat, they deemed them useless.
SAR: Do you know any instance where a Makarov was actually used in combat?
Andrei: No, not that I can recall. I can remember taking them off dead muj. They were Chinese made, we came across several of them.
SAR: Did you receive training with the Makarov?
Andrei: Yes I did, they issued you three rounds that you fired at 25 meters and they scored you and then they issued you five rounds and they scored you. The series of five is what you shoot using the one-hand typical European stance facing sideways with the other hand on your hip.
SAR: Did you see any other handguns in use with Soviet troops?
Andrei: Yes, the Stetchkin – as a matter of fact I carried one, which was extremely cool. I got one issued to me as a sniper, which wasn’t the usual thing, I don’t think any VDV (the Russian acronym for paratroopers) units would have one. But I whined and I had a great relationship with the Major who was from my hometown and he was in charge of armaments. When I saw a crate of them in the armory I complained and whined and to shut me up he assigned me one as a personal weapon. But I had to surrender it as soon as I surrendered my SVD.
SAR: What were you issued with the Stetchkin?
Andrei: I had three magazines with it, I had the leather magazine pouch, and I had the leather strap that goes over your shoulder to carry the holster/stock. Which I never used really, because I had it in the other side of my RD pack, and the spare magazines were in there with it. The magazine pouch I didn’t carry as I had enough stuff on my belt. Plus I had the cleaning rod.
SAR: What was your opinion of the effectiveness of the Stetchkin?
Andrei: Well you know that I never had to use it in anger, so to speak. But I can tell you with absolute certainty, because I’ve done it, that thing will knock down silhouette targets at 200-250 meters with the stock attached. On full-auto it was absolutely controllable with not much kick and it was possible to even get single shots with some practice with it set on full-auto. I deployed it a few times when we went into houses or to inspect some bombed out ruins. When I did, I just pulled it out and carried it like a pistol without the stock attached.
SAR: How did the Soviet troops regard the Stetchkin?
Andrei: Everybody and his mother wanted to have one! They were considered to be very cool. Everybody wanted to shoot it, among enlisted men it was considered an exotic weapon. They would bug the Hell out of me just so they could shoot it.
SAR: How difficult was it getting 9x18mm ammo?
Andrei: Not difficult, it was plentiful. There would be at least a couple of cans with 9x18mm. Because nobody really used that caliber so there was plenty of it stashed away.
SAR: You were a sniper, concerning your SVD was it brand new or used?
Andrei: It wasn’t brand new, it was used and showed some wear but was in good shape.
SAR: Were you issued the same rifle all the time?
Andrei: Yes, by serial number.
SAR: What accessories were you issued with the SVD?
Andrei: I had the four-pocket magazine pouch, I had the cleaning rod, cleaning tool, oil bottle, I don’t remember if I was issued the cold weather battery compartment or the lens filter. I was issued five magazines. When you ambushed a convoy you’d go and pick up the booty. There were plenty of AK magazines but rarely did you come across an SVD shooter that you could rip the magazines off. However you could buy or trade them from the guys working in the armory.
SAR: Concerning your SVD, did you use a scope/action cover, wrap the rifle in any way to protect it, or cover the muzzle?
Andrei: I did not use anything to cover the muzzle. I did use the canvas scope/action cover that was issued. However when I would return the rifle to the armory or put it in the pyramid I would take that off, the rubber eyepiece off, and sometimes the whole scope off. Plus I would take the cheek piece off so that they didn’t get stolen. When on the march I would have the scope cover on it until we got to a forward area and then I would remove it.
SAR: So you never had a case that you put the complete sniper rifle in the armory.
SAR: How were the rifles sighted in?
Andrei: The AK74s were never, never dialed in by the soldiers. They were dialed in by the armorer service and they were issued to you and you just knew which way they shot and where to aim. Say a little low or a little to the left. But you were not at liberty to dial your own rifle in. Now as far as the scope on the SVD was concerned the individual sniper dialed that in between 300 and 400 meters. You would just set a target at an approximate distance, it wasn’t anything precise just counted off in steps, and you’d set a target up. The target could be anything from a clay pitcher, or rock, or a piece of tank track that would make noise when you hit it.
SAR: What type of ammunition would you sight the SVD in with?
Andrei: Well it depends on what you had. You could sight it in with the designated sniper round or you could sight it in with ball for the PKM. It depends on what you had. They might just issue you 20 rounds of sniper ammo or they could say here’s some regular ball ammo. But they weren’t looking for precise hits at 400 meters into the left eye. They were looking for hits anywhere in the chest at 400 meters.
SAR: How was the sniper ammo issued?
Andrei: Just before a mission when the individual weapons were issued with their “combat complex,” which translate into English as your “kit” with all your magazines and stuff. And they would say, “squad number such and such go receive your ammo.” So you go over there and there would be a warrant officer issuing ammo to you. He would have a little sheet telling how ammo needs to be issued to you, such as how many rounds of 7.62x39mm, 5.45x39mm, how many grenades, how many 7.62x54R on the belts or loose, and how many 7.62x54R sniper loads. When he comes out he’d have the soldiers bring the stuff out and say, “Here take this crate, this crate, and this,” and your unit comes in and brings all this stuff out to the loading tables. These are wooden tables onto which you would load your magazines. And the sniper rounds would be brought out in the separate tins.
SAR: Did you ever use the SVD’s PSO-1’s illuminated reticle in combat?
Andrei: Absolutely, yes.
SAR: How hard were the batteries to get? Andrei: It depended on what guy was issuing the batteries. He could be some kind of hardnosed jerk, a warrant officer that nobody liked. You could say, “I need some batteries,” and he could say, “Go to hell,” and that would be it. Other times they’d go and get a couple. Then the first thing is that you never put them in your scope, you keep them on you in your pocket (laughing). And then when you do need it you put it in. We were a little different though because we were always quartered at somebody else’s unit and they kind of respected what we had to do and they never really argued with us. If I did have a problem I would just go and tell my unit commander that this idiot wouldn’t give me any batteries and he’d go get them.
SAR: Did you ever have a problem with the bulbs breaking?
Andrei: No, not once did I replace a bulb.
SAR: How did you estimate the range of targets when using the SVD? Andrei: I would use the stepped rangefinder in the PSO-1 scope on a human figure or I would use a binocular with rangefinder marks and a formula. If it was a vehicle or a human figure you could use the 8×30 binocular reticle and formula to calculate the distance.
SAR: What were the average ranges you engaged at with the SVD?
Andrei: 400-800 meters with the furthest I ever engaged being 1,000 meters.
SAR: What where the average ranges that you engaged at with the AKS74?
Andrei: Anywhere from 200-400 meters depending upon the locale. The ideal position would be between 200 and 250 meters.
SAR: How many rounds of 5.45x39mm or 7.62x54R did you carry?
Andrei: Up to 650 rounds of 5.45x39mm and up to 200 rounds of 7.62x54R.
SAR: How did you carry your spare ammunition for 5.45x39mm and 7.62x54R that wasn’t in magazines?
Andrei: I carried it all in the side pouches on my pack in the paper packets they came in.
SAR: Did you ever carry spare 5.45x39mm ammo in stripper clips?
Andrei: No, never. You could pack those little packets everywhere, in your side pockets, in your pants, everywhere. But with the stripper clips you have to first load those, then you have to load them into a magazine, so nobody ever bothered. I’ve seen them in the armory, but nobody ever used them.
SAR: Did you fire just predominantly full-auto with the AK74? Andrei: Yes, predominantly yes, although towards the end of the fire contact you would switch to single rounds, because depending upon how much return fire you were getting you would try and save rounds because you don’t know what may come next. But in the initial fire contact you need to unleash everything you’ve got full automatic with long bursts to suppress their will to fight. That was the usual exercise. SAR: How long were your bursts at initial contact?
Andrei: You would put five or six rounds through, but as you know only one or two rounds will hit where you’re aiming and the rest will go elsewhere. They teach you that the best possible rate of fire is two to three rounds at the count of “twenty-two” and they teach you that at basic training. Depress the trigger when you say “twenty” and release it when you say “two.” “Twenty-two” and two rounds will go off, rarely three rounds will go off. So this way you save your ammo and deliver effective fire. Plus they teach you to aim at the knees of the target at anything inside 300-400 meters. When you’ve got people attacking you in a staggered formation like a checkerboard they tell you to aim at their right knee and the first round will hit them in the chest and the second will hit them in their left shoulder and the third round will go over their left shoulder, possibly striking the enemy soldier behind.
SAR: Were you ever issued tracer ammunition for your AK74 or SVD?
Andrei: All the time. First off, most of our operations were conducted at night or dawn or dusk and tracers were used to guide any kind of air support we had. We would load every fourth or fifth round in our magazines with a tracer just so it could be used to correct fire. I did not use tracers with the SVD because as soon as you fired one you’d give up your position.
SAR: Did you think that there was any difference in effectiveness between the 7.62x39mm AKMs and the 5.45x39mm AK74s?
Andrei: As a matter of fact the AK74 was something new that they had just started to issue only a few years before. Everybody was under the impression that these things had a special bullet with a offset center of gravity that would leave a devastating blow and we were under the impression that this was a superior weapon because of the special bullet.
SAR: So when you underwent training they made a point to indicate that the 5.45x39mm ammunition had special characteristics.
Andrei: That’s right, they indicated that it was an offset center-of-gravity round.
SAR: Did its effect in combat bear that out? Did you feel it was more effective than the 7.62x39mm?
Andrei: That’s hard to determine, you’ve got stuff from all over incoming. You don’t go over there and look at this hole and say, “look what this did and look what that did,” I think that both of the guns did their job and did their job quite well. But the guy who carried the AKM was a special guy cause he had the PBS. But then again when you’re talking about the load he still had to carry 600 rounds and that’s 30% heavier than 5.45x39mm. The 5.45x39mm did its job perfectly though, it shot in the direction it was pointing it, it hit what you needed to hit, and killed what you wanted to kill, and that was it.
SAR: How was the reliability of your weapons in combat?
Andrei: Quite reliable, we had a PKM jam on us once. We had occasional malfunctions, although never to me, of the AK74, but it would only take a second to clear it. But everything we had was very reliable.
SAR: How effective where the PBS suppressors on your unit’s AKMs?
Andrei: The operators were not issued subsonic ammunition so they were using standard 7.62x39mm rounds. That suppressor worked, but not like with pistol ammunition or anything. I mean it was pretty noticeable and loud. But what it would do is it would blow the enemy off kind of, they would not know where the shot came from.
SAR: How where your suppressed AKMs utilized?
Andrei: Usually to take guards out. Or in the case of a caravan you would have a point guard that you had to let through the kill zone to sucker the whole caravan into the kill zone, but you can’t let the point guard escape. So they were usually used for taking the point guard out after they passed the kill zone.
SAR: Did you ever have any problems with the suppressors?
Andrei: No there were no problems if you knew how to use it. You could probably put five rounds through it before you had to replace the diaphragm in it. And that was not hard at all and the kit came with like four or five.
SAR: How were your GP-25 grenade launcher’s deployed?
Andrei: We had three of four people in the group with them, they were deployed very nicely (laughing). I carried one for about a week. You carried a 10-round bandoleer with VOG-25 anti-personnel rounds with it. You could do well out to 300 meters with it but you had to practice and get a feel for it. It’s basically like a little mortar. You could fire one relatively quickly because you’re loading it from the muzzle. Soon as you put the round in and you heard it click you knew you were ready to fire, and you switched that hand and put it on the trigger and off it goes. They were extremely popular in the mountains as they provided a lot of firepower.
SAR: How often did you actually clean your guns.
Andrei: That’s hard to say, if you leave it up to enlisted man, NEVER. It was up to the officers to make sure their personnel kept their weapons in working order. If one of the guns jammed or whatever then that particular individual is in trouble and that unit is in trouble. You tried to clean one when you were killing some time, you’re on an operation sitting on an ambush killing daylight and if you knew you fired your weapon recently then you’d go and clean it just to keep it functioning well. I don’t remember the frequency that we’d clean it, like I said we would just sit and twiddle thumbs. You have to remember that in Afghanistan your rifle will be dirty every day that it is out of the armory, dirty from the sand and dust. It’s almost impossible to keep the outside clean but you were kind of concerned with the inside to make sure it functions well. But sometimes you’d go on for weeks without cleaning it.
SAR: In the field?
Andrei: In the field.
SAR: That says a lot for the reliability of the Kalashnikov rifle. Andrei, thanks for sharing your experiences with SAR readers and us.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N11 (August 2003)|