By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“The arrival of the Nazi sniper set us a new task. We had to find him, study his habits and methods, and patiently await the moment for one, and only one, well-aimed shot.” — Captain Vasily Zaitsev, Russian sniper, 225 kills in the Battle of Stalingrad, Sep. 1942 to Jan. 1943. (Hero of the Soviet Union award.)
“I met my first female sniper…a true soldier…18 years old…My hero is a teenage, Kurdish girl (in Syria), fighting a ruthless war with little logistical support, no air support, obsolete weapons (Dragunov SVD) and equipment, and little chance of receiving proper, medical care is she is shot. She is fighting a barbaric horde of Islamic militants…As far as I’m concerned, she is the best sniper in the world…But there is a big difference between us and them. When she is killed, no one in America will care.”— Jack Murphy, special ops journalist for SOFREP, February 5, 2015.
In July 1963, Russian arms designer Yevgeny Dragunov introduced his iconic, new weapon, the Snáyperskaya Vintóvka sistém’y Dragunóva obraz’tsá 1963 goda, or “Sniper Rifle, System of Dragunov, Model of the Year 1963” (SVD-63), usually referred to simply as the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle. But despite the official, “sniper” designation in its name, the SVD was mass-produced exclusively as a squad-support weapon, a designated marksman’s rifle (DMR), since the Soviets believed at that time that long-range, sniper ability was lost due to the advent of machine guns and assault rifles.
The Dragunov is a semiautomatic, gas-operated, combat rifle with a short-stroke, gas-piston system, chambered only for the rimmed, 7.62x54mmR cartridge, which is generally similar in overall performance to the 7.62mm NATO round, firing a 151-grain bullet at 2,700 feet per second. The original SVD had a skeletonized, wooden stock, a 24.4-inch barrel with flash hider, and weighed 9.5 pounds, with scope and unloaded, 10-round, detachable, box magazine. The barrel profile was relatively thin, to save weight, and it has always been chrome-lined, for corrosion resistance.
The standard-issue scope is the quick-detachable PSO-1M2, a 4x24mm, optical, telescopic sight with an illuminated, range-finding reticle, on a raised mount that does not obstruct the ordinary, iron sights, which may still be used, when desired. The SVD rifle is simple, rugged, reliable, easy to use, even for an untrained shooter, and is accurate to within 1.24 MOA with 7N1 or 7N14 (since 1999) sniper-grade ammunition, with an effective range of 875 yards, and a 50-percent probability of a hit on a man-sized target at that distance, or a 90-percent probability inside 220 yards.
The world’s record, Dragunov SVD kill was at an astounding, 1,350 meters (1,485 yards) in Afghanistan in 1985, during the Afghan-Russian War, by Russian Sergeant Vladimir Ilyin, but that was certainly the exception to the rule regarding the weapon’s normal, effective range for most snipers. The SVD has seen combat service in virtually every war since 1963, beginning with the Vietnam War, in the hands of the communist, Viet Cong guerillas and the North Vietnamese Army.
It has been used in Afghanistan (by both the Afghan army and the Taliban rebels), Albania, Austria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, Burundi, Bulgaria, Central African Republic, China, Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, India, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Islamic State (ISIS), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lesotho, Libya, Mali, Moldova, Nicaragua, Niger, North Korea, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
The SVD was initially produced by Izhmash since 1964, and later by Kalashnikov Concern, the same folks who brought us the world-famous AK-47. In the early 1990s, a new, folding-stock version, the SVDS, was created for paratroopers, with a heavier-profile, 22.2-inch barrel and shorter flash hider. The very latest version is the SVDM (“SVD Modernized”), in service since June 2018, with a side-folding stock like the SVDS, a thick, 21.7-inch barrel, a 1P88-4 variable-power (up to 8X), telescopic sight, and a quick-detachable suppressor is available.
The SVDS and SVDM are the Russian Army’s standard-issue, “sniper” rifles today. They’re extremely well-suited for their intended purpose, and are almost perfect in many ways, but the barrel is still at least four inches too long for ease of portability during heliborne operations or urban combat. But that’s because they’re trying to attain the highest-possible muzzle velocity from a slow-burning, powder charge.
Overall, the Dragunov SVD series has been a fine, rugged, battle rifle for the past 58 years, performing its duties admirably, often under very dusty, dirty, field conditions, with just enough accuracy to be wholly acceptable as a designated marksman’s weapon. It was recently employed with particularly-devastating effect by the Kurdish YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) all-female militia in northeastern Syria against ISIS terrorist forces, as described in great detail in my 2018 manuscript, Valiant Crusader.
There was also a severe, psychological impact upon the enemy from these female, sniper teams. The radicalized, ISIS militants believed that they would not go to heaven and be greeted by 72 blue-eyed virgins if they were killed by a woman, so they went after the YPJ snipers with a vicious vengeance. Those few women that were captured alive were gang-raped, savagely tortured, beheaded, and their bodies were mutilated almost beyond recognition as human beings. So, most of the remaining, YPJ teams began wearing sizeable, explosive charges on their web belts, to blow themselves, and their captors, up in a blinding flash of light. This was sniper warfare at its most barbaric, just a few short years ago, and the bitter, civil war in Syria has not yet ended.
Five years ago, after the introduction of new, Western DMRs, such as the FN Mk. 17 SCAR-H, the HK417, SR-25/Mk. 11, and other AR-10 derivatives, usually with a 16-inch or 16.5-inch barrel, the need for an updated DMR for the Russian Federation became evident. When the Kalashnikov Concern unveiled their all-new, semiautomatic, Chukavin SVCh sniper rifle in 2016, the media was abuzz with the possibility that the well-designed Chukavin would soon replace the venerable SVD in military service.
President Vladimir Putin himself went to a shooting range in Moscow and actually tested-fired the SVCh-7.62 (or SVCh-308), with a suppressor, on September 18, 2018, although it was also produced in 7.62x54mmR and .338 Lapua Magnum versions. According to The Sun (British newspaper), “Vladimir Putin…made three ‘kill shots,’ hitting the head, liver, and abdomen of a target at (almost 600 meters)…the other two missed the target…at a Patriot Park firing range.”
Although the Chukavin is a superb, very-promising, rifle concept, with a 16.1-inch (7.62x51mm), 18.1-inch (7.62x54mmR), or 22.2-inch barrel (.338 LM), with a 10-round (.338 LM) or 20-round (7.62mm) barrel, it has still not progressed beyond the prototype phase after five years.
Meanwhile, Kalashnikov Concern’s chief designers, Demyan Belyakov and Evgeniy Erofeev, developed their own, in-house rifle design, the SK-16 (literally, “Semiautomatic Kalashnikov-2016”), carrying the announcement in the Russian-language, 164th edition of Popular Mechanics magazine.
The semiautomatic SK-16 is generally similar to the SVCh series in overall size and function, except for the tan, synthetic stock, but it’s a totally-modular system, which actually allows shooters to change weapon calibers (barrels and magazines) as a “switch-hitter” within the span of a single minute. This is the first Russian, combat rifle to have such versatile capability, and it can be chambered for either 7.62mm NATO (.308-caliber) or .338 Lapua Magnum.
Former Russian, special forces sniper Ivan Kudryashov stated that, “This feature allows (the shooter) to drastically increase or decrease the weapon’s firepower right on the battlefield…thus increasing the fire distance from 600 to 1,800 meters. It allows a user to combine two rifles inside of one.” SK-16 barrel length remains unspecified, but appears to be roughly 16 inches in 7.62mm NATO, and using the Chukavin (another Kalashnikov product) rifle as an example, the .338 LM barrel will probably be about 22 inches long.
The SK-16 is a sleek, modern design, featuring a flattop rail for mounting various optics, a folding, fully-adjustable stock, free-floating handguard, a short-stroke recoil system, and a milled-steel receiver. Its gas-trap, operating system uses a special, muzzle device that channels gas from the end of the barrel back to a tiny port above the chamber, which cycles the action. This system keeps the action locked until after the bullet leaves the barrel, for improved accuracy.
The SK-16 also uses double-sided, case extraction, and empty shells may alternately be ejected from either the left or right side, as desired by the shooter, or dependent upon the combat situation. The scope is not mentioned specifically, but it appears to be a Belomo (Belarusian) PO 2.5-10X48mm variable-power unit, or similar, Kalinka Optics (Russian) design, generally equivalent to the U.S. Vortex Viper HS 2.5-10X44mm scope, which is more than adequate for sniper duty.
It’s no secret that the Russians have been using the Syrian Civil War as a testing ground for new weapons (including the advanced, Sukhoi Su-57 Felon stealth fighter) since 2014, with a sizeable and well-established, Russian presence at Khmeimim Air Base, near Latakia, Syria. Their use of sniper rifles is clearly evident in the growing list of exports to the Syrian Arab Army. The Dragunov SVD is still the most-commonly-used weapon, but other rifles include the suppressed VSS Vintorez in 9x39mm, the Romanian PSL, the Zastava (Serbian) M91, the Steyr (Austrian) SSG 69, Orsis (Russian) T-5000M “Terminator” in .338 Lapua Magnum, the eclectic MTs-116M, ASVK in 12.7mm, OSV-96 in 12.7mm, suppressed VSK-94 in 9x39mm, and the Sayyad-2/AM-50 or Golan S-01 (copies of the Steyr HS .50) in 12.7mm.
The Syrian opposition groups (Free Syrian Army rebels, and Kurdish militia) have employed many of these same rifles, plus the American M14, the Chinese M99 in 12.7mm, the antiquated Simonov PTRS-41 in 14.5mm, locally-built, “Zagros” rifle in 14.5mm, the Russian Mosin-Nagant M1891/30, French MAS-36, the Colt M16A4 in 5.56mm, the Russian SKS in 7.62x39mm, the Russian KSVK in 12.7mm, the Belgian FN/FAL in 7.62mm, and the Sako (Finnish) TRG-22 (very few available) in 7.62mm.
For their part, the Russian Army and SpetsNaz special forces have been combat-testing many new, sniper-rifle designs for the past seven years, certainly including the Orsis T-5000M, Dragunov SVDM and SVDS, suppressed VSS Vintorez, VSK-94, OSV-96, SV-98M in 7.62x54Ror .338 Lapua Magnum, and foreign rifles including the Accuracy International (British) AWM, Steyr (Austrian) SSG-08 in .308 and .300 Winchester Magnum, Sako TRG-42, and Truvelo (South African) CMS in 12.7x99mm.
Other Russian rifles used in battle probably include the new, bolt-action, Kalashnikov VSV-338 in .338 Lapua Magnum, the semiautomatic, Kalashnikov SVK in 7.62mm, integrally-suppressed VSSK Vychlop (“Exhaust”) in 12.7x55mm, ASVK-M Kord-M in 12.7x108mm, the Kalashnikov/Chukavin SVCh-7.62 (or SVCh-308) and SVCh-8.6 (or SVCh-338), the Lobaev TSVL-8 Stalingrad in .338 Lapua Magnum, and the ultra-expensive ($30-34k), Lobaev SVLK-14SSumrak (“Twilight”) with a fixed, carbon-fiber stock, the folding-stock, Lobaev DXL-4 “Sevastopol” in .408 CheyTac.
The superb, semiautomatic Chukavin SVCh sniper rifle in either 7.62x51mm NATO (as test-fired by Vladimir Putin himself), 7.62x54R Russian, or .338 Lapua Magnum would be a fine choice to replace the venerable, combat-proven, Dragunov SVD series, however the Chukavin is produced as three separate and distinct rifles, with three different barrel lengths. The shooter would have to carefully choose his weapon for its intended purpose of either medium-range or long-range sniping.
With the Kalashnikov SK-16 however, the Russian sniper would have a rugged, one-size-fits-all weapon, readily field-convertible from 7.62mm NATO to .338 Lapua Magnum in no time at all, depending upon the demands of the battlefield. And so far, the SK-16’s synthetic stock is produced in one color only, Desert Tan. They appear to have had the Syrian War in mind from the very inception of this excellent weapon.
There is a downside to the innovative SK-16, however. Viktor Murahovsky, the editor-in-chief of Homeland Arsenal magazine in Russia, and a recognized, weapons expert, has reported that, “An infantry sniper rifle shouldn’t be sophisticated. It’s supposed to be durable, withstand dirt and water, easy to use and maintain, and effectively eliminate enemies 500 meters away from you. SK-16 is a sensitive weapon. It needs proper usage and can’t be treated unprofessionally.”
The question remains, is the innovative, Kalashnikov SK-16 a little too sensitive for the average, poorly-trained, Russian infantry sniper? After all, the incredibly-simple, rugged, Dragunov SVD-series has endured as their premier, sniper rifle for the past 58 years, and some say that it’s hard to improve upon perfection. Then again, Murahovsky firmly believes that the new, “switch-hitter” (left or right-handed, and .308 or .338 LM-caliber) SK-16 would be a great addition for Russian SpetsNaz commando units, who have the requisite training and skills to employ such a versatile, modern weapon. It’s not a standard-issue rifle yet, but time will tell.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.