The Tokarev SVT-38 was the beginning of the Tokarev line of self-loading, automatic service rifles. The SVT-38 was developed in the mid-1930s and was soon pressed into service with Soviet forces upon the arrival of World War 2. Once in action, the SVT-38 proved powerful yet fragile. After a short time in the field, the limitations of the SVT-38 shown through and the type was replaced by the similar yet more robust SVT-40.
Soviet interest in self-loading rifles was piqued when leader Josef Stalin enacted a competition in 1935 to find the next standard-issue Soviet infantry rifle. By this time, engineer Fedor Tokarev had abandoned his attempts at creating a self-loading rifle based on recoil operation and instead geared his attention towards the creation of a similar rifle operating from a gas-minded principle. Competing firearms designer Sergei Simonov submitted his own design which proved to be what Stalin was looking for and Simonov won the contract. His self-loading rifle was designated as the AVS-36 and entered service in 1936, becoming the first automatic rifle to be accepted in quantity by the Red Army.
However, once in service, the AVS-36 was not all it seemed. Muzzle blast and recoil effects were two of its detrimental factors. In an attempt to rectify the design, Simonov fitted a two-baffle muzzle brake to help contend with the recoil and the receiver was hollowed to allow open movement of the cocking handle. The former change was welcomed but the latter unnecessarily exposed the internal working components of the AVS-36 to the grime and abuse of combat which did not lend itself well to a service rifle. As such, the AVS-36 was given a rather short service life in the inventory of the Red Army and a replacement was in the works soon after.
Fedor Tokarev submitted his simpler automatic rifle design back into the fray and it was formally accepted into Red Army service as the SVT-38 (also "Tokarev 1938"). The rifle was issued in 1938 and quickly moved to replace the Simonov AVS-36 series. What made the SVT-38 unique in Soviet firearms lore was its relatively complicated design. To this point, Soviet firearms were generally simple in design and easy to produce and could further be used by just about anyone with very little training involved.
The SVT-38 was designed with a two-piece wooden stock. Wood made up the stock, receiver and the forward hand guard. It was not until later that a steel-sheet hand guard replaced the forward wooden one. All major internal working components were set within the metal portion of the receiver. The oblong trigger ring hung under the receiver near the ergonomic hand grip with the curved trigger unit situated inside. The magazine feed was well-forward of the trigger unit and fed by a 10-round curved, detachable magazine. The feed was also accessible from the top of the receiver which allowed use of the 5-round stripper clips consistent with the Russian Mosin-Nagant rifle. A magazine release lever was fitted just aft of the magazine feed. The receiver sported a milled rail system to accept a telescopic sight as optional - a fairly forward-thinking addition to the SVT-38 design. A cocking handle was situated along the forward right side of the receiver near the cartridge ejection port. The forend was long and extended a ways from the body of the rifle, the wood double banded by steel bands before tapering off to expose the barrel proper. The forend showcased both a section with circular cooling holes and rectangular cooling slots over the aft portion of the barrel. The barrel featured a front post and was capped by a multi-baffled muzzle brake (originally 6-baffled) to help contend with recoil. A 2-baffled muzzle brake was fitted after 1940. Interestingly, the cleaning rod for the weapon was held externally against the right side of the stock against a carved out groove. Traditionally, such accessories were mounted under the barrel to keep the weapon clear of potential obstructions.
The SVT-38 was chambered - as was the AVS-36 - to fire the powerful 7.62x54R Russian cartridge. The firing action centered around a gas-operated, short-stroke piston with tilting bolt. The internal gas system was adjustable. Muzzle velocity was rated at 2,756 feet per second with and effective range out to 550 yards. The rifle weighed in at 3.95kg when unloaded and featured a length of 1,222mm with a barrel length of 610mm sporting 4-grooves with a right-hand twist.
The SVT-38 saw its first taste of combat in 1939 when it was issued to Soviet troops during the Winter War (1939-1940) against Finland. Initially, the weapon proved too heavy and rather long for the hold of Soviet soldiers and her complicated and sometimes fragile nature proved poor against the abuse inherent in modern combat. One detrimental effect was the magazine completely falling out of its feed from under the receiver during action, much to the shock of the operating Soviet soldier. The rather fragile construction and after-action reports of the rifle soon led to a cancellation of further production in April of 1940. By this time, some 150,000 examples were in circulation with some taking advantage of the telescopic sights fitting. Regardless, the SVT-38 proved both as something of a success and a failure. As a success, it pioneered solutions to some rather difficult problems involved in a self-loading rifle design, particularly when taken in the scope of Soviet arms design up to this point in history. As a failure, the Soviets were still without that standard-issue, war-winning automatic rifle that they had sought since the middle of the 1930s.
It was not long before an improved Tokarev self-loading rifle appeared to take the place of the failed SVT-38. The SVT-40 appeared in July of 1940 out of the Tula facility as a revised and lighter automatic rifle design. The cleaning rod was relocated to the underside of the barrel and the stock was of a single piece. The SVT-40 was purposely designed as a tougher and easier-to-produce alternative to the original SVT-38 and succeeded for the most part. Its success was showcased in the use of the weapon by German forces who managed to capture examples intact. Hundreds of thousands of SVT-40s were soon generated and at least 50,000 were specialized scoped sniper variants.
Soviet self-loading technology impressed the Germans enough for them to study and engineer their own self-loading types during the war. These became the Gew 41 of 1941 and its replacement, the Gew 43 of 1943.