A cloak-and-dagger icon from the Cold War, the Makarov 9x18mm still delights collectors today … if they can get their hands on one.
How The Makarov Pistol Became A Cold War Icon:
- Designed around the Walther PP/PPK series of pistols.
- Like the German handguns, the Makarov is straight blowback-operated and can be shot in double action.
- Its cartridge, the 9x18mm Markorov, has a no-typical diameter—.365″.
- Due to trade restrictions, the pistol had a very short importation window–3 years.
- While wildly used in Soviet satellite countries' militaries, it was not universally adopted.
The Makarov Pistol is Born
In 1949, the Soviet Union was searching for a replacement for their aging Tokarev TT-33 pistols. By 1951 they had adopted a completely new design that ended up being licensed to two Eastern European countries, and to China as well. Manufactured at Russia’s Izhevsk factory, the Pistolet Makarova or Makarov Pistol was the brainchild of Nikolai Fyodorovich Makarov, who designed his new double-action, straight blow-back pistol around the proven Walther PP/PPK series of pistols.
After World War II, the Russians had access to the Walther factory in Germany and shipped much of its tooling back to the USSR. Nikolai Makarov opted for a cartridge developed by Boris Semin, who in 1946 developed it from the older Walther 9mm Ultra, an experimental cartridge originally intended for the Luftwaffe. Christened the 9x18mm Makarov, its bullet diameter is an odd .365” unlike the typical .355” of the 9mm Luger and the .380 ACP (9mm Browning). The idea behind it was in the case of a supposed contingency where stocks of 9mm Makarov ammunition might be captured by an enemy, that the cartridge could not be used in standard 9mm Luger pistols.
The Makarov semiautomatic pistol incorporates many features of the Walther in that it disassembles identically by grasping the trigger guard, bringing it downward, and pulling back the slide and upward to disengage it from the frame. Additionally, its double-action safety features are similar in that a cartridge can safely be carried in the chamber with the hammer down. With the hammer at full cock, thumbing the manual de-cock safety upward allows the hammer to fall and subsequently blocks the loaded chamber by use of a transfer bar on the safety, preventing contact with the firing pin. The eight-shot, medium-weight pistol with its 3.68-inch barrel uses a single screw in its assembly to secure the rear fastened grip. The checkered red Bakelite grips also have a circled star in the center. Markings on the Russian Makarov are the serial numbers on the left slide flat and frame with a Cyrillic prefix, and the year of manufacture is at the rear of the left frame.
It is important to reiterate that importation of the Russian Makarov lasted but a few short years between 1992 and 1995 due to the eventual trade restriction on Russian military imports during the Clinton administration. Soon after, this also included military arms from China as well. Ironically, a number of Russian-made Makarov pistols inadvertently entered the United States between 1998 and 2009 and have become known as the “sneak” Makarovs. These pistols were imported from Bulgaria and East Germany and were marked with the country of origin, as each of these nations obtained a quantity of the Russian-made versions in the 1970s and ‘80s as supplementary arms to make up for shortages in their ordnance inventories. Apparently, some of these Russian versions were mixed in and marked with the aforementioned two countries as the origin of manufacture until close BATFE inspection revealed the Russian Izhevsk Triangle cartouche on some of the pistols. These are rather desirable on the collector’s market because of this import marking error.
Soviet Satellite Makarov Clones
Regarding licensed Eastern European versions of the Makarov, East Germany was the first of the Soviet satellites to manufacture them, beginning in 1958. Made at the Ernst Thaelmann State Factory, the first two years of production saw some difficulties in getting off the ground, with full-scale manufacture underway by late 1959 and early 1960. In the United States, the East German Makarov has become one of most highly sought of their ilk given the beautiful dark blued, smooth finish, coupled with jet-black checkered plastic grips. The East German pistols also have their internal parts marked by electro pencil with the last two digits of the serial number. Production ceased in 1965. It appears that those with small, unobtrusive import marks together with condition, determine the higher price and overall desirability.
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The final licensed Makarov in communist Europe was the Bulgarian version. Given the green light for licensing rights in 1970, few were produced until five years later. Actual production took place at the Friedrich Engels Machine Works – known also as “Factory 10.” The Soviets supervised and trained the Bulgarians to manufacture the Makarov, and remained in charge of all production throughout 1975. The next year saw the Bulgarians assume control, and they steadily continued production of the Makarov up to 2007, some 15 years after the fall of communism. Prior to their sale on the U.S. surplus market, Bulgaria sold quantities of Makarov pistols to Slovenia, well past the communist break up. Most from this country were imported to the U.S. following Bulgaria’s and Slovenia’s admission to NATO in 2004.
Identical to the Russian version with the checkered, red Bakelite grips with a circled star along with the Russian dark blue finish, the Bulgarian Makarov is unquestionably a high-quality copy that prior to 1975 used some Russian internal components until the factory became entirely self-sufficient. Marked with an encrypted prefix for the production year, and followed by the serial number on the left slide and frame, quick identification of the Bulgarian variant is the presence of the Circle 10 stamped on the left frame. Surplus Bulgarian Makarov pistols are still available as of this writing from some U.S. distributors.
Breaking From The Herd
Interestingly, not all former European communist block countries opted for licensing rights to produce a Makarov clone. Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, which all had established arms factories, were quite nationalistic regarding their choice of a 9x18mm-caliber military pistol. Hungary was the first to stick with an indigenous design. The FEG factory in Budapest introduced the first 9x18mm Makarov in 1959, which was the RK-59. For economic purposes, Hungarian engineers decided to build their pistol with an aluminum frame and fashion it almost directly after the Walther PPK. The RK-59, however, was a blunder from the start as it was learned that after about 1,000 rounds, the aluminum frames developed hairline cracks and galling, which eventually deemed them unserviceable. However, Hungary quickly went back to the drawing board and after one year found its solution. Adding a 1 percent mixture of Titanium to the aluminum alloy sufficiently hardened the frame, and after a 5,000-round test, it was found that evidence of stress cracks was now passé. Thus, their second 9mm Makarov pistol was introduced in 1961 and appropriately named the R-61. This straight-blowback, semiautomatic pistol seemed to fill the bill, however, its biggest drawback was a small capacity, six-shot magazine and heavy felt recoil, a similar problem later to be seen with Poland’s first pistol of like caliber. Marked with the crest of Hungarian communist premier Janos Kadar on the left slide flat, the R-61 would last in regular service for a mere three years, but remained as a reserve sidearm until 1972.
Hungarian arms engineers were ordered to find a replacement and introduced the larger framed, PA 63 in early 1964. This seven-shot semiautomatic pistol remained in standard service until 1996, and thousands were imported to the United States beginning about 1999, and are commonly encountered on the American surplus circuit. In regression, its predecessor the R-61 was imported in limited numbers and many distributors had them rechambered to the popular .380 ACP. Those in the original 9mm Makarov chambering, however, will reap a higher price. Aside from minor dimensional contours, the Hungarian PA 63 with its 3.9-inch barrel is cosmetically close to the Walther PP and has become a favorite carry arm for American shooters. Supplied with a thumb rest left grip made of black plastic, aftermarket copies of the early flat grips are available from suppliers. The light aluminum/titanium frame has a more significant degree of felt recoil than the all-steel Walther. What is unique about both the R 61 and PA 63, is that neither have an external slide catch, and rely upon an empty magazine to lock the slide to the rear.
Following Hungary, the next former Soviet bloc country to opt for a domestically produced 9mm Makarov pistol was Poland. As with the PW wz.33 Tokarev copy, Poland once again manufactured the new replacement at the Lucznik factory Number 11 in Radom. The development of their new military pistol was the culmination of a six-man team at the WITU, a Polish acronym of the Military Institute of Armament Technology. Beginning in 1958, it would be three years later that this group of engineers would come up with a pistol coined at first as the CZAK, taking its initials from the names of some of the designing members. The new blowback semiautomatic pistol was one of two former test versions: the Model W with a longer barrel and the Model M with a shorter 3.3-inch barrel, the latter of which was approved for adoption.
This pistol was similar to the Walther PPK in many respects, but utilized a small-capacity six-round magazine. The final nomenclature for the approved pistol was the 9mm Pistolet wz.1964 – abbreviated as the P-64. Adopted in 1965, the pistol was unique in that like the former Hungarian 9mm Makarov family of semiautomatic pistols, it did not have an external slide catch and relied on an empty magazine to lock the slide in the open position. Though very compact and concealable, its main drawbacks were excessive recoil and a six-shot magazine. The P-64 has been imported into the U.S. since 2005 and was retained by Poland for a time as a reserve weapon. As of 2016, it appears that Poland released the greater majority of them, as it is now being offered in large numbers by several dealers and distributors, and is by far the lowest priced Eastern Bloc surplus pistol of its caliber.
It wasn’t until 18 years later that Poland finally adopted a much-needed replacement for the P 64. In 1983 a new pistol christened the P-83 Vanad was adopted by the Polish military and police forces. A great improvement over its predecessor, this eight-shot blowback semiautomatic pistol is dimensionally close, but slightly wider than the Russian Makarov. The P-83 began to surface in the United States around 2009-2010 and remains in Polish service as a reserve police arm. It was officially replaced by the 9mm Luger Glock 19 and the WIST 94, both of which conform to NATO standards.
The P-83 has rubber-lined, semi-wrap-around grips, and recoil is far more controllable compared to its predecessor. As with the P-64, it has a protruding loaded-chamber indicator. The one important addition was its external slide latch, and its most unique modification was its stamped-steel trigger guard. In lieu of pulling the trigger guard down and to preclude the occasional back snap of the guard during disassembly, the P-83 has two striated grips on both sides of the frame and when pulled down, allow the trigger guard to remain in place, unlocking the slide rail latch when pulling the slide back and up for removal from the frame. It is obvious from the number available in the United States, that substantial quantities likely remain in Polish government inventory.
Perhaps the top of the line semiautomatic pistol in 9mm Makarov caliber is the Czech CZ 82. Here we have the pistol that finally replaced the already 30-year-old CZ 52, and it appears Czechoslovakia was the last Eastern European country to comply with Russia’s directive to switch over to the official Warsaw Pact caliber of 9x18mm Makarov. There couldn’t have been a better pistol that took its time to kowtow to Soviet demands. By far the most up-to-date double-action blowback pistol mentioned thus far, it offered an ambidextrous safety and button-type magazine release, as well as a high-capacity 12-shot staggered magazine. Adopted in 1982, this semiauto is a design that has contemporary features acceptable by even today’s standards. Fewer of these have been seen on the U.S. surplus scene compared to the others simply because the Czech and Slovak Republics still maintain it as a police reserve arm. This pistol is also used by the People’s Republic of Vietnam, Kazakhstan, with known sales to North Korea as well. Accuracy wise this pistol is very effective out to 50 yards. Loading the 12-round magazine, however, becomes work after the sixth or seventh round is inserted due to its extremely stiff spring. Its most unattractive point is the black paint-like finish that easily chips off with use over time.
Keeping A 9x18mm Fed
As noted earlier, it is very apparent that none of the aforementioned countries have released any sizeable quantity of surplus ammunition for the 9mm Makarov cartridge, due to several countries holding numbers of pistols in this caliber as contingency war stock. Fortunately, there are about nine different ammunition makers worldwide that offer the 9x18mm Makarov. Prices vary from $11 to $24 per 50 rounds, and in some cases are less in cost than that of the popular 9mm Luger. Hornady, Brown Bear, Silver Bear, Privi Partizan and Sellier & Bellot are just a few of those companies that offer the 9mm Makarov. The author’s personal favorite is Russian-made TulAmmo. Loaded with a 95-grain bullet and steel cases, TulAmmo offers several American calibers in their line as well, but they do not list the 7.62x25mm Tokarev – which is rather peculiar. TulAmmo’s Berdan-primed, steel cases are naturally not reloadable, in this case however, the attractive prices of most loaded ammunition in this caliber alone are almost enough to omit the procedure. For those who insist on cooking up their own fodder, Winchester, Sellier & Bellot and PPU offer this cartridge with Boxer-primed cases. The author has used each of the above-mentioned brands of factory loads and has found that all perform equally as well in all of the above-listed pistols.
Editor's Notes: This article originally appeared in Gun Digest 2018, 72nd Edition.