Unique in both concept and design, the Czech vz. 61 Skorpion machine pistol has won hearts on both sides of the law since its inception.
The vz. 61 Skorpion (or Škorpion in Czech) is what happens when compactness takes precedence in a personal defense weapon. Intended to be carried more than shot, the Skorpion was Socialist Czechoslovakia’s answer to the issue of arming non-combat-oriented troops. For as long as armies have been fighting with firearms, it’s been understood that there is little utility in issuing a rifle to a soldier who is not expected to fight with it. Rather than waste an expensive rifle and burden the troop with a cumbersome weapon, pistols were traditionally used to arm individuals who needed armament purely as a status symbol or for emergencies. From officers to vehicle crews, handguns were the norm for quite some time. Since at least the First World War, however, armies have experimented with weapons designed to bridge the gap in firepower between a traditional pistol and a carbine or submachine gun. From long-barreled and stocked Artillery Lugers to the FN P90, weapons of this class have come to be known as personal defense weapons or PDWs, and their utility extends beyond military service.
Like many other PDWs, the Skorpion may have entered production as a last-ditch emergency weapon for vehicle crews, but it only truly found its stride doing work of a rougher nature. Its relatively high firepower for its concealable and compact nature made it popular with everyone from special military and police units to terrorists and criminals alike around the globe. Its striking visual appearance that’s befitting to its name made the Skorpion an instant icon that’s been featured in dozens of films and games, solidifying its place in the public consciousness. Now as pistol caliber carbines and other PDWs gain popularity in the States, semi-auto pistol Skorpion variants are still a surprisingly accessible option to consider.
Development History And Design
The Skorpion is a Czech gun through and through. It was designed by Miroslav Rybář in 1959 and officially adopted by the Czechoslovak army in 1961. A key factor in the Skorpion’s compactness is its use of a “telescoping bolt”, a design feature that moves the breechface and chamber backward which allows for a shorter bolt that still has enough mass to function. While the invention of this is often attributed to the Israeli Uzi submachine gun that was invented in 1950, the concept was actually born at the same factory as the Skorpion in the form of the vz. 23 a few years earlier. While the vz. 23 and vz. 61 had different lead designers, the telescoping bolt concept was obviously already in-house when it came time to create the Skorpion.
Widely issued to officers, vehicle crews and special forces for decades after its adoption, the Skorpion is still in Czech army reserves and has remained extremely popular around the world. Initially designed for security forces, its adoption by the Czechoslovak army as a PDW was merely the afterthought that launched it into mass production and subsequent global fame. Chambered for the extremely light recoiling .32 ACP cartridge, the Skorpion is a direct blowback, closed-bolt machine pistol. It has an over-folding wire stock and feeds from 10 and 20 round magazines and fires at a rate of about 850 rounds per minute in full auto. Due to its straight blowback design, the Skorpion would naturally have a much higher fire rate than it does if it weren’t for its clever rate reducing mechanism neatly stowed in the pistol grip.
Every feature of the Skorpion was designed to prioritize compactness. From its nub-like charging handles to its magazine capacity and stock, the vz. 61 really is in a class of its own, managing to be only barely larger than a traditional service pistol while offering similar firepower to an SMG. This focus on size was because the Skorpion was intended to be carried in a belt holster. Coming in at under three pounds and just over 10 inches long when folded, the Skorpion can be carried in the holster loaded when using a 10-round magazine (presumably the only reason why these magazines were created). Separate belt pouches carry spare 20-round mags. This setup isn’t as well known as the gun itself, as most of the Skorpion’s provenance comes from use not with Czech government forces but from organized criminals and political terrorists.
One Popular Piece
The Skorpion’s compactness was emphasized so it would be comfortable to carry and unobtrusive in confined spaces, but the same features lend themselves to concealability as well. It's no surprise then that the Skorpion would find itself to be a popular choice among members of society who value that sort of thing in a machine pistol. For those that have access to them, Skorpions remain a very popular choice among organized criminals and terrorists, but also with certain smaller countries’ police and clandestine units.
The first time any Americans likely encountered the Skorpion was in Vietnam where they were used by both guerrillas and the NVA, with at least one documented example having been captured during the sapper attack on Ubon airbase in Thailand in 1969. Skorpions were also used by the East German NVA, all sides of the Yugoslav wars and even supposedly by some Soviet Spetsnaz units. A dead North Korean spy was also found with one in 1998.
One of the most famous incidents involving a Skorpion was the 1978 kidnapping and execution of Aldo Moro by Italian communists, and Skorpions were also prominently featured in the conflicts of Northern Ireland. It is still one of the more common illegal weapons found in criminal hands throughout Europe, and they frequently surface during police raids where they are then often prominently displayed in the media. Their favorability with groups like this combined with their striking visual appearance has also resulted in Skorpions being a common sight in movies, television and games, helping to further worsen their notoriety with the public.
There have been a few iterations of the Skorpion over the years, but none have excelled at their role quite like the original. The Skorpion shines as a low recoiling PDW with very controllable full-auto, and much of that magic is lost when chambered for larger calibers. In 1982 the Czechoslovak army adopted the Soviet 9x18mm cartridge and subsequently rechambered the Skorpion for it, eventually making .380 ACP and 9x19mm export variants as well. The easiest way to tell the models apart is their magazine, as original Skorpions require curved mags to accommodate the semi-rimmed .32 ACP cartridge. All other chamberings use straight magazines.
One variant that is as good as the original is the licensed Yugoslavian M84 clone made by Zastava. This is the version that obviously saw the most use during the Balkan conflicts and is almost as prolific as original Czech models are. Many Skorpion users throughout history also obtained threaded barrels for use with suppressors, as both the cartridge and the platform suppress very well.
Skorpions In America
Unfortunately, the Skorpion is a design that shines the brightest in its original select-fire configuration—something that most law-abiding American gun owners will never be able to obtain. There are very few, if any, pre-86 registered and fully transferable Skorpion machineguns on the market, meaning to legally own one you essentially need to be a Class 3 SOT. That being said, many people still find the semi-auto pistols you can buy to be worthwhile range toys and plinkers with a lot of style and interesting history.
Semi-auto Skorpion pistols are still in production and can be purchased new for about $750 as of writing this, distributed by CzechPoint USA and imported from the original manufacturers in the Czech Republic. The only real differences between the civilian version and the original are the lack of a full-auto FCG, the now-useless rate reducer and the rear receiver dovetail mount for the stock. They are made using a combination of original surplus and new parts and are available in all three original calibers, but it’s worth noting that the .32 ACP version can have ammo sensitivity issues. The importer recommends only using European C.I.P. spec ammo with them for the best results.
The abundance of parts kits that have been imported also means that amateur and professional-built Skorpions are out there as well. The parts kits are still common and inexpensive, but unfortunately the lack of a good source for barrels or receivers limits their viability. With the new realities of 3D printing though, all it would take is a steady supply of barrels for these to be very accessible build kits for Americans to play with.
Ultimately, in their typical American stock-less and semi-auto guise, Skorpions have more novelty than utility. That doesn’t mean that one couldn’t effectively be used for self-defense, but it likely won’t fare you any better than a normal full-sized handgun would. Hopefully barrels and receivers become available enough for a surge of Americans to build these plentiful kits out for fun, but in the meantime, they’ll remain somewhat niche range toys for those who appreciate their history and aesthetics.
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