Meet the Tokarev. It’s Kind of Brilliant.

This is not so much a review, but more of a ‘getting acquainted’ session. Let’s get on with it.

Not quite a T33, this Tokarev was made by Norinco in China. US import regulations mandated the addition of a safety. BAH! Puny, effete western dogs!

In the 1890’s the Russians realized they needed a standardized service pistol. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in those meetings. A fly that spoke Russian, I mean.

“Our S&W .44s are getting a bit long-in the tooth and knocking them off is expensive. We need a new standard service revolver. Preferably something obsolete.”

“The Germans…”

“Dear Lord, not that obsolete! Badly designed too. Besides, we don’t like the Germans.”

“Let’s get a Nagant revolver. It’s a bit obsolete, but that means it will be cheap. We can make them in a really anemic caliber so we can use our crappy steel. While we’re at it lets make it a gas-seal gun. It’s completely unnecessary and the trigger pull will be horrible!”

“Perfect! This will make the gun worse and more expensive without offering any benefit! What could be a greater glory to the Empire than adopting a terrible, obsolete revolver in a weak cartridge!”

OK, it probably didn’t go exactly like that; I’m sure there were bribes and nepotism involved too. Thus for decades the Imperials, and then the Soviets that followed them, had what was arguably the worst service pistol of the era.

Around 1930 IQs rose sharply and they realized they needed a viable modern pistol. The Mauser C96 ‘Broomhandle’ was popular, but the Soviet New Man saw no need to adopt another obsolete, complicated and expensive service arm. PROGRESS! That cartridge though…

The 1911 was doing rather well, and the Soviets thought they could do it chea… uh, better. They swiped the essentials of the design- tilting barrel with locking lugs, pivot-link, single-action operation, sliding trigger etc. But they did not, uh, slavishly copy the 1911. They made it less expensive to produce and one might argue better. OK, let me ditch this mob with pitchforks and torches and I’ll be right back.

This Norinco Tokarev is pretty nicely finished, but cosmetic grinds are a bit… whimsical.

The cartridge they selected for the new pistol was 7.62 x 25mm, a bottlenecked .30-caliber cartridge that isn’t .30 Mauser. No, really! I mean it! OK, you can use them interchangeably, but they are totally not the same. *nods earnestly*

Since the New Soviet Man had evolved beyond the need for safeties the only safety is the half-cock notch on the hammer. Troops were supposed to carry the weapon without a round in the chamber not seen as an issue. Besides, when they inevitably and sensibly ignored this policy in battle it was easy to just thumb-cock the gun.

Machining of the barrel lugs was simplified, the retention of the bushing was simplified, the machining of the frame was simplified, the grips were simplified; the design was really pared down to it’s essentials. Honestly it wasn’t so much that the Soviets were cheapskates; they were trying to drag a huge, largely medieval nation into the 20th C. and they had seen the writing on the wall; they were going to need a modern military fast. Designs needed to be simple, robust, easy to produce and inexpensive.

The Tokarev deconstructed.

There was one area where innovation trumped inexpensive in a way- the fire-control group. The hammer, sear etc. are placed in a removable unit. Not like ‘Chassis’ of many modern pistols; simply field-strip the gun and it lifts right out. From a manufacturing and military perspective this makes a great deal of sense. It makes manufacturing the guns easier, simplifies machining on the frame and if it goes wrong in the field you just drop in another unit and repair the old one at your leisure. In theory at least. It also makes it easier to clean and maintain, which is nice.

Use of a high-velocity small-bore cartridge was well-conceived. The ammunition was slightly less resource intensive to manufacture, flat-shooting with excellent penetration through heavy cold-weather clothing and soft body armors of the time. Firing a 90-gr. FMC bullets at around 1350 fps. it had plenty power at around 360 ft./lbs at the muzzle, easily comparable to other service cartridges of its day. With its flat-shooting nature it was felt it would allow soldiers to engage effectively at longer ranges.

While the sights are sub-par in modern terms they were among the best and most usable on a service pistol in their time.

The Tokarev served well and I’m told it was much loved by the soldiers. Really though? They were over-thinking this a bit. A pistol is literally the least important weapon on the battlefield, and after WW2 they decided that a less complex, easier to manufacture and less powerful weapon would do. This thinking resulted in the Makarov, but that’s a whole different story.

Variants of the Tokarev remained in production and use by China and many countries in the eastern block long after the soviets had given them up. With their emphasis on function over form trumping attention to detail in the exterior machining and finishing these are often regarded as junk in the west, but in reality they were a well-designed answer to the need and did their job admirably.

The ‘Norincorev’

I expressed a casual interest in trying out a Tokarev online, and my friend Steve surprised me by showing up with a Chinese-made Norinco and a box of surplus Chinese ammunition.

The Chinese Type 51 is a straight-up copy of the Tok, and it and its follow-on guns remained in service there for decades. The import versions, whether from China or eastern European countries, must be fitted with a safety to come into the US. The Norinco’s safety is not the worst of these retrofits, but it’s not particularly good either. It is well-made and positive in use, and while slightly awkward one could get used to it if they had to. this safety is the biggest difference between Soviet T33s and this Chinese version.

The other controls will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the 1911, as will the take-down procedure. It’s a little different, most notably in the use of a spring-clip on the side of the gun to retain the slide-release.

To remove the slide-release you pry this spring-clip to the rear. this is simpler to manufacture, and while it seems odd these days it works well.

The grip is on the small side for many of us, and between that and the grooved grip-panels it doesn’t feel really secure in the hand. It’s actually plenty secure, it just doesn’t feel like it to me. The single-stack magazine holds eight rounds. The gun is thinner and more svelte than the 1911, and rather lighter at 30.7 oz. unloaded. Overall the gun is well-finished, but some of the cosmetic lines that should be straight aren’t. This has no effect on function, of course, and that was the main emphasis on these pistols.

My only real issue is that the magazine release is too short. I don’t mean to reach it, I mean it’s very difficult to push it in far enough for the magazine to drop free; you have to physically pull it from the gun. With my off-hand I can just manage to get the mag to drop. With my shooting hand? Forget it.

My memory of Norincos from back in the day was an overall impression of cheapness and unimpressive, crunchy triggers. This guns trigger is actually decent; a well-fitted 1911 has nothing to fear, but it’s isn’t bad at all. These are an inexpensive service-type pistol, and as such it’s not reasonable to expect beauty-queen looks and a target trigger.

Shooting the Beast

The first shot, as expected, immediately took a bite out if the web between thumb and fore-finger. I expected this, shrugged and shifted my grip. The recoil impulse is similar to 9mm, but it’s loud. More velocity from a smaller hole means a louder, sharper muzzle report. It’s not obnoxious but it startles at first. The gun rapid-fires nicely, but double-taps… not so much. The second round of each string is 9-12″ low at seven yards. I checked myself, made sure I had a good grip and tried again. Same result. Oh well.

Fired briskly at seven yards the Tokarev proved it had the goods.

4-5″ groups at twenty-five yards required no particular effort, and once I had satiated it’s lust for blood the pistol was pleasant to shoot. Over the fifty rounds I had there was no hint of an issue; the gun functioned flawlessly.

Summing it up…

…the Tokarev is a fine mid-20th. Century service pistol. A bit no-frills by western standards, but they work and do the job, which is what really matters. Were I to acquire one I’d need to do something about that hammer-bite and would like a better (or no) safety. I think the Model 57 variant from eastern Europe would suite me better with it’s longer handle. They also come with an extra round; not a great difference but in no way a bad thing.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 14 November 2021

5 thoughts on “Meet the Tokarev. It’s Kind of Brilliant.

  1. steve gallacci

    I’m glad you got to run it and didn’t have any problems. I really like its dirt simple reliability. If you like I could toss you another box of ammo for it, and another magazine. Not sure, but the one it in didn’t seem to pop out readily, and my recollection was for it working a bit better, but I didn’t check.

  2. tinkerta Post author

    I’m a bit irked with WordPress; In the article I wrote ‘Progress’ in Russian/Cyrillic and WP seems to have rendered it as ‘?)???????!.’ WTF, WordPress?!

  3. Brett

    I’ve almost bought a Tokarev a few times over the years. Maybe this will push me over the edge. Btw, you propped the gun up with my favorite inexpensive knife. Opinel knives are a great value for the money and the “carbone” blade version holds its edge very well. You could do an article on inexpensive gun and knife combinations


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