Key Point: After World War II, the SVT-40 was swiftly withdrawn from military service, though there are accounts some were used in the Cuban Revolution. However, the SVT was succeeded by the semi-automatic SKS carbine, which was widely employed by Communist revolutionaries throughout Africa, Asia and South America.
The United States was the first major power to adopt a semi-automatic service rifle during World War II, the M1 Garand. While most World War II infantrymen had to pull back a heavy bolt after each shot of their bolt-action rifles, a GI could expend a Garand’s clip as fast as he could pull the trigger.
However, the Soviet Union attempted to upgrade its riflemen to SVT semi-automatic (or “Self-Loading”) rifles before the United States. However, the plan fell through due to two intersecting problems: the first was a massive Nazi invasion. The second was that the SVT was expensive to produce, and required more training to maintain and operate.
In the 1930s, Stalin was keen on introducing semi- or fully automatic rifles into the Red Army. After first pursuing the AVS-36 automatic rifle which proved disappointing, in 1938 Stalin personally selected a design by Soviet small arms designer Fedor Tokarev, better known for his iconic TT-33 service pistol. Tokarev’s SVT-38 rifle was gas-operated: after firing a 7.62x54mm bullet, gas pushes a short-stroke piston located above the barrel, re-cocking the weapon with another round.
However, the SVT-38 received poor marks due to excessive recoil after being combat-tested in the Winter War of 1939–40 against Finnish troops. (The Finns captured 4,000 of them!) Production of the SVT-38 was cut off in 1940 with just 150,000 built. A more robust SVT-40 was rushed into service with a muzzle break added to compensate for recoil.
The Red Army planned to replace at least one-third of its Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifles with SVTs built by the Tula Arsenal. These were issued mostly to sergeants and sharpshooters, along with detachable bayonets and a pouch with two additional magazines. One million had been produced by 1941 when Hitler unleashed his cataclysmic invasion of Russia.