Beryl Tantalsson: The Saga of the Polish Kalashnikov Continues
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of change for Poland; shaking-off the results of 45 years of Communist rule. Polish small arms development tried to cope with the challenges of modernity, while interacting with profound political and economic changeover of the era. By taking several far-fetched blind bets, the domestic small-arms industry was able to cobble up a weapon system more or less capable of satisfying requirements at that memorable time. The problem was, the history took such a fast pace, that the requirements kept changing faster than the rifle itself.
The Warsaw Pact enforced small-arms standardization to a degree never dreamed of by the NATO STANAGs. In the ammunition field the Soviet rule was complete and unwavering – Soviet cartridge types were the only ones that each and every of the Warsaw Pact countries’ martial small-arm could fire. There was but one concession in that: the Czech Skorpion SMG chambered for the .32 ACP. This was for a long time a painful thorn in the Pact’s side, and finally in 1982 a “proper” Skorpion vz.82 model in 9mm Makarov was prepared – but then never manufactured, because the arm itself was already considered obsolescent at the time. More concessions were made in small-arms manufacture: Czechoslovaks, Poles and Hungarians were allowed to have their own handguns and SMGs, and Czechs even had their own rifle and GPMG. All of these were to be on the verge of extinction, however, with the coming standardization of the 5.45x39mm M1974 ammunition, and matching small-arms system, consisting of AK-74 rifle (with it’s folding butt stock versions, the AKS-74 and AKS-74U carbine) and the RPK-74 LMG (with a folder sub-variant RKPS-74). GDR and Bulgaria dutifully acknowledged the Moscow’s dictate and footed a traditionally outrageous bill for the AK-74 license, but Poland, Rumania and Czechoslovakia opted for their own rifles in the new caliber. Of these, Poland had chosen to go the most ambitious way, claiming her industry capable not only of making its own rifle and carbine (codenamed ‘Tantal’ and ‘Onyks’), but also the ammunition (codenamed ‘Cez’). These ambitious goals were set with mostly one purpose in mind: no more Soviets muzzling export sales the way they suppressed the license-built AKM sales, denying export licenses on “recipient’s possible political instability” grounds, only to sell their own rifles at discount prices a month later or so. If the Polish industry would have a rifle of their own design, shooting their own ammo, the license-right holders would have nothing to say about the export – at least on the license rights grounds.
The Tantal project initiated in 1981 led shortly thereafter to a functioning prototype of the wz.81 Tantal rifle – but as it turned out the privilege of having an indigenous rifle called for many more years of hard work before it was finally fit for service. By 1989, when Tantal was at long last ready for introduction, both People’s Republic of Poland and the whole Warsaw Pact were on the brink of collapse. The General Staff’s ambitious plans to replace the 7.62×9 weapons with domestic 5.45 rifles stood no chance of fulfilling at that time. Despite that, both projects were pressed on with regardless; and even a third one was initiated when Precision Mechanics Institute with ZM Dezamet of Nowa Deba commenced work on modern bullet trap rifle grenades system codenamed ‘Fosforyt’.
The outcome of the June 4, 1989 election made it clear that Poland wanted neither communism, nor the Warsaw Pact any more. At first, the path to NATO seemed a long and arduous one. With the Soviet Union still waiting for Yeltsin, and 40,000 Soviet troops still stationed in Poland, it seemed that the best thing possible under these circumstances would be some kind of neutrality, with maybe a distant hope to join NATO sometime in the far future. Plans were afoot to use the defense industry left over from the Communist times to achieve a position similar to the pre-war Czechoslovakia: one of an “arms purveyor to the Third World,” where Polish small arms enjoyed a reputation for good quality at reasonable prices. The Radom Lucznik factory was at that time still capable of manufacturing 70,000 rifles and 5,000 pistols per year, far more than the Polish Army, even if counting 400,000 soldiers at that time, was able to utilize. Export seemed the only way to save the factory, but for a chance to secure the more lucrative contracts, Polish industry had to go beyond the Soviet-influenced part of the world. The only way to get these was to offer models chambered for Western ammunition. That’s why the Radom’s R&D Center (Osrodek Badawczo-Rozwojowy, OBR) started their first serious conversion programs; after the 1970s attempts at re-chambering the PM-63 for 9 mm Luger. Then, in 1989, the OBR started to develop the PM-84P (Glauberyt SMG chambered for 9×19) and Tantal/Onyks variants chambered for 5.56×45 SS109. The ‘export Tantal’ was to achieve 90% part interchangeability with basic wz.88 Tantal rifle. Design for the 5.56mm wz.1991 Tantal rifle was ready by 1991, and a year later a 5.56mm wz.1992 variant of the Onyks carbine was also ready. Three prototypes of the former and five of the latter model were manufactured and exhibited during the 1992 MTB Arms Fair in Sopot. Unfortunately, that was all, as later on the program was suspended for three years because of lack of money to buy enough military-grade 5.56mm ammunition for further testing.
Turmoil All Around
All the while this part of Europe was undergoing an intensive overhaul, in both political and economical plane, actuated by both domestic and foreign influenced factors. On February 25, 1991 an agreement was signed in Prague to suspend the military cooperation within the Warsaw Pact as of March 31, 1991. On July 1, 1991 the political structures of the Pact were dissolved, too. During the night of August 18/19, Gennady Yanayev staged a die-hard Communists coup in Moscow. The Yanayev putsch failed because of the overwhelming sentiment of the Muscovites led by the then president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yelsin. He led to the eventual suppression of the coup and then used it to wrench the remnants of power from the hands of the last President of the whole USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. The process leading to dissolving of the Soviet empire was crowned by the December 9, 1991 Viskuly agreement abolishing the USSR, and replacing it with a loosely-cut structure called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The new CIS started the withdrawal of the Soviet forces garrisoned abroad, including the Northern Group stationed in Poland. The last Russian Army soldier left Poland on September 17, 1993, right on the anniversary of the Soviet back-stabbing invasion in 1939.
All through this time the Central European countries repeatedly announced their readiness to join Western military and political structures to shrug off the last ties with the period of the Soviet dominance. The first time NATO responded to that was in March 1992, in Warsaw, when NATO Secretary General, Manfred Wörner declared that, “NATO doors are open for you.” It took almost two more years before in October 1993 the Pact launched the Partnership for Peace program, duly promulgated by the January 1994 NATO summit in Brussels. From that point in time on, the future NATO-partnership for ex-Warsaw Pact countries was granted. With that, the fate of Tantal was finally sealed.