Russia’s Threadcutter, the VSS Vintorez A Call to Defeat Body Armor [OR–Russia’s Threadcutter Answers the Kremlin’s Call to Defeat Body Armor]
Modern armed conflicts are of a fundamental different character than cataclysmic wars of the last century. Fortunately, full-scale military operations the size of Verdun or Kursk seem to be not the course of future battle. Instead modern warfighting is often prolonged and low-intensity, with a heavy reliance on airpower, private military contractors and small special operations teams. The warfighting doctrines of the world have largely adapted to this reality and configured their weapons’ designs to fit the needs of the solider in these environments. Discretion is often key for political deniability, avoiding disturbing local elements and keeping a general low profile for one’s own survival. For that, next-generation silenced weapons are necessary.
Two Soviet engineers, V. Krasnikov and P. Serdyukov, began work on this concept as early as the 1970s at the TsNIITochMash, a special weapons development plant outside of Moscow working on the cutting edge to this day. Despite starting work on this special applications weapon a decade prior, it was not until 1983 that the design took concrete form and could begin constructive development. The working name was Vintorez, which translates to “The Threadcutter.” For ideal suppression, the design used an intermediate caliber with optimal subsonic characteristics. The first experimental chambering in the 1970s was in 7.62 “УС” (meaning reduced speed).
By the mid-1980s, Soviet authorities demanded that the project be able to defeat the rising trend of individual body armor, something for which the 7.62 chambering was not up to task. Per the technical requirement issued by the Kremlin, the round was required to penetrate Soviet-class 3 body armor at a range of 400 meters. Shortly thereafter, TsNIITochMash’s Specialized Ammunition Plant started converting the widely known M43 casing (7.62×39) and necking up to 9mm, to increase the projectile’s ballistic coefficient at subsonic speeds. The increased mass of the projectile aids stabilization in subsonic flight. The new cartridge achieved a muzzle velocity of roughly 920 to 960 feet per second from almost an 8-inch barrel. The project was led by engineers N. Zabelin, L. Dvoryaninova and Y. Frolov. Their resulting 9×39 cartridge had sufficient subsonic performance for special-purpose, silenced firearms with intermediate range and with improved penetration capable of defeating personal body armor.
The 9×39 cartridge has two primary variants—the SP-5 and SP-6 (“SP” standing for “Special Cartridge” in Russian). The SP-6 projectile, for example, is rated to defeat GOST (State Standard) Class 3 armor, which is a Russian armor class that falls between NIJ Level IIIA and Level III. These levels are rated to stop the domestic M43 7.62×39 and 7N6 5.45×39 rounds.
In 1987, the Vintorez project was designated the “VSS” (Vintovka Snaiperskaya Spetsialnaya or Special Sniper Rifle). Serial production of the VSS began at the well-known Tula Arms Plant (TOZ). Interestingly, the Vintorez was tested in the United States in 1997 with an invitation by the U.S. government to the TsNIITochMash company to test out their products before tensions rose once again between the two countries. The weapon’s effectiveness was demonstrated in numerous actions, including both Chechen wars, the Georgia Conflict and in the ongoing wars in Eastern Ukraine and Syria; each time, bringing the U.S. intelligence community’s renewed interest in studying the weapon’s performance in new environments and applications. The VSS and the other 9×39 weapons show a significant threat with their ammunition capability and performance.
The VSS is an integrally suppressed, gas-operated, select-fire rifle. It operates with a long-stroke gas piston, the bolt has 6 locking lugs and is striker-fired with a floating hammer and features. The rifle features a cross-lever fire selector located behind the trigger. The weapon has a right-handed fixed charging handle and an AK-style safety. As the weapon is integrally suppressed, the barrel is ported in the spiraling rifle grooves in six rows of nine ports spiraling along the rifling grooves. The barrel extends to 12cm long, and the porting consists of six rows of nine holes spiraling along the rifling grooves. The twist rate is 1:8.3 inches. Each port is approximately 2mm in diameter. These ports further reduce velocity before the projectile enters the suppressor baffles, producing a muzzle velocity of 920 to 960 feet per second.
Overall, the design is exceptionally simple. The weapon can also be disassembled into a very compact unit with the stock and suppressor removed. Dismounting the suppressor from the firearm is done by depressing a small button latch on the front of the firearm’s frame. This reveals the ported portion of the barrel. The iron sights are attached to the suppressor itself.
The suppressor construction is a simple bent and angled, flat-face, oval-washer-type baffle stack made from spot-welded sheet metal. In total, there are three baffles. The sights are attached to the suppressor cover. The rifle is fed typically from a 10-round magazine but may run off the AS VAL 20-round magazine and even the newer 30-round magazine. A left-side AK-type optics rail allows for the mounting of the Russian PSO-1-1 or newer PSO-1M2-1 sniper scope, both of which are calibrated for 9×39. It also can use night sights or collimator sights.
The Vintorez is lightweight, just under 6 pounds and comparable to the AKS-74U in weight. The receiver is very low-profile due to the striker-fired design, allowing for a reduced overall height. Like the AKS-74U, the weapon is well-balanced, easy to manipulate and reportedly accurate for a designated marksman rifle. The newest VSS iteration is the VSSM, which incorporates an M1913 railed dust cover and includes M1913 rails onto the bottom and both sides of the suppressor. It also features an adjustable stock. These features bolster the weapon’s modularity, providing force multipliers to the designated marksmanship role, such as infrared lasers and illumination for night operations. These recent additions ensure that the VSS Vintorez will be a Russian hallmark on the modern battlefield for decades to come.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Philip H. Dater and Dan Shea did extensive testing and analysis of the 9×39 and the VSS in the 2007-2009 era and presented the information in SADJ and SAR. That information is on our website.