The 9x39mm SR-3 Vikhr: Russian Compact Assault Rifle Easily Handles Subsonic Ammunition
In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Ministry of Defense noted an increased need for body-armor-defeating weaponry paired with a diminished sound signature. Its answer, in 1987, was the VSS (Special Sniper Rifle) and the in 1996 special purpose compact assault variant, the AS Val (Special automatic Rifle Shaft). In the new Russia, the successor to the KGB (Committee for State Security), the FSB (Federal Security Service), requested a new tactical and technical requirement for a special purpose silent weapon system that was more compact in size, could defeat body armor and that had a detachable suppressor. The requirement, named specialna razrabotka-3, or special development-3, outlined the basis of the AS Val modernization, which dropped the suppressor for handiness.
TsNIITochMash, better known in English as the Central Research and Development Institute of Precision Machine Engineering, has a distinguished history of research and development in specialized cartridges and weaponry. In 1994, the little compound in the suburbs of Moscow started work on a prototype Vikhr, or Whirlwind, based around the institute’s home-designed cartridge, the 9×39. The project was originally designated as “MA Vikhr,” or at times “AM,” and was led by the designer trio of A.D. Borisov, V.N. Levchenko and A.I. Tyshlykov. The MA designation should not be confused with the Dragunov MA and the Kalashnikov Concern AM-17, which share this moniker. The MA/AM abbreviation is used to describe a small-sized Small Caliber Automatic rifle, or compact assault rifle. Serial production of the Vikhr commenced in 1996, named the rifle the SR-3 in fulfillment of the state request, with the FSB and Ministry of Internal Affairs quickly adopting the design in the same year.
TsNIITochMash designed the 9×39 per Spetsnaz requirements issued from the Soviet Ministry of Defense in the prior decade. They produced a subsonic cartridge for special purpose weapons designed for intermediate range, with improved penetration and stopping power against armored targets. Testing at the KSPZ Klimovsk Specialized Ammunition Plant yielded a muzzle velocity of 925-958 feet per second with the 250-260 grain SP-5 and SP-6 projectiles (SP-Special Cartridge). Soviet designers developed improved subsonic ammunition based on the 7.62×39 case, necked up to 9mm. To achieve stability at subsonic velocity, TsNIITochMash loaded these cartridges with heavier projectiles. The SP-5 was loaded with standard ball rounds with a lead core and was intended for accurate sniper work out to 300-400 meters. The SP-6 cartridge featured an armor-piercing projectile with a machine-hardened steel core. This round could defeat all common levels of body armor up to 300-400 meters. Some reports suggest the round has successfully defeated body armor out to 500 meters, though this is outside the design parameters and has little official documentation. In current Russian deployment, the round is used against a target at no more than 300 meters to give sufficient accuracy and ballistic performance.
In mid-1997, TsNIITochMash was invited to the United States with some of their innovative products, to be tested and evaluated by some U.S. Military and Government agencies. The Vikhr or SR-3 was one of the weapons brought over, delivering an overall flawless and highly effective performance and gaining a lot of interest for the Russian 9X39 caliber.
Despite meeting the Spetsnaz technical requirement, the 9×39 came at a prohibitive price, which at times restricted availability and live-fire training for some less specialized units. Naturally, these problems did not affect training and deployment of the cartridge in the hands of the FSB. However, TsNIITochMash attempted to economize production of the 9×39 AP (Armored Piercing) cartridge with a new version designated as the PAB-9. This cartridge featured projectiles with a stamped steel core, instead of a machined steel core as in the SP-6. The result was unsatisfactory accuracy and performance, and the PAB-9 was officially withdrawn from service. It does appear, however, out of storage from security agencies from time to time.
The SR-3 was designed to fill the role of a submachine gun with distinguished armor piercing capability. It can be fitted with a silencer increasing the overall package length, though it is not typically seen with the suppressor affixed. This is because the weapon will cycle subsonic ammunition without a suppressor, a unique trait as most weapons will not function with subsonic rounds without the additional back pressure that a suppressor provides.
The SR-3 was built based on the VSS/AS Val weapon system, keeping to the closed bolt, gas operation and six multi-lug rotating bolt. The advantage of the six multi-locking lug bolt design in the case for subsonic ammunition such as the 9×39, is reduced rotation of the bolt to lock and unlock. This increases the locking lug surface area, reducing the amount of gas required to operate the weapon without a suppressor. Reducing the time required to lock and unlock also provides a high rate of fire. The gas block is mounted just forward of the chamber, giving maximum back pressure and expansion to operate subsonic ammunition properly. The weapon uses a floating hammer, which is a hammer with a separate spring assembly apart from the main spring and is held in place by the sear. This design is reminiscent of an open-bolt weapon.
In current production, the SR-3M (Modernized), utilizes an ambidextrous charging handle moved from the top of the handguard to the right side of the bolt carrier, resembling a Kalashnikov. Unlike the SR-3, which has an ambidextrous safety similar to the Heckler & Koch MP-5 selector and a separate selector, just behind the trigger, the modernized design used a simple lever safety in the right side of the receiver. This also simplified construction of the VSS series and allowed for easier cross training from the standard issue AK-74M. Without a left-side ambidextrous safety, an enhanced side optics rail was added. Additionally, a further updated SR-3MP is fitted with M1913 rails on the left and right sides of the rifle, forward of the handguard, for use with mountable lights and infrared devices. The rifle features a two-position rear sight and a front sight adjustable for windage and elevation. A button on the left side of the front sight block deploys and locks the vertical foregrip. A separate button on the bottom of the front sight block is used to attach or remove a suppressor.
Each SR-3M is issued with a serialized suppressor matched to the weapon. It is a three-piece, baffle core with a cover and end cap. The stock was standardized on the side folding AS Val stock, away from the top folding prototype variant, similar to an SR-2. The SR-3MP stock can be flipped downward and attached to the bottom of the pistol grip, allowing the stock to not obstruct a face shield. An M1913 rail on top of the dust cover allows for the use of optics and red dot sights, without the need of a side rail mount.
The SR-3 uses a common magazine to the VSS, Val and the new Kalashnikov AMB-17. SR-3M magazines, however, are uniquely stamped with the parent rifle’s name, while other magazines are not. The rifle uses 10- and 20-round magazines, though a steel 30-round magazine is in circulation. The newest magazines are 30 rounds and polymer and were designed for the newest ASM (special automatic rifle modernized) Val 6P30M as of 2018.
Overall, the Vikhr concept is unique and adequately achieves the goal of creating a subsonic, hard hitting and highly compact package. When firing the rifle, it is easy to see how controllable its automatic fire can be in no small part due to its ergonomics. It is still a shock to see how it handles subsonic ammunition with ease on automatic fire without a silencer. This is a Russian rifle that will continue to see dramatic mission sets in the coming years and be a quick identifier for Russian elite forces.