BY DAVID PAZDERA
The Model 52 (also known as Vz. 52) self-loading rifle, calibre 7.62x45mm, is perceived by contemporary collectors and shooters as a successful counterpart of the Soviet SKS model with an original design. Nevertheless, at the time of its origin, the M52 rifle was a genuine nightmare for designers, production factories and Czechoslovak soldiers for several years.
Shortly before the end of WWII, Czechoslovakia pledged in the so-called “Košice Government Programme” to unify its armament with that of the Soviet Union. However, these plans went up in smoke soon after, due to the reluctance of the Soviets to provide information on their latest projects regarding infantry armaments.
When all options had been evaluated, a decision was made in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1946 to pursue its own path regarding ammunition for rifles and machine guns. Originally, two directions were considered: one of them was a variation on the Soviet 7.62x54R cartridge, but with the cartridge case having a groove replace the complicated rim of the case bottom, and the other involved new ammunition “with lower ballistic performance.”
The other type of ammunition was designed by Ing. Alois Farlík (1900–1985) from Zbrojovka Brno, and it originally bore the designation of 7.62mm. Nevertheless, since there were several “7.62s” on the scene, the cartridge was renamed in 1947 to “7.5mm ostrý náboj” or “7.5mm live cartridge” (7.5x45mm, Z-47, Z-49). This cartridge, which could pride itself on its decent ballistic performance, became the basis for development of new self-loading rifles in 1947.
Two state-owned companies took part in the rifle development: Česká zbrojovka in Strakonice and Zbrojovka Brno. In Strakonice, the attention soon shifted to a model with the transfer of gas energy using a piston mechanism designed by Jan Kratochvíl (1912–2002), in cooperation with his younger brother Jaroslav (1915–1972).
The development was not hurried. In this respect it can be said that everything was going as usual till the Spring of 1950; designing, testing and improving resulted in the following three most promising prototypes: the ZK 472 and ZJ 481 from Zbrojovka Brno and the ČZ 493 from Strakonice. Although none of them had shown optimum performance yet, all seemed to be slowly nearing a successful end. However, in the Spring of 1950, Alexej Čepička, the son-in-law of the Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald, assumed the office of the Minister of National Defence and immediately launched a radical Sovietization of the Czechoslovak Army. The pledge for unification of armaments with the Soviet Army suddenly became something like a law.The ceremonial handover of an M52 self-loading rifle to a new conscript in the Czechoslovak People’s Army. These firearms were available in quantities enabling their use in propaganda materials in 1955.
Already in May 1950, all programs involving non-unified ammunition were halted with an immediate effect. Then, the Czechoslovak Ministry of National Defence (MND) attempted to acquire licences from the USSR for the manufacture of a bolt-action rifle, a self-loading rifle and a light machine gun calibre 7.62mm “of the latest type.” Even though, in most other cases, the Soviets had been willing to accommodate such applications, in this case they strictly refused. The reason evidently was not just their lasting secretive mania but also the huge troubles the Soviet arms industry was encountering during the production launch of a new generation of infantry weapons, especially the automatic AK rifle in calibre 7.62x39mm.
The new upper echelons of the Czechoslovak Army had clearly been expecting such development, because a reconstruction program of the 7.5mm cartridge and the corresponding firearms was parallelly released already in August 1950. The paradoxes of that time showed, in that the issues were being solved by means of minor changes. A document on the topic of the new Z-50, or the 7.62x45mm cartridge of the period, states: “When the decision to change to cal. 7.62mm had been adopted, the already solved 7.5mm cartridge was generally left without any changes, just the diameter of the bullet and the cartridge case was [sic] modified.”
Into Armament with Overweight
In the autumn of 1950, the Army chose to further develop only the ČZ 493 model by Česká zbrojovka (CZ). The decision came as a surprise, given that the rifle’s performance had so far been considerably fluctuating. Its biggest problems were in accuracy. On the other hand, the latest specimens of calibre 7.5mm had shown satisfactory reliability during testing.
The 7.62x45mm calibre prototypes were designated ČZ 502 and, to the significant disappointment of Česká zbrojovka and the Army, their parameters deteriorated considerably, especially the increase in weight. It was due to the hectic pace of the calibre modification and to the necessity to implement additional requirements. (It was the Soviet advisers who recommended using a non-removable folding bayonet, as opposed to the previously used simple bayonet that could be inserted into the forearm.)
What troubled the designers most was the weight. According to the original assignment, the weight of the firearm with an empty magazine was expected to be 3kg, but in reality it was considerably higher. In the end, it was necessary to change the requirements, and, on March 20, 1952, the “7.62mm samonabíjecí puška vz. 52,” weighing 3.95kg without a magazine, was introduced. The same directive applied to the introduction of the “7.62mm krátký náboj vz. 52” with a bullet weight of 8.5g.
Two Manufacturers’ Challenges
Two code marks can be found on M52 self-loading rifles: “aym” and “she.” The first mark was reserved for Považské strojárne in Považská Bystrica in Slovakia, while the other code mark is still used on products for armed forces made by Česká zbrojovka, a.s., Uherský Brod, at that time Závody přesného strojírenství (ZPS).
According to the original plans, production of the M52 rifles was to take place in Považská Bystrica only. The local factory was an ammunitions plant in the first place, but it prided itself with its half-forgotten tradition of producing Model 24 and K98k bolt-action rifles—and with its position far from the western border of Czechoslovakia. The MND and the Ministry of Interior Security requested a total of 372,000 M52 self-loading rifles, the delivery of which spanned from 1952 to 1955, and 40,000 firearms were to be supplied in the first year.
Coordination of production of infantry weapons was the task for the Ministry of General Engineering, which, to its disillusion, found that during the first half of 1952, the bet on Považské strojárne had been an unfortunate step. The Slovak factory lacked qualified and experienced personnel and struggled with long-term fatal lack of tools and measuring instruments. In July 1952, the Ministry decided to solve this situation by assigning a part of the M52 self-loading rifle’s production to Závody přesného strojírenství in Uherský Brod (ZPS). To be able to accommodate the assignment, ZPS had to stop its preparations for production of the DŠKM (DShK M) anti-aircraft machine guns immediately.
During the first months of production preparation, ZPS experienced typical problems, such as procuring the material and forgings. Therefore, it was only during 1953 that ZPS gradually came to realize that the M52 self-loading rifle in its existing form was not ready for serial production. For these reasons, ZPS was able to supply the Army with only 360 rifles by the end of 1953, and instead of production they embarked on removing the identified design and technological flaws.
Hundreds of modifications were made in production drawings from 1953 to 1955. The shape of one of the smaller parts was changed completely. New operations appeared in the manufacturing process, the most obscure of which was welding the pressed-in and pinned locking insert into the receiver, otherwise it would be shifting rearwards during proofing. The incidental folding of the extended bayonet was corrected by means of a new bayonet key. At one time, the situation turned even more dramatic due to random occurrence of M52 cartridges with higher pressures, which destroyed the gun during firing and because of which isothermal hardening of the cartridge chamber had to be implemented. And, on top of it all, the planned performance started to be jeopardized by catastrophic shortage of high-quality walnut wood for stocks. Birch wood, imported from USSR since 1955, was used instead of walnut wood. But the problem with the birch wood stocks was that they tended to swell in humid conditions, so much that it was not possible to remove the buttplate covering the openings with stored accessories. And so, another manufacturing modification was done—a so-called double-buttplate, consisting of a removable buttplate attached to another buttplate permanently mounted on the stock.
A factory cut-away of the M52 rifle from the collection of Wehrkundliche Sammlung Schloss Ebelsberg (Austria).
In the situation when this program represented up to 80% of production volume of ZPS, in 1954 the Army was only willing to accept 11,314 self-loading rifles, and this quantity had come from so-called selective assembling. There was a shortage of finances for the payment of salaries, not to mention bonuses, and the company was not able to pay sub-suppliers for their material and services. All of this had a harmful influence on the spirit of rank-and-file as well as management employees of ZPS, who started to long for the time when they would have finally completed the M52 rifle production.
A detail of the rear sight and the marking of a piece from 1956. The M52 rifles can be easily dated, but sophisticated alphanumerical numbering was introduced for them, which prevented any estimates of production volumes. At the beginning of production, the arms factory in Uherský Brod (the “she” code) was assigned the initial letters of F, M, V, J, S, K, T, G, E and R, and after these letters had been used up, new letters were assigned. The numbering following the letter changed after each 10,000 unit in two rows: 30,001–40,000 and 60,001–70,000.
Their wishes started to come true in 1955, when the Army accepted 48,435 self-loading rifles. However, the firearm was never rid of all its deficiencies. Its production was continuously accompanied by additional modifications, repairs, minor technological and design changes, not to mention the fact that the hit mark of the first shot showed a significant deviation from the mean point of impact.
In 1956, the Army accepted a total of 58,318 pieces. With respect to ensuring employment for the company, it was planned that this production program would be extended to 1958, when it would be replaced with the planned licence production of SKS carbines. This, however, was no longer true in the Spring of 1957, when a decision had been reached on the introduction of the M52/57 self-loading rifle using a Model 43 (7.62x39mm) cartridge. Production of the M52 self-loading rifle at ZPS definitely ended in September 1957, and only symbolic quantities were completed in the following three months. In 1957, 35,058 M52 self-loading rifles were manufactured in total.
The factory records show that 153,485 M52 rifles were manufactured in total in Uherský Brod from 1953 to 1957.
As far as production in Považská Bystrica is concerned, we are not yet able to map it in detail. It is assumed that it, too, continued till 1957 and that the quantities produced were considerably lower than those at ZPS. The information on the total number of 236,952 M52 rifles provided by the MND in 1958 can serve for the assumption that a little more than 80,000 of these firearms were manufactured in Slovakia.
If today’s collectors and shooters consider M52 rifles to be robust, user-friendly and sufficiently accurate (with the exception of the inaccurate first shot), it is, above all, an appraisal addressing the countless workers in both manufacturing plants, but especially the one which is Česká zbrojovka today, the shoulders of which carried most of the burden. When looking back, it is obvious that the M52 self-loading rifle has brought the arms factory in Uherský Brod to the most critical situation in its entire history, without representing any significant stimulus for its technological development. On the other hand, the company has learned a valuable lesson on the unconditional necessity of the perfect design and technological preparedness of new products, which it soon made use of during the demanding production of a new generation of automatic firearms.The M52 self-loading rifles were given ceremonial public presentation during the grandiose military parade at Letná, Praha, on May 9, 1955. Nevertheless, images of soldiers with the new firearms were not released for publishing, probably due to their still low numbers at military units—see the note “For archiving only” under the picture.