If the Soviet star on the reddish-brown Bakelite grip doesn’t scream Cold War military pistol, I don’t know what does. The Makarov PM is like a Walther PPK got weightlifting advice from the Russian boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV.” It’s heavier, chunkier, and generally built like a small tank.
The Soviets weren’t afraid to steal a few design concepts – or nearly all of them – from a Western gun and beef them up for military use. This straight blowback pistol borrowed heavily from Walther’s design, but the Russians bulked it up to handle the more powerful 9x18mm cartridge.
Renowned for its durability and simplicity, the Makarov PM saw wide service around the world from East Germany and Cuba to Afghanistan and Mongolia. This particular pistol is actually a Bulgarian Makarov, though the differences between it and the original Russian gun are minimal. If you keep your eyes peeled, they have a tendency to trickle into the U.S. surplus market from time to time.
Some Mak History
After World War II, the Russians realized their old TT-33 Tokarev pistols chambered in the zippy 7.62x25 Tokarev round left something to be desired (The Tokarev guns and caliber stayed around for quite some time regardless). Between issues with losing the magazines, size, and the advent of more modern combat rifles, they set out on a quest for a suitably small – but robust – replacement sidearm.
So why didn’t they just adopt another proven pistol? There were certainly some other great options, such as the Browning Hi-Power. But each came with its own licensing and manufacturing challenges, and, I suspect, there was also a level of national pride behind a “homegrown” gun.
The Soviets likely also saw the rise of 9x19mm in the West and didn’t want to be risk lagging behind. Nor did they necessarily want to adopt the Western cartridge at the time. The 9x18mm round allowed the designers to squeeze 8+1 rounds into a relatively small, blowback gun with a single-stack magazine. Although, there was a double-stack variant that was produced later on.
This simple double-action/single-action handgun was also fairly easy to produce and maintain because it was a blowback design that only featured 27 parts and five internal springs. The Makarov, and similarly inspired variants, spread around the globe to Soviet-influenced countries during the Cold War. It served as a primary sidearm for the Russian military until recently, though it still pops up now and again among some police forces and militaries.
Field stripping the Makarov down to its basic components takes a matter of seconds, leaving you with the slide, recoil spring, and main body. From there you can push up on the decocker/safety to remove the free-floating firing pin and the safety itself.
Yes, it has a free-floating firing pin. So do most ARs. The firing pin has a small enough mass that the Russian designer, Nikolay Fyodorovich Makarov, deemed it safe enough to spare the pistol an additional spring for the firing pin. The pistols also previously passed drop-safety tests in the U.S. in order to be imported into California, though that original import certification seems to have expired in the state.
While small, the Makarov feels hefty in the hand and sizable enough to easily manipulate the controls. It’s an all-steel gun with simple notch sights common to military firearms of the time. Below are some of the specifications for this Bulgarian pistol:
The slide is actually 0.97 inches if you skip the decocker, and the grip comes in at 1.1 inches thick. It is a bit squared, but the Bakelite fills the palm well. The gun could have been blessed with a more ergonomic grip, but I wouldn’t trade it for the classic look of that Soviet star in the center as a collector today. The simplicity and rugged lines speak for themselves.
Double action on my Makarov averages in at around 11 pounds, with a 4-pound single-action pull after that. The heel magazine release also protrudes slightly from the butt of the grip, and it is easy to manipulate with some practice. Don’t expect cheetah-like mag changes, but it gets the job done.
Variants & Modifications
The Makarov was incredibly popular, with millions of guns produced in different variants in Russia, Bulgaria, East Germany, China, Libya, and other nations. Its popularity also means there are quite a few aftermarket additions, such as a unique grip made by FAB Defense in Israel that provides a thumb magazine release.
Makarov pistols also earned some popularity as a concealed carry gun in the U.S. This has prompted many modern holster makers to add it to their offerings. Interestingly, the Russians developed a special self-loading holster that allowed the user to carry the gun on safe without a round in the chamber. Drawing the gun involved pushing it down and out of the holster, which deactivated the safety and chambered a round. Thus, the handgun could be presented from the holster in single-action mode despite the decocker.
I’m not going to lie, I go to my safe to pull out the Mak every time I catch it in a movie. Its popularity and familiarity inside the U.S. gun community no doubt assisted with its various silver screen appearances.
I personally find the gun a bit heavy – relative to its size – for concealed carry. But there are plenty of people who enjoy the pistol for just that reason. It shoots well, even if you’re unpracticed with the platform, and the recoil is minimal with the 9x18mm cartridge.
Better yet, there are some modern self-defense rounds from manufacturers like Hornady. With the exception of the current ammo shortage, I’ve had little trouble finding plenty of plinking ammo as well. Overall, it’s just a fun, reliable gun that I love having in my safe. When I pick it up, I can’t help but feel like I’ve teleported back in time.