American space journalist and historian James Oberg provides some interesting accounts from Western astronauts who had experiences of training with the TOZ-81 as part of the space survival courses after the fall of the Soviet Union. These drills included firing practice from a boat in the Black Sea.
“It was amazing how many wine, beer, and vodka bottles the crew of the ship could come up with for us to shoot at,” astronaut James Voss told Oberg. “It [the TP-82] was very accurate. We threw the bottles as far as possible, probably 20 or 30 meters, then shot them. It was trivial to hit the bottles with the shotgun shells, and relatively easy to hit them with the rifle bullets on the first shot.”
Oberg recalls another astronaut, David Wolf, who spent time onboard Russia’s Mir space station in 1997-98, describing the weapon as “a wonderful gun.” Wolf added: “I found it to be well-balanced, highly accurate, and convenient to use.”
A rival to the TP-82 was the TOZ-81 — appropriately named Mars — a space revolver that didn’t make it into large-scale production. Similarly emerging from the small arms factory at Tula, it seems only one example of this weapon was ever completed for use in trials.
Exactly why the TOZ-81 revolver was rejected in favor of the TP-82 is unclear, but it might have been down to the additional complexity of the design, or perhaps the less-popular .410-bore chambering. The TOZ-81 featured a five-shot cylinder and the trigger mechanism was double-action-only.
Unusually, the cylinder was located above the grip, with the gun firing from the bottom chamber. In typical revolvers, the cylinder is further forward and the top chamber in the top position is the one that gets fired with every shot. A different configuration seems to have been selected for the Mars to reduce the overall length of the weapon (useful for space capsule stowage), lower the bore-axis, and to improve balance for accuracy.
Two types of barrels were ultimately provided with the gun and these could be changed manually. There was a rifled barrel for use with 5.45x39mm ammunition and a smoothbore .410-bore one that could be loaded with cartridges filled with buckshot or a single dart-like flechette.
As with the TP-82, a folding knife was also incorporated in the TOZ-81, with it being housed over the barrel. In addition, a compact radio transmitter with a folding antenna was built into the detachable aluminum stock.
What happened to Russia’s space guns?
While the TOZ-81 design was destined to be discarded, the TP-82 “space shotgun” provided space crews with a survival weapon into the early 21st century, by which time American and civilian astronauts had trained to use it for missions in Soyuz spacecraft headed to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The TP-82 seems to have been used until 2007 when it was announced that the remaining ammunition stocks had become unusable and the weapon was withdrawn.
In its place, a standard pistol of unconfirmed type is again available to include in Russian space travelers’ survival kits.
However, it seems not all cosmonauts, or foreign spacefarers who travel in Russian space capsules during international missions, choose to take guns with them. It’s unclear why. The Russians do have significantly improved capabilities to tell where spacecraft, even ones flying off course, will come down today than they did 40 years ago.
In October 2007, it was reported that cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko launched into space aboard a Soyuz capsule armed with a “simple pistol” rather than the bespoke TP-82. Flying with him, U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson took a traditional Kazakh horse-whip. This was symbolic of her commander’s role and not to keep wild animals at bay.
The issue of weapons in space — even if they are ultimately intended to defend against bears on Earth — is a controversial one. James Oberg wrote in 2014 that for years he was “needling and teasing the Russians about the presence of the guns while they were campaigning for no other weapons in space.”
According to Oberg, writing in 2014, a traditional gun remains on the Russian space agency’s official list of personal kit, but crews make a vote before each mission and choose to remove it. That, at least, suggests that those flying aboard Russian spacecraft reserve the option to take a firearm with them.
While a standard pistol might not be a bear-stopping weapon like the TP-82, its presence might just make the difference in the most extreme survival situations. On the other hand, it certainly lacks the science-fiction-like looks and features of the Soviet-era space guns.
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