During the late 1930s the Soviet Army began seeking a new self-loading rifle to replace its bolt-action Mosin-Nagant M1891/30. The first rifle trials ended in 1935 withSergei Simonov’s AVS-36 being adopted. But problems with Simonov’s complex design led to further trials with Simonov’s rifle and one designed by one of Russia’s leading firearms designers Fedor Vasilievich Tokarev. Tokarev had previously developed the TT-33 semi-automatic pistol which was widely adopted by the Soviet Army.
By 1938, a Tokarev’s new design the SVT-38 had been selected and plans were made for the new self-loading rifle to become the Soviet Army’s new standard service rifle.
Both the earlier AVS-36 and the SVT both used short stroke gas pistons and tilting blocks however, the SVT had been designed with weight in mind and was a full pound lighter, weighing 8.5 lbs to the AVS-36’s 9.5 lbs.
The SVT-38 first saw combat during the Winter War in 1939 where troops complained that the 48 inch long rifle was too long and its complex action was difficult to clean and maintain in the field. While it proved effective with better trained troops who could maintain the rifle the reported shortcomings spurred the development of the SVT-40 - a refined version of the SVT-38 introduced in 1940.
The SVT-40 or 'Samozaryadnaya Vintovka Tokareva, Obrazets 1940 goda' (translating as Tokarev Self-loading Rifle, Model of 1940)had a number of small alterations. The rifle’s cleaning rod, which was originally stored in a groove on the right-hand side of the stock was relocated to a more secure position running beneath the SVT-40’s barrel.The improved rifle also had a simplification of the forestock with a new sheet metal handguard with drilled cooling apertures rather than the earlier half wood half metal hand guard. Similarly the number of slots and position of barrel band were altered with four slots rather than five and a single barrel band used instead of two.
It was intended that the SVT would replace the Mosin-Nagant with the ratio of of semi-automatic rifles projected to steadily increase. However, the German invasion of Russia in mid 1941 necessitated the rapid production of new rifles and production focused on the simpler and easier to produce Mosin-Nagant M91/30.
The both the SVT-38 and the SVT-40 chambered the Russian Army’s 7.62×54mmR service cartridge and fed from a 10-round detachable box magazine. The rifle’s locking block cammed down into the receiver allowing the bolt to unlock. There was also a fully-automatic variant called the AVT-40, this saw a slightly more robust stock used and the addition of a third selector position but was otherwise identical to the semi-automatic version of the rifle. Very few AVT-40s were made as the power of the 7.62mm round and the relatively light rifle made them difficult to control during fully automatic fire. While a sniper variant (see photographs above) was produced it was found unsatisfactory in the role with long range accuracy suffering and it was removed from this role in 1943.
The SVT proved popular with German troops lucky enough to capture one. Captured examples were given the German designation ‘Selbstladegewehr 258 & 259(r)' (translating as automatic rifle) and the influence of Soviet semi-automatic rifle design can certainly be see in German efforts. Almost two million SVT’s were made during the Second World War, however, the rifle was quickly replaced first by the SKS and later the AK-47 with the remaining rifles placed in store.
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Military Small Arms, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)