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9x39mm: The Ins & Outs of the Russian Round

What if I told you there was a round unknown to the average shooter in the U.S., but with a history born from necessity.

A design that remains relevant to this day…

9x39mm ammo
9x39mm (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

Would you guess it’s the 9x39mm?

Most likely, not. The 9×39 round never really gained a foothold here in the States.

Sadly, my experience with it is limited to only one range session.

So, when I was tasked to learn more about this round’s history and get to know its more modern applications, I turned to an expert.

Expert

Maxim Popenker — curator of modernfirearms.net and author of a forthcoming book currently called, A Definitive Work on the History of Russian Assault Rifles. (The book will be published in both the United States and Russia.)

Popenker filled me on everything I needed to know about this unique round. And now, I’m passing that info along to you.

The More You Know

We’ll cover the round’s earliest years and historical moments as well as why it’s still in circulation today.

Read on if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about cool Russian ammo.

Table of Contents

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The Early Days

During the 1960s, the Spetsnaz, Russian Special Forces, began looking for better firearms and ammunition for covert operations.

At the time, they ran Kalashnikovs and screwed on suppressors as needed. But the technology…not so great.

Russian Spetsnaz
Russian Spetsnaz (Photo: Aleksey Yermolov)

Their suppressors used rubber baffles to create enough back pressure to cycle the AKs, which was also the weak point.

These rubber baffles only had a lifespan of around 200 rounds, or less if the weather was cold or automatic fire was utilized.

Transparent suppressor
Ever wondered how a suppressor works?

The baffles also doubled the dispersion rate…so accuracy became a concern.

This led to several experiments to develop new ways to solve the issue.

Attempts were made to suppress supersonic loads utilizing extremely long suppressors.

9x39mm Wolf Ammo
9x39mm Wolf Ammo

This worked well for the shooter or those around him but did little to reduce noise at the target.

New guns were tried but cast aside, as they lacked the accuracy or reliability needed.

In 1966, the Russian military looked at the soft armor they encountered in the field and calculated that a 9mm projectile traveling at least 300-meters-per-second would sufficiently penetrate and overcome any protection.

It would be nearly 20 years before they developed a load and firearms to accompany it…

16
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

The 80s: Great Music & 9x39mm

After years of research and development The Central Research Institute of Precision Engineering in the city of Klimovsk, or TsNIITochMash for short, finally had something ready for deployment.

In 1983, the Vintorez Research and Development Program, a joint program for the KGB and military, focused on a new subsonic round and weapon to match.

And in 1985, they unveiled the VSS Vintorez.

9x39 VSS Vintorez
VSS Vintorez (Photo: Plomarkie)

A dedicated marksman or sniper rifle, it made use of the new 9x39mm sniper round.

This marksmen round used a jacketed, 250-grain boat-tail bullet that traveled roughly 295-meters-per-second.

It came loaded into a 7.62×39 cartridge that was necked up to hold the thicker 9mm projectile.

7.62x39mm
Imagine this 7.62x39mm…but, like, beefier.

Over the next few years, the round was refined to offer a semi-jacketed design and use a flat tool-steel tip for better armor penetration.

Around the same time, approximately 1985 to 1986, another project was underway at TsNIITochMash…the AS VAL.

9x39mm AS VAL
AS VAL (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

The VAL was an automatic rifle designed for deployment by Spetsnaz and KGB as a supplemental platform to the Kalashnikov.

This platform also utilized the new 9x93mm cartridge. It focused on automatic fire that was subsonic but capable of penetrating body armor and steel helmets.

9x39mm VSS Vintorez and AS Val1
VSS Vintorez and AS VAL1 (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

In 1988, the Russian military and KGB for deployment officially adopted the Vintorez and VAL, along with the 9×39 round.

Due to the cost of production, though, they did not see much action until later years.

The Iron Curtain Falls

By 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union created a time of unrest, lawlessness, and terrorism in many of the Com Block countries.

Iron Curtain Map
(Photo: Mosedschurte)

With an uptick in domestic terrorism, Russian law-enforcement found themselves sorely lacking the firepower to combat these heavily armed, heavily armored opponents.

The end of the 90s, though, saw the start of more modern 9×39 firearms.

Fresh Prince
Ohhh the 90s.

TsKIB SOO, the Design Bureau for Sporting and Hunting, and KBP, the Joint-Stock Company Instrument Design Bureau brought new applications to the law-enforcement market.

TsKIB SOO took the AKS-74u platform, known for its reliability and performance, and redesigned it for the 9×39 cartridge.

This new weapon system — the OTs-11 Tiss or just “Tiss” — shared the reliability of the AKS-74u.

9x39mm OTs 12 Tiss
OTs 12 Tiss (Photo: Mikesonline2011)

But sadly, it proved too labor-intensive to produce in large quantities due to many of the parts requiring hand-working rather than machining.

For more heavily armored targets, the Russians turned to the OTs-14, or Groza.

9x39mm OTS-14_Groza
OTS-14 Groza (Photo: Marcus Burns)

This bullpup style firearm allowed for the addition of a grenade launcher under the barrel, but it came with its own unique set of problems.

The grenade launcher and standard firing system shared only one trigger and required the use of a switch toggle back and forth.

As a result, the user was forced to utilize their support hand in surprise encounters to avoid shooting a grenade at an attacker that was only feet away.

Groza Video Games
Video games are bringing cool Russian guns to a whole new set of eyes.

Additionally, the design of the Groza left a lot of end-users desiring more.

The most common complaint was the ejection port directly under their face when shouldering the rifle.

This design flaw resulted in blackened faces as hot gasses were directed at them with each shot.

TsNIITochMash Shines Again

The 1990s also saw TsNIITochMash bring another weapon system to the table, one that checked a lot of boxes their counterparts failed to.

Designed for VIP protection teams, the SR-3 Vikhr offered a compact rifle platform capable of easy concealment.

It featured a top-folding stock that was low profile and capable of rapid deployment.

 9x39mm SR3 VIKHR
9x39mm SR3 VIKHR (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

The SR-3 was the groundwork for the SR-3M, a law-enforcement and Special Forces weapon system.

This compact rifle was similar to the Vikhr but also allowed for use of a suppressor.

The main focus was close quarter battles or as a personal defense weapon utilizing select fire but without losing accuracy on suppressed single shots.

The main inhibitor of the SR-3 family of guns, however, was the cost to produce them.

KBP Fires Back

KBP saw the cost limitation of the SR-3 and went a different route.

With lower production cost and a focus on versatility, the 9A-91 was born.

 Like the SR-3, it was a compact rifle focused on rapid deployment and concealability.

9x39mm KBP 9A-91
KBP 9A-91 (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

To this end, even the charging handle was revised to fold up for maximum concealment. The 9A-91 also was designed to use a suppressor on the first model.

It’s still in use today by Russian law-enforcement.

What About the Civilian Market?

There are civilian versions of a couple of the systems for the 9×39 round, but Russian gun laws haven’t done them any favors.

In Russia, at the age of 18, citizens can apply for a rifle license which takes around five years to get approval.

Waiting
Just waiting…

Alternatively, a shotgun permit takes far less time and has led to variants of the 9×39 firearms developed for smoothbore shooting — which is far more popular.

For the diehards that want to shoot 9×39, though, semi-automatic versions of the 9A-91 and Vintorez are available with longer barrels and faux-suppressors.

Conclusion

While the 9×39 suffers from specific applications and isn’t a direct replacement for 7.62×39 or 5.45×39, it is a staple for covert operations. Though there’s not much traction here in the U.S. for the round, that isn’t to say there isn’t a niche for it.

I mean, come on. Who doesn’t want a subsonic round capable of penetrating 10mm of steel at 100-yards?

16
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

All it would take is some demand in the market, and competent companies willing to develop the platform for it.

In short, the 9×39 cartridge isn’t going anywhere.

What do you think of the 9×39? Let us know in the comments below. Ready for some more Russian goodness…maybe of the AK pistol variety? Check out our roundup of the Best AK Pistols: 7.62 & Beyond.

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