The PPSh-41 derives its name from the Russian name Пистолет-пулемёт Шпагина which is pronounced as Pistolet-Pulemyot Shpagina (i.e. "Shpagin Machine Pistol"). Shpagin refers to the designer of this weapon, Georgy Semyonovich Shpagin. The number -41 refers to the year that this weapon was first produced.
A PPSh-41 with a drum magazine. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by Lposka
The gun was called the "Peh-Peh-Sha" (after the Russian pronunciation of the first letter of each word), or sometimes as "Papasha" (the Russian word for "Daddy"). During the Korean war, US and UK forces who encountered this in the hands of North Koreans and Chinese troops, nicknamed this the "burp gun" on account of the "brrrap" sound it produces when firing in automatic mode.
The origins of this weapon have to do with two reasons. First, when the Soviets fought against Finland in the Winter War of 1939-40, they found that Finnish forces armed with Suomi KP-31 submachine guns could take on superior numbers of Soviet forces fighting with bolt-action Mosin-Nagant rifles at close quarters. The Soviets already had a submachine gun of their own, the PPD-34, but it was hard to produce economically and quickly. Many of the metal parts of the PPD-34 were produced by milling and machining operations, which made it take a long time to produce.
Then, in the summer of June 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. A large number of Soviet small arms as well as a number of the factories capable of manufacturing small arms, fell into German hands. The Soviets needed a weapon that could be produced quickly and without the use of sophisticated manufacturing technologies.
Enter Georgy Shpagin, a son of a Russian peasant, who had started off life as a carpenter, before being drafted into the Russian army and becoming a gunsmith and later a weapon designer. He took the PPD-40 (an improved version of the PPD-34) as the starting point of his design. While the PPD-40 used mostly machined parts, his new PPSh-41 design largely relied on stamped steel parts. Most of these parts could be manufactured by unskilled workers using equipment that is commonly seen in small workshops and automobile repair garages. Parts were joined together by welding. The PPSh-41 design used less parts than the PPD-40 and could be manufactured in about half the time it took to make a PPD-40. Only the barrel needed a little more sophisticated factory equipment to manufacture and even this was simplified, as will be discussed shortly.
The cartridge used for his weapon design was the 7.62x25 mm. Tokarev pistol cartridge, which was already in service with Soviet forces for some years previously. To simplify the production of barrels, he often used existing barrels designed for the Mosin-Nagant M1891 rifle, which were already bored for 7.62 mm. A single long M1891 barrel would be cut into two shorter barrels for the PPSh-41 as they both use 7.62 mm. diameter cartridges, and then each shorter barrel would have a chamber machined to accept the 7.62x25 mm. Tokarev cartridge. The barrels were chrome lined for extra reliability, but most of the other parts were much more cheaply produced.
The weapon itself fires from an open bolt using the blowback action (similar to all the designs we studied in the last few posts). Earlier models had a selector lever to select the firing mode and later models were designed to fire in full automatic mode only. The firing rate of this weapon is about 1000 rounds per minute, which is the highest of all the submachine guns during World War II. The receiver is hinged to make disassembly and cleaning the weapon in the field easy to do. The chrome lining in the barrel enables it to use corrosive ammunition and not be cleaned for a while in the field.
The first prototypes went into production in November 1941 and by the spring of 1942, the factories were making them at an incredible rate of 3000 per day and by the end of 1942, over 1.5 million of these were made.
Initially, the PPSh-41 was designed to use a drum magazine of 71 round capacity, which was an exact copy of the Finnish Suomi KP-31 submachine gun that the Soviets had encountered in the Winter War. The drum had a spring loaded feed mechanism that the user would have to wind up like a watch to use. However, the drum magazine had reliability issues if it was loaded to its full capacity of 71 rounds and therefore, users would often load less than 64 or 65 rounds to avoid this problem. The drum magazine was also made of a thin sheet metal of 0.5 mm. thickness. This meant that it was pretty easy to bend, which could also cause feed failures. Also, the springs inside the drum magazines would often weaken after a while and make feeding unreliable. On top of that, it took a long time to load a drum magazine. Therefore, newer versions of the PPSh-41 were supplied with 35 round box magazine instead, after about 1942.
A PPSh-41 with a box magazine. Click on the image to enlarge.
The box magazines were easy to carry around in pouches and more reliable than the drum magazines. The thickness of the metal used to make magazines (both box and drum magazines) was later changed from 0.5 mm to 1 mm., which made them much harder to bend accidentally. Many infantrymen would carry one drum magazine in the gun and several box magazines in pouches.
The Soviets made about 6 million of these weapons by the end of World War II. Some of these were later gifted to other communist countries and some African countries. The design of the PPSh-41 was also shared with some countries, most notably, the North Koreans and the Chinese, who made their own versions of this weapon during the Korean war. The Chinese also gave their design to the Vietnamese, who made their own version during the Vietnam war. US and UN troops who faced this weapon in Korea and Vietnam nicknamed this the "burp gun" on account of the noise it made when firing. The weapon still remains in use by some irregular forces around the world.