May 10, 2021
As Jeff Cooper once said, “Pistols may not win wars, but they do save the lives of men who fight them.” And if you ask a history-minded handgunner to name his or her top picks for “best” World War II military pistol, chances are the 1911, P08 Luger, Walther P38 and Browning Hi Power would make the cut. But in the 1930s, a pair of Browning-influenced single-action autos—Poland’s Radom Vis-35 and the Soviet Union’s TT-33 Tokarev—put in their appearances. They should certainly be included in the conversation.
Both the Radom Vis-35 and the Tokarev TT-33 share a common trio of features: a spur-style hammer similar to that of the Colt Commander, a thumb-friendly magazine release button at the rear of the trigger guard instead of the old European heel-release catch and a lanyard ring. The lanyard ring may seem a bit quaint these days, but in the mid-1930s cavalry was by no means an obsolete affectation. And if you’re on horseback, you need a means to ensure you don’t drop your pistol while riding.
The TT-33—with its lack of a safety (in its original non-import trim) and somewhat rudimentary appearance—may not look like it belongs in the top echelon of World War II service pistols, but looks can be deceiving. The grip angle may resemble a T-square at first glance, but it only seems so in comparison to the Radom’s, which is wider fore and aft and benefits from a slight hump at the rear.
The TT-33 is chambered for the 7.62x25 Tokarev, the hottest of the .30 caliber bottleneck cartridges. Its performance surpasses the 7.65 Luger (introduced 1898) and 7.63 Mauser (introduced 1896). Both the Luger and the Mauser rounds feature a 0.309-inch bullet while the Tokarev’s bullet is 0.308 inch.
The Russians were fond of both the C96 Broomhandle Mauser and its 7.63x25 cartridge and used them extensively in both World War I and the Russian Civil War. When the TT-30/TT-33 was introduced, the Soviets jacked up the pressure level, and the 7.62x25 Tokarev was the result.
It was—and is—a barnburner. You do not want to shoot the Tokarev round in a prized C96, but the TT-33 will easily digest the 7.63x25 Mauser round, although a slightly reduced level of snappiness may be apparent. I’ve found the velocity difference in most samples of both loads to be about 100 fps or so in favor of the Tokarev round, although I’d guess this gap would probably be narrower had I access to a C96 with its extra inch of barrel length over the TT-33.
I’ve chronographed several 7.62x25 loads out of the Tokarev, ranging from Norinco, Winchester, Sellier & Bellot and Wolf (the lone jacketed hollowpoint in the mix). The fastest I found out of the TT-33’s 4.6-inch barrel was the Sellier & Bellot stuff, leading the pack at over 1,550 fps with the Winchester very close behind. Since many 7.62x25 ammo manufacturers claim velocities in the mid-1,600s, I’d assume they’re getting the numbers from pressure barrels longer than that of the TT-33.
Although the TT-33’s immediate progenitor, the TT-30, was designed by Fedor Tokarev in 1930, it employs John Browning’s short-recoil 1911 system. The end result is a pistol that’s robust and easy to maintain. But it has a couple of simplified tweaks, the most notable of which is the modular hammer/sear fire-control unit, which is removable from the pistol in its entirety and also includes the machined magazine feed lips.
My particular shooting specimen was of 1953 Romanian manufacture and includes the rather unfortunate add-on thumb safety required for U.S. importation. Originals relied solely on a hammer safety notch—or upon the willingness of the owner to carry the gun with an empty chamber. The T-33’s firing pin is non-inertial, and loaded-chamber carry is not recommended.
Poland’s Vis-35 is commonly referred to as the “Radom.” That’s the city where the Fabryka Broni (“arms factory”) is located and accounts for the “FB” on the plastic grip panels.
Over the years, the Radom has become a highly sought-after collectible, and prices for a good one have risen to the point where you get a half-dozen or more TT-33s for the price of a nice Vis-35. I recently checked Gunbroker and saw several specimens commanding starting bids in the four-figure range.
The Radom Vis-35 I had on hand—courtesy of my shooting buddy Doug Fee—was of late 1943 manufacture. When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, they knew a good thing when they saw it and kept the factory cranking out pistols for their own troops, oftentimes by brutal methods of persuasion.
The Waffenamt-stamped specimens found particular favor with German parachute units. The fact that there was 9mm Luger cartridge commonality between German P38 and P08 pistols and MP38/40 submachine guns must’ve sealed the deal.
It’s a second-variation gun, not an original prewar specimen, and made when the factory was under German control. It has several excellent features: a grip safety and the Browning-style slide stop combined with a takedown lever to lock the action open for disassembly.
It also has two items that were rather unconventional in a military pistol for the time: namely a full-length, telescoping guide rod and a decocker. The decocker of the Vis-35 was included during the final stages of the prewar design/approval process at the behest of the Polish cavalry because they wanted a means to decock a pistol quickly and safely while on horseback.
At first glance—or rather grab—the Radom would appear to have it all over the TT-33. It handles and feels like a single-stack Browning Hi Power, and why not? Weight and dimensions between both guns are close to identical.
Despite the fact the Radom is a single stack, it has a similar grip angle to the Browning and a nice trigger. It breaks at a reasonably crisp three pounds as opposed to a grittier and creepier four pounds-plus for the Tokarev. And it’s chambered in 9mm Luger, still coin of the realm for current military pistols.
It’s a great sidearm, no question. And unlike the Hi Power, it has no magazine disconnect safety feature. Even in the wartime trim of my particular specimen, the fit, finish, ergonomics and all that good gun-crank bait is remarkable for a service pistol of its generation. It seems, well, European and civilized.
However, as rudimentary and, well, clunky as the TT-33 might seem, it’s got attributes beyond the sizzling ballistics afforded by its 7.62x25 cartridge. Like most no-frills Soviet weaponry of that era, the thing works and works well. If it didn’t, the Reds wouldn’t have waited till the mid-1950s to retire it in favor of the more ballistically sedate double-action 9x18 Makarov.
Postwar TT-33s were made by virtually every country in the Soviet sphere of influence. When production ended in 1955, a whopping 1.7 million TT-33s had been built.
The Vis-35 isn’t even close, with something in excess of 360,000 units produced by the time production ceased in 1945. Ironically, it was replaced by the TT-33, which the Polish military was obliged to use as members of the Warsaw Pact.
One thing about the TT-33 I appreciated is that the rear sight is of a higher profile than that of the Radom, which makes it more amenable to aging eyes. But both guns were at, or close to, on the money at 25 yards with anything close to approximating a service load, which was a pleasant surprise.
In terms of group size, the TT-33 turned in its best results with 85-grain Wolf ammo, which produced consistent 2.25-inch groups at 25 yards. Each five-shot cluster featured three-shot “sub-clusters” at around an inch. It’s worth noting that the Wolf stuff was well under what you’d expect from the 7.62x25 at 1,323 fps. But on the plus side, it is a jacketed hollowpoint—the only one I was able to dig up for the TT-33.
The Vis-35 liked Winchester-Western 115-grain full metal jackets, which delivered only slightly less impressive clusters at 2.5 inches and an average velocity of 1,262 fps.
This is pretty good performance from both guns—the TT-33 benefiting from easier-to-acquire sights, the Vis-35 from a cleaner trigger. Neither gave any problems with full metal jacket ammo, and the TT-33 registered only one failure to feed with a Wolf jacketed hollowpoint.
Three of us had the opportunity to shoot both guns side by side. My two shooting partners preferred the Vis-35 in terms of shootability. Both guys, as you might guess, are confirmed devotees of the two great Browning pistol platforms: the 1911 and Hi Power.
Me? I went for the TT-33. But in all honesty, I confess I was probably as much enamored of that flat-shooting .30 caliber cartridge as I was with the gun itself. For busting clay birds on a 100-yard berm, the “Toke” is pretty tough to beat.
At any rate, both guns are real sleepers and were pretty impressive all around. I’ve seen current service autos that wouldn’t do as well. The track record of both pistols in the greatest conflict in human history speaks for itself.