Syrian Rebel Gun Locker: The vz. 52.

On two occasions in recent months inside Syria’s Aleppo Governorate, we came across a weapon from a bygone era of military firearms production: the Czech vz. 52. Don’t be put off by that tongue-tied title. It’s short for Model 52, so named for 1952, the year that Czech arms designers (who had a history during Soviet occupation of designing arms independent of Soviet small-arms patterns) rolled out this particular carbine. 

My interest in this rifle is not in arms spotting. Rather, it’s because finding these rifles in Syria is something akin to finding a time-stamped reminder of the Cold War and the arms cascades set loose by the contest between East and West.

The vz. 52 was a short-lived service rifle, with limited production. This was so because the timing of its debut could not have been much worse. It was born just as the Kalashnikov assault was gathering distribution velocity as the Soviet Union’s (and eventually the Warsaw Pact’s) primary shoulder-fired arm. Simultaneously, and of course related to the spread in the 1950s of the Kalashnikov, the 7.62x39mm cartridge was also accelerating toward becoming the Eastern bloc standard, and the cartridge around which rifles were to be built. In other words, as vz-52’s were coming off assembly lines at the gun works at Ceska Zbrojovka, assault rifle standardization was overtaking the small-arms world in Socialist and Socialist-aligned states. The vz. 52 was a semi-automatic chambered for 7.62x45mm, which meant it matched neither the evolving thinking about what a general-issue military rifle should do nor the ammunition supplies taking shape in the world Czechoslovokia inhabited at the time.  In that particular climate, the vz. 52 simply could not secure a place as a service rifle, much less last. 

Of course the vz. 52’s limited utility to the Czechoslovak security ministries did not mean the vz. 52 would go away. Rather, this ensured its spread. Czech arms producers tried refitting their design to the 7.62x39mm cartridge, creating the very similar vz. 52/57. But this weapon was also not an assault rifle, and was quickly dropped. By the late 1950s, those who made Czechoslovakia’s arming decisions had replaced the vz. 52 and the vz. 52/57 with the vz. 58, which fired the same ammunition as the Kalashnikov line and had a selector lever and design allowing automatic fire. This made the vz. 52 unnecessary locally. And so the vz. 52 was transferred to client states, including Syria.

Fast forward a few (and then several) decades. This little rifle has surfaced in small numbers in or near many wars. American troops collected vz. 52’s in Grenada. They have reportedly been seen in Vietnam, Lebanon, Central America and even North Korea. And now, predictably, rebels have taken custody of them from government stores in Syria, and vz. 52’s are loose anew. The rifles do not seem abundant. And I have only seen a few magazines of ammunition for them, so many are apparently idle. They were likely more important to rebels earlier in the war, when fewer rebels were under arms and rifles were in scarcer supply.

Their value is less as essential weapons than as reminders: Old rifles, like many effects of old arms transfers, tend not to go away. They last and last. And they often turn up in the hands of the foes of states the rifles were supposedly acquired to protect.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS

A 1957 Czech carbine, among more modern revolutionary tools. By the author. Aleppo. Last month. We’ll dig through some of the old folders and see now if we can find the images of the 7.62x45mm, which would be necessary to make these weapons more than a club with a bayonet.


Notes

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