Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine hasn’t exactly gone as planned, and there has been speculation that it could result in a dissolution of the Russian Federation and perhaps even a full-blown Civil War. It is a dangerous proposition to consider, given that Moscow maintains the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet.
Moreover, there is some irony that Russia finds itself in such a situation, as it had expected a quick victory in Ukraine rather than a bloody conflict that has cost the lives of more than 100,000, as well as the destruction of around 2,000 tanks. Then there is the fact that it was a century ago on June 16, 1923, that the Russian Civil War that began with the “October Revolution” of 1917 finally came to an end.
One of The Deadliest Civil Wars
The Russian Civil War was a conflict that in its simplest terms was fought between the Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolshevik/pro-Tsarist forces. It was essentially an extension and then a continuation of the First World War. Conveniently forgotten is that American, British, French, and Japanese troops took part — supporting the White Forces that sought to counter the Bolsheviks. The war also saw liberation movements rise up, which led to the independence of Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — while Belarus and Ukraine also made futile attempts towards independence.
By the time the smoke finally cleared, upwards of 12 million were killed or wounded including civilians and non-combatants, while another two million fled Russia. At the end of the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Union was established, becoming the first — albeit and unfortunately not the last — Communist nation. It would finally collapse at the end of the Cold War in 1991.
As the Russian Civil War was a truly “international” affair, small arms from around the globe were used in significant numbers. For the most part, the foreign armies that fought in Russia typically carried their own firearms, while the Bolshevik Red Army and anti-Bolshevik/pro-Tsarist Whites relied largely on Russian military small arms. However, a few small arms stand out as being iconic of the conflict.
The Rifles of the Russian Civil War
It should practically go without saying that the most widely employed rifle of the Russian Civil War was the bolt action Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant, which had been the standard firearm of the Imperial Russian Army.
It incorporated features from two different designers including Sergei Ivanovich Mosin, a captain in the Imperial Russian Army, and Belgian gun designer Leon Nagant. Each submitted their respective rifle for testing, and while Mosin’s rifle was selected, the modified version featured key details of the Nagant design notably the fixed box magazine and the magazine spring. This rifle entered service officially as the Model 1891, and production began in 1892.
Chambered for the 7.62x54mmR cartridge, the five-shot, bolt-action, internal magazine-fed military rifle has the distinction — along with the British Lee-Enfield — of being one of the most widely produced firearms of all time. More than 37 million were produced, and it is still used in conflicts around the world; while the 7.62 cartridge was later used with numerous Soviet-era weapons including the DP-27 light machine gun, the SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle, and the SVD “Dragonov” marksman rifle.
Yet, Russia actually struggled to keep up with the production of the Mosin-Nagant during the First World War, and as a result, Remington Arms and Westinghouse produced a combined 1.5 million of the rifles under contract — and when the Russian Revolution broke out, the failure to receive payment almost bankrupted Remington. Fortunately for the company, the U.S. stepped in and acquired those rifles. Some were supplied to American and British expeditionary forces sent to Russia in 1918 and 1919, while many were later used by U.S. National Guard and ROTC units.
Both the Red and White forces also used two notable American rifle designs during the Russian Civil War.
The first was the single-shot Berdan rifle, which was designed by American firearms expert and inventor Hiram Berdan. It had been the standard issue rifle for the Imperial Russian Army from 1870 to 1891 only to be replaced by the Mosin-Nagant.
The other was Winchester Model 1895, the first Winchester rifle to feature a box magazine. Designed by prolific American firearms innovator John Browning, the unique lever action rifle had been a favorite of President Theodore Roosevelt at one point, but it is remembered now for its role in the Russian Civil War. Issued to troops from Finland and the Baltic States, it was famously employed by the Latvian Riflemen — with many showing sympathies to the Bolsheviks during the Civil War.
The British Lee Enfield, French Lebel and Berthier, and German Gewehr 98 rifles were among the foreign long guns employed by their respective soldiers, as well as both the various independence forces. Though captured stocks of those rifles were used by the Red Army, the biggest issue had been the supplies of ammunition for these rifles.
The Handguns of the Russian Civil War
As with the rifles, a variety of handguns were employed by the various factions in the Russian Civil War. The standard sidearm of the Imperial Russian Army had been the M1895 Nagant revolver. It was notable for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was a seven-shot handgun, produced in both double- and single-action variants. Designed by the aforementioned Leon Nagant, it fired the unique 7.62x38mmR cartridge and featured a distinct “gas-seal” system. That latter aspect of the weapon allowed it to be suppressed, which made the Nagant M1895 the first revolver that could be equipped with a “silencer” type device. The handgun design had reportedly impressed Tsar Nicholas II, and tragically/ironically, it was likely the choice of weapon employed by the assassins of the Tsar and his family in July 1918.
Another favored gun of Russian officers was the German-made Mauser C96 “Broomhandle.” Tens of thousands had been produced and purchased before the First World War, and large numbers of the “Bolo” variant with shorter barrels were provided to the White Guards. Despite its connections to the aristocratic elite, the firearm still found favor with Red Army officers — notably the 7.63 mm Model 1912 version.
German P08 Lugers and American M1911 Colt .45 ACP pistols were also used in significant numbers, but the supply of ammunition was always an issue. Some Imperial Russian Army officers who returned to their homeland after service with the Russian detachments that served on the Western Front and in Greece in the First World War may have carried the French-made Modèle 1892 revolver, but again ammo would have been a lingering problem.
Machine Guns of the Russian Civil War
Interestingly a diverse number of machine guns were employed during the Russian Civil War.
However, the most widely used was the PM M1910 (Pulemyot Maksima PM1910 or “Maxim’s machine gun Model 1910”), which was derived from Hiram Maxim’s machine gun design. Produced under license, it was chambered to fire the 7.62x54mmR round, and typically employed on the Sokolov wheeled mount (often with a gun shield). This basic heavy machine gun remained in use with the Red Army throughout the Second World War, and there are even reports it is still seeing limited use with Ukrainian militias. Due to the fact that it was reliable in all weather conditions, while the wheeled mount allowed it to be moved forward even during an attack, the Maxim was popular with both the Red and White forces.
The British Vickers machine gun, another Maxim derivative, was produced by Colt in 7.62x54mmR and provided as part of the Allied aid to the Imperial Russian Army. Those weapons certainly found their way to both the Red and White forces. Additional British Vickers machine guns, chambered in .303, were among the weapons used by the British expeditionary force to support the provisional government in the early stages of the Russian Civil War. Some were also provided to the White forces.
Likewise, the American-designed/British-made Lewis Gun, the first truly successful light machine gun, was produced for the Imperial Russian Army. The Russian Empire purchased 10,000 from the British government in 1917, and those were produced by the BSA Company in Birmingham, England. An additional 10,000 were ordered from the U.S.-based Savage Arms, but it is unclear how many were actually delivered. Issued to Finnish and Baltic forces during the First World War, the Lewis Gun subsequently found favor with Latvian forces during its war for independence from 1918 to 1920 — a sideshow of the larger Russian Civil War. It was also used in the Finnish Civil War and the Estonian War of Independence at much the same time.
German MG08 and MG08/15 machine guns were also employed in large numbers by Polish and Lithuanian forces as well as by units of the Red Army — captured from German stocks at the end of the First World War. A small number of German MP18 submachine guns were also used in the Russian Civil War. It has been suggested that the Spartacus League in Germany, and other pro-Bolshevik German forces, may have supplied stockpiles of the weapons to the Red Army. The exact number isn’t known, but it would have been a few dozen at most.
Though the Colt Browning Model 1895 “Potato Digger” machine gun was considered largely obsolete by the First World War, an improved version was made by Marlin Rockwell for the Russian Imperial Army. The air-cooled machine gun was far lighter than the PM M1910 or other water-cooled Maxim-style heavy machine guns, while it proved well-suited to the colder weather. Russia had acquired nearly 15,000 M1895/1914s — made either by Colt or Marlin — prior to and during the First World War. It was used by the Red and White Armies, as well as by the nationalist forces of Estonia, Finland, Poland, and Ukraine.
The Legacy of the War
When the Russian Civil War finally ended in June 1923, millions were dead, the casualties of one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history. Tens of millions more would die from the communist movements to come.