The Soviet PPSh-41 on the Big and Small Screen

The Soviet PPSh-41 remains one of the most iconic submachine guns of the Second World War and the early Cold War. The compact weapon was both feared and respected by the German soldier on the Russian Front during World War II and was then used with great effect in the Korean War as it was carried by North Korean and Chinese Soldiers. It became feared again by UN forces, including the American GI. U.S. troops — and it was encountered again in Vietnam. The submachine gun further saw use in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, in colonial wars in Africa, in the Sino-Indian War, and most recently in the Yugoslavian wars.

PPSh-41 Submachine Gun
The infamous PPSh-41 was the most widely used submachine gun of World War II. It has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows.

The Russian “Burp” Gun

Essentially an improved version of the Soviet PPD (Pistolet-Pulemyot Degtyaryova), which was designed by Vasily Degtyaryov, the PPSh-41 also took elements from the Finnish KP/-31 submachine gun that the Soviet Red Army encountered in the 1939-40 Winter War. Notably, the Soviets even adopted the 71-round drum magazine.

Weapons designer Georgi Shpagin took the PPD design and simplified it; making it easier to produce by using stamped metal parts instead of milled parts, while reducing the number of components from 95 to just 87. Chambered for the 7.62×25 mm round, it was the firearm that helped save “Mother Russia” from the Nazis.

It has also become symbolic of the Soviet Red Army in the Second World War thanks to movies and video games — despite the fact that more Red Army soldiers actually carried the bolt action Mosin Nagant rifle. However, it is true that the PPSh-41 was the most widely produced SMG of the war.

It has also gone on to be one of the most prolific Soviet weapons in movies — appearing in far more films in fact than the AK-47!

A Russian War Hero

The PPSh-41 had its “big screen” debut in the 1942 Soviet Georgian war drama “The Bridge (The Most),” one of nearly a dozen propaganda films that were rushed into production to boost the morale of the Soviet people during World War II. The submachine gun would go to be seen in countless other Soviet films in the immediate aftermath of the war, which helped to remind audiences of the bravery and sacrifices of the Soviet Red Army.

Soviet soldiers
The 1942 film “The Bridge (The Most),” marked the first appearance of the PPSh-41 in a film (IMFDB)

In fact, many of these films largely contributed to the myth that the gun was carried in such large numbers.

The 1949 film “Stalingradskaya bitva” (“The Battle of Stalingrad Part I”) even featured scenes with dozens, perhaps hundreds of Red Army troops marching in unison while carrying the PPSh-41.

The PPSh-41 in Western-made Movies

The earliest depiction of the PPSh-41 in an American-made movie was the 1951 Korean War film “The Steel Helmet,” which was notable for being made as the war was being fought. Throughout the film, North Korean infantrymen are seen with the PPSh-41, yet, it remains unclear how the production obtained the weapons.

The Soviet-designed SMG was among the authentic weapons in the 1959 Korean War film “Pork Chop Hill,” even as a number of Lewis Guns were mocked up to resemble the Soviet’s DP-27 light machine gun. It is also notable that the Chinese soldiers can be seen carrying the PPSh-41 with stick magazines as well as drum magazines — reported to be accurate for the battle due to the fact that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) employed Soviet-made small arms.

Porkchop Hill
A scene from the 1959 film “Porkchop Hill” — it was one of the first American films to feature a PPSh-41 (United Artists)

Though the 1970 film “M*A*S*H” didn’t feature the PPSh-41 (and only few firearms), the TV series did feature an episode where Chinese soldiers can be seen armed with the PPSh-41 with drum magazines – and keen-eyed viewers have suggested that these must be the Soviet-made models, as the Chinese Type 50 models that were also in the conflict only used the stick magazines.

In addition to those films made in Hollywood, the PPSh-41 further appeared in a number of other Western-made films. The Soviet submachine gun was among the small arms to appear in all three versions of the Finnish-made “The Unknown Soldier,” beginning with the 1955 release. The story was based on a novel of the same name and focused on the plight of the Finnish Army in the Continuation War that was fought between Finland and the Soviet Union from 1941-1944 — a sideshow of the Second World War.

“The Unknown Soldier” was remade in 1985 and again in 2017. It has been reported that some of the same small arms may have been employed in all three versions, but it is of course impossible to confirm if true. However, a number of PPSh-41s can be seen in all three films.

The PPSh-41 further turns up in the 1964 horror film “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, and directed by Ubaldo Ragona. The firearm is noted for featuring the foregrip of a Thompson submachine gun for reasons that are never explained. That film was later remade as “Omega Man” and then again as “I Am Legend” — but neither featured a PPSh-41!

The Soviet SMG was seen in the 1966 comedy “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming;” and it is presented as a ChiCom K50 in the 1968 film “The Green Berets,” — but notably isn’t in any of the sequences set in Vietnam!

Cross of Iron and the Myth of the PPSh-41

A big “starring” moment for the PPSh-41 came in 1977 with Sam Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron,” which featured James Coburn. Set on the Russian Front during the Second World War, German Corporal Steiner (Coburn) obtains a PPSh-41 and carries it throughout the film.

James Coburn
James Coburn as Corporal (later Sergeant) Steiner in the 1977 film “Cross of Iron.” Steiner carried a PPSh-41 and it gave rise to the myth that the firearm was so widely employed by German soldiers (EMI Films)

Though it is true that the German military utilized a variety of captured weapons, captured PPSh-41s were typically rechambered in 9x19mm Parabellum and designated the MP41(r), or issued as the MP717(r) and employed with the 7.63x24mm Mauser cartridge.

As Steiner simply retrieves a PPSh-41 – actually taking it from a fellow German soldier — this has led to a debate among film buffs and firearms enthusiasts as to how much ammunition Steiner could have actually carried for his new weapon. While he was seen with a spare 71-round drum, he likely wouldn’t have had access to the German 7.63 ammunition — and the drum magazine couldn’t be used with the German 9mm cartridge.

In fact, it has been argued that the film likely overstated the appeal of the PPSh-41 among the German soldiers. Though a few officers and NCOs found favor with the weapon, it really didn’t offer a significant advantage over the German MP40, which Steiner carried at the beginning of the film. Likewise, there would have also been the fear that other Germans would recognize the report of the weapon and wrongly assume it was a Soviet Red Army soldier not another German who was firing.

Yet, the “myth” that the gun was so desired by Germans has taken on a life of its own.

German soldiers are seen carrying it in the 1993 film “Stalingrad” as well as the 2014 Polish war drama “City 44” about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Likewise, World War II reenactors representing the Germans are often seen with PPSh-41s, while video games further the myth.

Simply put, though it is possible a rebellious NCO like Steiner may have liked the weapon, it certainly wouldn’t have been as favored as some World War II buffs have come to believe.

That said, there was a time when a large number of Germans were issued with the PPSh-41 — namely in the early stages of the Cold War. The East German Grenztruppen (border guards), the Volkspolizei (People’s Police), and the Nationale Volksarmee (National People’s Army) were all issued with the PPSh-41.

VoPo in "Bridge of Spies"
East German Volkspolizei (VoPo) seen with the PPSH-41 in “Bridge of Spies” (20th Century Fox)

East German Volkspolizei are seen with the PPSh-41 in the 2015 Cold War spy thriller “Bridge of Spies,” starring Tom Hanks and set in the early 1960s. This was accurate, as the Soviets sought to keep their “least trusted” albeit “most reliable” ally armed with older weapons — rather than providing them with the AK-47. It should be further noted that the TV series “Mission Impossible” also featured generic UCR border guards (a not-so-subtle stand-in for East German guards) armed with the PPSh-41.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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