The Czech assault rifle officially named “7.62mm Samopal vz. 58” (7.62mm model 58 submachine gun) has recently celebrated 60 years since its introduction in duty. This alternative to the Soviet Kalashnikov automatic rifle with original design is still widely popular, which is evidenced by its renewed production 15 years ago. The vz. 58’s remarkable anniversary presents a good opportunity for readers to learn its story.
Since the early 1950s, development was on the way in Czechoslovakia of a new type of automatic firearm for the 7.62x45mm cartridge (Z-50, Model 52), which was created by a partial modification of the original Czech calibre 7.5x45mm with an aim to at least nominally unify the equipment with the Soviet Army. According to the knowledge gained from World War II, it was relatively successful ammunition of medium ballistic performance, ranking somewhere between classical rifle and pistol cartridges. However, it was especially suitable for light machine guns and, with some reservations, for self-loading rifles. Nevertheless, the ammunition was far from ideal for a military service firearm with the possibility of burst-mode firing.
It had been one of the reasons why the 4-year-long development efforts did not result in accepting any of the submitted models and there were a few. This project was one of the last ones in Czechoslovakia done by means of competition between several designers or design teams. The best designers in the industry took part in the competition: the legendary creator of Zbrojovka Brno’s light and heavy machine guns, Václav Holek, with the ZB 530 prototype; the elite representatives of the Interwar Generation of designers, Josef and František Koucký (the ZK 503, ZK 503/1 and ZK 503/2 prototypes); and young and extraordinarily talented Jiří Čermák (ČZ 515 and ČZ 522) from Česká zbrojovka in Strakonice. However, all these designers were only clarifying with the military administration what to expect from the new type of firearm and how to reach the desired goal.
After state tests of the so-called “heavy submachine guns” in the summer of 1954, just the ZK 503 and ZB 530 prototypes reached the final phase; they were supposed to be developed further in the national company Konstrukta Brno. This company had become a new centralized workplace for research and development of military weapons, where experts from all of Czechoslovakia were gradually transferred.
Nevertheless, events took a sudden turn in 1955. The Warsaw Treaty was signed in mid-May, and it was followed by efforts for unification of military equipment in the entire Eastern Bloc. Leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia wanted to deal with the situation by introducing the production of Soviet weapons; but in autumn 1955, apparently for economic reasons, priority was given to development of domestic weapons using Soviet ammunition. While the obsolete 7.62x54R cartridge with a case bottom rim designed for machine guns was not a particular win, the excellent 7.62x39mm cartridge (Model 43) opened interesting opportunities for designers.
Therefore, the development of “heavy submachine guns” was definitively abandoned by the end of 1955, and new requirements were specified for a military service firearm, which, due to its difficult classification in the then existing categories, started to be called “submachine gun–rifle.” (Finally, the Czechoslovak military administration simplified the matter by applying the name, submachine gun, on all military service firearms able to fire in the burst mode, regardless of their calibre.)
The transition to the new calibre was accompanied by specification of very strict parameters: The weight of the firearm without a magazine was to be 2,700g; the total length was not to exceed 850mm; versions with fixed and folding stocks were to be made; the magazine capacity was to be 30 cartridges; and the service life of main components was to be 15,000 rounds. Designers’ work was partly facilitated by the fact that they were already allowed to use alloy steels, which had originally been rejected by the military administration, based on experience in failures from war production. There was no other way to accomplish the objective, considering such demanding requirements.
The development of the new firearm was launched under the cover name “Broom” in 1956 in the national company Konstrukta Brno. Jiří Čermák (1926–2006), who had not succeeded in the previous competition for “heavy submachine guns” but had already managed to gain the reputation of being an excellent expert, became the head of the development project. What is more, he was, in fact, the only employee of Konstrukta Brno who had enough experience with firearms of similar character. His previous competitor and then shortly his colleague Václav Holek died in December 1954 at the age of 68, and the Koucký brothers, although still showing creativity and invention, refused to move from Prague to Brno and, subsequently, were not allowed to work on secret military projects any more.
Jiří Čermák was assisted in this project namely by Ing. Bohuslav Novotný, Karel Vystrčil and Jindřich Jakubec. It was obvious from the very first drawings that a highly modern, universal, military service firearm was about to be born in Brno. This was evidenced by the first of four patents protecting the new design (the fifth patent applied to the silencer designed for the less frequent Pi version designed for use with night-vision equipment): Jiří Čermák came out with an original design of the breech mechanism with a carried swinging breech locking piece with symmetrical locking lugs fitting in a recess in the receiver. The advantages of this design included:
- Locking near the cartridge chamber (making the locking rigid, with minimum elasticity);
- General simplicity of the breech mechanism (it consisted just of a breech block carrier, breech block and breech locking piece);
- The symmetrical locking surfaces of the breech locking piece had a positive effect on the firearm accuracy;
- General design of the breech locking piece, in which there was, among other things, no risk of any interference, and the mass of which was relatively low compared to locking components of other systems; and
- Simple production without any sophisticated machining operations.
The development, during which the prototypes underwent several tests in the Soviet Union (the first of them was conducted as early as in autumn 1956), was officially completed in June 1958. The resulting firearm operated on the principle of locked breech with extraction of gases on a piston. The breech mechanism was locked by the separate breech locking piece. The firing mechanism had a linear hammer and a free-floating firing pin mounted in the breech block. The breech block was not connected with the piston, which enabled loading the magazine with the bolt locked in its rear position from cartridge strips (containing 10 rounds) that had remained from the previously prepared but finally unimplemented license production of the Soviet SKS self-loading rifle. The front sight base enabled the attachment of a bayonet or folding bipod, which later became characteristic for one of the three basic versions of the firearm.
A Difficult Program
In October 1957 a decision was made that production of the new automatic firearms would be done by the arms factory in Uherský Brod (now Česká zbrojovka a.s., or CZ), which was definitively becoming the new main supplier of infantry equipment (with the exception of machine guns) for national armed forces.
Preparation for production started in the spring of 1958, and its first stage was seriously complicated by an extensive investigation of self-initiation of cartridges from license production in Vlašim. In the summer of 1958, five factory prototypes were made to verify the precision and alignment of dimensions as well as the suitability of specified production materials. The basic preparation for production was completed by September 1958, and it was followed by improvements in the firearm design based on the experience gained so far: The changes involved, for example, the bayonet holder, the bayonet release button, the trigger bar or the fire-mode selector spring. Based on a requirement by the Ministry of National Defence, tests of the modified trigger bar were conducted, which required implementing the changes on 14,000 already manufactured parts.
Hard chromium plating of long openings (barrel bore) was used in production of the new firearm—this method had been used by the company for the first time for model 52/57 self-loading rifles using the same cartridge. Chromium plating was also used for surface treatment of extremely stressed parts of the breech.
Considering the planned high-production volumes, the lost-wax casting technique was used for a number of parts. As the company had not fully mastered this production process yet, at the beginning, it had to establish contacts with the more experienced machinery company Kdyňské strojírny in Kdyně. Cooperation with this company was not without problems, but its unquestionable benefit was that it accelerated full implementation of the precision casting technology for Uherský Brod.
The plant in Uherský Brod received a preliminary approval to start the serial production of the “Broom” program from its superior departmental company Závody Říjnové revoluce Vsetín on January 29, 1959, based on a so-called “exemption from technological discipline.” Since the military administration insisted upon the earliest start of supply possible, production began before the completion of the test series and its tests, from which other partial changes in the design and in the production documentation were reasonably expected.
Despite the year in the official name of the firearm “7.62mm submachine gun model 58,” it was introduced in the Czechoslovak People’s Army’s equipment on February 10, 1959 via command of the Minister of National Defence Bohumír Lomský. It was followed by the Ruling of the Government of the Czechoslovak Republic No. 1106, December 23, 1959. The new firearm was officially presented to the public at the traditional military parade at the Letná Plain in Prague on May 1, 1960.
Three Versions, Two Periods of Production
Three basic models were introduced, differing in only a few details. The basic model with a fixed stock was called model 58 P (infantry); the model 58 V with folding stock was produced primarily for airborne units. In addition to these two models, the model 58 Pi was created by additional modifications and designed for use with the NSP-2 infrascope. This model was supplemented with a mounting rail, a flash hider and a bipod.
The first period of the model 58 submachine gun’s production—the users of which included the Czechoslovak Army and other Czechoslovak Armed Forces—spanned between 1959 and 1964, during which the arms factory in Uherský Brod produced a total of 397,034 pieces, most of which (257,987) were with the fixed stock. The plant also made 6,000 components kits for conversion to the Pi version of the firearm.
The second period of production fell between 1968 and 1984, when more than a half million pieces of both models (plus a small number in the Pi version again) were produced. This time, a larger part of this quantity was imported abroad, including some truly hot locations.
In addition to completed firearms, huge quantities of spare parts and bayonets were produced in Uherský Brod.
The most significant modification to the model 58 submachine guns during production was a change in the stock material. Beechwood was used in the first year of production. However, with respect to the high production volumes, the use of alternative, cheaper materials started to be considered already in autumn 1958. The alternatives under consideration included glass fibre but the greatest attention was paid to pressing of wooden parts, which had originally been prepared in 1957 for the finally cancelled license production of SKS rifles. The production procedure, involving pressing of wood-chip matter filled with phenol-formaldehyde resin, was finalized in 1959 by the Brno development plant in cooperation with the state Forest Products Research Institute in Bratislava. Production was assigned to the Slovak factory Bučina Zvolen, which started to supply stocks, forestocks, forearms and pistol grips made of the so-called wood-chip material in February 1962. From then on, the plant in Uherský Brod fitted the model 58 submachine guns exclusively with these parts.
There were many more design and technology modifications during the serial production in the years 1959 to 1984, but most of them are not always apparent at first sight. Let us mention at least reinforcing the piston shaft, modification of the trigger guard and magazine release shape, reinforcing the breech locking piece, changes in material and design of the firing pin and hammer or the folding stock’s modified design.
Versions in calibres 7.62x51mm NATO and .223 Remington (5.56x45mm) were created for export, but they were not introduced in production at that time. The possibility of selling a license for the basic version of the 58 abroad was considered several times, but always came to nothing, and the arms factory in Uherský Brod, hidden under the well-known military code “she,” remained the only producer of the original model 58 submachine guns.
Important foreign customers for model 58 submachine guns included the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) when it was actually at war with the U.S. It is said that the North Vietnamese valued the 58s highly because they were significantly lighter than the Soviet Kalashnikov rifles.
The supplies of Czechoslovak arms to the DRV had the form of free material aid. The first 1,300 model 58 submachine guns were exported in 1965. Another 10,000 pieces followed in 1969 and 8,000 pieces the following year. In the first half of the 1970s, the 58s were supplied to Vietnam at the volumes of 12,000–15,000 pieces a year.
The production for DRV was called “Action V” in the Uherský Brod factory, and, according to one of the contemporaries, 400 model 58 submachine guns were produced per day for this purpose at the time of its culmination.
Still a Respected Veteran
Although the total production volume of the model 58 submachine guns does not reach the volumes of AKs and some other renowned foreign assault rifles, almost 920,000 pieces produced is a respectable figure and a great success for the design team and the production factory. There were and still are certain minor flaws (e.g., not so durable cover of the receiver, loosening of the folding stock screw, slightly higher sensitivity to quality of ammunition compared to the AK); in addition, production of the firearm was really demanding and not always smooth. But this does not change anything about the fact that the parameters and performance of the model 58 at the time of its origin belonged to the world’s top class, and it is still considered to be one of the most successful assault rifles in calibre 7.62x39mm.
The model 58 submachine guns have remained in the Czech and Slovak Republics Armed Forces up to the present; although specifically in the Czech Republic they have been replaced by new CZ 805 BRENs and CZ BREN 2s since 2011. The fact is that such a long service life was not just due to the excellent properties of the 58s; in reality, the political and economic situation played a great role. Originally, a transition to a newly developed weapon system, LADA cal. 5.45x39mm or 5.56x45mm, was planned on the turn of 1980s, but it never happened, due to economic reasons. Seen in retrospection, it did not harm Czech and Slovak soldiers in any way. The utility value of the model 58 submachine guns in current conflicts is increased by successful partial modernizations, improving the ergonomics and enabling mounting of various accessories.
In the meantime, the model 58s have started to live their second life, especially in the form of exclusively self-loading firearms for the civilian arms market. For example, the original manufacturer Česká zbrojovka, a.s., has had great success with its CZ 858 Tactical models, in which its subsidiary Zbrojovka Brno, s.r.o. also took part in their production.
Self-loading rifles derived from the model 58 submachine gun were originally made with higher or lesser use of the original firearms and spare parts from the Czech Army and police warehouses. Even though these resources were vast, they were finally exhausted, though the interest in the firearm continues. Therefore, completely new production has been launched. It is carried out by the company Czech Small Arms (CSA) in Jablůnka nad Bečvou in the northeast of the Czech Republic. New production is conducted with partial use of modern materials. The offer includes several versions with different barrel lengths and as standard it is possible to choose between the calibres 7.62x39mm and 5.56x45mm. CSA’s firearms have even found their way to TV and silver screens, where they have proven their worth, e.g., in the hands of the invincible 007.
It was on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the 58 that CSA recently prepared for the Brownells distribution company a limited “Classic” series, the appearance of which reminds one of the model 58 submachine guns from the start of serial production.