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Mikhail Margolin and his pistol: Blind Genius!

By Justin Bulling

When the Soviet centrefire pistol team lined up for practice at the 1954 World Championships in Caracas, Venezuela there was great interest. The last time the Russians had sent a shooting team to an international event was back in 1912, at the Olympics in Stockholm - they had not competed since the 1917 revolution.

 

With the Cold War in the 1950s and intense competition with the USA for domination, a team had finally emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. The team produced ancient 1895 Nagant revolvers and some competitors showed pity for them while others openly laughed.

 

When competition day arrived however, the Soviets produced modern, highly modified Smith & Wessons - the practice session had been a psychological ploy. The USSR team won bronze in the 50 metre individual as well as gold in both the 25 and 50 metre centrefire team events.

 

The 3rd event was the 25 metre rapid fire which used .22 rimfires. The Soviets lined up with unusual and previously unseen pistols they called Margolina Tselevoy (or Margolin’s Target Pistol). Soviet shooter Nikolai Kalinichenko won gold with a world record score of 584 while the Soviets also won gold in the team event. These victories were repeated over the next two years at various championships.

 

“Marshal Beria, the feared head of Stalin’s state police during WWII... was given the opportunity to testfire a prototype Margolin pistol. He was so enthused that he spent all afternoon shooting...

 

Mikhail Vladimirovich Margolin (the last two syllables rhyme with “Colin”) was born in Kiev in 1906. Margolin had an interest in firearms early in life. The years after the revolution were turbulent and frequently violent. At the age of 13 Margolin witnessed the vicious pogroms in 1919 against the Jewish population of Kiev with rape and murder carried out by the anti-communist White Volunteer Army under General Denekin.

 

Mikhail Margolin was completely blind and worked only by touch.

 

Like many Jews Margolin welcomed Russian Bolsheviks for bringing relative peace and stability and he embraced their Marxist philosophy. When he was old enough Margolin fought for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. With the Bolsheviks chronically short of small arms they used everything that they could get and the 18 year old Margolin showed great interest in every new gun he came across.

 

In 1922 he was serving as the commander of a Lewis machine gun platoon fighting in the mountains of Abkhasia against anti-Bolshevik partisans when a bullet to the head rendered him permanently blind.

 

After recovering Margolin returned to Kiev and was eventually sent to a sanitorium in Kharkov where he trained as a masseur. He completed the training but it was not what he wanted to do. He joined the local Komsomol or communist youth movement and then in 1926 moved to Moscow.

 

“In 1922 he was serving as the commander of a Lewis machine gun platoon fighting in the mountains of Abkhasia against anti-Bolshevik partisans when a bullet to the head rendered him permanently blind.

 

There he was able to apply his interest in firearms - training Komsomol members in the maintenance of small arms and other military equipment. In 1927 the OSOAVIAKhIM paramilitary sports organisation was established and Margolin was elected to the firearms training section.

 

On November 7 he led his local Komsomol group in the annual March in Red Square to celebrate the revolution. By listening to the troops around him and counting steps he was able to perform as well as his sighted comrades.

 

Two pre-war pistol designs based on the Tokarev TT33 frame. The lower pistol has the 10” Walther barrel. Note that the slide and hammer are very similar to his post-war pistols.

 

During his time at the OSOAVIAKhIM a conversation with Brigade Commander Alexander Smirnsky led to a discussion about the need for small calibre training firearms for Soviet military forces. Smirnsky had been a world class competition shooter and also a firearms designer.

 

Margolin started by modelling with clay and soon began to make mock-up parts. He then discovered working with sold materials was more practical and began shaping prototype parts from aluminium and wood. During the following years he travelled to museums, arms factories, military camps and design bureaus where he studied by touch every small arm he could handle.

 

In 1934 he completed his first firearm, a .22 semi-automatic sporting rifle. In 1938 Margolin was given a position with the KBP design bureau at the Tula arsenal. Working with prominent designer Degtyarev he designed a modified trainer .22 based on the Degtyarev’s DP light machine gun. He also worked with other prominent designers such as Tokarev, Simonov and Shpagin. His main interest at this time was the development of a .22 target pistol.

 

“...Margolin pistols are never marked as such... They have been sold under both Baikal and Vostok brands.

 

Margolin started by using a modified Tokarev TT33 pistol frame with a 10” exposed Walther barrel and newly designed slide. In 1940 Margolin submitted a pattern which was accepted for production on June 21 1941. The following day Nazi bombs began to rain down on Russian cities signalling the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

 

What the Russians still call the “Great Patriotic War” would kill 26 million Soviet citizens. The Soviet Union now had more urgent requirements than .22 target pistols.

 

Early in the war Margolin worked at the Tula design bureau and as a civil defence co-ordinator. While sheltering in a basement during a bombing raid a fire threatened the 125 occupants, mainly the elderly, along with women and children, including his wife and young son.

 

Margolin was able to lead them all to safety through the darkness. He was evacuated to Siberia late in 1941 where he worked in an artillery design bureau. In 1943 with the Nazis in retreat he returned to Tula as an ordinance engineer, often working with captured German arms.

 

With the war ended, in 1946 Margolin began work with the newly established bureau of the KBP named TsKIB SOO which means Central Design & Research Bureau of Sporting & Hunting Arms. He scrapped his original pistol plans and within 18 months had submitted a new design. No printed plans were ever made but Margolin simply described his ideas to machinists who made and modified parts on his command.

 

“The new pistol had an innovative feature where the rear sight was fixed to the frame on a bridge and was separate from the slide, giving greater accuracy.

 

A cross bar held the slide assembly to the frame in a similar way to the Colt 1902 and Austrian 1912 Steyr Hahn pistols. He continued to modify his design with changes in grip angle, sighting arrangement and slide design. Both hammer and hammerless models were tested.

 

The new pistol had an innovative feature where the rear sight was fixed to the frame on a bridge and was separate from the slide, giving greater accuracy. This feature was later adopted by other target pistol makers such as High Standard and Hammerli.

 

Margolin’s pistol was not initially adopted as it was not thought a blind man’s design could have merit. His friend Mikhail Kalashnikov later commented: “He almost never spoke about how many failures he went through on the thorny path of construction, how much offensive distrust had to be transferred from bureaucrats who rejected the very possibility of a blind inventor to create”.

 

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During a visit to the design bureau Marshal Lavrentiy Beria, the feared head of Stalin’s state police during WWII and now a member of the politbureau, was given the opportunity to testfire a prototype Margolin pistol. He was so enthused that he spent all afternoon shooting and then reported it to Stalin himself who ordered its production. All Margolin pistols were made at the Izhevsk arms factory.

 

THE 1950S

After the success in Caracas the Soviets set their sights on the pistol events at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and once again they had a surprise up their sleeves. Soviet designers led by champion rapid fire shooter Peter Sheptarsky produced a new pistol based on Margolin’s design. Essentially the pistol was turned upside down, fitted with a longer barrel with an extra support frame to hold the sights.

 

The grip was shortened to be just long enough for a modified 5-round magazine and the trigger was moved. The resulting pistol was officially named the MtsZ-1 and remained a state secret until it was unveiled in Melbourne to maximise the psychological advantage.

 

A second model MTsU and the MTs-3 Rekord. (Photo courtesy of Kalashnikov Concern).

 

It quickly earned the nickname the “Hacksaw Pistol” for obvious reasons. The unusual design was to bring the line of the barrel down level with the arm which eliminated muzzle rise in the Rapid Fire events, allowing fast and accurate follow-up shots. There were some later modifications designated as the MTs-3 Rekord.

 

This unorthodox firearm caused consternation among the pistol shooting fraternity. The Russian shooter Yevgeny Cherkasov won silver with his new pistol with a score of 585, with gold going to the Romanian Stefan Petrescu with 587.

 

Soon after the International Shooting Federation modified the rules to say that the bore axis had to be no lower than the upper part of the shooter’s wrist and must fit into a 30cm x 15cm x 10cm box, making the MTs-3 no longer legal. Only around 125 pistols are believed to have been made with only two or three present outside Russia.

 

The cover of April 1957 Guns Magazine showing Olympian Yevgeny Cherkasov holding the Mts-3.

 

Margolin seems to have been involved in the design of other target arms during this post-war period about which there is little information in the west. After he left the TsKIB design bureau in 1955 he became a head of the Tushino-based DOSAAF paramilitary organization sports center. There he designed a single-shot Zarya pistol, and a popular pneumatic pistol for initial training, designated the MG-60.

 

PRODUCTIONS MODEL

Margolin’s first production pistol, released in 1948, was in .22LR only and came in two barrel lengths. There was the 140mm MTs-k (korotkostvolnyi - short barrel) and the 175mm MTs-d (dlinnostvolnyi - long barrel).

 

They had adjustable sights and a safety lever that also acted as a slide hold-open for inspection. The lower frame forward of the trigger guard was dovetailed for the addition of barrel weights and early models had a clamp-on muzzle brake.

 

In 1953 a .22 Short rapid fire version with an aluminium slide, known as the Mts- was introduced. This was the pistol used in the Caracas championships and modified in 1955 to become the MTs-U. The MTs-U no longer had the barrel weight dovetail on the frame but instead had semi-circular weights now fitted to a screw-on muzzle weight/brake. All these early designs have become known as first models.

 

In 1956 the design was modified to a standard 150mm barrel and a slightly longer grip, and despite a longer magazine continued to hold 6 rounds. The screw adjustable front sight was replaced with a finger wheel design.

 

These pistols were produced as the MTs while the MTsU (the hyphen was dropped) continued to have the original shorter grip until 1970 when the modernised design was introduced. These pistols from 1956-1970 have become known as second model pistols.

 

A Baikal branded MCM. After the “modernisation” there was no allowance for a muzzle brake, no slide hold open, no projections on the rear of the slide - a protruding action bar allowed racking the slide from the front.

 

There were a several obvious changes made in the modernised pistols in 1970. The lateral projections at the rear of the slide (to grip when pulling the slide back) were removed and replaced with projections in the retaining bar to allow the slide to be racked from the front.

 

The magazine of the MTsM pistols was increased from 6 to 10 rounds and the safety/hold-open removed, although possibly not immediately. The new .22LR guns were designated MTsM (MCM) and .22 Short guns MTsMU (MCMU). All .22 Short guns had aluminium slides.

 

Most of the earlier pistols came in a dovetailed wooden case with accessories and a spare magazine, while in the later MCM pistols the case and the extra mag seem to have become an option. In the early cased guns both magazines are serialised to the pistol.

 

The Margo pistol.

 

Rapid fire pistols came with a palm rest which was also serialised but the .22LR MTs pistols also had the slot in the grip frame to accept a palm rest. This feature was removed in modernised pistols with only the rapid fire pistols retaining the slot.

 

One thing to be aware of is that Margolin pistols are never marked as such. The only consistent mark on the metal apart from proofs and the factory logo is the serial number on the left and “Made in USSR” on the right. Later MCM pistols will also have MцM on the left.

 

They have been sold under both Baikal and Vostok brands in the west. They are often just listed under their brand name in used gun ads and police registration records. Baikal pistols will have the name embossed on the plastic grips while Vostok branded guns are only occasionally marked with a brand for a specific country’s import requirements.

 

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An internet search using web.archive.org showed that MCM pistols were advertised on the Izhevsk website branded as Baikal until 2013 after which they are no longer listed. In 2013 an amalgamation of the Izhevsk and Ishmash mechanical plants became known as Kalashnikov Concern which seems to coincide with the end of production. I cannot find any evidence that they are still made.

 

A descendent of the Margolin target pistols is known as the Margo. This is the general Margolin design but in a shorter personal defence pistol available in .22LR and .25ACP versions.

 

Margolin pistols have made a couple of appearances in popular culture. The 1966 movie Our Man Flint starring James Coburn was a parody of the highly successful James Bond movies. While advertising posters for James Bond always showed Sean Connery with a futuristic looking Walther LP53 air pistol, the posters for Our Man Flint shows Flint surrounded by buxom women and holding what is clearly a Margolin.

 

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in an early Star Wars promotional photo. He is holding the Drearian Blaster Pistol used by Princess Leia in the opening scene of the movie.

 

The pistol does appear in the movie but brandished by Flint’s enemy. In the more memorable role in the original 1977 Star Wars movie, Princess Leia’s first scene about six minutes into the film shows her brandishing a Drearian Blaster Pistol which is clearly a second model Margolin with an addition to the barrel but retaining the original muzzle brake.

 

I had seen Margolin pistols around at the ranges but had never taken too much notice. After gaining a new appreciation of their history and design more recently, I decided to keep an eye out for one at the right price. Coincidentally one came up at an auction soon after and a rather cheeky low bid substantially below the estimated price won it showing how underappreciated these guns are.

 

The pistol is in its original wooden box with all its accessories and was advertised as an MCM in 90% condition. On receiving it I was happy with it, but I discovered it is not an MCM but a second model MTs made between 1956 and 1970. This is shown by its higher quality finish, gripping projections on the back of the slide, safely catch/hold-open, non-protruding action bar and serialised 6 round magazines.

 

“...in the original 1977 Star Wars Movie, Princess Leia’s first scene about six minutes into the film shows her brandishing a Drearian Blaster Pistol which is clearly a second model Margolin.

 

First impressions are that it is very high quality with a nice fit and finish. With its 111° target grip shaped for right handed shooting, sleek profile, medium weight with excellent balance and comfortable grip angle, it sits in the hand and naturally lines up the very easy to read sights. I guess this is to be expected in a pistol designed by feel alone! I found it hard to believe that there is so little interest in these pistols and was keen to get it out to the range.

 

Close-ups of the muzzle brake and front sight, the chamber and feed ramp, and the trigger/safety mechanisms.

  

The all steel rear sight sits on a bridge mounted to the frame. It is windage adjustable with a 16mm wheel marked with пр for право (pravo) meaning right and л for левый (levyy) meaning left. A screwdriver is used to loosen a small screw which unlocks the sight blade for adjustment. The front sight works in a similar fashion with a locking screw, but adjusts elevation. It is marked в for вверх (vverkh) meaning up and н for вниз (vniz) meaning down.

 

Plastic grip panels bear the Izhevsk arrow within a shield arsenal mark which is also stamped over the chamber. The magazine catch is at the bottom of the grip as was common for European pistols. On the left side in front of the grip is the safety/hold-open lever.

 

There are three positions. Up is fire and when pushed down the trigger is locked. When the slide is pulled all the way back the lever can be pushed further down which raises a tab into a notch at the back of the slide, holding it open.

 

“Margolin pistols all disassemble in the same way which is very easy. The front of the guide rod is pulled forward and turned 90 degrees then released.

 

Lifting the lever will let the slide fall. Note that there is no automatic hold-open. The trigger has a wide shoe and there is an over-travel adjustment screw through the lower guard. The external hammer has a reddish heat treatment and protrudes very little when uncocked. The action is a single action blowback design.

 

The 150mm barrel is pressed into the frame and retained with a cross pin. The frame has an integral feed ramp leading into the chamber which is obviously well designed as these pistols have a reputation for feeding any standard velocity ammunition you care to try.

 

The muzzle brake screws on a fine left hand thread and either of the two muzzle weights can be slipped on and retained with a set screw. My pistol did not come with a palm rest but has the slots to accept one. I was able to buy a bakelite one from Russia on Ebay to complete my boxed accessories.

 

The Margolin field stripped – an easy task.

 

Margolin pistols all disassemble in the same way which is very easy. The front of the guide rod is pulled forward and turned 90 degrees then released. This takes the tension off the retaining bar which is removed to the left allowing the captive mainspring to be removed forward and the slid to the rear. Reassembly is the reverse although the hammer must be pulled back to allow the slide to clear it.

 

At the range I loaded up both magazines with their maximum six rounds. The loading tabs on the magazines are small and hard on the thumb. My Crabtree .22 loading tool did not fit so I will be fashioning one some time soon. The grip-mounted magazine catch worked easily.

 

Trigger pull is light and can only be described as superb. The pistol was comfortable and easy to get back on target after each shot. While I am not a precision target shooter the pistol clearly showed amazing accuracy.

 

In 1960 Margolin was awarded the Silver medal “For Achievements to the National Economy of USSR”. In 1965 he was awarded the honoured title of Заслуженный изобретатель РСФСР which translates as Merited Inventor of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic of the USSR. This was the Soviet Unions’ highest scientific award. Margolin passed away in 1975.

 

Justin

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