Vintage Saturday: Comparing Gear

Meeting on the Elbe
You don’t need a common language to appreciate good guns together.

Russian and American troops linking up to fight the Germans. Note the variety of weapons – Browning 1917A1, M1 Carbine with grenade launcher, M38 Mosin carbine, PPS-43, and let’s not forget the emergency grenade on the steering column.


  1. Soldiers will always be soldiers .. and political officers will always be political officers .. in and out of uniform;no matter what the uniform.

  2. Soldiers are always curious about one another’s weapons and equipment, and often take a liking to gear from “the other side” in preference to their own, usually for practical reasons.

    Soldiers will also, if given the chance and the right circumstances, take a liking to their opposite numbers as fellow human beings, a situation that is often anathema to the authorities on both sides, for reasons we know all too well.

  3. This was not first occasion Russians checked out American hardware. They used large number of Dodge trucks and even fighter planes – Bell Aircobra. The latter while not very favored by American pilots was well liked by Russians (they called her amicably “kobrushka”). When comes to trucks, my father told me that he saw on industrial exhibition, just 2 years after the war, ‘brand new’ Russian trucks which looks just like the Dodge.

    • This is a little off-topic, but yes, you’re right about the Bell P-39 Airacobra. Other aircraft that the Soviet Union received as part of the Lend-Lease or direct-aid programmes were the Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, North American B-25 Mitchell, Douglas A-20 Havoc / Douglas Boston, and Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk / Tomahawk, among others. Of the five examples cited, most user sources agree that the Mitchells and Havocs / Bostons were well-liked by their Russian crews, while the Hurricane, Spitfire and P-40 were the subject of rather mixed feelings. The unique air combat requirements of the Eastern Front meant that flight and performance characteristics that might be of advantage in the Western or Mediterranean Theaters were sometimes either nullified or actually became a liability under the harsh, unforgiving and spartan battlefield and climatic conditions encountered in the former, and at the lower altitudes at which aerial battles were typically fought. The same could be said of the Pacific Theater. In the end, the aircraft that were most successful were the ones that exhibited the broadest range of low and medium altitude performance, versatility, adaptability, ability to operate in extreme climates and temperatures with minimal maintenance, simplicity and ruggedness of design, ease of serviceability and good rough-field ( unprepared airstrip ) capabilities, all vital factors for consistent and dependable results.

      • The Airacobra had a 20mm (and later a 37mm) cannon that fired out of the nose of the propeller, and it seems that the Russians liked that better than having a multitude of .50 calibers that the US Army Air Corp leaned towards. The assumption was that they used it for anti-take roles, but it appears that they liked it for air-to-air combat as well. 37mm in an Army Air Corp fighter plane–sounds like a forgotten weapon.

        Saw an Airacobra at an air show at Holloman Air Force Base (Alamogordo, NM) in the late ninties. Frank Borman (the NASA commander of the first trip around the moon) lived one town over and had an Airacobra in his collection that he flew for the show. They are very rare.

        Chuck Yeager, in his auto-biography, said that he was one of the few American pilots that actually liked the Airacobra.

        • That isn’t quite correct. The pre-production YP-39B Airacobra initially had a 37mm Oldsmobile / AAC T9 automatic cannon with 15 rounds firing through the propeller spinner, plus two 0.50″( 200 rpg ) and two 0.30″( 500 rpg ), all centered around the top of the fuselage forward of the cockpit. The last 60 P-39C models, which were completed as -D models, and the following 344 P-39D’s had revised armament, comprising the 37mm centerline cannon ( with ammunition capacity increased to 30 rounds ) and two 0.50″ MG’s in the forward fuselage plus four 0.30″ MG’s in the outer wings. The RAF’s Airacobra I, synonymous with the P-39D and later designated the P-400 Airacobra in a quirk of reverse Lend-Lease, had a Hispano-Suiza HS404 20mm cannon installed in place of the 37mm gun, and the six MG’s were standardized on the British-specification 0.303″ Browning aircraft gun.

          The first real mass-produced model was the P-39N ( with 37mm cannon ), of which 2095 examples were built and of which nearly all went to the Soviet Union. The later P-39Q, also supplied in substantial quantities to the Soviets, retained the 37mm nose cannon, kept the two 0.50″ fuselage MG’s and replaced the four 0.30″ wing-mounted MG’s with two 0.50″ MG’s in underwing gondolas. The P-39Q-20 production block onwards deleted the two underwing ) 0.50″ guns. The Soviets preferred the centralized firepower of the nose-mounted guns and considered the increase in performance and agility to be worth the sacrifice of the wing-mounted weapons.

          The primary characteristics that endeared the Airacobra to the Soviet pilots were its concentration of firepower across a very wide range of distances ( the nose-mounted guns had a very narrow cone of dispersion and were not subject to the limitations imposed by having to zero wing-mounted guns at a fixed range for maximum on-target effect ), the tricycle undercarriage and excellent all-around view from the cockpit ( which made the aircraft ideally-suited to operations from rough, unprepared forward airstrips ), the general ruggedness of the airframe itself ( which could absorb a lot of punishment ), and simplicity of field maintenance ( whether intentional or not, the Airacobra was one of the first modern aircraft of its type to feature what we now refer to as “modular” construction ).

        • I left something out here, so you’ll have to integrate it with what I stated in the previous reply. The USAAC’s P-39D-1, -2, -3 and -4 models also had a 20mm nose-mounted cannon, albeit a U.S.-built 20mm M-1 gun.

          The very characteristics that left the production Airacobra wanting at higher altitudes ( namely, the lack of adequate turbo-supercharging ) also meant that it performed very well at low to medium-low altitudes, where turbo-supercharging was not a critical factor, and where the Allison V-1710 engine could develop full power. And it was precisely within this lower altitude range that most Soviet Airacobra units operated, especially in the ground-attack mode, hence the Soviet Air Force’s highly-effective use of this otherwise ( wrongly ) maligned aircraft. This factor alone meant that the Airacobra could hold its own on the Eastern Front ( where combat altitudes tended to be lower ). The P-39 also had a relatively high wing-loading for its time, which lends itself to a better combination of stability, controllability and maneuverability at low altitudes.

        • Your comment about the rarity of Airacobras, let alone a flight-worthy example, is telling. You are very fortunate to have witnessed a real Airacobra in flight at an airshow — I must say that I envy you this privilege, in a good and sincere way :). Did you get to have a closer look at the aircraft, eg., in-depth cockpit views, walk-around, etc.?

          • That air show was in 1997. I don’t know if Borman still does air shows or if he still has the plane. He was living one town over, so not a big deal to show up. That particular show had a lot of stealth fighters, a B2, a B25, a Corsair, I think a P51, and a B17. And F4’s (still used then), a B1B, a Jolly Green Giant, an A10, F14’s, the Thunderbirds, etc. So, no, did not pay that much attention to it. Reading up on it later the design features were interesting, arguably the best layout of any fighter plane, but as you say, lack of high altitude performance kept it out of serious use by the Army Air Corp.

            Regarding the guns in line with the cockpit, versus on the wings and converging, the P38 had them in line as well and I’ve wondered if that was a factor in the long distance hit that took out Adml Yamamoto’s transport.

            If you haven’t read Yeager’s book, try to find it. He liked the accuracy of the plane and used it for deer hunting while training state side.

            You’re knowledge of the plane is impressive, I’m glad it isn’t a forgotten plane. Found a link to that particular plane:

        • Jacob, thanks so much for the War Bird Registry link. I believe it was the long-range capability and endurance of the P-38 Lightning that was primarily responsible for its selection as the interceptor of choice in the Yamamoto mission due to the distances involved.

          There is a lot of available information — some anecdotal, some hard — in various publications, including Martin Caidin’s classic “Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38” ( Ballantine Books, 1971 and Bantam Books, 1990 ) on the topic of the longer effective range of the nose-mounted guns in that particular aircraft versus wing-mounted weapons.

  4. My bud in Chi-town has a 1938 Tula TT33 his old man brought back from the War. I asked him what he did – if he was with the Russkies at the Elbe – he said his old man was a mechanic fixin’ trucks and that he got it from another GI – most probably taken off a German who in turn took it from a dead or captured Russkie…it has plexiglass grip panels – which, I’m told, was a relatively common form of ‘trench art’ amongst the Russkies who got the material from downed German aircraft. I took pictures of the gun in 1977 and scanned the slide into a Photoshop file and was able to enlarge the details enough to see the date and the arsenal stamp. Too bad he lives in that area of the country, I’d love to take it to the range.

    CB in FL

  5. Far off topic, but it seem that one never see’s WW2 pictures of GIs with them having their helmet on. Doesn’t seem to matter whether they are in combat or not. Pictures of those of other armies seem to only be wearing helmets when in combat.

    For a few years I’ve been wonder why? A rule, lack of other US hats? I do know that my 8th grade science teacher said the very 1st thing they bought from captured German soldiers was a rabbit fur winter hat.

    Any one know why or have any ideas?

    • I’m not quite sure, but at least as far as I have seen, there are plenty of pictures of U.S. troops with their helmets on, and as many of several other countries’ soldiers without them ( and these come from various scenarios that preclude anomalies such as the captured German soldier selling his winter hat ). As a mere small handful of examples out of many, please look at Bruce Quarrie’s “Weapons Of The Waffen SS” ( Patrick Stephens, Ltd., 1988 and Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1990 ), Otto Carius’ “Tigers In The Mud” ( J.J. Federowicz Publishing, 1992 and Stackpole Books, 2003 ), Arthur Swinson’s “The Raiders” ( Ballantine Books, 1968 ), Toliver & Constable’s “The Blond Knight Of Germany” ( TAB / AERO Books, 1970 ), Peter Townsend’s “Duel Of Eagles” ( Simon & Schuster, 1971 ), Adam Makos’ “A Higher Call” ( Berkley Publishing Group / Penguin Publishing, 2012 ), and Heaton & Lewis’ “The Star Of Africa — The Story Of Hans Marseille” ( Zenith Press, 2012 ); you’ll find several candid photographs of helmetless, capless, shirtless and otherwise inappropriately-dressed non-American front-line personnel caught in action.

      • American GIs may have had their helmets on and this was certainly wise precaution, but I’d challenge anyone to find picture with chin strap fastened. I have not seen single one.

        Story behind it is apparently that in case of frontal explosion the fastened helmet could be throw back so violently that its rear edge may break wearer’s neck (must have been proved). In that sense, you may say that wearing it (fastened or not) was kind of counterproductive. Red Army soldiers to contrary are very rarely seen in historical pictures seen wearing protective headgear (part of tankers and aircrews).

        When we are at military dress in general, I recall how curious I was looking at our “brothers in arms” at occasion of their friendly excursion in 1968 (they were in the country on joint exercise early that spring). Their attire was extremely baggy. This image was further augmented by the fact that they were often visibly malnourished. Later, when I analysed it, I came to opinion there is reason behind: it is much less likely to shoot and hit man so meticulously disguised. Chances are 50/50 that it will be clothing who takes the hit. Today’s situation is vastly different though.

    • It was also a matter of discipline. In Patton’s third army GI’s were given hefty fines if they were caught not wearing helments (or gaiters, or ties, were unshaven, etc.) Part of it was trying to turn green farm boys into professional soldiers very quickly. They had good equipment and training, but were up against more experienced troops and he thought that if they looked like professionals and had pride in themselves that they might act the part. Heard a story that Gen. Patton tried to have Bing Crosby arrested (or otherwise tried to make life hard for him in some way) when he saw the entertainer without a helment.

      • Jacob, thanks for sharing that interesting and telling bit of history. It certainly rings true in keeping with the character of General Patton — I know this may sound a little odd, but I was once married to Patton’s grand-niece, and she had told me a fair bit about him that was in line with this and other traits.

        • Looked it up in my collection of Patton books, in Semmes’s “Portrait of Patton”, his orderly Sgt Meeks reported that in Tunisia Patton rounded up GI’s without helmets and gave them a choice of a court martial or a $25 fine. Blumenson’s “Patton” also mentions that leggings, neck ties, and helmets were mandatory in Tunisia, and presumably in his armies thereafter. The George C Scott movie also had a scene in it where cooks and doctors were told to wear helments and the movie, with few exceptions, matched the real history.

          Had an uncle who was a Lt in the third army, he said that no one liked the general, but they all respected him. But some of the other troops thought the emphasis on proper uniform was over board, Bill Mauldin had a cartoon of two battle weary troops reading the list of fines in the third army area and deciding to make a big detour around it.

          • How very true, Jacob. The regimented “blood and guts” attitude of the General extended far beyond the battlefield.

  6. Earl,

    That is what I see. American always wearing helmets even when not in combat. BUT, non-American soldiers wearing helmets only when in combat or parade.

    Just like this picture the GIs wearing helmet for no reason of needing protection and the Soviet’s wearing hats/caps.

  7. Sort of like the fetish the Army Air Corps made about wearing hats. Seems you couldn’t drive a bomber unless you put your headphones over your (combination?) hat.

    They were pretty casual about hats on the flightline and walking through prop arcs of those recips too.

    But yeah, the gear comparison/swapping still goes on.

  8. I think in a lot of the pictures of GIs apparently wearing helmets in non-combat situations they’re actually wearing the helmet liner, without the helmet. It’s especially true if the ‘GI’ is a senior officer posing for a publicity shot.

  9. I believe, there is a genuine curiosity among ‘dressed up young men’ to try out somebody else’s gear and its roots are not necessarily in technical interests alone. It was not uncommon thru WWII to see both sides carrying each other’s arms (on German side more common). There is some allure to it, obviously.

    Novadays, we have slew of ‘tactical shooters’ carrying rifles of former chief adversary – and it is perfectly acceptable.

  10. So, it appears to me that there is some kind of Mauser rifle lying next to the M1 carbine, not an M38MN. The bolt handle and the front band look Mauser-ish, as does the short cleaning rod. I’d bet it’s a GI souvenir rather than a Soviet weapon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.