I think I first became interested in the Dragunov sniper rifle because of its “Holy Grail” status in the U.S. ordnance intelligence community. Even a decade after the Dragunov had entered production and service with the Soviet armed forces, examples were unknown in the West and U.S. intelligence agencies were offering a bounty to anyone who could supply one.
I eventually got to see and handle a Dragunov for the first time in the mid-1980s, but did not get to shoot it. That rare treat would take place a few years later. From the first time I picked up a Dragunov though, I was fascinated with it. It felt right in the hands and it looked sleek and deadly. In Brussels I had become acquainted with a representative for a Russian Arms dealer who said he could get me a Dragunov, but legally importing it to the U.S. was not going to happen. Some years later I did buy one of the Chinese copies of the Dragunov built by Norinco. A friend from a U.S. special ops unit had told me they had bought NDM-86 Chinese Dragunovs in .308 for foreign weapons training since they had plenty of that caliber available. I liked it, but it wasn’t Russian and it wasn’t 7.62x54R.
My fascination with the Dragunov continued from afar until Fall 2004, when I was commissioned to do a study of the Beslan School hostage incident. As I talked to Russian contacts and analyzed the info, it became readily apparent that snipers from the Spetsnaz unit “Rus” had saved a lot of lives because they were armed with Dragunovs. At the point when the terrorists started killing parents, teachers and children, many hostages were leaping from windows and attempting to escape while terrorists were shooting them as they ran. Maximizing the effect of the Dragunov’s speed of fire—since it is semi-auto, its 10-round detachable box magazine capacity, and its scope’s relatively wide field of view—the snipers provided accurate countersniper fire to cover the escaping hostages and eliminate terrorist shooters. More than 380 of the 1,100 hostages died in the incident, but that death toll could have been much higher had the Spetsnaz snipers not delivered accurate fire from their Dragunovs.
This incident gave me a new appreciation for the tactical value of the Dragunov in urban combat. It also made me an advocate of self-loading urban sniping rifles with detachable box magazines of 10 rounds or more for tactical units in case they encounter an incident with a number of hostages and a number of terrorists. One result, too, was that I made it a point to set up scenarios to see how quickly I could engage multiple shooters located in diverse parts of a “building” with a Dragunov.
I concluded what many have concluded about the Dragunov. It really isn’t a sniper rifle in the sense of allowing ½ MOA groups at 300 meters or more. Two MOA groups are usually considered good with a Dragunov. The Dragunov is really more of what in the U.S. armed forces would be termed a DMR (Designated Marksman Rifle). The Dragunov throughout much of its history has been intended to give the infantry squad armed with AK-47s or AK-74s a weapon that allows one squad member to reach out and eliminate an enemy at greater distance. That was really the Dragunov’s mission, though it has often functioned as a “sniper rifle.”
In the 1979-1989 Soviet War in Afghanistan, the ability of the Dragunov to eliminate Mujahideen fighters at longer distance than the AK-74 made it quite valuable. Snipers helped secure roads through the mountains by engaging Mujahideen, especially mortar crews. Spetsnaz snipers would use Dragunovs mounting night vision optics (designated SVDN) to attack Mujahideen movement at night and to interdict areas around Soviet installations. It is my understanding that at least some of the earliest Dragunovs obtained by U.S. intelligence agencies came from those captured in Afghanistan by members of the Mujahideen.
Dragunovs were used on both sides during the First Chechen War (December 1994-August 1996) and the Second Chechen War (August 1999-April 2009—fought as a counterinsurgency war by the Russians from June 2000). I recently finished reading a book entitled Free Fall by Nicolai Lilin, a Spetsnaz sniper in the Second Chechen War. He had some interesting comments about their use of snipers, as well as the Chechen’s use of snipers.
They did face Chechen snipers mostly armed with Dragunovs, though some had other sniper rifles acquired from sympathizers in the West. Trained as a sniper, Lilin normally carried a VSS suppressed sniper rifle, a gas-operated, suppressed rifle that may be broken down for easy transport. The VSS is used primarily by Spetsnaz units. The stock is somewhat similar to that of the Dragunov; plus there are other similarities including the 10-round detachable box magazine and the use of the PSO-1-1 optical sight. There are also notable differences: caliber is 9x39mm, the cartridge using a heavy 250-grain bullet, with a hardened-steel or tungsten tip for penetration, usually considered accurate to 400 meters. The VSS is also select-fire, though for sniping purposes it is generally used on semi-auto.
Though the VSS is quite effective in its special ops mission, in Chechnya, according to Lilin, the Spetsnaz still often worked with snipers from Russian airborne units who were armed with Dragunovs to have longer-range capability. Although the Russians do have the SV-98 bolt-action sniper rifle, the Dragunov is still in wide use with Russian combat units for long-range engagement.
Some reported Chechen snipers who gained enough experience with their Dragunovs against the Russians have allegedly become mercenary snipers, selling their services to other Islamic fighters. U.S. troops have encountered what they believe to be Chechen snipers in Afghanistan. U.S. countersnipers were sent in against them and reportedly engaged in “sniper duals” with the “Chechens.” Although some U.S. snipers reported the enemy using bolt-action rifles, Dragunovs have also been captured when enemy snipers have been killed by U.S. snipers or by helicopter gunships. Another team of mercenary snipers killed 10 British troops before they were eliminated by British special operators. Many intelligence experts who are familiar with the Chechens, however, doubt that U.S. troops have faced Chechen snipers who prefer to stay in their homeland and shoot Russians!
There have also been stories of mercenary snipers in Iraq. Early in the War, there were stories of Chechen snipers but none were ever killed or captured. One sniper named Juba even had comic books, songs, videos, and websites about him as he became an Islamist pop culture icon. However, he was usually identified as a former crack sniper in Saddam’s armed forces. In the comic books he is portrayed with a Dragunov. However, if Juba indeed existed and used a Dragunov, it might well have been an Iraqi Tabuk, which is based on the AK-47 and is not really a sniper rifle. More likely it would have been an Iraqi Al Kadesiah sniper rifle, which is based on the Russian Dragunov. U.S. troops have captured both, plus Russian Dragunov rifles from the insurgents. The Iraqi security forces have been equipped with Romanian PSLs, which many confuse with the Dragunov, and also with Russian Dragunovs—so those have turned up in insurgent hands as well.
Dragunov In Training
Because U.S. snipers and special ops troops may face they Dragunov, they often receive familiarization training with it. Based on talking with contacts who have trained with the Dragunov, conversations with former Russian snipers, and my own shooting experiences with the Dragunov, I’ll try to quickly discuss some of its main features as well as advantages and disadvantages.
First let me make a comment on terminology. I usually use the term “Dragunov” because I like the idea of a sniping rifle named “Dragon.” Many use the term SVD, which is the acronym for Snayperskaya Vintovka Dragunova, which translates pretty much as “Dragunov’s Sniper Rifle” after Yevgeny Dragunov. Both are valid designations.
One interesting aspect of Dragunov marksmanship I picked up from some of my Russian contacts is that many Russian snipers believe the rifle shoots better with the bayonet affixed as it positively affects barrel harmonics. I have fired Dragunovs with the bayonet and without and haven’t really noticed that much difference, but I don’t have the experience with it that the Russian snipers do.
I certainly haven’t found that I could shoot really good groups with the Dragunov, but I have not normally been firing the 7N1 or 7N14 sniper loads with which some of my Russian contacts claim to be able to shoot very good groups. I certainly believe one of them who works for a Russian arms dealer and demonstrates weapons. Anything he has ever told me he can shoot well, he has demonstrated that ability. Most U.S. military personnel who’ve trained with the Dragunov have not been overly impressed with its precision either. Generally, most U.S. shooters I know who’ve done much firing with the Dragunov consider 2 MOA good shooting. My experiences are closer to 3 MOA.
Handiness is where most rate the Dragunov quite highly. The Dragunov is very well balanced and allows offhand or kneeling shots much better than most sniping rifles. Since most of today’s sniping rifles are designed to be fired off of a bipod or rest, they are generally not as well balanced. I also find that the self-loading action is an aid when firing offhand or kneeling since I do not have to move one hand from the shooting position to operate a bolt. I find that most other shooters who have Dragunov experience tend to agree on that.
The 10-round box magazine combined with the self-loading operation is a real plus as well as it allows continuous engagement when giving supporting fire or dealing with a “target rich environment.” At least a few of my contacts have commented that they also like the presence of the iron sights on the Dragunov, especially since they may be used while the PSO-1 scope is on its side mount. The sights are as good as AK sights and allow the shooter to keep fighting if the scope gets put out of action. That doesn’t happen often; it’s a tough scope. Note that the stock angle is such that when using the scope, the detachable cheek rest is desirable and when using the iron sights it should be taken off.
Speaking of the scope, most users of the Dragunov rate the 4X PSO-1 as a mixed blessing. It gives a good field of view and rapid target acquisition because of the lower magnification, but engagement at longer ranges is difficult. The reticle is somewhat complicated, but with a bit of study and practice it can be deciphered. For basic engagement it uses a chevron, which I like. It is also illuminated using a battery, and, to deal with Russian winters, the scope has a built-in battery warmer!
A disadvantage is the use of the AK-type long lever safety on the right side of the receiver. As with AKs, operating the safety without moving the shooting hand or bringing the support hand under the rifle is difficult.
There is an improved version of the Dragunov intended for airborne and Spetsnaz troops. Designated the SVDS, it has a shorter 22.2-inch barrel and a folding stock. In some cases, improved versions of the PSO-1 scope are fitted.
I like the Dragunov and consider it a truly iconic rifle. If the Zombie Apocalypse arrives and I’m called on for long-range duty, I’d probably chose one of my .338 Lapua sniper rifles to blast the walking dead to pieces. But if all I had was a Dragunov, I think I could do a lot of damage with those 7.62x54R rounds fired quickly from 10-round magazines!