Space, the final frontier. It’s full of unknown and exotic dangers like black holes, cosmic rays and space bears. I mean, not really on the space bears thing, but that doesn’t mean the Russians weren’t ready for them, just in case. You never know when the local space fauna might get uppity.
Okay, maybe only in pulp sci-fi, but still, the Russians did indeed bring weapons to space for fairly practical reasons. And one of the more unusual ones was the TP-82 Cosmonaut Survival Pistol.
When we look at the space race, the so-called Cold War, and the history of the U.S. and Russian relations, it’s easy to get conspiratorial, even in orbit. Were the Russians planning to fight America in space? No, not at all (or at least, not with pistols). It’s easy to forget that cosmonauts and astronauts are mostly scientists, not bloodthirsty warfighters. But the cosmonaut job was plenty dangerous, and their TP-82 wasn’t designed for use in space, but rather on earth after they got back.
Origins of the TP-82
In 1965, Alexey Leonov returned to earth from the Voskhod 2 mission. His capsule sailed off course and landed in Siberia, hundreds of miles from the recovery crews waiting to pick him up. Siberia is home to wolves, bears, and even tigers alongside a number of other creatures that could make short work of wayward cosmonauts. At the time, the Cosmonauts were issued a Makarov pistol as part of their survival kit for just such an eventuality.
If you’ve ever handled a Makarov, you might understand why it wasn’t sufficient for the job. These pistols utilize an anemic cartridge, are quite small, have tiny sights, and leave a lot to be desired if the threat you’re engaging is an apex predator. At Leonov’s suggestion, the development of a more modern and capable survival weapon began in 1981.
Like many Soviet projects, the TP-82 remained a secret for years, but secrets don’t keep, even in the refrigeration of Siberia. The weapon leaked, and even NASA’s astronauts received some training with the unusual gun during some cross-training conducted with their Russian friends in the Black Sea. The Tp-82 flew with cosmonauts and even astronauts aboard Soyuz capsules from 1986 to 2006, and was one fascinating firearm.
Enter the TP-82
The term pistol isn’t particularly apt for the TP-82. The only thing pistol–like about this strange gun is that it could be used without a stock. The TP-82 is a three-barreled firearm that uses two different calibers. The top two barrels are smooth bore and designed to fire a proprietary Russain shotgun caliber, 12.5x70mm, which is approximately what us Yankees might call a 40 gauge.
The bottom barrel is rifled and chambered for a 5.45x39mm rifle round, which happens to be the same as the Russian AK-74 assault rifle. This assortment of calibers allowed the weapon to be quite capable. The weapon’s barrels were 11.8 inches long, and without a stock, the TP-82 is just 14.2 inches long in total.
As you might expect for equipment that’s carried into space aboard a rocket, it’s quite compact and very efficient in its design. The stock doubled as a machete, so it was probably best to fire the weapon with it wearing its cover. A stock typically provides cheek support, but this bare-bones setup still helps stabilize the weapon to increase accuracy and effective range.
The weapon ‘breaks’ open much like any standard double or single-barreled shotgun. The user manually removes the empty casings and reloads the weapon. A pair of hammers fire the weapon. The right hammer fires the right shotgun barrel, while the left hammer pulls double duty. It can fire the left shotgun barrel or be switched over to fire the rifle barrel.
Why build a triple-barrel machete gun for cosmonauts?
No one would mistake the TP-82 as a suitable police or military service weapon. However, from a pure survival perspective, the TP-82 makes a lot of sense. The shotgun barrels fire a specialized buckshot load that would make it easy to hit game and kill dangerous animals at close range. While 40 gauge isn’t the most powerful, it still delivers a blast of multiple projectiles that’s efficient for medium-sized animals while allowing for the shaky hand-ed accuracy of a man who just fell out of the sky at Mach 25.
Outside of buckshot, the shotgun bores could also fire flairs to signal for help. These could be invaluable when stuck in the frigid cold of the Russian countryside. Shotguns are quite versatile and very handy for survival situations, while the rifle round allowed for engagements at much longer ranges, even with the short barrel and simple sights, it wouldn’t be difficult to hit a target at 50 to 75 yards when using the stock.
The TP-82 was as simple a weapon as it was versatile, and simplicity counts in a survival situation. In frigid temperatures, a lot of weapons have issues cycling rounds. This is a big reason why manual action weapons see so much use in frigid environments. They work and work well, even when it’s so cold you fear your hands won’t. The simple design of the TP-82 helped ensure the frigid Siberian cold won’t create a reliability issue with the weapon.
The Gun of the Cosmos
According to a Russian website that focuses on the nation’s military technology, the TP-82 has been ditched by Russian spacemen in favor of a standard handgun for survival purposes. But if reports are true, it seems that Russian crews may not even carry any kind of firearms with them into space anymore. According to an Italian astronaut who trained with the Russians for a trip to the International Space Station, a firearm is still part of the escape package, but the equipment is voted on before every mission.
Firearms seemingly don’t get many votes and are left behind as a result. It’s less likely to be needed these days, as although the Russians are still using Soviet era space capsules, they’ve since become much better at recovering them. While its usefulness might no longer show, the TP-82 will always be the OG space blaster, and there’s something to be said for that.