Leave it to Russia to develop a special gun just for space travel. Got to love the ingenuity on this handgun, aka shotgun. Pretty darn cool.
By James Simpson
To this day, the Russian Federal Space Agency refuses to talk about the weapon—though it’s an open secret. Astronauts heading to the International Space Station have trained with it, and some have even talked about it.
And in case there’s any doubt about its existence, there’s one on display in a Russian museum.
It’s the TP-82 survival pistol. There was a time when Russian cosmonauts regularly traveled to space with the gun in tow. But calling it a pistol is slightly misleading—the TP-82 more like a small shotgun.
The Soviet Union included the weapon in Granat-6 survival kits stashed inside Soyuz capsules between 1982 and 2006. The odd weapons also found their way into military aircraft survival kits.
Having a gun inside a thin-walled spacecraft filled with oxygen sounds crazy, but the Soviets had their reasons. Much of Russia is desolate wilderness. A single mishap during descent could strand cosmonauts in the middle of nowhere.
In March 1965, cosmonaut Alexey Leonov landed a mechanically-faulty Voskhod space capsule in the snowy forests of the western Urals … 600 miles from his planned landing site.
For protection, Leonov had a nine-millimeter pistol. He feared the bears and wolves that prowled the forest—though he never encountered any. But the fear stayed with him. Later in his career, he made sure the Soviet military provided all its cosmonauts with a survival weapon.
Leonov’s lobbying efforts culminated in the TP-82. It was essentially a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun with a short-barreled rifle added onto it. It was good for hunting small game, while packing a big enough punch to deter a 1,000-pound brown bear.
Two guns together
Shooting this combination pistol took more effort than most firearms. The gun had three barrels and two hammers.
The right hammer fired a 12.5 x 70-millimeter shotgun shell out of a smoothbore barrel. A vertical thumb-switch shifted the left hammer between the second smoothbore barrel and a rifle barrel underneath. This last barrel fired 5.45 x 39-millimeter rifle cartridges.
It was far from user friendly. But the manual action and simple mechanical selection prevented jams in the harsh conditions of the cold, damp, sub-arctic forests of the taiga.
The Granat-6 portable survival kit came with a belt, a holster for the weapon and three kinds of ammunition. The belt contained 11 rounds of SP-P 5.45 x 39 ammunition for the rifle barrel. Although the same caliber as the AK-74, SP-P rounds contained soft points.
For the shotgun barrels, the Soviet designers gave the cosmonauts 10 cartridges each of SP-D bird shot and SP-S red signal flare. This meant a crashed pilot could hunt small game and call for help.
The belt carried a 14-inch spatula-shaped machete. The knife slotted into the bottom of the gun’s pistol grip to form a makeshift butt stock. A reinforced sheath covered the blade, stopping it from slicing a chunk out of the shooter’s torso during recoil.
It was a pretty good knife, too. Besides cutting branches for firewood or clearing a path, crashed pilots could use it to slice bricks out of impacted snow—the essential building blocks of igloos.
The TP-82 was the Swiss army knife of firearms. But it wouldn’t have existed were it not for a Soviet space hero who landed into the cold Russian wilderness nearly 50 years ago.
Trouble in space
Voskhod 2 mission commander Col. Pavel Belyayev and pilot Lt. Col. Alexey Leonov sat atop a two-stage rocket which carried them from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan into low-Earth orbit.
It was March 1965.
High above the Soviet Union, 30-year-old Leonov conducted humanity’s first spacewalk. Exiting the airlock, he spent 12 minutes floating in space, tethered to the capsule.
That’s when Leonov’s pressurized suit ballooned and stiffened. His gloves and boots expanded away from his fingers and feet. The cosmonaut couldn’t even reach his chest-mounted camera to snap a photograph of the Voskhod 2capsule.
Worse, he was trapped outside the airlock. His suit inflated so much, that it was larger than the narrow airlock opening. The only way in was to break the standard airlock entry protocol.
Without telling mission control, he released some of the air from his suit. The pressure fell to a quarter of an atmosphere—the equivalent of the air pressure at the top of Mount Everest in what mountain climbers call “the death zone.”
The stress on his body and the physical exertion under low-oxygen conditions elevated his temperature by 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit. As he fought to survive and stay conscious, sweat poured from his body and filled his suit. Leonov eventually inched into the airlock, but now he was stuck.
The tunnel-like airlock was wide enough for a man to stand, but there was little chance of the cosmonaut rotating vertically to close the hatch behind him. Still calm despite the incredible stress he was undergoing, the young lieutenant colonel contorted himself enough to close the hatch.
Leonov was back inside the Voskhod capsule. Belyayev began to repressurize the airlock. But this was just the beginning of the two cosmonauts’ problems. They still had to get home.