by Greg Trapp
From the Editor: Greg Trapp is the executive director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, a position he has held since 1999. Prior to becoming commission director, he was a senior staff attorney with Disability Rights New Mexico. He has taught disability law as an adjunct professor, and he is a past president of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind. He is also a longtime member of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what he has to say about a blind person who succeeded in a field many would consider unlikely—he found success as a gun designer.
Greg Trapp fires a C96 Mauser Broomhandle.
The question of blind people and guns continues to be hotly debated. On August 4, 2014, a video commentary was posted on NRA News in which the commentator said, "Every law-abiding, blind individual should be able to have whatever guns they want." The commentator was Dom Raso, a defense instructor and former Navy Seal. The video was ridiculed by Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Apparently unfamiliar with the NFB's Blind Driver Challenge, not to mention bioptic driving, she sarcastically asked, "Should we let blind people drive, too?"
The attitude of the general public toward the blind was further demonstrated when the Huffington Post responded to the commentary by conducting a survey asking if it "should be legal for the blind to own guns." Only 23 percent of respondents said it should be legal for the blind to own a gun, while 51 percent said it should be illegal, while the rest were not sure. The results of the survey may have been different if the people surveyed had been told about and shown the alternative techniques used by blind shooters or about blind people who successfully engage in activities related to firearms. They could have been told about Carey McWilliams, a blind hunter and author of Guide Dogs and Guns. They could also have been told about Jim Miekka, a blind stock trader and inventor, who can accurately fire a rifle with a photodiode scope he invented. Had they Googled "world's best target shooter," the first result they would have found was for Miekka, and they would have learned that he can hit a 4mm target at 100 yards. They could also have been told about Mikhail Margolin, the remarkable blind Russian gun designer who successfully worked during a career that started in the reign of Joseph Stalin and continued into the rule of Leonid Brezhnev. This article examines the life and contributions of this brilliant Soviet gun designer.
The Margolin MCM target pistol
Mikhail Vladimirovich Margolin designed several successful firearms, but he is today best remembered for the revolutionary MCM .22 caliber target pistol. The pistol was first made in 1948, and variations of it are still being made today. It was called the Margolina tselevoy, or the target pistol by Margolin. The pistol was designed for use in the highly competitive field of twenty-five meter target shooting. A modified version of the pistol was also used as a prop in one of the most memorable scenes in the original Star Wars movie. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the rebel star ship carrying Princess Leia had just been captured and boarded by Darth Vader. The beautiful Princess Leia is shown hiding the plans of the Death Star in R2-D2. Afterwards she is in action, and in her hand is a blaster that she uses to down one of the storm troopers. The blaster was actually a modified version of the unusually-shaped Margolin MCM target pistol. The Margolin thus joined the famous C96 Mauser Broomhandle, which was the basis of Han Solo's blaster, as a prop in one of the most famous movies of all time.
Margolin was born in the early 1900s, a time of rapid progress in science and technology. Many revolutionary new firearms were being designed, primarily in the United States and Germany. These revolutionary designs were made possible by advances in metallurgy and the perfection of smokeless powder. Smokeless powder burned cleaner and was more powerful than black powder, making it possible to design reliable semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms. The preeminent gun designer of the age was the American John M. Browning, who designed firearms that were so advanced that some of his designs are still used by the United States military. Unlike the United States, Imperial Russia had long struggled to expand the capacity of its domestic small arms industry, and its arms designs had lagged behind those of its foes. After the start of the First World War, Russia found itself short of its 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifles, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to order 2.3 million rifles from the United States. The shortage was so critical that many Russian soldiers were sent to the front with orders to get their rifles from fallen soldiers. Desperate for arms, Russia pulled its obsolete single-shot 1870 Berdan rifles from storage and issued them to soldiers headed to the front. In addition to the ancient Berdan rifle, Russian soldiers were issued a bewildering variety of modern and obsolete firearms. These firearms continued to be used in the Russian Civil War, which took place from 1917 to 1922. The C96 Mauser Broomhandle was one of the firearms used during the Russian Civil War. Called the Broomhandle because of its unusual grip, it was the favorite gun of the Bolshevik Commissars. Margolin was a soldier during the Civil War, and it was as a result of this military service that he gained a familiarity with this vast variety of weapons. It was also during the Russian Civil War that Margolin sustained a head wound and lost his vision.
Margolin's response to becoming blind was described by Victor Maryanovsky in a 1958 issue of GUNS Magazine: "First came the study of Braille. Friends helped him to study mathematics, mechanics, and strength of materials, all essential subjects for the arms designer. His wife read aloud to him from textbooks and books on the history of firearms. He collected guns and enlarged his knowledge of various weapons systems. Most important was his splendid memory: within a few years he was a match for any engineer. As for firearms, there was no disputing his superior knowledge. He got acquainted with the latest models of weapons and took them apart dozens of times in order to let his sense of touch give rise in his mind to a mental picture."
Despite his great knowledge and enthusiasm, Margolin did not meet with initial success as a gun designer. He had difficulty communicating his designs, which he tried to do by hand motions. Ironically, it was this failure that led to his success. According to Maryanovsky, "Unable to draw the gun parts on paper, he had to explain his ideas by gestures. A solution to Margolin's deep personal problem of communicating by his hands was found unexpectedly, at a sanatorium where the striving inventor had gone, depressed, to rest. He was bored by idleness. ‘Suppose you try clay modeling, that may be interesting,’ suggested his roommate.” That simple suggestion transformed Margolin from a depressed patient into a successful gun designer.
Margolin went on to use more durable and harder forms of clay as well as aluminum and wood to create models of the guns that he had envisioned in his head. This led to his first successful designs in the 1930s, a semi-automatic sporting rifle and a fully automatic .22 machine gun for use in military training. Maryanovsky describes it as follows: "As a result a day came to Margolin of great honor, one which the most highly skilled gunsmith could be proud of. The blind man was invited to work at designing offices in the big government small arms factory at Tula."
At Tula Margolin studied with some of Russia's greatest gun designers. One of those was Fedor Tokarev, the designer of the Tokarev TT-33 pistol. The TT-33 was intended to replace the aging 1895 Nagant revolver. Margolin designed a modified version of Tokarev's TT-33 pistol that enabled it to fire lower power cartridges and be used as a training pistol. Margolin also worked on a .22 sport pistol that was based on the TT-33 frame. The pistol was approved for production on June 21, 1941. However, the pistol was never produced. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded Russia, bringing the Soviet Union into the Second World War.
During the war Margolin worked as an ordinance engineer and served as an air raid warden. Describing a German bombing raid on Moscow, Maryanovsky wrote that, while on duty on the roof of one of Moscow's big buildings, Margolin picked up a fallen German incendiary bomb and threw it from the roof to the street, where it burned harmlessly. Writing of another incident during the war, Maryanovsky wrote Margolin went "in the ruins of a lodging house demolished by bombs" and "lead 120 old people, women, and children to safety."
When the war was over, Margolin abandoned the pistol design he had worked on before the war and instead designed what would become the Margolin MCM. The gun was designed between 1946 and 1948, and the first pistols were built in 1948.
The new Margolin MCM gained international attention in 1954, when it was used at the 36th World Championship shooting competition in Caracas, Venezuela. Describing the Russian team as they were about to compete, Maryanovsky wrote, "They could not boast of great achievements in pistol competition; they had nothing to match the German Walther or the American Colt for rapid-fire shooting. Then Nikolai Kalinichenko took his place at the firing line. The first shot scored, and the next . . . In two days of shooting, sixty shots, Kalinichenko scored 584 points, beating the world record set by Benner, the American. The team record was carried off by Soviet marksmen, who scored 2,317 using the new pistol of Mikhail Margolin."
The world record success of Margolin's pistol was due to the use of several revolutionary design features. The gun was designed so that balance weights could be attached to steady the pistol during firing. The pistol could also be equipped with a muzzle brake to reduce the tendency of the gun barrel to rise during shooting, a movement called muzzle climb. The muzzle brake is at the end of the barrel, and it directs some of the expanding gas upward and to the rear, which helps counteract the muzzle climb. Margolin also designed a version of his MCM with an aluminum slide. The slide is the part of a semi-automatic pistol that moves backward and forward with each shot, ejecting the empty bullet case as it goes backward, and chambering the new bullet as it travels forward. The lighter slide helped the shooter hold the gun steady during firing.
Margolin also designed the sights to improve accuracy. He placed the rear sight on the frame, creating a bridge through which the slide passed. Margolin's design was very different from traditional pistols in which the sights were mounted on the slide. Mounting the sights on the slide reduces accuracy, since the slide is a moving part that could be slightly out of alignment with the barrel. By placing the rear sight on a stationary bridge above the slide, Margolin greatly improved the accuracy of his pistol.
The 1895 Nagant revolver
The innovative design features of the Margolin created a very unusually-shaped pistol, including the abnormally high sights. This unusual shape is likely responsible for some of the comments that attribute the appearance to the designer being blind. However, Margolin's design should be judged in the light of its Russian contemporaries, and most Russian guns of the time tended to be unattractive and even strange looking by American standards. For instance, the Margolin would look right at home if it was placed next to the 1895 Nagant revolver or the PPS-43 submachine gun or the 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifle. One of the comments that attributes a design feature to Margolin's blindness can be found on the Wikipedia page that describes the Margolin MCM, which states:
"The designer himself was blind. The most critisized [sic] characteristic—the elevation of the plane of sight—so also [sic] be explained: the designer could not aim his pistol."
Besides being a poor speller and not including a citation, the person who made this entry is not recognizing that the criticized "plane of sight" is actually a deliberate design feature that contributed to the success of the pistol. In addition to the bridge that made the rear sight stationary, the unusually high sights enabled the shooter to hold the pistol a little lower and bring the barrel more in line with the shoulder. This gave the shooter a slightly improved ability to control the pistol in rapid fire competition. The high line of sight is a design feature that the Margolin had in common with the AK-47, the famous assault rifle designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. The AK-47 was designed between 1946 and 1948, the same time as the Margolin MCM. Just like the Margolin, the high sights of the AK-47 lowered the barrel and put it more in line with the shoulder, helping to reduce muzzle climb.
Margolin's willingness to alter the barrel height to compensate for the problems of muzzle climb was further demonstrated in the design of his next pistol, the even more revolutionary "upside-down" pistol. According to Maryanovsky, "The pistol which emerged was radically different from any firearm ever before designed in the world. Called the MTsZ-1, the five-shot competition 3.1 is built with the slide and barrel below the hand, the magazine feeding inverted from above. This caused the 'kick' of the gun to strike downward, aiding rapid fire control." The pistol was used by Soviet shooters at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. After the Olympics, rules were issued that banned the MTsZ-1 pistol. There were only about 125 upside-down pistols made, and it remains one of the most fascinating and unusual guns ever designed.
Mikhail Margolin was a brilliant gun designer who just happened to be blind. It is ironic that Margolin was able to achieve such great success as a blind gun designer in the Soviet Union, and yet today many voices are being raised in the United States that question the ability and right of blind persons to handle and even own guns. The remarkable career of Mikhail Margolin illustrates the point that blind people can successfully work in a wide range of professions that many might not think possible, including as scientists, medical doctors, nurses, chiropractors, mechanics, and yes, even as gun designers.
Cherry, P. (2011, February 3). MC-3: The first upside down gun, American Rifleman, <http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/mc-3-first-upside-down-gun>
Maryanovsky, V. (1958, September). The man to beat in Moscow, Guns Magazine, <http://toyfj40.freeshell.org/GunPix/Margolin.html>
MCM pistol. (2014, January 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:57, September 2, 2014, from <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=MCM_pistol&oldid=591688449>