Why Soviet Cosmonauts Carried a Gun to Space

Oct 27, 2022 1 comments

For decades, the standard survival kit carried by Russian cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz spacecraft included a specially built gun and a few dozen rounds to defend against wild animals should the cosmonauts land in the Siberian wilderness. They were the only space-faring nation to arm their space travelers, and it did raise a few eyebrows. But the Soviets had their reasons.

Re-entry and landing is a difficult process because of the sheer amount of forces the re-entry vehicle is subjected to as it slams against the earth’s atmosphere. With a re-entry velocity of nearly 25,000 km per hour, even the slightest misfiring of the engines could change the trajectory that could result in the cosmonauts landing hundreds of miles off course. Much of Russia is desolate wilderness, from which rescue could take a few days. As the cosmonauts waited, they had to fend not only the cold but also fight off hostile bears and wolves.

A cosmonaut fighting a bear. Image generated by DALL-E/OpenAI

In 1965, cosmonauts Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov, while returning from a very successful Voskhod 2 mission, had their spacecraft veer of course and landed in the forests of Siberia, some 240 miles from the intended landing zone. Leonov and Belyayev were well aware that they would have to spend the night alone in the taiga, where bears and wolves roamed. For protection, the cosmonauts were provided with a 9mm semi automatic, but Leonov knew very well that the firearm would prove inadequate against a 500-pound bear.

Although Leonov did not encounter any bears, this experience drove him to advocate for the issue of a purpose-designed cosmonaut survival pistol for future missions. This resulted in the TP-82, also known as the TOZ-82.

The TP-82 was a triple-barrel shotgun that used two different calibers. The upper two barrels were smooth bore and used special 12.5×70 mm ammunition, also called 40 gauge. The lower barrel was rifled and used 5.45×39mm ammunition, which happened to be the same ones used by the AK-74 assault rifle. The shotgun had a detachable stock which also doubled as a machete and came with a canvas sheath. Aside from buckshot, the TP-82 could also fire flares to signal for help.

The TP-82 became a part of the standard survival kit and were carried regularly on Soviet and Russian space missions from 1986 to 2006. The gun was also provided to some Soviet Air Force units, presumably for aircrews operating over particularly inhospitable regions. Even NASA astronauts trained with the TP-82 during a drill in the Black Sea, where they fired off rounds from a boat.

“It was amazing how many wine, beer and vodka bottles the crew of the ship could come up with for us to shoot at,” said astronaut Jim Voss. “It was very accurate,” he continued. “We threw the bottles as far as possible, probably 20 or 30 meters, then shot them. It was trivial to hit the bottles with the shotgun shells, and relatively easy to hit them with the rifle bullets on the first shot.”

Another astronaut, Dave Wolf, who spent four months aboard Russia's Mir space station in 1997-98, described the weapon as “a wonderful gun”. Wolf added: “I found it to be well-balanced, highly accurate and convenient to use.”

In 2007, it was announced that remaining ammunition for the TP-82 had become unusable and the weapon was withdrawn. In its place, a standard semi-automatic pistol was provided. However, before each mission the Russian space agency’s official takes a vote to decide whether the crew should carry a gun.

The issue of weapons in space is a controversial one. American space journalist and historian James Oberg argues that “the presence of the gun, especially in light of recent space team psychological problems, might be an invitation to a future disaster.”

Oberg proposes that to minimize risk the gun be stashed in a compartment that is accessible only from outside the Soyuz, after the landing, to prevent anyone from using the firearm while in flight. Ober’s suggestion was ignored.

# James Oberg, How I Stopped Cosmonauts From Carrying Guns, IEEE Spectrum
# Travis Pike, Tp-82 Cosmonaut Survival Pistol: Russia’s Space Gun, Sandboxx


  1. They are landed in Perm Oblast (nowadays Perm Kray). It is Europe, nor Siberia.


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