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The Russian Gun At The International Space Station

James Oberg

From “Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the US-Russian Space Alliance”, chapter 11

Russian participation means that there are guns on board the ISS, and the guns belong to the Russians. This is not quite as alarming as it sounds, and officially it’s no secret. However, I could never find any mention of this design feature on NASA web sites or mission press kits. Actually, it’s a safety feature, and not an unreasonable one.

American astronauts who trained for the 1995–1997 Mir visits, and later as part of the Soyuz spacecraft crews for the International Space Station, encountered a unique feature that cosmonauts need to master: target practice. They have to know how to load, aim, and fire the special survival gun that has been on board all Soyuz spacecraft throughout their 30-year history.

The triple-barreled gun can fire flares, shotgun shells, or rifle bullets, depending on how it's loaded. The gun and about 10 rounds for each barrel are carried in a triangle-shaped survival canister stowed next to the commander's couch. The gun's shoulder stock opens up into a machete for chopping firewood.

russian gun

Familiarization with the gun usually takes place during survival training in the Black Sea, when the crews train to safely exit a spacecraft floating on the water (although a firing range at the cosmonaut center at Star City near Moscow is sometimes used for training). After floating around in the water for a day or two, the astronauts and cosmonauts take a few hours to fire several rounds from each chamber off the deck of the training ship.

"It was amazing how many wine, beer, and vodka bottles the crew of the ship could come up with for us to shoot at," astronaut Jim Voss told me. "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."

"It is a wonderful gun," agreed Mir veteran Dave Wolf. "I found it to be well balanced, highly accurate, and convenient to use."

Mike Foale trained with the gun and found it to be pretty standard. “Other than firing flares, bird shot, and a hard slug from its three barrels, during sea and winter survival training, I can’t say it is very unique,” he told me. He added, as if in reassurance, “The Soyuz commander controls its use.”

Every Soyuz spacecraft carries such a gun, although none of these guns have ever been unpacked in flight. And they have never been needed, with the exception of an incident in 1965, when bears (or wolves—the story varies) chased two far-off-course cosmonauts. The guns are often presented to crew members as postflight souvenirs. Although several survival kit bags have shown up at space auctions, I’ve never seen any of the guns for sale.



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