SVD Dragunov: The most popular combat sniper rifle ever

Dragunov SVD - combat sniper or designated marksman rifle Dragunov SVD - combat sniper or designated marksman rifle
SVD Dragunov (Photo: XY)

The SVD Dragunov has been the standard Soviet Army sniping rifle since 1965. It was also adopted by the other armies of the Warsaw Pact and copied by Chinese, Egyptian, Iraqi and Yugoslavian makers. The Soviets were first to adopt a semi-automatic rifle for sniping purposes, when all other armies considered that semi-automatic rifle for sniping purposes, at a time when all other armies thought that semi-automatics were not sufficiently accurate for this role.


SVD Dragunov is a designated marksman’s rifle, mostly mistaken for a regular sniper rifle. It is intended to be carried by a member of an infantry squad and used to provide accurate fire to as far as 800 meters. Anyone familiar with the Great Patriotic War accounts cannot help note the emphasis given to sniping by the Soviet army. Post-war, that emphasis remained undiminished, and to carry out the sniping role, the Soviets developed what is widely regarded as one of the best contemporary sniper rifles. This is the SVD, sometimes known as the Dragunov.

The Dragunov, when it came in, was the only Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR). Since then, it has become a widespread concept, with most armies fielding a DMR. The rifle was superb. It was operated like an overgrown AK-47 (though mechanically, it has almost nothing to do with it).


The SVD Dragunov rifle first appeared in 1963 and has been one of the most prized infantry trophies ever since. It is a semi-automatic weapon that uses the same operating principles as the AK-47 assault rifle but is allied to a revised gas-operated system. Unlike the AK-47, which uses the short 7.62-mm (0.3-in) x39 cartridge, the SVD fires the older 7.62-mm x54R rimmed cartridge, originally introduced during the 1980s Mosin-Nagant rifles. This remains a good round for the sniping role, and as it is still used on some Russian machine guns, availability is no problem.

U.S Marines at shooting range aiming with SVD Dragunov combat sniper
U.S. Marines practicing shooting with Soviet-made designated marksman SVD Dragunov rifle (Photo: XY)


The operation of the SVD Dragunov is, in principle, the same as that of the Kalashnikov rifle, using a gas piston and rotating bolt. But there are two very significant differences. Firstly there is no provision for an automatic fire since this is unnecessary on a sniper rifle. And secondly, the gas piston action is different. The Kalashnikov, like most gas-operated military rifles, uses a long-stroke piston which gives a great reserve of power for dealing with dirt and sticky cartridge cases but which shifts the balance of the gun as it moves.

This is not conducive to accuracy, so the SVD Dragunov uses a short-stroke piston that only moves a fraction of an inch and gives the bolt carrier a sharp blow, imparting enough momentum to drive it back and initiate a reloading cycle. One is entitled to assume that a sniper will keep his rifle clean and lubricated and be fussy about his ammunition, so the reserve of power is not necessary.

The SVD has a long barrel, but the weapon is so balanced that it handles well, and recoil is not excessive. The weapon is typically fired using a sling rather than the bipod favored elsewhere, and to assist aiming, a PSO-1 telescopic sight is provided. This is secured to the left-hand side of the receiver and has a magnification of x4.

SVD Dragunov Sniper Rifle Diagram
SVD Dragunov Sniper Rifle Diagram (Photo: XY)

The PSO-1 has an unusual feature. It incorporates a Metascope, a small electronic device capable of detecting an infrared light at night and thus warning the sniper of being under observation. Unfortunately, modern infrared sights do not need IR illumination, and therefore this device is no longer of much use.

The infrared detector is used as a passive night sight, although it is usually used with an independent infrared target illumination source. Primary combat sights are fitted for use if the optical sight becomes defective. Perhaps the oddest feature of a sniper rifle is that the SVD Dragunov is provided with a bayonet, the rationale for this remaining uncertain. A 10-round box magazine is also fitted.

Long-range accuracy

Tests have demonstrated that the SVD Dragunov can fire accurately at ranges of well over 800m. It is a pleasant weapon to handle despite the long barrel and fire. SVDs were provided to many Warshaw Pact and other nations, and the gun was used in Afghanistan, some ending up in the hands of the Mujahideen. It seems reasonable to assume that the SCD remains in use in Russia and with other former client states of the USSR. The Chinese produce a direct copy of the SCD and offer this version for export, quoting an effective range of 1000 m (621 ft).

The SVD Dragunov is a potent weapon that makes no bones about it. Accuracy is reasonable but not stellar. Given the highest quality ammunition, it is capable of putting three shots within a 1″ -1 1/2″ circle at 100 yards. But keep in mind it uses the same ammunition as Soviet/Russian light machine guns 7.62×54R.

SVD Dragunov look through PSO-1 telescopic sight
SVD Dragunov with PSO-1 telescopic sight (Photo: Vk)

In practice, it mainly used this machine gun ammunition, and accuracy was more on the order of 2″-3″ 3 shot groups at 100 yards. This limited its effective range to about 500 yards. Semi-automatic sniper rifles allow for quick follow-up shots, but the election of fired cases can give away the sniper position. It, as I said, is a sturdy, reliable, and simple weapon. But things like accuracy, quality of trigger pull, and optics lag behind Western designs.

However, by no means would I want to face an enemy armed with one in combat. In most cases, due to sniper tactics and the rifle’s ability, the soldier armed with one could maintain enough distance to lay down lethal fire while being out of range of soldiers armed with standard assault rifles of various types.

Technical specifications: SVD Dragunov

Manufacturer: Soviet State Arsenal, Kalashnikov Concern, Izhevsk, CIS, SSSR
Designed: 1958-1963
Service: 1963-present
Type: gas-operated, semi-automatic
Caliber:  7.62 mm Russian M1891
Barrel: 24.5 in (622 mm)
Weight (empty): 9.5 lbs (4.3 kg) with sight
Effective firing range: 800 m (875 yds)
Rate of fire: semi-automatic
Magazine capacity: 10-round detachable box magazine
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