Did You Know Soviet Cosmonauts Carried a Bear-Killing Shotgun into Space?

Anything can happen during a launch or landing of a crewed spacecraft, and just in case the crew would end up stranded in a remote area of the world, astronauts and cosmonauts undergo survival training and carry survival kits. The kits contain items such as food rations, water, extra clothing, items for making a shelter and other miscellaneous survival gear.

Also, cosmonauts regularly used to carry handguns on their Soyuz spacecraft. This has long been known and discussed, but writer James Simpson recently wrote a great piece on Medium about the history and justifications for why a gun in space is seemingly a good idea.

“Having a gun inside a thin-walled spacecraft filled with oxygen sounds crazy,” writes Simpson, “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.”

Expedition 40/41 prime crew during winter survival training. Credit: ESA.
Expedition 40/41 prime crew during winter survival training. Credit: ESA.

The gun that was carried during the Soviet era was not just any gun. Long-time space journalist Jim Oberg called it “a deluxe all-in-one weapon with three barrels and a folding stock that doubles as a shovel and contains a swing-out machete.”

Oberg discussed the history of the “gun in space” in a 2008 article, and also debated if space should be a gun-free zone, wondering if it might someday cause a disaster instead of prevent one.

The bear-killing shotgun, the TP-82 was used until 2007, after the custom-made ammunition was no longer manufactured, but the survival kit still includes a “Russian service sidearm— presumably the high-powered MP-443 or a Makarov PM,” Simpson wrote. “The Russian Space Agency doesn’t discuss the TP-82 or its successor.”

And NASA doesn’t like to discuss the gun issue either, but supposedly past Soyuz space travelers — including US astronauts and citizens who paid their way as space tourists — were trained to use the gun.

However, according to another article by Oberg written in 2014, Russia now doesn’t usually have guns as part of the survival kit. Oberg said Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti quoted a Russian official as saying, “The pistol is still on the official list of kit contents, but before every mission we meet to review that list and vote to remove it for this specific flight.”

Good idea or no?

The Outer Space Treaty bars countries from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, on the Moon or any other celestial body, or to otherwise “station them in outer space.” However, the Treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit.

Check out Simpson’s article on Medium or Jim Oberg’s 2008 article, and his 2014 article on IEEE Spectrum.

A famous photo of the NASA Mercury astronauts during desert survival training. Credit: NASA.
A famous photo of the NASA Mercury astronauts during desert survival training. Credit: NASA.

9 Replies to “Did You Know Soviet Cosmonauts Carried a Bear-Killing Shotgun into Space?”

  1. You never know what might happen / what you ran into! It could be Ursa Major… and you are empty handed!!! But… did they also carry a harpoon … just in case they run into Cetus?

  2. Not exactly a bear-killing *shotgun*.

    It was three barrels, two of which were shotgun barrels (ammo was birdshot, and red signal flares). The third barrel was a rifle, with 5.45×39 hollow point ammo, which might’ve slowed a bear a bit.

    1. I don’t know if the bears in Siberia are smaller than their North American cousins but 7.62×39 is going to do nothing but piss off a bear. We don’t shoot American black bear (the small one) with anything lighter than 30-06 and preferably .300 WinMag. A grizzly, kodiak or Polar bear needs even heavier calibers to reliably kill in a single shot. The Soviets would have been better off with a large caliber pistol (.500 caliber range) than the pea shooter described above.

  3. Following one off-target landing, the cosmonauts had to spend a worrying night with wolves sniffing ’round the door. (They had to leave it open a crack because there’s only enough life support in those modules for re-entry and landing.)

  4. I see no problem with a weapon of the type described. Wild life after reentry was a very real problem in the early days. Having spent a night with a pack of wolves in full hunting mode within feet of my tiny tent on the west coast of Canada with no weapon …… I can sympathise.

  5. I see… and how many weapons do the Russians have aboard the ISS? Can you see the obvious Sci-Fi short story(s) material there?

  6. You never know when you are going to run into a Sehlat in space and need to defend yourself. 😉

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