After WWII the worlds nations raced to replace their outdated bolt action rifles with more modern self loading long arms that used what we consider "intermediate" calibers. Only a handful of nations fielded self loading infantry rifles in any meaningful numbers during WWII. The most commonly encountered self loading rifles during the war were the U.S. M1 Garand (adopted in 1938), the German Gewehr 43 (adopted in 1943) or the Soviet SVT-40 (adopted in 1940). All of these infantry rifles chambered full power calibers such as the U.S. 30-06, German 7.92x57 Mauser (8mm) or the Soviet 7.62x54R.
The first step for Czechoslovakia in the modernization of their army would be the adoption of the vz.52 rifle chambered in 7.62x45.
(Above: the Czech made vz.52 rifle chambered in 7.62x45)
After WWII ended the Cold War began around 1948. Ultimately two groups of allied nations would emerge that signed mutual protection treaties; NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) of 1949 and the Warsaw Pact nations of 1955.
Czechoslovakia ultimately became a Warsaw Pact nation. Like NATO, the Warsaw Pact nations sought to standardize on weapons and calibers to simplify logistics should a war break with NATO. However, leading up to 1955 there were disjointed efforts by Warsaw Pact countries to develop their own indigenous weapons and calibers, something NATO struggled with as well but that's the topic of another article.
The Czechs began development of the vz.52 in the 1940's but due to German occupation the development was put on hold until the end of hostilities. The vz.52 (vz. is an abbreviation of "vzor" or "model") was intended to replace the vz.24 bolt action rifle which was little more than a Czech made 98K Mauser chambered in 7.92x57. The vz.52 would also replace the Zh-29 self loading rifle of the 1930's. The Zh-29 production was shut down in 1938 by the Germans after their occupation during the war.
(Above: The 7.62x45 on the left and the 7.62x39 on the right.)
The Czechs first developed the 7.62x45mm cartridge and in 1947 several firearms in this caliber were submitted to the Czech military for consideration. One of the submissions came from two brothers, Jan and Jaroslav Kratochvil. The brothers were established weapons designers who developed the vz.52 pistol chambered in 7.62x25mm Tokarev, not to be confused with the vz.52 rifle. Their rifle submission would be adopted as the vz.52 rifle.
Post war reconstruction was hard on many European nations including Czechoslovakia which would delay the adoption of a new rifle for their army. However, by 1952 the vz.52 rifle chambered in the 7.62x45mm cartridge would enter into military service. The vz.52, like its Soviet counterpart the SKS, would have a short service life as both rifles were stop-gap designs until a weapon more similar to the WWII German StG.44 could be developed.
(Above: Czech Palace Guards with their ceremonial chrome plated vz.52/57 rifles circa 2016)
The vz.52 is a semi-automatic only rifle that holds 10 rounds of 7.62x45 ammunition in its detachable box magazine. Like many weapons of the era, the rifle could either be reloaded by inserting a loaded magazine or it could be recharged by using two striper clips that held five rounds each.
(Above: A vz.52 with a 5 round stripper clip of 7.62x45 ammunition ready for charging)
The vz.52 looked very similar to the Soviet SKS, and in some ways it was similar in design. However, one of the most striking differences between the SKS and the vz.52 was its gas system. The SKS used a short stroke piston of a rather conventional design, by todays standards, that rides above the barrel. The vz.52 used a gas system that is in essence wrapped around the barrel. A round puck, if you will, slides back and forth around the barrel driven by gas pressure tapped off by a port drilled in the barrel. The "puck" then pushes a U shaped piece of sheet metal back which in turn pushes a two pronged "fork" through the front of the receiver. The two prongs of this "fork" strike the face of the bolt carrier thus driving it rearward. The recoil spring would then push the bolt and carrier back home picking up a fresh cartridge from the magazine along the way.
(Above: The U shaped sheet metal that connects the gas "puck" to the "forks".)
I've always found the gas system to be the most intriguing aspect of the vz.52. It's the epitome of simplicity and makes the gas system extremely low profile. While it's easy to take it apart for cleaning, trying to remove or adjust the gas block is not to be attempted by the end user. To remove the U shaped sheet metal for cleaning requires the operator to slightly push back on the sheet metal and lifting it up. No pins or other devices hold it in place. The top hand guard can be removed by simply pinching the two metal tabs found just in front of the rear sight.
(Above: the "fork" protruding from the receiver that drives the bolt & carrier rearward.)
To take the bolt and carrier out of the rifle, you pinch the top by the serrations and push it forward. When it's fully forward and has ridden over the bolt carrier, you can lift it up and off the receiver.
Removing the top cover will also release the recoil spring and guide rod. A small dimple on the rear of the guide rod protrudes through the rear of the top cover and into the rear of the receiver so it doesn't slip out of place.
(Above: Pulling the top cover forward over the carrier for field stripping)
Once the top over is removed along with the recoil spring, you can pull the bolt carrier to the rear, aligning it with take down cuts in the receiver rails, and then lift it up and out of the receiver.
Like the SKS, the vz.52 uses a dropping block that engages with two cut outs on either side of the chamber and towards the front of the magazine well. By contrast, the SKS is a bit more simple in its design as the rear of the bolt engages with a shelf behind the magazine well.
(Above: The two locking lug recesses on either side of the .vz52's chamber and near the front of the magazine well.)
The extractor and ejector are a bit out of the ordinary as well. First, the extractor is similar to a 1919 machine gun. It's an arm that rides on top of the bolt and drops down over the rim of the cartridge. The fact it moves up and down is what makes it different than what you typically find in mid-century semi-automatic rifles.
The spring loaded ejector is a captured component of the bolt and sits just below the firing pin. When the bolt moves rearward during cycling, a protrusion in the rear of the receiver engages with the ejector and this pushes the spent case up and out causing it to fly a bit to the left. The ejection is quite forceful and it chucks the empty case a good distance.
(Above: The extractor arm is on top of the bolt face and is partially obscuring the firing pin hole from view. The ejector is protruding from under the firing pin hole. The small detent sticking up under the ejector is the bolt hold open that is pushed up by the follower in the magazine when it is empy.)
Like the SKS and early Chinese AK's, the vz.52 employs a folding blade style bayonet. Of the folding bayonets used on comblock rifles, I find the vz.52's to be the most sleek integration. When folded it's recessed into the stock keeping it from snagging on gear and other things. To deploy the bayonet, the user pushes a button on the left side of the front barrel band and it swings out effortlessly. It is not spring loaded however the experienced user can use gravity to swiftly deploy the bayonet in one fluid motion. Putting it away is just as simple and is accomplished by depressing the same button used to deploy the bayonet. Once again, gravity can be used to swiftly tuck the bayonet back into its folded position.
(Above: The folding blade style bayonet in its deployed state.)
The safety appears to be borrowed from the U.S. M1 Garand. A steel tab is pulled back to put the rifle on safe, and with the firing finger, forward pressure takes the rifle off safe thus making it ready to fire.
The magazine release is a flap type that can be found on a number of different rifle designs like the AK or U.S. M14. The all steel magazine locks at two points, on the toe in the front of the magazine well and by the magazine catch/release at the rear of the magazine well. Again, this is very similar to other rifles of the era including the AK, M14 or even the FAL.
The stocks were usually made of beech, and sometimes walnut, and were finished with a distinctive yellowish / brown stain. If you find a really clean example of the vz.52 with a beech wood stock, you might be inclined to think the stocks were rather sloppily refinished by an amateur gunsmith in their garage. However, most likely that's not the case and you're looking at the original factory finish of the wood.
(Above: The safety in the on position with the mag release visible just in front of the safety.)
It's easy to overlook given how well hidden it is, however the rifle features a full cleaning kit stored in the buttstock. The end cap of the stock is a wrap around piece of sheet metal very similar in appearance to that used on versions of the 98K Mauser. Using the tip of a bullet, there is a small tab on the top of the stock you can depress. Depressing this tab while pulling the metal cap away from the stock will reveal a two chamber compartment. Of the 3 rifles I own I only have one with a complete cleaning kit. These aren't commonly found in the rifles but you may find one pop up for sale on eBay every once in a while.
(Above: The butt cap removed exposing the cleaning kit in the stock.)
The muzzle is threaded for the use of either a muzzle nut to protect the crown or it can be used to mount a very simple blank firing attachment. The front sight hood acts as a detent spring to hold the muzzle device in place. The different muzzle devices have little teeth around their edge that interface with the spring arm that is integral to the front sight hood. Many times you will find rifles on the used market and their front sight hood is missing. If the hood isn't present, the muzzle device can walk off the gun while firing.
(Above: A blank firing attachment is mounted to the muzzle of the vz.52/57. This image shows how the front sight is used to hold muzzle device in place.)
Under pressure from the Soviet Union, the Czech's eventually re-chambered the vz.52 to accept the M43 ball cartridge, or what we call 7.62x39 in the U.S. The updated nomenclature was vz.52/57 to reflect the year of the caliber modification; 1957. This forced change was done for logistical purposes and all Warsaw Pact nations would use the M43 cartridge.
Outwardly, it's not easy to tell the vz.52 from the vz.52/57. The easiest way to determine the caliber of a rifle you may be looking at is to see if a pin is present through the receiver just below the rear sight. If you see a pin, that means you're looking at a vz.52/57. Another way to determine the caliber is by looking at the magazine, however this is not definitive proof of the rifles chambering. The magazines are interchangeable between the vz.52 and vz.52/57 even though they are slightly different in design and made for different length cartridges. For optimal performance and reliability it's advisable to use the proper magazine for the caliber you are firing. The 7.62x45 magazine will have a slight taper to the front of the magazine whereas the 7.62x39 magazine does not.
(Above: The 7.62x39 rifle is on top and the 7.62x45 rifle is on the bottom. On the top rifle you can see the pin just under the rear sight signifying it is a vz.52/57. The vz.52 on the bottom has the correct magazine for its 7.62x45 caliber and exhibits the slight upward cut to the front of the magazine body. You will also note the rifle on the bottom does not have a pin under the rear sight.)
A year after the vz.52/57 was fielded it would be replaced in military service by the vz.58 select fire assault rifle chambered in 7.62x39.
The vz.52 was a short lived service rifle for the Czech's, but the Cubans really took a shine to them. Castro's regime purchased them in both 7.62x45 and 7.62x39. It's not known how many rifles Cuba ultimately purchased, but we do know that at one point they ordered 400,000 spare magazines.
The Cubans would use them extensively in combat such as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. They also exported them as military aid to revolutionary conflicts around the globe. Despite the vz.52 being a relatively obscure rifle during the Cold War we would see it appear in conflicts in Angola, the Congo, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Syria, the Yom Kippur War and even in Vietnam among other places.
Every once in a while you will see the rifles pop-up for sale by various importers. What prompted this article was a recent shipment of these being offered for sale by Royal Tiger Imports. Sadly, as of this writing, they are out of stock and the rifles can only be found for sale in the classified sections of popular firearms discussion forums or on sites like GunBroker.com.
I've seen quite a few "bring back" vz.52/57 rifles at gun stores and gun shows that were liberated by U.S. Soldiers during the invasion of Grenada and brought home (illegally) in duffle bags. These can be identified by their lack of import marks and typically being in unusually good condition. The rifles chambered in 7.62x45 are nearly impossible to feed these days as the ammunition is in very short supply and hasn't been in production for some 40 years. It was only made for the vz.52 as no other firearm I'm aware of chambered this now obsolete caliber. If you do find some, it will be expensive, it will be corrosive, and you'll have a good number of dud rounds. I've seen do it yourself caliber conversions available which consist of a ring you insert into the chamber of the 7.62x45 rifle. While nearly every part is cross compatible between the vz.52 and vz.52/57, I highly advise against attempting to use one of these chamber sleeve conversions. They rarely work properly and it's a great way to damage an otherwise collectible rifle.