A Rare Miss by 'Archer'

Michael O. Varhola

Suffice it to say that one of my current favorite television shows is the FX animated spy series Archer, which is set in a version of our world that combines elements of the modern era and the Cold War of the 1980s and is as hilarious as it is irreverent. And while it takes some liberties with reality it is strikingly accurate in its treatment of the wide variety of weapons that appear in the hands of its characters and hanging on the walls of its arms rooms. Archer's attention to detail is so impressive, in fact, that its a striking misrepresentation of a classic Eastern Bloc weapon is jarring for anyone who knows how it properly used. 

Following the attack against it by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Soviet Union rushed into production with a reliable but cheaply made submachine gun that it dubbed the PPSH-41. This weapon filled the same niche as other stamped-metal armaments of the era, including the U.S. M3 "Grease Gun" and the British STEN, and the USSR produced more than 5 million by the time the war ended. It was thereafter used on numerous Cold War battlefields, notably by the Chinese during the Korean War and the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.

Contrary to contentions that it has been obsolete since about 1970, the PPSH-41 does continue to live on to some extent. My first opportunity to handle one of these submachineguns occurred when I was living in Paris around 1990 and a friend of mine showed me a basement storage room full of automatic weapons that included several PPSH-41s. Several years later, during the 2003-2011 Iraq War, a close associate of mine carried one while operating with irregular forces in Kurdistan. And I was pleased to discover that the PPSH-41 was still being carried in the inventory of Excalibur Army Ltd., an arms distributor I visited while on business in the Czech Republic a few years back (albeit presumably for use by clients operating on a budget in developing nations). 

One thing that anyone who has used a PPSH-41 or seen one in action picks up on is the relatively awkward ways that it must be held when being fired. In the case of most weapons, a user will use his primary hand to hold a stock or grip and pull the trigger and will support the weapon ahead of the magazine with his offhand. As anyone looking at a a PPSH-41 can see, however, it has a perforated metal barrel jacket that becomes very hot upon firing, meaning that the offhand is either used to hold the stock behind the 71-round drum or actually used to support this magazine (as shown in the picture above of Soviet troops during World War II).

When anyone thus familiar with the use of this weapon sees it in the hands of KGB agent Katya Kazanova in the episode of Archer where she is introduced, it is immediately obvious that she is using it incorrectly and in a way that would have burned her hand and prompted her to shift her grip accordingly (phrasing!). As egregious as this error is, however, it jumps out because it is the exception to the rule and one of the rare cases where the show does not get it right — and, in its own way, has thus enhanced my enjoyment of the show in a way because it has given me a hook to talk about it and one of icons of the Cold War that I happened to know a little bit about.