By Colin Salt
One of the most bizarre footnotes in military history is the tale of Leonid Kurchevsky, an interwar Soviet weapons developer who was chief designer at the Experimental Design Bureau of Artillery from 1930 to 1937. Kurchevsky’s gimmick was recoilless guns. Everything he made from small antiarmor weapons to giant battleship-sized naval guns was made to eject a counter mass to keep the gun in place after firing and so were easier to use and transport. Due to the lack of recoil they'd need less heavy recoil-counteracting equipment and thinner barrels. Kurchevsky wanted the entire Red Army (and aircraft, and naval) artillery park to be recoilless, and managed to impress the legendary Marshall Tukhachevsky into going along with his scheme.
Of course, like Tukhachevsky, Mr. Recoilless ended up as a victim of the Great Purge and was put to death in either 1937 or 1939. However, after all of my research I’ve found it very, very hard to feel sorry for him. For a start, he was not an innocent. When his star was rising he’d tried to use Stalinism itself to get the factories to build his contraptions (what goes around comes around is something many Soviet industrialists learned the hard way in their “gang wars”).
And on a larger scale, while he didn't deserve to die, he probably deserved to be sacked at the least. Kurchevsky wasn't an asset to the Red Army for the simple reason that most of the weapons he designed just weren't very good. They tended to explode, they were overcomplicated and so often too heavy, and yet they didn’t perform any better than conventional weapons of similar caliber. For instance, Kurchevksy’s Rube Goldberg anti-tank launcher weighed more and was much more likely to break than a classic PTRD anti-tank rifle and wasn't as good. A Degtjarev could achieve penetration of up 40mm of armor at 100m, whereas Kurchevksy’s version could only do 25mm at that range.
All Kurchevksy’s recoilless mania actually did was delay the development of more effective weapons of that nature. While the postwar Soviet recoilless weapons were/are excellent, they had to go through World War II without an effective projector. While Kurchevsky was not the only reason for this as there was difficulty in making shaped charges and, because such weapons were not much better than hand charges in the grand scheme of things, a gigantic army with limited resources was always unlikely to invest too much into recoilless weapons while fighting for their lives, he certainly didn’t help.
Muddling this historical record is the Khrushchev-era anti-Stalinism, where Kurchevsky was rehabilitated and portrayed, understandably but falsely, as a genius whose great work was halted by Stalin’s paranoia and tyranny. In fact, few were more detrimental to the cause of recoilless guns than he was and an AH in which he is spared from the purges is unlikely to end with him as a Hero of the Soviet Union.
I think a Death Of Stalin-style satirical, only somewhat exaggerated movie about Kurchevsky’s life and times, if done right, would be amazing to watch.
This piece was originally published on Fuldapocalypse Fiction.