The Makarov

A well-used Makarov, laying on it's side on a gray background.still in working order

Among the best buys and most effective compact pistols on the market is the Russian designed Makarov pistol.

While inexpensive by modern standards, the pistol isn’t cheaply made, far from it. Those in the know regard the Makarov as one of the finest small-caliber self-loaders ever made. It will out-shoot more expensive handguns and never seems to break or malfunction. Frankly, the only time you see any type of problem is when someone fiddled with the pistol or a gun butcher got a hold of it.

Nikolay Fyodorovich Makarov primarily designed the PM (Makarov’s pistol) with the intention the Makarov would replace the Tokarev TT 33 pistol and various other handguns in Soviet use. Like many nations, the Soviets managed to accumulate several different ‘general issue’ pistols including the Tokarev TT 33 and the even older Nagant revolver. While a rugged and reliable pistol by any standard the TT 33 was dated by 1945. There was no manual safety and the TT 33 was larger than desirable in the modernized Soviet Army. As a badge of office, to direct troops and for the police, the lighter Makarov design was deemed superior.

A well-used Makarov, laying on it's side on a gray background.still in working order
This Makarov has been around the block and never malfunctioned.

The Makarov was selected for Soviet use based upon simplicity and economical manufacture. The pistol began manufacture in 1951. The Makarov was a departure from the previous service size pistols common in Europe. It was also quite different from the pistols that armed NATO. While the armies of the world were rushing to adopt 9mm pistols—and not just the NATO allies but most of the world—the Russians were pushing a pistol little larger than the Walther PPK on their satellite nations.

The truth be told, the Makarov was far more robust than the Walther, Mauser, Sauer or other wartime pistols of a similar size and boasted a smoother trigger action and greater accuracy to boot. The Makarov has less than 30 parts, the Walther, over 40. The Makarov is a service pistol with a slide lock—the Walther PP is a pocket pistol with no slide lock. The magazine follower butts into the slide of the Walther, locking it back, far from ideal. The oft-stated opinion that the Markarov is a modified Walther PP isn’t completely accurate. It is difficult to design a double action first shot pistol that doesn’t owe something in the design to the Walther pistols. The blowback action of the Makarov could not handle a powerful cartridge such as the 9mm Luger but the blowback action and fixed barrel result in a very accurate handgun.

Another advantage of the Makarov is the safety. The pistol’s safety works in the proper manner rather than the opposite manner of the PPK or Beretta 92. You move the Makarov safety to the fire position by moving the safety down, which needs but a natural thumb motion while the other safety types require the safety be swept upwards in an unnatural thumb motion. The combination safety and decocker is positive in action and quite rapid in manipulation. The cartridge is also superior. While the .32 ACP (7.65mm) and .380 ACP (9mm Kurz) caliber handguns often demonstrate poor penetration and ballistics against military web gear the 9×18 is an improvement.

A Few Words on the 9×18 Makarov Cartridge

A well-used Makarov laying on it's side on a gray background, with the safety on
The safety is in the on position. Press down to fire.

The 9×18 appears similar to the .380 ACP cartridge but differs in particulars. Designed for economical use of resources and adequate penetration, the 9×18 uses a projectile of slightly greater diameter than the .355-inch .380 cartridge and the 9×18 is a bit hotter as well. There is some opinion that the Soviets adopted the 9×18 to ensure that their pistol caliber was proprietary to their armed forces.

This is the most powerful cartridge suitable for use in a modest sized blowback action pistol. Generally considered to have a 50 to 100 fps advantage over the.380 ACP, this cartridge varies from load to load. The 9×18 is the stronger cartridge. 9×18 ammunition is affordable, allowing frequent practice. The problem has been finding suitable defensive ammunition. Let me borrow a few lines from the outstanding new book 21st Century Stopping Power, from Paladin Press, concerning the Makarov pistol—

“On the plus side, malfunctions are rare, and 9×18 ammunition is inexpensive. The Makarov is more reliable than most of the more expensive small pistols, is well made of good material, and is surprisingly accurate. This makes the Makarov a superior choice to most of the double action first-shot .380 ACP pistols in this size and weight class. Accuracy is often very good. If you are able to obtain a Makarov at a fair price, along with a good supply of ammunition, this is as good a lightweight self-loader as may be had.”

The author of 21st Century Stopping Power is a military intelligence officer with much practical experience and knows a bit about the Makarov. In his program, the 9×18 caliber Russian produced JHP penetrated 16 inches in-depth in testing. The 9×18 clearly has enough penetration for personal defense. The Brown Bear JHP ammunition  is completely reliable in the Makarov and gives good ballistic results and is available in 50 round boxes.

What more could we ask?

A Makarov with muzzle pointed downward on a wood panel background with the slide locked back and fitted with Pearce grips
The slide is locked back on this Makarov and it has been fitted with Pearce grips. The Makarov has a functioning slide lock and a well-shaped grip that does not bite the owner.

The Makarov, then, ushered in a new era for the Soviets. The pistol is important not only in combat but in directing troops and as a badge of office. In an occupied country, every soldier and government official had to have a pistol, it wasn’t always practical to walk around or work in administrative chores with a slung rifle. The new pistol was distinctly Soviet and more original in design that is often given credit.

As for the power of the cartridge, the diameter of the 9×18 Makarov cartridge is slightly larger than the 9mm Luger, although scantly enough to increase the frontal area of the bullet. At close range, the difference in effect between either 9mm hole from non-expanding bullets would be largely conversational. There were a number of special loads including steel core penetrator rounds produced for the 9×18 caliber. The standard loading would not prove particularly effective against military web gear or obstacles but that is not something to concern us.

A little more powerful than the .380 ACP, the Makarov recoils less than most .380 pistols—not a bad place to be. The handgun and its cartridge were widely used in Soviet Russia and its satellites for many years and remains widely distributed in Russia. Copies and clones have been produced in most of the former Communist states and the present Chinese Communist state.

Among the more infamous uses of the Makarov is its career in terror. During the first wave of terrorism, the perpetrators used firearms more often than bombs. Soviet-sponsored terrorists such as Illrich Ramirev, aka Carlos, used various Soviet weapons. During the OPEC raid, each terrorist carried the Makarov pistol and at least one of them carried two Makarov pistols. When a hostage attempted to grab Carlos’ SMG he drew a Makarov and killed the man. Another individual in the gang used a Makarov to kill a policeman.

A newer Makarov with brown handle, muzzle pointed to the right on a white background
The Makarov has gained a place in the heart and minds of Americans.

The Makarov was deemed light, effective, reliable and easily concealed by the provocateurs. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Makarov was widely available in America as cash strapped and newly free nations looked for income. Defense-minded shooters quickly scooped up the pistols. However, the pistol is also widely used as a recreational shooter.

Accurate and Inexpensive

The Makarov is accurate enough to be interesting and inexpensive enough for everyone to own one. It is a useful pistol for handgunners and powerful enough for defense against feral dogs, coyote and the like. The Makarov isn’t as plentiful as it once was—you seldom see a used one and savvy shooters often own more than one. The simplicity of the action lends itself to easy maintenance.

The double action first shot pistol is a popular defense idiom. It is popular to carry such a pistol safety off, often because the slide-mounted safety may be difficult to manipulate. I recommend carrying the handgun with the safety engaged. The Makarov safety is quickly manipulated with a moderate amount of practice because it operates properly, down for off safe. The double action trigger is smooth enough that good work may be done at close range. Once the first shot is taken in the double action mode the slide cocks the hammer for subsequent single action shots. The single action trigger is crisp and allows excellent practical accuracy. It isn’t unusual for the Makarov to group five shots into less than three inches at a long 25 yards. The Makarov is a surprisingly well made and friendly handgun. This combination of efficiency and history is desirable to many of us and the Makarov remains a great bargain.

Ammunition Comparison

An illustrated parts breakdown of the Makarov
The Makarov is simple enough and uses fewer parts than most pistols in its size and weight class.

While the original Makarov was chambered in 9×18 Makarov caliber, a number have been chambered in .380 ACP. This is primarily for the American market. While 9×18 ammunition is affordable and available, the .380 ACP cartridge is more familiar. A caution—there is another 9×18 round that DOES NOT interchange with the Makarov. It is always dangerous to fire the wrong cartridge in a handgun.

No matter what anyone says, never fire the .380 ACP in a 9×18 caliber handgun. And in particular do not fire the 9mm Luger in the 9×18 even if you can jam the round into the chamber.

The longevity of both the shooter and the gun depend upon the proper cartridge. The 9×18 Ultra is a German development chambered in the Walther PP Super. This is a cartridge more powerful than the .380 but far less powerful than the 9mm Luger. It is longer than the .380 ACP but not larger in diameter. Ammunition is difficult to obtain at present. Some have purchased the 9×18 Walther PP in the mistaken belief they could fire the Makarov cartridge in these handguns.

.380 ACP

The .380 ACP features an overall length of .984 inch as standard and a bullet of .355-inch diameter. Here are a few examples of .380 ACP ballistics:

Cartridge Weight Velocity
Black Hills JHP 90 gr 930 fps
Fiocche 95 FMJ 95 gr 971 fps
Remington Golden Sabre 102 gr 910 fps

9mm Luger

The 9mm Luger is a longer cartridge than the previous rounds at 1.168-inch overall length, with a bullet diameter of .355-inch. The 9mm Luger operates at up to 34,000 pounds-per-square-inch pressure versus 20,000 or so for the .380 ACP and about 23,000 psi for the 9×18. As such, the 9mm demands a locked breech action. This means a larger handgun with a more complicated manufacture—more size, greater expense. The 9mm is a true high-power handgun cartridge. The 9mm Luger can handle much heavier bullets than the lighter calibers at and move them at a higher velocity.

Cartridge Weight Velocity
Hornady Critical Defense FTX 115 gr 1139 fps
Remington JHP +P 115 gr 1257 fps
Federal Hydra Shock 147 gr 1009 fps


The world of the Makarov is interesting. It is a well-made handgun, efficient, and affordable.


The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog. "The Shooter's Log", is to provide information - not opinions - to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (24)

  1. Good article. I am a current LE officer and former USSS (with over 20 years LE experience) and I regularly carry a Bulgarian Makarov off-duty. Although I really like the red, military grips, I changed mine out with a black, E German surplus grip and it looks and fits great–being slightly narrower than the military grips, it fits nicely in the hand and gives it a little more modern look. The only thing that I disagree with is the advice to carry the Makarov, concealed, with the safety on. One can certainly do so, if they do a lot of practice with it. But, it simply isn’t necessary. Having passed the CA “drop test” and having a strong, although not difficult, trigger pull, one can safely carry the Makarov without the safety engaged and not worry about a negligent discharge. I, myself, have fumbled with the safety when just pulling my Mak to unload it in a nonstressful environment. In the event of a stressful, critical–and, possibly surprise–incident, having to disengage the safety would fall in the category of a “fine muscle skill” at a time when the body may only be capable of “gross motor movements”. So, it depends entirely upon an individual’s capabilities in or expectation of a critical, life or death situation as to engage the safety or not. One should always do what one is comfortable with, but one should be aware that this step is not necessary.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit exceeded. Please click the reload button and complete the captcha once again.

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.