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Overview of Ceska Zbrojovka History and Handgun Production
« on: January 02, 2008, 07:24:45 AM »


Overview of Ceska Zbrojovka History and Handgun Production



CZ-UB, or Ceska Zbrojovka - Uhersky Brod (literally "Czech Weapons Factory - Uhersky Brod") began life as a satellite plant of the original Ceska Zbrojovka enterprise, Ceska Zbrojovka, a.s., Praha, a joint-stock company that was partially nationalized in the late 1930s. CZ-UB was originally known as Ceska Zbrojovka, a.s., Praha, zavod v Uherskem Brode ("Czech Weapons Factory, joint-stock company of Prague, Plant at Uhersky Brod") from its inception in 1936 to 1945. However, the full story of the company we know as "CZ" begins at the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic, shortly after World War I.



The troubled history between the Czech and Slovak peoples and their German and Austrian "neighbors" motivated the Czechoslovak Republic to build a strong domestic military-industrial complex. The Czechoslovak nation was created by treaty in 1919; thus, it inherited many political and social problems from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that were simply ignored at Versailles. These included the artificial marriage of the Czech and Slovak lands, large numbers of German and Hungarian minorities in Bohemia, and relative political isolation. From a strategic standpoint, Czechoslovakia was surrounded on three sides by hostile neighbors and did not enjoy close relations with Poland and the Soviet Union. For these reasons, the rearmament and industrial development of Czechoslovakia were the primary economic and strategic goals of the young republic, and this process began almost immediately in 1919-1920. New enterprises were created for the production for ordnance, munitions, and arms, and most of these facilities still exist today, usually in the form of independent joint-stock companies. Ceska Zbrojovka-Uhersky Brod is considered the current incarnation of the original Ceska Zbrojovka, which began life in this period.



It is impossible to tell the story of Ceska Zbrojovka without first discussing Zbrojovka Brno. Officially founded in 1917, Zbrojovka Brno ("Weapons Factory of Brno") had played a small, but vital role in the first World War. Brno is the former capital of the Kingdom of Moravia, and it is also the second largest city in the Czech lands. The Brno arsenal would soon make a name for Czech firearms in the European civilian market, but the Brno plant lacked the overall capacity to rearm an entire nation. As the only major established arsenal, the renamed Ceskoslovenska Zbrojovka Brno tackled several high-priority projects in 1919-1920. These included the manufacture of railway rolling stock, design and manufacture of hand grenades, and the re-arsenaling of Austrian 8mm M-95 Mannlicher rifles. Beginning in 1921, Brno began manufacture of Mauser Gewehr 98 rifles, since German production was prevented by the Versailles Treaty. While this meant that Brno would be better known for most of the 20th century, it created a unique opportunity for the development of Ceska Zbrojovka.



The forerunner of CZ-UB was the enterprise Jihoceska Zbrojovka, which was established at Plzen in 1919. In 1921, Jihoceska Zbrojovka moved to Strakonice. In 1922, the company absorbed the Hubertus Company, which had facilities at Vejprty and Prague. At this time, the company was renamed Ceska Zbrojovka. By 1923, these facilities were known as Ceská Zbrojovka v Praze ("Czech Weapons Factory of Prague") and Ceská Zbrojovka v Praze, Továrny ve Strakonicích ("Czech Weapons Factory of Prague, Strakonice Plant"). Various firms in the Czechoslovak Republic and Western Europe supplied some of the necessary parts during this period.



During this early period, Jihoceska Zbrojovka/Ceska Zbrojovka production concentrated on the vz-22 pistol, a relatively complicated locked-breech design in .380 ACP (9x17mm, 9mm Browning Short). Essentially, the vz-22 was a pocket pistol intended for export, like the vast majority of European handguns of the post-war period. In 1924, the vz-24 replaced the vz-22. The vz-24 is little more than an improved and more elegant vz-22; it was also chambered in .380 ACP. The vz-24 was more popular than its forerunner in the civilian export market, and thus more common in the U.S. and Western Europe. During this period, the Czech military issued a wide variety of handguns, including Austro-Hungarian models and the vz-24.



By 1924, the general policy of the Czech arms industry emerged: Zbrojovka Brno would make bolt-action rifles and Ceska Zbrojovka would make virtually everything else (mostly pistols, machine guns, aircraft armament, and signal guns). With the notable exception of the vz-24 pistol, which was also exported, Ceska Zbrojovka focused on contracts for the Czechoslovak military and police from 1924-1938. During this period, production at Brno concentrated on the vz-24 Czech Mauser for the Czech military and export. The emphasis on export was intended to garner foreign currency for modernization of the Czech arms industry.



Notable handguns of this period included the vz-26 and vz-27 series. The vz-26 is incredibly rare; it is essentially a locked, rotating barrel version of the vz-22/vz-24 series pistol. The vz-26 was also chambered in .380 ACP., but it did not enter regular production. Apparently, all known vz-26s were made at the Prague plant. Production quantities from 1919-1926 and the progression of the vz-22 through vz-26 models suggest batch production by professional gunsmiths. This also partially explains the use of locked breech mechanisms for the .380 ACP in Ceska Zbrojovka designs, since .380 ACP does not require them. In 1927, expansion of the Prague plant set the stage for the large-scale production of a standard model Czechoslovakian service pistol.



This led to the vz-27 model in .32 ACP (7.65x17mm, 7.65 Browning), which visually resembles the v-26 (as well as the vz-22 and vz-24). The vz-27 was a much simpler and more functional blowback model suited to assembly line techniques. The vz-27 barrel is attached to the frame, and it is otherwise similar to the Browning designs. This became the standard issue sidearm of the Czech National Police for approximately three decades. The vz-27 pistol led to .32 ACP becoming the police standard, and it is probably responsible for the otherwise odd choice to chamber the CZ 50/70 series in .32 ACP (rather than .380 ACP). The vz-27 has vertical finger grooves at the rear of the slide, rather than oblique grooves like the vz-22, vz-24, and vz-26. This is helpful, since all of these pistols are visually similar and marked inconsistently. For example, some vz-24 pistols (presumably from 1927) were marked "CZ 27."



World politics and the pressure exerted by the Nazi regime now played their role the CZ story. A quick look at a map will reveal that Plzen, Strakonice, Vejprty, and Prague are in Bohemia (the western portion of the current Czech Republic, and far west of the former Czechoslovakia) and too close to Germany for comfort. Attempts by German-speaking peoples to colonize and control Western Bohemia began over five centuries ago, continued under Austro-Hungarian policy, and intensified until the Sudeten crisis of the 1930s. The strategic vulnerability of Bohemia, coupled with its economic development and importance to the viability of an independent Czechoslovakia, led to a dramatic solution.



Most industrial production in Czechoslovakia was concentrated either in Western Bohemia, including the capital of Prague, or the general area of Brno in Moravia. The development of the Brno area and the presence of Zbrojovka Brno made it an attractive area for the relocation of all strategic industries. Furthermore, Ceska Zbrojovka production was divided between the two main facilities at Prague and Strakonice, as well as smaller facilities, which still produced some parts. The Czech Defense Ministry realized that this situation was less than ideal for large-scale production employing assembly lines. Consequently, the Czechoslovakian government partially nationalized Ceska Zbrojovka and began a gigantic movement of its assets to Moravia (the eastern portion of the current Czech Republic, and geographical center of the former Czechoslovakia). In 1936, construction began on a much larger new facility in Uhersky Brod, which is close to Brno The long-term plan called for a shift of all Ceska Zbrojovka assets and production to Uhersky Brod, but this was not complete when Germany invaded in 1939.



From 1936-1938, Ceska Zbrojovka handgun production decreased in favor of other armaments, notably machine guns and aircraft armament. Handgun production at Strakonice and Prague was limited to the vz-27, and the Uhersky Brod factory produced the CZ "vestpocket" .25 ACP for civilian use and export. CZ-UB would go on to manufacture several models in .25 ACP for export well into the 1960s, including the DUO and Z models. As the Germans closed in, production began on the vz-38 pistol.



The vz-38 is one of the most ungainly pistols ever manufactured in large numbers. The vz-38 is often called the "nutcracker," because the frame has a large hinge beneath the muzzle. This allows a catch to open the action, and the barrel and slide tilt upwards for disassembly. While this may be the easiest semi-automatic handgun ever made to field strip and clean, the design is terrible. The pistol is too large and heavy for the .380 ACP cartridge, it does not point well, and the heavy DAO lockwork makes accuracy impossible. Presumably, the design was intended to make manufacture of large numbers possible for the Czechs in 1938, but the Nazi decision to continue production seems illogical. The vz-38 appears to use as much material as a Walther P-38 or Radom wz-35, for example. Given the documented incidents of the Czech arms industry subverting and sabotaging production, I suspect that Ceska Zbrojovka was quite happy to arm the Nazis with this third-rate weapon.



Ceska Zbrojovka handgun production concentrated on the vz-27 and vz-38 during the war (1939-1945). During the Nazi occupation, production nominally controlled by Ceska Zbrojovka continued at Prague, Strakonice, and Uhersky Brod. The production of parts and ammunition appears to have been widely dispersed as the war progressed. Most pistols are marked either "CESKA ZBROJOVKA A.S. V PRAZE" or "BOHMISCHE WAFFENFABRIK PRAG," regardless of the actual plant of manufacture. It is unclear how many handguns mere manufactured by the Uhersky Brod plant during the war.



Czechoslovakia was "liberated" by the Soviet army in 1945, and Soviet administration was recognized by the Yalta Agreement. This ultimately led to the full nationalization and reorganization of the entire Czech arms industry by the Soviet-backed communist regime. The Strakonice and Prague facilities ceased small arms production in 1954. By 1954, all production of arms, ammunition, and related materials was controlled by a central state planning agency/management group (consistent with Stalin's "collectivist" model of production). Between 1954 and 1988, production of virtually all small arms centralized at Ceska Zbrojovka-Uhersky Brod and Zbrojovka Brno. From 1965 to 1988, Zbrojovka Brno and Ceska Zbrojovka were drawn together by the communist regime under some form of central management.



From 1946 to 1988, the Czechoslovak Proof Authority required that "Any firearm exported will bear the BRNO markings." This policy reflected the greater name recognition of Zbrojovka Brno in Western Europe; in practical terms, it often meant that Western shooters were not aware of the existence of the Strakonice and Uhersky Brod arsenals. Another confusing aspect of this policy is the inconsistent use of the designations vz (vzor) and "CZ" on Czech firearms. Generally, Czech firearms were known by their military designation, which followed the convention of vzor (model) and a two-digit number representing the year of introduction (i.e. "vz-45"). Civilian arms or exported military surplus have often been marked with "CZ" in place of "vz" or given a model name incorporating "CZ." Also, some export handguns were proof-marked with the convention of "CZ" and a two-digit number representing the year of manufacture (such as the "CZ 27" example above), regardless of the model or place of manufacture. This has led to considerable confusion in the West about which factory manufactured certain models.



From 1946 to 1992, "CZ" was reorganized no less than six times to conform with the CSSR economic plan. Since these changes relate to production goals and marketing strategies for Ceska Zbrojovka products, it may be helpful to outline the various organizational systems.



Broadly, the Uhersky Brod factory was fully nationalized and administered as a satellite of the Strakonice factory from 1946-1950, rather than Prague, as had been the case for the previous decade. From 1946-1950, CZ-UB was officially known as Ceska Zbrojovka, narodni podnik, Strakonice, zavod v Uherskem Brode ("Czech Weapons Factory, national enterprise of Strakonice, Plant at Uhersky Brod"). CZ-UB handgun production during this period concentrated on the vz-45 pistol in .25 ACP (6.35x16mm, 6.35 Browning) for export.



From 1950-1958, CZ-UB was known as Zavody Presneho Strojirenstvi, narodni podnik, Uhersky Brod ("Precision Engineering Factories, national enterprise, Uhersky Brod"); under this model, CZ-UB became a independent concern reporting to a central administrative unit. Most of the successful postwar Ceska Zbrojovka designs prior to the CZ-75 entered serial production from 1950-1958. During this period, the Uhersky Brod plant conducted limited research and testing, although the majority of Czechoslovak research and development was conducted at Prague and Brno. The most significant development was the government's decision to centralize handgun production at Uhersky Brod after the Strakonice and Prague plants ceased producing arms.



CZ-UB production during this period concentrated on the vz-50 semi-automatic pistol in .32 ACP (7.65x17mm), vz-52 semi-automatic rifle in 7.62x45mm, vz-58 automatic rifle in 7.62x39mm, and a wide variety of submachine gun models (vz-23, vz-24, vz-25, and vz-26) in .32 ACP, .380 ACP, and 7.62x25mm Tokarev. The vz-52 semi-automatic pistol in 7.62x25mm was also introduced in this period. This model was actually designed by the Brno R&D team, but the original vz-52 pistols were manufactured at Strakonice from 1952-1954. Brno primarily produced bolt action rifles on the Mauser pattern for export during this period.



From 1958-1965, all Czechoslovak industry was reorganized into units known as VHJ (Productive Economic Units), or related industries organized under one umbrella company reporting to the competent ministry. Under this model, CZ-UB was known as Zavody Rijnove Revoluce, n.p. Vsetin, zavod 5 Uhersky Brod ("Factories of the October Revolution, national enterprise of Vsetin, plant 5 Uhersky Brod") and managed by ZRR, n.p. Vsetin. This basic model remained in place, but CZ-UB reported to Zbrojovka Brno from 1965-1982. More specifically, CZ-UB was organized under VHJ Zbrojovka Brno Main Directorate and known as Presne Strojirenstvi, n.p., Uhersky Brod ("Precision Engineering, national enterprise, Uhersky Brod"). The Zbrojovka Brno VHJ was responsible for agricultural machinery, service arms, and special products for export.



Thus, CZ-UB was under some sort of trust management from 1958-1982, but the relationship between Zbrojovka Brno and Ceska Zbrojovka-UB was more pragmatic and had some precedent in the independent interwar period. The Defense Ministry appears to have centralized research in Prague for most of the late 1940s and 1950s, but research and development shifted to Brno by the late 1960s. As will be discussed below, development of the CZ-75 eventually led to independent research and development at the Uhersky Brod plant.



The initial period of trust management under ZRR, n.p. Vsetin from 1958-1965 was a fairly uneventful period in the history of CZ-UB. The Uhersky Brod facility became little more than a manufacturing plant for the vz-50 semi-automatic pistol, adopted by the Czechoslovak police, and various submachine gun models for the Czech military and export. The only notable new product during this period was the vz-61 Skorpion submachine gun in .32 ACP (7.65x17mm, 7.65 Browning). This led to an entire family of Skorpion submachine guns for export: the vz-64 (9x17mm), vz-65 (9x18mm), and vz-68 (9x19mm).



Beginning in 1965, centralization of all small arms production under the management of Zbrojovka Brno would have a profound effect on the Czech arms industry. It is no accident that the biggest event in CZ-UB history, the development of CZ-75, happened in this period. Although CZ-UB had manufactured many products for export from 1946 to 1965, notably submachine guns for foreign militaries, the actual staff and workers at Uhersky Brod had little contact with their military customers and none at all with their civilian customers. Essentially, this was a direct result of state control of the export of firearms via the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Foreign Trade. More specifically, Ceska Zbrojovka had traditionally dominated the military market, while Zbrojovka Brno dominated the European civilian market. In other words, only the Zbrojovka Brno staff had any practical experience with the requirements of the civilian export market and the range of competing foreign products. Closer affiliation with Brno opened many doors for CZ-UB and encouraged closer cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Trade - Main Technical Administration (MZO-HTS). This led to CZ-UB staff accompanying Zbrojovka Brno staff on several business trips to Western Europe in the late 1960s. As will be discussed below, this was critical to the development of the CZ 75.



From 1965-1982, CZ-UB production focused on the vz-70 semi-automatic pistol in .32 ACP (an updated version of the vz-50 semi-auto), the CZ 75 semi-automatic pistol in 9mm Parabellum (9x19mm, 9mm Luger), the Skorpion series of SMGs, and the vz-82 semi-automatic pistol in 9x18mm Makarov, which was adopted by the Czech military. Other products produced in smaller numbers included revolvers for export, new production vz-52 semi-automatic pistols chambered in 9mm Parabellum (9x19mm), sporting rifles of the Mauser pattern, and sporting shotguns.



The history of the CZ 75 merits a short book of its own, and at least two have been published since the 1990s. Briefly, CZ-UB representatives began to lobby for a new handgun design in 9mm Parabellum for export, due to their experiences in Western Europe and Africa. Even in the Americas, which were mostly closed to Czechoslovakian exports, collectors and other shooters were familiar with 9mm Parabellum via WWII surplus handguns such as the P-08 Luger, Walther P-38, Radom wz-35, and Ingliss version of the FN Hi-Power. Several employees of CZ-UB, notably the plant's technical manager, Milos Plocek, were convinced that 9mm Parabellum was becoming the dominant service pistol cartridge everywhere outside the Warsaw Pact, assuming it had not already done so. Problematically, CZ-UB was slightly ahead of the curve, both in terms of demand for a new 9mm pistol and production capacity. In other words, serviceable WWII surplus handguns and submachine guns in 9mm Parabellum were still available in many parts of the world. Similarly, CZ-UB lacked the capacity and equipment to produce handgun frames suitable for 9mm Parabellum. My impression is that the Uhersky Brod facility was overdue for some modernization and improvements by the late 1960s, as well.



Being slightly ahead of the curve proved to be a great blessing. Essentially, CZ-UB had seven years to address some of the technical problems raised by a major project like the CZ 75 while Frantisek Koucky perfected the design of the pistol. In 1969, CZ-UB was able to hire Koucky directly, since he had retired from his military commission and R&D post in 1967. Koucky and his older brother, Josef Koucky, were both talented firearms designers with long-standing ties to the Defense Ministry. For these reasons, the Defense Ministry allowed Frantisek Koucky to work with little interference. The Ministry gave Koucky only the broadest specifications: a pistol chambered in 9mm Parabellum for export; shortly thereafter, the Defense Ministry added that the design must have a high capacity magazine and be capable of double action operation. In 1970, Koucky and Plocek assembled a small research and development team at the Uhersky Brod plant. After the production of two major prototypes in the early 1970s and test batches in 1975-1976, actual serial production of the CZ 75 began in 1977.



Although the history of the CZ 75 is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning a common fallacy. Writers often state that the CZ 75 combines the best features of all previous successful 9mm service pistols, but this is misleading. Evidence cited for this "amalgamation" theory includes superficial resemblances to the Browning Hi-Power and the incorporation of certain features of the SIG P-210. Like the SIG P-210, the CZ 75 slide rides on rails inside the frame, rather than grooves outside the frame. While this theory seems logical, it is completely false.



While there is no denying the influence of John Browning on Frantisek Koucky, the CZ 75 qualifies as a "new" design in every sense of the word. When Koucky began work in 1970-1971 on an all-steel, full size pistol chambered in 9mm Parabellum with DA capability and a high capacity magazine, only one model in the entire world fit that description: the Smith & Wesson Model 59. While the S&W M-59 is an excellent pistol, it was never adopted as a service pistol in any significant numbers. (The Beretta 92FS was introduced in 1976, roughly at the same time as the CZ 75, but the Beretta was not an all-steel model or capable of being carried in Condition One.) Koucky appears to have borrowed the internal rail system from previous Brno designs, not the SIG P-210. Most DA/SA pistols prior to the CZ 75 were derivative of the Walther design; all previous DA/SA models employed a single trigger bar like the Walther. Koucky saw that this made the DA pull of these pistols much heavier than necessary and contributed to breakage. Koucky's double trigger bar and related trigger design were true innovations.



Changes in CSSR economic policy scrapped the VHJ trust management system for concern-type management from 1983-1988. Under this arrangement, VHJ Zbrojovka Brno Main Directorate was renamed Agrozet Koncern Zemedelskeho Strojirenstvi, Brno ("Concern Enterprise for Agricultural Machinery, Brno"), and CZ-UB became Agrozet Uhersky Brod, Koncernovy Podnik ("Agrozet Uhersky Brod, Concern Enterprise"). Presumably, this had little effect on day-to-day operations, since CZ-UB had reported to Zbrojovka Brno for over seventeen years by this point. At any rate, the Agrozet management system proved to be the last gasp of the collectivist model.



CZ-UB production from 1983-1988 concentrated on the vz-82 service pistol for the Czech military, the virtually identical CZ 83 for export in .32 ACP (7.65x17mm),.380 ACP (9x17mm), and 9mm Makarov (9x18mm), and the CZ-75 and its variants, including the CZ 85. Other production included parts for the Skorpion SMG series, sporting rifles of the Mauser pattern, and sporting shotguns. CZ 75/85 series pistols accounted for the majority of CZ-UB exports for the first time. Perhaps even more importantly, clone versions of the CZ 75 began to appear in the West. By the early 1990s, companies as diverse as ITM (Switzerland), Israeli Military Industries, Sphinx (Switzerland), Springfield Arms, and Tanfoglio (Italy) had manufactured handguns based on the CZ 75 design. While the CZ 75 may be among the most pirated firearm designs in history, it is undeniable that the clone versions helped to publicize the CZ 75 in countries banning the importation of arms from Warsaw Pact nations.



In 1988, as the communist system collapsed, CZ-UB regained some of its independence. From 1988-1992, CZ was known as Ceska Zbrojovka, statni podnik, Uhersky Brod ("Czech Weapons Factory, state enterprise, Uhersky Brod"). This period offered dramatic opportunities for marketing, export, and modernization. In my opinion, this decentralization in the last days of communist period set the stage for CZ-UB to emerge as the dominant arms manufacturer in the current Czech Republic. (As I am writing this in 2007, CZ-UB has announced that it will be purchasing Zbrojovka Brno outright.) Production expanded considerably during this brief period, both in terms of the sheer number of guns manufactured and the number of available models for export.



Since 1992, Ceska Zbrojovka has literally returned to its roots, and it is once again a fully independent joint-stock company, Ceska Zbrojovka, a.s., Uhersky Brod. Growing sophistication in the marketing and promotion of its products, coupled with frustrations with earlier importers, led CZ-UB management to establish CZ-USA in 1991 as its importer and distributor in the United States. In practical terms, CZ-USA did not become the sole importer of CZ-UB products until 1997. CZ-USA was originally located in Oakhurst, California, but moved to its current location in Kansas City, Kansas in 1998. From 1998 to present, the civilian market in North America has become the primary customer for CZ-UB products.



By 1993, Czechoslovakia had split into two democratic republics: the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic (also known as Slovakia). Virtually all military production of all types was clustered in Moravia, or the eastern portion of the Czech Republic. As the centralized and nationalized military industrial complex began to fragment, several facilities nominally affiliated with either Brno or CZ-UB started new lives as independent firms. Also, major industrial concerns, such as the old Strakonice plant (which had mostly produced heavy machinery and motorcycles from 1954-1991) recommenced small arms production. An influx of foreign capital stimulated new private companies in the arms and munitions fields. As such, many companies producing small arms began to emerge in the late 1990s. Confusingly, virtually all of them incorporate "CZ" into their names and/or the markings on their weapons. In the last decade, other companies in the Czech Republic either manufacturing or exporting arms included Alfa-Proj, Arms Moravia, Ceska Zbrojovka-Strakonice, and Zbrojovka Brno. Presumably, the Zbrojovka Brno plant will continue to manufacture arms under CZ-UB ownership.