Since humans first achieved escape velocity in the 1960s, manned missions to low-earth orbit have become peaceful, multinational efforts to advance scientific research and understanding. But that doesn’t mean the Russian space program is about to let its cosmonauts get caught in space without a way to defend themselves.
Since 1961, every Granat-6 survival kit aboard the Soyuz spacecraft has come with a firearm for cosmonauts to use in case of emergencies.
In fact, the guns weren’t added to the Soyuz’s survival kit because cosmonauts feared violent conflicts in orbit. Instead, they were included as survival tools for when the cosmonauts returned to Earth. Whereas NASA astronauts would typically splashdown in the Pacific Ocean (or land at Kennedy Space Center during the space shuttle era), cosmonauts touch down in a remote region of Kazakhstan in Central Asia. In case of an equipment malfunction, they might even have to land in the barren wilderness of Siberia.
Before the days of GPS, it might take recovery crews a while to find a Soyuz crew if they missed their landing target. And, if you’re a cosmonaut stranded for an indefinite period of time in the Kazakh Steppe, you probably want something you can use to hunt or fend off the occasional bear attack.
In the early years of the Soviet space program, cosmonauts were given semi-automatic Makarov PM side arms on their missions.
After one Soyuz crew was forced to spend multiple nights in the Siberian taiga following a reentry accident, however, cosmonauts asked for something with a little more kick. One of the stranded cosmonauts remarked that “The Makarov was good only for shooting ourselves.” So, the Soviet space program developed a truly unique weapon to accommodate all the potential survival needs of its cosmonauts.
The TP-82 looks like a cross between an oversized flintlock pistol and a sawed-off shotgun. It features three barrels, two of which fired 32 gauge shotgun shells. The third barrel is rifled and chambered for custom 5.45X39mm rounds. The TP-82 was reportedly capable of taking down a 1,000 pound brown bear. Unfortunately the custom rounds were expensive to make, and the TP-82 was phased out in 2006 when its ammunition supply ran dry.
Nowadays, it’s far easier for ground crews to track spacecraft on reentry, so cosmonauts aren’t faced with the constant threat of having to survive in the wilderness for days at a time. But in spite of the relative safety of modern reentry protocols, we’d be willing to bet there’s still a side arm tucked away in the Soyuz’s survival kit. After all, when you’re crash landing to Earth in one of the most remote regions on the planet, it’s best to err on the side of caution.