The Baikal IJ-70 (Makarov) Pistol

By Chuck Hawks

Baikal IJ-70
Image courtesy of Gun Broker.

"Baikal" is the name of a large lake in Siberia. It is also the trade name of Ishevsky Mechanichesky Zavod (SUP IMZ), a large Russian arms and ammunition manufacturing plant founded in 1942 as part of the Russian National Defence Industry. This was the darkest year of the Second World War in Soviet Russia, and guns were desperately needed to fight the invading Germans. SUP IMZ is still government owned, and is located in Izhevsk, Russia. They manufacture a wide range of military and civilian arms. European American Armory (EAA) of Sharpes, Florida is the exclusive importer of Baikal products at the time of this writing.

The Russian-made Baikal IJ-70 pistol is often referred to simply as the "Makarov." I call it "The gun that lost the East," since it was the service sidearm of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. At present the IJ-70 is not being imported into the U.S., having been discontinued in 1996. Makarov pistols from other ex-Eastern Bloc nations of similar specification are still imported, however, and Baikal IJ-70's are available on the used market.

What we have here is basically a Russian copy of the famous Walther PP (Police Pistol), which was widely used all over Europe by both Police and civilians at the time the leaders of the Soviet Union decided to replace their aging Tokarev service pistol.

The Soviet leadership, as usual, wanted a simple and durable weapon that could be inexpensively mass-produced, and they were willing to sacrifice state of the art ballistic performance to get it. The new pistol was to serve as the duty sidearm of the various branches of the military, as well as the police, the KGB, and all other government agencies. It would become the service standard for the entire Soviet Union and its satellites.

Locked breech designs were rejected in favor of a simple blow back mechanism in order to hold down manufacturing costs. The Walther PP design was selected as the basis of the new pistol. Germany had lost the Second World War and was partially occupied by the Soviet Union, so there would be no problem with patent infringements. Communists refuse to recognize intellectual property rights in any case, just as they refuse to recognize other property rights.

The result was the adoption of the famous Makarov pistol, which is a slightly simplified Walther PP with an enlarged trigger guard. Russian cops and soldiers need to be able to reach the trigger while wearing heavy winter gloves.

It was chambered for a Russian version of the .380 ACP (9x17mm or 9mm Kurz) cartridge, since that was the most powerful round that the basic Walther PP design could accommodate. The new Russian cartridge used an odd diameter .364" (approximately 9.2mm) bullet in a case 1mm longer than the .380's, and became known as the 9mm Makarov or 9x18. Ballistically it remained a near twin of the .380 ACP.

Like the PP, the Makarov pistol has a fixed barrel, a plus for accuracy. It is a conventional double-action/single action semi-automatic pistol with a hammer drop safety on the left side of the slide (up for "safe" and down for "fire"). Activating the safety returns a cocked hammer to the down position and locks the trigger, hammer, and slide. The Mak has a rebounding hammer, and it is safe to carry an IJ-70 with the safety off and the hammer lowered over a chambered cartridge. The slide stays open after the last shot, and there is a slide release lever on the left side of the frame, where it is easily reached by the thumb of a right handed shooter.

The IJ-70 is a smallish service pistol, about the size of a Glock 19 in height and length, but slimmer due to its single stack magazine. The steel magazine holds 8 cartridges and is released by a European style heel clip. According to the IJ-70 owner's manual the pistol is 161 mm long, 126.7 mm high, and 30.5 mm wide. The latter dimension is increased to 34mm if a wrap around rubber grip is fitted. The empty weight is .73 kg (about 25 ounces).

The Makarov pistol served the Soviet Union well right up to the collapse of the Communist system, and continues in widespread use in Russia today. Red China uses a domestically produced version of the Makarov pistol, as do several other former Soviet client states.

Most of the various Communist countries produced Makarov pistols locally in their own factories. Quality and workmanship varies depending on the country of manufacture. The East German and Russian Maks are generally regarded as the best, and the Chinese as the worst. The others fall somewhere between the two extremes.

The Makarov pistols produced in Russia for export were marked "Baikal IJ-70" and were available in either .380 ACP or 9mm Makarov caliber. The barrels are bored differently, of course, since the .380 has a groove diameter of .355" and the 9mm Mak has a groove diameter of .364" but everything else is the same, including the magazine (which will accommodate either cartridge).

The IJ-70 is an all steel pistol with a polished blue finish and a fully adjustable rear sight. It came with two magazines and sometimes other accessories, such as a cleaning tool and a service style holster.

My IJ-70A Mak, the test gun for this review, is chambered for the .380 ACP cartridge, which is more widely distributed in the U.S. than the 9x18. It is a reliable and well made pistol that feeds modern JHP bullets without a problem. It will fit in almost all commercial holsters designed for a Walther PP pistol.

At about 1/4 the price of a Walther PP, I'd call the Baikal IJ-70 a bargain. When new, the Baikal IJ-70 was in the low price range of the cheap Lorcin and Raven zinc framed .380 pistols, but there is no comparison in terms of quality and shootability. There are cheap guns and then there are inexpensive guns--the IJ-70 is inexpensive but not cheap.

One common and useful accessory is a black rubber one-piece replacement grip. This ergonomic grip feels much better, at least in my hand, than the standard hard plastic grip that is typically supplied on Makarov pistols.

When brand new the actions of IJ-70 pistols are a bit rough, but they smooth up nicely with use. This process can be hastened by a little judicious hand tuning. (Please don't write and ask me how to tune your Mak; if you don't know you probably shouldn't try.) The single action trigger pull of my IJ-70 breaks at 5.75 pounds. It has a fair amount of creep, but it is smooth and easy to control. I have shot a lot of service autos with worse triggers.

The ballistics of the .380 ACP and 9mm Makarov cartridges are pretty well known, nearly identical, and I have covered both in some detail in my series of articles on pistol cartridges, so I will not go into the subject again here. Suffice to say that with top JHP factory loads the .380 has proven to be a surprisingly reliable man stopper, about equal to the .38 Special revolver cartridge when fired from a snub-nosed revolver. In their stopping power study Marshall and Sanow found that the Federal Classic factory load for the .380 using a 90 grain JHP Hi-Shok bullet to be a 69% one shot stopper.

Shooting a Mak is a straight forward proposition. The magazine is loaded by simply pressing each cartridge down on top of the last. There is a tiny protrusion on the left side of the magazine designed to allow a thumbnail to press down the magazine spring to ease loading, but it is so small and the magazine spring so strong that splintered nails are the usual result. It is best ignored.

When a loaded magazine is inserted into the pistol the open slide can be released by pressing down the slide release lever, or simply pulling the slide back slightly and letting it go. The slide will strip the first round from the magazine as it runs forward, and the pistol is ready to shoot.

The double action trigger pull is quite heavy if it is used for the first shot, but for subsequent shots the hammer has been cocked by the rearward movement of the slide and the pistol functions in single action mode. The exposed burr type hammer can also be thumb cocked for the first shot if the situation allows, avoiding the DA pull altogether, a pious idea at the range.

After the last shot is fired and the magazine is empty, the slide will remain open. As with any blow-back action pistol, the slide return spring is pretty stiff, and it takes a fair amount of effort to retract the slide manually. The effort required to pull back the slide is considerably reduced if the hammer is first manually cocked.

The accuracy of the IJ-70 pistols I have fired is good compared to most .380 pistols. (The .380ACP and 9x18 cartridges shoot stubby bullets that are not known for top accuracy.) The owner's manual that came with my IJ-70 states that the pistol is intended for shooting at ranges up to 50 meters.

The Mak has a good, solid feel in the hand, especially with the optional rubber grip. It is neither too small for those with large hands, nor too big for those with small hands. Most shooters will find its weight a good compromise for a .380 pistol, not so heavy that it is hard to support, or so light that recoil becomes unpleasant. I have found that both men and women enjoy shooting the IJ-70.

For this article I tested my Baikal IJ-70A at 25 yards from a bench rest by firing six 5-shot groups (a total of 30 rounds) with three different factory loads. The ammunition used was CCI 88 grain Blazer JHP, Federal 90 grain Hydra-Shok JHP, and Remington Golden Saber 102 grain JHP. The average size of all groups turned out to be 3". My best single group was 1 13/16" using the Federal Hydra-Shok load.

This means that the IJ-70 is capable of putting every shot into the upper torso of a man sized target at 50 meters, which confirms the statement in the owner's manual regarding its useful range. That is definitely better than the Colt Mustang .380 pocket pistol I reviewed would do.

Functioning and reliability during testing were 100%, as they have always been with the Mak pistols I have fired. Ejection of fired brass is strong; cases are thrown a considerable distance from the pistol. This is a good point to remember if you are standing next to someone shooting a Mak.

I don't reload .380 ACP, but I did test some commercial reloads using 115 grain Lead-RN bullets from the 25 yard bench rest. This ammunition also functioned reliably, but the 5-shot group sizes were larger, averaging 4 3/16". I prefer to use Remington/UMC and Winchester "White Box" FMJ factory loads for practice.

A couple of warnings may be appropriate. According to the instruction manual, the safety of the IJ-70 should not be rotated upward to the "on" position when the slide is back (open). When the slide is in this position the safety could inadvertently be pushed past the upper detent, allowing the safety lever and firing pin to come loose. This is, in fact, how they are disassembled. Another warning is not to allow the slide to slam closed with the safety on. In other words, set the safety only when the slide is all the way forward.

The owner's manual is actually pretty good and includes photographs and diagrams of the pistol, a description of the blow back system, operating and cleaning instructions, safety advice and an exploded view of the pistol with a parts list. The IJ-70 is easy to field strip for cleaning without tools. First, remove the magazine and insure that the chamber is not loaded. Return the slide to its forward position (battery). Make sure the safety is off. Next, pull down on the front of the trigger guard; it will pivot from the rear until the front of the trigger guard clears the frame. With the trigger guard pulled down, pull the slide all the way to the rear and lift the rear end of the slide. Let it run forward off of the frame. That is all the disassembly required for normal cleaning. Reassemble in reverse order.

The Baikal IJ-70 is not only an interesting piece of Cold War history, it is a well made, reliable and accurate autoloading pistol that is well suited for home defense or daily carry. It may be "The gun that lost the East," but it represents an outstanding value on today's used market.

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Copyright 2002, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.