Handbooks for identification of older weapon systems & munitions

Over the past years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time watching conflicts through social media. Internet-connected conflict zones mean we now get quite detailed imagery of the happenings on the ground, including footage of various types of weapon systems and munitions.

Thus, for wonks like me who want to know what they’re seeing, ID guides are helpful. In some cases, identifying the type of a weapon system or munition can give you insights into the origins and supply chains of weaponry into conflict zones. A contemporary example below:

The CIA archive offers some resources to help with identifying older weapon systems and munitions.

The Identification Handbook of Soviet Equipment (1957) by U.S. Army Europe G-2 (i.e. Intelligence) is a lovely 276p. book of vintage Soviet equipment. Doesn’t necessarily have much value for current conflicts, but for historic equipment, it’s a worthy resource. Some of the illustrated terminology sheets do have current value.

Weapon part terminology
122mm D-74 howitzer illustration
Tank construction terminology

Another Army G2 document from 1958, Summary of Significant Soviet Weapons and Equipment, does exactly what the name suggests. The documents includes more comparison tables than the 1957 guide, and also covers biological & chemical weapons.


Soviet VTOL platform from 1958



1958 estimate on Soviet chemical agents used in warfare


Stepping forward by a decade, we have a 1969 CIA intelligence handbook on Soviet Ground Force Weapons and Armored Vehicles. (77 pages)

What seems to be next in the same series of publications, we have an intelligence handbook titled Soviet Land Armaments (99p.), from 1976. This document would be a nice reference if it wasn’t for the quite terrible quality of some of the scanned photos.

Soviet Land Armaments (1976) – The quality of the scan limits its usefulness

Another document series by DIA, “Field Artillery, Worldwide” holds promise for being helpful with more recent systems, but the only sample available (Field Artillery Rocket Systems, 1986) in the CIA archive is redacted beyond being of any use.


Moving along, one document of interest is the High-Risk Munitions Identification Guide, by U.S. Army’s ARDEC. The document is undated, but given that it talks about “Former U.S.S.R.” and “Former Yugoslavia”, it can’t be from earlier than 1990s. The guide covers some munitions that are still seen in current stockpiles and the aftermaths of older conflicts. The guide also covers some more sophisticated fuzes. (Fuzes being the devices that are used to detonate the main explosive.)

Sample item from the High-Risk Munitions Identification Guide

The real mother lode from the archives comes when we get to the fuzes. There are two sets of fuze manuals from the 1970s: Foreign Fuze Manual – Free World (1975) and Fuze Manual – Eurasian Communist Countries (1973). Combined, these two volumes total at almost 1300 pages of technical information.

Fuze index sample, found at the end of a document
Sample drawing of a Chinese point detonating fuze

Since I haven’t yet found other great examples related to ordnance identification from the CIA archive, I feel the need to link a few other resources.

Finally, if you want to dig deeper into Soviet/Russian ammunition markings, some resources exist for that in the CIA archives.

The Russian markings on various munitions often reveal the factory, lot number and year the particular munition (or its component) was manufactured. Some factory numbers are listed in a 1967 “National Intelligence Survey: USSR Manufacturing and Construction“, but if you really want to dive deep, University of Warwick offers a massive data set of the Soviet defense industry’s numbered factories.

Updated March 5th 2018 to include the 1958 ‘Summary of Significant Soviet Weapons and Equipment’.

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