Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Painting WWII Soviet Infantry - Part 1:
Series Introduction, Plus Ranks & Insignia

Articles In This Series
Part 1: Series Introduction, Plus Ranks & Insignia
Part 2: Summer Tunics & Trousers
Part 3: Basing Tips & Tricks
Part 4: Winter Uniforms
Part 5: Painting Guides
Part 6A: Finished Black Tree Design 28mm Infantry
Part 6B: Finished Black Tree Design 28mm Infantry
Part 6C: Finished Black Tree Design 28mm Infantry

Series Overview
I think we all can agree that researching World War II uniforms for the Western Allies (United States and Great Britain) and Germany  is far easier than it is for the Soviet Union. It seems that ever since the war ended most people have been far more interested in these three armies than the Soviets, perhaps because the Soviets had been more an "enemy of my enemy," as witnessed by the ensuing Cold War. How many WWII movies are about Soviet battles? How many are about the other Allies? I rest my case.

The end result is that gamers like myself who are unfamiliar with the Red Army can have a difficult time sifting through the different historical books and reenactor sites trying to figure our how to paint our figures and understand how the Soviet army operated.

In January 2011, when I began examining my Black Tree Design Soviet figures and then researching the uniforms, I quickly discovered that the original sculptor for most of the line, Nick Collier, was a fanatic for detail. I'm sure he sculpted just about every Soviet uniform and equipment variation in existence. My head felt like it was going to explode!

Do It For The Gamers!
In order to make life a bit easier for the newbie WWII Soviet gamer and finally organize all my scattered notes before I lose them, I decided to begin writing this series of articles about spotting and painting Soviet uniforms. I'm not sure how long it will take me to complete the entire series. Part 1 has taken me over seven hours to write. Though my focus will be on painting my BTD figures, you can use these articles regardless of the scale you're gaming or the figure manufacturer you're using. Okay, let's get this thing started!

Some Background on Soviet Ranks Being Abolished
Whenever a revolution takes place, it seems as if the new powers-that-be always want to make their own mark on the military, expunging remnants of the previous regime. No where was this more dramatically demonstrated than in the Soviet Union after the revolution and civil war. For example, throughout the 1920's and into the 1930's as a political statement, the Revolutionary Council abolished all military and civil ranks, along with their privileges and honors. Of course, chaos quickly ensued. How could an army operate effectively without its command hierarchy displayed on uniforms? No one had thought of that little detail.

By 1935 the failed experiment ended. Officers, but not generals, had their titles and ranks restored, along with new, military-looking uniforms. Various branches of the armed forces, such as air and armor, began getting their own uniform patterns. By May 1940, all rank titles had been restored, along with parade and undress uniforms. All this occurred just in time for Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Ranks Restored and a New Uniform: M35
For those gaming Soviets in World War II, there are two basic uniform styles, along with variations of each style. The earliest uniform is the M35 pattern, introduced in early December 1935, though it didn't see wide distribution until early 1936. This is the pattern reintroducing ranks into the Red Army. Based upon the traditional peasant's loose-fitting blouse and baggy trousers, this Soviet uniform was both simple and, from what I have read, more comfortable than the traditional uniforms of the Western Allies. The M35 was issued until 1943, when it was replaced with the M43 pattern. I'll try to explain some of the spotting features of the M35 and M43 patterns along with variations so that gamers can accurately paint and spot them.

M35 Collars & Insignia
We'll begin by exploring the uniform's tunic, called a "gimnasterka" in Russian. Both the M35 and M43 share the same basic tunic pattern, except that both have significantly different collars and rank insignia.

To the left, you can see a photo of an M35 collar. This is a traditional fold-down color buttoned at the top. The top photo shows how the newly restored ranks were displayed by placing an insignia (patch) on the collar.

Each branch of the military had its own facing color and piping color. Officers, though, had different piping colors from enlisted men.  Each branch also had its own brass badge on the upper-end of the patch. For example, the upper photo shows an enlisted private (aka Red Army Trooper), whose insignia is raspberry for the infantry, trimmed with black piping for enlisted men, and topped with brass crossed rifles on a target for the infantry. Armored troops, for example, had black facings on their insignia, trimmed with red piping, with a brass tank, its gun facing right. See the Rank & Insignia Guides at the bottom of the post for more information about other branches and ranks in the military.

Officially, the Soviets used facing colors and trim on their insignia until July 1940, when they were replaced with subdued insignia, as seen on the lower photo. The subdued insignias still had the same brass badges for each branch, but the facing color was changed to a darker drab green. Gone was the piping trim. This lasted until the introduction of the M43 uniform.

If your games take place from 1941 onward, as they most likely will, most of your soldiers wearing the M35 uniform should have subdued insignia. Since the Soviets often were slow to reissue uniforms earlier in the war, you could still have a very few soldiers wearing the old colorful patches. I painted all my M35 uniforms with subdued insignia.

M35 to left and right.
However, I had very few BTD figures where I could actually see the M35 collar. In the photo to the left, you can see the figure on the far left and the figure on the far right are wearing the M35 uniform. Every figure wearing this uniform pattern in my collection has most of its collar blocked by either a strap, chin, or blanket. When I had to paint the subdued insignia, the figure usually was wearing the winter jacket, which is a topic for a later post.

Ranks and the M43 Uniform
Compared to the M35, the M43 uniform appears to radically change the way ranks are displayed. However, and quite ironically, the M43 returns to the way ranks were displayed in the deposed Tsarist army--shoulder boards. The collar on the M43 also returns to a more traditional standing collar with two buttons.

The boards on infantry uniforms are the same drab green used on the M34's subdued insignia. The piping trim also follows the same colors as the earlier insignia, such as raspberry for the infantry.  When painting the piping, notice that it does not cover the edge along the shoulder. It only covers the two outer edges and the edge along the neck. The button at the top of the shoulder board is the same color as the rest of the buttons on the tunic. The branch badge will go next to the button toward the shoulder. (The photo to the left doesn't show this, but the insignia guides below do.) Additional piping now is also used to identify ranks, such as corporals and lieutenants.

M35 uniform with M43 shoulder board insignia.
Though shoulder boards were reintroduced on the M43 uniform, the Soviets in 1943 also began removing collar insignia on M35 uniforms still in use, adding the shoulder boards to them. If you look at Black Tree Design's Soviets, you'll notice that some of them are wearing the M35 with shoulder boards. As a result. any figure with shoulder boards won't be accurate for battles prior to the introduction of the M43 uniform.

Luckily, I'm not much of a stickler for such detailed authenticity in my gaming, preferring to have fun instead of creating museum dioramas. I only have some much money to spend and time to devote to painting.Though I mention the branch badges, I haven't painted any of them on my figures--the badges are just too small to paint, looking more like blobs than crossed rifles on a target.

Rank & Insignia Guides
I don't remember where I got the guides below, but I have found them to be very useful for painting my Soviet infantry, most of whom are lowly Red Army Troopers.

Future Articles in the Series
In Part II, we'll look at more spotting difference between the M35 and M43 uniform from a gamer's perspective, and painting the tunics. In future installments, I also want to cover trousers and boots, along with an assortment of straps, gear, and then weaponry. We'll also look at the winter uniforms. Of course, this will all take time, so please be patient.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this first installment of the series and find it useful. And to think that I still have to paint my officers, Maxim machine gunners, tankers, snipers, NKVD, and more--and then write those articles!


  1. A fascinating article, yes - I enjoyed!

    Years ago my Platoon Commander and I did a Soviet Studies course over a few weekends and although I've forgotten most of it, I do remember a mate of Lofty Wiseman's bringing a load of actual uniforms (culled from IGB and Afgahn defectors and prisoners) down from Hereford tpo show us and I don't think they'd changed much by the 1980's from what you've shown here!


  2. That was interesting. And very useful too. Thank you.

  3. I see some mistakes:
    1. It is colar insignia of 1935-1940. 1940-1943 colar insignia has some difference: http://panzerabwehr.narod.ru/SSSR/znaki_razlichiya_artilleristov_rkka/petlitsi_rkka/tablicca_zvanii_RKKA_1940-1943gg.jpg

    2. Officers colar insignia on everyday uniform have gold edging.

    3. On field shoulder insignia 1943-1945 only edgings have brunch color All inner lines always red.

  4. Thanks for those corrections and additiona! As I mention, trying to learn about Soviet uniforms in the West is not exactly easy. I appreciate your help.

  5. Hello, could i just add - 3 triangles is starshiy serzhent and 4 triangles is starshina. In the red army there were 4 ranks of serzhent.
    1 triangle = Mladshiy serzhent
    2 " = serzhent
    3 " = mladshiy serzhent
    4 2 = starshina

  6. Sometimes, the colour of the collar tab was dependent on rank. A lieutenant-colonel in the Air Force would have a black collar tab with a bird on it. I know this cause I traded two packs of bubbalicious gum for a pair when I was a kid in red square in 1986. The collar tabs now reside in the Saskatchewan Military Archives.


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