Going head to head against the Pardini K50, the Russian-made .22 handgun gets our vote—but your choice may differ.
Of the many International Shooting Union (UIT) pistol events fired in the Olympics, World Championships, Pan Am Games, and similar competitions, the king of them all is the men’s free-pistol match. This match consists of unlimited sighting shots and 60 record shots in a two-hour period, fired from the one-handed standing position at 50 meter outdoors with open iron sights. The target used is the standard UIT 25/50 precision pistol target, with a ten ring of only 50 mm—about 2 inches in diameter.
The world record for this event is 581 of a possible 600 points, set by Soviet shooter Alexander Melentiev in 1980 at the Moscow Olympic Games. In almost two decades of international competition, only Taniu Kiriakov of Bulgaria has been back into the 580’s, with a 580 preliminary in 1995 at the UIT World Cup in Hiroshima, Japan.
The free in free pistol derives from the idea that the pistol is relatively free of restrictions under the UIT equipment rules. The only rule limitations imposed are that it be a .22 caliber rimfire pistol, with open iron sights, having a grip that does not lock the wrist in any way, and is loaded and fired as a single-shot firearm. Just about anything else is fair game, and these pistols take some time-proven designs and really push the envelope of accuracy, ergonomics, and materials sophistication.
One may attempt to compete in free pistol with an off-the-shelf .22 target-grade autoloader such as the High Standard, Ruger or Smith and Wesson, but like driving a pickup truck at Indianapolis, you are starting out with one foot in a bucket before the green flag even drops. Hence the need for a specialized free pistol.
As with any sophisticated competition machinery, the final product’s performance can be a function of cost. The retail and catalog prices of the various makes and models of free pistols range from a bit over $1,000 to well over twice that amount. Like any precision classic, they tend to hold their value well, and may sell used for as much or more than they did new.
Thankfully, it seems that in the realm of free pistols some relatively affordable high-performance alternatives do exist, and are readily available to the American competition shooter today. They are the TOZ35M, produced over the years by several sources within the late, great Soviet bloc, and the Pardini K50, currently produced in Italy by Pardini Armi. Both are available new from major catalog dealers for just under $1,100 each.
For this evaluation, we secured a representative sample of each gun from two currently-active free pistol shooters, who also contributed their expertise to the development of this article. These samples were not specially selected or prepared in any way for this evaluation, and should be representative of the off-the-shelf firearms consumers would be able to purchase.
How We Tested
It was our original intent to conduct an extensive ammunition accuracy test as a part of our evaluation of these firearms, using same-lot samples of different grades of match ammunition from several different manufacturers fired out of a Ransom Rest to remove any shooter-induced error. However, as we progressed in our development of this article, we discovered suitable inserts for these highly specialized guns were not available for the Ransom Rest, and we did not feel that some jury-rigged test procedure could be relied upon to produce viable test data comparing these two firearms in inherent accuracy with any given ammunition type. Such accuracy testing would require extensive custom-made fixtures for each firearm. Instead, our range testing was limited to offhand and sandbag firing of a limited selection of ammunition to get a feel for the firing behavior, ergonomics, and the general accuracy levels of the two guns under these test conditions. Based on these tests, as well as by their reputations and proven international match results, we concluded that both guns possessed an inherent level of accuracy that far outstripped the ability of all but the most elite world-class shooters to hold and fire during competition.
Manufacturer’s test results included with the sample TOZ35M pistol averaged an inch or less at 50 meters for five ten-shot groups using Russian Temp ammunition. The Pardini K50 should be assumed to be reasonably close to this level of inherent accuracy, especially with selected lots of similar quality ammunition. However, we were unable to conclusively demonstrate a definitive level of accuracy or one gun’s superior accuracy in this evaluation.
These two free pistol designs represent the industrial design methods and mindset of their respective countries. The Pardini K50 has a light, airy, modern look to it, as if it were designed and built by Maserati or Ferrari. The contrasting matte finishes on the black receiver and aluminum sight base and balance weight looks more aerospace than armament.
The TOZ35M, in turn, has a robust, no-nonsense heft and finish that looks like it was designed and built by Massey Ferguson. A printed instruction sheet from importer Don Nygord included with the sample pistol says it all. “Wherever it was important to accuracy or durability to put in good work or good material, the Russians did so. They just didn’t spend any time on polish and minor things like making sure the sights lined up. They knew you would rather save about $1,000 over a shiny Hammerli or such for a gun that would probably shoot better.”
As one tester noted, “The TOZ35M was designed to be used by Siberian peasants wearing heavy winter gloves and serviced using large hammers and pipe wrenches.” As such, the TOZ35M may indeed be the high-water mark of sporting arms in the Soviet workers paradise.
The TOZ35M is an adaptation of the classic Martini-type rear hinged breechblock action, built on a very diminutive scale. Construction of the TOZ35M is all steel, with stained hardwood furniture. The breechblock is operated by a lever at the base of the grip. Moving the lever to the front opens the action, activating the combined extractor/ejector to remove the empty case from the chamber. Extraction and ejection are positive with all match ammunition in the examples we’ve observed over the years. The action is closed by moving the action lever to the rear position. Some examples observed have been custom modified to a sidelever configuration, per individual shooter preference.
The Pardini K50 features a small manual bolt action in a steel tubular receiver, mated to a machined aluminum trigger housing. The bolt knob is vertical when the bolt is in battery, and rotates slightly less than 90 degrees as it moves back to its fully open position. The Pardini has a very effective extractor, but no ejector. If the bolt is operated with some enthusiasm, the empty is usually ejected, while if operated in a gentle manner, the empty case remains in the loading port for manual removal.
In our view, both action types can and do produce superb accuracy. The TOZ35M ejector is a nice touch.
The sophisticated trigger is the heart of the free pistol and a major component of its mystique. Free pistol trigger pull weights can be adjusted down to just a few grams, or a fraction of an ounce, according to individual shooter preference. The trigger is usually “set” by a separate lever after the round is loaded, as the vibration and shock of closing the breech might otherwise cause a light free pistol trigger to fire the round before the shooter was ready, or the breech fully closed.
Remember that as the pull weight decreases, the ability of the shooter to maintain finger contact with the trigger’s finger piece as final adjustments to the sight picture take place is diminished. Firearm safety may also become an issue, as spring rates and engagement surfaces are at minimal levels, and numerous cases have been reported of triggers being so light that the minimal weight of the trigger finger piece itself is enough to fire the gun when held in a vertical position or when the gun is bumped inadvertently. As such, while the idea of such a “hair trigger” engagement may be attractive to some shooters, we recommend that in consideration of both safety and the ability of the shooter to effectively control the trigger break in training and competition, trigger pulls of a more reasonable and controllable weight should be used. Your individual level of experience and shooting skill should determine your own optimal trigger weight, not your ego or some arbitrary “magic” trigger weight figure. Many very successful free pistol shooters use trigger weights of 50 grams or even more as a matter of choice.
The TOZ35M trigger is set by the operation of a small side lever at the left side of the receiver after the round is loaded and the shooter is ready to fire. The trigger can be adjusted on most models we’ve examined down to a weight range of perhaps 12 to 15 grams, or well under a half-ounce. We have fired the TOZ35M in training at this trigger weight, and have found that my ability to control the trigger during final sight alignment is difficult if not impossible. As such we suggest starting with a more prudent trigger weight several times this amount and adjusting as circumstances and results indicate.
The TOZ35M trigger is fully adjustable for weight and creep. The finger piece consists of a grooved, slightly concave aluminum blade which may be adjusted fore and aft, for rotation and for vertical position. The trigger on our sample gun broke at a clean 20 grams with just a touch of take-up to insure adequate control of the shot break. The trigger may be set for dry-fire practice with the trigger cocking lever and the action open.
The Pardini K50 trigger is set after the round is loaded and the bolt closed by pulling gently upward on the trigger cocking lever which extends from the front of the receiver. The trigger is fully adjustable for free play, pull weight and the trigger fingerpiece, a smooth-faced polymer concave blade, may be adjusted for rotation and for fore-aft position. Our sample gun trigger broke at a clean 32 grams, with virtually no take-up. The trigger may be set for dry-fire practice by using the trigger cocking lever with the action open.
We would have a difficult time picking one trigger action over the other. Trigger behavior is a very personal preference, and both guns possess superb triggers. Still, the TOZ has developed a reputation for having a durable mechanism.
One of the apparent accuracy advantages of the free pistol is the long sight radius coupled with a fully adjustable large rear sight blade and interchangeable front sights. Both guns have these features as part of their standard sight package.
The TOZ35M features a robust, fully adjustable rear sight having a calculated click adjustment value at 50 meters of 9mm per click for windage and 9.5mm per click for elevation. All windage and elevation adjustments are via finger-operated knobs, which allow for quick adjustments to rapidly changing conditions without tools. Three interchangeable rear sight blades with notch widths of 2.75 mm, 3.0 mm and 3.25 mm are provided, as are four interchangeable front sight blades in widths of 3.5 mm, 4.5 mm, 5.0 mm and 5.5 mm. These mix and match options should provide for any preference of sight picture for most shooters. The sight radius is 375 mm overall. The finish niceties referred to in the Nygord instructions indicate that the front sights may be crooked when installed, and the sight tenon will need to be filed square to achieve individual fit and alignment. The rear sight may also need to be filed to make it level and properly align with the front sight. Such was the industrial ethic of the late, great Soviet Union.
The Pardini K50 also uses a fully adjustable rear sight, with click adjustments for windage and elevation via coin-slotted screw heads. Each click has a calculated adjustment value of 10 mm at 50 meters. The pistol comes with two interchangeable front sight posts and two interchangeable rear sight blades. The sight radius is 400 mm.
The front-sight posts are round in cross section, with the upper portion milled half round to create a flat face on the post. The front sight post may be placed at different depths in its front base recess to allow for gross elevation adjustment of the sights and to allow a slightly different portion of the rear sight adjustment screw to be used, should another portion of the elevation screw assembly become worn and develop some play or backlash. The Pardini rear sight has developed a reputation for being fragile and susceptible to impact damage, which tends to bend its long, fine-thread adjustment screw. Given adequate protection, the rear sight should provide reasonably good service.
In our view, the out-of-the-box Pardini may have a slight edge in sight function. It’s just smoother and more refined overall than the robust front and rear blades of the TOZ.
One of the features of the free pistol is the ability of the shooter to fine-tune the center of mass for optimal stability of hold. This is usually done by some type of beam and movable balance weight attached to the front portion of the frame or forend of the gun.
The TOZ35M does not have a factory-installed balance weight system, but many shooters improvise such a system by attaching a smooth or threaded rod to the front face of the forearm and adding weights as needed to achieve optimal balance.
The Pardini K50 has such a balance system from the factory, and its three small steel weights may be added and moved to achieve an optimal balance point for the individual shooter. However, many experienced shooters feel the balance beam should be at or below the boreline rather than above for optimal stability. The older Pardini PGP75 Free Pistol model used two beams at boreline, one on each side of the barrel, and many shooters felt this was a superior design.
Clearly, the Pardini’s factory balance weight system wins this matchup by default.
The free-pistol grip is unlike any other in the shooting world. The grip may completely encircle the hand, including the thumb, and is only required to leave the wrist free to move in its full range of motion. The resulting grips resemble a swordsman’s cutlass more than anything, and free pistol shooters seem to spend most of their off-hours sanding, carving and puttying their grips for optimal fit.
The TOZ35M is generally available in the United States with three variations of grips. First is the original hardwood “whale-tail thumbhole” Russian grip, which was intended as an oversize starting point for the shooter to carve and putty into an optional fitting interface. This grip is an open back design with an adjustable palmrest and full wrap thumbhole.
The second available grip is the Morini open back grip in hardwood with adjustable palmrest. The Morini is well made and familiar to most international shooters, and is the factory grip on many international pistols. The TOZ35M test sample featured this grip with minor cut and putty modifications by the shooter. The TOZ35M is also available with an adjustable grip carved by Arnold Vitarbo, a former U.S. record holder in the free-pistol event and former assistant coach of the U.S. Pistol Team. Vitarbo, along with others, offers to cut a custom grip in any style to the individual measurements of the shooter, an option many serious free pistol shooters demand as a matter of course.
The Pardini K50 factory grip is an open-back design with an adjustable palmrest. It is cut out of an undistinguished blond hardwood, with stippled contact surfaces throughout. Its adaptability for different hand sizes is commendable, but requires substantial putty filling for smaller or slender hands, and tends to cramp the fingers a bit when the palmrest is raised for optimal palm fit.
In our view, the TOZ35M has a better grip, but the Pardini grip can serve as the basis for a very usable grip with some time and putty.
Packaging and Accessories
The TOZ35M case is a locking hardwood affair fitted for the gun and all the accessories. The gun comes complete with a spare firing pin and several replacement springs, the additional sight posts and blades mentioned, some cleaning and adjustment tools and an instruction book, hopefully in English or in a foreign language you can read. The Pardini K50 comes packaged in a slim locking plastic clamshell case with the spare front and rear sights and a small set of metric hex keys that seem to fit all the adjustment points on the gun. Instructions include translations in English, French, and Italian.
We think the TOZ35M case and accessories are a better package.
The firing behavior of both pistols was very similar in our range testing. For those of you who have never fired a free pistol, the low bore axis and fixed breech produce a somewhat greater recoil impulse than is expected by those who have fired only blowback semi-automatics. The feather-pull trigger, long sight radius, inherent accuracy and the ability of the shooter to call the shot location on the target are all part of the free pistol shooting experience. The only real operational difference between the two guns was the slightly greater perceived recoil of the Pardini, due in great part to its lighter overall weight. The TOZ35M benefits from excellent ergonomics, the heft of solid-steel construction and an exceptional trigger. International reputation of the TOZ35M’s accuracy and reliability is unsurpassed, and was borne out in our range testing.
The Pardini K50 also possesses an excellent shooter interface, great sights and a good balance adjustment system. While not sharing the international reputation or widespread competitor acceptance of the TOZ35M, the Pardini K50 is still a very capable shooting instrument.
Performance Shooter Recommends
As with any other high-performance firearm comparison, personal preference, intuition, and feel of the gun are every bit as important as the actual features of the firearms in question. In the final analysis, the skill of the individual shooter is a far bigger component in the overall performance equation than the brand of equipment he or she uses. The TOZ35M seems to be attracting the most domestic and international acceptance at this time, but trends in competition equipment change with the latest results from the major competitions. In our view, either of these pistols will allow a prospective free-pistol shooter to excel in this most demanding shooting discipline.
That said, we would buy the TOZ35M over the Pardini. Currently, many of the free-pistol shooters at an elite international level and most of the U.S. Pistol Team are firing the TOZ35M free pistol, including the 1997 U.S. National Free Pistol Champion, with obviously credible results. The TOZ35M is durable, accurate, affordable and something of the benchmark design against which all other free pistols are measured. As one international pistol coach observed, “The Russians only have three items in inventory which they can readily convert into hard cash: plutonium, caviar, and TOZ free pistols.”
The only major downside regarding the TOZ35M is that they have been out of production for several years, and it is reported by several sources there are no plans to resume such production. Occasionally, lots of several dozen units come onto the market and are snapped up by demanding free-pistol shooters worldwide. As time goes on, the availability of replacement parts may become an issue, but for now at least there seems to be a reasonable availability of complete guns and spare parts to satisfy this specialized demand.
The Pardini K50 is the second generation of an equally-proven design, with an Italian flair and style all its own. On its résumé are the names of two of the top three athletes in the 1997 NRA Intercollegiate Free Pistol Championships. The K50 is in current production and should be in steady supply for a long time to come. If you have concerns about the TOZ’s availability, we think you’ll be pleased with the Pardini free pistol.