When people think about really big and important firearms manufacturers, the names that come to mind are probably ones like Winchester, Remington, Smith & Wesson, and
Beretta. No less important is a Central European company called Ceska Zbrojovka, literally meaning Czech Armaments. Founded in 1919 shortly after Czechoslovakia's
independence from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, CZ would go on to become that country's premiere small arms manufacturing company and would go through several iterations before reaching
its current status today as a significant producer with an international presence (including its American branch, CZ-USA).
CZ actually started out as a collection of independent and unrelated factories spread across cities like Prague, Brno, Strakonice, and Uhersky. The firms would eventually
merge and most of the actual manufacturing would be done at the Brno and Uhersky locations, the latter of which is still CZ's headquarters to this day. Like most European firearms makers at the
time, CZ actually started out with a diverse array of product offerings aside from guns, including cars, motorcycles, and heavy industrial equipment. According to CZ's website, the first guns
made by the company were basically refurbished Steyr-Mannlicher M95 bolt action rifles. In 1921, CZ's Brno factory received a contract to make Mauser-licensed Gewehr 98 rifles for
Germany since the Treaty of Versailles signed after World War I severely curtailed the number of weapons that Germany could produce on an annual basis. Within three years, CZ would make its
own version of the G98 for domestic consumption, the vzor 24 (model of 1924; all weapons follow this pattern, with "vzor" being abbreviated "vz." and the numbers representing the year in which the
weapon was introduced).
Foreign military contracts dried up for CZ after the end of the Mauser run, so CZ refocused its energies on domestic production for police, military, and civilian weapons. Their
semi-automatic pistols of the interwar era were common across Central and Western Europe, particularly the vz. 22 and the vz. 27. At this time, most commercial pistols were chambered in one of
three calibers: .25 ACP (6.35x16mm), .32 ACP (7.65x17mm), and .380 ACP (9x17mm), all of which were designed by the American gunsmith John Moses Browning. Guns chambered in what we today
generally call 9mm (9x19mm) were designed specifically for military applications at the time, hence the common designation for this round: 9mm Parabellum (literally "for war"). CZ produced
weapons in all of these calibers, although their Parabellum pistols were sold almost exclusively to the Czechoslovakian military. CZ also produced a series of selective fire submachine guns
during the 1920s in all four of these calibers as well as the common Soviet chambering 7.62x25mm, also called 7.62 Tokarev.
During World War II, the Czech portion of Czechoslovakia was under German occupation and CZ's facilities were put at the disposal of the Wehrmacht. The Brno and Uhersky
factories were used to make massive quantities of Mauser 98 clones as well as the unpopular vz. 38 pistol and the vz. 26 submachine gun. The workers at these plants engaged in subtle acts of
sabotage against the Germans by misaligning the sights of the Mausers and by overproducing the clunky and expensive vz. 38s (described as "one of the most ungainly pistols ever manufactured in
large numbers" by Ceska Zbrojovka itself) to the detriment of other weapons. While it's a stretch to say that CZ caused the Germans to lose the war through their actions, they certainly didn't do
anything to help the Nazi war effort.
After the end of the war in 1945, Czechoslovakia was reunited and exchanged one form of tyranny for another when it was put under Soviet administration. Ceska Zbrojovka ceased
to exist as a privately owned company since enterprises not directly controlled by the state were not consistent with the new and "enlightened" Soviet-style government that was put into place. That
being said, CZ's tradition of small arms innovation was allowed to continue under the new government. Beneficially, exports to allied (or at least not unfriendly) countries resumed under
communism, beginning with the vz. 45, a .25 caliber pocket pistol. Ironically, one of CZ's biggest recipients of weapons in the first few years after World War II was the newly created state of
Israel, which received massive amounts of unissued Czech Mausers. These surplus Mausers suffered from the same problems as the ones given to the Germans, but the Israelis seemed to at least
appreciate the gesture.
As the Cold War got colder (or is it hotter?) Ceska Zbrojovka's role in Eastern Bloc weapons manufacturing became increasingly unique. Other countries in the Soviet sphere like
Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria were basically forced to adopt Soviet-designed and Soviet-made weapons. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia enjoyed the highest degree of weapon-making autonomy at
this point, mainly because both countries enjoyed well-established industrial manufacturing capabilities. Although Yugoslavian small arms were not particularly innovative -- since most of them were
derived from already extant Soviet weapons -- they were of noticeably higher quality than those of most other Soviet satellites. The Czechoslovakians were basically left to their own devices in
terms of design as long as their weapons met the Warsaw Pact standardization agreements that mandated the use of the 7.62x39mm and 9x18mm (aka 9mm Makarov) caliber rounds.
CZ's most famous weapons all come from the Cold War period, specifically the years between 1958 and 1985. In 1947, the Soviets introduced a revolutionary weapon designed by
a young Red Army soldier called the AK-47. The AK-47 is a carbine-sized rifle capable of either semi-automatic or fully automatic fire that shoots an intermediary
cartridge (the 7.62x39mm mentioned above); this gives it the distinction of being the world's first mass-produced assault rifle. While basically all other Eastern Bloc countries either imported
or produced their own version of this infantry weapon, Czechoslovakia made its own assault rifle: the vz. 58. The vz. 58 was unique compared to the AK and its derivatives in both its appearance and
operation. Its physical appearance was similar to the earlier German Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle. In terms of its fabrication, the receiver was milled from a solid piece of steel as opposed to
the standard AK practice of stamping the receiver from a thin sheet of steel (generally speaking, weapons with milled receivers are sturdier and are of higher quality). Likewise, the AK's action is
dependent on a rotating bolt that remains closed at all times while the bolt on the vz. 58 is controlled by a locking block that fires from the open position (this seems to be derived from the
German Walther P38 pistol). While the vz. 58 fired the same 7.62x39mm round as the AK-47, the magazines were not interchangeable; in fact, no parts are interchangeable, which really makes it
CZ's next big advance was a submachine gun called the vz. 61. Like all SMGs, the vz. 61 fired a pistol-caliber cartridge, the .32 ACP in this instance. Unlike other carbine-sized
SMGs like the American Thompson Submachine Gun or the German MP40, the vz. 61 was not much bigger than most pistols and because of a quickly retractable stock could be worn in a modified pistol
holster on the waist. Because of its small size and its top-folding stock, the vz. 61 was nicknamed the Skorpion (I don't think a translation is really necessary). The Skorpion has a pretty good
case as being the world's first Personal Defense Weapon because of its portability and its multiple potential applications. It was mainly geared toward Czechoslovakian police officers but was
wildly popular as an export to a variety of countries in a number of different chamberings. Instead of its intended law enforcement use, its primary customer base became special forces groups.
Despite these novel designs, CZ's real specialty was its high quality semi-automatic pistols. While the company never stopped producing pistols throughout this period, its major
claim to fame was a high-capacity 9x19mm pistol introduced in 1975 called the vz. 75. Internationally, the same family of guns is called the CZ 75. Given its chambering, the CZ 75 was intended
primarily for the export market. In appearance and operation, it was based partially on two earlier designs by John Browning, the Colt 1911 and the Browning Hi-Power. What was really innovative
about the CZ 75 was that it utilized two trigger bars whereas all previous semi-automatic handguns only used a single trigger bar; in layman's terms, this is a redundant safety feature that makes
pulling the trigger easier and safer. It's a very comfortable gun to hold and shoot and its solid steel frame reduces the recoil from firing it to an almost negligible level. In contrast to
basically all semi-automatic handguns, the slide of the CZ 75 fits inside the frame rather than the other way around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the CZ 75 was not mass produced domestically at the
time of its creation because it failed to meet the Warsaw Pact caliber standardization agreement. Export sales were hurt by the fact that a quirk of Czechoslovakian law -- actually common to all
Eastern Bloc countries -- prevented certain weapons from being copyrighted in foreign countries. This allowed companies in other countries to make their own CZ 75 clones and patent them. Perhaps
the most famous CZ 75 copies were the American Armalite AR-24, the Israeli Magnum Research Jericho (aka the Baby Eagle, alluding to that same company's famous Desert Eagle), and the Italian
Tanfoglio T9. A modernized export version was released in 1985 as the CZ 85.
CZ's next major task was designing and building a new service pistol to replace Czechoslovakia's aging stock of vz. 52 sidearms. The vz. 52 was based on a Soviet weapon, the TT-33, designed by legendary Russian gunsmith Fedor Tokarev (he of the 7.62mm caliber referenced earlier). By 1982, however, the vz. 52 was showing its age and its unusual 30-caliber round had largely been abandoned by the Eastern Bloc in favor of the 9mm Makarov, which was basically a reworking of an older German prototype cartridge of the same dimensions. CZ's answer was the vz. 82, aesthetically similar to the Makarov PM pistol but its internals are virtually identical to those of the CZ 75, down to the double-stack, higher capacity magazine (12 rounds vs. the Makarov PM's 8). In 1983, the commercial version of this gun, the CZ 83, was released in .32 ACP and .380 ACP chamberings. Nearly 30 years later, the CZ 83 remains a popular compact pistol, especially in the American market.
After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War (as well as the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; obviously, CZ is located in the former), Ceska Zbrojovka's potential markets greatly expanded. With the wide distribution of the CZ 75's
derivatives in the West and a more commercially open environment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, CZ was able to capitalize on a bit of built-in name recognition on the civilian and military
markets internationally. Rather than reinventing the wheel, CZ based its catalogue around its most successful international offerings: CZ 75s and Mauser-type bolt action rifles. CZ has offered the
75 in a variety of calibers, colors, and sizes and even re-released the vz. 83 for the very lucrative compact weapon market.
CZ's rifles are available in a wide variety of chamberings, although .223 Remington, .22 Long Rifle, and various .30 calibers are the most common. The vast majority of CZ's
rifles are designed either for hunting or for target practice. CZ does offer a few other rifles, but these are currently reserved exclusively for military and law enforcement personnel only. These
include a proposed replacement for the vz. 58 called the 805 Bren that fires the 5.56x45mm round as well as a new 9x19mm version of the Skorpion.
In 2005, CZ acquired the Dan Wesson Firearms company, the organization created by the great grandson of the original Dan Wesson, one of the founders of Smith & Wesson. CZ
reduced the Wesson product line significantly to feature only high quality (and high priced) 1911 style handguns. Although CZ has never made revolvers and does not currently produce them under the
Dan Wesson brand, the company currently offers warranties and replacement parts for most of the discontinued Wesson guns. In 2007, CZ entered the market cornered by Glock with the CZ P-07 Duty, a
compact polymer-framed gun. The same year, CZ released the 2075 RAMI, a subcompact alloy pistol. Both the P-07 and the RAMI are uncharacteristic entries in the CZ catalogue since they lack the
traditional steel construction. While the RAMI has received middling reviews, the P-07 has done exceptionally well.
"Ceska Zbrojovka" is not a name that rolls off the tongue easily, but its increased prominence in recent years might be changing that. Its flagship gun, the CZ 75, has appeared in
movies, television shows, and video games, perhaps most famously in the Call of Duty series. It's kind of amazing to me that the company has been able to base half of its products around
dozens of variations on one design and to do it so well. The most attractive things about CZ weapons are their high quality and their reasonable prices. A CZ 75 is about $550 or so, competitively
priced when compared to 9mm offerings from Glock, Heckler & Koch, and Springfield Armory. While the high end Dan Wesson 1911s are an obvious exception to this affordability, I'm a big fan of
the company overall. It's got a great history and amazingly manages to live up to its hype, which is something that some other companies have never been able to do.