The FN1903 looked similar to the Colt Pocket Hammerless so familiar to American collectors, but was physically larger, being chambered for a 9mm cartridge. Also used by Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, both of which bordered Russia, the sleek pistol still looks modern today. The czar's pistols sported a frame slotted for a combination shoulder stock/holster, and featured an enclosed hammer.
Later, in the wake of the First World War, Bolshevik forces in Civil War-torn Russia acquired many “Broomhandle” Mausers from a German arms industry desperate for foreign sales to make up for the loss of income caused by the Versailles treaty. The Broomhandles were chambered for the classic “.30 Mauser” cartridge, a high-velocity bottlenecked number more like a carbine cartridge than a normal pistol round.
These two historical facts may go some way to explain why, when the victorious Communists sought a modern self-loader to replace the M1895 revolvers in their progressive socialist armies, the winning design looked an awful lot like an enlarged FN 1903 with a partially-exposed hammer and chambered for a hot-loaded version of the old .30 Mauser round.
The Tokarev TT-33, as the definitive version was labeled, was a short-recoil operated pistol with no manual safety and a magazine released by a thumb-activated button. Among its innovations was the fact that the lockwork was mounted in a chassis that could be removed from the frame in a single unit.
After WWII, as Eastern Europe fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, the Russians pressured their new satrapies to adopt weaponry in common calibers. Most countries tooled up to produce copies of the Tokarev, but the Czechoslovakians, with a sophisticated arms industry of their own, turned out a unique pistol chambered for the Soviet cartridge.
The CZ-52 was also operated on the short-recoil principle, but instead of using the common Browning tilting-barrel method of locking as used on the Tokarev, it used a roller-locking setup similar to that used on the German MG-34 and MG-42 light machine guns of the previous war. Also unlike the Tokarev, it offered an external manual safety which could also function as a decocker. While the Tok had a 1930s deco look to its shape, the CZ's lines had an angular ray-gun look that wouldn't have been out of place in a '50s sci-fi movie.
Both pistols became widely available on the American civilian market when the Warsaw Pact had its big Chapter 11 sale in the early 1990s, and their low prices made them popular for shooters and collectors on a budget. Surplus ammunition was widely available, and new-production commercial ammo could be had from sources as disparate as Sellier & Bellot and Winchester on one hand and MagSafe on the other.
The examples in the picture are a basic Czech CZ-52 and a Radom-made Polish wz.48. In fit and finish, there's really no comparison: The CZ is a typical rough-hewn phosphate-finished example while the Radom is an elegant, polished blue. In use, though, the CZ points more naturally for me, since Fedor Tokarev managed to mess with the natural pointing qualities of the Browning design. It also has a better trigger pull (although that's damning by faint praise.) Combine this with the fact that the Polish heater didn't seem to like the S&B ammo used in the tests, as evinced by ragged groupings and a vicious Type III malfunction that required a Leatherman tool to clear, and of these two examples, the Czech is definitely the more practical sidearm.
ABOVE: Leatherman Juice was needed to pry the mangled cartridge case from the grip of the Radom Tokarev. Don't leave home without it.
Also the Czech pistol has a positive safety (it's even right-side-up to American thumbs,) while the Tok's safety is a jury-rigged afterthought which only serves to block the trigger, added to satisfy BATFE requirements mandated by the Gun Control Act of 1968.
RIGHT: Actual high-speed competition shooter with the Czech ray gun.
Both pistols can still be found for prices in the ~$200 range, although the Radom-marked Polish Tok is a sure-fire future collectible compared to the relatively dirt-common CZ. Surplus ammunition can still be found, and the fireballing high-velocity cartridge makes for a fun afternoon at the range. Any collector of Cold War-era arms would be advised to snatch up a copy of one or both while they're still available for reasonable prices.