The Start Snaiper

Alfred's Camera Page

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I don't think Fotosnaipers need an introduction.

The thing about Fotosnaipers

What's the deal with Fotosnaipers? This is what I've never understood: why did KMZ successfully manufacture lots of FS-2 fotosnaiper kits during the war, and then do nothing with the concept in peacetime? The man in the street had to wait another twenty years, till 1968, before he could own his own FS-3 snaiper. Why the twenty year gap?

There are, to be sure, some reasonable-sounding explanations.

One is that the FS-2 was a specialized wartime product that KMZ thought wouldn't be useful to civilian photographers. Thus, no trouble was made. After all, in a communist state it's not market mechanisms that decide.

Another explanation is that the FS-2 was a bit of a complicated system for its day. Basically it was a customized FED body on a big reflex cage with a huge wooden stock. The reflex cage was necessary because the only suitable camera body in the Soviet Union at the time was the FED, which was a Leica copy. However, you'd think that when KMZ started their own line of Zenit SLRs in the early 1950's, they'd see the potential of a fotosnaiper. SLRs have the mirror cage built in, so you don't need a customized body or an external reflex cage. All you need is the lens, a stock, and a standard camera body, making such a set commercially feasible. In fact, KMZ did see this potential and created the postwar FS line, starting with the FS-3 in 1968 – but why so late?

Some inertia is not unnatural to the Soviet optical industry. The Horizont panoramic camera was discontinued in 1973 and resurrected almost twenty years later in the Horizon-202, while the original Horizont was a popular camera. Normally, a manufacturer wouldn't take such a product out of production, but if you're stuck in a plan economy, those decisions aren't always yours to make. Perhaps KMZ just didn't have the capacity to create fotosnaipers till they had the capacity to mass-produce the Zenit-E? I don't know, but at least it's strange that their most ambitious attempt to make a professional camera, the Start in 1958, wasn't accompanied by a resurrection of the fotosnaiper idea. Or maybe it was, but we just don't know about it yet?

The Start Snaiper

As far as the literature is concerned, there was no Start snaiper, and the successor to the wartime FS-2 was just the FS-3. So imagine my surprise when one day, I receive an e-mail from the US with news about a Start snaiper. Surely it couldn't be!

But it could. The pictures showed a Start snaiper, plain and clear. That is to say, a Start hooked up to a gun mount and a giant tele lens. At that point I couldn't say whether KMZ manufactured it or not, although it seemed to me that it resembled the later Fotosnaipers in certain ways.

One oddity was the serial number: 530382. When taken according to common Soviet numbering practice, it would imply that the lens was manufactured in 1953, which is not consistent with the Start's production life (1958 to 1964). I actually started wondering about that Snaiper for the original Zenit again.

I mailed the serial number to KMZ along with the question if the Start snaiper was known to them. The KMZ search turned out negative, so at that point I couldn't make more of it than "likely made by KMZ, given the similarity with later Fotosnaiper designs, but could be an independent modification for all I know".

New pictures cast a light

Then I got some new pictures of the set, this time showing it in detail from every angle. Looking at them, certain pieces of the puzzle fell together. One shot was particularly revealing: the one of the lens facade.

On it was not the Tair name and the KMZ logo as I had expected, but the KOMZ (Kazan) logo and the abbreviation "I-51", which stands for Industar-51. So the lens was in fact an Industar-51 210mm f/4.5!

I immediately pounced at my Princelle, and to my surprise the exact same lens, the Industar-51 210mm f/4.5, was known only as a large-format lens for the FK 13×19 cameras. (The FK 13×18 was made by GOMZ, so KMZ doesn't enter the equation anywhere.) On examining the pictures of the FK 13×19 included in the book, I noticed the similarity between the Industar-51 on the FK cameras, and the silvery head of the same name on the Start snaiper.

Obviously they were the same.

So now the story was easy to reconstruct. Some independent repaiman (or whoever, it's not really the point) took an off-the-shelf Industar-51 from 1953 and soldered it on one end of a brass tube. On the other end, he milled a simple Start mount. Then he affixed the tube onto a homemade gun stock with two metal strips, and presto: done was the Snaiper.

Note that the Industar-51 has a central shutter just like all large-format lenses, and that the Start snaiper has a double cable release to trip both shutters (the Start's and the lens's) at the same time. Probably one could put the Start to "B" and use the lens's shutter as the main shutter, or one could put the lens's shutter to B and use the Start's.

I don't dare to say who created the Start snaiper (it could have been anybody), but one thing's for sure: my intuition was right about the gap between the FS-2 and FS-3. As far as Soviet photographers were concerned, it never existed...

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