Sidney Reilly Goes Undercover in Russia

Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly in the seventh episode of Reilly: Ace of Spies.

Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly in the seventh episode of Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983).


Sam Neill as Capt. Sidney Reilly, British secret service agent and Canadian Royal Flying Corps airman

Russia, Spring 1918

Series: Reilly: Ace of Spies
Episode: “Gambit” (Episode 7)
Air Date: October 12, 1983
Director: Jim Goddard
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Waller


The mini-series Reilly: Ace of Spies, being based on Sidney Reilly’s own exaggerated account of his life, certainly stretches the truth – if not downright fictionalizes – many parts of Reilly’s story. However, the show does a fine job of serializing Reilly’s most important and life-altering adventure: the attempted overthrow of the Bolshevik government.

While the show portrays Reilly as having been employed with the British secret service for years – a lie that he originated, Reilly was first recruited by MI6 after he joined the Canadian Royal Flying Corps on October 19, 1917, three months after he moved to Toronto from New York City. His abilities were quickly recognized by his superior officers, so MI6 agent Maj. John Scale noted him as a possible fit for secret missions in Russia. In December, having been formally commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the RFC, Reilly departed for London, arriving on New Year’s Day. The months moved quickly and Reilly soon had a face-to-face interview with Mansfield Smith-Cumming, better known as “C”, the head of the British secret service. After impressing each other in the interview, Reilly was given clearance, money, and the code name “ST-1” for his mission into Russia.

And what was his mission? To Reilly, it was overthrowing the Bolshevik government. To his bosses, Reilly was sent into Russia to try and convince Lenin to prolong the war against the Germans, at least long enough for the British to land a force at Arkangel.

In April, Reilly was on his way to Russia and his characteristic disobeyance of orders was already in full swing. Posing as an Irish-born diamond buyer, he disembarked the ship early at Murmansk and began his journey through Russia, collecting funds for his personal plan to overthrow Lenin. Once he had made his old contacts, Reilly brazenly approached the Kremlin as an emissary for the British Prime Minister, demanding to speak to Lenin. The next few months were ripe with espionage, secret meetings, gunfights, and double-dealing mistresses.

What’d He Wear?

Very true to life, Reilly did indeed first approach the Kremlin decked out in his British service uniform. Naturally, when he goes undercover for his covert anti-Lenin operations, he adapts parts of his uniform into his warm and comfortable layers of casual wear. The look is surprisingly fashionable for revolution-era Russia.

Later in the summer, as seen in episode 8, Reilly would adopt the simple disguise of a Chekist – wearing the same long leather topcoat over a plain blue tunic, dark trousers tucked into boots, and his Sam Browne belt.

Reilly was like the Chris Hansen of Soviet Russia. Chekists and pedophiles alike would return home to find this.

Reilly was like the Chris Hansen of Soviet Russia.
Chekists and pedophiles alike would return home to find this.

Reilly Undercover

It may be spring, but it’s also Russia, so Reilly’s layers are very fitting for a cold climate.

For most of his operations in Russia, Reilly wears a dark brown leather topcoat that extends down to his knees. The long coat has a double-breasted front with space for six brown buttons and two smaller buttons under the lapels. Reilly rarely wears the coat closed, especially since one or two buttons are missing.

Reilly must have been really into leather during this period. Just, you know, not in a weird way or anything...

Reilly must have been really into leather during this period.
Just, you know, not in a weird way or anything…

The topcoat also has pointed front yokes and a double-pointed rear yoke. The large lapels have swelled edges. There are two slash side pockets and two lower hip pockets with straight openings. The cuffs close with a 1-button half-strap.

Underneath, Reilly keeps warm with a heavy wool single-breasted sport jacket in light brown with a brown double pinstripe. It is a casual and comfortable-looking countryside look, with four patch pockets and a box-pleated back with a single vent. The chest pockets also are box-pleated, but the hip pockets are plain patch pockets.

2013-05-17 06.17.18 pm

The jacket fastens in the front with two brown horn buttons. We don’t see much of the jacket underneath Reilly’s coat, as he only wears it on its own while negotiating with “freedom fighter” Boris Savinkov in Jaroslavl. Thus, it is likely that I will go to the grave never knowing how many buttons were on the cuffs.

Reilly enhances his warmth with a medium brown crew neck wool sweater. The sweater is a commando-style shooting sweater with dark brown shoulder patches. It extends slightly below his waist.

Reilly at home.

Reilly at home.

Not much is seen of Reilly’s shirt under the sweater, but it is definitely a white button-down with long sleeves and white buttons. The soft turndown collars are very small. It is possible that this is the same shirt worn with his service uniform when he first arrives in Moscow.

Reilly wears his service uniform trousers, a pair of heavy khaki high-rise flat front officers’ britches with frogmouth side pockets and a right rear pocket fastened by a brown button on a large, pointed flap. The trousers have wide (and widely-spaced) belt loops and a fishmouth rear – with a button on each side of the opening – for suspenders. Reilly ignores the belt loops and just wears a set of light brown suspenders with red piping and brass hardware.

These pants rise high enough to make Fred Mertz jealous.

These pants rise high enough to make Fred Mertz jealous.

As part of his guise as a Chekist and when wearing his service uniform, Reilly wears a dark brown Sam Browne belt across his right shoulder, down to his left hip, and across his waist. A crossdraw holster on his left hip carries his Webley revolver (when in British uniform) and Nagant revolver (when undercover). Reilly wears his belt over the long brown sweater.

Since he is in the uniform of an airman, Reilly wears a wristwatch, which was becoming standard practice with wartime aviators. Reilly’s watch is not clearly seen, but it has a dark leather strap, gold squared case, and a white plain face.

Reilly wears a black flat peaked cap with a black leather brim on his head. He will wear this during most of his time in Russia, as well as a pair of dark brown leather gloves.

Not the greatest capture of Sam Neill in action...

Not the greatest capture of Sam Neill in action…

Reilly’s outerwear also includes a mustard yellow heavyweight scarf with frilled edges. Evidently, Reilly was into the whole earthtone thing.

2013-05-17 06.29.03 pm

Reilly the Airman

Reilly had made a name for himself by his confident march up to the Kremlin’s gates in his British uniform. Let’s deconstruct the uniform and see what the big deal was all about.

Despite his actual rank of second lieutenant in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Reilly often referred to himself as “Captain Reilly”. Indeed, he wears the rank of captain in Reilly: Ace of Spies and no mention is made by his superiors or peers that he is being dishonest.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Over his uniform, Reilly wears a knee-length leather overcoat. The coat is very dark brown with large dark brown fur collars to shield Reilly from the cold spring air in St. Petersburg. The coat has no clear markings of the RFC, although it is definitely a military style with button-fastened epaulettes and a 10-button double-breasted front. The buttons are brown.

The jacket is designed with scalloped front yokes and rear yokes pointing down a center seam. It is belted in the rear. The cuffs fasten with a strap over two buttons. There are straight open hip pockets, where Reilly keeps his cigarette case.

Reilly was never one to turn his back on Lubyanka.

Reilly was never one to turn his back on Lubyanka.

Underneath, Reilly wears the drab brown barathea “maternity jacket” tunic worn by all RFC officers, with its fly front, straight flapped hip pockets, single vent, and epaulettes for rank insignia. These tunics typically had a light brown silk inner lining, and Reilly’s would be no exception.

With all that money in front of me, I'd be smiling too.

With all that money in front of me, I’d be smiling too.

Reilly wears three pieces of insignia on his jacket. The collars feature bronze RFC badges that read, simply, “RFC”. On his epaulettes, which are fastened to the tunic with dark brown buttons rather than brass hooks like some tunics, Reilly wears the captain’s rank insignia of three gold stars. His left breast features the aircrew brevet with “RFC” embroidered between the wings under a crown.

"Captain" Reilly, my ass.

“Captain” Reilly, my ass.

The shirt underneath is a white long-sleeve shirt with French cuffs. It is either collarless or it is the same shirt as worn later, with the small collar folded under the tunic’s collar.

Reilly wears the same khaki officer’s service uniform britches as he wears later, always with a pair of light brown suspenders with red piping and brass hardware. Reilly naturally wears his Sam Browne belt while in uniform, paired with a set of dark brown knee-high leather boots and dark brown leather gloves. He also wears his same wristwatch.

Reilly succumbs to the temptation of free room and board in a crowded apartment with three Russian dancers.

Reilly succumbs to the temptation of free room and board in a crowded apartment with three Russian dancers. Although one of them literally has to sleep on a stove so, you know, it’s literally a hot situation.

The final part of Reilly’s uniform is a brown side cap, known as a “field service cap” to the Brits and a “Garrison hat” to the Americans. He wears his RFC insignia on the left front of the cap, which fastens with two brown buttons in the front.


(All military uniform posts are written strictly for educational purposes. The accomplishments of military veterans should be respected and not copied.)

Go Big or Go Home

As the spiritual predecessor of James Bond, Reilly doesn’t let his situation alter his opulent lifestyle at all. He still drinks and smokes with luxury, enjoying Napoleon brandy and Russian vodka and smoking his unfiltered cigarettes from a flat silver case, lighting up with a gold lighter.

While in uniform in St. Petersburg, Reilly also enjoys a warm cup of coffee while raising funds to overthrow Lenin. All in a day’s work.

"That's Napoleon brandy, old boy!" Sasha, Reilly, and Savinkov take shots of brandy, then toss their glasses into the fire.

“That’s Napoleon brandy, old boy!”
Sasha, Reilly, and Savinkov take shots of brandy, then toss their glasses into the fire.

Interestingly and anachronistically, Reilly, Sasha, and Commissar Orlov all partake in shots of Stolichnaya Red Label vodka in Orlov’s office. The show features Stoli quite prominently in its last episodes. Although Stoli originates with the 1901 opening of the Moscow State Wine Warehouse No. 1, Stolichnaya itself was not created until the 1940s, with the trademark patent dated 1938 but the earliest confirmed production date in 1948.

How to Get the Look

If you’re ever looking for a way to incorporate semi-military wear into your winter earth tones, Reilly sort of nails it, don’t you think?

  • reilly7-crop1Dark brown leather knee-length topcoat with a 6-button double-breasted front, large button-closing lapels, 2 slash side pockets, 2 straight open hip pockets, 1-button half-strap cuffs, pointed front yokes, and a double-pointed rear yoke
  • Light brown (w/ brown double-pinstripe) wool single-breasted 2-button sport coat with wide notch lapels, 2 open box-pleated breast patch pockets, 2 open hip patch pockets, single rear vent under a box-pleated back
  • White long-sleeve shirt with a slim soft collar and double/French cuffs
  • Medium brown crew neck commando-style wool shooting sweater with dark brown shoulder patches
  • Khaki high-rise flat front officers’ britches with frogmouth side pockets, button-flapped right rear pocket, wide belt loops, and a button-fastening fishmouth rear
  • Light brown suspenders with red piping and brass hardware
  • Dark brown leather Sam Browne belt with a left hip crossdraw holster
  • Dark brown leather knee-high riding boots
  • Black peaked cap with a black leather brim
  • Gold tank watch with a white plain squared dial on a dark brown leather strap
  • Mustard yellow wool scarf with frilly edges
  • Dark brown leather gloves

The Gun

Reilly’s personal armament in Russia is a Nagant revolver, a very fitting choice as he is trying to blend in and the Nagant 1895 was the onmipresent sidearm of the Russian military and police, both under the Czar’s reign and after the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. The Nagant was also, as seen prominently in the eighth episode (“Endgame”), used by the Cheka, the brutal secret police force that Reilly was constantly evading.

There is an important fact to note, however. As Reilly: Ace of Spies was an English series, filmed in 1983, Soviet weaponry was not very easy for Western armorers to obtain. Thus, Reilly carries an early model Nagant than the Russian M1895 used by most actual Soviets. Instead, Sam Neill’s Reilly packs a Nagant 1887, the Swedish variant chambered in 7.5. mm Nagant. Both variants will be discussed here.

Top: A Swedish Nagant 1887, as carried by Reilly in the series. Bottom: A Russian Nagant 1895, the standard sidearm of the Russian military and police through the first half of the 20th century. (Images from IMFDB).

Top: A Swedish Nagant 1887, as carried by Reilly in the series.
Bottom: A Russian Nagant 1895, the standard sidearm of the Russian military and police through the first half of the 20th century.
(Images from IMFDB).

The Nagant 1895 revolver is a fascinating weapon. Chambered in the proprietary 7.62×38 mm Nagant cartridge – very similar to the more common .32 S&W Long – the Nagant carries seven rounds in its cylinder. Most models were double action, especially after World War I, but single action “private’s models” were still produced. Thus, double action models are referred to as “officer’s models”.

Having been developed in 1895 (go figure!), the Nagant M1895 was the service revolver of choice for both the Russian Imperial Army and the Red Army. It is still in use today with some police forces and military groups. Why would a revolver over one hundred years old with a very exclusive type of ammunition still be in use? According to Wikipedia, one former Imperial Russian officer stated, “if anything went wrong with the M1895, you could fix it with a hammer.”

The Nagant 1887, as seen carried by Reilly, was developed earlier in Sweden. 10 points for whoever can guess in what year. It was chambered in the slightly larger 7.5 mm Nagant cartridge and, other than an octagonal (rather than round) barrel and a flat (rather than notched) front sight, could not really be differentiated from the 1895 model. Except for one large difference…

Reilly's Nagant serves as an intimidation device during his meeting with Colonel Berzhin of the Latvian Guard.

Reilly’s Nagant serves as an intimidation device during his meeting with Colonel Berzhin of the Latvian Guard.

The Nagant 1895 has made a name for itself as being one of the few revolvers that can actually be sound-suppressed. Unlike movies, especially older crime films like Murder, Inc. and Magnum Force, slapping a suppressor (“silencer”) to the end of a revolver barrel actually does nothing to mute the sound. It certainly wouldn’t dim the loud shots of a .38 to a mere pop! The Nagant, on the other hand, was built with a unique gas-seal system. When the gun is cocked – whether by pulling back the hammer or the trigger – the cylinder moves forward to close the gap between the cylinder and the barrel. This propels the bullet’s muzzle velocity to nearly 1,100 ft/s and allows for a sound suppressor to be attached. The Nagant 1887 carried by Reilly was not made with this system.

Honestly, Nagant 1895 revolvers are very easy to come by these days and for a reasonable price. They typically are no more expensive than $150 for a revolver in great condition with a holster and cleaning kit, all Russian military stock. The most expensive part is the ammunition.

On a final note, Reilly carrying the Swedish Nagant may not be so inaccurate after all; Reilly’s code name was ST-1, meaning he reported to Stockholm. Perhaps we were meant to believe that Reilly picked up his Nagant while reporting for duty. This is almost certainly not at all what the show was going for, but it is a reasonable excuse at least?

In the next episode, “Endgame”, Reilly is disguised as a Chekist and on the run from the Soviets. He gets into a gunfight and draws and fires… a Webley revolver? It is very likely that the British armorers could not get their hands on 7.5 mm Nagant ammunition. For close ups, such as Reilly’s intimidation of Berzhin, he would carry the Russian-looking Nagant. For firing scenes, he would use the Webley .455. The producers likely thought, “I’m sure there won’t be some nerd in 30 years who pauses every frame of this to analyze it.” Sorry, producers. If it helps, the Webley can be explained by the fact that Reilly showed up in his British service uniform and naturally would have had a British revolver? Okay, let’s go with that.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the series.

This attire is only seen in the seventh episode, “Gambit”, but he wears a similar variant in the next episode, “Endgame” while disguised as a Chekist. The only difference there? He sheds the sport jacket and sweater and just sports a dirty blue Cheka-style tunic with his Sam Browne belt, black cap, brown leather topcoat, and boots.

The Quote

Reilly plans one heck of an uprising while in Commissar Orlov’s office with his friend and lawyer, Sasha Gramaticoff.

Reilly: Savinkov plans a rising in the north, and I’m going to try and see what I can do in Moscow.
Orlov: You mean a coup of some sort?
Reilly: (slight nod) With the aid of the Latvian guard.
Gramaticoff: We take over the Kremlin, arrest Lenin, and form an interim government. You will have the Justice Department, I shall have the treasury, Savinkov- if he survives- will be minister for war?
Orlov: And the number one?
Gramaticoff: …will be Sidney here.
Orlov: And where do the Romanovs fit into your plans?
Reilly: They don’t.
Orlov: (looks to both) Land reform?
Reilly: There’ll be no going back to the old ways. The people will keep their land.


Am I crazy or does the guy playing Latvian Guard commander Lt. Col. Eduard Berzhin look just like Clive Owen but with a graying mustache? Tell me I’m not crazy.

Alan Downer in 1983 = Clive Owen in 2023 (probably).

Alan Downer in 1983 = Clive Owen in 2023 (probably).

One comment

  1. Pingback: Sidney Reilly’s Sweater Vest in 1918 London | BAMF Style

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