The Russian RPK Light Machinegun: Kalashnikov’s Squad Automatic Weapon

Famous from battlefields around the world, the Russian designed RPK (Ruchnoy Pulemyot Kalashnikova), is literally named “Kalashnikov’s hand-held machine gun”. (Russian: РПК Ручной пулемёт Калашникова)

I encountered RPKs in the field all over the world with allies and foes alike. It remains popular with insurgents and irregulars. The AK and RPK has a huge fan club in the US. American made receivers and imported parts kits with quality 922R parts have made 7.62x39mm RPK clones very popular. They still pop up on the used market even during the plague.

The RPK is a gas operated, magazine fed, air cooled, shoulder or hip fired selective fire rifle. It shares a long-stroke gas piston and a rotating bolt with the AK. Both AK and RPK use the same ammunition and magazines but the RPK typically uses 40 round magazines or 75 round drums.

Developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in the early 1960s, the RPK was intended to compliment the AK47s of a rifle squad with high-volume fire support. I first saw the RPK in foreign weapons training at the Infantry School.

I have previously told the story of the AK. The AK47 weighs 6.5 pounds and is 35 inches long. The RPK is 10.6 pounds, and 40.9 inches long RPK. When I got to shoot the RPK, I realized this was NOT just another AK. Heavy is good when you shoot a machinegun. The AK is difficult to control on full auto. While it looks like an AK, there are key differences in the RPK.

The RPK has a heavier trunnion and barrel with thicker receiver than the AK47 (1.55mm vs 1mm). This extra thickness not only adds weight, but it reduces fatigue and flex for extended firing. No one ever said that the AK was flimsy, but Kalashnikov doubled down on strength.

A special clubfoot stock (derived from the earlier RPD that it replaced) provides a support hand grip when prone. The heavier and longer barrel with a bipod is perfect for sustained automatic fire in the prone. The RPK lets you hang on for more hits for your rock and roll dollar (or Russian Ruble as the case may be).

The RPK was popular with insurgents. Here we see a member of the Wolverines (Jennifer Grey) engaging Russian paratroops with a Valmet M78 RPK in the classic 1984 movie “Red Dawn.” Every time I shoot the RPK I have the urge to shout “Wolverines!” and (spoiler alert) seek revenge for Jennifer.

After carrying all that heavy ammo around the battlefield, you want to do more than just make noise when you shoot it. I learned in the Infantry School that the best way to suppress the enemy is a couple of quick hits in the torso.

Meet Daria my Romanian RPK. Built stock Romanian except for the GSL flash hider and a scope mount. She like the outdoors and cold weather.

RPK Specifications:

Caliber 7.62×39 mm
Weight 10.5 lbs empty
Length 41 in
Length of barrel 23 in
Feeding box magazine 40 rounds, or drum 75 rounds
Rate of fire 600 rounds per minute

The RPK has been largely replaced in Russia, but many other countries still field the RPK including Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mongolia, North Korea, Somalia, Vietnam, and Yemen. RPK variants were produced in Russia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, North Korea, and Iraq.

Romanian soldier with the Romanian made Model-1964 RPK.

Let’s look at just a little history. First there were muskets, then rifles. In 1884, the Maxim machinegun changed everything. The recoil-operated machine gun invented by American-British inventor Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim was the first automatic firearm in mass production. It provided awesome firepower, even by today’s standards, but it weighed 60 pounds with tripod and the required tank of water. It needs a four man crew to keep it running.

It was used into the 1960s because of a trick no modern machinegun can pull off. In a water-cooled system, the cyclic rate equals the sustained rate. This means that as long as you can keep the water jacket full and the full belts of ammo coming, the gun will run at full speed indefinitely. There is an amazing story of a British WW1 machine gun section going through almost one million rounds of ammunition in half a day.

The Maxim machineguns used by both sides in WW1 were water cooled and tripod mounted. They were heavy, difficult to move and set up.

Heavy machine guns were great for defense, but of little use in the attack. Advancing infantry quickly left their fire support behind. The French conceived a light machinegun and declared that “the machine gun must learn to walk”. They researched the possibility of a light gun that could be carried by troops.

The WW1 French Chauchat (pronounced “show shaw”) was the first widely used squad automatic weapon. Its design features set the stage for future guns with a bipod, pistol grip, in-line stock, detachable magazine, and a select-fire capability. The man portable 20-pound package let it advance with the infantry. Its weak point was magazines. Made of thin stamped sheet metal and open on one side, they allowed dirt to enter making the Chauchat famously unreliable.

A light machine gun (LMG) is a light-weight gun designed to be operated by a single infantryman. It can be fired on the move to provide suppressive fire intended to pin down the enemy or shot from a bipod as a base of fire for the squad to maneuver. 

In 1928, the Russians fielded the DP-27 Degtyaryov machine gun firing the 7.62×54mmR cartridge. This was their main LMG in WW2. It was fed by 47 round pan and weighed 27 pounds unloaded. The pan was very bulky and made the gun top heavy. Imagine carrying an extra pan for reload. I saw these in Afghanistan in the 2000s.

Ammunition commonality with infantry rifles is very desirable. Some LMGs, like the Russian RPK, the US Marines M-27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, and the American Squad Automatic Weapon are designed to share the same magazine. (I know some of you are thinking that the SAW is belt fed. It is, but it has the ability to use M-4 magazines as well. Good job FN). It is easier to get the squad to carry extra ammo if it fits their guns too.

The RPK generally uses 40 round box magazines like this one or 75 round drum magazines, although it can also use the 30 round box magazines from the AK-47.

LMG’s are adapted to sustained full auto fire with larger magazines, heavier barrels to resist overheating, a more robust receiver to support sustained fire, and a bipod.

Afghani soldier with RPK and a AK 30 round magazine.

In World War II, light machine guns were usually issued one per squad. The Lewis gun, BREN gun, M-1918 BAR, DPM, and Type 99 Nambu are all examples of the LMG. Modern infantry squads are organized and equipped based on tactics built around the use of the LMG to provide suppressive fire.

Adopted in 1948, the RPD used the 7.62×39mm M43 cartridge. Weighing in at 16.3 pounds, it was fed by 50-round belt segments which linked together, issued two per gun. The RPD was typically fed using 100 rounds of linked ammunition stored in a metal drum that is attached to the bottom of the receiver, The belt had to be recovered and reloaded after each firing. The links were prone to damage and the cartridge was underpowered for a belt fed system.

In the 1950s Soviet army started developing replacements for their SKS carbines, AK47 rifles, and RPD LMGs. The success of the AK-47 led to the Soviet military asking for a similar design to replace the Degtyarev RPD.

North Vietnamese soldiers show off their 7.62×39 guns with (left to right) SKS, RPD and AK.

Several designers submitted prototypes. In 1961, the Soviet army selected the Kalashnikov system, comprising of a modified AK47 rifle and RPK squad automatic weapon but they did not enter service until 1964. Each infantry squad was issued one RPK with the 75-round drum magazine. Airborne units were issued the RPKS which featured a folding stock.

Iraqi Soldiers aim RPK light machine guns during training with US Marines.

Soviet doctrine is still followed fairly consistently in post-Soviet armies. The US Army had an elaborate manual titled “Armed Forces of the Soviet Union” which was the capstone of all opposing force doctrine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the US Army looked around, saw little had changed in equipment or doctrine and replaced the cover. The manual suddenly became “Armed Forces of the former Soviet Union”

Russian tactics were developed in WW2 and evolved as new technology arose. The burp guns matured into AK-47s and infantry fighting vehicles carried troops around the battlefield. The RPK came out in the 1960s and the Russian order of battle changed to incorporate it.

The basic maneuver unit is the squad. Infantry is mounted in an armored personnel carrier (APC). Each Rifle Squad consists of 6 dismounts (soldiers who get out of the vehicle and fight in close terrain on cities) and a 2 man vehicle crew. The dismounts include the Squad Leader, Senior Rifleman, Machine Gunner, Grenadier, Assistant Grenadier, and Rifleman.

The dismounts are split into a Fire Group and Maneuver Group. The Fire Group is led by the Squad Commander and consists of the Machine Gunner (armed with an RPK), Grenadier (armed with an RPG-7 and 2 rockets), and Assistant Grenadier (armed with an AKM and 3 additional rockets.

Romanian Motorized Infantry squad armed with their BTR-70 8×8 wheeled amphibious APC. In a line formation, the Maneuver Group will form on one side of the BMP while the Fire Group will form on the other.

The Squad Leader will be positioned so as to best control the Fire Group. The Maneuver Group consists of the Senior Rifleman and Rifleman, who are both armed AKM rifles. In some cases, the rifleman would have an SVD rifle. In the attack, the Fire Group and vehicle weapons provide cover for the Maneuver Group as it moves under the direction of the Senior Rifleman.

Weapons of the Soviet Motorized Rifle Squad 1960s and 1970’s. Courtesy of www.battleorder.org
The typical RPK gunner carries quite a bit of firepower since standard-issue equipment with the weapon is eight magazines. Assuming each magazine is fully loaded with 40 rounds, an RPK gunner has 320 rounds available to him.

The most common magazines for the RPK are 40 round curved box magazines made from stamped steel. 75 round steel drum magazines were also produced but they were expensive, heavy, and awkward to carry. Drums are bulky and don’t fit into nice flat pouches. The weight of a 75 round drum is not conducive to movement.

Afghani soldier with RPK sporting a 75 round drum.

If you want to Cosplay Russian Army RPK gunner, you can get a SMERSH RPK vest on Etsy for $149.95

My RPK was built on a Childer’s receiver with an Apex Romanian surplus parts kit. I used a Green Mountain chrome lined barrel for accuracy and long service life threaded in 14 x 1 left-handed thread. I replaced the springs with a Rifle Dynamics spring kit. No way to tell how worn the old recoil spring was. As an SOT, I was able to build a select fire Post-86 Dealer’s Sample.

Childers Guns 80% Romanian RPK Receiver

The Childers Guns Romanian RPK Receiver will work for Romanian, Russian, and most other RPK parts kits. It will not work with Yugo kits unless it is modified.

Each receiver is custom made and custom Serial Numbers are available. I used the serial number of my parts kit so that everything matched. The receiver is heat-treated in a salt bath to 40 HRC and the center support is installed.

Holes are machined for trigger guard rivets and the fire control group using CNC to ensure accuracy. The lower rails are spot welded to the receiver.

The parts were removed from Romanian service rifles and show signs of use. Some people cultivate a distressed or battle-worn look. The Romanian Army has taken care of you, they did the work and these parts are broken in.

Romanian arms manufacturer Fabrica de Arme Cugir made an RPK variant known as the MD-64 using the original Soviet specifications. The Apex kit is complete LESS the stamped receiver. The kit includes the original fire control parts which will need to be replaced in a semi build. You may also need to add 922 R Compliance parts. If you don’t know about 922R, it is a law that requires that an imported rifle shall not have more than 10 imported parts from a list of 20.

The original MD 64 RPK’S were built by Fabrica de Arme Cugir  as the Puşcă Mitralieră Model 1964 and intended to be a light squad machine gun.

Chambered in 7.62×39, this kit includes a fixed wood club foot stock, wood upper and lower handguards, and polymer pistol grip. The original bipod is included with mounting hardware.

My kit came with a matching number bolt, carrier, and front trunnion.
It included ad original 23″ chrome-lined barrel but I decided to upgrade to Green Mountain. An unexpected benefit of the ATFE’s ban on the import of shot out rusty parts kit barrels is a stunning improvement in the cost and quality of AK barrels available.

This kit includes the original fire control parts which will need to be replaced in a semi build as well as 922 R Compliance parts. The 922R is a law that states that an imported rifle or shotgun shall not have more than 10 imported parts from a list of 20.

While Soviet designs are simple and rugged, their manufacture is a sophisticated process requiring some precision to build a safe gun. These parts must be inspected and tested by a qualified and competent gunsmith or armorer before use in a firearm.

The guys at Apex put it like this:
“Not all firearm parts are interchangeable; use of surplus parts without proper knowledge could cause a firearm to malfunction and cause property damage, injury or death.

If you don’t have the skills or equipment to build your own gun. Atlantic Arms was fortunate enough to procure a shipment of these kits from the Romanian Military Arsenal. They build a civilian Legal semi auto configuration that combines the military kits with enough US parts to make the kits 922R legal. They are built with Green Mountain Chrome lined barrels and are threaded in 14 x 1 left-handed so they accept all AK muzzle devices. 

There are many like it, this one is mine. She has a GSL suppressor and a KCI USA 75 round drum. Runs on sub-sonic 7.62×39.

Once I got my RPK put together, I wanted to see how it grouped and get it zeroed. I am not a Special Forces weapons sergeant (18B), but I was trained by Special Forces weapons sergeants. I have zeroed AKs before and have a sight tool. In my experience working with foreign troops, most of the guns are not zeroed. The importance of getting everyone a good zero cannot be overstated. It provides a decisive advantage in effective firepower.

There are a lot of techniques for zeroing. I will not go into theory, but zero is a condition, not a process. There are many ways to get there, you don’t need a special target or specific distance.

Zero is the distance where the sights are looking at the point of impact. I did some research and found an RPK technique that I liked. The RPK has a longer sight radius than the AK but the sight adjustments have been modified accordingly. With the sights set at 200 meters, the bullet should hit at the same place at 25 yards and 218 yards (200 meters).

The ballistic cam on the RPK rear sight provides elevation sight adjustments allow you to select the zero you need. No reason to argue over the best zero. The chart shows the path of the bullet with sights set at 100 meters and 200 meters. Chose your adventure.

I started at 25 yards. This is a nice distance to get on paper and you can see your holes without a lot of walking. The RPK has adjustable sights with settings from 100 to 1000 meters. This simple ballistic cam is great for area fire. I set the RPKs sights at 200 Meters to match the ballistic curve I wanted, the blue line on the chart. I was going for point of aim point of impact at 25 yards. Don’t let meters and yards confuse you. I prefer to think in yards and my range is laid out in yards, so the chart is in yards and the sights are in meters.

This is a half scale NRA target with a three inch dot as an aiming point.

I shot a three-round group and calculated that I needed one full revolution down and one rotation left. This was an educated guess.

The RPK sights have a battle sight and adjustments from 100 to 1000 meters. The elevation is zeroed by rotating the front sight. The cylinder holding the rear sight is the windage adjustment. It adjusts by locking at half turns when you pull out the knurled knob. This is not my sight, it is identical but I couldn’t get a clear picture of the markings on my RPK. I need to paint fill them. Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Reporter.

The second group came out very close to the center of the circle, so, I set the sights to 100 and confirmed that I was zeroed with the ballistic cam.

This is the five-round group from the bipod at 100 meters. The flier was me. I am sure the group would have been tighter with optics. The iron sights are small and tough to see.

The group was acceptable. The Red Army Standard ammunition is a good match for surplus loads and this is a fair representation of accuracy. I was lucky that my first shots were on and my calculations worked out. Next step 200 meters.

Ten rounds at 200 meters (218 yards) prone off of the bipod.

At 200 meters, the front sight is the full width of the silhouette. You can get a good sight picture but there is little space in the rear sight so it is tough to get a quick sight picture. I got my hits and the ballistic cam worked perfectly. I believe with this ammunition that it would be ballpark accurate out to 1000 meters (with increasingly large beaten zones). For me, past 200 meters without optics, the RPK is an area weapon.

Russian engineers did the math on the ballistic curve so you don’t have to. On a gun like the AK or RPK with a ballistic cam, you can ignore the markings and just zero on some arbitrary setting. If you take the time to confirm at one of the markings (ie 100 meters or 200 meters), you will have a useable capability at extended ranges. If you don’t confirm your sights, everything but your arbitrary zero is guesswork.

On full auto, it could easily be dialed up to the appropriate distance and suppress a squad. You might even hit some of them at 1000 meters if you could see that far. I have heard stories of the RPK used as a designated marksman rifle. With optics, it should reach out but the original RPK did not have a scope mount.

The RPK shoots about 600 rounds a minute. This is very controllable and easy to fire in three to six-round bursts. Longer bursts tend to wander off the target. It is called RPK (Ruchnoy Pulemyot Kalashnikova, which is literally named “Kalashnikov’s hand-held machine gun” because soldiers fire it in the assault.

The sight setting below 100 meters Rear Sight is called the “Battle Setting” and marked with the Cyrillic letters “P”, “N”, or “S”. The battle setting is an 18 meter zero (this produces a 240 to 250 meter zero depending on ammunition and atmospheric conditions). The battle setting provides an arc 7 inches above or below your point-of-aim out to 300 meters.

The RPK is a compromise design. It is light and does not have an interchangeable barrel, so it cannot sustain full auto indefinitely. There is a reason the weapons seargents yell at you when you shoot more than a six-round burst. Mag dumps are fun, but if you run multiple drums on full auto, heat builds up fast. Watch Gun Busters shoot $1000 of ammo and destroy a nice RPK.

The RPK is now obsolete. The AK was redesigned in the 1970s to fire the smaller 5.45x39mm cartridge as the AK-74 and the RPK-74 was adapted to accept this new round. The new guns were right on time for Russian wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya in the 1980s.

The RPK was replaced by the RPK-74 chambered in 5.45×39. The plastic furniture, folding buttstock, and 45-round polymer magazines make it distinctive.
This RPK-74M model is the standard squad automatic rifle is Russian/Ukrainian service. It folds to a compact 33 3/4 inches long but still weighs 10 1/2 pounds without a magazine. 

While you may not find the RPK in the Russian Army, its semi-auto cousins are still available on GunsAmerica and in local gun stores across the country. If you want a shooting piece of history, Kalashnikov’s Squad Automatic Weapon may be exactly what you are looking for.

LA POLICE GEAR’s 42″ Rifle Case is the perfect size for the RPK. Outer pockets hold three rifle magazines and the big side pockets will hold a 75 round drum. If the mags are loaded, it has shoulder straps to carry it like a backpack.

***Buy and Sell on GunsAmerica! All Local Sales are FREE!***

About the author: Mark Miller is a former Customs Agent and a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and a number of other live fire locations. A student of firearms and shooting, he is an FFL and a SOT. The guiding philosophy of his life is that terrain and situation dictate tactics and the enemy always gets a vote on any plan.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Ej harbet March 9, 2021, 3:13 pm

    My idea of a ideal combat rifle begins with a rpk in 7.62. The main mod is shortening the barrel to 14inches. Think heavier built akm capable of more automatic fire before needing to cool. They make a 60rd coffin mag that’s the length of a 30rd. Once proven reliable id use these.otherwise it’s 40s

  • Big Al 45 March 3, 2021, 4:01 pm

    A typical Russian propaganda film (except the music) wherein they demonstrate the superior tech of Russian arms, especially their recoilless tank guns.
    Great article altogether.

  • James Rizzolo March 1, 2021, 12:02 pm

    I received this email at 6am today. It’s noon and these kits are out of stock on Apex Gun Parts. I would have liked to have one.

  • Ronnie Lee Booker March 1, 2021, 5:58 am

    Interesting and informative, particularly liked the Russian
    Rock and Roll vid and the author’s advice on situational t
    actics
    l

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