Firearms

The RPK Squad Automatic Weapon — Simply Superb

RPK and AKM Machine guns

On a certain level, the Ruchnoi Pulemet Kalashnikova, or RPK, seems uninspired. The action is standard Kalashnikov, the barrel is fixed, and the magazine feed limits its capacity to 75 rounds. However, it is in its very simplicity and utilitarian execution that the RPK demonstrates its excellence.

By Will Dabbs, MD Photos by Sarah Dabbs

RPK and AKM Machine guns
The RPK carries and runs just like a big AKM. The sling is really a bit too short, but it is mounted on the correct side for tactical use.
Adopted in the early ’60s, the RPK is basically an AKM on steroids. It utilizes the same cartridge, bolt and bolt carrier as the AKM but incorporates a longer, heavier barrel; a more robust receiver; a clubfoot buttstock; and a bipod. The RPK weighs around 12 pounds unloaded and feeds from standard 30-round AK box magazines, extended 40-round boxes or 75-round spring-driven drums. It also eschews a quick-change barrel. However, it is an infantry axiom universally respected that the only thing better than having a gun that’s easy to clear is having a gun that just never stops.

RPK Light Machine Gun
The RPK replaced the belt-fed RPD in Soviet infantry formations. While the RPD is an unusually lightweight and maneuverable light machine gun, the RPK is easier to use and more reliable.

Origins

Mikhail Timofeyovich Kalashnikov purportedly devised the assault rifle that bears his name while recovering from wounds incurred during the Battle of Brausk in World War II. While his story has likely been embellished a bit by communist propaganda editors, it is universally accepted that he indeed designed the gun and that it subsequently shaped the firearms world.

The much maligned ranch-gate safety is loud, clunky and cumbersome, yet it works just fine. All the way down is Semiauto. All the way up is Safe and blocks the bolt track to help keep the action clean. The middle position is Full Auto.

The sights of the RPK function identically to those of the AK and are optimistically adjustable out to 1,000 meters. The RPK incorporates a unique micrometer feature to the rear sight assembly, allowing for precise adjustments of windage. The bipod secures in the stowed position via a spring steel clip that pinches the legs around the cleaning rod. The bipod legs are typically adjustable for command height. Aside from the buttstock and bipod, on the user level the RPK is just a big Kalashnikov. Even a child could use it, and many have.

The RPK remains a bear to carry for long distances, but it is a huge improvement over an M60 or PKM. When the RPK is slung over the right shoulder, the charging handle is clear. Having a charging handle abrading your sensitive anatomy during a long forced march will quickly tarnish even the most refined sense of humor.

Turning Ammunition into Noise

The RPK is my hands-down favorite machine gun. It weighs less than half what a belt-fed GPMG such as the M60 or M240 does, and it employs a manual of arms that is all but stupid-proof. There is no fumbling with floppy ammunition belts or topcovers with the commensurate concerns for mud and fouling. Just rock a magazine in place, jack the bolt, and go.

RPK being fired into pond
When the RPK is fired into this wet target with a safe backdrop, its innate controllability is well demonstrated. These five- to six-round bursts are nice and tight.
When run in semiauto, the long, heavy barrel; bipod; and clubfoot buttstock of the RPK make for a fairly accurate package at reasonable distances. The action on the gun is sloppy, and it will never be a tackdriver, but in practical use it is easy to lob a half-dozen rounds at a target and typically connect as far out as physics might allow. The sights are terribly 1940s, but they won’t break, and they allow enough adjustment to suit the typical semi-literate users of the gun.

The RPK is light enough to be fired from the shoulder. With a little practice, short bursts can shred a man-size target at 100 meters all day long. The RPK chugs along on rock and roll at about 650 rpm.

From the prone off the bipod, the RPK suffers from its magazine-feed system. The bipod swivels from side to side but does not pivot. As such, engaging traversing targets requires the bipod feet to slide about. The 40-round magazine run from a prone shooting position demands that you dig out a depression underneath the gun to accommodate the magazine.

RPK Squad Automatic Weapon with drum magazine
The RPK Squad Automatic Weapon is basically an AKM on steroids. Equipped with a longer, heavier barrel; a more robust receiver; a bipod; and a clubfoot stock, the RPK gives the grunt so equipped greater reach and more sustained fire than would be the case with the AKM rifle.
The barrel on the RPK heats up quickly and there is little to be done about it. The bolt remains closed both loaded and empty, and the lack of a quick-change barrel means an overheated gun must either be left alone for a while or dunked in water to cool it.

Grand Scheme

In conventional infantry units, the fact that the RPK fed the same ammunition from the same magazines as individual riflemen was an immeasurable boon. This simple fact combined with the impeccably reliable Kalashnikov action ensured a steady source of automatic fire in both the assault and defense. Sometimes the best Squad Automatic Weapon might not be belt fed or even brand new. In the Information Age, we find ourselves rediscovering the value of fat, heavy bullets fired from a robust, simple mechanism. Even on the modern battlefield, few can compete with the 50-year-old RPK.

The author ranks the RPK above the M249 and M60! Did he hit the mark? Share your perspectives and your experience with the weapons mentioned in the comment section.

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Comments (34)

    1. Although it may appear to be a COPY of the SVD DRAGUNOV designated marksman rifle, it is not. According to what I have reserved it differs from it in a number of ways. First, it is based on the RPK light machine gun. Second, it can fire either the 7.62x54R or the 7.62×52 NATO rounds. It is not comparable to the SVD DRAGUNOV in any way as the quality control exhibited with the PSL is not as good. Therefore, the accuracy suffers a great deal from rifle to rifle. Some are said to shoot 1 MOA while others 3 MOA at 100 yards. The PSL made for import into the United States is also a cheap knock-off of the Romanian PSL. No parts are interchangeable with the more accurate and better built SVD DRAGUNOV designated marksman rifle made in the Soviet Union/Russian Federation.

    2. The PSL was based on the Russian RPK. In its basic architecture. Just wondering how they compare. Remington USA made Mosin Nagant s for Russia to. But I wouldn’t call the Mosin an American rifle. And I am just interested in the different options for the 7.62x54R round that is of Russian decent.

    3. Although the PSL may resemble the SVD DRAGUNOV designated marksman rifle that is all it is. The PSL is in no way comparable to the SVD. No parts will interchange with the SVD. Although it resembles the SVD it is completely different in all ways. Even the workmanship of the PSL does not even begin to compare to the SVD. The best of the PSL rifle which are made in Romania may shoot 1 MOA on the best of days at 100 yards. The PSL typically shoots 3 MOA at 100 yards. Therefore, it is not a true comparison to the Soviet/Russian SVD designated marksman rifle. I would either consider finding a SVD or Soviet/Russian manufactured Mosin-Nagant 91/93 rifle. They may cost more but they are worth it.

    1. Nice weapons platform. Only one problem. The M-14/M-1A is an expensive weapons platform compared to the AK/RPK weapons platform. The AK/RPK weapons platform is cheap and easily produced. Sure it won’t win at Camp Perry like the M-14/M-1A has done. But, it is very effective at what it was designed to do.

    2. Michael, you make a good point. I just stated my own preference though because it can double up for hunting duties.

    3. This is also true. I like both firearms but being on a limited income prohibits me from buying a M-14/M-1A. Although I really do like the M-14/M-1A I need to find something less expensive for both home protection and hunting. Ammunition and optics costs also have to be considered as well. 7.62x39mm ammunition is cheap and optics for the AK series of firearms is also easy and inexpensive to come by.

    4. Please don’t laugh, but I shot my first white tail at 70 yards with an SAR-1 (semi-auto AK) using the iron sites. I have taken subsequent deer with a PSL. All the deer were taken cleanly and humanly.

    5. As long as the deer were taken cleanly and humanely that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter to a person or animal what firearm or caliber was used. Dead is dead. The 7.62×39 or the 7.62x54R are BOTH effective IF used within their parameters. Neither is very accurate out to say 500 yards. They are COMBAT rounds and therefore are limited per se. For combat conditions they excell at what they were designed to do. Kill the enemy. Sure, you can take medium thin-skinned game like whitetail deer with it, but I wouldn’t want to try Elk at a very long distance beyond 100 yards. For that, I would recommend a 7.62×51 NATO aka .308 Winchester. It produces more muzzle energy and offers better ballistics. A .300 Winchester Magnum would be even better at ranges beyond 500 yards. Same diameter projectile better ballistics beyond 500 yards. However, that’s just the opinion of another fellow hunter.

    6. I wonder why you would recommend the lessor of the more commonly available cartridges, .308 Win or the Venerable 30’06!!

      Head to head, the 06′ is much more plentiful around this nation than the 308 and so is the ammo!! Oh sure, both are available in a big metro area, but when you travel to the Boondocks to hunt or even if you had to bug out, you’ll find more often than not, 30’06 ammo over any other caliber, plus the 06′ has the EDGE over the 308 as far as ballistics goes.

      Additionally, you can shoot .223 sized bullets in the 06′ via commonly found sabots and they make darn nice varmint rounds!! Yes, the sabots will also fit the 308, but again, the 06′ has the edge in speed of the saboted bullet, which in turn, means meat on the table at an extended range over the 308 sized case!!

  1. I can state with the utmost confidence that no matter which end of the barrel (trigger or muzzle) you are on for any of these firearms, they are deadly and effective. The rest is simply a personal choice.

    1. That’s what I have been trying to explain to other people. My thoughts exactly. Other people want to criticize Mikhail Kalashnikov’s designs as being inferior to that of the West. What he designed is a very effective weapons platform. It does its job and does it well even in the hands of the relatively uneducated by Western standards. His designs are so simple yet effective that even a child can operate it. Many African children are using them to commit genocide because if they don’t the warlords will kill them. They are often times given an AK and taught how to use it. Then they are instructed to kill a member of their families to ensure that they stay alive. Kalashnikov designed a COMBAT weapon. Not a precision firearm. What it does is give the simple person a weapon that they can operate without a manual which for most of them are illiterate and unable to read. His designs are simple, rugged, reliable, and effective.

  2. As a peace officer who was tasked by the US Justice Department to train Iraqi police I can say that I had the opportunity to shoot the M60, the M249 and the PRK. The PRK is indeed an incredible weapon. Much like the AK47 it’s use and care is pretty much idiot proof. Coupled with the huge 7mm+ round it’s hard to come up with anything bad to say about it. Vastly superior to what our guys carry? Hard to say. It’s an equal cousin, though.

  3. Great weapon and bullet for close in combat against non-body armored personel, but even tose who made millions of them for sale to uneducated untrained non sophisticated military and guerilla groups have seen the deficiency of the rounds and now are using different rounds and weapons.
    Today we can buy them , weapons and rounds of bygone eras, and play with them.
    As to the AK being a spray and pray weapon indeed it is; but lets not forget that the AR/M-16 at its inception was chosen because of its ability to spay at high rates;As that is what was needed in heavy foilage during close quarter combat in Southeast Asia.

    1. Bygone era????? You might want to rethink that. There are still modern countries that have the AK platform as their primary infantry weapon. I’m just sayin’……….

  4. I think some of these comments, not to mention the author, are trying to compare apples to oranges by comparing the RPK to actual ‘machine guns’ like the M240, M60 or PKM. Nor, IMHO, is it even a squad automatic weapon like the US SAW. Without interchangeable barrels or a belt feed for extended engagements, it is actually more like the old BAR fed from detachable box magazines and firing the same ammo the individual infantry weapons are firing from the same magazines.

    As I said in my earlier comment, our Kurdish side shooters on our convoy escort trucks used AKs and the occasional RPK, but without exception all of our tail gunners running trail for the convoys were equipped with PKMs and M240s and that was the way they wanted it. And trust me, we had plenty of opportunities to put them to the test. The author rating the RPK as superior to an actual machine gun, especially making a comment like ” In the Information Age, we find ourselves rediscovering the value of fat, heavy bullets fired from a robust, simple mechanism” makes me wonder if his “experience” with all of them is limited to reading about them on the Net and occasionally shooting random rounds into a pond.

    And no, I’m not bashing the Kalashnikov family of weapons. I’ve carried and used them in combat situations, and I own one that’s fun to shoot. They are a gun designed to be operated by poorly trained and uneducated people but they are not infallible and our teams had plenty of problems with them in Iraq just like with any other weapon. At one point I was in charge of security for a 400 acre project site in the heart of Mahdi country in southern Iraq, and our perimeter strong points were all manned by Gurkhas equipped with PKMs on tripods. Why? Because they are an actual machine gun with interchangeable barrels, belt feeds that can be linked up to as many rounds as you want, and the heavy construction necessary to put a truly big round down range. The author’s entire determination of why an RPK is superior seems to be based on how easy it is to carry and load.

    Superior to an M240, M60 or PKM? No. Different weapon with a different mission and purpose. So, in short, no, I do not agree with him.

  5. Be that as it may, the Soviet Union/Russian philosophy about warfare and weaponry is vastly different from the West. You have to consider that they design weapons of all types so that the relatively uneducated can operate them. Even their aircraft are not as complex to operate as those in the West. The Central Command and Control guide their pilots where to go and select what weapons the pilot fires or releases. A dictatorship does not allow for people who can think for themselves. That’s why their weapons are simplistic by Western standards. Their weapons do their jobs and do them well within the confines set by Central Command and Control. They are effective and efficient as well as simplistic and robust. They are designed not to be cleaned as often as a precision weapon like the M-16 or M-249 SAW. They will injjest ammunition that would make weapons like the M-16 and M-249 SAW jam up. They even utiliize lacquer coated ammunition which would jam up the M-16 and M-249. So, before you go and criticize Mikhail Kalashnikov’s designs please THINK about the Soviet/Russian mentality. It is vastly different from that of the West.

  6. Wouldn’t the m-249 be a much better firearm to compare it to as a squad type support weapon for infantry rather than a heavier machine gun designed for mounting in a fixed position? Doing that comparison, the RPK does still have some advantages in weight and magazine interchangeability, but looses a little in other areas.
    Just my thought that RPK vs Minimi is a better comparison.

  7. Speaking as someone who has served as a saw gunner in the usmc infantry, and someone who has handled and operated both the rpk and m249, I have to say the m249 is a vastly superior weapon. I’m not bashing the ak as I am the proud owner of several, but as far as a saw goes it comes up far short. I’ve packed m249’s many a mile and I couldn’t even begin to guess how many rounds I’ve put through them but the firepower they put out is simply devastatingly. The cyclic rate, the smaller round belt fed with an open bolt and and two easy to change barrels make it hands down the better weapon. It’s also shorter and easier to handle. I used to have fantasies about walking over the top of a hill and catching a platoon sized element in the open on the other side. I could have wiped them out with an m249. My biggest complaint about the rpk is the magazine situation. 75 rounds in a drum isn’t a lot in an automatic rifle. 40’s and 30’s are even worse. Worst of all is the cumbersome nature of the drums. In the space it takes to stow one 75 rd drum I can store almost two 200 rd belts of 5.56. If in the off chance I run out of 200 rd belts the m249 can still take the stanag mags used by m16’s. The open bolt firing means it stays much cooler and the ability to change barrels in about 2 seconds means I can out much more firepower and sustain it longer. With respect to the writers opinion, he’s just flat wrong.

  8. What Kalashnikov designed was a rifle for the Masses. What he came up with works and works well. Ask anyone who has been killed or wounded by one. While the 7.62×39 mm bullet is no Camp Perry Match winner, it is effective at what it does at COMBAT ranges. It is a COMBAT weapon and that is what it does well. All of this discussion about its limitations foucuses on its long range accuracy. It is NOT designed for a 1,000 yard shot. It is designed for COMBAT ranges and support of the squad at those ranges. If you were on the receiving end of a 7.62x39mm round at a high rate of Fire you would NOT want to be in the path of That round. I know that I wouldn’t. They are designed to penetrate Armor as well. The 7.62x39mm round used by Soviet/Russian clients utiliize a bi-metal projectile for this very purpose. Anyway, before you go and criticize Kalashnikov’s designs go ask those who have been killed or wounded by one. You’ll have a better appreciation for his designs then.

  9. To all of those who may criticize Lieutenant-General Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov’s designs please remember that the SKS and the AK-47/AK-74 are the World’s most popular firearms. The AR-15/M-16 is a far distant second. The reason is simple. His designs are simple and they work simply. Before you criticize the design or try to contradict the facts also please remember that while the West may have a very good educational system, most of the World does not. Therefore, Kalashnikov designed his firearms to be operated by anyone with very little education, experience, or training. In this he succeeded. The firearms are simple to use, clean and operate. They can be used by children even. And in some parts of the World are operated by children. Think of Africa. His designs work because they are not as complex as an AR-15/M-16, or a Heckler and Koch MP-5, or any number of firearm. They have relatively few moving parts and ate cheap to manufacture. They do not use a milled receiver, or a cast aluminum, or a hammer forged barrel, or whatever the West uses but rather a simple stamped receiver. Their barrels are military grade. They won’t win any matches at Camp Perry or wherever. They are rugged and reliable. You can soak them, throw them in the mud, run over them with a tank, brush it off and come up firing. That’s a lot more than you can say for a precision firearm such as the AR-15/M-16 or the MP-5. They must be cleaned after use. Not so with the AK Rifles. They even ingest lacquer coated ammunition. Something that the AR-15/M-16 or the MP-5 would jam up with after just a few rounds. Who would use lacquer coated ammunition in a precision firearm? I know that I wouldn’t. Why spend a lot of money for a firearm and cause it to jam with cheap ammunition? The Kalashnikov designed Rifles just eat it up without problem. So, before you criticize Kalashnikov remember that he built a rifle for the masses.

  10. IF IN a vehicle or a fixed defensive position, give me the M60 any day.
    For walking troops that are well trained, its M240 absolutely. For
    badly trained illiterate troops the RPK is just right !

  11. i got the zastava M70 o-pap last month with the bulged “RPK” trunnion and heavy barrel . it’s definitely a heavy weapon . lm looking at bipods ,optics and 75rd drum . gunbroker has some really nice RPK;s but i need to save up some $ . i’m currently watching a Norinco RPK ,bids up to $930 . you’ve got one badass weapon .

  12. As for me, I believe in the Old Scottish Proverb. “The more you overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop it up.” There is nothing wrong with KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Kalashnikov designed a simple, yet effective shooting platform. It was designed to be operated by troops with education that by Western standards leaves something to be desired. We in the West see and expect other countries to be just like us in their education and therefore thinking. This is not so. The Eastern education standards are different. Therefore, their philosophy is also different. So, before you criticize them just remember that they look at the world just a little bit different than the West does.

  13. As an ex- Army foreign weapons instructor my comments on the RPK are as follows: The RPK IS a better weapon than an AK because of it’s increased accuracy due to the longer barrel. The AK is basically a “spray weapon and has an accuracy to about 250 meters. I’d extend that to 350 for the RPK . Compared to the PKM, it is a piece of S—! It fires the Russian Short or 7.62 x 39 whereas the PKM fires the 7.62 x 54R; Russia’s equivalent of our 30-06. Since both the M60 and, I believe, the M240 shoot the 7.62 x 51, for “killing power” it is not even in the same ballpark! Sure it is lighter to carry, but then the M16 was lighter than the M14. You decide if you’d rather have a .22 or a .30 caliber to save your ass!

    1. Because the RPK and AK are both overgassed, their bullets lose power after they pass the gas port. My RPK actually loses about 100fps with the same ammo fired from an AK.

      The 7.62×39 is not a long range round. Beyond 300m it is useless for accurate shots even from the best rifle.

      The barrel length will not provide better accuracy if all else is equal. Mounting a bipid off the barrel is a very bad idea for accuracy.

      My impression of the longer barrel’s benefit is that it reduces muzzle flash and helps it cool, but I have never taken measurements on this, so it is admittedly speculation on my part.

  14. We had some RPKs on our vehicles when I was doing convoy security in Iraq in 2004 and 05, escorting weapons shipments from the US Military warehouse in Abu Graib to various Iraqi military and police units around Iraq. They were a step above the AK and a step below the PKMs and M240s we used for our tail gunners on our gun-trucks. It was fine as a side gunner weapon, but lacking as a full auto machine gun due to its lack of an interchangeable barrels.

    One has to understand the Soviet mindset, and a good way to do so is to recognize as the author points out, that semi on any AK variant is all the way down while auto is the next click after safe. Soviet troops were not well trained and used rate of fire as a substitute for marksmanship. Consequently, full auto was a choice before semi . . just the opposite of US and European designed weapons.

    Great fun for the collector or gun enthusiast, but you have to see it in the proper historical and military perspective to truly appreciate what its purpose was. When we went out on missions, our Kurdish shooters were equipped with AKs, RPKs, and PKMs but the expats had semi only M4s. The Kurds were told that if there was an enemy they couldn’t neutralize, they should go get one of the expats to shoot him for them with well aimed, single shoots.

    1. Agreed. I have tried several RPK variants over the years and they all suffer from same significant problems as the BAR. Lack of a quick change barrel and barrel mounted bi-pod. When sighted in off hand from a rest using the for-end, POI shift of 6-8 MOA, usually in vertical stringing is what you will see with RPK when pressure is put on the barrel mounted Bi-pod. It get worse and less predictable as the barrel heats up /cools down. The RPK Bi-podblegs and clips hang up on foliage and just about everything inside a vehicle, where the length of the weapon due to lack a folding or collapsible stock is an issue.The RPK type bi-pods, while tall enough for 30 and 40 rnd mags can’t adjust for terrain and force the shooter to maintain too high a silhouette when using 75 rnd drums. 75 round rums do offer an increase in firepower but are bulky and noisy to carry, complex and very slow to reload.I have had cook-offs after only 2 rapid 75 round drums. RPK is a reliable weapon, with inexpensive ammo and mags, but far from ideal.

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