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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.