February 18, 2023
By Timothy Yan
The Chinese 5.8x42mm intermediate cartridge was introduced exactly 30 years ago in 1987. I first wrote about this mysterious Chinese cartridge in 2006. Back then there was very little information on the caliber, even after 19 years in Chinese military service. The 5.8x42mm was initially developed as an intermediate infantry rifle cartridge to replace the Soviet designed 7.62x39mm M43 cartridge then in PLA service. Over time it has evolved into a universal round for replacing not only the 7.62x39mm but also the full-power 7.62x54mmR in use with rifles, carbines, Designated Marksman Rifles (DMR) and general-purpose machine guns (GPMG).
The Chinese 5.8x42mm is the youngest of the trio of small-caliber high-velocity (SCHV) military cartridges in service today. The American/NATO 5.56x45mm is the oldest having been adopted in 1963, while the 5.45x39mm was adopted by the Soviets in 1974. The development of the Chinese 5.8x42mm started in the early 1970s but it wasn’t completed until 1988. It went through two generations and a revision in between.
The First Generation: The DBP-87 and DVP-88
The DBP-87 version of the Chinese 5.8x42mm cartridge came first. DBP is the abbreviation for “Dan, Bu-Qiang, Pu-tong” or “Cartridge, Infantry Rifle, Standard”. The “87” designation came from a combination release with the QBZ-87 rifle. This was a limited service Type 81 rifle variant chambered in the new 5.8x42mm caliber. Eventually, it was paired with the modern QBZ-95 family of bullpup infantry rifles when it went into service in 1997. The muzzle velocity is 3,050 fps when fired from the 18.2-inch rifle barrel and 3,181 fps from a 21.9-inch light machine-gun barrel. It drops to 2,850 fps from the shorter 16.1-inch barrel of the conventional layout QBZ-03 rifle, and to just 2,581 fps out of the 12.8-inch carbine barrel. The accuracy is 2.5 MOA on average with the QBZ-95 bullpup and QBZ-03 supplemental rifle.
The DBP-87 uses a brown color lacquered steel case and a composite core 64 grain copper-washed steel jacketed FMJ-BT projectile. The chamber pressure is a rather low 41,000 psi, which is similar to that of the 7.62x39mm. Unlike the mild steel core found on the Russian 5.45x39mm, or the semi-AP steel core of the U.S. 5.56x45mm, the DBP-87’s penetrator core is stamped from high carbon steel rod and heat-treated to increase the hardness. It was designed to penetrate the 1980s-era body armor issued by the Soviet (various types with titanium scales) and American (PASGT with layered Kevlar fiber) armed forces out to 400 meters.
The DVP-88 long-range heavy ball version of the 5.8x42mm was introduced a year later. It was designed to replace the old Russian 7.62x54mmR round in GPMG and DMR use. The “88” in its designation came from the two weapons designed to fire it: the QJY-88 belt-felt GPMG and the QBU-88 DMR. The initial sample of the DVP-88 had a 77-grain projectile and a slightly longer 61mm OAL compared to the DBP-87. It was quickly replaced by two production versions loaded with a slightly lighter 74-grain bullet. Overall length was also reduced to 58mm, the same as the old DBP-87. The two production versions have identical performance but were produced by two different ammunition plants. The DVP-88 has a copper alloy bullet jacket and the DVP-88A uses a copper-washed steel bullet jacket. Both versions use the same lacquered steel cartridge case as the DBP-87.
The DVP-88 with its heavier projectile has a maximum effective range of 1,000 meters for suppressing fire and 800 meters for point targets. The chamber pressure is increased to 46,000 psi. The main difference from the DBP-87 is in the bullet construction. The DVP-88 has a longer and more aerodynamic projectile. Its internal AP core is also longer, with a sharper tip. Plus the AP core has been relocated to the front of the projectile to improve performance. There is a small air pocket between the AP core and jacket. This load is capable of penetrating 2mm of Russian helmet steel at 800 meters. The DVP-88’s muzzle velocity is 2,985 fps from the QJY-88 GPMG’s 24.4-inch barrel, and 2,920 fps from the QBU-88 DMR’s 20.4-inch barrel.
While similar, the “light” and “heavy” 5.8x42mm loads are not completely interchangeable. All of the 5.8mm weapons are able to safely fire both light and heavy bullet loads. However, firing DVP-88 heavy ball in the standard rifle will accelerate wear. The DVP-88’s 46,000 PSI chamber pressure is close to the 48,000 psi proofing pressure of the QBZ rifles. On the opposite side of the scale, when DBP-87 rifle ball is fired in the GPMG or DMR it may have cycling problems, and the exterior ballistics are inferior.
For a long time it just seemed odd for the Chinese military to go through all the effort to develop two different ball loads, in the same caliber, that have limited compatibility. Only recently has information surfaced on the reason why the 5.8x42mm heavy ball was developed. The DVP-88 heavy ball was in fact a shoehorned development to take the place of a cancelled Chinese 6.8mm GPMG round dating from the late 1970s.
A number of 5.8x42mm variants of the two ball weights were introduced after 2001. Increased efforts to replace all of the 7.62x39mm Type 81 rifles with 5.8mm QBZ-95 bullpups in Chinese military service led to a need for additional ammunition. So a second ammunition plant was brought on to make the lighter infantry rifle version of the 5.8x42mm ammunition.
DBP-95 and DBP-95A
The work for an improved version of the DBP-87 started in 1997 and it was completed in 1999. The DBP-95 was developed to address the shortcomings of the DBP-87 and end-user complaints. Improvements consisted of a non-corrosive primer and a cleaner burning propellant with flash suppressant. Despite the improvements, the exterior ballistics of the DBP-95 remained identical to the DBP-87. Like the DVP-88 heavy ball versions, the DBP-95 is also being produced by two different ammunition factories. The DBP-95 loading has a green lacquered steel case with a large primer, while the DBP-95A has a copper-washed steel case with a small primer. The two DBP-95 variants are completely interchangeable in use and both replaced the original DBP-87 in production. The “95” in the name corresponds to the QBZ-95 bullpup rifle family. Later DVP-88 heavy ball production also switched to use the same green lacquered steel case as the DBP-95.
DBX-95 and DVX-88/DVX-88A Tracers
Development of tracer versions of both bullet weights started in 1997 and lasted until 2001. The 5.8x42mm tracers have a long flat-base projectile and lack the AP core of the ball round. The front half of the tracer projectile is filled with lead while the tracer compound fills rear. 5.8x42mm tracers are identified by a green color coding on the bullet tip.
The DBK-01 has a white plastic frangible bullet that breaks up when it hits the muzzle mounted blank firing adapter (BFA). The plastic DBK-01 blank feeds more reliably and aids proper functioning overall compared to the original crimped neck training blank introduced with the DBP-87. The DBK-01 also reduces gas system issues previously encountered.
5.8x42mm Sniper Load
Very little information is available on this initial version of the 5.8x42mm sniper round. It’s a derivative of the DVP-88 heavy ball load featuring a brass cartridge case and brass alloy bullet jacket with cannelure. The accuracy is claimed to be 1.5 MOA when fired from the QBU-88 DMR.
DBS-06 Underwater Special Ammunition
As its name implies, the DBS-06 Underwater Special Ammunition is intended to be fired underwater. It is easily the strangest of all the Chinese 5.8x42mm rounds. This special purpose round was developed for use in China’s QBS-06 underwater assault rifle. This interesting design is a licensed copy of the Russian APS underwater assault rifle which entered Soviet service in 1975. The Chinese DBS-06 has a 5-inch long steel or tungsten dart that is hydro-dynamically stabilized when fired under water. The QBS-06’s magazine holds 25-rounds of DBS-06 instead of the 26-rounds as the Russian APS with its 5.6x39mm ammo. The DBS-06 and QBS-06 combination is in use with the various Chinese PLA Special Forces.
With the introduction of the updated QBZ-95-1 rifle family, in 2011 the 5.8x42mm ammunition also received a significant upgrade. Chinese ordnance finally unified the infantry rifle and long-range loads into a single universal cartridge: the DBP-10 5.8x42mm.
DBP-10 and DBP-10A
The development of the 5.8x42mm universal version started in 2004 and it went into service in 2010. It was designed to replace the DBP-95 and DVP-88 in nine different 5.8x42mm caliber small arms in Chinese military service:
- Three models of the original QBZ-95 bullpup family
- Three models of the new QBZ-95-1 bullpup family
- QBZ-03 supplemental rifle
- QJY-88 GPMG
- QBU-88 DMR
The development team had to overcome one problem in particular. These nine weapons had three different barrel twist rates ranging from 1-7 to 1-9.45 inches. The original QBZ-95 bullpup and the QBZ-03 had the slowest twist rate of 1-9.45 inches while the newer QBZ-95-1 bullpup and the QJY-88 GPMG have a faster 1-8.21 twist rate. Lastly the QBU-88 DMR’s barrel has a progressive twist rate which ends in 1-7 at the muzzle. The new DBP-10 load was optimized for the faster twist rates which, according to some reports, led to a loss of accuracy in the older rifles.
Performance wise, the DBP-10 is a near duplication of the DVP-88 heavy ball but with a chamber pressure of 42,000 psi. This was achieved through the combination of a new propellant formula and the use of an improved brass alloy for the bullet jacket. The projectile construction is also similar to that of the DVP-88’s design but with a 71 grain bullet. This load comes in two types, due to it being manufactured by two factories. The DBP-10 has a copper-washed steel cartridge case with a Berdan primer while the DBP-10A has a green lacquered steel case with a Boxer primer.
The DBP-10’s muzzle velocity is 3,001 fps from the QBZ-95-1’s 18.2 inch barrel. When fired from the longer 24.4-inch barrel of the QJY-88 GPMG it has a slightly higher velocity of 3,051 fps. There’s also a small improvement in AP value across the board due to the use of higher quality steel for the AP penetrator core.
The new tracer variant differs from the three older models by the inclusion of a small cone-shape hardened steel AP core at the tip. Plus a small boat-tail was added to the base. Like all modern Chinese tracers, the DBX-10 has a green color coding on the bullet tip.
DVC-12 AP Round
A dedicated Armor Piercing load was developed for the 5.8x42mm and designated the DVC-12. In place of a hardened steel core is a tungsten penetrator with a lead ball filling in the air gap in the bullet tip. The projectile weighs 84.7 grains and has a muzzle velocity of 2,881 fps when fired from the GPMG and DMR. The DVC-12 load is claimed to offer a 58% increase in armor piercing performance at 800 meters compared to the steel penetrator equipped DBP-10, and a 37% increase at 1,000 meters. The DVC-12 AP 5.8x42mm cartridge has a black color coded bullet tip.
DBU-141 Sniper Round
The DBU-141 is a dedicated precision load for use by snipers. Like the original sniper load, this second version also features both a brass cartridge case and a brass alloy bullet jacket. Probably as a way to aid accuracy the cannelure has been omitted. Internally the projectile lacks the DBP10’s steel AP core. Instead the projectile features a lead care and a prominent air cavity in the tip. The bullet jacket is formed base first with the lead core inserted through the front, once again to aid accuracy. The DBU-141’s projectile weighs 86.2 grains and its exterior ballistics should be similar to those of the DVC-12 AP round. Accuracy of this load is claimed to be sub-MOA when paired with the heavy barrel QBU-14 bolt-action sniper rifle, which is what the DBU-141 was developed for and named after.