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The RPD Light Machine Gun

This 200-round warrior faced off against the M60 and rained hell on American forces during the Vietnam War.

The RPD Light Machine Gun

Left-side view of the RPD. (IWM) 

The RPD machine gun actually entered service with the Red Army in 1944 but continued in use front line until at least 1961, well into the Cold War. RPD stands for Ruchnoy Pulemyot Degtyaryova, (Degtyarov Hand-Held Machine Gun). It was designed as a replacement for the DP Machinegun recognizable in WWII photos by its large pan magazine atop the weapon. Harkening the future of Soviet small arms, the RPD was chambered for the 7.62x39mm cartridge, which would become ubiquitous with the introduction of the AK-47. Though developed during WWII, the RPD was not actually adopted until 1948 or widely issued until 1953. As the ColdWar, fortunately, did not turn hot, the RPD saw most of its combat in “proxy wars.” Either RPDs from Russia or Type 56s, as the Chinese-produced RPD was designated, were widely used by the NVA and VC in Vietnam. In Egypt, Maadi manufactured the RPD, which saw action in the Arab-Israeli Wars and other Middle Eastern conflicts. North Korea also produced the RPD as the Type 62. Israel used captured RPDs, as did Rhodesia.

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At 16 pounds, this US troop would probably rather carry the RPD he captured rather than the 23-pound M60. (Paul Scarlata collection)

In Vietnam, US members MACV/SOG, who were often armed with ComBloc weapons, used RPDs with cut down barrels. Finland, which preferred weapons chambered for 7.62x39mm so that captured ammunition could be used if Russia invaded, issued the RPD as the “7.62 kk 54 RPD.” The RPD was so widely disbursed in the Third World, that it was demonstrated in special operator’s foreign weapons training at least through the late 20th Century. An indication of how often US troops encountered the RPD in Afghanistan or Iraq is that the USMC has a detailed manual in English on the RPD. The RPD employs an open-bolt, gas-operated, long-stroke piston operating system. It is full auto only. Its locking system was based on previous Degtyaryov weapons, which used a locking system employing flaps in recesses on each side of the receiver. Angular surfaces on the bolt carrier assembly controlled locking or unlocking as the bolt cycled. After the round is chambered and the bolt locked, the hammer, which is part of the bolt carrier, strikes the firing pin igniting the round. It is important to note some features of the RPD’s barrel. The chamber and bore are chromed, important because of the use of corrosive ammunition. A three-position gas valve allows regulation for the weapon running in adverse conditions from climate or buildup of residue. THE BARREL IS NOT OF QUICK-CHANGE DESIGN. This will be discussed later.

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View looking down on the RPD’s feed tray and cocking handle in the folded position (left). Looking down on the RPD with top cover open (top). Close-up of the RPD’s rear sight (bottom).

The RPD feeds from the left side. A 100-round “belt” (actually, two 50-round belts linked) consisting of non-disintegrating open links is usually contained in a drum. To load, the bolt is pulled to the rear. On later RPDs with the folding cocking handle, it will be pushed forward after cocking the bolt. To open the top cover, the locking latch must be pushed forward. I found this latch rather small, which made pushing it forward more difficult. After pulling the belt’s starter tab out of the drum, the belt is then fed onto the cartridge tray until the lead cartridge comes up against the cartridge stop. At this point, the top cover is closed, and the weapon is ready to fire. If not immediately ready to fire, apply the safety, which is located on the right side of the receiver above the front of the trigger guard. I did find that attaching the drum takes some care, but once in place there is a latch to keep it in place, which is a good feature. Spent cases are ejected downward through ports in the bolt carrier and receiver.

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Thompson firing three- or four-round bursts with the RPD.

An interesting comparison can be made between the RPD and the US M60 GPMG. Definitely, the M60 has had a longer service life with the US armed forces, having entered service in 1957 and continuing to see limited use today. In Vietnam, the M60 was the US equivalent of the RPD in the hands of the VC/NVA. Arguably, the RPD was more easily transported ready for engagement due to the use of the drum. On the other hand, the ammo in that drum was known to rattle around giving away the gunner’s position when moving. As the M60 used a disintegrating link belt, transport ready for action entailed wrapping the belt around the gunner’s body. A short “cheater belt” was sometimes loaded in the M60 when patrolling, thus allowing a couple of bursts if needed. When emplaced and laying down substantial fire, theoretically, the M60 had the advantage of a quick-change barrel when a barrel overheated. Though, to be honest, the M60’s barrel wasn’t that “quick change,” as there was no handle and the bipod was mounted to the barrel. The RPD barrel, which would get extremely hot after 200 rounds, did not allow a quick change. Note that Russian manuals state that no more than 300 rounds of sustained fire should occur without a cool off period for the gun. Since the RPD is an open bolt design that does help dissipate heat slightly. As I’ll discuss later when shooting the RPD, as the barrel heats up, care must be taken in grasping the forearm, so the shooter doesn’t get burned.

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Close-up of the RPD’s fore grip and gas regulator (top left). The RPD’s stock is well-designed to spread recoil on the shoulder and also to allow the support hand to grasp it. View of the RPD’s front sight and chromed bore (bottom right).

During the Vietnam era, where the M60 saw its first intensive combat, it was discovered some parts were fragile including the trigger group. These problems were fixed on later production weapons. The M60 was also heavy and poorly balanced; hence, its nickname “The Pig.” The RPD, at 16.3 pounds in weight and 40.8 inches in overall length compared to the M60 weighing a little over 23 pounds and being 43.5 inches in overall length, was easier to transport. For offhand shooting on short bursts, the RPD is definitely better. This is not just because it is lighter in weight, but also because the 7.62x39mm cartridge generates less recoil allowing better control of bursts when firing offhand. I had done a reasonable amount of shooting with the RPD 25 years ago or more, but had not fired one since. As a result, I had to get reacquainted with the weapon. Maadi in Egypt manufactured the example I fired for this article. I found while getting it ready to shoot, the process of loading the belt was easy. The friend who supplied the RPD drum magazine had already been loaded them with the belts. I did open the drum to examine the loaded belt of linked cartridges. The main points to check were that the notch on each link had been snapped into the extraction groove on the cartridge and that the loaded belt had been rolled carefully to fit the drum. Then the tab on the belt was just pulled through the flap on the drum and feed onto the cartridge tray; after which the top cover was closed.

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NVA armed with the RPD during the Vietnam War. (Paul Scarlata collection)

The cocking handle on the RPD I was shooting was of the later type, so after pulling the bolt to the rear until it locked, I pushed the cocking handle forward and folded it up. I had set the safety and had the RPD pointing down range, so I got into position to shoot it prone. The bipod was the right height for me when shooting prone and I found the RPD’s stock comfortable. A flip-up butt plate similar to that on some M14s allowed for resting it atop the shoulder. I understand that flipping this plate up and resting it on the shoulder theoretically helps counter muzzle rise when firing full auto. I did not flip this plate up. I found the RPD’s pistol grip to be similar to that of the AK47 and relatively comfortable. The flair at the bottom helped me retain a secure grip when firing longer bursts. If I remember correctly, the last time I fired an RPD it had a polymer checkered grip similar to an AK47, but this one was wood with vertical striations.

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Drum with 7.62x39mm ammo loaded into links and threaded onto the feed tray (right). Close-up of the RPD’s feed slot into which the belt from the drum will be fed (top left). Feed tray with the top cover of the RPD lifted (bottom left).

We were shooting at silhouette targets and plates at 200 yards, so I slid the rear sight to the 200-meter position prior assuming the prone shooting position. I started off shooting two- or three-round bursts, which was not difficult due to the RPD’s moderate cyclic rate. Later, when I fired longer five- to ten-round bursts, I found the recoil and movement against my shoulder of the stock negligible thanks to the 7.62x39mm chambering. I fired four or five bursts of four to six rounds on the silhouette target and found many were impacting to the right as I had not zeroed the sights prior to shooting the RPD. Still, the “enemy” had eight torso hits and three arm hits. Obviously, a real RPD gunner would have zeroed the sights, probably at 300 meters.

By the time I was firing bursts of ten rounds or more and had put 100 to 125 rounds down range quickly, I could tell the RPD was heating up. It still ran with no problem, but I could feel the heat radiating from the barrel. I had made a mistake in that I should have done my offhand shooting first. We had some other guns to shoot to I picked up the RPD by the wooden stock and wooden forearm and set it aside to cool. When grasping the forearm my hand strayed a little too close the barrel and I received a light scorch to the edge of my hand. Fortunately, I jerked my hand away with alacrity. Once the RPD had cooled, which took quite a while, I fired a few short bursts offhand at a hanging plate at 100 yards. I hit it a few times. I then went prone, fired longer bursts, and hit a lot more often. I have reasonably good upper body strength so the weight of the RPD wasn’t bad firing offhand. The low recoil of the 7.62x39mm round combined with short bursts made the weapon controllable.

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Russian parts diagram of the RPD.

The RPD was developed as a companion light machine gun for the AK-47 to fire the same 7.62x39mm cartridge. An argument can be made that as good as this decision was logistically; tactically, it limited the Soviet squad automatic weapon in range and striking power. That is the primary reason the RPD was replaced in 1961 by the PKM chambered for the “retro” 7.62x54R cartridge. From a shooter’s point of view, the RPD is a handy support weapon that doesn’t require an assistant gunner. Yes, it overheats, but RPD gunners were trained to fire shorts bursts. Other than rattling to let the enemy know you’re coming down the trail, the RPD drum is handy. If ergonomics are good for a machine gun designed in WWII, and Degtyarov’s design is reliable. I enjoyed shooting the RPD for multiple reasons: it reminded me of first encountering it and firing it over 50 years ago on another continent. It re-reminded me that Russian weapons designs are usually practical and soldier friendly. And, it reminded me that Russian weapons are designed to last, and that as I write this, in various parts of the world there are still RPDs with their drums in place awaiting conflict. Some may well be firing bursts as I write. Just to name a few areas where the RPD is still seeing combat: Yemeni Civil War, Russo-Ukrainian War, Syrian Civil War, and Insurgency in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, among others. It saw a lot of action in the War in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and as a result, the grandchildren of US troops who encountered the RPD in Vietnam encountered it once again. The RPD is a classic machine gun design. A list of its more than 60 users reads like a catalog of world conflict zones.

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Members of the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment with a captured RPD in Vietnam. (Australian War Memorial)

If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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