The Soviet-designed PK series of light machine guns is the primary support weapon insurgents have used against Western forces during the War on Terror. Ranking among the best in their class, they have held such a distinction since their appearance in the early 1960s. Supremely reliable, hardy and deadly, they will remain the most widespread light machine guns for years to come. This is a testament to its creator, Russia’s most famous arms designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov.
After World War II, the Soviet Union reviewed the German weapons that had been slaughtering them, especially the MG 42 light machine gun. Realizing a good thing when they had it, the Soviets latched on to the General-Purpose Machine Gun (G.P.M.G.) concept. This weapon was intended to fill both the role of a heavy machine gun, which usually contained a bulky water jacket around the barrel for sustained firing, and a light machine gun, which featured quick-change, air-cooled barrels. The German success with the MG 42 showed the general-purpose concept of replacing both a feasible and highly effective compromise. Therefore, the Soviets, just as they did with the assault rifle concept pioneered by their enemy, sought out a way to make their own version of the general-purpose machine gun.
Their first try, the RP-46, was an evolution of the war-era DP 28. Instead of the unique pan-fed magazine of the DP, it featured a belt-fed ability, which throughout the war had only resided in heavy tripod or wheeled versions of their machine guns. The RP-46 served for over a decade into the late 1950s, before the Army decided it wanted something better.
Initially, some communist officials and Generals would place their faith in a prototype LMG called the ‘Nikitin.’ However, this weapon’s development proceeded at a sluggish pace, and, in order to spur creativity, the Army ordered Kalashnikov to build a competing design. His submission competed with the ‘Nikitin ,’ winning the trials and receiving the designation “Pulemet Kalshnikova,” or PK, in 1961. The ‘Nikitin,’ for all its promise, faded into history.
The PK featured Kalashnikov’s favorite traits: Reliability first, then durability and simplicity. Accuracy was good, as well, with the 7.62X54R round, and the weapon was designated as a platoon support weapon.
A closer look revealed an overall length of 47.4 inches, with the quick-change barrel taking up 25.9 of those. Weight was 19.8 pounds empty.
Its aesthetic features were a skeletonized wood stock mated to a stamped receiver where a wooden pistol grip was attached. A tangent sight graduated to 1,500 meters sat atop a cover, which could mount optics if necessary. Opening this cover allowed one to place a non-disintegrating linked belt, which fed from left to right. If need be, 100 rounds stored in a rectangular steel box could be affixed to the guns underside and often was. There was no forearm; instead, a carrying handle on the top of the barrel had to be used by the user’s support hand for aiming. Topping it off was the conical flash hider at the end of its snout and a foldable bipod below it. If one needed a steadier platform, back under the receiver was another mount for tripod use.
Function wise, the PK mirrored the AK-47’s piston operation, albeit with thicker and heavier parts and open bolt firing for added cooling. The cocking handle was on the right side below and aft of the feed entrance, and pressing the trigger caused the gun to chug along at a respectable 650 rounds per minute.
Four versions entered production. These were the standard PK; the PKS, which was tripod-mounted; the PKT, which was tank mounted; and the PKB, for armored cars and which ended up as door guns in the Mi-8 Hip and Mi-24 Helicopters.
In keeping with Soviet philosophy, the PK spread all over the communist world in the 60s and was licensed and produced by several countries. Once it appeared on the battlefield, notably in Vietnam and the Middle East, it proved one of the two best General Purpose Machine Guns in the existence, the other being FN Herstal’s MAG, which was heavier and more expensive.
As is so often the case of a great weapons system, improvements followed over the years and, in 1969, the ultimate PK, the M or Modernized series, emerged to replace its predecessor.
The PKM is still in production and still one of the world’s best. It improved on the PK in different areas, one being an over three-pound reduction in weight to 16.5 pounds, and a slightly shorter length of a half -inch as well as a half- inch shorter barrel. This is the current and most widely available model seen in the War on Terror and in places like the Libyan and Syrian insurrections.
The latest influence of the PKM in Russia is the PKP. This design, a Squad Automatic Weapon, or S.A.W., replaces the previous variants that were nothing more than a long barrel AKM called the RPK and AK-74 called the RPK-74. The ‘Pecheneg,’ as it is s nicknamed, looks similar to the PKM, but has a fixed barrel with radial fins for cooling, and weighs 19 pounds. Entering service in 2001, it is currently at work in Ukraine.