A Semi-Auto Belt-Fed Machine Gun?
It’s a safe bet that some inexorable force has drawn everyone reading this magazine into considering a weapon or several weapons that made no sense when one’s “needs” are analyzed empirically. Often times these firearms are sentimental favorites based on an affiliation with an original model, but they are not readily accessible. The DS Arms (DSA) semi-automatic RPD patterned after a Polish version of the RPD light machine gun is one of these sentimental favorites.
Soviet Union-designed weapons are experiencing a renaissance/resurgence in popularity in the US. A quick preview of the AK’s growing popularity in the US reinforces this opinion. Any association as the “enemy’s” weapon does not seem to deter its growing popularity in the US. This stems from many factors: rugged reliability, price point, reasonably priced ammunition, an appreciation of 7.62x39mm terminal ballistics and the ever-increasing quality and quantity of aftermarket parts.
The semi-auto RPD from DSA is interesting on many levels for firearms enthusiasts. The DSA RPD is modified for semi-auto only and fires from a closed bolt versus open bolt automatic fire, which is associated with the original Soviet machine gun. DSA does offer automatic RPDs for qualifying individuals and/or departments. With the RPD, DSA is giving users a chance to experience the capability of a historically significant belt-fed machine gun firing the 7.62x39mm cartridge, albeit semi-auto, something most would never get the chance to do. A historical overview will set the stage for our review.
The RPD weighs almost 17 pounds empty, with a 17.5″ barrel. The RPD was/is a
complicated, expensive weapon to manufacture that had to be milled, machined and
hand fitted, with the interchangeability of parts sometimes problematic. DSA RPDs
are true to form, just as originally issued, only in semi-automatic. DSA RPDs feature
new US-made receivers, barrels and other 922R-complianct components.
The metal drums serve to contain the belt in a compact package under the RPD.
In 1944, Vasily Degtyaryov designed the RPD (Ruchnoy Pulemyot Degtyaryova — “Degtyaryov’s handheld machine gun” in Russian), chambered in the then newly introduced 7.62x39mm cartridge. The DP 28, a Degtyaryov predecessor, shared similar characteristics, though fed via a top-mount drum, and was chambered in 7.62x54R. The RPD is recognized as an improvement over the DP 28, especially with its uninterrupted belt-fed operation via a shuttle-feed system, similar to most other modern belt-fed designs to come after. The RPD’s belt was a “push-through” type, as pioneered by Germany before WWII with the MG 34. The RPD’s belt is normally housed in a drum-like can that attaches to the bottom of the gun; however, this can is not a magazine but merely a container. The RPD operates by a long-stroke gas piston mounted beneath the barrel. The rear section of the piston contains the operating rod, bolt, bolt carrier and striker. On either side of the bolt are locking lugs; these relatively long locking lugs are referred to as “flaps.” The lugs swing out laterally to engage recessed shoulders in the sides of the machined steel receiver; thus the RPD’s bolt is more of a rear-locking style bolt.
The RPD was ready to be mass-produced near the end of WWII, but was put on hold because of Germany’s surrender. The RPD was finally put into production when the Korean War erupted, and became the standard light machine gun of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations. The RPD was phased out in the early 1960s with the introduction of the stamped RPK — a light machine gun variant of the AKM.
The RPK was cheaper and significantly lighter than the milled RPD. US forces were exposed to the RPD during the Vietnam War, where it served as the light machine gun of both the Viet Cong and NVA. For comparison’s sake, the RPD was shorter and had almost half the M60’s weight, though the M60 had superior range with its 7.62x51mm chambering.
The RPD was extremely successful in ambush assaults, where only two or three 50-round belts were needed before the Viet Cong or NVA faded away from overwhelming US firepower. If more than 150 rounds were fired at a time, the lack of being able to change the RPD’s barrel became a severe handicap. The wooden handguards would start to smolder or catch on fire if high rates of fire were sustained. The bipod would be the only area a soldier could grasp without singeing his hand.
The DSA RPD arrives with two drum containers and four 50-round belt
segments along with a cleaning kit, spare parts, a sling and weapon cover.
With its milled receiver, the DSA RPD is from a different era in manufacturing.
The RPD was designed to fire at 600 to 700 rounds per minute in full-auto mode. Converting the RPD to fire semi-auto from a closed bolt posed certain challenges to DSA in working on finding the best, most reliable way to regulate gas pressure, bolt operation and bolt group modifications. As the RPD is continuously being replaced in former user inventories, new parts-kits are available for import into the US except for receivers and some other BATF-controlled components. However, many of the parts are designed to function in the full-automatic RPD, thus neither fitting nor working in a semi-automatic receiver. Therefore, DSA manufactures these parts, making sure proper steel and heat-treating methods are used.
For example, in DSA’s semi-auto RPD, the striker is separate from the bolt group and has its own spring, so the striker is the only part that remains to the rear when the gun is cocked. The sear holding the striker has a disconnector that automatically resets the sear after each shot so the gun can’t fire in full automatic. The RPD weighs almost 17 pounds empty, with 17.5″ and 20.5″ barrels available. The RPD was/is a complicated, expensive weapon to manufacture, having to be milled, machined and hand fitted with interchangeability of parts that can sometimes be problematic.
DSA RPDs are true to form just as originally issued, only in semi-auto. DSA RPDs feature new US-made receivers, barrels and other 922R-compliant components. Each RPD unit comes with a hard case, two drums, two drum pouches, sling, bore rod, manual, carry case and two ammo belts. The weapon has a non-removable barrel with a 3-position gas adjustment valve used to control the performance of the gas system. It’s also equipped with a folding integral bipod, wooden shoulder stock, foregrip and pistol grip. The RPD strips down into the following major groups: receiver and barrel, bolt, bolt carrier, feed tray and feed cover, the recoil mechanism and the trigger group and stock.
The RPD feeds from the left-hand side from 50-round, segmented, non-disintegrating open-link metallic belts. Two 50-round belts can be stored in a metal container resembling a drum and attached to the base of the receiver. The RPD can also be fed via loose belt without a drum if need be. A roller connected to the reciprocating bolt carrier assembly operates the RPD’s feed system and the belt is pulled during the rearward motion of the bolt carrier.
To load the DSA semi-auto RPD, the steel tab on the starting end of a belt of ammunition is placed in the feed tray so the tab protrudes out the right side. The tab is then pulled out to the right as far as it will go. Once this is done, the cocking handle is pulled back as far as it will go and released to spring forward, stripping and chambering the first round. To unload, open the top cover by pushing forward on the sliding lock at its rear, then lift up the cover and remove the belt. The bolt handle must then be pulled back to extract and eject a round from the chamber.
The RPD is equipped with a set of open-type iron sights consisting of a front post (adjustable for windage and elevation) and a notched rear sight, mounted on a tangent with a sliding elevation adjustment knob and marked with range indicators from 100 to 1,000 meters. The RPD rear sight is also outfitted with a sliding windage mechanism to improve fire accuracy and ease of adjustability. The DSA RPD features a non-reciprocating cocking mechanism with a folding charging handle in lieu of earlier variants without this.
The DSA RPD should not be underestimated with its .30 caliber firepower.
There are very few items found on a car that would be able to offer legitimate cover.
The RPD was tested in a variety of positions, with the integral bipod a
benefit in terms of support and enhancement to accurately placed fire.
A Proper Range
Many are probably aware that very few non-military ranges exist that would facilitate the testing involved with a belt-fed weapon. Echo Valley Training Center (EVTC) permitted and, more importantly, is properly set up to handle extensive test firing of the DSA RPD. The DSA RPD was enjoyable to shoot, with minimal recoil. While I was not surprised at the lack of MOA accuracy, it was very possible to hit man-sized steel silhouettes placed at 200 and 300 yards. The prone position utilizing the integral bipod was predominately used for the evaluation, though standing and kneeling off-hand positions were experimented with and no problems were encountered.
EVTC has installed two permanent “foxholes,” created by turning large diameter concrete culvert pipes end wise into the ground, complete with a firing step in the bottom. The protected firing positions were perfect for evaluating the RPD in its intended fire support role. EVTC also features multi-stepped target berms strewn with reactive steel targets and fluid-drained automobiles at ranges varying from 150 out to 350 yards.
While certainly not comparable to a belt-fed, switch-barrel machine gun, a relatively large volume of fire is possible, especially with attention paid not to exceed 60 rounds per minute for any extended fire sessions. The RPD barrel is thickened, allowing for increased heat capacity during extended fire sessions. As mentioned earlier, the RPD is outfitted with a folding bipod to stabilize it during deployment assisting a squad or platoon in advancing towards its objective or defending from an attack.
The semi-automatic DSA RPD firing the 7.62x39mm cartridge is very controllable with its extra weight over the standard AK. At ranges under 400 yards, one would not be considered terribly under-gunned with the DSA RPD semi-auto. The EVTC target car placed 200 yards away could not withstand the withering RPD fire. Rounds penetrated sheet metal, seats or anything else in its path as the 7.62x39mm easily passed through the car; only the wheel rims and engine block provided a modicum amount of resistance. Multiple 7.62x39mm loads were tested with the DSA RPD such as Wolf, Tula and Silver Bear.
A new addition to the 7.62x39mm ammunition realm was also accessed. I’m talking about Century International Arms’ Red Army Standard brand. Red Army Standard 7.62x39mm ammunition will be offered in handy Range Packs (180 rounds) as well as 30-round boxes. This packaging allows the consumer to purchase multiple boxes of ammunition in a convenient, easy-to-carry/use format. Red Army Standard is manufactured by the same factories that produced billions of rounds of ammunition for the Soviet Red Army and Warsaw Pact nations. The Range Pack boxes indicated Romanian and Ukrainian manufacturing. Century International Arms Red Army Standard will be available in many popular Warsaw Pact rifle calibers such as 7.62x39mm (123-grain FMJ), 7.62x54R (148-grain FMJ) and 5.45x39mm (69-grain FMJ). Loads hovered in the 3 to 4″ accuracy range with the ammunition tested. I found this acceptable considering my aging eyes and the non-target style battle sights found on RPD.
The sights were zeroed right out of the box. The trigger was smooth and had reasonable pull weight, measuring slightly over 5 pounds. The DSA RPD took time to get broken in. What do I mean by this? Two to three belts were cycled at what seemed an excruciating slow place, with numerous reliability hiccups. However, one could tell the issues started to span more and more rounds in between stoppages.
Some will be attracted to the DSA RPD for its proven potential as a weapon even if confined to semi-automatic mode, while others will find it the closest opportunity they will have to own a working replica of a historical firearm. There is no doubt that the DSA RPD was both a potent and enjoyable rifle to shoot. The DSA RPD has an interesting firearm development history and can still perform on the range. DSA fully supports this by offering “modernized” RPD models featuring rails and collapsible stocks so users can configure as they see fit with optics, red dots and other accessories. This is a strong indicator of the RPD’s overall performance if DSA finds it worthy to continue enhancing the RPD.
By Todd Burgreen
For more info
P.O. Box 370
Barrington, IL 60011
467 Hooks Mill Rd.
High View, WV 26808
2426 Valley Ave.
Winchester, VA 22601
P.O. Box 757
Placentia, CA 92871
Century International Arms
430 South Congress Ave. Suite 1
Delray Beach, FL 33445