The relatively inexpensive DS Arms RPD offers a faithful reproduction that can be shot and owned at a fraction of the cost of a registered NFA RPD.
I figured out rather quickly that “light” is a relative term when applied to machine guns. The “light machine gun” does indeed need to be light so that the gunner can move along with his squad mates during an advance. On the other hand, if the machine gun is too “light,” it will not really have many advantages over the rifles carried by other infantryman. The role of the light machine gun changed substantially when armies switched to assault rifles from bolt-action rifles. The light machine gun was expected to offer more accuracy and more sustained fire at longer ranges. Generally, this was accomplished by incorporating a bipod, better long-range sights, larger magazine capacity, and in some cases, a stock designed to allow more comfortable firing while prone.
Prior to the introduction of the M249 SAW, the U.S. really didn’t have a light machine gun. The BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and the M15 variant of the M14 were attempts to supply an infantry squad with a “faux light machine gun,” while the M60, which served the mission of a light machine gun for many years, was really more of a GPMG (general purpose machine gun), though some lightened versions used by special ops troops such as the M60E3 and M60E4 were more portable. As a result, my first real experiences with the true light machine gun were in foreign weapons training.
I fired the Soviet DPM, RPD and RPK. Also, I trained with the PK around that time, too, but it was more of a Soviet GPMG. I remember that my favorite was the RPD, which was a good thing, as I shot it more and gained some familiarity. Over the years I worked with foreign military and police units, encountering the RPD often enough that knowledge of its operating characteristics proved quite useful. For example, I worked with one African security team that included the RPD and RPK among their weapons. I always chose my position for observing live-fire counter-ambush drills carefully. The RPD was developed during World War II to replace the DPM and served in the Soviet and Chinese Armies for decades, as well as many Warsaw Pact armies.
It still serves today in many parts of the world, as U.S. troops still encounter the RPD in use by insurgent forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I know of at least a couple of non-U.S. security contractors who like the RPD and use them for contract work in Afghanistan or Iraq. A friend of mine who is an ex-member of the 2nd REP, the French Foreign Legion paratroops, once told me that he always made it a point to shoot the RPD every chance he got because he encountered it on so many African deployments. Of the 40 to 50 countries that adopted the RPD, a substantial number still use it—at least some of the former members of the Warsaw Pact still have RPDs, and others within the old Soviet or Chinese spheres of influence such as North Korea or Vietnam use the RPD.
In addition to the Soviet Union, the RPD was manufactured in China, Egypt, North Korea and Poland. It can be argued that the RPD was the first of the “modern” light machine guns, even though it was designed in 1940s. Designed by Vasily Degtyaryov, Sergei Simonov, and Alexei Sudayev, designers respectively of the DP-28/DPM, the SKS, and the PPS submachine gun; the RPD was chambered for the new 7.62x39mm cartridge and was initially intended as a companion weapon to the SKS. Later, of course, the AK-47 was chambered for the same round.
By 1953, the RPD was being delivered in large quantities and was the principal Soviet light machine gun for the early portions of the Cold War. By the 1960s, the RPD was being replaced by the RPK and PK machine guns, which were based on the Kalashnikov system, but many Soviet and Warsaw Pact units used RPDs for another two decades. When I was in Russia I talked to some former Desantniki (Soviet airborne troops) who were not happy when their RPDs were replaced by the RPK, as they felt the RPD gave them better sustained fire and better range. Admittedly, though, one liked the RPK a lot because he felt it “jumped” better.
The operating system of the RPD bears many similarities to the earlier Degtyaryov design, the DP-28/DPM. It is full-auto only and employs a long-stroke gas piston with a gas regulator located under the barrel. A three-position gas adjustment valve allows for variations in ammunition or operating the weapon when fouled. As with the DPM, flaps in the bolt are pushed out to lock when the bolt goes forward and are retracted to unlock as the bolt goes back in recoil.
The RPD fires from an open bolt. Fired cartridge cases are ejected downward through an opening in the bolt carrier and receiver, which prevents them from obstructing the belts that feed the RPD. There is enough clearance even when firing prone off the bipod that spent cases do not build up and get in the way when firing 100 rounds or more. Feed is from the left side using 50-round segmented metal belts. Two belts may be coupled and rolled into a drum to allow ease of transport.As the empty links come out of the right side of the RPD, they will drop free after 50 rounds have been fired. This 100-round belt allows for more sustained fire than the RPD’s predecessor, the DPM, or its replacement, the RPK. However, the RPD does not have a quick-change barrel, hence it could overheat in sustained fire.
The RPD’s sights consist of a front post and a notch rear with sliding elevation adjustment for ranges from 100 to 1,000 meters. As with AK-type weapons, windage and elevation adjustments are made to the front post to get the weapon zeroed at 100 meters. Ergonomics are acceptable for the magazine release, safety and cocking lever. The magazine release is a simple lever that rotates down to keep the magazine in place, and the safety/selector is a simple lever on the left side of the receiver. The cocking handle is hinged so that it can be folded down to get leverage when pulled back or folded up for firing or carrying.
The wooden stock and pistol grip are comfortable, but I found the wooden forearm a bit short. During its service life, the RPD received various modifications—including the folding charging handle on non-reciprocating cocking handle and a dust cover, which acts as a feed ramp when opened. These modifications are encountered most often on the Chinese or Polish variants. Since DS Arms used an unissued Polish parts kit for its semi-auto RPD, these features are present.
Based on its long experience building FN FAL rifles on DS Arms-made U.S. receivers, DS Arms brings much needed experience to building their RPD, which is built on a DS Arms receiver and uses a U.S. barrel and other compliance parts. The DS Arms RPD ships with two drums, four 50-round belts, sling, carrying cases for the gun and the drums, and a cleaning and tool kit—plus a translated RPD manual.
As it arrives from DS Arms, the RPD is a handsome and complete package. When I looked it over I felt as if I were 40 years younger and examining an RPD for the first time, but this one was in much better shape. It was also the modernized version as those I had fired had the fixed cocking handle. I normally keep non-corrosive Wolf 7.62x39mm ammunition around so I don’t have to try to keep track of any rifles that do not have a chrome-plated bore.
I gathered 200 rounds of the Wolf and prepared to load the belts and link them into 100-round units. This is accomplished by a clever catch on one end of a belt that fits into a recess on the end of another belt. Once the catch is engaged, a cartridge is thrust in to keep the belts locked together. When that cartridge is fired, it allows the first 50 links to drop free. Loading the links is relatively easy; though I will note here that I had brain lock and did not initially push the rounds far enough into the links and let them catch on the extractor groove. They must be thrust all the way down so that the small hook on the link is on top of the case head.
With two 100-round drums ready to go, I headed to the range to try the RPD. Loading the belt into the RPD is rather easy. Actually, the belt may be loaded in one of two ways—with the receiver cover closed or open. I had learned to do it with the cover open and did so in that manner. One of the two 50-round belts, which are linked in the drum, came with a tongue that sticks out of the drum. To load, it is pulled through and the first round is pressed into position against the stop, then the cover is pushed home smartly to be sure it locks. At this point, the bolt may be pulled back and a round chambered. On a real full-auto RPD, the bolt would lock back, as it is an open bolt gun—but on the DS Arms RPD, a semi-auto, the bolt goes forward.
My first task was to fire a few rounds to zero the front sight. Unlike Kalashnikov-based weapons such as the RPK, the RPD does not use a standard AK sight adjustment tool. The front sight is turned up or down for elevation, but it takes the tool included with the RPD. Likewise, to adjust for windage, a wrench is included to loosen a nut retaining the front sight unit and it is pushed to one side or the other. Remember, when adjusting windage or elevation using the front sight, go the opposite direction of where you want the bullet to impact (i.e. to move impact left, go right, to move up, go down).
In firing the RPD, I had a substantial number of failures-to-feed, though I would also have runs of nearly 50 rounds with no problems. My experience with many of these machine guns converted to semi-auto kit guns that they may have to wear in or be tweaked to get them operating with 100-percent reliability. I want to fire another few hundred rounds, since this was an unissued kit and may need to wear in. I set up a silhouette target at 100 yards and fired 25 rounds or so quickly off of the bipod. Impact was a few inches right but the rounds were impacting on the target and would certainly have made enemy infantry unhappy.
Accuracy was quite good. I also tried using the front sight on the 300-yard setting on plates at that distance, and was hitting more often than my eyesight should justify with open sights having a small rear notch. I also tried firing at 25 yards at plates from the kneeling position. The RPD is certainly not as light or handy as a typical assault rifle. Weight without a 100-round drum is over 15 pounds—and with loaded drum, probably 20 pounds or more—but overall length is 41 inches, which is helped by the 20.5-inch barrel. Of course, the folding bipod does not aid handiness.
I found the greatest problem when firing from the kneeling position was that the wooden forearm was so short that the drum pressed against my forearm adversely affecting control and accuracy. The RPD is at its best when firing prone, as ergonomics are good and the stock is very well designed to lock into the shoulder comfortably.
The time I had to spend relearning to load RPD links, and threading the belt into the feed mechanism correctly illustrated that one useful employment for the DS Arms RPD is for familiarization and refresher training on a weapon likely to be encountered still in insurgent hands and some third world countries. Everything is the same except for the open bolt and full-auto fire capability. And, the DS Arms RPD is not an NFA weapon so it can be acquired far more inexpensively and readily as a training aid.
For collectors of Warsaw Pact weapons or Vietnam-era weapons, the DS Arms RPD offers a faithful reproduction that may be shot and owned without NFA tax and paperwork since it is legally a semi-auto rifle. As I write this, the price for the DS Arms RPD is $2,100—a fraction of what a registered NFA RPD would cost. Many of the semi-auto kit versions of classic machine guns are extremely neat, to use a technical term, and the DS Arms RPD definitely fits that description. For even more info, please visit dsarms.com.