I realize talking about a semi-auto machinegun is an oxymoron; perhaps a more correct description would be a semi-auto in the configuration of a machinegun. Nevertheless, semi-auto versions of military machineguns have quite a few advantages, since they are classified as semi-auto rifles that can legally be owned under federal law and in most states. As a result, military collectors or re-enactors can have firing models of military sustained-fire weapons. I became interested in the semi-auto versions of select-fire guns because they allow me to train with weapons that I may encounter when working with military units. Other than the fact the piece only fires one round each time the trigger is pulled, the loading, sighting, and firing drill is the same. I can get used to the way the stock feels and how to get myself into firing position quickly. I can train operating the safety, changing the magazine, and to adjust the sights for elevation. On belt-fed guns, I learn the tricks for threading the belt and keeping it working reliably.
But I also became interested in some of the semi-auto versions of machineguns when recommending weapons for yacht security. First, the weapons look just like their full-auto relatives, hence acting as a good deterrent for pirates. Since they have large magazine capacities or use a belt of ammo, they offer good sustained-fire capability to keep attackers at a distance. The bipod or tripod will usually aid in delivering sustained fire onto a bobbing target, and on some machineguns the sights are rather good. Lastly, harbor masters or customs agents, in US ports at least, have far fewer problems with a vessel carrying a “semi-auto rifle,” which is how the semi-auto machinegun look-alikes are normally classified.
Generally semi-automatic versions of machineguns are built from parts kits on a semi-auto US receiver, which allows them to comply with import laws. Occasionally a batch of a certain semi-auto machinegun will be assembled and offered for sale. But in many cases the individual will have to purchase a parts kit and a receiver, then find a custom gunsmith skilled enough to assemble the kit into a semi-auto version of the machinegun. The best custom gunsmiths will try to duplicate the original finish and markings on the receiver for authenticity.
I was recently working on an analysis of Russian Air Assault/Airborne tactics and wanted to see how portable the RPK-74 is and how readily it can be used while advancing. A friend of mine has a semi-auto RPK-74 built on a Romanian semi-auto receiver using a Romanian RPK-74 parts kit. His was custom built by Troy Sellers of In Range C2, Inc., one of the best custom gunsmiths for work on AK-type weapons in the USA.
RPK stands for Ruchnoy Pulemyot Kalashnikova, which translates as “Kalashnikov hand-held machinegun.” The original RPK was a 7.62x39mm light machinegun that replaced the RPD LMG. When the Soviet armed forces adopted the 5.45x39mm AK-74 rifle in 1974, they also adopted the 5.45x39mm caliber RPK-74. Features of the RPK-74 include a 23.2-inch long, heavier chrome-lined barrel, folding bipod, a well-designed buttstock for prone firing and other mechanical modifications. The RPK-74’s sights are typical AK rear notch sights with elevation graduations between 100 and 1,000 meters.
Although the RPK-74 will take standard 30-round AK-74 magazines, it normally uses 45-round magazines. There are three variants of the standard RPK-74: the RPKS-74, which has a folding stock for air assault troops, the RPKN-74 which is designed for mounting a night vision optic, and the RPKSN-74 which is a folding stock version of the RPKN-74. The semi-auto version I shot for this article is a standard RPK-74.
A lot of my testing was devoted to determining the RPK-74’s portability. It weighs in at only 10.4 pounds empty, and I found that it is almost as easy to move carrying an RPK-74 in the ready position as an AK-74, though the RPK-74’s longer barrel is a factor. Since I am used to my semi-auto AK-74 “S” model with a folding stock, I would prefer an RPKS-74 if I were a Russian paratrooper. Normally for movement the RPK’s bipod would be folded, but a 45-round magazine would still be in place. I also found that it is not at all difficult to shoot the RPK-74 offhand. To simulate typical movement with an RPK on the battlefield, I took up a prone shooting position, fired a few rounds, and then moved to a new firing position while leaving the bipod down so that I could quickly assume a new shooting position. Overall, I rate the RPK-74 high on portability. The standard combat load for the RPK-74 is eight magazines carried in two pouches, each holding four magazines. That would obviously add some weight for the RPK-74 gunner to carry.
My friend who brought his semi-auto RPK-74 along for me to test couldn’t remember whether he had it zeroed at 200 or 300 meters, though when we fired it the locations of the groups seemed to indicate 300. I fired at hanging plates at 100, 200, and 300 yards from the prone position and found that the shoulder stock of the RPK-74 is well designed for prone shooting. I also did some shooting kneeling, due to a sharp incline on which I placed the RPK-74’s bipod for one string. While I did not shoot offhand in the latest session with the RPK-74, I have shot select-fire RPK-74s, including this one, on semi- and full-auto offhand in the past. It is well balanced and relatively easy to shoot from the shoulder, though to hold it on target for multiple shots requires a bit of arm strength.
My friend suggested a test that would be typical of RPK-74 combat usage. We set up a silhouette target in a simulated cardboard window and from 100 yards prone, my buddy shot a full 45-round magazine at the portion of the head and torso showing in the “window.” He had not allowed for the fact that the RPK-74 was sighted at 300 meters so his group was high, but it still placed at least 20 rounds in the “head” of the target. My friend had been shooting as quickly as he could pull the trigger, and had emptied the magazine in 28 seconds. On a second string, he adjusted the sights and peppered the torso of the target with a 45-round magazine. Shooting was done with Wolf 60-grain 5.45x39mm ammo.
The RPK-74 is a light machinegun designed to take the same ammunition as the standard Russian infantry rifle, the AK-74. It does not have a quick-change barrel and is not belt fed. It can take standard AK-74 magazines. Unlike medium or heavy machineguns, the light machine gun is not designed to give sustained arcs of fire. The RPK-74 is designed to be carried by a member of an infantry squad to give fire support during an advance and extra range and firepower when emplaced. Getting a chance to do quite a bit of shooting with the semi-auto RPK-74 gave me a greater appreciation for the handiness of the weapon, though it cannot give the sustained supporting fire of the standard US LMG, the M249 SAW. On the other hand, the SAW weighs twice as much as the RPK-74.
Although I was mostly shooting the semi-auto RPK-74 to reacquaint myself with the basic weapon, I also found it quite an enjoyable gun to shoot. That’s one of the great advantages of the semi-auto machineguns. They are fun to shoot, legal to own in most states, and burn less ammo in a typical shooting session. Call In Range C2, Inc. at 865-932-6509 or visit their website at inrangec2.com
Author’s Note: Due to demand, there may be difficulty filling orders.
I realize talking about a semi-auto machinegun is an oxymoron; perhaps a more correct description…
by Rob Garrett / Jun 1, 2010