By Simon Chambers (former British Parachute Regiment)
When I first arrived in Iraq I was amazed at the variety of weapons available to anyone who wanted to purchase them. Every contracting company was rushing to snap up the better conditioned weapons before the bad guys got them. There were stories of Iraqi procurement agents queuing up in Sadar City alongside the Militia and haggling with them over the price of a good machine gun. Everyone wanted heavy calibre machine guns. The Iraqi police and army needed them to protect their compounds. The contractors needed them for their PSD and convoy protection. Without a good machine gun in the last vehicle of your team you were dead.
In 2004, a Blackwater team at Falluja were successfully ambushed because they were sent out on a mission without a rear gunner. Your rear gunner is the most important man in the team. Without him anyone can approach your convoy from the rear where your defences are the weakest. It’s your one serious blind spot and you need it covered. The rear gunner needs to be an experienced older ‘soldier’ because every day he may have to fire aimed warning shots to discourage other vehicles from getting too close. The “trunk monkey” must be someone who does not panic in a stressful situation as being the rear gunner carries a lot of responsibility and is indeed very stressful.
Contractors are also accountable for every round they fire so the gunner has to use his best judgement to decide to fire or not to fire. He will warn the oncoming vehicle with his Sure-fire flash light. This is easily seen in broad daylight. He then warns the driver to stop by firing a mini flare. If the vehicle continues to advance on the rear vehicle of your convoy the gunner will fire a short aimed burst in front of the vehicle and if the vehicle still does not stop then it’s safe to say he is up to no good and the gunners next burst of fire will be just as accurate as the first and will definitely ruin the bad guys day.
That family in the car behind, that you just put a short three round burst in front of, may be innocent and not be carrying a bomb this time. However they may have been told to drive behind you and see how close they could get to your vehicle before you reacted aggressively. By this means the Militia and insurgents are able to work out any patterns set by your team and their reaction times. They will then use this information to plan attacks against you. As the gunner you must prevent a suicide bomber from getting in between your convoy and doing harm to your Principle. To do this you need a good machine gun and plenty of ammunition.
One of the guns I saw in plentiful supply and that became an early favourite with Security companies was the RPD. They were also cheap. Our rules of engagement drawn up by civilians in Washington, prevented Security Contracting firms from having anything heavier than a 7.62mm machine gun to defend themselves. Unless of course you were on an American DoD contract and then you could get heavier calibre weapons. A little bit of favouritism being exercised there I think. The Security contractors were given tasks by the US Government their military were unable to do and at the same time restricted them from defending themselves properly. It was OK, however for the bad guys to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the PSD and Supply convoys.
The RPD started life in 1944 as an original design of Vastly Degtyaryov, Sergei Simonov (better known for designing and producing the SKS carbine) and Alexei Sudayev ( who designed and developed the PPS-43 submachine gun and AS-44 automatic rifle).Some of the country’s top weapons designers had a hand in the RPD’s development. It was originally developed to use the 7.62 x 39 mm M 43 cartridge. Several prototype Machine guns were submitted for testing but it was Degtyarov’s design that was finally accepted and went into service with the Soviet Armed Forces. It was taken into service too late to be used in World War Two and didn’t get issued to front line troops until 1953. It was originally known as the 7.62 mm Ручной Пулемёт Дегтярёва, PПД (RPD, Ruchnoy Pulemyot Degtyaryova – “Degtyaryov light machine gun”) M44.
It was supposed to replace the Russian 7.62 mm DP Light Machine Gun but ended up being brought in and used alongside it. The Soviet Union didn’t like throwing anything on the scrap heap be it tanks or small arms and tended to recycle their weapons or supply them on to their terrorist friends. When I first went to Iraq in 2004 there were hundreds of RPD LMGs being used by the Iraq army, Iraqi police, most Contractor companies were using them and of course we were on the receiving end of the bloody things being used by the Militia and all the other disgruntled factions.
With the introduction of the RPK and the PKM in the 1960’s the RPD was taken out of front line service and issued to rear echelon and support troops. Even so, it could still be found widely used by other Warsaw Pact partners. Like the AK 47 it became a favourite weapon of most terrorist organisations around the world and could be found in great numbers in Africa and Asia. The Chinese were equally impressed by its performance and produced their own version known as the Type 56. Egypt and North Korea produced their own copy known as the Type 62.
The RPD is a gas actuated piston system. Its main drawback is it can only fire on full automatic although a good gunner can still get off single shots with practice. The bolt has a spring loaded extraction system with a fixed insert in the receiver housing which acts as the ejector. Empty cases are ejected downwards through a slot in the receiver and bolt carrier. It has a manually operated lever type safety system that blocks the bolt catch when its engaged and prevents any negligent discharge of the weapon. The feed system itself is operated by a roller connected to the reciprocating bolt carrier assembly and the belt is moved during rearward motion of the bolt carrier. The RPD has a fixed barrel and a gas plug and regulator. The gas plug has only three positions making the gas stoppage drills a bit easier.
The RPD also has a folding bipod for fighting when dismounted and gives a stable platform to engage the enemy from – and it has a wooden stock, fore grip and pistol grip. Call me old fashioned but I like a weapon that has wooden ‘furniture’. You tend to feel that more workmanship went into the production of the weapon. It also has that ‘comfortable’ feel to it.
The rear sighting system is a simple mechanical iron site. Mounted on a metal gradient the sight can be adjusted for wind and elevation and has settings from 100 meters for open battle sight up to 1000m for longer range targets. Most of the ‘Contacts’ I found myself involved in were at ranges from 200 to 300 meters and the RPD proved to be very accurate and reliable on each occasion.
In Iraq, weapons care has to be a number one priority. The Iraqi sand gets everywhere and the guns need to be cleaned daily. For normal stripping and daily cleaning the component parts were broken down into groups. Receiver and barrel, bolt, bolt carrier, feed tray and feed cover, the return mechanism and the trigger group and stock.
One of our biggest problems was not with the gun itself. Although all the RPD’s our company procured for us were old and well worn they were still extremely reliable. The belt feed mechanism had to be well oiled and checked daily by the gunner to keep it clean and serviceable. The problem was the ammunition. There were so many different nationalities and manufacturers of 7.62 rounds in circulation that it was not always possible to get the best ammo. Some of it was absolutely crap and we inspected it and rejected it.
The state of the ammo belts was another problem. The RPD has a continuous belt system unlike the NATO GPMG disintegrator belt. Each segment is connected to the next by a short spring. These tend to get buckled and distorted which will result in a stoppage. Once again, as the gunner, I checked the belts daily and threw away any I found damaged. The belt feeds in from the left side and usually holds 50 rounds. There were some short connector links which were used to join two belts together giving a total of 100 rounds or more. The gun could then be fired for much longer periods without reloading should you need to convince the enemy to keep their heads down. There always seemed to be a shortage of serviceable belt connectors and so the gunner on the RPD became an expert at the fast reload. Although I have seen loose ammunition boxes being used to hold a bigger belt in some trucks, usually the RPD had a drum shaped bullet box clipped underneath with a direct belt feed into the left side of the machine gun.Our company also went out of its way to supply us with plenty of tracer rounds. The sight of one in one tracer probing for an enemy gunman’s position has a profound psychological effect on the enemy and it’s a brave man who does not stop firing and take cover when he sees the tracers closing in…
Despite the sometimes appalling operational conditions, in my mind the RPD is a good, accurate and reliable weapon and has saved many contractors lives. It can still be found on many battlefields in many countries around the world today, and I have no doubt that it will still be in use for many years to come.