A popular automatic weapon with North Vietnamese infantry squads, the Ruchnoy Pulemyot Degtyaryov, or Degtyaryov light machine gun, was designed in the late 1940s by Vasily Degtyaryov to replace the DPM light machine gun in Soviet rifle platoons.
The new 7.62 mm RPD was 10 pounds lighter than any machine gun then in service and used a round that inflicted far less recoil and was easier to feed into and eject from the firing chamber. Like the AK-47 assault rifle, the RPD fired over an open bolt and was gas operated.
The final service model entered production in 1958. Incorporating improvements based on experience with other weapons, the RPD had a recoil buffer in the butt and a longer gas cylinder to reduce the firing rate and recoil. Changes also increased the feed system’s power and reliability and added a sectional cleaning rod in the butt.
Vietnam received thousands of the final Soviet production variant from 1960 to 1973. Starting in 1964, China produced its own license-built version of the fourth production model, designated the Type 56 light machine gun, and began shipping it to Hanoi in 1966.
The North Vietnamese Army found the light, robust RPD easy to use and maintain. It fired the same round as the ubiquitous AK-47, simplifying small unit logistics. Every NVA infantry squad had one.
The weapon, however, had three weaknesses. It tended to jam if the gunner tried to fire long, sustained bursts. It lacked a removable barrel and tended to overheat if the gunner fired more than 100 to 150 rounds in a single minute. Finally, the RPD was inaccurate at ranges beyond 250-300 meters (260-330 yards). NVA troops didn’t consider those issues to be serious shortcomings. Fire discipline solved the first two problems, and because few firefights were conducted beyond 180 meters (200 yards), Vietnam’s tactical environment rendered the third problem moot.
The RPD remained in front-line service with the Vietnamese Army well into the 1980s, although it was slowly superceded by another Soviet-made machine gun, the Ruchnoy Pulemyot Kalashnikova, or RPK, after 1972.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s April 2017 issue.