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Airborne choice: Soviet RPG-16 in Afghanistan

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The RPG-16 is a man-portable anti-armor weapon designed and issued specifically to Soviet Airborne forces. While being on a rather large scale of production, this grenade launcher is largely forgotten and not well known. At best, people just confuse it with RPG-7. In this article, which is part of a bigger knowledge database, we will talk about the history, practical use, and modern-day collecting of RPG-16 launchers.

If you are really into RPG-16 and other Soviet grenade launchers, do not hesitate to check out publication on the Soviet Infantry Weapons of the Afghan War.

RPG-16
Soviet soldier with RPG-16

A brief history of RPG-16

The RPG-16 has a rather curious history behind it. In short, RPG-7 was the main thing both in the ground troops and in the airborne forces. Until paratroopers decided that the standard PG-7 grenade was not good enough anymore - it was unable to penetrate the armor of modern tanks of the potential enemy.

Ironically, the new grenade designed for RPG-7 and RPG-7D, named PG-7M, had the same armor-piercing capabilities as PG-16 used for RPG-16. But since the work on RPG-16 was at its final point, the new, airborne-unique launcher was adopted in 1970.

RPG-16
Soviet paratrooper on an exercise

While not beating RPG-7 in terms of armor penetration, being longer and heavier was still a fair tradeoff. The effective range for RPG-16 was almost doubled, in comparison to regular RPG-7D used in the airborne forces. Armored targets could be penetrated and destroyed at up to 800 meters now. This distance could be achieved in practice, thanks to the PGO-16 scope issued with every launcher. While looking identical to a regular PGO-7, it has a unique sight reticle, designed for the ballistics of a PG-16 grenade.

PGO-7 sight reticle
Comparison of PGO-7 and PGO-16 sight reticle

While being a reasonably good weapon, RPG-16 could not compete with the ever-increasing armor of modern battle tanks. By the late 1970s, its ability to penetrate 300mm of armored steel was not enough. Following the same path as the PG-7 series of grenades was impossible, as the RPG-16 was unsuitable for using over-caliber grenades - it was limited to its own 58,3mm. Meanwhile, the grenades for RPG-7 were getting more and more "thick" - first the PG-7S and then PG-7L with 400mm and 500mm armor-piercing capability accordingly.

RPG-16
Soviet paratroopers during tactical training

So there was the decision - once again, the Airborne Forces of the Soviet Union adapted the old RPG-7D grenade launchers. These were almost exact copies of regular RPG-7 but can be braked in two parts so that they can be deployed together with the paratrooper. The RPG-16 launches were stocked in the warehouses and were not used officially since then.

Practical use of RPG-16 in Afghanistan

As the shift back to RPG-7D was to take place in the 1980s, Soviet Airborne units, which were part of the invasion force to Afghanistan were armed with RPG-16 grenade launchers. This can be tracked by photo evidence from all airborne or air assault units - 103rd, 56th and 345th. When analyzing the photos from these units, it can easily be summarised that the RPG-16 grenade launcher was only used in the early stages of the war - mostly in the spring and summer of 1980.

RPG-16
Maximal unobtanium combo: RPG-16 with 6b1

Using RPG-16 in Afghanistan would make the utmost sense. Because of its caliber and the grenade being the same width as the tube, the accuracy of the launcher was phenomenal, when compared to more common RPG-7. What is surprising, however, is how little photographic evidence there is of RPG-16 being used in later years of the war. The textual sources claim, that RPG-16 was especially effective against Mujahadean gun emplacements, which makes sense. However, they did not learn how to build these properly until mid-war.

RPG-16
RPG-16 on the parade ground

Curiously, this video presents us with another gem, just a couple of seconds after showing the Mosin-Nagant rifle. The video is dated December 1987, a very late stage of the war, practically the last year of the whole campaign.

right-hand

There is also a short paragraph in the famous "Spetsnaz GRU in Afghanistan" book, by Musienko A.V. It states that RPG-16 was indeed used by the SpN GRU in Afghanistan to destroy entrenched enemy. However, no photographic or video evidence is known to back this claim.

RPG-16
Extract from the book

Finding RPG-16 for collection and using it for reenactment

Nowadays original RPG-16 grenade launchers are rather rare on both civilian and black markets. First of all, there were never as many RPG-16 launchers as there were RPG-7. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a big number of these launchers were destroyed, while some ended up on the civilian market as deacts. Those who were clever and lucky to get them first got a real deal - I can remember them being at the price of a regular AKS-74.

Since then, things have changed (for the worse). Of course, no new RPG-16s were produced since the late 1970s, and not many, if any at all, were deactivated since the early 2010s. This means that the number of RPG-16s in circulation is not going to increase in the forthcoming future. Hence, the ones which are currently in circulation are likely to be the only available ones in the nearest years. If you need one - prepare a big buck.

RPG-16 RPKS-74 AKMS AKS-74 AKSU-74
Collection of airborne specific weapons

Fortunately, some people are working on reproducing them. And while at this stage these are still one-off projects, this is still much better than nothing. Wishing the best of luck to these teams, as this can and will enforce the reenactment of the Soviet-Afghan war. Speaking of which, bringing an RPG-16 to a reenactment event would be an absolute class, just like with the Mosin-Nagant rifle. And similarly, it is best to come up with the early war paratrooper impression for this - as only photos from 1980 and sometimes from 1981 are available.

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