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Chinese DShK - Type 54. Practical usage during the Soviet-Afghan War

Our previous article was about the use of the Soviet-made, tank-mounted DShKM machine gun. However fascinating it may be, tanks have seen very limited use in the Afghan mountains. This war was fought by the infantry and there is not much evidence to deny the fact. So in this article, we will talk about the impact of the Chinese DShK - Type 54 machine gun on Soviet-Afghan relations.


The characteristics of Type 54

The external difference between the Chinese version of the Type 54 machine gun and the DShKM for us was the absence of transverse cooling ribs on the barrel: the finned barrel was familiar to the ZPU, and domestic DShKs with a lightweight “smooth” barrel were unfamiliar to us (although they existed). And the Chinese designation "Type 54" while serving in Afghanistan was unknown to me and many other officers, so the machine gun was called "Chinese DShK".

Type 54 DShK machine gun
Close up on a captured Type 54

The technically possible aiming range with the iron sights is 3.5 km, however, the practical maximum distance would be somewhere between 1500 and 2000 meters, depending on the visibility and weather conditions. With the very high kinetic energy of almost a 50-gram bullet, the lethal effect of Type 54 is stretched to a distance of 7 km. It is a perfect ambush weapon for hitting targets at long ranges while remaining out of reach of rifle-caliber small arms.

Armor-piercing incendiary bullets turned lightly armored vehicles - BMP, BTR, BRDM, MTLB, and BMD into a sieve. Hitting a 12.7 mm caliber bullet into a human body at best led to incredibly severe injuries. The personal protective equipment - helmet and body armor, did not help with a direct hit at any distance.

Type 54 DShK machine gun
Mujahadeen crew carrying a disassembled soviet made DShKM

Correct battle positioning is the key

If the position was chosen correctly, we are talking about the dominant height with a large open space in front of it, the Type 54 DShK machine gun became very dangerous for the Soviet troops. The universal tripod made it possible to rotate the machine gun all around 360° on a horizontal axis. The large angles of elevation and declination of the weapon made it possible to fire at targets in a wide range of vertical aiming. In mountainous terrain, 12.7-mm machine guns Type 54 also showed high efficiency in the fight against helicopters.

Type 54 DShK machine gun
Mujahadeens posing with Type 54

The battalion commander from the Tashkent Higher Tank Command School, Lieutenant Colonel M. Tkachenko claims:

When I served as deputy commander of the Jalalabad motorized rifle brigade there was the following case. Two Type 54 heavy machine guns mounted on commanding heights made it impossible for an entire motorized rifle battalion to advance. Infantrymen had to move on foot since the difficult mountainous terrain of Afghanistan severely limited the use of military equipment, but two machine guns made them hold and we had to scrap the operation alltogether.

Usage of Type 54 DShK by the Soviet Troops

Soviet ground troops were quite limited in heavy weaponry, especially when it came to 12.7mm machine guns. At this point, units of the 40th Army were rearmed to NSV "Utes" machine guns, which were mainly used by raiding groups. The outposts were armed with what was left. In this situation, the high combat properties of the 12.7-mm Type 54 machine guns came to good use.

Type 54 DShK machine gun
Soviet troops in Afghanistan using Soviet made DShKM

Captured machine guns of this type were available at many Soviet outposts as non-standard weapons. Installed on watchtowers and commanding heights, they made it possible to keep the area at gunpoint at a great distance. The main part of Afghanistan was dominated by mountainous terrain with very sparse vegetation (with the exception of "green zones"), and when taking a good position at a dominant height, visibility was provided for many kilometers.


Type 54 DShK machine gun
Type 54 on an outpost

In particular, at the 19th outpost (located on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway), a large-caliber machine gun mounted on a watchtower could shoot through the surrounding area at ranges up to 3-4 km. From the post of a communications platoon guarding the antenna field in the Teply Stan area of Kabul, the firing range of the Type 54 machine gun did not cover even half of the visible space: from the mountain, there was an excellent view of the valley below. The valley was open - without trees and large villages, and any movement on it was visible for many kilometers at a glance. Of course, the lack of an optical sight did not allow sniper fire at distant targets, but the shrapnel of explosive MDZ bullets could easily cover the target, even if, due to the long distance, the target figure was completely covered by the thickness of the front sight.


Problems and mistakes associated with the usage of the Type-54 DShK machine gun

The high efficiency of Type 54 large-caliber machine guns in mountainous areas was sharply reduced in flat areas. The use of tanks in tank-accessible terrain in the battle formations of motorized riflemen, paratroopers, and scouts made heavy machine guns extremely vulnerable to return fire. Even a fortified MG emplacement had no real chance against a tank equipped with anti-projectile armor and a powerful gun capable of destroying almost any field defense with a direct hit.


Type 54 DShK machine gun
Soviet officer posing with a captured Type 54

The large weight and dimensions of the heavy machine gun also made it difficult for the machine gun crew to maneuver on the battlefield; it took a lot of time to set up the machine gun. NSV "Utes" was a great design for that matter.

A big drawback of Chinese-made machine guns was their low technical reliability. The quality of the metal from which they were made was much inferior to Soviet weapon steel. Here is a quote from one of the weapons officers:

So, the Type 54 machine gun, installed at the guard post of the communications platoon of the tank battalion, guarding the antenna field of the 40th Army Air Force communications center, was practically not combat-ready. At first, the ejector hook broke off - I did not encounter such a malfunction on any of our weapons of that type. The ejector was replaced by taking it from extra parts of one of our own DShKM installed on the tank. However, even after that, the machine gun did not work for long: the hinged connection of the gas piston with the bolt frame collapsed. An attempt to use welding to repair the swivel led to the fact that the Type-54 after the repair could only fire single shots.
Type 54 DShK machine gun
Quite a rare way to use Type 54 on top of a BMP-1



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