PK or PKM? Choice of a Soviet machinegunner in Afghanistan
Updated: Feb 28
When a reenactor or a collector grows to the point when he ready to purchase a GPMG for his Soviet-Afghan collection, an important question comes to mind. Which machine gun fits best - old PK or his modernized younger brother?
The answer is not exactly obvious. Even though most reference pictures will have PKM, a.k.a. modernized PK, the older version comes up quite often. To explore this question deeply, let's recall the development process of the Kalashnikov machine gun.
Stepan Popeka with PK machine gun. 345 PDP, 1982-1984
After WW2, Soviet Army has a bit too many machine guns for their taste. They had hand held DP-28 and DPM-44, which were soon modernized to RP-46 version. They also had "almost working" SG-43 and tested and robust water cooled Maxim gun. At the same time, tanks used their own version of Dyagterev MG (DT) and newer tanks and armored vehicles would get SG-43 installed on them.
Mass production of SG-43 only started after WW2
In comparison to an elegant solution used by the German Army, who had all-in-one MG-34 general purpose machine gun, the Soviet machine gun fund was a complete mess. Not to mention that water-cooled Maxims, which represented the majority of company level support weapons, were completely outdated at the time.
Soviet Army required a solution similar to the German one. They wanted a machine gun which can be used from bipod, from tripod or installed on a personnel carrier without making any dramatic changes to the gun itself.
Nikitin machine gun. Never adopted
The competition for such weapon system was held at the end of 1950s. Kalashnikov team was lagging behind some other small arms developers, but at the end they came up with the version that satisfied the armed forces. In the end of 1961, PK and PKS ("S" standing for "stankoviy" - "on a tripod") were adopted by the Soviet Ministry of Defence. Lesser known fact is that the tank adaptation of this machine gun, known as PKT took another year to be adopted.
The production started pretty much right away at Kovrov Mechanical Plant. As with everything military produced by the USSR - these machine guns were produced in thousands from day one. Given that throughout 1960s the army still had to deal with both RP-46 and SG-43, this was essential for the Soviet Army, which loved standardization.
PK and PKM
In 1969 a modernized version was adopted - PKM. This literally stands for Kalashnikov machine gun modernized. From the soldier's view, not much has changed. The controls, ammunition and overall look stayed the same. The old PK was a perfectly good weapon and the reasons for modernization were exclusively to simplify the production. The top cover of the machine gun was reinforced and the shape of the buttstock changed. The main visual difference is the new barrel - it became smooth (not on the inside of course. However, the barrels are interchangeable, so it's not the best point to identify the weapon. Also note, that both top cover and the stock can be easily replaced between the two, yet it did not happen often in the forces.
"Heavy" Samozhenikov tripod. Very rare nowadays
The big change was the adaptation of a new tripod - created by the guy named Stepanov. And it is literally the lightest thing in the world. The whole PKMS set up (machine gun + tripod) weights just over 12 kg, which is lighter than most modern machine guns without the tripod. This, in my opinion, makes PKM one of, if not the best machine gun in the world. It can deliver same or similar fire rate at the same distance just like any counterpart, yet being almost twice as light.
Guy from our team with PKMS during the photoshoot. Don't mind the uniform, we were just playing around!
Anyhow, let's get back to Afghanistan. By the time of the invasion, Soviet industry been producing PK and PKM for almost two decades. Given the capacity of Soviet small arms plants, the majority of regiments were well equipped with these machine guns. Yet, some were equipped with older PK, while some already had brand new PKMs. Let's try to find out how these machine guns were distributed.
Well, for this we will have to go a bit into the Soviet Army structure. It is well known, that the Soviets considered their western border as the potentially dangerous one - hence all the new equipment was issued there first. The other military districts were not so quick to get new gear. By the time Soviets entered Afghanistan, most of the units participating in the invasion were still equipped with 7.62 AKM rifles, despite the fact that AK-74 and AK-74S were both in production for at over three years at this stage.
And as you may know, most of the units participating in the Afghanistan campaign were those who were originally from Turkmenistan Military District (TurkVO). Those were considered very rear echelon and they were generally lagging at least 5-10 years behind the rest of the Armed Forces in terms of equipment. The machine guns used were not an exception. The majority of regiments located in TurkVO were armed with old gen PK machine guns. Being paratroopers or border guards did not help much in this case.
Let's go over some photos trying to proove a pattern there:
Unidentified (most likely - 56 DShB) paratrooper unit. The guy on the right holds a PK
Nikolay Hudyakov with PK machine gune. Note his all infantry loadout - pilotka hat, veshmeshok and BMP-1 IFVs at the back. 180 MSP, 108 MSD, Summer 1980.
Soldiers of 58th Automobile Brigade (logistics) with a PK machine gun. Mid-war.
Paratroopers of 357 PDP, 103 Airborne Division posing with a PK. Winter 1980
Defensive position of 357 PDP, 103 Airborne Division. Summer 1980
Same regiment, same paratrooper, PK is now paired with an AGS-17 at a shooting range. Summer 1980.
345th Independent Airborne Regiment. Bahram, Spring 1980
So, you get the pattern. Given that most of the regiments in Afghanistan were from TurkVO, it is generally safe to use old PK for almost any impression: infantry, logistics, paratroopers - you name it. 103th Airborne Division is a notable exception here, since they were stationed in Belarus, yet still had PKs. PK is very good choice if we are talking about the early war impressions, up until 1982. It is not that the old machine guns were taken out of the regimental small arms depots, rather they were used out and replaced by the new PKMs, since PKs were discontinued at this point. There is still a possibility that some old PKs were left at the military district weapon depos, and they would be supplied from there. However, I can not back this information with any documents or at least memoirs.
Overall, the rule of thumb is - PK is good for early war, PKM is good for mid to late war. The big question, however, is where to get a good old PK nowadays? Since they were in mass production for under a decade, most deacts, blanks or even live ones you might find are the modernized PKMs. Same goes with the airsoft market, which is dominated by A&K PKM. Given the relative rarity of the PK, it would be a true gem in one's collection.