I really liked the way RP-46 looked liked from the very first time I've seen it as a kid. I couldn't know the exact model but neither did the older people around me. This was not surprising for the 90s - many people could mistake PPSH-41 with a Thomson. However, the situation with the RP-46 did not change much since then. Out of all Soviet small arms, this one is the most unknown and forgotten. Ironically, even the Forgotten Weapons YouTube channel does not shed much light on it.
The development and design of RP-46
The design and some history of the development of the RP-46 machine gun are the only things which are well known about it. Mostly due to the fact, that it was possible to find these on the deactivated guns market.
The RP-46 is the direct successor of the famous WW2 era light machine gun DP-27. While being a reasonably good section support weapon, the magazine of the DP-27 left much to be desired. As almost any pan magazines, DP-27 pans were not great for the industry and for the army. They were complicated and expensive to produce, heavy, bulky and it took a lot of time to reload them. One might ask - why no regular magazines were designed for the DP-27, similar to the Bren gun. Well, this is certainly a good question and I might get an expert on Soviet WW2 small arms to make an article about it.
All in all, DP-27 was a WW1 concept and would work really well back then. However, it was no match to German MG-34/42 and so the Soviet Army and Soviet industry decided that it is time for a change.
Soviet's really liked the idea of having all in one general purpose machine gun, just like the MG-34. Eventually, this was achieved by introducing PK machine gun, but situation was different back in the 1940s. Soviet Ground Forces had four machine guns, all in big quantities to just ditch them and start producing a new one.
While Maxim gun was on it's way to be replaced by SG-43, the DP-27, as a section support weapons, was to be replaced by RPD-44. However, both Maxim and SG-43 mounted machine guns were the battalions level support weapons and there was nothing for platoons and companies.
The solution was genius in its simplicity and efficiency. A special adapter, which simulated the work of a regular DP-27 pan magazine was designed. The adapter was used to feed the new machine gun modification with regular 7.62x54R ammunition using metal links, which were commonly used on both Maxim and SG-43 machine gun by this time. Of course, now, when the "magazine capacity" was increased from the 47 rounds stored in the pan to 250 rounds in a regular sized belt, the machine gun had to be modified accordingly. A heavier, thicker barrel was installed. Some other changes were made, both to internal functioning of the gas parts as well as the controls - a pistol grip with a regular safety catch were now present.
The weight of the machine gun with the ammunition was increased, but so was the firepower and the reliability, so it was definitely a worthy trade-off. The interesting fact is that the RP-46 did not loose it's ability to be fed from the regular DP-27 pan magazines, which were available in astronomical numbers after the end of the Second World War. However, we are yet to find at least one photograph of it being used in such a set up in the Soviet Army. All in all, RP-46 turned out to be a great machine gun.
The use of the RP-46 in the Soviet Army
The mysteries with the RP-46 begin as soon as the machine gun gets adopted by the armed forces. To this day it is unclear if the machine gun was on a platoon or a company level. On one hand, the name of the machine gun translates as "Company Machine gun". On the other hand, it is hard to believe that there were no 7.62x54R automatic weapon in platoon sized units. Moreover, there is some evidence, that the RP-46 machine guns were, in fact, issued to platoons. Namely, the "Advice for training soldiers and units in shooting" by A.F. Grechikhin and A.K. Loschilov. It states following number of live rounds and inert grenades to be used for a live firing exercise:
7.62x54 - 60 7.62x39 - 406 Inert grenades - 9
Funny enough, the book does not state, what unit was supposed to get this amount of ammunition for the exercise. It was unlikely (but not impossible) to be an infantry company. Section would be possible, but it is very unclear, who would have used 7.62x54R ammunition within a section. So, the most logical answer would be an infantry platoon - this way soldiers would get around 10-15 rounds per each AK, each RPG-2 grenadier would get three inert rounds and someone would get 60 machine gun sized rounds. And even though it is impossible to confirm, it is most likely, that these rounds were to be used on the RP-46 machine gun. Mosin Sniper Rifle is also a possibility, however it is unlikely that so many rounds were issued for the marksman.
The use of the RP-46 machine gun within the Soviet Army is very hard to track, not just by documents but also by period photographs. If you want to find photographs of DP-27 in use during or even before the Second World War - you can easily find hundreds. If you need photos of PKM machine gun - there are thousands of photos available. If you are after RP-46, well, there are about a dozen known to the community. I personally spend tens of hours going though the photos from 50s and 60s, trying to score some photographs of RP-46 in use. I managed to find around nine. My next move is to start checking flea markets and carefully go through big piles of army photos which are usually sold there.
After the adoption of PK machine gun, RP-46 does not appear anywhere in the Soviet Army. You might not find it strange, but the fact is - it takes time to rearm an Army. Especially such a huge one. It was not unusual to see early type AK rifles or RPD machine guns in the 1970s and even 1980s. Hell, there is even one photo of RPD-44 being used in Afghanistan in early days of the invasion. But I bet you 20 bucks you won't be able to find a single photo or video of RP-46 machine gun in use after the adoption of PK machine gun.
Some explain the absence of the machine guns on the Soviet photos by the fact that many were donated or sold to foreign countries. While this is partially true, the big question arises - where are all the photos from these foreign countries? Just like in the case with the Soviet photos from the 50s and 60s, you are unlikely to find more than couple of dozen of those. And note, that RP-46 could not be some rare weapon. Even if intended number of the machine guns was just one per every infantry company, there still had to be tens of thousands of them, given both the size of the Soviet Army and the time of RP-46 being in active service.
The potential explanation of the mystery
In the previous paragraph I have listed four mysteries associated with the RP-46. In fact, all of them are just asking the same question - "Where the hell are the RP-46 machine guns?". The sad things is that I cannot answer this question, at least yet. It is also unfortunate, that the majority of those who actually had a chance to use or at least see this machine gun in the Soviet Army are no longer with us. Some work is done, however, to find those servicemen.
Anyway, there are some possible explanations to the absence of the RP-46. First of all, lets look at the 1940-1960s period, the "Atomic Age". The photo cameras were still a rarity at this stage. There were not many of them and they were expensive. Not every officer had one in his possession, let alone conscripts. At the same time, the number of professionals in the industry of the military photography has declined significantly after the end of the Second World War. There simply weren't much demand - no one thought that photographing everyday routine and training of the infantry soldiers is needed. Add the "Spy mania" which was popular at the time and you can answer yourself why there were not many photographs of the weapons, even such small ones as RP-46.
The absence of the photos outside of the Soviet Army are a little bit harder to explain. We still see such rarities as Madsen LMG or STG-44 in use. Why don't we see RP-46, which is way more suitable for the modern combat? It is possible, that we just have not put enough effort to get these photographs. Overall, we do not see many photos from the conflicts which do not directly involve citizens of the western hemisphere. Another explanation is that the Soviet Union have not actually donated that many of the RP-46 machine guns to other countries. This, however, does not match with the fact, that RP-46 rarely used in the post-Soviet conflicts. If the machine guns were not donated, they were to be stacked in Soviet republics and used accordingly, but this did not happen. Even in a large scale conflict in Ukraine you can barely find any photographs of the RP-46 used by either side.
The mystery of the absence of the RP-46 machine gun on photographs and videos is yet to be solved. Not a single Soviet weapon, which was supposed to be produced in such numbers is so rare to see as this one. Maybe, just maybe, this is the actual answer to the question - that the RP-46 was produced in limited numbers. This would explain everything I talked about in the paragraphs above. However, this is very unlikely - Soviet Union was an incredibly capable country and producing a machine gun which closely resembled the DP-27, which was already well known to the mechanical plants was not an issue.
This and other issues like that will be discussed in more details in my upcoming book - The Soviet Soldier of the Atomic Age. Also, here is a bonus photo for you - the night vision scope for the RP-46 machine gun and the crew to carry it.