Kalashnikov's RPK and RPK-74 machine guns are very controversial pieces of small arms. While some praise these light machine guns, others just call them used oversized AKs. In reality, both sides are right. However, the soldier does not always get to choose his weapon. And, in fact, RPK has some roles where it fits in real nice. Let's see what models were used in Afghanistan by the Soviet troops. If you are really into RPK-74 and other Soviet machine guns, do not hesitate to check out publication on the Soviet Infantry Weapons of the Afghan War.
RPD machine gun
I know, I know, there is no actual and 100% proof evidence, that this machine gun was used by the Soviet soldiers during the Soviet-Afghan war. However, we have listed this machine gun in our bigger compilation for a reason. While there is not much evidence, there is at least one I managed to find. It comes with a photo from Alexander Yegorov, who claims that this was his weapon during the initial invasion of Afghanistan - in 1980. He did not specify if he received another weapon later on, but it is very likely that it was changed to some 5.45 platform.
Overall, I would advise to take this evidence with a grain of salt. There is a possibility, that it is true - all in all, the guy comes from the 54th Pantoon-Bridgelaying Regiment. It is very likely that this unit was somewhere at the bottom of the list to rearm to the newer weapons. And there is a lot of clear evidence of RPD-44 machine guns being used in the Turkmenistan Military District in the 1970s.
But this is just a single piece of evidence I could find, and believe me, I've done some research on the topic. So basing your reenactment impression on this single fact is probably not the best idea.
Old 7.62 RPK during the Soviet-Afghan war
The 7.62 RPK LMG (Light Machine Gun) is an Atomic era firearm that was first introduced in the 1960s. It is somewhat based on the AKM rifle platform but was designed in parallel with it and has significant differences. The main difference is the receiver, which is different from the regular AKM one. It is reinforced, made from a thicker metal sheet, and therefore is not as prone to wear and tear as a given AKM rifle.
Just like the RPD, the RPK was designed to provide suppressive fire at the squad level. And while in theory, RPK is an inferior weapon, because it is not a belt-fed system, in practice it was actually better than RPD. It was a way more reliable weapon, as the RPD feeding system and the belt itself were pretty poorly designed. The RPK features a longer and heavier barrel than the AKM and a bipod for stability. It uses a 40-round magazine and would usually be also supplied with a 75-round drum magazine.
However, you will not find (m)any photos of RPK in a drum magazine, especially in Afghanistan. Somehow they all ended up on AKMs. The drum construction was not great, as it was very tedious to load one. It also makes noise when shaken, as rounds are not under heavy pressure from the spring. But the drum loading is so long and hard that you can probably load 5-6 regular mags at the time of loading one drum.
In terms of its use during the Soviet-Afghan war, it is actually quite similar to RPD. There are almost no hard facts of it being actively used there. We know for a fact, that thousands of soldiers were armed with AKM rifles during the mobilization and invasion period, so it would be only natural that every section would feature one RPK. However, photographic evidence is limited to just a few photos which I managed to find. Please note, that the number of photos from the early days of the Soviet-Afghan war is very limited and, unfortunately, this is unlikely to change.
Standard 5.45 RPK-74 LMG
Now, RPK-74. unlike the previous two LMGs were actually and properly used at all stages of the Soviet-Afghan war. And it was used in good numbers, there is no need to look for photographic evidence as there is so much around.
As most infantry regiments were actually armed with 7.62 weapons in the first months of the invasion, it is very likely that RPK-74 machine guns only started to appear in big numbers by the summer of 1980. This is when the majority of units received new 5.45 weapons for themselves, including rear echelon and even non-combat units.
The RPK-74 itself is really a copy of its 7.62 predecessor. It features the same received, and other main parts. But with the new caliber, it started to make way more sense in long-range firefights. The ballistics of a 5.45 bullet allows it to travel at further distances without losing the speed as much. And now, the new 5.45 RPK-74 could guarantee an effective range of up to 500 meters, when shot by an experienced gunner.
All in all, this was a pretty good weapon for the given conditions. It was not unusual for ground troops to get into long-range firefights, and heaving long-barreled RPK-74 alongside a PKM was definitely beneficial, in comparison to having just regular 5.45 AK variants. And Soviet infantry was lucky enough to have at least one per every section! The only type of firefights where RPK-74 would perform worse than AK-74 would be the close-quarter battles, which would happen not that often and would usually be assigned to reconnaissance or Spetsnaz units, which could choose specific firearms for the mission (within reason).
Folding stock RPKS-74
Last but not least, would be the Airborne specific RPKS-74. Unlike folding stock AKs, this machine gun would very rarely be issued to non-airborne units. As always, there are a couple of exceptions, but they are as rare as it gets.
Essentially it is all the same as a regular RPK-74, but it has a folding stock. The stock is made from wood, which is a much better option than a cheaper steel stock installed on AKS-74, but the folding mechanism is not great. It is easy to unfold the stock with a lever on the back of the receiver, but to fold the stock back in you need some sort of thin tool to push the corresponding button. A bullet will also do the job.
As I said, RPKS machine guns were very unique and specific for the airborne units. And this rule generally applied to the Soviet-Afghan war. 103rd Airborne Division, 345th Airborne Regiment, and 56th Airborne Brigade all have these machine guns throughout the war as their main version of the RPK. It is only the 56th Brigade that was issued full-stock RPK-74 later in the war.
But there were some exceptions. At least two Spetsnaz units had the RPKS-74 - 459th SpN and 668th SpN detachments. This was sort of unusual, as Spetsnaz units generally did not tend to use LMGs, preferring a PKM as their main support weapon. Another unexpected unit to use the RPKS-74 machine guns was the 781st Reconnaissance Battalion. It is an infantry unit, in its nature, since it is part of the 108th Motor Rifle Division. It is not exactly clear how they received these machine guns, but it is a fact since it is both mentioned in the memoirs and seen in photos. The battalion is famous for using AKMS rifles late into the war when essentially everyone used 5.45 weapons. And they did mix it with RPKS-74, which is not too strange if you think about its ballistic capabilities.