October 2000:

Semiautomatic RPK 7.62x39mm Rifles

RPK Type:  Air cooled, magazine fed, self loading rifle
System of Operation:  Gas
Caliber:  7.62x39mm M43
Capacity:  40 round detachable box magazine (will accept AK47 and AKM 30 round magazines as well)
Sights, front: Post, adjustable for windage and elevation
Sights, rear:  Notch, adjustable for windage and elevation
Length: 1040mm 
Barrel length:  590mm
Weight (loaded):  5.0 kg
Retail Price:  $950 - $1250
We admit it.

When we hear the name John Browning, we involuntarily genuflect.  It's automatic.  Upon hearing the name of the most gifted and prolific firearms designer who has ever lived, we make automatic obeisance.  But let it not be said that we're biased or jingoistic.  We can also appreciate the work of other talented designers who have dramatically influenced firearms design and production.  One such designer is Mikhail Kalashnikov.  Kalashnikov's AK-47 and its progeny have established a more than half-century old reputation for reliability that has been rivaled by no other modern battle implement.  There are other designs that are more elegant, more accurate, and more nicely finished.  Despite that, military forces spanning the globe from South Africa to Finland and from Jerusalem to Beijing have recognized the Kalashnikov's ruggedness, utility, and simplicity as a recipe for a spectacularly successful military rifle.  The result has been the wholesale adoption of the Kalashnikov design, whether as a direct purchase from the former Soviet Union, licensed production, or as an indigenous design adapted from the basic Kalashnikov, around the globe.  No other rifle, with the possible exception of the FAL, can make a claim to such widespread use.

The basic operation of the Kalashnikov is simplicity itself.  A loaded magazine is inserted from the bottom, and locked in place against the latch in front of the triggerguard.  Once the magazine is in place, the selector lever on the right side is placed into one of the two fire position notches (there is only one notch, for semiautomatic fire on civilian versions), and the charging handle is pulled to the rear as far as it will go.  This moves the bolt, bolt carrier, and gas piston to the rear.  When released, the assembly moves forward under pressure of the recoil spring to chamber a round.  When the bolt is fully forward and locked, pressing the trigger releases the hammer to strike the free-floating firing pin which runs longitudinally through the bolt.  The pin then strikes the chambered cartridge's primer, and fires the round.  About two thirds of the distance down the barrel, the bullet passes the gas port.  A small amount of propellant gas is diverted into the gas tube, where it strikes the head of the gas piston before being released into the atmosphere through vents in the gas tube.  The pressure applied to the piston is then transferred to the bolt carrier, and as they move to the rear together, a cam-way milled into the front interior of the carrier acts on a lug on the bolt to rotate the locking lugs out of engagement with their recesses in the receiver trunnion.  The bolt, carrier, and piston then continue to the rear, riding over the hammer and forcing it into the cocked position.  As the operating parts move rearward, the spent cartridge case is extracted from the chamber and ejected up and to the right.  Upon reaching the rearmost point of travel, the bolt carrier is forced forward once again by the action of the recoil spring.  During forward travel, the bolt strips the uppermost cartridge from the magazine into the chamber.  As the bolt closes, the locking lugs are rotated into their recesses by action of the bolt carrier cam-way, and the arm is ready to fire again.

So successful has been the Kalashnikov design that it has spawned an entire family of arms.  There are submachineguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and light machineguns built around the basic Kalashnikov action, each of these displaying the qualities which made the basic model such a success.  The light machinegun variant is known as the Ruchnoi Pulemet Kalashnikova, or RPK.  The RPK has been manufactured under license in Hungary, Romania, the German Democratic Republic, and Bulgaria.  While it is basically similar to the AK-47, it has a longer, heavier 590mm (23.25") barrel that increases muzzle velocity by approximately 100 feet per second, and is issued with a 40 round magazine, as opposed to the AK-47's 30 round magazine.  A folding bipod is attached to the barrel behind the front sight, and the rear sight is graduated to 1,000 m, and is adjustable for both elevation and windage, unlike the AK-47, whose rear sight is adjustable only for elevation.  Additionally, the RPK has a "club foot" design, so as to provide better purchase for the left hand during prone firing.

The problem with the RPK, if it can be called a problem, is that the darn thing is a fully automatic firearm - a machinegun.  As such, it falls under the National Firearms Act, the strictures of which make owning one very difficult, if not impossible for most shooters.  This problem has recently been remedied, as RPK's built on semiautomatic receivers are now being offered for sale in the United States.

Admittedly curious about these new offerings, we ordered two for evaluation, one from Monroe, North Carolina based Inter Ordnance of America, and another from a small manufacturer in Weatogue, Connecticut called Provost's Precision Pistols (860-651-0071).  The RPK from Inter Ordnance arrived first.

Inter Ordnance RPK, Take One
In all fairness, it must be noted that Inter Ordnance does not actually manufacture RPK's at this time.  Inter Ordnance obtains RPK parts sets from eastern european sources, imports them, and then supplies the parts sets, along with US made receivers, to a manufacturer for assembly and finishing.  The current crop of RPK's that we tested were manufactured for Inter Ordnance by Blue Ridge Precision Gunworks, of Fort Mill, South Carolina on Hesse Arms M47C receivers using Romanian RPK parts.  Completed guns are marketed by and shipped from Inter Ordnance's headquarters in Monroe, North Carolina.

When the box arrived, we eagerly tore it open and, on first blush, we were tickled pink.  The gun was as new, built on a Hesse Arms M47C stamped receiver, with perfect dark red laminated stock and handguards.  It was finished in an attractive matte black, with no signs of marring or discoloration.  The 1,000 meter sights were nicely highlighted in orange.  All parts fit perfectly with no hint of unwarranted looseness.  Function testing displayed nothing out of the ordinary, and the gun seemed to cycle well, with all controls operating as expected.  In fact, an external inspection revealed nothing to complain about.  Not being content with an external exam, we tore the gun down to its basic components for a more detailed inspection.  While all operating parts (bolt, bolt carrier, receiver group) were in at least very good condition, not a single serial number matched.  This is not a large concern in a gun whose parts are designed to be interchangeable as long as headspace is within specification, and should be expected with firearms constructed from parts sets.  The gun headspaced well, closing on a SAAMI GO (1.2713") headspace gauge, but not on a NO-GO (1.2773") gauge.

Looking down the bore was another matter entirely.  While still shiny because of its chrome plating, the bore was obviously well used.  Actually, well used is a charitable description - it was just plain worn.  Curious to see just how worn the bore was, we stuck a 7.62x39mm cartridge point first into the muzzle.  Normally the round should be able to enter the muzzle no further than halfway up the bullet's ogive.  In this case, it easily dropped in until stopped by the case neck.  Not to be daunted, we tried another test.  A 7.62x39mm projectile was pulled from a surplus East German military cartridge, and dropped into the chamber, point first.  A projectile should be a very tight fit in a bore, requiring significant effort to force it through.  In this case, a gentle push on a cleaning rod served to propel the bullet through the bore.  Inspection of the bullet revealed little or no trace of rifling.

With no great expectations, we trundled off to the NRA range to find out just how badly worn the bore was.  We used a mix of Sellier & Bellot 123 grain FMJ and Russian 122 grain JHP 7.62mm ammunition for the test.  Once set up a total of 60 rounds were fired at an NRA B-3 target set out at 50 feet (yes, that's right, feet, not yards or meters).  Out of 60 rounds fired, the gun did not function as a self loader once.  Each round had to be manually extracted and ejected and the new round then stripped into the chamber.  Out of 60 rounds fired, there were 47 impacts on the target.  Of those, 36 displayed a lateral impact, otherwise known as a keyhole.  Our surmise as to what had happened was that the bore was so worn that the bullets practically wobbled down the bore, providing little or no gas seal.  As a result, the gas pressure entering the operating mechanism was insufficient to work the gun.  Since the bullets left the barrel in an effectively unstabilized manner, they were likely tumbling point over base as soon as they left the muzzle, accounting for the keyhole target impacts.

Whatever the reason, the gun's performance was clearly unacceptable, and it was returned to Inter Ordnance.

Provost's Precision Pistols RPK
Sufficiently jaded by our experience with the Inter Ordnance RPK, we didn't expect much when the Provost's Precision Pistols (P3) gun arrived a few days later.  P3 is a small two man shop operated by Christopher Provost and Carl Giuffre, that has been in business for over ten years.  P3 depends heavily on their master machinist Dom Spano.  During that time P3 has focused mainly on precision pistol work including cryo-accurizing, special finishes, and accuracy packages.  About a year and a half ago, the organization became a licensed manufacturer of machine guns, suppressors, and AOW's.  Current production automatic firearms are all classed as "post-May-1986 dealer samples."  In addition to RPK's (both semi and full automatic, in both 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm), P3 also produces RPD's, and Krinkov variants of the AK-47 and AK-74.  P3 boasts a full machine shop and also does complete refinishing (with the exception of bluing).  We had higher hopes for the P3 RPK (this gun sells for a princely $1,200 compared to the Inter Ordnance piece's $750).  We were not disappointed.

The P3 gun was certainly as nice looking as the Inter Ordnance gun, if not nicer.  It was built on a milled Bulgarian semiautomatic receiver using a new Bulgarian parts set from K-Var.  The wood was a light blond color, and absolutely perfect, with no marring, nicks or storage dings.  Finish was a perfect matte black, also with no marring or scratches.  An internal examination revealed that the parts were new, as advertised, and the bore was as bright, sharp, and shiny as a newly minted dime.  A headspace check revealed the rifle to be as new, closing on a Go gauge, but not on a No-Go gauge.  The bipod extended smartly upon release and provided a very stable platform.

Perhaps the worst thing that could be said about this gun was that the new Bulgarian barrel had had the stowage rings for the cleaning rod milled flat, so that the rod could not be carried on the rifle.  According to P3, this was simply the way the parts came, and we could find no rhyme or reason to it.

The bolt group ran smoothly, and all controls functioned properly with no undue looseness or binding.  Despite the bore's apparently nice condition, we  were still cautious after our previous experience.  However, when we tried to insert a bullet, point first into the muzzle, it went in only until the point where the diameter began to widen, and then stopped.  Things were given a prognosis of guarded optimism, and we began to look forward to the range test.

Shooting the P3 RPK
Guarded optimism?  Ok, who are we kidding.  We couldn't wait to shoot the darn thing.  In fact, it was all we could do to keep our speed down to a level that wouldn't attract the attention of either the Virginia State Police or the Fairfax County Police as we drove off to the NRA range. . .

We brought along the same 7.62x39mm ammunition as had been used to test the Inter Ordnance RPK, specifically Sellier & Bellot 123 grain FMJ and Russian 122 grain JHP.

Can you say "holy cow Batman?"

We ran a standard NRA B-2 target (3" black center) out to 50 yards (the maximum distance possible at the NRA range), and let fly.  We didn't expect much - the AK series are not known for stellar accuracy, and the combination of inexpensive bulk 7.62x39mm ammunition and open notch sights didn't bode well.   Nevertheless we fired off a string of ten rounds with the rifle resting on its bipod (normally we fire five shot accuracy strings but we did have a 40 round magazine. . .), and reeled the target in.  Were we ever shocked when we looked at it!  The center - the X ring and most of the ten ring had been knocked right out by the test string!

Sure that this had to be a fluke, we repeated the test five more times with three different shooters.  Each shooter achieved more or less the same results.  The group size averaged around an inch to an inch and a half.  To say that we were happy with the P3 RPK's performance would be a dramatic understatement.  One of our testers, a long time Kalashnikov collector put it best:  "I've never fired a rifle like this."

Recoil and Ergonomics
Recoil with an intermediate cartridge like the 7.62x39mm is not very great.  When one takes the added weight of the RPK's longer, heavier barrel and bipod into account, you have a recipe for a rifle that is really a pleasure to shoot. We fired almost 1,000 rounds through the gun, and could have gone on longer had we not run out of time and ammunition.  The Bulgarian furniture was a bit larger than the standard Russian or Chinese AK furniture, which often seems to be a little small for the  American shooter.  The pistol grip filled the hand comfortably, and the clubfoot RPK stock provided a length of pull that was not only quite satisfying from an ergonomic standpoint, but aligned the shooter's eyes perfectly with the sights.  We did find that when shooting the rifle from the bipod, it was important to use the correct Warsaw Pact hold on the gun; specifically, the right hand on the pistol grip, and the left hand across the body on the lower vertical portion of the stock.  Variations from this pattern did not prove nearly as comfortable.  Perhaps the most surprising ergonomic characteristic of the RPK was how comfortable it was to fire from the standing offhand position:  The longer barrel provided a balance far superior to the both a standard AK rifle and an SKS carbine.  All in all, we were quite happy with the RPK's ergonomics.

We tried to make it jam.  Really.  We did everything we could think of that wouldn't get us tossed off the range (justifiably so!) for a safety violation.  We tried "limp wristing" the gun, firing it while canted ninety degrees to both the right and left, and upside down.  No matter what we did, the gun never missed a beat, and kept going with no failures to feed, fire, extract, or eject.

Conclusion - Provost's Precision Pistols RPK
Provost's Precision Pistols makes an excellent RPK.  This should come as no real surprise, as they start with the best parts available and mate them with years of automatic weapons gunsmithing experience.  The result is a wonderful product that will meet the most exacting standards of performance and construction.  All this excellence has a price however, and the P3 RPK is  priced at some $400 - $500 more than the comparable product from Inter Ordnance.  However, this is a hand made firearm of  excellent quality, fit, finish, and performance, and well worth the investment.

Inter Ordnance RPK, Take Two
About six weeks after we sent back the first Inter Ordnance RPK, we received a replacement gun for evaluation.  The barrel had been replaced with a brand spanking new Bulgarian barrel.  Finish was the same matte black, with which we could find no faults - the only scratches were found along the arc described by the safety detent dimple as it moved along the receiver.  Furniture was, as before, reddish hued and laminated.  There was one minor scratch on the side of the lower handguard, and a pair of small mars on the top of the butt.

As with the original gun, all parts fit perfectly with no hint of unwarranted looseness.  The rifle functioned as expected (or, more accurately, as it was designed):  It cycled well, very well  as a matter of fact, displaying a smoothness of action not commonly associated with stamped receiver Kalashnikov variants.  All controls operated as expected.  As before, the external inspection yielded no complaints.  Satisfied with the outside, we stripped the gun down to basic components (barreled action, bolt, bolt carrier, recoil spring, gas tube, and dust cover).  Internally it was still dirty from factory test firing, but cleaned up very quickly to reveal interior components in excellent condition.  As before, not a single serial number matched, as is common with guns built up from parts sets.  Headspace was, as before, gratifyingly tight with the action closing on a SAAMI GO (1.2713")  gauge, but not on a NO-GO (1.2773") gauge.

Our only complaint, if it can be called that, about the gun during the pre-firing inspection was that the magazines fit more tightly, and were therefore slightly more difficult to seat than on other Kalashnikovs we've encountered.  This is a trivial matter, however, and one that will work out with use.  Indeed, while this might hamper combat efficiency with respect to rapidly changing the magazine, we have no intention of taking this gun into combat, and would much rather have a gun that will loosen up with use into "perfect" than one that will loosen up into "sloppy."

Looking down the bore on this gun was as gratifying as the original Inter Ordnance gun was depressing.  It was bright and shiny with nice sharp rifling.  So far so good.  Nevertheless, with some trepidation, we repeated our "hip pocket bore gauge tests."  A 7.62x39mm cartridge stuck point first into the muzzle entered only up to the point where the ogive approached the total diameter of the bullet.  Things were looking up!  Then we tried the second test, dropping a pulled projectile into the chamber.  It went up to the point where rifling started and stopped.  It wasn't going to budge without a lot of pressure from behind.  This was VERY encouraging.

Shooting the Second Inter Ordnance RPK
Having an inkling that this gun would fare significantly better than the worn bored first copy, we picked a beautiful sunny day, and drove off to the NRA range.

We used the same mix of 7.62x39mm ammunition as had been used to test the first Inter Ordnance RPK and the P3 RPK -  Sellier & Bellot 123 grain FMJ and Russian 122 grain JHP.  We pre-loaded four magazines, two 40 round RPK magazines and two 30 round AK-47 magazines.

Accuracy was tested using an NRA B-2 target (3" black center).  The target was set  out at 50 yards (the maximum distance possible at the NRA range), and we let fly.  As with the P3 RPK, we fired  a string of ten rounds with the rifle resting on its bipod, and reeled the target in.  Much to our surprise, we were very pleased about the results.   The group was slightly to the left of center, but well adjusted for elevation, and measured about two inches across.

We adjusted the rear sight to compensate for the windage (one of the benefits of the RPK configuration is a windage adjustable rear sight) and fired again. The shots clustered nicely in the bull's eye and X-ring.  Group size was about two and a half inches.  While not as tight as the P3's groups, the difference was not great, and there was nothing to be disappointed about with this gun's performance.

As an interesting aside, we noticed that the group sizes opened up appreciably when the gun was fired from a bench rest with the bipod folded.  We attribute this to the inconsistent motion of the bipod group during firing, which in turn affects the position of the muzzle as the bullet travels down the barrel.  Obviously, when the gun is resting on the bipod, this motion is eliminated.

Recoil and Ergonomics
The recoil sensation was largely the same as described with the P3 RPK, which is to say mild and pleasant.  The Romanian furniture was not quite so beefy as the Bulgarian, but still very comfortable.  The pistol grip was a little narrow for our tastes (then again, we think the Glock 21 is a pocket pistol), but shooters with medium sized or smaller hands will find them very comfortable.

The big shock was the trigger pull.  It was long, to be sure, but light and crisp as a match gun's.   "Unbelievable" was one tester's opinion.  We have no doubt that this pull contributed to the gun's accuracy.

As with the P3 gun, we were quite happy with the Inter Ordnance RPK's ergonomics.

We fired approximately 300 rounds through the Inter Ordnance RPK.  The last 40 were fired specifically with the intent of trying to make the gun jam.  We were in fact, successful.  With the gun lying on its right side supported by the bench rest we had a failure to eject when the bolt handle struck the bench prior to reaching the rearmost extent of travel.   Outside of placing physical restraint on the motion of the gun's reciprocating parts, we were unable to get it to jam despite our best efforts ("limp wristing" the gun, firing it while canted ninety degrees to both the right and left, and upside down).  The gun was perfectly reliable and never missed a beat, and kept going with no failures to feed, fire, extract, or eject.

Conclusion - Inter Ordnance RPK
We have nothing bad to say about the Inter Ordnance RPK.  In fact, it is a feather in Inter Ordnance's cap that they managed to identify the problem with the original guns, recall them, and fix the problem as rapidly as they did.  The gun shot well, looked nice, and was reliable.  More than that one cannot ask of any firearm.

In a nutshell, we were quite pleased with the "take two" RPK from Inter Ordnance  and can strongly recommend them.  Our feelings about the P3 RPK were very much the same, but amplified a bit.  They are both  high quality guns that performed flawlessly.  Perhaps more importantly, they made us question some stereotypes we'd held for a long time about the Kalashnikov system's potential for accuracy.  There is a significant disparity in price, to be sure, but one that has a ready explanation.  With the P3 RPK, your gun is constructed of brand new parts, you get a nicer, commercial grade finish as well as the attendant benefits of a milled receiver.  The Inter Ordnance gun uses parts sets taken from assembled RPK's, as well as using a less expensive (but no less functional) stamped receiver.  In addition, each P3 RPK is made specifically for a given customer so you get personalized attention from the craftsmen who build your gun.  Is it worth it?  You'll have to decide what is important to you.  Both products are quite enjoyable.

If you have any questions about where and how to go about acquiring a semiautomatic RPK,  please contact either Provost's Precision Pistol, or Inter Ordnance of America.

And now, our Buy-O-Meter rating for the Inter Ordnance RPK:

And now, our Buy-O-Meter rating for the Provost's Precision Pistols RPK:


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