Country of origin
12.7 x 108 mm
Weight (with shielded carriage)
~ 180 kg
1 625 mm
850 - 870
Cyclic rate of fire
540 - 600 rpm
belt-fed, 50 rounds
3 500 m
Range of effective fire
2 000 m
For such a
ubiquitous and iconic weapon there isn’t a lot of literature delving
into the DShK’s origins.
Often described as the Russian analog of the
the Degtyarev Shpagin Krupnokalibernyi (DShK) shares little in
common with its longstanding rival and the differences between
either machine gun are quite glaring. Like many Soviet-made weapons
the DShK has proven tough, powerful, and blessed with longevity. But
its critics deride it as cumbersome, antiquated, and unreliable in
Profiles of the DShK often mention how it took several years
for the Russian gunsmith and inventor Vasily Degtyarev to perfect
his heavy machine gun. What is often unmentioned is when the Soviet
Union’s ambitious Five-Year Plans got underway in the late 1920s
there was a huge effort to advance the domestic arms industry.
This involved developing firearms on par with those from
Western Europe. The Red Army’s 1929 requirement for a new heavy
machine gun that fired armor-piercing rounds was part of this trend
and arose from the threats posed by both tanks and aircraft on the
Although Degtyarev was one of the most talented small arms
designers in the Soviet Union the prototype he finished in 1930 had
a glaring flaw. Based on a close reading of different accounts about
the DShK’s development it appears the machine gun’s first iterations
were problematic because of a poorly designed belt-fed loading
Perhaps this explains why the original variant called the
Degtyarev Krupnokalibernyi or “DK” was built in small numbers from
1933 until 1935. At the time the DK had the nasty habit of jamming
and tearing up its 12.7x108mm round’s cartridge belt when ejecting
its shells. The Red Army found this unacceptable and by 1938 a new
rotary feed cylinder created by Georgy Shpagin was incorporated into
the machine gun. Thus was born the Degtyarev Shpagin Heavy
Caliber—the DShK’s name in English.
The gas operated and fully automatic DShK 38 arrived right on
time for the apocalyptic World War II (known as the Great Patriotic War
in Russia). At first the machine gun came with a 50-round belt in a
square magazine and was transported using a detachable trolley that
included a quaint shield. An ingenious aspect of the DShK’s trolley,
which was allegedly designed by the inventor I.N. Kalesnikov, is it
can be taken apart and reconfigured as a tripod that allowed for
greater gun elevation when targeting aircraft.
The DShK was used throughout the Red Army but it wasn’t as
common as the 7.62 mm Degtyarev or the Maxim. The available writing
suggests production was in the low thousands for much of World War
II and the DShK’s ideal role was an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a
In terms of
firepower the DShK outperformed the American
gun and other 12.7-mm heavy machine guns. It has more muzzle
energy due to its longer cartridge. At a range of 500 m the DShK
penetrates up to 15 mm of rolled homogenous armor.
Thanks to its excellent range and design, it found a niche
aboard armored trains, submarines, boats, aircraft, and most
importantly the Joseph Stalin-series heavy tank and the monstrous
ISU-152 tank destroyer. From then on the DShK would be a fixture on
several generations of Russian tanks—the T-54/55,
T-10, and T-62—until
it was supplanted by the
By the end of the World War II the DShK M, introduced in
1946, became the machine gun’s permanent template until its
production ceased in 1980. This later variant of the DShK came with
a detachable collimated sighting complex used for targeting aircraft
and adjustable shoulder pads that allowed the gunner’s body to
mitigate its powerful recoil.
The DShK is recognizable for its sturdy tripod and peculiar
barrel assembly that’s supported by a gas tube. At almost a meter
long, the barrel has distinctive circular ribbing—also known as
ventral fins—that helps cool it during sustained fire and features a
prominent front sight that towers above the circular muzzle brake.
The DShK’s receiver is a far cry from other machine guns too.
To fire the gunner simply needs to pull its primary charging handle,
which is found underneath the two shovel grips, and aim using the
rectangular flip sight.
An alternate method of cocking the DShK is to take a 12.7 mm
round and attach it to the circular button underneath its receiver,
which functions as an alternate charging handle. Pulling the bolt
backward opens a latch that clears the chamber of a spent round and
loads it for firing.
The DShK’s combat record is, for lack of a better word, epic.
major conflict that pitted Soviet proxies against Western allies
involved the DShK while Asia, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European
militaries were well-stocked with this powerful machine gun.
Guerillas and terrorists across four continents—be they PLO, IRA,
Polisario, or even the Afghan mujahideen—have found it indispensable
against vehicles, armor, and even aircraft.
Another reason for its success was the Soviet Union being
very generous with transferring its production abroad, i.e. to the
former Yugoslavia, the former Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary.
Even today, unlicensed DShK’s are manufactured in Iran, Pakistan,
and Sudan. The DShK also achieved ignoble feats that the
never did. In the Middle East and Africa it became an integral part
of what became the “technical” or improvised 4x4 combat vehicles
with often rudimentary armaments.
In 2014, the Syrian militant group Jaysh al-Islam published
photos of a bolt action anti-material rifle utilizing the DShK’s
barrel assembly. That same year photographs originating from
Northern Iraq showed an unmanned ground vehicle armed with a DShK
used by an Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary group.
Several generations of machine guns can trace their roots to
the DShK. In China the state-owned small arms industry used it as
the basis for three types of lightweight heavy machine guns: the
Type 77, the Type 85, and the Type 89.
The DShK’s familiar appearance in battlefields everywhere has
crossed over to the silver screen. Authentic DShK 38’s were widely
used in Soviet cinema dealing with the World War II until the
height of the late Cold War it traveled across the Atlantic and
reached Hollywood, debuting in the jingoistic Midwestern guerilla
fantasy Red Dawn and making consistent appearances in various action
movies since—especially ones set in Eastern Europe.
Owing to production and budget constraints some movies use
improvised DShK’s based on another prop machine gun like an
or an M60.
As of this writing ongoing wars in Southeast Asia, South
Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America,
and North and Central Africa involve a plethora of familiar Eastern
Bloc weapons that almost always includes the DShK. At the rate it’s
going the DShK could remain in service for a hundred years. After
all, 2038 is just around the corner.
38 (M1938) – Original version utilizing the bulb-shaped muzzle brake.
Improved version. It was developed at the end of World War II and
adopted in 1946. It has a number of improvements. This version is
also more reliable than the original DShK. The DShKM came with a
detachable collimated sighting complex used for targeting aircraft
and removable and adjustable shoulder pads that allowed the gunner’s body to
mitigate its powerful recoil. It was widely exported to the
Eastern Bloc and Soviet Allies in the Third World Countries. Its
production ceased in 1980.
DShKM-4 – A
quad mounted towed anti-aircraft gun utilizing four DShK’s.
DShKT – Variant used on IS-series, T-10,
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