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Heavy machine gun

DShK machine gun

The DShK heavy machine gun is in service for nearly 80 years

Country of origin Soviet Union
Entered service 1938
Caliber 12.7 x 108 mm
Weight (unloaded) 34 kg
Weight (with shielded carriage) ~ 180 kg
Length 1 625 mm
Barrel length 1 070 mm
Muzzle velocity 850 - 870 m/s
Cyclic rate of fire 540 - 600  rpm
Magazine capacity belt-fed, 50 rounds
Sighting range 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 M2 Browning 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 rugged conditions.

   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 battlefield.

   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 mechanism.

   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 collapsible tripod.

   In terms of firepower the DShK outperformed the American M2 machine 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 NSV.

   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.

   Almost every 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 M2 Browning 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 1970s.

   At 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 M2 Browning 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.




   DShK Mod. 38 (M1938) – Original version utilizing the bulb-shaped muzzle brake.

   DShKM - 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, T-55, and T-62 tanks.


Miguel Miranda

   Article by MIGUEL MIRANDA

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DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

DShK machine gun

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