I have covered various elements of small arms development during the Cold War more than a few times – usually involving the contentious process that led to the 7.62mm NATO cartridge being adopted, and the various rifles that failed to make the cut in the process. What I have not posted before, though, is a look at the state of small arms development as seen from behind the Iron Curtain.
Well, I was pointed to a declassified CIA translation of a Soviet Ministry of Defense assessment of small arms from 1965. Originally published in the journal “Military Thought”, the article explores the general trends and current (as of 1965) small arms used by the armies of the US, England, France, West Germany, and the USSR.
It should probably not be surprising that the authors came to the conclusion that Soviet small arms were superior to Western ones, but I think they make some pretty compelling points, and I might agree with them if someone forced me to choose sides. The fundamental difference in thought between the two sides was than the Soviets chose to use separate cartridges for infantry rifles (7.62×39) and machine guns (7.62x54R) while the West chose to use a single cartridge for both (7.62×51, and 7.5×54 by the French). For the West this led to an awkward area of choosing between weight and automatic fire effectiveness, as evidenced by the poor performance of all the Western rifles (M14/15, FAL, G3) in delivering automatic fire. The Soviets, by comparison, had the RPD and RPK which used their lighter infantry rifle cartridge and were thus able to deliver more accurate automatic fire without needing to be so heavy as to impact mobility. The M16 and the 5.56mm cartridge is viewed in the article as a newly developing American solution to this problem.
The article also compares the PK machine gun to its Western counterparts, the M60, AA52, MG-1, and MAG-58. Once again it judges the Soviet gun to be the best, and once again I think I would agree. Across the board, the Soviet designs tended to emphasize limiting weight in a way that did not appear to be as important to Western militaries. The PK in particular is a superb example of functionality and reliability in a package that is not unnecessarily heavy.
Anyway, there is a lot more in the 23 pages of translated article (handguns, the 5.56mm cartridge, submachine guns, etc), and I found it all interesting reading. For example, the Soviet habit of quantifying expected hits/minute from different guns depending on engagement range. I have not found an explanation of how these numbers are derived, but they are interesting to see…