DS-39: The Failed Soviet Machine Gun of World War Two

The Soviet Union recognized the need for a modernized machine gun to replace the Maxim, and in the late 1920s Degtyarev began work on a “universal” type of gun. This would be air cooled, use standard Maxim belts and 7.62x54R ammunition, and used as a tripod mounted infantry gun, a vehicle mounted gun, and also as an anti-aircraft gun. The first prototype was delivered in 1930, and over the next 9 years it was tested and developed (including the addition of a Shpagin type rotary feed system). It was formally approved and adopted in 1939, and production began in June 1940 – just in time to see service in the Winter War against Finland.

Unfortunately, the testing that had made the gun look ready for service had not been adequate, and when DS39s reached the field they quickly began having major problems. In particular, the gun was plagued by out of battery detonations and a remarkable type of malfunction in which the bolt opened violently enough that it would pull the an unfired cartridge case out of its belt while leaving the bullet still in the belt. An investigation by Soviet ordnance found no suitable way to fix these problems on the fly, and production ceased only a year after it began. A total of just 10,345 were made, and the Red Army kept using its old 1910 Maxim guns instead. A new machine gun program was quickly put in place, and the result was the Goryunov SG-43 several years later.

The Finnish Army captured a quantity of DS39 machine guns during the Winter War, and VKT (the State Rifle Factory) actually came up with a number of improvements to the design, which were implemented on those guns in Finnish hands (unfortunately I don’t have details on just what those improvements were).


  1. Finnish sources give the following information:
    “Finnish troops captured bit under 200 machineguns of this type (most of them in 1941) during Continuation War. Also Finnish troops soon noticed the reliability problems these weapons. Aimo Lahti studied captured DS-39 machinegun and in year 1942 he planned it 8 improvements, which considerably reduced the problem. Maybe the most important improvement was decelerator switch, which was added to the weapon’s bolt, as the original high rate-of-fire had proved related to reliability problems. Other improvements included making gas-piston thinner (otherwise it typically jam the weapon after only 1,000 shots or so) and adding chamber for soot in end of gas-piston (otherwise the soot could jam gas-piston after some 4,000 – 5,000 shots). Holes of gas-regulator were also increased in size to allow more gas getting to gas-piston and angle of contact piece was changed. In addition also firing pin was thinned. The last but not least of improvements was modifying the weapon’s feeding system so that Finnish 200-round metal ammunition belts M/32 could be used. While these Finnish improvements reduced reliability problems of DS-39 in some extent, they failed solving the basic problem – the feeding system of this machinegun had been poorly designed and it simply didn’t work well. Late 1942 Finnish military withdraw all captured DS-39 machineguns from the troops and sent them to VKT (Valtion Kivääritehdas = State Rifle Factory), where this 8-part improvement plan was implemented. After making these improvements the machineguns were re-issued to Finnish frontline troops. While not part of the improvement plan Finnish military removed the attachment of optical sight from the captured DS-39 (it seems that the optical sights belonging to these weapons were not captured – at least not in real numbers). Finnish soldiers also usually removed the weapon’s shield, as the protection it offered was highly questionable. Year 1943 Finnish Army typically issued either 20 250-round fabric belts or 25 200-round steel belts with each DS-39 machinegun. In its highest the number of DS-39 in Finnish use peaked to 175 and after 2nd World War 145 of them still remained. During Continuation War Finnish frontline troops used these machineguns. After World War 2 the remaining DS-39 were warehoused until being declared obsolete year 1986 and mainly scrapped..”

  2. And more about the problems of DS. I apologize for my English, maybe I am not translating some of the terms correctly.
    Dismantling a cartridge from a DS during automatic operation is a phenomenon due to the design of the mechanism feeding the cartridges and the dynamics of the process of lowering the cartridge to the dispensing line. For DS, the cartridge was removed from the belt by extractors of the KPVT or SG type, and then lowered into the bolt hooks with a special wedge passing between them. On this wedge in the rollback of the movable system, the bottom of the cartridge “bumped”. When lowering the cartridge down, a moment arose that broke it. The bullet is still moving back, and the sleeve has already gone down. This effect was especially evident on cartridges with a heavy bullet and a brass case. During the operation of the DS, it was forbidden to shoot them with cartridges with a brass case.
    The consequences of dismantling the cartridge was the scattering of gunpowder inside the box. And also the need to remove the bullet that has fallen out of the heated weapon and manually squeeze the sleeve down. The pleasure is below average.
    In addition, the effect of ignition (rupture) of the cartridge was noted when it was lowered to the shutter mirror. As it turned out, the primer of the Soviet cartridges was quite sensitive to side impact. Ignition of the cartridge in the box did not damage the machine gun. But the flash and burning of gunpowder inside the weapon in combat conditions, and the need to then remove a piece of a cartridge case and a bullet from the inside, had a very bad effect on the soldiers. All this did not contribute to respect for the DS.
    Most of these problems have been eliminated in the DS-42. But a different story happened there.

    • “(…)This effect was especially evident on cartridges with a heavy bullet and a brass case.(…)”
      Which leads to question if that was not detected during trials or ignored just to get it adopted after years of efforts?
      As side note Degtyarov in his memoirs titled Моя жизнь (1950) does not mention anywhere DS-39. Considering its problematic service it is not surprising, but it is interesting that even designer of weapon which spent several year on it has nothing to say in its’ defense.

      • This is a very complex topic. There are a lot of questions about Degtyarev’s work in the late 30s and 40s. In particular, the question of the relationship between Degtyarev and Goryunov. Formally, they worked at the same plant in Kovrov. In fact, Degtyarev’s design bureau and the plant’s design bureau were competitors.
        Some details can be found now from the unscheduled documents. We won’t learn much anymore.

        • To enhance entanglement there was also Silin, which also was into developing machine gun in 1930s.
          states that he hastily developed ТКБ-67 which has potential but allegedly Degtyarov design was selected to win even before trials commenced. But it was selected to use in some gun mounts (common mount with cannon and machine gun).
          Silin also earned Lenin Prize for design of his machine gun, which raises many question. Mainly, if this design was so important why it was sent into oblivion?

          • I don’t believe Silin’s design was good. Of course, test reports are needed, but …
            Silin made different designs for aviation, there are different requirements. There is no ardor and dirt in the sky. When the Shpitalny gun was installed in the T-60 tank, a lot of complaints about its reliability went from the front.
            The Lenin Prize could have encouraged a promising designer. It was. You can recall Taubin, who received an award and his design bureau for an automatic grenade launcher, which was frankly bad. Potentially good, but that potential could have been realized in 1960, not 1940.

  3. I seriously hope that there are many more videos from that museum/treasure trove coming and an overview of whatever little piece of heaven it is. Looks like a great place to spend time.

  4. Ian, You just have to get an explaination of that harp shaped cymbol on the wall to your left. I can not understand why that would be in a firearms showroom. Please!

    • @John Bric,

      Sure looks like one. Gotta wonder what on earth it’s doing in a military museum, and who the Finns might have captured one from…

      That really goes to demonstrate the hubris involved in the whole thing, if the Soviets sent in a full military marching band with their troops during the Winter War, and the Finns pulled that thing off some poor bandsman’s rotting corpse. Hell, it’s an amazing thing if they even sent the band in with their instruments on trucks, and the Finns yanked it out of some burning hulk…

      More than likely, the Finns were so bemused by the existence of the damn thing, they probably grabbed it up thinking “WTF is this…? Some kind of torture instrument? A secret weapon…? Gotta get it back to the intel types…”.

      Somewhere, there’s no doubt a voluminous report on the matter, filled with intel-weenie speculation and worry. Which was probably stuffed into a file with deep embarrassment, once someone familiar with military marching bands got a look at it, and went “Oh, yeah… Nice Glockenspiel, ya got there….”.

      That is a pretty esoteric instrument, there–The average layperson has no idea what one is, and even some people in the various military bands I’ve been around haven’t had a freakin’ clue. I used to know some folks who were in the I Corps band, and since they had their storage cages near ours, I was occasionally around when they were doing the usual periodic cleanup you do as a part of the normal military routine. The Glockenspiels that they had on their books nearly got thrown out, during one of those affairs, and I spotted them sitting on top of a pile of “things we’re throwing the ‘eff out” before the NCOIC noticed what the troops were doing. He was not a happy camper–Apparently, they’d been “missing” during the handover inventories when he’d gone to sign for the band’s property, and somebody had bought the damn things to the tune of a couple of thousand bucks… The whole time, they’d been languishing in the storage areas, and nobody in the band had known what they were. I believe they were on the books as “xylophone, field”, or something similar, while being stamped with the manufacturer name and “glockenspiel”. Even the guy who’d been signed for the band before this guy didn’t know what they were, since he’d never actually bothered to do a full layout and inventory before signing for the hand receipt in the time-honored military tradition of passing the buck, he being someone who’d come into the Army laterally as a take-up from civilian life. No military background, no idea about the little games they play with property books–Dude got screwed. If I remember the story right, he wound up signing a statement of charges for missing property to the tune of nearly $10,000.00, with a lot of the property actually being there on hand, just in unknown locations. His successor was doing his best to try and unwind the whole deal and get him his money back, but it literally took years to work through the system.

      You absolutely do not want to be “that guy” who moves into the military world with no background at all in it. You don’t even know what you don’t know, and all the little features of military life like “Don’t sign shit without actually seeing everything on the paperwork and knowing where it is…” that you learn through either observation or sad personal experience escape you, and you’re gonna experience a very steep and extremely expensive learning curve.

      When the Army does things like bring people on-board direct from civilian life, those people are often ill-equipped to survive their time in the military. Whole different world, I’m telling you…

      • Great story! I heard of an inventory on a base near the coast, where they had excess equipment, including a couple of trucks. They put the stuff in the trucks, took them down to the beach, and buried them. Somebody is probably still paying for that one.

        • If you’re a taxpayer, don’t ever look up what happened in the Pacific theater at the end of WWII.

          There was so much abandoned military property that when Korea came around, they were sending teams out all across the Pacific to recover stuff and rebuild it for service in Korea; that was one of the primary drivers for the Japanese post-WWII “economic miracle”, namely “rebuild and refit US military gear for Korea”. Friend of the family had pictures he’d taken when they’d left some islands out near the Marianas that had been a depot, and there were entire warehouses and huge yards filled with trucks and parts that just got abandoned in place. There were also cases where they dumped tons and tons of military material into the ocean…

          There was also the usual military tradition of dealing with “excess” in the eyes of the commander–Bury it out in the woods, come back for it later, after the inspection was over. You usually found out the hard way that what the commander had seen as “excess” actually wasn’t–We’d had a bunch of “extra” heaters and tents on our property book in Germany that the incoming commander wanted gone, so we got rid of it all. Cue the idiot finding out in early January that we had an exercise slated for the middle of the month up at Wildflecken, a notoriously cold training area in Central Germany, and… Well, let us merely note that learning occurred. Dumbass had never been anywhere really cold in his ‘effing life, being a good Southern boy, and we did two weeks in January during one of the coldest winters on record in that part of Germany. We’re talking -30 degrees Fahrenheit, here… No tents, no heaters; everyone in the unit was in shelter halves, and only about half our people had the actual Extreme Cold sleeping bags you’d need for that crap. We were having to go around and wake people up all night every night, in order to check their feet for frostbite. That was a memorable exercise, for me–My first as an NCO, and an eye-opener regarding the “wisdom” of my betters.

          • There’s a eye opening US Army propaganda film on Periscope about how the US Army saved Korea by recovering all the stuff the same army had dumped and abandoned. It sharply highlights how important this was for the Japanese economy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2Bs-0a_0Os It was clearly made to help in their war against the US Navy and the US Air Force for taxpayers money.

          • Kirk:

            I have seen film of Corsairs and Hellcats just being pushed off the decks of British aircraft carriers at the end of the war. Under the terms of Lend-Lease they were US property, but the US didn’t want them back, so over the side they went. Tragic for anyone interested in historic aircraft, but typical of the legalistic attitude of some pencil pusher. The Royal Navy was not going to keep valuable aircraft when it could just dump them in the Pacific.

            As to the DS39, I am sorry it did not work, because it looks cool, and I am that shallow. I prefer its looks to the Goryunov, which did work, even though it shared the feed system of the DS39 which gave the problems. Odd that. Still, good to know that the Russians can make a pig too, it’s not just the M60.

      • Intelligence reports sometimes contain very strange things.
        Before World War II, a report from military intelligence came to the Soviet tank test site. It said that the Swedes had made a new model of an anti-tank grenade. A bottle with a mixture, which in air increased its volume by 500 (five hundred) and covered all the optical devices of the tank.
        This was an official document and the tankers had to make a mixture and test it against the tank. Of course, nothing happened. They wrote to military intelligence asking them to find the correct recipe.
        I guess it was based on the cocktail recipe that the person who wrote the report drank.

        • Been there, done that…

          If you ever want a really hearty laugh at the US Army’s expense, dig up the “improvised anti-tank weapons” stuff they were teaching us back in the 1980s. I think they cribbed it out of various German and Soviet WWII sources, because there was an awful lot of utterly insane stuff in there–As in, advice to use pry bars to de-track enemy tanks, and ammo cans festooned with hooks, filled with explosives, and which you were supposed to throw onto the tanks after pulling a fuse igniter for the explosives.

          I don’t think that anyone concerned with writing that BS had ever seen a tank outside the pictures in a book. I am never, ever going to forget the time one of our new lieutenants got tasked with training us all on “anti-tank countermeasures”. He managed to get an armor platoon to assist, and we got out the manual and dutifully created and tried out all of the “recommended techniques”.

          End of the day, the armor guys wound up laughing their asses off, and all of us, to include the lieutenant, lost a lot of faith in the almighty “book” and the people who wrote them. That anti-armor “handbook” got nicknamed the “suicide book”, and we all decided that the best way to deal with enemy tanks was to get our tanks to go handle things.

          • I believe this is British heritage. In 1940, the British lost anti-tank artillery in France and were waiting for a German landing on the Island. A lot of crazy things were invented there.
            Try to find “Manual of military training No. 42 Tank: hunting and destruction”, 1940.

          • This is why watching on this site is so much better than watching the same video on YouTube. From the start of the channel people with actual experience have commented; and not had to defend themselves against zombie hordes of Know More’s.

            Improvised anti-tank tactics start with the Spanish Civil War. Random tanks used by both sides; both sides having committed and intelligent foreigners fighting for a cause. The petrol bomb first appeared, and worked because the tanks were not designed to cope with them; and were too often used without infantry support.

            The Finns then wrote the book on improvised anti-tank tactics. The Red Army was so badly led that knocking on the commander’s hatch and dropping a grenade in when it was opened was a tactic. Molatov cocktails and logs in the running gear worked even better; all because too many good Red Army leaders were murdered by Stalin.

            The one time improvised anti-tank tactics should have been applied in the USA was on Heemeyer’s killdozer. A scaffolding pole would have stopped it.

          • @Andrey,

            I think the line “Hunting tanks is fun and easy…” came out of that manual.

            I am here to tell you that there is not one iota of truth in that statement.

            As a ground-pounder, about the only thing that’s “fun and easy” with regards to dealing with tanks is the laying of obstacles. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching an overly-confident tank crew in the fullness of arrogance try to drive through the cunningly laid wire obstacle you spent the night before constructing, and hearing their cries of anguish as they try to cut the tangles of concertina and barbed tape out of their tracks. It’s also immensely pleasurable to later run into those “lords of creation” at the Aid Station where they’re having their various and sundry injuries stitched up…

            The rest of the idiocies, like taking on tanks with pry bars and “tactical rocks”? Nope; not me, not ever again. Tried it once, learned my lesson: It’s a sucker’s game.

          • @Norman,

            Stopped ’em dead. The ability of loosely-installed tanglefoot and concertina to clog track systems is often vastly underappreciated by tankers. And, given that the specific incident I’m thinking of was back at the dawn of the M1 Abrams era with the very first fielded unit at Fort Hood, the tankers didn’t know what they didn’t know about the new tank. They apparently thought that 1500hp and the new suspension meant that the classical rules and limitations for tanking were out the window, which proved not to be the case.

            We didn’t know either, but you better believe the guys we left on overwatch at the obstacle were taking careful notes. Since we’d spent that exercise basically serving as chew-toys for the newly-minted CDATs*, we were ecstatic to finally find something that worked, and worked well to make their lives miserable.

            *DAT=Dumb-Ass Tanker, CDAT=Computerized Dumb-Ass Tanker. Something we had the well-earned right to call those guys, who were extremely prone to ignoring our bridge classification signs and other suchlike Engineer impedimentia… The number of tankers who think they’re immortal ‘cos they never actually encountered live AT mines or live IEDs before Bosnia was impressive. Took a few blown-up M1s, but they finally got a freakin’ clue about 2004. There’s nothing like watching those guys blow through a peacetime training minefield as though it meant nothing, and muttering darkly that “…it’ll be different, once the shooting starts…”. It was almost comical how fast it went from “Oh, those flippin’ worry-wart Engineers… Who needs ’em…?” to “OMG, I ain’t going nowhere until I have my Engineers out in front and they say it’s OK…”.

            ‘Tis truly amazing how live explosives generate respect, it is…

          • @Kirk & @bradwan

            Molotovs, pry bars, logs — all worked, but primarily only against the Soviet T-26 (Vickers 6-ton) tanks, which formed the bulk of Soviet tank forces in 1939. During the Continuation War Finnish troops found out that trying to detrack the T-34 with logs etc. didn’t usually work and even the Molotov cocktails were of limited effectiveness.

            The Winter War emergency AT measures were replaced almost completely by satchel charges and factory made anti-tank hand grenades (the Finnish AT grenades were simple HE bricks, not HEAT like the Soviet RPG-43), which did work even against heavy tanks, although it was found out that heaviest Soviet IS-series tanks could require as heavy as a 6 kg satchel charge to destroy. Needless to say, placing such a heavy charge on top of a tank was a near suicidal task if the tank was defended by Soviet infantry — something that the Soviets got a lot better at doing during the later years of the war.

      • Perhaps a gift from German troops stationed in Finland during the early part of the continuation war?

    • Not a glockenspiel, but a lyre – so named as its shape is the same as the classical Greek stringed instruments.

    • More specifically, it’s a bell lyre, which is a glockenspiel for marching band, mostly replaced by carrier harnesses that hold a standard glockenspiel horizontally. The one in the video is interesting because it appears to be a chromatic keyboard that doesn’t split the naturals and sharps the way most mallet instruments do. Mostly obsolete now, but very common in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  5. And near the MP-40 (?) there appears to be a Thompson, with a drum magazine. I wonder what the story is with that?

  6. Aimo Lahti did these modifications:

    -decelerator switch, which was added to the weapon’s bolt, as the original high rate-of-fire had proved related to reliability problems

    -made gas-piston thinner (otherwise it typically jam the weapon after only 1,000 shots or so)

    -added chamber for soot in end of gas-piston (otherwise the soot could jam gas-piston after some 4,000 – 5,000 shots)

    -holes of gas-regulator were also increased in size to allow more gas getting to gas-piston

    -angle of contact piece was changed

    -firing pin was thinned

    -modifying the weapon’s feeding system so that Finnish 200-round metal ammunition belts M/32 could be used

    This didn’t manage to fix the basic problem, ie feeding system of this machinegun had been poorly designed and it simply didn’t work well.

    They were declare obsolete in 1986 and mainly scrapped.

  7. How does a weapon that went into production in June of 1940, see service in a war than ended in March of 1940? Seems like either the production date is off by a year, or the reference is to the 1941-1944 “Continuation War”.

    • John:

      You must be right. The DS39s must have been captured at the start of the Continuation War in 1941.

    • In many ways, the author is engaged, but the main stages and features are reflected.

      The lack of adequate methods for calculating the dynamics of automation, it has always been (and is) one of the main problems of Soviet machine gun builders.
      Ignorance of these methods, or inability, or unwillingness to use them because of laziness, is a separate issue.
      But almost all of their crafts suffer (or rather, their users) from disgusting dynamics and the resulting problems with reliability, durability, ergonomics and (in total) low overall performance.

    • This is a pretty bad article.
      The author simply repeated many myths and added photographs from the book “Kovrov Weapons”.
      He didn’t work with archives. For example, he knows nothing about the problem with Degtyarev’s anti-tank gun.
      The first generation of Soviet designers really didn’t know how to calculate automation, but who did?
      Aimo Lahti, who hasn’t even finished school?
      Garand, who made his rifle reliable for 12 years?
      Maybe lawyer Melvin Johnson?
      Sudaev fully calculated the automation for his submachine gun, achieving high reliability in any conditions.

      • The article is no worse or better than any other of similar sources.
        Just the first one that comes across, in which the main points are sufficiently disclosed.
        Everything else is just husk and speculation that has a weak correlation with reality.

        It absolutely does not matter (from a historical point of view) what kind of education the author had.
        The only thing that matters is whether it was possible to design a system with the “correct” dynamics or not.
        Johnson’s attorney did it.
        And the great guru of the Soviet machine-gun building Degtyaev screwed up loudly.
        And he almost always screwed up.
        Almost all of his designs are of the level of Chinese homemade products, except for samples that can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Which, moreover, were not designed by Degtyarev himself, but by a crowd of his “assistants”.

  8. One odd thing I have just read is that the DS39 was given an official German identifier as a captured weapon, the sMG218(r), but the Goryunov was not, although there was an unofficial designation of sMG43(r).

    This seems strange, as so few DS39s were made as compared to Goryunovs. A possible explanation might be that many of the DS39s made were captured during Operation Barbarossa, and so were taken up into the official German system. By the time the Goryunov came along in 1943 the Russians were not retreating any more, so the Germans would not have been capturing that many of them.

    • “(…)official German identifier(…)”
      There is also possibility that German bureaucracy was late in relation to reality.

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