By: Peter Suciu
The Cold War era AK-47 and AK-74 assault rifles remain widely used by the Ukrainian military. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was even seen carrying an AK-47 on camera last month, just a day after Russia launched its unprovoked attack on this Eastern European neighbor.
Like many of his countrymen, Poroshenko vowed to defend Ukraine. He was predicted to be fighting in the streets of Kyiv against Russian soldiers in the coming days.
Now, more than three weeks later, Russian advances have been stopped. Ukrainians have been putting up far greater resistance than Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin expected. And many in the ranks of the Ukrainian Army are equipped with the newer AK-74 – an updated version of the original assault rifle that, according to the legend, was designed by Soviet small arms pioneer Mikhail Kalashnikov.
Chambered for the 5.45x39mm cartridge, replacing the 7.62x39mm cartridge of Kalashnikov’s earlier automatic weapons, the AK-74 first saw service with the Soviet military during the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Designed by A.D. Kryakhushin’s group at the state-owned Izhmash facility (now part of the Kalashnikov Concern), and under the supervision of Kalashnikov, it featured several design improvements that have survived the test of time.
Improved from its predecessor the AK-47, the AK-74 offers a more effective range, greater accuracy, and more reliability than the original AK-47. It shares approximately 50 percent commonality with the AKM (the modernized version of the AK-47). Some five million have been produced, and Ukraine is reported to be one of the current largest operators of the AK-74.
AK-47s Still in Use
As part of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine had vast quantities of the AK-47 and AKM at the end of the Cold War. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many of those antiquated firearms were sold, but the weapon remained in use by the Ukrainian Security Service.
Caches of the Cold War era AK-47s and AKMs have been used to equip civilian volunteers. The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper reported earlier this month that women and children have been taught how to strip and fire the AK-47 in Kyiv.
Along with former President Poroshenko, thousands of residents may have been armed with these tried-and-true weapons to help defend Ukraine’s capital. Among those willing to fight is model Anastasiia Lenna, a former Miss Ukraine – however, in photos that have been circulated on social media, she is using her personally-owned, AR-style, civilian rifle.
Older Weapons Pressed into Service
Across Ukraine, even older weapons are being employed. In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion, members of the Territorial Defense Forces were even training with the Soviet-designed Pulemyot Degtyaryova Pekhotny (Degtyaryov’s infantry machine gun), more commonly known as the DP-27 ( in the West, typically referred to as the DP-28).
This unique firearm, featuring a top-loading pan magazine – for which it earned the nickname “the record player” or “Stalin’s phonograph” – was developed in the early 1920s by noted Soviet small arms designer Vasily Degtyaryov. The light machine gun, despite being top-heavy and almost impossible to fire while on the move, proved reliable, accurate, and durable (important for soldiers on the front line). As with other small Soviet arms of the era, the firearm could be handled roughly and used in extremely foul conditions, yet still work reliably. The DP-27 was able to endure freezing temperatures and continue to lay down fire on enemy positions when other weapons of the time would not function.
Chambered in 7.62x54mmR ammunition, the same caliber that was used in the Russian/Soviet military’s Mosin Nagant bolt action rifle, the weapon packed a serious punch, yet was noted for lower recoil than many modern black guns.
It is not clear how many DP-27s the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces may have at its disposal or from where the weapons came. Yet, as many as 800,000 of these light machine guns were produced in all variants, and after its retirement from service, thousands of the weapons remained in former Soviet arms depots in Ukraine.
The Degtyaryov is not the only “blast from the past” that soon could be blasting away at Russian soldiers. In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion, videos posted on social media showed some Ukrainian volunteers being trained to operate the even older M1910 Russian Maxim heavy machine guns.
First adopted by the Imperial Russian Army more than 110 years ago, the weapon was widely used in the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the subsequent Civil War, the Great Patriotic War (World War II), and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army used the weapon in the Korean War. Some were reported in use by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) during the Vietnam War.
As with the DP-27, the M1910 Maxim is chambered for the 7.62x54mmR cartridge, a round that is still in service with the Ukrainian Army. While these weapons would be better in a gun collection (author’s note: my husband would love these) or a museum, the machine guns that once stopped the Nazis will now be used in the same lands, but this time, to stop the unwelcome Russian.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.