By Rob Thule
The Chinese People Liberation Army is currently equipped with what it calls second generation 7.62 Type 81 (AK variant) assault rifles and Type 81 (RPK variant) light machine guns, together with a number of first generation Type 56 (AK copy) assault rifles and Type 56 (RPD copy) LMGs. The Type 81 LMG featured in this article, though similar in appearance to the Russian RPK, is quite a different weapon.
The first generation Type 56 LMG, a copy of the Russian RPD, was replaced by the more reliable Type 81 of indigenous design. This brought the PLA infantry squad in line with the Soviet army, amongst others, in that its assault rifles and squad automatics are essentially the same weapon. This makes sense since it simplifies training, parts interchangeability and weapon manufacture. The Type 81 assault rifle and LMG share the same design together with 65 parts including the magazines. The latter is not interchangeable with the Type 56 assault rifle. The Type 81 differs from the RPK in the gas system, fire selector switch, trigger group and sights.
Chambered for the Russian 7.62x39mm cartridge, the overall length is 1,024mm, weighs 5.15kg unloaded, and is fed from the standard 30-round box or 75-round drum magazines. The barrel is fixed and the bipod is attached to the muzzle. It is air-cooled, magazine fed, selective fire, gas operated and fires from the closed bolt. It has a three position gas regulator at the front end of the gas tube. The positions are marked 1, 0 and 2. 0 indicates that the gas vent is closed, 1 is used in normal conditions and 2 in adverse conditions. Closing the gas port is of no use on a support weapon but remember it is a twin of the Type 81 assault rifle which can launch grenades from its oversized flash hider. The gas is regulated by inserting the rim of a round into a T slot and turning towards the required position, or by hand if the weapon is cool.
The piston, bolt carrier, and bolt arrangement departs from that of the AK family in that the piston is separate from the bolt carrier and is spring loaded. This eliminates the shift of the weapons center of gravity due to the movement of heavy working parts. Together with the gas regulator, this improves accuracy. The piston head lies inside the gas cylinder, which is a short tube fitted to the gas block. This tube rotates in the gas block to expose the different sized holes of the regulator. Thus, the piston cover, which acts as the gas cylinder on the AK, is only an inverted U-shaped cover. This is an improvement on the AK whose gas cylinder can be damaged in the field. The bolt carrier and bolt are similar to those of the AK series but longer. The charging handle is fixed to the bolt carrier and reciprocates during firing.
The rear sight is of the notch type. However, instead of the ramp type adjustment of the RPK where one has to abandon his shooting stance to make a sight shift, the Type 81 has two interconnected knobs on either side of the weapon. These are marked with numbers from 0 to 7. Simply grasp a knob and turn towards the desired range-setting with the weapon at the shoulder. The sight resembles the ladder type sight seen on grenade launchers in that it has two notches. The lower one is used for ranges up to 500m and the top one for ranges up to 700m. The sight body also incorporates a carrying handle.
The Chinese have abandoned the massive, awkward fire selector of the AK and opted for a small switch placed within easy reach of the operator’s thumb. The positions are marked 0 for safe, 1 for semiautomatic fire and 2 for full auto. The weapon cannot be cocked while on safe but the bolt can be moved just enough to check the chamber. The firing mechanism is based on that of the AK, but is not a direct copy.
The drum magazine consists of a feed wheel turned by a clockwork spring. It can be fully loaded by opening the cover and pushing on the plunger at the center, then turn the feed wheel clockwise to place the cartridge pusher to the innermost position. Load 4 rounds (bullet downwards) at the end of the slide-way near the feed opening and turn the knob half a turn to align the largest notch on the feed pawl with the feed opening. It is then filled to capacity. After latching the cover closed, the knob on the outside is turned clockwise to load the spring. The magazine is unloaded by releasing spring tension and emptying the contents of the drum and feed opening. A partially expended magazine can be loaded by opening the cover, removing the fourth and fifth round at the feed opening and turning the feed wheel backwards and filling up the empty slots of the feed wheel before the cartridge pusher. The magazine may be stripped to its basic components for routine maintenance. The tool kit may be stored in the butt.
Field stripping the Type 81 is similar to that of the AK family. Starting with an unloaded weapon and fire selector to 1 or 2, push on the top cover release button to remove the top cover, push further to remove the return spring and guide. Pull back on the charging handle to move the bolt group towards the butt and pull the bolt group out of receiver. Remove the bolt from bolt carrier. The rear sight knob shaft acts as the piston cover (gas cylinder on AK) retainer. Pull the left knob out slightly to align the 0 mark with the white dot on the sight body. This releases the piston cover which is lifted away from the barrel. The gas cylinder/gas regulator is rotated in the gas block and pulled towards the butt until it is free from the gas block. Continue to compress the piston spring slightly until the regulator and piston assembly can be lifted away from the barrel. Separate the gas cylinder, piston and its spring. Reassemble in reverse order, noting that the top cover is flimsy and quite difficult to install.
The weapon and magazine are blued while the bolt group is left in the white. The furniture is made of plastic nicely colored red.
The PLA intends to replace all of their 7.62mm weapons with the third generation 5.8mm Type 95 series. These weapons include an assault rifle, LMG and a sniper rifle to replace the Chinese copy of the SVD.
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