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China’s New 5.8x42mm Weapons Complex Revealed

By David M. Fortier

Since the Communists came to power Chinese small arms development has always been “A riddle wrapped in a mystery behind the Bamboo Curtain”. All we in the West suspected was that the Chinese military was mostly armed with domestic copies of various obsolete Soviet designs. While there is truth in this, the rest of it may surprise you. The Chinese began extensive research and development on domestic designs as early as 1958. This led to the 1st (Type 63 and Type 74) and then 2nd (Type 81 and Type 87) generations of Chinese small arms. In the last 20 years, especially since the Open Door policy, China has made significant progress in small arms development. This has culminated in the design and adoption of their unique 5.8x42mm weapons complex. A system, they claim, that outperforms both the current NATO 5.56x45 SS109 and Russian 5.45x39 7N6 cartridges.

China historically had relied on foreign designed weapons to equip her vast armed forces. Germany in particular was a major player in China from the turn of the century until signing the Anti-Comintern Pact with Imperial Japan in 1937. After 1937 another country’s influence was strongly felt in China, that of the Soviet Union. As early as 1932 the Soviets began supplying weapons to the Communist forces in China. Over time this aid greatly expanded. However, relations began to sour between the Chinese and Soviets after the Korean War and took a nose dive after Khrushchev came to power.

Using their experience with the Soviet designs, the Chinese undertook extensive research and development work beginning in 1958 to improve their small arms. It was based on their combat experience with full power battle rifle cartridges, as well as the less powerful 6.5 Arisaka and 7.62x25 sub-machineguns. They recognized the potential of the new intermediate 7.62x39 cartridge and admired the reliability of the Kalashnikov design. However they were not impressed by the AK-47’s accuracy or ergonomics. To fit their tactical needs they wanted a rifle as reliable as the Kalashnikov but with increased accuracy. It was intended to be used primarily in the semi-automatic mode for ammunition conservation. They also felt it must be useful with a bayonet for hand to hand combat. This was due to their doctrine calling for fighting very close to an opponent to negate his superiority in artillery or air support.

The result of their efforts was a weapon that outwardly resembled the Soviet SKS-45 carbine. Internally however it was quite different from Simonov’s design. It was adopted for service in 1963 and designated simply Type 63. The Type 63 rifle (incorrectly identified in the West as the Type 68) and the Type 74 Squad Auto represent the First Generation of domestically designed Chinese small arms. Not a battle rifle nor true assault rifle, it was outclassed by the M-16 during combat operations in Vietnam. It remained in service up until approximately 1974.

Seeing the changes in modern warfare, the Chinese went back to the drawing board. The Second Generation of Chinese small arms is seen in the Type 81 weapons series. The goal of the design team of the Type 81 rifle was to provide a modern assault rifle with the reliability of the Kalashnikov but with superior accuracy and ergonomics. After studying in detail the Soviet SVD Dragunov sniper rifle (Chinese Type 79) the Chinese came away quite impressed with its system of operation. They eventually used a modified short stroke gas system and a bolt/carrier system gleaned from it. It should be remembered however that the bolt/carrier system of the SVD is itself derived from the Kalashnikov. The culmination of their work was a rugged and reliable rifle with a few features not offered on the Kalashnikov. Unlike the AK-47/AKM the Type 81 features a bolt holdopen, a selector lever accessible by the operator’s thumb, an integral capacity to launch rifle grenades, and an adjustable gas system. The Type 81 weapons series includes the standard rifle weighing 7.49 lbs, a 7.7 lbs folding stock model, and an 11.4-pound squad auto. These three weapons maintain a high degree of interchangability with 64 parts common between them. Overall they are a well thought out and reliable design chambered for the venerable 7.62x39 cartridge.

However just as the Chinese were quick to appreciate the 7.62x39 intermediate cartridge they were also quick to take notice of the 5.56x45. As soon as the M-16 rifle appeared in Vietnam, the Chinese noted the advantages of the 5.56x45 cartridge. They appreciated that it allowed a compact and lightweight weapon, produced a low recoil impulse, was controllable on full auto, and allowed a larger basic load of ammunition and supplementary equipment. This increased a soldier’s survivability on the battlefield. What the Chinese were not impressed with was the reliability of the M-16 rifle itself, compared to their experiences with the AK-47.

Noting the advantages of the small, high velocity round, they began extensive research and theoretical studies based on their combat observations of the war in Vietnam. Their goal was no simple one. They desired to find the ideal caliber to satisfy the Chinese military requirements for use in assault rifles out to medium ranges (400m) as well as in the supporting role of a machinegun (up to 1000m). Their intention was not just to build a series of weapons based on an existing cartridge but rather to build a weapons complex using the ideal cartridge. This “Universal caliber” had always been a Holy Grail for which many have sought but none had found.

After extensive calculations they concluded that the ideal caliber would be 5.8mm, 6mm, or 6.2mm. They then designed a vast assortment of prototype cartridges for use in comparison testing. This is similar to our own SAW project which tested over 1000 configurations in calibers ranging from 5.56 to 7.62. Our final result was the 6x45mm SAW round which was never adopted due to logistical reasons. This shows that the U.S. and Chinese designers came to a similar conclusion as to the ideal caliber. Based on their test results the Chinese came to the final conclusion that the 5.8mm best fit their needs. The result is their new small caliber, high velocity 5.8x42mm cartridge. Designed from the ground up to fit the needs of their weapons complex, this cartridge is produced in 3 different ball loadings: a standard loading for use in assault rifles, a heavy projectile loading for use in their GPMG, and a specialty loading for use in sniper rifles.

The standard loading features a 64-grain FMJBT projectile with a 22.6-grain AP core loaded into a copper washed steel case. The overall cartridge length is 58mm, case length is 42.2mm, and the projectile is 24.2mm long. The cartridge case somewhat resembles the Russian 5.45x39 in that it is tapered; however, the case neck is shorter. It bears no outward resemblance to the 5.56x45. While straightwall cases like the 5.56 are inherently more accurate, tapered cases aid feeding and extraction. The projectile also exhibits a substantial sectional density, although not as great as that of the 5.45x39. Muzzle velocity from the Type 95’s 18.2-inch barrel is 3,050 fps. Out of the Type 95 Squad Auto’s 21.9-inch barrel it clocks 3,182 fps. The Chinese have tested their new cartridge extensively against both the 5.56x45 SS109 and the Russian 5.45x39 7N6. They claim their 5.8x42mm outperforms both cartridges with penetration superior to the SS109, a flatter trajectory, and a higher retained velocity and energy downrange.

Although the Chinese had developed their ideal cartridge they still had one major hurdle to overcome, the Chinese military. During the last Sino-Japanese war the Chinese had made extensive use of captured 6.5 Arisaka rifles and machineguns. From their combat experience they felt that this cartridge performed poorly, lacking penetration and killing power. They felt this was especially true when it was used from machinguns firing at long range. Recent combat experience, on the other hand, had proven the effectiveness of 7.62x39 assault rifles and 7.62x54R GPMG’s and sniper rifles. Due to this the Chinese military wanted nothing to do with a small caliber cartridge intended for use in machineguns as well as rifles.

So in order to convince the military, the Chinese Armament Bureau produced a quantity of transitional 5.8x42 assault rifles. These were based upon the Type 81 and were designated the Type 87. They were then submitted to the military for extensive testing and field trials against the existing 7.62x39 weapons. During these trials the 5.8x42 weapons outperformed the 7.62x39 weapons in every way. They proved superior enough for the Chinese military to adopt the new cartridge for use in the next generation of Chinese small arms.

With the problem of a suitable cartridge out of the way, during the late 1980’s the Chinese set to work designing the weapons to use it. The result of their work is not just a new assault rifle but an entire weapons complex. This includes an assault rifle (Type 95), Light Squad Auto (Type 95), Sniper rifle (Type KBU88), and surprisingly, a belt fed GPMG (Type QJY88). Obviously following the current trend in small arms development, they chose to use the bullpup configuration (except for the GPMG).

I was told that in designing the Type 95 they again took a long hard look at the SVD Dragunov design. This can be seen in the Type 95’s 3 lug rotating bolt, carrier, and adjustable short stroke piston gas system which is similar conceptually to the SVD’s. The main features of these new weapons are their extensive use of high tensile aluminum and modern high impact synthetic materials coupled with improved human engineering. In addition they feature cold hammer forged barrels for superior accuracy. The design emphasizes keeping as close as possible the distance between:

1. The center of gravity of the whole weapon and the center of gravity of the axis of the barrel.
2. The center of gravity of the bolt assembly and the axis of the gas piston.
3. The center of gravity of the barrel and the axis of the gas tube.
4. The center of gravity of the bolt carrier and the center of gravity of the whole gun.

They state, “This design brings a combined effect of compact structure, minimizing the supplementary force of inertia, ensuring a stable and smooth movement of the bolt carrier, minimizing the overall weight of the rifle, increasing shooting accuracy, and promoting reliability.” It is also interesting to note that they claim a reliability rate equal to that of the Kalashnikov. That in and of itself would be quite a feat.

These weapons were designed to use the following accessories:

1. Fixed or variable power telescopic sights with quick detachable mount.
2. Their latest star light night vision scope with quick detachable mount.
3. Quick detachable 35mm grenade launcher that mounts to the forend.
4. Multi-purpose bayonet which can be used as a bayonet, field knife, wire cutter, or a dagger.

While I personally do not care for bullpup style rifles, the Type 95 appears ergonomic and well balanced. The rear sight is mounted on an M-16 style carrying handle, which also accepts optical sights. The front sight assembly reminds one of the familiar AK unit. The charging handle is located inside the carrying handle, AR-10 style, and is ambidextrous. Feed is from 30 round synthetic magazines. The Type 95 Squad Auto shares the same bolt assembly, trigger assembly, upper and lower receiver, and magazines with the rifle. For its fire support role it’s equipped with a longer, heavier barrel to which a bipod is directly mounted. To increase its practical rate of fire, 75 round drum magazines are issued for it, although the standard 30 rounders will also work. In my experience Chinese drums are usually quite noisy though, as they allow the rounds to slap back and forth. Weighing in at just 8.7 lbs it is more of a machine-rifle, along the lines of the L86A1 British Light Support Weapon, rather than like our own M249 SAW.

For reaching out and touching someone, there is the KBU88 sniper rifle. It’s equipped with a 25.1” hammer forged barrel, and the carrying handle has been replaced with a 3-9x variable telescope. The optics feature an illuminated reticle with aiming holdover points in 100 meter increments. Fold down backup iron sights are also provided. An integral folding bipod, with legs individually adjustable for height, is attached to the barrel just in front of the handguard. Feed is from 20 or 30 round magazines. When tested against the Type 85 7.62x54R sniper rifle (SVD Dragunov) the KBU88 outperformed it in accuracy, higher hit probability at long range, was quicker to get into action, had less recoil, had a larger ammunition load capacity, and was lighter in weight -thus increasing the mobility of the sniper. We would consider it a Designated Marksman’s Rifle, rather than a true sniper rifle. In this role it would prove quite useful on the modern battlefield.

The latest member of the 5.8mm family is the QJY88 GPMG. This project began in July 1989 and after extensive testing in freezing cold, hot desert, windy, and sandy conditions to eliminate defects, it was formally adopted in July 1999. Feed is from 200 round belts. The feedway is equipped with 3 rollers, and the feeding pawl also has a roller, to minimize friction during feeding and to aid reliability. It’s equipped with a bipod for use in the LMG role but can also be tripod mounted for sustained fire use. The tripod is equipped with a recoil-absorbing device to enhance accuracy and quickly converts for A.A. use. For long service life the core of the barrel is hardened more than the rest during heat treating. Also a special pattern of rifling is used and the chrome plating carefully kept to .18-.28mm to increase barrel service life. The Chinese claim it to be very simple, reliable, and mobile due to its light weight, coupled with long range and a high hit probability.

So the question is, exactly how well does this new Chinese 5.8x42 round stack up against our 5.56x45 and the Russian 5.45x39? The Chinese have tested their new cartridge extensively against both the 5.56x45 SS109 and the Russian 5.45x39 7N6. They claim their 5.8x42mm outperforms both cartridges with penetration superior to the SS109, a flatter trajectory, and a higher retained velocity and energy downrange. I was recently able to get my hands on some documents containing some of their test results. Testing was conducted using a 5.45x39 AK-74 and 7N6 ball ammunition, a 5.56x45 FNC and SS109 ball and P112 AP, and a Type 95 with 5.8x42 ball. Accuracy testing was conducted out to 600m between the three weapons. Projectile Time of Flight was recorded out to 800m. 3.5mm NATO spec hardened steel plates were shot at 640m and 700m. A 10mm hardened steel plate was shot at 310m. Finally, anesthetized livestock between the weight of 26-44 pounds were shot at a distance of 90m. All the information recorded from these tests is contained in the accompanying charts. For comparison I also included one chart on the performance of typical military rifles against NATO 3.5mm steel plate from tests performed by the USMC Firepower Division in Quantico, VA in the early 1980’s.

The Chinese test results indicate that their new 5.8x42mm cartridge is intended to provide an increase in effective range and penetration. The difference is that it is now possible for the high velocity small bore military cartridges to place fire at medium ranges without the weight and recoil penalties of the older full power cartridges. While obviously lacking the punch of a 7.62x51 at long range the 5.56x45 has none the less proven itself to be capable of superb accuracy at 600m. This has not been lost on the Chinese. Their 5.8x42 ball round is designed to surpass the performance of the 5.56x45 SS109, including at long range. That the Chinese wish to be able to extend the practical effective range of their small arms can also be seen in the Type 95’s ability to easily mount optical sights. While we don’t yet have any specifics on the dedicated sniper load for the KBU88 sniper rifle, that it outperformed the 7.62x54R SVD out to 1000m speaks for itself.

Against steel plate the 5.8 easily outperformed the 5.45 7N6 ball loading as well as the 5.56 SS109. It equaled the penetration of the 5.56 P112 AP loading while providing greater retained energy. It should be remembered though that the 5.45 7N6 loading has a mild steel core and a more even test would have been to use the newer 7N10 High Penetration round. While the 5.8 retained more energy and velocity downrange, there is a downside to a light weight, small diameter projectile with high penetration. Such rounds can zip right through a man without doing significant damage. This was first seen on the Italian Front during World War I when it was common for soldiers hit through the lungs at long range by 6.5mm rounds to recover in a matter of weeks. Recently American troops witnessed this first hand in Mogadishu when close range hits on rebels with SS109 ammunition produced no immediate visual results. This was verified in the livestock testing performed by the Chinese. Here the 5.45 7N6 load showed what it was designed to do and produced significantly larger wounds than either the 5.56 SS109 or the 5.8x42. However the range here was short, only 90m. While the Chinese were impressed by, and commented on the tremendous close range wound capacity of the 5.45 7N6 loading, they also stated that by 600m its accuracy, penetration, and wound capability had dropped off significantly due to its lightweight 52 grain projectile. However they also felt the 5.45x39 to be a very economical cartridge to manufacture. The Chinese were impressed by the 5.56x45 SS109 and felt that it was effective up to 600m. However they felt that it had the disadvantages of high chamber pressures, and because it utilized brass cartridge cases, was not economical to produce.

While the 5.8 was superior in penetration to the 5.56 SS109, the same was not true of accuracy. That the new Type 95/5.8x42mm combination was more accurate than the 70’s vintage Russian AK-74/5.45x39mm combo is really no great surprise. While the AK-74 is more accurate than the 7.62x39 AKM, at the time of its design Soviet doctrine relied on massed automatic fire rather than accuracy. By switching to a short stroke gas system, the Chinese intended to gain an increase in accuracy over the Kalashnikov while maintaining the same level of reliability. It appears that they have accomplished this. However the FNC/5.56x45mm combo easily outshot the new Chinese system. Straightwall case designs, such as the 5.56x45, tend to be more accurate than tapered case designs such as the 5.45x39 and 5.8x42. The trade-off being that tapered cases feed and extract easier. While troops complain about the M-16A2, it can not be faulted for its accuracy. Also keep in mind when looking at the Chinese data that the average muzzle velocity of an SS109 round out of an M-16A2 is higher than that listed for the test FNC. However they are within NATO SS109 spec’s which call for a 61.7 grain bullet at 3025fps 25m from the muzzle. While the 5.8 exhibits higher retained velocity and energy in their test results compared to the 5.56 SS109, the difference is small.

Why did the Chinese bother with developing an entirely new assault rifle cartridge when they could have simply adopted the 5.56x45 is a question I’m sure many will ask. The only reason I’ve been given is that the PLA has a defensive doctrine and if China were invaded their unique caliber weapons would prohibit an attacking force from utilizing captured weapons against the PLA. I will let you decide for yourselves on the effectiveness of this new cartridge based on the accompanying data. How China’s new 5.8x42mm series of weapons fares in service or combat remains to be seen. One thing is certain though, the Kalashnikov’s service with the PLA appears to be coming to an end. While the Type 95 was officially adopted in 1995 and is standard issue with the Hong Kong garrison force, it will be some time before it is in wide spread issue simply due to the size of the PLA.

Acknowledgments:

Much thanks to Dave Brown at Sierra Bullets for his patience and help making sense of the ballistic data in its original form and to Mark Vorobiev for a Russian point of view.

References:

Bolotin, David. SOVIET SMALL ARMS AND AMMUNITION. Finnish Arms Museum Foundation, Hyvinka, Finland. 1995.
Cutshaw, Charlie. THE NEW WORLD OF RUSSIAN SMALL ARMS & AMMO. Paladin Press, Boulder, CO. 1998.
Harris, C.E.. “The M-16A2: New World Standard For Infantry Rifles” GUN DIGEST, 40th Edition. DBI Books Inc, Northbrook, IL. 1986. SLIDE CAPTIONS


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