Few American weapons are quite so legendary as the powerful M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun, or “Ma Deuce,” still widely employed a century after its initial development in 1918. However, the Soviet Union built its own .50 caliber weapon that became just as widespread—and punched out its own mark on world history from Vietnam and Afghanistan to Somalia and Syria today.
Many assume heavy machine guns use larger bullets for increased anti-personnel lethality. However, while .50 caliber rounds can indeed inflict gruesome injuries, smaller 7.62-millimeter weapons are adequate for most anti-personnel purposes and can enable greater magazine depth due to the lower weight and size of each round.
The heavy machine gun’s rationale is that it’s also useful against vehicles, including lightly armored personnel carriers, scout cars and especially aircraft. The heavier rounds cause more damage to, say, an engine block, penetrate more armor and experience less drop over distance, thus remaining effective and accurate at longer ranges.
The Soviet Union decided to develop an equivalent to the M2 in the late 1920s. In the early 1930s, gun designer Vasily Degtyaryov produced a limited run of a clunky gas-operated 12.7-millimeter machine gun called the DK which fired a 30-round drum magazine at slow rate of fire. Georgi Shpagin—future inventor of the iconic PPsH submachine gun—improved the DK with a revised muzzle and a more practical belt-feed mechanism. This version entered production in the late 1930s as the (Degtyaryov-Shpagin) DShK 1938.
The gunner of a Dushka (“Dear”) pulls a V-shaped “butterfly” trigger between two wooden handles to shoot gun at a rate of fire of six hundred rounds per minute to an effective range of one-and-a-half miles. Two side-by-side “spider-web” ring sights help adjust for the “lead” when targeting aircraft. The hefty gun is air-cooled and has a ribbed barrel. You can get a sense of the prodigious sound, flash and recoil produced by a DShK in this video.
The Dushka uses 12.7x108-millimeter rounds nearly 10 percent longer than the .50 caliber BMG used by the M2 and can penetrate up to fifteen to twenty millimeters of armor at a range of five hundred meters. Generally, the M2 is reputed to be a bit more accurate, while the Dushka is supposedly easier to maintain.
However, in the early years of World War II, Soviet troops still mounted their primary medium machine gun, the Maxim model 1910, on a heavy wheeled mount with a gun shield. Thus, the DsHK’s 75-pound weight blossomed to 346 pounds once its own two-wheeled trolley was included. By comparison, the 84-pound M2 increased only to 138 pounds mounted on a squat tripod.
Around nine thousand DShK’s were produced during World War II, serving primarily in Red Army anti-aircraft units. However, the heavy weapons obviously lent themselves to vehicle mounts—notably, GAZ-AA trucks sporting single or triple DShKs for protecting mechanized columns from air attack. More exotic mounts included Red Navy patrol and torpedo boats, armored trains and T-40 amphibious tanks
Unlike on the Western Allies, Luftwaffe Ju-87G Stuka and Hs-123 ground attack planes armed with tank-busting cannons continued to reap a heavy toll of Soviet armor even late into the war. In 1944, this led the Red Army to begin equipping huge Josef Stalin II heavy tanks and JSU-152 “Animal Killer” self-propelled guns with Dushkas atop the turret. The hail of large-caliber anti-aircraft fire Soviet heavy tanks could now generate destroyed or disrupted numerous attackers. The upward-firing weapons were also useful for shooting at snipers atop tall urban buildings.
The Soviets decided the DShK had proven quite useful in World War II and devised the improved DShK 38/46 or DsHK-M model with a revised muzzle and belt-feed system. Over a million of these were produced between 1946 and 1980 and exported widely throughout Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. China built its own copy called the Type 54, and license production also took place in Pakistan, Iran, Yugoslavia, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
In 1944, the Soviet Union also began developing the even beefier KPV heavy machine gun, which fired 14.5-millimeter rounds mustering the twice the power of a .50 caliber, increasing range to two miles. Entering service in 1949, the KPV was widely adopted on armored vehicles, as well as into the ZPU family of single, double and quadruple-mount anti-aircraft guns.
These weapons had historic impact. In 1954 at the Batlte of Dien Bien Phu, Viet Minh revolutionaries led by General Võ Nguyên Giáp surrounded a heavily fortified French outpost with twenty thousand personnel that had an airstrip for aerial resupply and ground support. Giap’s troops deployed around one hundred DShK machine guns, plus eighty heavier 37-millimeter flak guns onto positions overlooking the airstrip. The French military lost sixty-two aircraft and 180 damaged, starving the garrison from supplies. The stronghold surrendered after a seven-week long siege, leading to the end of the French colonial presence in Southeast Asia.
As the United States ramped up its intervention in South Vietnam, Communist forces continued to make heavy use of DShK’s as anti-aircraft weapons, which were mistakenly designated “.51-caliber machine guns” by American troops. While less deadly than heavier North Vietnamese flak cannons, the DShK’s were more easily smuggled into South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and remained effective at shooting down Huey helicopters and slow-moving Forward Air Control spotter planes like the O-1 Birddog. Ground fire, not surface-to-air missiles or MiGs, would account for the majority of the roughly 5,500 helicopters and two thousand fixed-wing aircraft lost by the U.S. military over Vietnam.
The DShK and KPV were useful for countering new vehicles entering wide scale use during the Cold War: lightly-armored armored personnel carrier (Soviet BTRs or U.S. M113), more heavily armed infantry fighting vehicles like the BMP, counter-insurgency planes like the A-1 Skyraider and newfangled helicopters. As a result, later U.S. weapons like the Apache attack helicopter and M2 Bradley IFV and Stryker were specifically required to be protected against DShK and KPV rounds.
The Soviet Union also continued fitting DsHKs to T-54 and T-62 main battle tanks, the beefy skyward tilted machine guns atop tank turrets becoming an iconic image of Soviet military might. Though Russia has developed newer NSVT and Kord heavy machine guns, they never caught on to the same extent.
However, during the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Red Army discovered that what worked against its enemies could cut the other way. Afghanistan has wide-open terrain, and mujahedeen insurgents made extensive use of “Dashikas” to snipe at Soviet forces from their complex mountainous strongholds and fortified caves. As Soviets took a page from the American war in Vietnam and made heavy use of helicopter-borne air assault troops, the mujahideen’s Soviet-made weapons reaped a fearsome toll of Mi-8 Hip transports, Mi-24 gunships and even jet bombers.
While the smuggling in of man-portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles is considered a turning point in the war, conventional anti-aircraft weapons accounted for 40-50 percent of the aircraft losses and 50-70 percent of downed helicopters. The Soviet desantniki airborne troopers were the Red Army’s primary offensive force in the region, but crippling aviation losses paved way for the Soviet withdrawal from the conflict.
Even the Irish Republican Army acquired eighteen DShKs from Libya, using one to shoot down a Royal Army Lynx helicopter in 1988 and unsuccessfully ambushing a RAF Puma and four Army Lynxes in the Battle of Newry Road in 1993.
Dashika’s in northern Africa and the Middle East would become part of one more military phenomenon—the rise of the “technical” (ie. pickup trucks with heavy weapons bolted on them). Technicals includes trucks lugging recoilless rifles, flak cannons or anti-tank missiles, but Dashika- and ZPU-armed technical were the most common type. The vehicles emerged as cornerstones of the power of Somali warlords and played a major role in the Battle of Mogadishu. A decade later, an arms survey counted at least 466 Dashikas in use across Somalia.
In Northwestern Africa, rebel armies made use of huge fleets of technicals to sweep across hundreds of miles of desert, Mad Max-style, to launch attacks on African cities like N’djamena, Chad. Likewise, in the Middle East, Islamic State technical fleets were instrumental in its lightning assault that captured the metropolis of Mosul in 2014.
Dushka and KPV machine guns mounted on trucks continue to play a major role on all sides of the civil wars in Syria and Libya, and insurgency in Iraq, and even crop up in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Modern Western warplanes now mostly use precision-guided weapons at high altitudes that leave them well outside the range of heavy machine gun fire. However, U.S. helicopters and troops on the ground continue to contend with the threat posed by Dashikas in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
Despite its similar capabilities to the U.S. M2 in its capabilities, the context in which the DShK was used has led it to have a dramatically different impact on military events well into the present day.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.