By Lynndon Schooler
For a brief 200-year period, the Pecheneg Khanate sprawled from Southern Trans-Carpathia across the Dnieper to Southern reaches of the Volga, occupying one of the most strategic swaths of land for trade between the Turkic and Slavic peoples. Ultimately, their history of fighting all their neighbors (the Slavs, the Byzantines and the Uzes, just to name a few) led to their demise and the division of their land. In backhanded admiration for the thorn in their side, monks in Kievan Rus’ described them as “the godless sons of Ishmael, who had been sent as a chastisement to the Christians.” The Pechenegs occupied one the most socially tumultuous territories of land, where religion, ethnicity and political systems all in violent competition with each other would intermingle, and upon which a bloody history would be set down that has persisted since 860 A.D. at the Khanate’s founding.
Heat shroud assemblies
I found myself within the boundaries of the Pecheneg Khanate in early December, now in the region known as Chechnya. The air in Chechnya is dry, saddled up in the mountains and valleys tucked between the Black and Caspian seas. The smell of soil and spiced shawarma inundates the streets. It is a place where the sun makes the faces hard and wrinkled before their time, and where religion permeates life not so much in devotion, but in identity. I was worried that my flannel and tactical pants would seem out of place in a region that has so little to do with my own home. This was not the case, and a quick change into a multicam jacket brought me into spec with everyone around me, all of whom were armed and likely connected with Russian intelligence. It is for this sort that the PKP Pecheneg was made. Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, means “fearsome,” and it witnessed some of the harshest city fighting the Russians have faced since the Second World War, as those age-old divisions of race and religion cannot seem to die.
Arriving at a pristine Spetsnaz training compound, the smell of fresh paint still in the air, an operator pulled a PKP out of the back of a camel-drab SUV and handed it to me. I carried the lug of steel to a wooden table engraved with “Spetsnaz 2018” and immediately got to work.
Heart of the beast
Like many other weapons in the Russian stable, the PKP Pecheneg was a development from the PK design of Mikhail Kalashnikov and his collective design team in 1958 as a 7.62x54R general-purpose machine gun. The original PK design was adopted in 1961 and was characterized by reliability and durability known to the Kalashnikov name. However, when designing the PKP, the goal was to improve the machine gun for increased sustained fire and incorporate the hard lessons learned from combat experience in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other fierce firefights in regional conflict zones. Soldiers of the new Russia needed to meet intense direct contact with the enemy with continuous sustained fire without a barrel change. The Central Research Institute of Precision Engineering of the Ministry of Defense at TsNIITochMash in the small Moscow suburb of Podolsk was up to the task. Their design was adopted in 2001 and entered production at the V.A. Degtyaryov Plant in the city of Kovrov in Russia’s Vladimir Oblast region. The design team chose to keep the PKM receiver and focus on creating a new barrel assembly with a heavy profile and improved temperature control. Cooling ribs and a slotted heat shroud run half the length of the barrel to increase the surface area. These slots pull air up from to the bottom of the barrel and use convection to wick off heat. The cooling ribs, the convection heat shroud and the enlarged barrel profile create impressive sustained fire capabilities. The barrel service life is noted to be 30,000 to 40,000 rounds.
Allegedly, there are internal changes as well, but apart from a milled oval section on the right and left side of the receiver, I could not see a difference from a standard PKM. The changes resulted in a 2.5-pound increase to the 16.5-pound base weight of the PKM. Nonetheless, at 19 pounds, the gun is still lighter than the U.S. M-240B general-purpose machine gun and surpasses it in sustained fire. My Russian companions highlighted that the gun could allegedly run for 600 rounds continuously (at a rate of 600 rounds per minute) with no degradation to the barrel. Within an hour, including time for cooling, the PKP could fire 1,000 rounds.
The barrel assembly of the PKP is removed in the same fashion as that of its parent PKM machine gun. One lifts up the top cover and feed tray and pushes over the locking block to the left. Then the barrel can be pulled forward via the barrel carrying handle. In fact, a PKM barrel can be installed in the PKP and vice versa, but the headspacing must be aligned. The PK series has a feature on the barrel locking block to adjust headspacing. The adjustment window allows for headspacing changes as the barrel wears over extended service. Headspacing the PK series is determined by where the lip of the barrel meets the rim of the 7.62x54R cartridge. The locking block has a flat-head screw that turns clockwise or counterclockwise to index the barrel forward or rearward depending on the reading of headspace gauges. While the PKM is issued with two barrels matched to the weapon from the factory, the PKP is issued only with one that is not intended to be removed.
A bipod is fitted behind the front sight block of the PKP, and a new flash hider provides improved performance. ZenitCo designed a suppressor with two configurations, one long and one short, specifically for the PKP as part of their Pathfinder line. In the long configuration, the suppressor is fitted with an extended flash suppression chamber and flash hider end cap. The extended flash suppression chamber can be removed to reduce overall length and the end cap is placed onto the suppressor body. When the ZenitCo Pathfinder is used in the extended configuration, there is no visible flash, as has been extensively evidenced on night operations with night vision. The only drawback is that the suppressor requires sustained fire to be limited, so as not to destroy the can.
The GRAU (Russia’s Main Missile and Artillery Directorate of the Ministry of Defense) indexes the PKP Pecheneg as 6P41 and 6P41N Pecheneg-N (night). The PKP was originally intended for Special Forces and mobile infantry, but it is currently fielded alongside the PKM in standard Russian Army applications.
As I held the 6P41N PKP, I noted that the weapon is slightly front-heavier than the PKM. This is natural, as the weight additions were almost solely in the barrel. Behind the PKP, one has a smaller window of traverse than with the PKM. On the PKM, the bipod is located behind the gas block, which allows for a wide sweeping angle and supports the weapon when the barrel is removed. On the PKP, the bipod is mounted forward, just behind the front sight block, forcing the shooter to adjust position more often.
6P41 optics mount
Based on the weapon’s success, newer versions are currently being tested. The ones that I photographed were the night version with side rails intended for night vision or any standard Soviet/Russian side mount optics. The side mount lever is spring-loaded and pulled back when an optic is mounted. This allows for the optic to swing out to the left, out of the way of the top cover for reloads. With no optics mounted, the reload procedure is the same as in the PKM. ZenitCo also offers M1913-railed top cover adapters, as well as additional accessories for both the PKM and PKP machine guns.
On the range
When firing, recoil is noticeably smoother than with the PKM, as the added mass helps to dampen the recoil impulse. The weapon can be fired while standing to address initial contact by placing the support hand on the gas tube. This is only viable for short bursts, as the gas tube becomes too hot to hold after 50 rounds and prone firing with a bipod becomes necessary. Some operators choose to use the weapon’s ammunition can as an expedient monopod. Seeing professionals handle the PKP is an impressive sight. In the hands of local operators, it looked as if the gun were floating in space, not reacting to firing. They were able to manipulate the ammunition can and reload the PKP in under 10 seconds.
On the range, using the can as a monopod to reduce the weapon’s profile
In total, I spent a week in Chechnya, and the cultural shock was immediate. I have spent quite some time in Russia prior to this adventure, but as those in Moscow have learned, Chechnya requires special consideration. Weapons—like food, art and clothing—can tell you about a people’s history and how they fit into the world. By naming the gun “Pecheneg,” Moscow harkens back to a time before the Russian state, to a more timeless conflict.