China Spent Decades Trying to Build a Better AK-47

Zhang Tao

In the mid-1960s, the Chinese military began to seek a replacement for its assortment of Soviet-licensed small arms, including the Type 56 semi-automatic rifle, the Type 56 assault rifle and the Type 56 light machine gun.

The result was the Type 63, first issued in 1968, which combined characteristics of both the SKS and the AK-47. The Type 63, however, failed to meet accuracy expectations and the Chinese military found it unsatisfactory.

In 1979, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army fought the Vietnamese army during the First Sino-Vietnamese War — and found itself at a distinct disadvantage. The PLA was predominantly still armed with the semi-automatic Type 56 carbine. Only officers, NCOs and specialist troops carried the Type 56 assault rifle. The Vietnamese, by contrast, were almost entirely armed with superior AK-pattern weapons.

The Chinese resumed their search for a replacement rifle, appointing small-arms designer Wang Zi Jun to develop a more reliable infantry rifle and light machine gun.

The Chinese military wanted the new rifle to have a longer service life, use existing AK- and SKS-pattern tooling to speed up production and have improved reliability and accuracy comparable to the AK. The result is the Type 81, which uses a short-stroke, gas-operated action with a two-lug rotating bolt. The rifle is chambered in 7.62-by-39-millimeter and feeds from 20- or 30-round box magazines.

The rifle initially had a wooden buttstock, however, this was replaced with a folding stock similar to that on the Type 56. The Type 81 beat a rival rifle during trials and the Chinese military adopted it in 1982. Early production models saw combat during the Second Sino-Vietnamese War. Full production began in 1986.

The Type 81 Squad Automatic Weapon variant features a heavier-profile barrel, bipod, additional carrying handle and a fixed butt stock with a profile similar to the Soviet RPD. It was designed to fulfill a role similar to the Soviet RPK and fires from a closed bolt. The Type 81 light machine gun can feed from either standard Type 81 rifle magazines or a 75-round drum magazine.

The Type 81’s longer receiver improves the weapon’s recoil characteristics, accuracy and controllability compared to the AK-pattern Type 56. The Type 81 also abandoned the AK’s large safety/selector lever for a small selector switch on the left side of the rifle. The Type 81 has a detachable rather than integral bayonet and is also able to fire rifle grenades.

The Type 81 entered production at the Heilongjiang Province state arsenal, while the arsenal in Yunnan Province built the light machine gun variant. Bangladesh’s Ordnance Factory started producing a licensed copy of the Type 81, designated the BD-08, in 2008. The Type 81 also in service with the Sri Lanka military and elements of the Pakistani army.

The Type 81 remains in Chinese service but has been largely replaced by the more modern bullpup QBZ-95 and also the QBZ-03, a modernized traditional-configuration rifle that uses a derivative of the Type 81’s action.


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