In fact, it isn’t an M249 SAW at all. It looks like a SAW, probably sounds like a SAW when fired, operates similarly to a SAW, but it isn’t one. What you are actually looking at is an RPD derivative that has been externally modified to fit the overall external profile of an M249 SAW light machine gun. The photographs were posted by the Instagram user Akalphonso who spotted them in use by an Iraqi Shi’a militia group named سرايا السلام/Sarea-Al-Salaam, or “Peace Companies” in English. The group is an organized self-defence force that was created at the height of the Daesh resurgence in Iraq and Syria, to protect vulnerable Shi’a communities in Iraq. Looking through the social media of the group, one sees numerous other small arms modifications that were done to make the weapons “look” like more effective small arms that they actually aren’t. One particularly gruesome example is of a PSL rifle that has been configured to “look” like a PKM GPMG from afar, complete with an M249 200 round plastic drum “attached” to the magazine well and the belt draped over the receiver of the rifle. This sort of practice has been going on in Iraq for some time, previously even among actual Iraqi special operations forces with Mad Bull airsoft replicas.
We were actually able to get in touch with the militiaman that created M249/RPD contraption himself. In addition to working on the gun himself, he is also a member of the Sarea-Al-Salaam militia group. What kind of RPD it is, we cannot tell as there aren’t any in-depth photographs of the original markings to accompany it, although we do have a grainy photograph of it before the modifications began. According to conversations with the fabricator, the original RPD was of Russian origin as opposed to Polish, Egyptian, Chinese, or any other country manufacturer. Overall the 7.62x39mm RPD light machine gun isn’t very common at all in Iraq, especially when compared to the PKM or even the RPK models that have flooded the surplus inventories of these organized militias and Iraqi armed forces. It is a design entering almost five decades of when it last rolled off a production line, spare parts are quite difficult to acquire, and not to mention the linked ammunition isn’t used anywhere else.
So what has been changed here? From a cursory inspection, almost everything externally. The entire trigger assembly and stock assembly has been completely taken off and replaced with what appears to be proprietary trigger/stock assembly that has been slid into its place. The new assembly is also using an AR15-patterned buffer tube and a telescoping stock installed on it. The original RPD drum latching assembly appears to still be in place but a reciprocating assembly has been installed on a plastic M249 200-round drum so that it can be attached. This is necessary because of the ejection process of the RPD pushing empty casings directly out of the receiver at the 6 o’clock position, on top of the inserted drum. Thus, the design incorporates a ramp that allows the shells to flow down and to the right of the machine gun while it is in operation (on top of the drum itself).
We have received a video of the RPD being fired, but unfortunately, only a single round was sent downrange. Conversations with the fabricator indicate that it is fully functional in automatic fire.
One point of operational difference is that the barrel has been shortened several inches to fit the profile of an M249’s 21-inch barrel. This might increase gas pressure in the gas tube in addition to a large muzzle flash being emitted while fired. But similar barrel shortenings have happened in South Africa where RPD’s have been shortened down with minimal operational issues.
When asked “Why” improvise an RPD to look like an M249, our fabricator told us that the first reason was that it was a passion of his, that he’s been modifying small arms for several years. The second reason was that he saw numerous videos online showing attempts to modify the M249 and RPD coming from the United States. This drove him to try and “outdo” the videos he was seeing on Youtube, with the limited resources that he has in Iraq.