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NDM-86: The Chinese Dragon Of Dragunovs



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SOVIET SNIPERS, CHINESE FIGHTERS, AND THE NDM-86

At the height of the Cold War, the RKKA (Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army) was looking to replace the now 70-year-old Mosin Nagant as their standard marksmanship rifle. We use the term “marksmanship” because it was never really what a Western military would consider a “sniper” rifle. 

Even the celebrated Soviet sniper teams of WWII were rarely making kills beyond 300 meters and did much of their work in urban environments. Truthfully, the Mosin (and issued ammo) that was accurate enough to be useful beyond that distance was rare, let alone the rifleman who could employ it in such a role. 

Perhaps as a result of this, Soviet infantry doctrine, presented with the call for a new weapon to fill this role, decided to develop a new application as well. Rather than design highly accurized equipment for dedicated sniper teams, they requested a “squad support weapon” to be issued to every platoon, like light machineguns already were. 

HOW IT STARTED

When these decisions were made in the mid-to-late 1950s, Warsaw Pact countries were using 7.62×39 AK-47s, while the West was still fielding .30-caliber battle rifles with much greater range and muzzle energy/velocity. The Soviets worried that the range advantage Western full-size rifle cartridges provided would lead to increased casualties. 

Similarities and differences abound between this NDM-86 and both the AK platform, and the SVD/Tigr. Note the receiver and bolt carrier

The DMR concept was born as a way to partially mitigate the range/power disadvantage, and so advancing under fire wouldn’t be a death sentence. In essence, the SVD was mean to suppress or even counter your average Western soldier or marine with an M14 or LMG, allowing the rest of the Soviet rifle company to close with the enemy and shower them with AKM fire, as their doctrine encouraged.

They reasoned that what the West would later call a Designated Marksman, distributed evenly to infantry units with both the weapon and training to hit man-sized targets at 600 to 800 meters, would be far more useful than dedicated sniper teams assigned at the company level. This was a fairly unusual concept at the time. We in the West eventually adopted it a half-century later, as the utility of a DM in every squad is undeniable, even if they can’t do everything a sniper can. 

3-lug bolt

For example, in the modern battlefield environment, a DM can suppress or eliminate a machinegunnner at ranges an infantryman with an iron sighted or red-dot-equipped rifle can’t readily manage. 

This was exactly the sort of thing the Soviets had in mind for their new squad support weapon.

So when the request went out, submissions returned from the usual suspects including SKS designer Simonov, but also a design submitted by Yevgeny Dragunov, later designated the SVD/Snayperskaya Vintovka Dragunova, or Sniper Rifle, Dragunov.

The requirements were simple: a robust, reliable, lightweight rifle chambered in 7.62x54r with acceptable accuracy using the various available issued loads. Rather than accurizing the rifle specifically for 7n1 “sniper” loads, it had to sling everything from light ball to explosive “marking” rounds, and the barrel’s twist rate was tweaked a lot during field development. 

Trigger assembly

Originally, Dragunov is said to have designed it with a 1:320mm (1:12.6 inch) twist to work best with quality light ball, later reduced to 1:240mm (1:9.4 inches) to accommodate all the available ammo. This exemplified the pragmatism behind the SVD design philosophy. 

The Dragunov could do everything they wanted, within the reality of the Red Army’s requirements and capabilities, without needing to be a sub-MOA rifle past 1,000m, which it was not, nor ever intended to be. 

If after all this you still doubt the SVD’s lack of “true” sniper rifle status, consider how many other “sniper” rifles you’ve seen with a bayonet lug, especially when being lightweight was a design requirement. The SVD beat out its more esteemed and politically connected competition in a five-year trials process from 1958 to 1963, becoming the new squad support weapon of the Red Army.

Externally, the Dragunov appears very AK-like, which is both intentional and deceptive. Retaining the AK-style manual of arms was a primary goal for the RKKA, so any soldier could pick up and operate the DMR. However, the internals are surprisingly dissimilar. 

Major divergences include a different bolt carrier, three-lug locking bolt, short-stroke piston (retained inside the forend rather than a monolithic piece with the bolt carrier) with adjustable gas settings, and an adjustable gas system. The original design included more or less a second sear inside the fire control group like you’d find in a select-fire weapon, serving only to stop the hammer from falling before the bolt positively closes and locks. 

HOW IT WENT

From the Soviet perspective, the SVD had all the pros of a DMR and none of the cons of a sniper rifle. The Warsaw Pact nations agreed, as did much of the developing world’s armies. Fifty-two nations have issued the SVD, or one of its 16 variants, since 1963, and it remains in production today. 

Balanced ahead of the magwell, the SVD platform’s weight has its benefits.

The “good enough” design philosophy, AK manual of arms, and reliable service with any sort of 54r ammo enticed many nations with similar training and supply needs to the Red Army to adopt the SVD as their own DMR/sniper rifle.

After the initial production run caught up with demand, one squad in each Soviet motorized rifle, naval infantry, etc., platoon (about 1 in every 27 to 30 riflemen) had an SVD. According to an inventory of the arms of former East Germany army in 1992, there were over 1,500 of them in service there. 

Notable variants include the Russian civilian model Tigr, the Iranian Nakhjir 3, and the Chinese Type 79/85, from which the Nakhjir 3 was directly copied. The Chinese reverse-engineered their variants from SVDs obtained during and after the Vietnam war. 

The Chinese models were eventually rebranded the NDM-86 when they were purpose-built for export to the U.S. market. With English markings and the option for .308 chambering, it seemed an ideal import model for a large market eager for such rifles. 

The NDM-86 shown here is slightly different from the SVD in a few minor ways, though not immediately obvious to the casual observer. The rifle twist is said to be more like the original Dragunov design, optimized for quality, lighter weight projectiles. The trigger mechanism is also slightly different. The second “sear” we discussed earlier was removed for import to the U.S., as the BATFE decided it was too close to a full auto trigger assembly. 

They instead added a second disconnector behind the hammer, serving no purpose beyond redundancy for the original. The bottom rear of the bolt carrier is also flat, to interact with the second disconnect. The Russian military SVD has an angled bulge instead, as its second sear/disconnect is elsewhere. 

The bolt carrier is slightly shorter, with a slightly different shape to its protruding tail. Additionally, while the SVD and NDM share a free-floating firing pin, like the SKS, many NDM importers added a firing pin spring. Beyond these minor variances, they’re functionally identical. The only change that makes a practical difference is the twist rate.

HOW IT’S GOING

The SVD/Tigr/NDM-86 is an icon in American gun culture, perhaps the most widely recognizable “sniper” rifle in the world. This example of the NDM-86 is thanks to Ray Miller, a Slav-gun expert from Northern Virginia. 

There were only around 500 such rifles imported to the U.S. before restrictions stopped the flow, so they’re neither common nor affordable. Furthermore, magazines and spare parts (good luck finding a receiver or barrel without cannibalizing or having one custom-made) are even harder to find, with prices approaching extortion.

Difficult to seat at first, the otherwise excellent magazines become easy to swap with practice.

That said, to the right person $5,000 to $10,000 is a small price to pay to own a “grail gun,” fulfill their Soviet LARP fantasies, keep as an investment/collector piece, or just enjoy a wildly unusual piece of firearms history. 

The first thing that stands out is the thin 24-inch barrel. It’s long by design, to extract the most oomph possible from the 54r cartridge, and thin to save weight. The gas port, gas adjustment control (adjustable with a 54r cartridge rim), and two-piece handguard sit behind this, and with the uniquely curved magazine, help give the gun its classic profile. 

The 4x PSO-1 optic is side-rail mounted, heavier than hell, and rock solid, boding well for the surprisingly short and sharp, but oddly light, recoil the rifle produces. The AK-style sights and safety selector are familiar to most, while the bolt hold-open is not, but most welcome. Lastly the skeleton stock, intended mainly to save weight, and removable cheek pad round out the rifle’s iconic lines.

After shooting it a bit, the skinny barrel heats up fairly quickly and reduces accuracy, particularly once it’s too hot to touch. The gas adjustment is nice but really only necessary in very cold weather or with a particularly dirty weapon. The sights are familiar to an AK user but were originally a more precise peep-sight system better suited for a DMR but abandoned to maintain consistency. 

The scope is durable and functional, but low magnification and plagued with a very low FOV. Finding the right relief and discerning the very fine reticle markings without the illuminator on can be difficult depending on target, background, and PPE/weather conditions. In thick, high contrast noon-time forest, with fogged-up eye pro and a dead PSO battery, finding the reticle proved surprisingly difficult. The famous stock is quite functional, even for our large, Western meat hooks. 

Norinco NDM-86 (8)
The PSO-1 reticle is illuminated in yellow.

The pistol grip is comfortable, the cheek riser is adjustable, and with the center of balance just ahead of the magazine, the rifle shoulders and points quite nicely. Our only issue with the stock is that it’s a bit short. The rubber buttpad the Soviets produced for it later would be helpful to add length and soften the edges of the steel buttplate.

HOW IT SHOOTS

For a powerful cartridge like the 7.62x54r, the short stroke piston and captive recoil spring/guide rod deliver a surprisingly soft kick, even with 182-grain heavy ball Prvi Partizan. It’s loud, though it has a distinct crack and a sweet metallic ring to it. It’s something like an FAL, though with a more linear-feeling impulse. 

The magazines are quite reliable and double-feed, so loading is simple and straightforward. If you’re accustomed to rock-and-lock magazines, these’ll be familiar, with a lip up front and locking tab at the rear to catch the paddle-style mag release. They’re a bit finnicky at first, but you get used to it.

We had two light strikes with the PPU ammunition, out of 60 total rounds. The second time through they ignited without a problem. There were zero failures to feed or eject, and the rifle was quite enjoyable to shoot. Hot weather and distracting insects gave us a chance to accidentally experience the report unmuffled without ear pro — it was quite a sharp crack, rather than a boom. The 24-inch barrel likely tames the report somewhat.

The heavy ball we trialed in the NDM-86 achieved 2 MOA groups unsupported with ease. Had we been shooting from a bench or prone (or used the light ball Norinco reportedly intended for it), it could definitely have done better. 

The NDM-86, and the SVD it’s derived from, is a jack-of-all-trades by design. With that in mind, it performs its job with aplomb: Making acceptably accurate hits at or just beyond rifle range, in all weather conditions, with all ammo types is just another Tuesday for this platform. If you get the chance to shoot one, take the time to appreciate its lines, sounds, and unique recoil impulse. 

You won’t be disappointed; we certainly weren’t. 

SPECS:

NorincoNDM-86

  • Caliber: 7.62x54r
  • Capacity: 10
  • Barrel Length: 24.4 inches
  • Overall Length: 48.2 inches
  • Weight: 8.4 pounds
  • MSRP: varies

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