Ukraine’s war industry has seen innovations in everything from unmanned ground vehicles to polymer links for machine guns. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s engineers have often had to react to emerging needs. A key example of this is GRaft, a small company that has designed and manufactured belt boxes for almost every type of machine gun Ukraine’s armed forces put to use.

While belt boxes might not seem like the most exciting pieces of military equipment, they’re no less vital than the guns they’re paired with; the boxes are essential for storing and carrying ready-to-use belts of linked ammunition, and they allow machine gunners to move around unencumbered by hanging belts that can become tangled.

Described by GRaft’s engineer as a “beast,” this KPV heavy machine gun fires a huge 14.5 × 114-mm cartridge. At the request of anti-aircraft gunners, GRaft designed and built a giant belt box capable of holding 100 rounds of ammunition.

Image Courtesy of GRaft

Popular Mechanics talked to one of GRaft’s engineers—who spoke on behalf of the team, but wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns—about how the company developed its belt boxes. “Before the war, our workshop was engaged in the development and production of furniture,” he explained. “My partner and I have technical backgrounds, so we’ve always been interested in doing difficult things that others refused to do.” While the GRaft engineer has no military experience himself, his partner has served in the armed forces, and he and other serving soldiers they spoke to identified the need for new belt boxes. “Unfortunately, they are almost never supplied to our army for some reason,” he said.


Know Your Terms:

An ammunition belt is a long belt which feeds cartridges into the action of automatic weapons. Historically made from cloth, the belts are now more frequently made up of metal links which hold the chain of cartridges together. Once the weapon is fired, the belt moves through the machine gun, ejects the spent cartridge case, and a new cartridge is loaded into the weapon’s breech. The belt allows dozens, sometimes hundreds of rounds to be loaded on the weapon. Unlike magazines used with rifles, this allows longer strings of firing, and for automatic weapons, like machine guns, they remove the need to reload the weapon as frequently.

Carrying long belts of ammunition can be cumbersome—they can become tangled, making movement difficult, and could allow the belt to pull dirty into the weapon’s action, causing the machine gun to malfunction. Belt boxes allow the belts to be coiled up and stored when not in use, and also aid quick reloading of machine guns. They also prevent hanging belts from getting caught and tangled when a machine gunner is on the move.

The Ukrainian armed forces’ principle general purpose machine gun is the 7.62 x 54-mmR-chambered PKM, and many of the belt boxes available are of Soviet-era production. The engineer explained that while units are issued boxes with the guns, there often aren’t enough for everyone. The Soviet PKM boxes are made from aluminum, and have seen decades of hard service, meaning that many are in poor shape. This has been a known issue for some time, and a number of Ukrainian manufacturers have since developed their own belt boxes and fabric belt bags.

In April 2022, just weeks after Russia’s initial invasion, GRaft began work on its first PKM belt box. Within four weeks, the first box was ready for testing; development continued, and new, improved iterations quickly followed. “We delivered another four structurally different boxes a week later,” the engineer said.

Over the next few months, GRaft refined its designs based on direct user feedback. It rounded the corners of the box to prevent it from snagging on kit, and it changed the mounting bracket for the gun several times to make it stronger. “We received a complaint that when the guys fell on the box, the mounting broke, [so] we additionally strengthened it,” the engineer said. GRaft also designed a new latch system for the lid of the box so it was more convenient and easier to use.

Since April 2022, GRaft’s work has expanded with a dedicated workshop including manufacturing, assembly, and also a small paint shop that frequently paints not just belt boxes, but also weapons. GRaft works with friends who specialize in laser cutting, powder painting, and small parts manufacturing.

GRaft’s workshop on a busy day with belt boxes for various different machine guns scattered across the workbench alongside a U.S. M240 and an MG42-pattern machine gun.

Image Coutesy of GRaft

In January 2023, the team at GRaft began work on a belt box for another general purpose machine gun that’s proliferating through the Ukrainian armed forces: the FN MAG. Thousands of MAG-pattern machine guns have been provided to Ukraine, including M240s from the U.S., MAGs from Belgium, and KsP/58s from Sweden. The MAG/240 is frequently seen in photos and videos from the front line.

The team quickly realized that the requests from troops wouldn’t always lead to optimal designs.

GRaft told us that in response to requests from troops, it began work on a larger capacity box. “Another reason why we designed the product was because the NATO boxes are very small, only 50 cartridges,” the engineer said. When in action, soldiers wanted to be able to carry more rounds on the gun. As a result, they developed 75- and 100-round boxes. “We were forced to find a balance in the volume as well as in the weight and center of mass,” he said. They designed the 100 round boxes with an angled wall so the mass of the belt sits closer to the weapon’s center of mass, improving the balance and handling of the weapon.

The company also built a 150-round box at the request of some Ukrainian troops, but they found it was too ungainly to move with; the team quickly realized that the requests from troops wouldn’t always lead to optimal designs, the engineer says. “There are still requests for such a volume, but we talk about these shortcomings and the guys understand.” Turns out, the customer isn’t always right.

As the plethora of different machine guns provided to Ukraine continues to expand, many of GRaft’s developments are driven by customer requests. In the past, this has led the company to design a monstrous 100-round box for 14.5-mm KPV heavy machine guns, which have been used to defend Ukrainian cities against Iranian Shahed drones. These huge boxes help keep the gun in action for longer between reloads, and also make reloading the large weapons faster, GRaft explained.

Another machine gun the company has developed boxes for is the FN Minimi/M249 family of 5.56 x 45-mm chambered light machine guns, which are increasingly commonly seen in photographs and videos from the frontline.

Thirty newly finished belt boxes sit on a bench in GRaft’s workshop.

Image Courtesy of GRaft

Most recently, the company has gotten requests to develop a brand-new belt box for the variety of 7.62 x 51-mm MG42-pattern guns being used in significant numbers. These include MG42/59s from Italy, MG3s from Germany, and M53s from former Yugoslavian countries—another general-purpose machine gun which has arrived in Ukraine and is being widely issued. “It usually takes 5–7 days to develop the first working prototype,” the engineer explained. “As soon as the guys give the go-ahead, first on the training ground and then in combat conditions, we start to work faster, [and] in a week we are now making about 50 boxes.”

“Our goal is satisfied machine gunners,” he says. GRaft feels its work is a contribution to its country’s war effort—but the team looks forward to the day they can return to making furniture.

Matthew Moss is a British historian and writer specializing in small arms development, military history and current defence matters. He has written for a variety of publications in both the US and UK he also runs, a blog that explores the history, development and use of firearms.

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