The Friendly Russian

By Bob Campbell

When I was a kid we all knew what an Army rifle was. It was an old Springfield ’03 or maybe an Enfield. Garands were few and far between and the occasional eccentric used a British .303. Today, the situation is much different.

A deer hunter on a budget just might have an Army rifle but it will be a Russian rifle. The SKS has become an important part of America’s firearms scene. The guns are inexpensive, rugged, durable, and fun to shoot. That is about all you can ask of any rifle. The SKS has earned it’s place in America’s heart due to it’s robustness and ease of handling. Dirt cheap ammunition and accessories have added to the gun’s popularity. There are things the SKS is and things it is not. It is a fine centerfire plinker, small game getter and an acceptable rifle for use on deer sized game at moderate range. It is not a target rifle by any stretch of the imagination. But, as one who is more likely to be firing off his hind legs that off the bench I find the SKS offers fine practical accuracy in the field.

The SKS may not be as popular as the 5.5 million Winchester .30-30 rifles in use across the world, but offers similar power and accuracy. The .30-30 is a stronger round but at the range at which we should take deer with either rifle the difference should be conversational.

Criticisms of the SKS are valid, but don’t bother me. It is called ugly, but it works. The gun has plenty of tool marks in the inner workings and some of the Chinese guns look as if they were beat out upon a rock in Pakistan. But they always work, an endearing quality in any rifle whether it is meant for hunting, plinking, or war. The SKS is a little short in the stock for some shooters but not too long for many adults. A thick recoil pad will make up for this deficit if you have long arm reach. If you are wearing padded clothes such as worn in winter hunting, the SKS rifle’s short stock will come out about right. It is a good, fast handling little rifle. The SKS is sometimes criticized as for accuracy but this is more ammunition choice than anything else.

The SKS is interesting in it’s own right but the history of Soviet self loading rifles is also interesting. These rifles are rare in America but manufactured in great number in Russia under several governments. A major problem in early self loading rifle development was the use of the antiquated 7.62 x 54mm cartridge. This cartridge is about in the .30-06 class and chambered in the Mosin Nagant bolt action rifles. It is a rimmed cartridge. Rimmed rounds do not feed well in semi auto rifles. In 1916, Russia fielded a light ‘assault rifle’ which chambered the intermediate 6.5 x 50mm Japanese cartridge. The gun is important technically but failed tactically. It did not prove robust in action and was sensitive to dirt. After the war, the Bolsheviks took control and could not afford to chamber a new gun for anything but the heavily stockpiled 7.62 x 54mm round. (This is much the same reason the Tokarev pistol was chambered for the available .30 Mauser round.) The direct ancestor of the SKS is the AVS36. Sergie Simonov was beginning to be recognized as a firearms designer. His new rifle could fire fully automatic and used a fifteen round magazine. A gas operated action used a vertical moving bolt to lock up, a different system than our own Garand. The AVS36 did not prove reliable in action. The 7.62 x 54 round battered this action, resulting in high parts breakage. The gun was also complex and difficult to manufacture.

Over a million of the competitive Tokarev rifles were produced. This rifle was a little better than the AVs, but war time demands did not allow new designs at first. The Soviets needed every rifle they could field in their struggle against the Nazis.

By 1943 the world’s powers realized that full power rifles and firing at masses of troops might not be the wave of the future. Less powerful cartridges and faster handling rifles with higher magazine capacities would be developed. The United States .30 caliber carbine was a step in this evolution. The carbine was criticized as not powerful enough, but it’s reliability, firepower, and fast handling were excellent qualities. I have read conflicting reports on this gun. Each report has been penned by men of great experience in the great war who saw the guns in action. For what it is worth, the gun seems to have found more respect in the Pacific jungles.

The intermediate power rifle would be between the submachinegun in power and the full power rifle. It would fire a true rifle cartridge, if a shorter, less powerful one. There were aberrations along the way. The Japanese loaded standard cases with lower powder charges in some instances, and other rounds were simply long case pistol cartridges. The 7.62 x 39mm Soviet is by far the most successful intermediate cartridge of all time. The German 7.92mm x 33mm cartridge was chambered in the MP43, a remarkably advanced weapon. These were the first true assault rifles.

The Soviet answer was the M1943 7.62 x 39mm cartridge. Range was less than that of the 7.62 x 54 mm but the round could be accurate to 400 yards and lethal somewhat beyond. Soviet engineers moved slow in comparison to what was expected in the West. With most production geared toward the Tokarev rifle a rifle was developed and certain prototypes tested by late 1944 in battle. The carbine was tweaked and improved in certain areas and adopted as the 7.62 Samozaryadnyi Karabin Sisyemi Somonova Obrazets 1945. In simple terms, it is designated the SKS 45.

The SKS was not in full production until 1949. It had a relatively short front line service life, being replaced by the AK47 in 1953. But the SKS was heavily produced in many Soviet satellite nations.

I have fired other early short rifles, from the M1 Carbine and the Enfield Jungle Carbine to the Tanker Garand. The SKS is easily the best of the early carbines. However, the SKS was dated even when it first appeared in 1945. It uses a non detachable ten round magazine which is loaded with stripper clips. It is a little heavy for the round it uses. But it works! The gun has been produced in many nations. Examples include the East German Karibener 5, the Chinese type 56 and the Yugoslav M59. I have been told the Yugoslav gun was produced in 7.62mm NATO. This would not be out of the question and would make a fine all around gun if the action held up to the increased power. But, the gun may not actually exist.

When looking at the SKS we have to ask where does it fit? What are it’s capabilities? Some of us simply enjoy firing rifles, any type, and this is a good thing. This is the best thing, in my opinion, and while hunting and self defense are valid reasons for owning a SKS the fun aspect cannot be discounted. It is light on the budget and has introduced many cash strapped Americans to low cost centerfire plinking.

As a hunting rifle, the SKS is OK for short range game. With good handloads the SKS will do the job. Depending upon the load, I might limit myself to broadside shots on larger deer species. The SKS is much better than the .30 caliber carbine but not quite up to the .30-30.

Against pest and varmints the SKS is great, with proper loads. Several of my friends consider the SKS their all around rifle. More than a few ride in the trunk of patrol cars as patrol carbines. They are superior to any pistol caliber carbine.

The limiting factor is ammunition. Frankly, much of the Chinese ball ammunition I have fired was of terrible quality. It was pow pow bam pow bam! You are lucky to see a five to six inch group at 100 yards with such poor quality ammunition. With American manufactured softpoint ammunition, my personal SKS has exhibited groups in the three inch class. Not match grade by any means but decent for the task at hand. The Black Hills 125 grain softpoint has proven especially accurate, but a number of loads have given good results. I have also used East European ball ammunition with good results. For strict defense use, the Russian hollowpoint ammunition would be good. It expands rapidly and completely, fragmenting in about nine inches of gelatin. This is not a good deer load by any means but an estimable defense load. Against light cover, it offers extremely good results.

My personal gun has been around for some time, and looks the worse for wear. I have fired about 2,500 rounds in this rifle with no malfunctions of any type and little cleaning. I have had good results with handloads and all factory ammunition. The sights could be better, but I have been able to sight the gun in perfectly. Kentucky windage works at 100 yards and the gun cannot be sighted in, at least this one cannot, at 25 yards. It shoots high. This is no drawback unless the rifle would be used for dedicated hostage rescue.

I have improved one of my rifles by adding a four power scope from Federal Arms. This little inexpensive scope does improve the guns utility. It is definitely in the best buy class. When carried for several months in the trunk of the patrol car, this scope proved robust, never losing it’s zero. When using the scoped rifle I found speed was at a premium when using the following drill;

I first took a hasty sight picture by sighting over the adjustment knob of the scope. I quickly lowered my eye to the scope and took aim. This resulted in a rapid hit at longer ranges. My patrol SKS does not wear a scope but I have to admit this is an excellent option. Federal Ordnance also offers useful bipods and other gear.

All of my rifles have original ten round magazines. This is for a simple and compelling reason. Aftermarket magazines don’t work. I have tried them all. Some are junk, others are better, but all destroy the balance of the gun. In many states we have to block the gun to five rounds for hunting in any case.

My gun is stock, simple, and reliable. I have made a slight addition. Near the handy safety lever I have painted a small red dot that is visible when the gun is off safe. Nine times out of ten the gun is at ready chamber empty but I like this touch.

I like this gun very much. It is one of those well worn and familiar guns in which I have a great deal of confidence. It is going to fire and it will hit where it looks if I do my part. That is worth a great deal.

The SKS is a good gun, and it is a lot of gun as well for the money. I will never give it the emotional attachment I give the ’03 Springfield and it is not in the league with a Garand. But it is too good a gun to own only one. And we free people, with a right to keep and bear arms protected by the Constitution, have wholeheartedly welcomed these refugees from the various People’s Republics.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N7 (April 2001)
and was posted online on June 27, 2014


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