Originally posted May 9, 2016
This week's (slightly delayed) Gun of the Week combines a few of the themes we've looked at in previous installments: the Soviet Bloc; semiautomatic military rifle development; the intermediate cartridge; and odd corners of the modern-day American firearms collecting scene. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the SKS.
As with most military firearms, it has a much longer formal name. On its driver's license, the SKS is the samozaryadnyj karabin sistemy Simonova 1945г, which is to say, "self-loading carbine of the Simonov system, model of the year 1945", or CKC45 for short. Here in the West, the year generally gets omitted, because there was not a later self-loading carbine of the Simonov system, so there's no need for disambiguation.
During World War II, virtually all the armies that had entered the war without a self-loading rifle tried to develop one. The USA, of course, had the M1 Garand rifle and (unrelated) M1 carbine already when the war began, and the Germans had been fooling around with self-loaders since shortly before the war, though none had gone into widespread production or general issue (nor would they for the duration of the war). The Soviets began the war woefully unprepared, as we have seen in the earlier GotW entry on the Mosin-Nagant. Not only were they still standardized on a bolt-action rifle from the 1890s, they didn't have anywhere near enough of them for all the troops they could mobilize, nor the production capacity to make up that shortfall in good order.
As such, they weren't well-positioned to be developing radical new rifle technology either, but as the war went on, they gave it a go anyway. As with the Germans, this effort had actually begun before the war, and the rifle involved, the SVT, was by all accounts a good one. The SVT's designer, Fedor Tokarev, was a talented firearms engineer, and his rifle can't be considered a failure; between the 1938 and improved 1940 versions, more than a million and a half of them were made, even though the German invasion in 1940 disrupted production and meant that it never achieved full adoption as was originally intended, and the Red Army relied primarily on the Mosin-Nagant until the end of the war and beyond.
So the SVT's failure to become the Soviet equivalent of the Garand was not really any fault of the rifle, but like the Garand, it did have an institutionally-imposed design limitation that didn't help it toward that goal. The SVT was designed, like the M1 Garand and the early German self-loaders, around the full-size, full-power rifle cartridge used by the then-current bolt-action service rifle—in the SVT's case, the 7.62×54mmR. The M1 achieved its great success and iconic fame in spite of this; the SVT, not so much, though it did find a niche.
I won't belabor the point, as we've discussed it before, but the SVT's example taught the Soviets the same lesson that the Germans would learn during the war, and which would eventually lead to the intermediate 8mm Kurz cartridge and the Sturmgewehr. The Soviet equivalent to the former was the 7.62×39mm cartridge.
Above is a comparison of a 7.62x51mmR cartridge with a 7.62×39mm one. The latter uses a similar bullet (same diameter, different weight) to the earlier one, but is shorter overall, contains less propellant, and is not rimmed (part of the original design brief, so it can function more easily in fully automatic weapons). The first issued weapon to use the new intermediate round was the RPD light machine gun, followed almost immediately by Simonov's new carbine.
As it happens, the SKS's career as the standard-issue rifle of the Red Army was, like the SVT's, short-lived. In the SKS's case, it was overshadowed shortly after its introduction by another new weapon designed around it, with which many of you will be at least passingly familiar: the avtomat Kalashnikova 1947г, better known to the world at large as the AK-47. The Soviet Union's profligacy in handing out AK-47s (and later AKMs), ammunition to suit them, and the means of producing both to its various fraternal socialist allies around the world has made the 7.62×39mm cartridge the most common ammunition in the world. Because a lot of those people weren't big on record-keeping, no one has any idea today how much of it exists or where it all comes from; only that there is a hell of a lot of it and the supply never seems to decrease.
The AK-47's rise didn't mean the end of the SKS, however. They're not the same class of firearm, so are not direct "competitors", as it were; the SKS is a semiautomatic carbine, designed to balance handiness and simplicity with a reasonable degree of accuracy and precision, while the AK-47 and its descendants are selective-fire assault rifles, meant for entirely different purposes. While the SKS was only briefly in production in the USSR, various and sundry other Eastern Bloc countries, their military doctrines differing from (and in some cases subordinate to) the Red Army's, kept their versions in production and service for much, much longer.
SKS clones were produced all over the Communist world—in Romania, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Albania, North Korea, Vietnam, and China. They're still made in China today, although principally for export through the country's state-run firearms exporter, Norinco. For reasons I'm not certain of, they can also be found in the hands of Polish soldiers serving various ceremonial functions, even though as far as I know, they weren't actually made in Poland or used in significant numbers by the Polish Army. Possibly the Soviets sent them a few crates of the things at random, back in the day, and the Poles didn't have any other use for them. That seems like a fairly Soviet thing to do.
The rifle pictured above is one of those international variants, and so not actually, to be technical, an SKS; rather, it's a Yugoslavian PAP M59/66A1. These were made by the Zastava works in Serbia, which still makes guns today, and which is also infamous in certain circles for having been the factory where the Yugo automobile was made. They're better at making guns than they were at making cars.
Like the M1, the SKS is a gas-operated rifle, though unlike the M1, the gas system is on top of the barrel rather than underneath, and all of its moving parts except the bolt are on the inside.
The bolt locks back if opened on an empty magazine. It's worth noting that, unlike the M1, it doesn't unlock automatically when the rifle is loaded. Instead, you have to pull it back a little more to release the lock and let it go forward. However, if you want to close the action without loading it, you do have to reach in there and depress the magazine follower manually before the bolt will unlock when pulled back, so if you're not careful there's still an opportunity to give yourself a little Commie M1 thumb.
SKSes have fixed 10-round magazines very like the Mosin-Nagant's in general construction, and similarly loaded from stripper clips. These are a mighty pain in the butt to find nowadays, particularly for the European carbines, since the Chinese Type 56 pattern's clips (which are still in production and easy to find) may or may not work with anyone else's rifles. I managed to scrounge up some surplus Yugoslavian ammunition to go with my surplus Yugoslavian rifle.
Loading works as in any other stripper-fed gun, starting with the guide slot (which in the SKS is actually on the bolt carrier).
(Another interesting thing about SKS stripper clips is that, according to several sources I've read, they can also be used to make loading AK-47 magazines quicker and easier. That's a clever touch on the part of someone at the Izhevsk Arsenal, where both the original Soviet SKS and the AK-47 were made.)
Once you reach that point, you take out the clip, toss it aside (or, if you're a modern American shooter, carefully tuck it away somewhere because the damn things are worth more than the ammo), then (as noted earlier) pull the bolt back slightly and let it drop, chambering the first round. I didn't do that in this case, because I didn't want to load the rifle inside my house. Instead, I used the handy magazine-dump feature to get them back out again without cycling the action.
Trip the catch just behind the magazine, and out they all come, just like on the Mosin-Nagant. There are only nine in the picture here because the other one came out the top, since the action was still open and the rifle was lying on its side.
(I don't know what that number electro-penciled on the magazine well is; it's not the serial number, or even part of it.)
I was particularly unwilling to load the rifle indoors because the SKS has the most rudimentary safety I've ever seen. In the ready-to-fire configuration, there's a little metal tab at the back of the trigger guard.
That's hinged. If you flip it up, it latches into place behind the trigger and physically prevents it from moving backward.
... And that's it. That's the only safety mechanism the SKS has. There's no internal hammer disconnect, nothing that blocks the firing pin from moving, nothing. If an SKS is loaded, there is nothing mechanically preventing it from firing except a little metal equivalent of a foot in the door. That was presumably just fine, even extravagant, by 1945 Soviet standards, but nowadays one prefers a bit more assurance than that.
Speaking of safety, I should take a moment and mention one of the SKS's less endearing design quirks. The firing pin in an SKS is floating (that is, it's not fixed to the hammer, but moves in a channel inside the bolt where it's driven forward by the hammer to strike the cartridge primer), but not spring-loaded. That is to say, there's nothing forcing it back into its retracted position after firing other than recoil forces, and the fact that once the action operates the hammer is recocked and no longer touching it. That's usually enough, but if the channel it runs in gets too gummed up with powder residue or grease or just general crud, it can get stuck in one position. If it's stuck all the way back, the rifle won't fire until it's freed...
... but if it's stuck all the way forward, then every time the action closes, if there's a cartridge in the chamber, the firing pin will strike it with the full force of the recoil spring behind it, completely regardless of what the trigger and hammer are doing. If that happens, the rifle becomes not just fully automatic, but unstoppably automatic. No matter what the shooter does, it's going to discharge however many rounds are left in the magazine as fast as the action can cycle, which is pretty fast. This is called "slam firing" and is, I am given to understand, rather disconcerting and undesirable, not to mention astoundingly unsafe. It is therefore an extremely good idea to keep the firing pin and associated mechanisms of one's SKS as clean and well-lubricated as possible. Oh, and don't inadvertently reassemble the bolt with the firing pin upside down, either, or the same thing might happen, because it's not really symmetrical and will get jammed in the channel. It bears a lot of watching out for, that firing pin, is what I'm saying. An odd shortcoming in a rifle that was otherwise designed to be as gormless-farmboy-proof as humanly possible, but then, you aren't really supposed to dismantle the bolt that thoroughly in the field.
Anyway, moving on, as I mentioned above, this rifle is a Yugoslavian PAP M59/66A1, the third variant of the SKS produced by Zastava for the Yugoslav Army. (PAP stands for polu-automatska puška, "semi-automatic rifle".) The M59 was pretty much a straight-up copy of the SKS-45. The M59/66 model added an extra little something. Up on top of the rifle, at the front of the gas cylinder, is this little button.
This controls a valve which activates or deactivates the gas system. In this position, the system is engaged, which means that some of the propellant gas is diverted into the gas cylinder and drives the piston back, operating the action. Flip it up, and the valve closes, disabling the gas system and forcing all of the gas to go out the muzzle. That renders the rifle single-shot, which seems like an odd thing for the operator to want to do, but is explained by what they added out at the business end.
That thing that looks like a muzzle brake, ahead of the front sight? It's a grenade launcher. The idea was that the soldier would unload the regular ammunition from the rifle, flip that switch to disable the gas system, then remove the special blank cartridge that came with each grenade round, fit the grenade onto the spigot, load the blank, and fire the grenade. The spent blank would then have to be cleared manually, and the soldier could either repeat the process, or switch the gas system back on and reload with regular ammo.
Moving the gas system selector switch also releases the big, elaborate grenade launcher sight to be flipped up and put into use. (Note the top-center position of the button.)
In anticipation of the punishing recoil of grenade firing, the PAP M59/66 was fitted with a thick rubber buttplate instead of the usual steel.
(Confusingly, some accounts state that the rifle is supposed to be placed with its butt against the ground, like a little mortar, when launching grenades, which would make the rubber pad kind of superfluous, and yet still ascribe that reason to its presence.)
The addition of the grenade launcher, and the several inches it adds to the barrel length, also meant the underbarrel folding bayonet had to be made longer. The result is a bit unwieldy, and anyway the mechanism that deploys it is basically the same as the one on the M44 Mosin-Nagant (except it comes up from underneath instead of around from the side), so I'm not going to mess with it for pictures' sake.
The grenade launcher neatly demonstrates something about Yugoslav-Soviet relations. Though a Communist one-party state, Yugoslavia was not a member of the Warsaw Pact and did not take a lot of orders from Moscow. Marshal Tito and Stalin never saw eye-to-eye, and for reasons I'm not clear on, managed to avoid that fact leading to his country being crushed by the Red Army, like Hungary and Czechoslovakia were when their leaders similarly thought they might like to follow their own path. In this case, that manifests itself in the fact that the Yugoslavs adopted the SKS, but then fitted it with a grenade launcher designed to take NATO grenades, not Soviet ones.
(In case you're wondering, this is perfectly legal for me to have. The grenades would be a problem if I had any, but the launcher is OK with the ATF. In fact, because of the weird, weird way US firearms laws work, the importers would have been in trouble if they took it off, because these rifles are imported under Curio & Relic status and have to be left as they were configured when they were so classified.)
The M59/66's regular sights consist of a conventional shrouded front post, similar to that found on the AK family, and a rear tangent sight with the usual charmingly optimistic maximum range calibration (in tens of meters, I think).
The A1 variant, as I have here, featured an optional set of night sights that glowed in the dark: a pair of luminous dots flanking the notch in the rear sight, and a flip-up glow dot that covers up the front post when raised.
These apparently varied between blobs of phosphorescent paint and little vials of tritium (a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen that makes phosphor coatings glow; it's what expensive luminous watch dials use since radium paint was banned). Mine seems to be the former, unless it's just that the tritium has decayed and the phosphor is all that's left. They glow, but only for a little while after exposure to a light source.
My rifle is part of a large population of ex-Yugoslav Army M59s recently decommissioned by that defunct country's constituent parts, and as far as the importers can tell, was never issued. As such, it spent the last 30 or 40 years essentially encased in a solid block of a heavy preservative grease commonly known by the former brand name of its most common variant, cosmoline. When I received it, it was still coated in the stuff; a local gunsmith cleaned it for me as best he could, so that it's functional, but I think it will always be slightly sticky and a bit smelly. (In some of the photos above, you can see traces of the grease clinging to various parts, and it's soaked into the wooden stock pretty much irremediably. For some reason the flash really picks up the traces and makes it look as if the whole thing is still completely glooped with the stuff.)
What armorers would do with cosmoline is generally keep a big vat of the stuff at a temperature where it would become fully liquid (this doesn't have to be that hot, only sort of hot-shower hot), then dip whole rifles (or pistols, or whatever) in it before placing them in storage racks. Alternately, the system that appears to have been used by the Yugoslavs involved putting several rifles in a crate and then filling the rest of the crate with warm cosmoline. Either way, it gets everywhere. The guy who cleaned mine for me said that the barrel was completely full of it, and when I first got it and took it out of the box, I couldn't even open the action, it was so gummed up.
Military armorers did this because it it is a near-complete panacea against corrosion, and also because they don't generally have to deal with it. If my rifle had ever been issued, its coating of grease would have been the problem of the luckless recruit it was handed to, who would have had to spend a day or two soaking it in mineral spirits (or kerosene, or—in a pinch, really inadvisable on a lot of levels—gasoline), scrubbing it in hot water, and generally getting filthy and miserable. But recruits are supposed to be filthy and miserable and have their time flagrantly wasted by the army, so it all works out! Once these rifles arrive on the civilian market, not so much, but who would even have considered, in Yugoslavia in the 1970s, that some civilian in Maine, USA was going to end up owning one of these things?
Anyway, cosmoline has its advantages, in that, horrible to clean or not, it does its intended job really well. This rifle, unissued and entombed in grease for decades, is essentially brand new. Also, it came with a complete set of the stuff that would have been issued with it, if it had ever been issued.
From left: The collapsible cleaning tool that would go in a compartment behind that center hole in the buttplate, except it's still so utterly grody with cosmoline that I haven't taken it out of the sandwich bag the dealer put it in; a brass oil bottle (empty) and the leather belt pouch for it; a two-compartment ammunition box; and a leather sling so cunningly rolled up on itself that I haven't the heart to unroll and install it.
It also came with the little book Zastava included with each one so the army arsenal could keep track of it while they had it, which I think is pretty cool, even though I can only make educated guesses as to what anything in it means.
Based on similarities to known words, I'm guessing that says something like "technical card for pistols, rifles, and automats (i.e., assault rifles)".
The Yugoslavian language (Serbian?) reminds me of that faux-Eastern-Bloc language all the signs in Indeterminate Communist Country were written in on the old Mission Impossible TV series. This was called "Gellerese" after the show's producer and mainly consisted of slightly respelled English words with random diacriticals thrown on for flavor, e.g., gas stations with big signs reading GÄZ.
As this rifle was unissued, most of the book is mainly-blank pages like the ones shown below, with occasional markings like the ones in the top right, which I assume were basically some Yugoslav Army armorer checking over the stock and writing down, "Yup, still here."
I mentioned earlier that the SKS was also connected to an odd corner of firearms collecting in the present-day United States. Here's the thing about that. Back in the mid-'90s, the federal government and several states enacted bits of legislation they generally billed as bans on "assault weapons", even though no one ever properly bothered to define what an assault weapon is for that purpose. Most of the criteria under which things got banned were thus cosmetic (rifles with a pistol grip, for instance, and if I recall correctly, carrying handles like the one on the AR-15). Others were more practical, such as limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds and/or requiring a fixed magazine. At no point do little technicalities like ballistic characteristics seem to have been considered; it was mostly to do with what the rifles in question looked like.
The federal version of that law had a sunset provision in it and was not renewed by subsequent Congresses, so it elapsed a few years ago. States which had passed their own versions, such as California, kept theirs on the books. What all this has to do with the SKS is simple. Here we have a fairly short, very handy, not terribly heavy semiautomatic carbine chambered for the same compact, easy-to-carry-a-lot-of ammunition that the AK family uses, and which, as previously mentioned, is now only slightly less abundant than free hydrogen... but if you look at it, it doesn't have any of the visual features that make the AK, the AR, and such-like obvious targets for legislation. In its standard configuration, it doesn't have a pistol grip or a vertical front grip. It doesn't have a big sticky-out I-saw-that-on-the-news magazine. Doesn't have a detachable magazine at all, in fact, and its capacity is a modest and that-old-law-satisfying 10 rounds. By rifle standards, if you don't already know what it is, it doesn't look like anything special. Certainly not like the sort of thing underfunded guerilla movements use to topple governments (although, in point of fact, it has been, right out there on the front lines of the 20th century's various revolutions with its cousin Mr. Kalashnikov).
What that means is that during the decade or so when you couldn't legally buy an AR or AK in this country, the SKS became the rifle of choice for the sort of people who assume that one of these days they're going to have to make up their own laws and then enforce them with surplus military firearms. Nowadays these guys (and gals, I assume, but mostly guys) are called "preppers", although exactly what they're prepping for varies. Some are still waiting for the global civilization-ending war we were all taught to expect in the '70s. Others are expecting newer-fangled variations on that same scenario, involving global plague or total economic collapse or, I don't know, probably some of them seriously expect the zombie apocalypse one of these days. Still others, and the ones that scare me the most, are the ones who believe—or at least claim to believe—that they're destined to take on and bring down the Sinister Government Conspiracy someday. You may have seen some of those bozos on TV a little while back, squatting in a wildlife sanctuary in Oregon and receiving shipments of dildos and lube via Amazon Prime from various inspired trolls on the Internet.
Anyway. My point is, a lot of those guys bought SKSes in the 'oughties, ostensibly not because ARs and AKs were illegal (a lot of them claim not to think the law applies to them anyway, because they have deemed it in some way bogus), but because being illegal made them inconveniently hard to get ahold of, if you follow the distinction. Conveniently, SKS variants from all over the Communist and formerly-Communist world had just entered the country in large numbers when the ban came down in 1996, and though SKS importation was stopped at around the same time (and for related reasons), they didn't fall under the ban themselves. As such, they remained readily available and inexpensive at a time when most of their competition had suddenly vanished from store shelves, and the prepper community jumped on them.
Along the way, the kind of subsidiary industry people tend to associate with the cars from the Fast & Furious movies sprang up around them. Remember the pistol-that-is-really-a-rifle I showed you a few weeks ago? A similar sort of jiggery-pokery immediately started going on with the SKS. Gun regulation compliance is a little like the joke in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about how half the scientists in the universe are trying to stop the Electronic Thumb from working and the others are working out ways around the first half's efforts.
In this case, that doesn't mean people started selling SKS pistols, but a similar sort of rules-lawyerly maneuvering is involved. These days you can get parts with which, with a little skill and ingenuity, you can convert the action from an SKS carbine into pretty much any other small-rifle form factor you prefer—including rigs that look and presumably operate a lot like the ARs and AKs people had to buy SKSes instead of back in the banned old days. Gadgets that replace the fixed magazine with a well that can take AKM box magazines are particularly popular.
Interestingly, the SKS remains popular in those circles even though AR and AK rifles are back on the market with a positive vengeance nowadays. Rumblings routinely emanate from various capitals about banning them again, and the common logic I've heard espoused is that if that happens, all the AK-like parts can come off an SKS and leave it back in a configuration that will remain legal... but be kept in a shoebox under the bed in case The Worst Happens and they're needed. (For people with such an avowed disdain for the government, a lot of these folks seem oddly preoccupied with remaining in at least technical compliance. I'm just saying.)
As such, much as with my research into what in the world the HK 416 pistol was, I found myself wandering into some odd and poorly lighted corners of the American gun fancier's world in the course of learning more about the SKS. I can only wonder what Comrade Simonov would have thought of it all.
In fairness, I should note that preppers aren't the only North American shooters among whom the SKS is popular. Military firearms history buffs like me also like them, because they're an important link to the development of the intermediate cartridge and so forth, and because they're a lot easier to get hold of, as Soviet small arms go, than, for instance, a PPSh submachine gun. They've also apparently caught on with hunters of small-to-medium game, such as deer—particularly in Canada, it appears, where firearms laws are quite a lot tighter than in the US. I don't know as one would want to try to hunt deer with an AK-47, but the SKS has a longer barrel and thus a higher muzzle velocity, and I am told that coming from it, the round is very similar ballistically to that old American deer-hunting standby the .30-30 (last seen in the Gun of the Week article about the Winchester '94).
Addendum originally posted April 21, 2017
I just mailed my SKS bolt off to a chap in Texas to be re-educated. Given how heavily the rifle was gunked up with cosmoline* when I got it, I would have had a hard time ever quite trusting the non-spring firing pin (and, indeed, when I took the bolt out of the rifle I found that the pin was pretty firmly stuck forward). Sending it in for this mod has the added side benefit that it'll be even more thoroughly cleaned.
Addendum originally posted May 6, 2017
Got home from a frustrating trip to the range (of which you will read more in due course) to discover that my bolt and carrier were in today's mail. Given that the Murray's website notes a typical turnaround time of 30 days, that was a nice surprise.
Bolt and carrier, as unpacked (bolt carrier is upside-down, bolt is right-side up):
(Note the prominent branding on the new firing pin. Enhancing my SKS's 922(r) compliance further! :)
The modification to the carrier is that nicely done little notch near the back, which is made to provide better clearance to the larger head of the spring-loaded replacement pin. You can see how that works with the bolt and carrier assembled (upside-down):
The job also involved some nice cleanup/deburring on the bolt face and the hole where the firing pin protrudes from same, but it's not obvious enough to be worth getting a photo of.
The new firing pin is nice and springy, as one might expect. A spare spring and the original firing pin were included in a little baggie; I'll have to stash them someplace so I won't lose them.
* or the Commie equivalent; a joke somehow relating cosmoline and the Komsomol is hovering just out of my reach