World War II changed warfare. Slowly people realized that the full-powered, bolt-action battle rifle was quickly becoming outdated. The Russians did more than realize that bolt action rifles were obsolete. They realized the benefits of an intermediate cartridge over a full-powered rifle cartridge. Russians cast aside their bolt action, 7.62x54R Mosin-Nagant rifles in favor of the newly developed semi-automatic, 7.62×39 SKS rifle.
SKS stands for Samozaryadnyj Karabin sistemy Simonova and is a fascinating rifle. In the world of military rifles, we have a variety of monikers that are applied to different designs. Assault rifles, battle rifles, DMR rifles, sniper rifles, and the like are all useful monikers to describe how a rifle functions, Yet, the SKS fits in none of these categories.
It’s a semi-auto-only rifle that fires an intermediate round and doesn’t have the ability to utilize optics or be accurized for DMR purposes. It’s too large to be a carbine and fires a caliber too weak to be a battle rifle.
The SKS Design Details
The SKS utilizes a very conventional layout that was appropriate for its time. It has a straight stock layout made from wood. The magazine is integral and holds ten rounds of ammunition. Shooters reloaded the magazine via stripper clips, and a skilled practitioner can do so quite rapidly.
The SKS utilizes a gas-operated, short-stroke gas piston system. This short-stroke piston is simple but robust and reliable in adverse conditions. Simonov designed a rifle known as the AVS-36 that utilizes a very similar design but fired the 7.62x54R from a box magazine and had select fire options. On the other hand, the SKS uses a simplified system compared to the AVS-36 and is much more reliable.
Like the original Mosin-Nagant M44 rifle, the SKS had a built-in bayonet. The firing pin design initially utilized a spring to capture it, but Russia eventually moved to a free-floating firing pin. This design can cause the firing pin to be locked in place and cause a slam fire if the firing pin becomes jammed in place. This is a rare occurrence but should be noted.
The SKS weighed 8.5 pounds and was 40 inches long overall with a 20-inch barrel. It’s a big rifle, but for the time, it was somewhat compact. This includes the Mosin-Nagant it sought to replace. The SKS was 8.5 inches shorter than the Mosin-Nagant, 3.5 inches shorter than the M1 Garand and KAR 98, and only 0.1 inches longer than the M44 Mosin Nagant Carbine.
The Russian SKS was designed in 1944 as the second World War was coming to a close. The Russians observed in WWII that the average engagement was within 300 yards or so. The big 7.62x54R round provided more range than necessary, and along with that extra range, you saw a good bit more recoil, which led to slower follow-up shots.
As such, the lighter 7.62×39 round was developed to provide a 300-yard cartridge that provided less recoil and faster follow-up shots. In the semi-auto SKS, the cartridge allowed soldiers to engage with rapid but accurate fire.
The SKS didn’t reach production until 1949, and later that same year the AK47 also went into production. That being said, it remained in production until 1956. The AK47 and SKS served jointly with Russian forces, with the AK47 going to active-duty front-line troops and SKS rifles finding their way to rear echelon hands until enough AKs could be produced.
The AK offered a much more modern rifle design. It had a detachable magazine, selective fire capability, and was shorter and lighter than the SKS. The poor SKS didn’t stand a chance. While it didn’t serve the Reds for long, it saw action in combat around the globe.
The SKS in Service
You have to give it to the Soviets; they really believed in that whole communism thing when it meant sharing weapons and weapon designs. The SKS found itself being built in China, Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, East Germany, Vietnam, and North Korea.
As such, it’s been involved in hundreds of conflicts around the globe. North Vietnamese communists famously fielded the rifle against American Forces in Vietnam. It popped up all over Africa and in the Middle East. Americans faced it once more in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The SKS rifle is known for its robust design, and it’s certainly proven itself around the world. Like the AK47, it has been a common sight in the hands of guerrillas in conflicts from the Eastern Bloc to South America.
Going Pow With the SKS
In my experience, the SKS is an awesome rifle. It’s simplistic and lacks the pizazz and modularity of modern weapons for sure, but it’s still fun to shoot. The SKS feels a bit hefty at eight pounds, but that eight pounds soak up recoil—which is already rather minimal with the 7.62×39 round.
A stock SKS provides that famed Russian reliability as well. Sadly, lots of surplus SKS rifles have been transformed into bubba’ed abominations. Removable magazines, modern stocks, and the like could all inhibit the gun’s natural reliability.
It won’t win a Camp Perry match when we talk accuracy: The open sights have a short sight radius, and the steel-cased 7.62×39 doesn’t do the gun favors with consistency. Within 300 yards, you’ll hit a German-sized target easy enough, but this isn’t a gun you shoot to measure groups. Tossing it in a Lead Sled won’t give you much better results.
The SKS didn’t stand much of a chance in having a long and acclaimed service life. It was an interim rifle that served its purpose well. Since then, it has proven itself a capable combat rifle in some of the worst places on the planet. The little rifle might not have reached legendary status, but it’s not a weapon to be underestimated in the hands of a skilled shooter.