I used to feel lonely — but no more. I used to feel left out — but no more.
I have finally broken down and bought an SKS.
Owning an SKS isn’t anything to be particularly proud of, even though I’m probably the last person in my shooting circle to buy one. It’s a guilty pleasure, like filling your mouth with Kraft EasyCheese straight from the can. Yet in these increasingly bleak economic times, when filling your truck’s gas tank seems like an orgy of financial excess, the Samozaryadniy Karabin sistemi Simonova 1945g (Simonov’s Self-Loading Carbine, Model of 1945) looks like a pretty darn good deal.
Don’t get me wrong. If a major American manufacturer put something on the market tomorrow resembling your typical surplus SKS, outraged, pitchfork-wielding sportsmen would probably riot and hound them from their corporate offices in a mob scene straight out of Frankenstein. Yet try as I might to look down my nose at the SKS, I find it difficult to find too much fault with a $250 centerfire rifle that so far has burned up nearly 1,000 rounds of 124-grain FMJ without a single hiccup or burp. It’s no Weatherby, that’s for sure, but then again I’m not Warren Buffett.
As of this writing, you can walk into nearly any large gunshop and find at least one SKS hiding somewhere in the racks. In northern Wisconsin and Michigan, the SKS has earned a reputation as the ultimate poor-man’s deer rifle, just as sporterized Arisakas did during the early 1950s. As a deer load, the 7.62×39 Soviet cartridge isn’t entirely without merit, but if I knew a 10-pointer were going to walk out in front of me in the next five minutes, I’d rather be holding a Marlin .30-30 or .35 Remington than an SKS. That 200 or so extra foot-pounds of energy could make a big difference. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at a deer at 75 yards or so with a good SKS and a decent softpoint.
For those who came in late, the SKS was designed by Soviet weapons designer Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov (1894 – 1986). Simonov’s first noteworthy design was the AVS-36 (Avtomaticheskaya Vintovka Simonova 1936, or Simonov’s Semi-Automatic Rifle, Model of 1936). This was a 10-pound selective-fire battle rifle that held a 20-round detachable magazine. Chambered in 7.62×54, it was the Soviet Union’s answer to our own BAR. The AVS-36 didn’t quite work as planned.
The big 7.62×54 round resulted in nearly uncontrollable full-auto fire and tended to batter the rifle’s action mercilessly. After consistently negative reviews, the AVS-36 was yanked from production in 1938 — which must have been somewhat of an embarrassment for all concerned since the gun had made its first public appearance only a few months earlier in the annual May Day Parade in Red Square.
Bloodied but unbowed, Simonov went back to his drawing board and by 1945 had slimmed down the AVS-36 into the gun we know today as the SKS. The semi-auto SKS fired a miniaturized version of the 7.62×54 round, the 7.62×39, and as such was one of the first guns chambered for what would become one of the most widely-used cartridges in the world.
Oddly, considering how many SKS carbines are floating around these days, the SKS had a relatively short service life in the Red Army. The superior AK-47 was introduced in 1947, only two years after the SKS, and by 1955 its selective-fire capability and greater magazine capacity had pretty much spelled the end of the SKS as far as the commies were concerned.
Well, not quite. The Soviet’s “client states” eagerly snapped up the SKS design, often giving it a different model name and building it in their own national factories. Aside from nomenclature, however, they’re all the good old SKS under the skin. Some of the nations that adopted the SKS include Albania, China, East Germany, Romania, Poland, North Korea, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia. (Quite a rogue’s gallery.) Some of these, such as the Yugo 59/56, are common; some, like the Vietnamese Type 1, are virtually unknown, even in well-rounded collections.
The SKS has a history all its own, of course, and if you’re interested in it I recommend a book such as Phillip Peterson’s Standard Catalog of Military Firearms. My interest in the SKS is strictly as a shooter, although there are signs that the SKS is beginning to be collected by fanciers of Cold War small arms.
My little SKS is a Chinese Type 56 made in 1966 at everyone’s favorite Chinese arms factory, the picturesquely-named “Factory 26” in Jianshe. It’s pretty much a stock SKS with the notable exception of its red fiberglass stock.
I have read that these stocks are found on Type 56s intended for export to humid areas where moth and dust and mildew doth corrupt. However, I’ve found no independent documentation for this, so I must chalk up the ugly stock as just one of those things that I can worry about, or just ignore. I think I’ll ignore it.
Based on some extended range time with this particular SKS, I can report that it’s a handy, pointy little plinker. I have little use for its folding triangle bayonet, but it might be just the thing for a late-afternoon wienie roast. (In fact, I could just about fit an Oscar Mayer in the oiler trap in the buttstock.) Its recoil is surprisingly light, which is partly attributable to the gun’s 8.5-pound. weight and partly to the fact that it fits me so well. Of course, I make my living modeling for the “Before” photos in those “Before/After” weight-loss ads you see in the tabloids, so it might not fit you as well as it does me.
My SKS also has one of the simplest, most inventive front sights I’ve ever found on a carbine. It’s a post screwed into a boss near the muzzle, and to adjust it for elevation you simply turn it up a few or down a few turns with the front sight tool. The whole gizmo is protected by a hood, so it’s not likely to get bumped out of position. Of course, the rear sight is adjustable for elevation way past any range I’m likely to be shooting. Just to be clever, I touched up the front sight with some orange modeling paint, which sets it off quite nicely. If you need to adjust for windage, however, you’re pretty much out of luck, which is perhaps why Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov gave us 10 shots.
To load the SKS, you retract the bolt and insert the cartridges one by one down into the magazine well, or charge the fixed mag all at once with a 10-round stripper clip. (I prefer the stripper clip if for no other reason than I once had a Roth-Steyr Model 1907 slam shut on my pinkie while I was loading it one-at-a-time.) When the magazine is loaded, you give the bolt a firm tug to the rear and let it slam forward. That’s all there is to it.
There are a few things to keep in mind about the SKS. The first is the safety, a flange-like lever mounted near the rear of the triggerguard on the right side. Flipped up and forward, toward the magazine, is SAFE. Flipped down and back, toward the butt, is FIRE. I have trouble remembering my own ZIP code these days, so I marked the FIRE position on my SKS with a thin stripe of red paint.
Another thing to remember about the SKS is its reputation for being prone to slam-fires. (I had this happen once on a MAS 49/56, and it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat.) The earliest Soviet SKSs had a two-piece, spring-loaded firing pin that was later dropped in favor of a floating one-piece design. I have read that if one of these one-piece firing pins gets frozen in place by cosmoline or other crud, it can cause a slam-fire. For this reason I’m careful to clean the bolt face and chamber of my SKS after every shooting session and to douse the pin with a good shot of anti-seize lubricant. I’m also careful to keep the muzzle pointed into the dirt when chambering that first round.
A third point to keep in mind is that the SKS has a fixed 10-round magazine, which may or may not be legal for hunting in your state. It’s a simple matter to fashion a magazine block from a piece of hardwood and fill the bottom of the magazine with it, limiting it to however many shots you desire, but, once again, doing so might not meet with approval in your state.
I can’t personally recommend the kits that supposedly convert your fixed-magazine SKS into a removable-magazine model, but I have heard little good about them. Norinco did import a few factory-modified SKS-type rifles with removable magazines called the Models D and M, and these reportedly function more or less as advertised. They’re also generally priced at between $400 and $500 in Excellent condition these days, and in my opinion that’s a bit too salty for the privilege of using AK-47 magazines in an SKS.
I can see three uses for the SKS: hunting (where legal); home defense (with suitable ammunition); and plinking. So far I’ve been able to shoot a few 3-inch offhand groups with my SKS at 50 yards, and if I were to take it hunting I’d limit myself to that distance or just a bit farther out. For home defense it’s perhaps a bit much — a bit too penetrating — but it’s been reported that quite a few shop-owners saved their stores from looters during the 1992 Los Angeles riots just by having an SKS handy.
For plinking, however, the SKS is hard to beat. It’s well-balanced, handy, and easy to load, and in most respects it’s the equal of my Ruger Mini-Thirty, which I consider the benchmark for a carbine of this type. All in all I’m rather tickled with my SKS. I just wish the bug had bitten me sooner.