The All-Around Soviet Rifle — The SKS

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms

Not long ago, conversation around the fireplace drifted toward the subject of all-around rifles. I like these moments because my grandson is old enough to shoot, and he is interested in firearms but hasn’t heard it all before. I enjoy a number of interesting rifles including the M1A1 and the AR-15. A certain place in my heart belongs to the Winchester 1895. But if you are on a strict budget but need an all around pest, deer, hog, and defense rifle, it is difficult to beat the SKS rifle.

SKS rifle top, AR-15 rifle bottom

The SKS rifle, above, compared to a top-grade AR-15 rifle. The author respectfully submits that the SKS is a better hunting rifle. It is also much less expensive than the AR-15.

These rifles were once sold for a pittance at less than $200. The price has crept up a bit, but the value remains because the SKS is a great brush gun. The inexpensive guns are gone from the shelf but certainly haven’t disappeared. They are in the lockers, safes, and closets of those that appreciate them. They were purchased and kept rather than traded and that means something. The rifle is well worth its modest cost. While the days of dirt-cheap ammunition are also gone, 7.62x39mm ammunition remains affordable and better loads are available than ever before.

The SKS is a bargain when you consider the facts. Here is a military-grade rifle that is reliable, handy, and which fires a powerful cartridge. The magazine holds 10 rounds. Ten accurate and rapidly fired rounds will handle most problems I am aware of and will make a running coyote turn on the coals! Unlike low cost commercial guns in which corners are cut, the SKS really is all it claims—a reliable military rifle made of good material.

The Siminov rifle is less troublesome than many rifles that may be more powerful and more accurate but are also much more expensive. Most of the SKS rifles feature chrome plated bores. This adds up to a rifle well suited to riding in the truck, boat or airboat.

Box of Hornady ammunition with 7.62x39 A Max bullets - front

The Hornady A Max is also offered as the Zombie Max load. It gives good results in both the SKS and the AK-47 rifle.

The furniture is simple wood with a one-piece stock. The top receiver cover is readily removed for routine maintenance. The rifle needs an occasional detail strip for cleaning with special attention to the firing pin channel. The gas tube rides above the barrel. As long as non-corrosive ammunition is used, the SKS rifle will remain reliable and resists corrosion well. I would never add one of the aftermarket extended magazines. They are problematical in function and detract from the rifle’s handling in my opinion.

The SKS rifle was designed and developed in the old Soviet Union. It was introduced in 1945 and replaced shortly after by the AK-47 rifle. Although the SKS used an intermediate cartridge in common with the new breed of assault rifle, the design was really traditional styling. This confluence of design worked well. While outclassed by later developments, the rifle is sturdy, inexpensive to manufacture, and effective.

SKS rear rifle sight

The rear sight of the SKS may be adjusted in increments to give good elevation adjustment.

The SKS was kept in series production just in case the AK did not prove viable. The SKS was manufactured in many Soviet satellite nations. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former communist nations sent the rifles to America for hard cash. The Chinese followed suit with a Norinco produced version. While many of the Soviet arms have become recreational shooters, and even curiosities, the SKS has seen a great deal of use as a sporting rifle.

The overall length of the SKS rifle is about 40 inches, handy enough, and it weighs eight pounds. It may be heavy for the cartridge, but this weight helps soak up recoil. The rifle is a pleasure to use and fire, inviting both practice and recreational shooting. The safety lever is located on the rear right hand ledge of the trigger guard. Down is on and up is safe.

To load the rifle, lock the bolt to the rear. It is easy to load the rifle with stripper clips but just as easy to load the 10 round magazine one cartridge at a time. You may load the magazine and carefully press the top cartridge down and leave the rifle chamber empty if desired. No matter what the long gun I keep the chamber empty when the firearm is at ready in the home or truck. Simply rack the bolt to make the rifle ready to fire.

Each press of the trigger fires the rifle. The rifle is cycled by the gas system. Firing gas is bled off by a small tappet that cycles the action, just like the M1 Garand. The rifle cycles, the trigger resets, and another press of the trigger fires the rifle again. The SKS features an old style ladder-type rear sight that is adjustable for elevation and a hooded post front sight. The SKS rifle is often used by those in a tight economic situation, and the rifle must be a do-it-all type of firearm.

SKS rifle top, Savage Model 99 bottom

The SKS compared to the author’s Savage 99 rifle. The Savage is more powerful and more accurate, but the SKS might be the better hog gun and perhaps just as good a choice for anything inside of 100 yards.

Quite a few have pressed the cartridge into service as a hunting cartridge and found that it will fill the bill within its limitations. The nominal velocity of the 123-grain FMJ loading is 2300 fps. When you canvas the possibilities of a cartridge, you have to look past the original loading. As an example, the 35-grain case capacity of the 7.62 x 39mm cartridge almost rates it as an under-bore cartridge.

By the same token, the .30-30 Winchester, a cartridge the 7.62x39mm is often compared to, may be termed over bore because the .30-30 cannot take advantage of its case capacity. The .30-30 was designed for the earliest smokeless powders. They were not terribly efficient. By careful handloading, you may safely increase the velocity of the 7.62x39mm 123-grain bullet by 50 fps or more.

Using the Hornady A Max bullet, you have created a respectable hunting load. But there is more—you may also handload a 150-grain-grain bullet to about 2200 fps. This is .30-30 territory, but with a shorter barrel. The Cor Bon 150-grain Hunter load pushes a 150-grain JSP to 2300 fps from my Norinco SKS. The general run of 150-grain .30-30 WCF loads break about 2250 fps or a little less.

SKS rifle top, AR-15 rifle bottom

The SKS rifle, above, compared to a top-grade AR-15 rifle. The author respectfully submits that the SKS is a better hunting rifle. It is also much less expensive than the AR-15.

The 7.62×39 mm cartridge is actually hotter than the .30-30, and in the end, a more efficient cartridge—at least with bullets of less than 150-grains. However—if you wish, you may load a particularly effective heavyweight load using a 180-grain JSP at about 900 fps. The action will not function, but the load is accurate and about as quite as a .22. There is no supersonic crack. This is a great load for pests and short-range varmints.

My favorite handload revolves around IMR 4198 powder and the Hornady 123-grain bullet loaded to an overall length of 2.930 for 2250 fps. In factory ammunition there are good choices. Among the most accurate is the Fiocchi 123-grain FMJ loading.

This doesn’t mean you must reload the cartridge to get the most out of it, far from it. Handloading simply makes for a more versatile rifle. If you do not wish to roll your own ammunition, you may fire the inexpensive Wolf loads for 99% of your shooting and hunt with the Cor Bon load. This information simply illustrates the potential of the cartridge. The comparison is often made to the .30-30 WCF and lets just state that the SKS gives up nothing to the lever gun in ballistics. The Winchester 94 rifle is usually more accurate than the SKS however.

Box of Fiocchi 7.62x39 ammunition

The Fiocchi loading is clean burning and accurate.

In modern ammunition there are several loads that are reliable, use a quality expanding bullet, and which exhibit the best accuracy possible from the SKS platform. The Hornady steel cased A Max is one. The Winchester 123-grain JSP is another. Each is as accurate as possible in the system. And that is the bottom line and the limiting factor of the SKS rifle, accuracy. With a good tight rifle with the stock properly fitted and the hardware tight, a quality SKS rifle should demonstrate 3.0 MOA with these loads.

I have fired rougher examples that did well to make an 8-inch group but they were functional. And, although I have heard of such rifles, I have yet to meet and shoot the SKS rifle that will deliver a group better than three inches at 100 yards. Yet with deer-sized game offering an 8-inch kill zone, the SKS should do the business. A great addition is to add the Techsights.com aperture sight. While intrinsic accuracy may not be affected, practical shooting is much improved with these sights. Optics are also a good bet. Sight the rifle in properly, practice, and the rifle is good enough for most chores.

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Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (65)

  • Henry J. Braud

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    That would only apply to lever actions in .30-30 because there are a number of bolt action rifles that can…and do…use spitzers. In that regard the 7.62x39mm will not beat the .30-30.

    Reply

  • Damian

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    @secondus,
    It was not the barrels they were testing post war on the arisaka actions it was the unusual mauser type action they were attempting to blow up with overpressured loads the gas relief hole in top of the receiver releases any over pressure issues and it blows out the top instead of destroying the action .I used to handload hunting rounds for the T99 7.7 to 30.06 levels and a .311 dia bullet and never had any overpressure probs i could probably go higher with compressed loads but was not needed for deer sized game .BTW how is that 44 mag barrel working i suggested for that DE .50 AE we discussed last yr? I told you you would love the 44 compared to the .50 AE in the DE haNDGUN

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Damian.

      I think you’re referring to Sam (ss1), he was interested in the DE’s. I’m satisfied with my Sig-Sauer’s and have Not Interest in the Desert Eagles…

      Reply

    • RKC

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      How did we get on Arisaka action?

      I own a 7.7 rifle and it is indeed strong and more accurate than I would have thought. An important piece of history

      Reply

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