Friday, July 15, 2016

Survival Weapons: The SKS

SKS -- 7.62 x 39 mm Simonov SL Rifle (source)
The Simonov SL Rifle (or carbine) was designed by Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov, and is a scaled down version of a 14.5 mm anti-tank rifle he had designed in World War II. Although sources are somewhat conflicting on this point, it appears that the carbine may have seen limited use by Soviet troops toward the end of World War II. In any event, it was the first general issue weapon to use the 7.62 x 39 mm M43 cartridge: an "intermediate power" cartridge adopted by the Soviets and inspired by the German 7.92 mm Kurz. Of course, this cartridge was the standard military cartridge used by the Soviet Union and its various satellite nations and allies from the 1940s through the 1970s when it was replaced (at least in the Soviet Union) by the 5.45 x 39 mm cartridge. The 7.62 x 39 cartridge was used by the SKS's replacements: the AK47 and AKM "assault" rifles.

As you can see in the photograph above, the SKS is a rather standard rifle for the period when it was adopted, featuring a single piece wooden stock, and using substantial amount of milling in its construction. It uses a gas-piston system for operation, and employs a tilting block locking system.

According to my references, the Soviet version of the weapon has an overall length of 40.2 inches (1022 mm) and a barrel length of 20.5 inches (521 mm), and weighs 8.5 lbs (3.86 kg) unloaded. The standard sights are a post sight on the front, and tangent notch sight on the rear. The rear sight is adjustable for elevation from 100 to 1000 m, with a "battlefield" setting of 300 m. Notwithstanding the settings, this is a 300 to 400 yard rifle at best. Beyond that range, use would dictate a large number of men shooting at the same time to provide plunging or grazing fire over an area rather than attempting precision shooting. The safety is a simple lever that flips down to block the trigger from being depressed.

Although the SKS was only used for a short time by the Soviet Union, it was widely distributed and used by various allies and client states through the 1950s, and was at one time a common guerrilla weapon in the Middle-East. It was also manufactured by Yugoslavia (who designated it as the M59/66 A1 Rifle) and China (where it was known as the Type 56 carbine).

As manufactured, it featured a folding style bayonet that attached near the muzzle, and folded up below the barrel. Soviet and Yugoslavian versions of the SKS both featured blade-style bayonets. Although early Chinese versions used a bladed bayonet, the vast majority sported spike bayonets of a roughly triangular cross-section. Nevertheless, after 1994, restrictions on "assault weapons" resulted in many rifles being sold without bayonets, and many owners have removed the bayonet in order to lighten the weapon.

The overall quality of build of the rifles was pretty good when in an unissued state. Russian and Yugoslavian models are generally considered to be better made than the Chinese examples. However, even this can be variable as the Chinese weapons were manufactured in many different facilities, with differences in quality and other minor differences between them. For instance, Chinese rifles can be found with either pinned barrels or barrels that screwed into the receiver.

SKS carbines were, at one time, fairly rare in the United States, consisting mostly of "bring backs" from Vietnam. However, in the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of these rifles were imported from China from the Norinco company. Because of the low price ($80 was not an uncommon price at the time) and rugged simplicity, these rifles became immensely popular, including with the survivalist/prepper community and hunters. After sanctions were imposed on China, the supply of Chinese carbines dried up. However, subsequent imports of carbines from the former East Bloc nations and Yugoslavia brought significant numbers of these weapons into the United States. Thus, because of the large numbers imported, they are still easy to find for sale. And, although prices have increased, they can still be had at a much lower price point than most any other semi-automatic rifle.

Loading the SKS using a charger or clip. 
The SKS employs a fixed 10-round box magazine that can be reloaded using stripper clips (chargers) or individual rounds. The magazine is hinged so it can be opened up from the bottom of the weapon to allow easy unloading.The weapon employs a bolt hold open that locks the bolt back on an empty magazine.

Loading the SKS is pretty straightforward. As you can see from the photograph above, with the magazine bolt locked back, the clip is inserted into slots on either side of the bolt. After placing the loaded clip into the slots, the operator then uses his thumb to push down on the top cartridge and presses the cartridges into the magazine. I find that it is easy to get 5 rounds in, then pause or release pressure a bit, and then push the remaining rounds into the magazine. As noted, one can also load the rifle by pressing individual cartridges into the magazine.

There are aftermarket attempts to develop detachable box magazines for the weapon. For instance, some variants imported from China were adapted so they could use a standard AK magazine. More common, however, was to remove the fixed 10-round magazine, and then use box magazines especially designed to fit and lock into the empty magazine well.

A couple styles of detachable magazines for the SKS.
The photograph above shows a couple styles of detachable magazines for the SKS. The top is a metal magazine from an unknown manufacturer, while the lower one is a polymer model produced by Tapco. While the Tapco magazine offers a clear improvement over the versions from earlier manufactures, there are problems with using these styles of magazine. First, the magazines require careful placement to lock the front into place, as it has to fit over the hinge for the old magazine, before locking into place. Second, because of having to accommodate the bolt and feed design, the front and back of the magazines are cut low, making it very easy for the top cartridge to slide forward or backward out of alignment. (See the photographs below).

Although the Tapco magazine is superior to other manufacturer's, it is still possible to easily have a cartridge slide forward.

In this magazine, the cartridge has slid to the rear, and would prevent insertion of the magazine.
There are several common improvements made to the SKS. First, although certainly sturdy, the original wood stock is rather blocky and, consequently, is not very ergonomic. Thus, a lot of people choose to replace the stock. Various manufacturers have offered Monte Carlo or other fixed stocks appropriate for hunting, and I've even seen bullpup stocks sold for the SKS. Tapco also offers their Intrafuse stock featuring a SAW style pistol grip, and an AR style adjustable rear stock. It is currently priced between $80 and $85 depending on the specific features and configurations. Accessories can be purchased for this stock, including Picatinny rails.

Standard Rear Sight
Another common improvement is to replace the rear sight. As noted above, the standard rear sight is a simple notch tangent sight, which uses a very small notch. There are numerous options for replacing the rear sight, including a very nice system manufactured by Tech Sights.

Tech Sight Model TS100 peep style sight
It is also possible to find mounts and rails for attaching a scope or red dot to the weapon.

In this age of fairly inexpensive AR and AK variants, it begs the question of why purchase or use an SKS rifle. As mentioned, the biggest plus is cost. When imported in large numbers, the prices were very low--particularly for a rifle that was suitable for both combat and hunting applications. (That was certainly the primary reason I first purchased one in the early 1990s). Even today, although prices have increased, they are still well below that for AR and AK rifles. In their original configuration, they are also rather benign looking (at least with the bayonet removed) and may not be banned under restrictive "assault weapon" laws. Finally, clips are plentiful, cheap, and it is practicable to keep one's ammunition pre-loaded on the clips; and while slower than a detachable magazine, it is still much faster to load the SKS than a rifle that has to be loaded one round at a time.

There are disadvantages to the weapon, as well. Considering the power of the cartridge, the weapon is overly heavy. It has a limited magazine capacity and, even using clips, is slower to load. Although there are many accessories available, it is not easy to modify the weapon to use optical sights or mount flashlights or other accessories without relatively costly changes to the stock. It is nowhere as ergonomic as the AR or even the AK. Its long barrel makes it harder to move around in a building or other enclosed space.

If you have the money, I would certainly recommend an AK or AR rifle over the SKS. But cost is the key. I see the SKS as an inexpensive "starter" rifle for a prepper. As such, I think it is a mistake to spend much to improve the rifle or convert it into something it is not. It is perfectly serviceable in its original configuration. If I had one in its original configuration, I would keep the original wooden stock and bayonet (yes, given the limited magazine capacity, a bayonet could prove useful). But if lacking the bayonet, I don't think it is worth getting a replacement. If I were to make any upgrades, it would be to replace the rear sight. I don't think it is worth the money to add an optical sight, and a telescopic sight, unless a scout type scope, would interfere with loading using the clips. I would retain the original fixed magazine, and avoid the detachable magazines. If you have no plans of upgrading to an AK or AR rifle, it might be worth replacing the stock if the replacement is of sufficiently low cost. Otherwise, I would recommend keeping the wood stock. The rifle is worth more in its original configuration (original stock, original sights, etc.) than if it is modified--something to keep in mind if your goal is to eventually sell the rifle in order to upgrade to something better.

I have found the SKS to be a very reliable weapon, able to shoot all types and brands of ammunition. I have noted in other posts that the 7.62 x 39 mm FMJ round is a very stable round and, for that reason, not particularly good against a flesh-and-blood target. It will turn 180 degrees (the heavy end leading) after striking a target, but otherwise does not create a large wound channel. Thus, for hunting, and even for self-defense purposes, I would recommend getting soft-point or hollow-point ammunition that will expand or upset the bullet when striking the target, and save the FMJ for penetration against a barrier. The price difference between soft-point or hollow-point versus FMJ is generally so small that there is really no great advantage to buying FMJ even for practice.

To sum up, the SKS rifle has limitations that prevent it from being a great self-defense rifle. Nevertheless, it was built and designed for combat and, while at a disadvantage compared to more modern rifles, it is still functional in that role. Its primary positive point is its low price. Because of this, it should be kept in its original configuration rather than investing in improvements of dubious value. The only real change of any value would be to obtain a better quality rear sight.

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