During the Cold War, the Soviet Red Army adopted the SVD as its “Sniper Rifle”. Really, these were more like what we now call a Designated Marksman Rifle in both what they were mechanically and how they were employed. From my research, it does not appear that SVDs were manufactured by the other Warsaw Pact nations like AKs were. A chunk of the armies of the Warsaw Pact simply purchased SVDs from the Soviets. However, there were a few nations that designed their own rifles for this purpose. Romania was one of these and they produced the PSL chambered in 7.62x54r. This rifle goes by several other names in the US; FPK, SSG-97, PSL-54, and ROMAK III. For all intents and purposes, they’re all the same rifle. At a glance, it looks similar to the SVD-similar enough that they’ve been referred to as “Romanian Dragunovs”. But other than being chambered in the same cartridge they’re completely different. I believe a lot of this rifle was designed with economy in mind, as a number of the parts are also used in their RPK rifles(which is quite helpful if you want to build a PSL but can’t find a part kit). The PSL uses a stamped receiver as opposed to the milled receiver used in the SVD, which at the time it was developed was a much less expensive option. However, it was issued with a similar optic to the SVD.
I first came into contact with the PSL rifle in 2002 being carried by Romanian troops in Kandahar. I bought one a couple of years later. I also saw them very commonly used in Iraq and Afghanistan by their respective armies and security forces. I found my rifle to be quite accurate. If I did my part, I was getting MOA accuracy out of it with ammo it liked. Unfortunately, my rifle (Serial Number R5363-03) was stolen right about the time these rifles had become hard to find and expensive here (likely due to the huge demand for them in the Middle East). So, I started looking at building a PSL to replace the one I’d lost. That brings us to the build itself.
The main portion of the parts used in this build comes from a parts kit purchased from Centerfire Systems a while back. They are currently out of stock, but I do see kits for these turn up on auction sites fairly regularly. If you strike out looking for a kit, all is not lost. It is my understanding that the Romanian RPK trunnions are more or less the same as the PSL trunnions, so you could piece together a kit if you needed to (The front trunnion typically being the hardest single part to find for these in my experience). The barrel came from AK-Builder, as did the rivets I used to assemble the kit. The receiver is one that I found second hand, but new. It was produced by Nodak-Spud for another vendor some time ago. Unfortunately, this receiver did not contain any of the bolt hold open parts that the original rifles had. If I figure out how to add this feature, I will detail it in a future article. At the time of this writing, you can purchase proper PSL receivers from Childers. If you actually want to build a PSL clone, these are the way to go as they don’t require the modifications I had to make to mine. They also offer an 80% receiver if you prefer that route.
As usual, some remarks on the legal related legal matters are in order. Before attempting a build like this one, make sure you comply with all local, state, and federal laws. Typically, 922r applies to assembling “non-sporting rifles”. However, PSL rifles have been imported whole recently. So I’m not absolutely sure where these stand with regard to required compliance parts-assuming that you’re building in the same configuration as the “factory” rifles. They may well be considered “sporting rifles” in their original form. Because I don’t know for sure, I built mine with 922r compliance parts just to be absolutely sure I was legal. I live in the gun-friendly state of Tennessee, but I believe a rifle like the one I’m building here is kosher in some of the more restrictive states. If you live in one of those places, do some homework and be sure. Now, on to the build!
My parts kit had the remnants of the old receiver and barrel still attached to the parts. A lot of parts kits are like this. Really it’s just one more step in your build to remove them. A lot of times, it’s pretty easy to get this done. However, I ran into a little bit of difficulty in removing the old barrel components of this kit. If you build a few AK type rifles from kits you will likely encounter these problems eventually. So I’m going to go into a little bit of detail regarding the techniques I used to deal with this. First, I removed the barrel stub from the gas block. This did not happen easily (there is not a lot of “meat” to work with on PSL gas blocks in comparison to other models), and I dinged up my gas block in the process. Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad, mostly cosmetic. So I TIG welded the damaged areas and started looking for a solution for the rest of the parts. There’s a lesson here: if things don’t seem to be going right, don’t just get a bigger hammer. Stop and think about what you’re doing for a minute. There may be a way to make things work better. One chunk of the barrel had the front trunnion (which is held in by the barrel pin) and the rear sight base on it. I could not get the old pin out of the rear sight base (RSB), so I had to drill it out. Fortunately, I had a spare. Then I put the whole thing in the freezer for a couple of hours (the idea being that the steel getting cold would cause it to slightly shrink). After that, I was able to get the RSB off without incident. The barrel pin still would not come out. So I put the assembly back into the freezer overnight. I took it out and set it up on the press. This time I carefully heated the top of the trunnion (alongside the pin) with a propane torch. The idea here is that the pin being cold would cause it to shrink and then the heat on the trunnion would cause the pinhole to slightly expand, loosening enough to hopefully allow me to press the pin out. Sure enough, it worked like a charm and I was able to press the barrel pin out. Oddly enough, the rest of the parts came off without any difficulty.
The receiver I had was intended to be used with regular AK style furniture. I wanted to use the original stock, so I needed to modify my receiver to allow it to fit. The Childers receivers currently available do not need to be modified like this one did, in case you were wondering. The original PSL rifle has reinforcing plates on the back of the receiver. On the bottom of them, they have a large radius. My receiver had the places but the radii were not present. So I needed to cut them. I happened to have a shell mill that had an almost identical radius to the one I needed to cut, but you could use something smaller, remove the needed material, and then file or grind it smooth. Machining a bent piece of sheet metal is something of a trick, but I managed to get the radii cut like I wanted. I also needed to add a hole in the back to allow the “grip screw” to pass through. It’s about ¼” in diameter, and adding it was fairly straight forward. I measured its location on the old receiver stub, marked it, and drilled it.
Riveting the front trunnion into the receiver was the next step. The Nodak produced receiver already had the holes drilled, and they were exactly where they needed to be. The PSL trunnion is a bit different than most AKM type trunnions in that it uses a long rivet instead of just short ones. I installed the short rivets with the same Toth Tool bolt cutter jaws that I use with all of my AK builds. For the long rivet, I used a tool that I made.
After riveting the front trunnion into place, it was time to press in the barrel. Pressing in a barrel this long and slender is tricky. It requires some thought and some finesse. It is REALLY easy to bend the barrel when trying to press it in. It’s also tricky to set this part up for the job in such a fashion that there is enough room to do the job without interference on either end. The barrel was about as long as I could possibly accommodate in my 20-ton press. Fortunately, the AK-Builder barrel was the perfect size. It was an interference fit like it needed to be, but it wasn’t excessively so. And so it didn’t take a crapload of force to press it into the trunnion.
The headspacing procedure is the same as any other build; the bolt should fully close on the GO gauge, and not close on the NO-GO gauge. The difference for this build is the gauges themselves. Rimmed cartridges headspace on the rim, rather than the shoulder like 7.62×39 does for example. This build is chambered in 7.62x54r, which is obviously a rimmed cartridge. The gauges are sort of shaped like top hats, as the rest of the chamber is not used to headspace the barrel, just the rim. I mention this specifically because extra care needs to be taken whenever you have to push on the chamber end of the barrel. That ring around the chamber is the datum point for headspace, and you definitely don’t want to damage it pressing on barrel components.
I installed the rear sight base next. It’s not terribly complicated to do this. Really it just needs to be straight. It is quite possible to bend your barrel in the process of pressing the RSB on, so be careful when doing so. Then I drilled and pinned it in place. The Rear trunnion is next. It is installed with 2 long rivets. The holes for the rivets were already drilled in the receiver. In spite of this, there is still some movement possible in the rear trunnion. Make sure that your top cover will go on properly before you rivet the trunnion into place.
The barrel needed to have the gas port drilled. I measured the gas port in the old barrel stub at .078”. Originally, these were drilled at an angle to match the gas port. I couldn’t come up with a good way to set the barreled action up to drill it at this angle because of its length. So after some research, I decided to just drill it straight. In order to do this, I had to press it into place first. Then I stuck an old drill bit down the hole and tapped it with a hammer in order to mark the proper location for the gas port. Then I had to press it back off in order to get at the hole location. I used a small center drill to start the hole, in order to get the drill started straight. As you’re actually drilling the hole, be careful as it’s really easy to break that small drill bit. Go slow and “peck” at it to keep the bit from getting plugged and breaking, as well as to avoid hitting the other side of the bore when you breakthrough. Then, I pressed the gas block back on and pinned it. Then I pressed on the bayonet lug and front sight base (FSB). These are separate parts, and they need to be the correct distance apart for the bayonet to attach. So if you intend to install the bayonet lug (admittedly, it is a tad ridiculous for this kind of rifle) measure the distance between it and the FSB before you remove it from the barrel stub. Mine measured at .625”.
PSL rifles came with either a threaded muzzle brake or a pin on type. They are the same, other than the method with which they are attached. The AK-Builder barrel I used for this build has a threaded muzzle, but my kit has the press on brake. The threads are 14x1mm left hand (the typical AK muzzle threads) which meant the diameter of the threads were too small to allow me to just press on the brake (which would likely mess up the threads anyway). The thread-on brakes are apparently quite hard to get. So I had a little bit of a conundrum as to how to proceed. I decided to keep the threads intact, in case sometime in the future I get a wild hair and want to suppress this rifle. So I decided to convert the brake that came with me kit to thread on. I picked a beat-up AK muzzle nut out of my parts box because it’s the same thread size. I had to both turn down the nut and bore out the brake (as there wasn’t enough “meat” to just work one or the other). I wanted a press-fit between the two to make sure it stays there. I ended up needing to run a tap through it, but after that it went right on. You could also make a bushing and tap it if you don’t have an AK muzzle nut lying around. If you go that route, I would press the bushing in before you tap it. Since my Front Sight Base lacked the usual detent to retain a threaded device, I drilled and pinned the brake like it was originally intended. Should I want to remove it, I’ll just remove the pin and unscrew it.
Riveting the trigger guard is the next step. The PSL uses 5 rivets to hold the trigger guard in place. Make sure to install the selector stop under the trigger guard! Aside from its obvious purpose of stopping the selector, it also sets the height for the magazine catch. For the actual riveting, I use a shop-made fixture to install the rivets with the hydraulic press.
Once the trigger guard is riveted into place, all that remains is some assembly work. The fire control group is the first thing to install. It’s pretty straight forward. Something is needed to keep the pins in place. On the original models, the springs used in the full-auto parts retain the pins. Obviously, in a semi-auto build these parts are not present. However, there are a number of ways to accomplish this. Retaining plates are available, and I have heard of some people using “c-clips” as well. Because I’m cheap, and they’re typically included in the parts kits anyway, I modify the sear spring to retain the pins. Once the FCG is installed install the bolt, bolt carrier, recoil spring, and top cover.
Before test firing, the rifle should be function tested to ensure everything is working properly. You need to ensure that the FCG is working properly and that it cycles dummy rounds. I discovered that my bolt carrier was hanging up at the rear of the receiver when I cycled it. In doing some research, I found that this is a common problem in building a PSL. Some of the available receivers have the cutouts that allow the bolt to be removed are a little bit too far forward. While there seem to be a lot of opinions on the matter, the simplest solution is to add a recoil buffer. It prevents the bolt carrier from going back far enough to come off of the rail while the recoil spring is installed. With that sorted out, I went on to test firing. Like the other builds I have written about, there is a specific procedure I use when test-firing a new build. Fire one round, then two rounds, and then three rounds. Check the casings after each group and make sure they look ok. Once you have three consecutive rounds fired without incident, you’re probably good to go.
Something to keep in mind is that stock PSLs are intended to use ammunition in the 145-150gr range. Use of “heavy ball” ammunition or heavier bullets (anything over 160 grs seems to be the rule) is very hard on these rifles. If you intend to do so, there are some different modifications that you can make to allow their use without excessive wear.
The Romanian PSL is a rather unique rifle. Beyond just being a piece of Cold War history, they’re still in widespread usage today. It has seen service in most of the world’s conflicts since its inception. At the time of this writing, complete PSLs are being imported again, though they are fairly expensive. Because of this, if you can find a decently priced parts kit, it is actually cost-effective to build one. Building one is largely similar to building any other AK type rifle, and you use the same tools. If you like the idea of a “long-range” AK and building it yourself, take a look at building a PSL.