The venerable SKS, a gun with such a long history. For a great many of us my age, this was our first gun. Many of us had no idea the history when we got our SKS, or maybe why our grandfather was giving it the side-eye. Hint, it might not have been solely because it was Chinesium, and an affront to the beautiful American hunting rifle. Just before the 1994 assault weapons ban, you could buy an SKS all day long at $75 to $90. Which included at a minimum a spam can of 7.62×39. And a lot of us could save that up from mowing lawns and selling cans, it being cheap even for those days. That is four Nintendo games plus two grandma birthday cards in ’94 dollars, which seemed like an excellent trade.
And so many of us did. There are absolute metric tons of SKS rifles floating around this country, and around the world. Which brings us to now. A lot has changed in the last 30 years in the US market, not to mention the 77 since the SKS was first prototyped. The SKS, much like the uber-cheap Hi-Point family of firearms, is often mocked as being for the poor. It is the subject of derisive memes, enough to make it a running joke in the tactical market. But conventional wisdom is not always correct. I reference it repeatedly in my latest book Prairie Fire: Guidebook for Surviving Civil War 2, as an acceptable solution. And I would bet a lot of you old hands would agree with me. So we set out this week to re-examine the SKS with a critical lens. In a world of modern whiz-bang rifles, is the SKS good enough?
With an examination like this, we can safely start with the bad. And if we are being fair the SKS has plenty of bad. It only has a 10 round capacity and feeds off an internal box magazine. It does at least feed from stripper clips, but that is still ancient technology compared to a modern detachable magazine. The trigger is….well, 1943 Soviet in design. Combined with a cheap chrome-lined barrel, accuracy is not the rifle’s strong suit. It isn’t going to win at Camp Perry, promise you that. And while aftermarket solutions do exist, most of them are cheesy plastic aberrations that should not exist.
But, the SKS does have strengths. And maybe those weaknesses aren’t all that weak. First, it is well known for reliability, much like the AK-47. I did have a single malfunction on camera, but I was also using 50-year-old surplus ammo. Even that stove pipe was simple to clear. Created for ill-trained conscripts and guerrillas, the SKS meets the Soviet guidance of works even when piss poorly maintained.
Ergonomically, the SKS is surprisingly good. I hadn’t fired one in 20 years when I picked up my sample and had forgotten a few things. Even in the full-sized model, the balance of the SKS is impeccable. The stock fits the body well and is great for offhand shooting. Even if as a minor detail, your hand is on the folding bayonet when firing. Since the bayonet is not sharp in this section, you don’t notice while shooting. But it is a bit disconcerting when you pick it up.
It cannot be overstated how easy to use the SKS sights are. Once again, target audience. With a hooded front sight post for durability and simple notch rear, you can miss this detail. But the dimensions are perfect, and the SKS snaps to your shoulder with the sights naturally aligned. Easier to learn than the peep sights of a modern AR, though it might give something up in accuracy. For a battle rifle, especially to a newbie, I consider them an acceptable trade off.
The trigger, while as mentioned not exactly an AR Gold, is not all that terrible either. Yes, it has some take up. And some weight. But what it isn’t is crunchy, gritty, or really all that sloppy. It has a nice mechanical set point, that does allow for some reasonable accuracy. It might not be my first choice, but I have shot worse for certain. This may be helped by the fact my test model has had 50 years of break-in, but the point remains.
And on that accuracy- I wasn’t really sure what to expect. My test gun is ancient, and no telling how many rounds it has had poured through it. 7.62x39mm was basically free in the ’80s and ’90s if you are old enough to remember those days. So I set up for accuracy testing at 50 meters. I did cheat a little and use Hornady American Gunner. Hornady has in my experience been the gold standard for accuracy, even if it is like giving a mutt a T-bone in this case. I also shot unsupported prone, as the SKS doesn’t have a bipod adaptor, and I wasn’t gambling a bayonet on one of my expensive rests. And I was shocked to see the SKS turn in a 1.6-inch group at that range. I have AR’s, new ones, do worse with match grade ammo.
The stripper clips, while ancient, do work and work well. I had a little bit of drama to start with because I am an idiot and forgot there is a cut out on the bolt face to guide the stripper clip. Forgive me, the manual is in Chinese, and I haven’t shot one of these in 20 years or better. Once I remembered how to use my brain, the stripper clips fed very well, even without a lot of training time. What you saw on film was all my time with the SKS, no practice runs. This system might be old, but it is effective. Just like the M1 Garand, which the designer acknowledged was an influence on the SKS, which won a World War.
It must not be overlooked that the caliber choice is an all-around winner. 7.62x39mm is large enough for deer, and certainly enough for bipeds. We have seen its effectiveness on the battlefield for a very long time now, and few would dispute its lethality. It might not be a 1000 yard cartridge, but it is absolutely deadly inside of 400 or so. The SKS is a little meatier than the AK 47 and has a wider buttstock. Both of which means it handles recoil better than its sexier sister. It might not have 30 rounds on tap, but this is still not insignificant.
All in all, the SKS stands today as a good enough option, in my opinion at least. For anyone that didn’t grab a gun before now, it should not be overlooked. SKS rifles are still available, albeit 2020 price is closer to $350 or $400. Even at that though, it gets you a semi-auto rifle that does a pretty decent job in combat terms. Ammo, so far at least, is easier to get and at a more reasonable price. I never thought I would see steel case 7.62x39mm at 33 cents per round, but it is still more palatable than 60 cents for 556. If you are concerned about the days ahead, I have no problem calling this a viable option. And for God’s sake, buy an AR-15 and 5 thousand rounds after things calm down.