It’s often said that the enemy of the good is the great. In situations where continuous improvement is a “do-or-die” way of life – for example, a Cold War military-industrial complex – the life of a merely-satisfactory design is nasty, brutish and short. Such was the case for the U.S. Air Force’s B-36 Peacemaker bomber. The Soviet equivalent? Comrade Sergei Simonov’s “Samozaryadniy Karabin Simonova, 1945,” known to the world today as the SKS carbine.
Just as the still-active-today B-52 replaced the B-36 a few short years after its debut, the Soviet Army was busy adopting the SKS’ replacement just as Simonov’s excellent carbine was reaching full production in 1949. Midway through the next decade, the good was superseded by the great; SKS production ceased and Mikhail Kalashnikov’s incomparably-famous AK-47 became the Soviet Army’s standard weapon.
So what, exactly, happens to good guns when they get one-upped by firearms that are newer, better, and more relevant? According to several references I consulted, they become “ceremonial arms.” For this task, I believe the SKS is extremely well-suited.
I recently spent some quality time with a 25-year-old Norinco-built “Chinese Type 56” SKS. The gun looked wonderful in the late-afternoon sunlight—the rifle’s full-length wooden stock and folding spike-style bayonet subtly undermining its Soviet-era utilitarian aesthetics. Although the parallel-to-the-barrel gas tube does resemble its far-more-famous successor, the SKS somehow looks more refined than the AK, much like an M-1 Garand looks statelier than even the sleekest M-16.
If supremely lacquered and dressed to the nines, it’s easy to see how an SKS could proudly serve as part of any soldier’s ceremonial regalia. But don’t get the idea that function follows form with the SKS; nothing could be further from the truth. The all-business functionality of Simonov’s design is apparent the moment the gun falls into your hands.
Other than the trigger and bolt, the SKS offers simply a magazine catch, a safety, and a take-down lever. As modern carbines go, it’s a little heavy. And for good reason. Despite firing a 7.62X39 cartridge, the weapon’s lack of recoil is startling. Even before you load the permanently-attached, front-hinged magazine (Stalin worried about troops losing them), the minimalism of the gun’s external controls are a delight.
Loading the SKS is a straightforward affair. You insert the rounds one by one into the fixed 10-round magazine while the bolt is locked open. However, as you’ll see in the video, I loaded the SKS upside down, with the bolt closed. Why? Criticize this fear as unfounded, but I’ve always worried about the possibility of a bolt slamming forward on my thumb (a la “M-1 thumb”). My method worked reliably and allayed my fear of digital duress; however, an unexpected physical malady nonetheless resulted.
The first time I loaded the SKS (with only five rounds), the bottom-most cartridge didn’t sit on the proper side of the lever-arm follower inside the magazine. Therefore, during my initial cycling of the action, the top cartridge wasn’t high enough up for the bolt to collect it and place it in the chamber.
I quickly the discovered the problem and fixed it; however, my usual range routine was now compromised. Without thinking about what I usually do immediately after chambering the first round prior to aiming and firing, I raised the rifle, lined up the sights, and squeezed its trigger. Five times.
“Recoil is great, but it’s louder than I thought,” I said to myself. As I took my eye protection off and reached into my ears to remove my ear plugs I felt . . . nothing there. For the first time in my life, I had forgotten to insert ear protection before firing a gun. They were still in my shirt pocket, right where I’d placed them before loading the magazine.
[Although it was only five rounds and I was outside, 170 decibels approximately 15 inches from your ear is a lot of sudden sound pressure. I went to bed that night absent at least half the hearing in my right ear, along with a soft-but distinct high-pitched ringing. Thankfully, my shameful breach of a most basic firearms safety rule did not result in any permanent hearing loss (24 hours later, things were back to normal). However, four days later, the ringing persists. If you haven’t read my TTAG colleague Brad Kozak’s piece about the importance of hearing protection, do so.].
After quickly wising up and inserting my ear plugs, I surveyed the target to find that my first five shots (fired standing, from 30 yards) were all snuggly grouped inside the “10” ring, with one shot a quarter-inch from the bull’s eye. I’m no expert marksman. As more of a handgun guy, I hadn’t fired a rifle – any rifle – in years. For this feat, I credit the gun’s balance, along with the ringed-post front sight and the adjustable tangent-leaf rear sight, which were both outstanding. I couldn’t have asked for a better sight picture, and no changes to elevation or windage were needed.
String after string, I consistently grouped my shots tight on the target while enjoying a “Chinese copy” that couldn’t possibly be of much lower quality than the Russian original. The trigger felt a little light at first (especially toward the end of its travel). But after the first few magazines I was completely accustomed to it. The SKS cycled fast with the 123-grain 7.62X39 Winchester Target & Range FMJ ammo I used – so fast that even when I tried to look, I never once saw the bolt move.
Speaking of the bolt, I’m usually sad to reach the end of each magazine, but the opposite was true in this case, as any opportunity to work the SKS’ magnificent bolt conjures the type of pure, uncompromised, “clickity-clack” kinetic joy that made me love guns as a kid. My hand, wrist, arm, and elbow all love that bolt the way my wife loves a day at the spa. (Incidentally, my wife was with me and she enjoyed firing the SKS, too. But not as much as she loves a day at the spa.)
During my time with the Norinco SKS, it never misfired or suffered any failures to feed or extract (even with some older Wolf ammo that was lying around). It was extremely accurate the entire time and its modest recoil made it an unmitigated pleasure to shoot.
The fact that the original owner probably paid less than a hundred dollars for it in the mid-Eighties – and the fact that it’s worth not much more than $250 now – makes it an exceptional value.
Whether it’s shined-up and placed on a gun rack in your den, or dustily mounted behind the seat of your farm truck (where this particular example resides), few semi-automatic long guns represent a better overall value than the Norinco SKS. That it looks good doing what it does is a genuine bonus.
Model: Norinco Type 56 SKS (Samozariadnyia Karabina Simonova)
Action type: Gas-opearated, rotating-bolt semi-automatic
Caliber: 7.62X39 Russian
Capacity: 10 round attached magazine, hinged at the front of the magazine body
Barrel length: 20.34″
Overall length: 40.16″
Weight: 8.8 lbs. (loaded)
Stock: Asian hardwood
Sights: Hooded post front; tangent leaf rear, graduated from 100 to 1000 meters
Finish: Blued receiver, barrel, gas tube and magazine
Current Value: $150 – $450 depending on manufacturer/condition
RATINGS (Out of five stars)
Style * * * * * A beautiful mid-century rifle design; it’s no surprise that these guns are often used for ceremonial duty.
Ergonomics (carry) * * * * Though it’s a little heavier than modern carbines, the strap makes carrying it a breeze. The fact that the SKS is a well-balanced weapon aids in carrying as much as it does in shooting.
Ergonomics (firing) * * * * For what this gun costs, it’s simply a dream to fire. The trigger could be slightly better, but that’s it.
Reliability * * * * * Based on the owner’s experience (as well as my own), it’s never once failed to fire, even when crap ammo has been fed through it.
Customize This * * Most of these guns are left wisely unmolested. The most common modification to the SKS design (often done by manufacturers) involves altering the receiver to accept removable magazines. But why not just buy an AK if that’s important to you?
OVERALL RATING * * * * The SKS is a terrific overall package and a blast to shoot; for the money, it’s hard to imagine anything better.