The AK is the epitome of the sexy/scary “assault rifle” genre. With its sinister angles and scythe-like Magazine, the weapon just oozes danger and coolness. In contrast, the SKS is an ungainly, plain-Jane looking lump. You could even say that the SKS (Samozaryadni Karabin Simonova or Simonov’s Self-loading Carbine) is the AK-47’s ugly older sister. While it’s undboutedly true that the AK has a cool factor that is unmatched in the shooting world, an objective comparison reveals that, at least for the civilian shooter in America, the SKS is actually the better rifle.
Take construction, for example. Although there are a few (and expensive) milled-receiver AKs in the US, the vast, vast majority of Kalashnikovs in civilian hands have a stamped, sheet metal receiver. Cheap to build, but not really high quality. Worse yet, the AKs (even the milled-receiver versions) have a tinny, cheap, stamped upper cover – you know, the part you put your cheek against when you shoot.
The result is a rifle that is adequate for Red Army conscripts and peasant revolutionaries, but feels flimsy and uncomfortable. In contrast, every SKS has a forged, milled steel receiver and receiver cover, solid pieces all.
The safety is another huge difference. Not only is the AK safety a crude, ungainly, noisy nightmare copied from a turn-of-the-century Remington rifle, Kalashnikov put it on the wrong side of the receiver! Perhaps it was the brainchild of a surly Commie conscript carrying a rifle without a safety mechanism that could be seen from a hundred meters by his commanding officer. Or heard all the way across the Kremlin courtyard, where it scared the Borscht out of the armaments minister.
Again, the SKS with its easy-to-use ambidextrous trigger-guard safety (similar to the one used on the M1 Garand) wins the contest here.
Another factor that favors the SKS for civilian shooters: the magazine. Armies, of course, like to give their soldiers lots of magazines that can be changed out quickly so as to keep them shooting (they call this “firepower.”) Civilian shooters, by contrast, are generally more interested in hitting their targets than they are in putting up a wall of lead to keep the enemy’s head down.
The SKS’s 10-round fixed magazine is more than adequate for most shooters. It’s also more rugged than the AK’s, which is made of a very heavy stamping of steel (by contrast to the AKs plastic or light metal stamped magazines). Best of all, the SKS’s magazine can be “recharged” with the use of cheap, widely available “stripper clips.”
In fact, reloading the SKS with stripper clips is easy. The SKS will conveniently lock the bolt open on an empty magazine. This prepares the weapon to accept another load of ammo and tells the shooter he needs to reload. By contrast, the AK has no bolt hold open. Unless you’re counting rounds or using the last-round-is-a-tracer trick, the only way you know you’re out of ammo is when you pull the trigger and hear a dull “click” instead of a robust “bang!” When you’re fighting off Zombies, that can be downright embarrassing.
The SKS’s longer sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sight) make it easier to shoot more accurately. The lack of a long, wobbly magazine makes the SKS easier to set on a sandbag or other improvised rest – again, improving accuracy.
The more you think about it, the more the SKS looks like a superior rifle. So why did the Russians and their allies ditch it in favor of the AK? Firepower.
The military version of the AK, of course, fires both semi- and fully-automatic. This gives the AK the military utility of a light machine gun. The AK is also cheaper to build, on account of its prevalence of el-cheapo stamped metal parts. So generals can have more of ‘em. And finally, the AK is shorter and lighter; our average 14-year-old “freedom fighter” can handle the weapon more easily (if a lot less accurately) than an SKS.
Of course, none of these factors apply to the US civilian market. We can’t get the fully auto versions without an expensive and cumbersome Class 3 license. Most American adults have no problem handling a full sized SKS (in fact, most of us have to add longer stocks anyway because even the factory SKS stock is designed for those of diminutive stature.)
“Firepower” isn’t really a consideration when you don’t command brigades, and don’t have to pay for your own ammo. Besides, you can buy extended magazines for the SKS, should you feel an overwhelming need to send a lot of lead downrange.
The bottom line: for the kinds of things a civilian shooter needs a rifle to do, the SKS is not only adequate, it’s superior to the AK. In every measurable category. Rather than seeing the SKS as a poor man’s alternative to the AK, we should see it for what it is: the smart shooter’s choice for a robust, reliable, and economical centerfire semi-auto rifle.