The SKS is a Soviet semi-automatic carbine chambered for the 7.62×39mm round, designed in 1943 by Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov. Its complete designation, SKS-45, is an initialism for Samozaryadnyj Karabin sistemy Simonova, or SKS 45. In the early 1950s, the Soviets took the SKS carbine out of front-line service and replaced it with the AK-47; however, the SKS remained in second-line service for decades. It is still used as a ceremonial arm today. The SKS was widely exported, and was also produced by some former Eastern Bloc nations as well as China, where it was designated the “Type 56”, East Germany as the Karabiner S and in North Korea as the “Type 63”. The SKS is currently popular on the civilian surplus market in many countries, including the United States, Canada and New Zealand. It was one of the first weapons chambered for the 7.62×39mm M43 round, which was also used later in the AK-47.
The SKS has a conventional layout, with a wooden stock and rifle grip. The SKS is a gas-operated weapon that has a spring-loaded bolt carrier and a gas piston rod that work the action via gas pressure pushing against them. Also, it has a “tilting bolt” action locking system. The SKS is shorter and less powerful than the semi-automatic rifles that preceded it, such as the Soviet SVT-40. However, the SKS has a 4-inch longer barrel than AK-series rifles, which replaced it; as a result, it has a slightly higher muzzle velocity.
The SKS’s ten-round box magazine is fed from a stripper clip and rounds stored in the magazine can be removed by depressing a magazine catch located forward of the trigger guard (thus opening the “floor” of the magazine and allowing the rounds to fall out). In typical military use the stripper clips are disposable. If necessary they can be reloaded multiple times and reused.
While early Soviet models had spring-loaded firing pins, most variants of the SKS have a free floating firing pin within the bolt. Because of this design, care must be taken during cleaning (especially after long storage) to ensure that the firing pin does not stick in the forward position within the bolt. SKS firing pins that are stuck in the forward position have been known to cause accidental “slamfires” (uncontrolled automatic fire that empties the magazine, starting when the bolt is released). This behavior is less likely with the hard primer military-spec ammo for which the SKS was designed, but as with any rifle users should properly maintain their firearms. For collectors, slamfires are more likely when the bolt still has remnants of Cosmoline embedded in it. The firing pin is triangular in cross section, and slamfires can also result if the firing pin is inserted upside down.
Almost as soon as the SKS was brought into service, it was made obsolete for Soviet purposes by the new AK-47. However, it found a long second life in the service of the Chinese army, who found it well suited to their own style of warfare, the “People’s War” whose main actors were highly mobile, self-reliant guerrilla bands and rural militias protecting their own villages. In People’s War the emphasis was on long-range sniping, spoiling attacks, and ambushes, and for this the Chinese army preferred its version of the SKS (the Type 56 carbine) to the AK pattern.
Many surplus SKS rifles were disposed of in the 1990s, and photographs and stories exist of SKS rifles used by guerrilla fighters in Bosnia, Somalia and throughout Africa and Southeast Asia during the 1990s and well into the 21st century. Several African, Asian, and Middle Eastern armies still use the SKS
Nations that utilized the SKS but did not receive manufacturing rights included Afghanistan, Congo, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Mongolia, Morocco, the United Arab Republic (Egypt), and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
The SKS is popular on the civilian surplus market, especially in Canada and the United States. Because of their historic and novel nature, Soviet and European SKS carbines are classified by the BATF as “Curio & Relic” items under U.S. law, allowing them to be sold with features that might otherwise be restricted. Chinese manufactured rifles, even the rare early “Sino-Soviet” examples, are not so classified, though the “Sino-Soviet” rifles qualify for automatic Curio & Relic status due to being manufactured over 50 years ago. Because of the massive size of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, over 8 million Chinese SKS rifles were manufactured during their 20 years of use making the Chinese SKS one of the most mass-produced military rifles of all time although still far behind its successor the AK-47.
In Canada, the large flux of imported SKS rifles has driven prices down to around $200–$300 per Russian SKS. The Chinese Norinco SKS can be bought for slightly less. As with most military surplus rifles, they are coated in cosmoline for the preservation of the firearm while under storage for decades at a time. Along with a large supply of bulk 7.62 x 39 surplus ammunition, SKS rifles have become a popular firearm for civilian ownership.
In Australia, the Chinese SKS rifle (along with the Soviet SKS rifle) was very popular with recreational hunters and target shooters during the 1980s and early 1990s before semi-automatic rifles were restricted from legal ownership in 1996. Since the introduction of the 1996 gun restrictions in Australia, the Mosin-Nagant series of bolt-action rifles and carbines have now filled the void created when the SKS was restricted from legal ownership.
In the early 1990s, the Chinese SKS rapidly became the “poor man’s deer rifle” in some Southern areas of the United States due to its low price, lower even than such old favorites in that role as the Marlin 336. Importation of the Chinese SKS into the U.S.A. was banned in 1994.
The carbine’s integral 10-round magazine is not an issue in those states and nations which prohibit higher-capacity magazines, except Canada, and New Zealand. In the case for Canada, the SKS is classified as a non-restricted firearm and the magazine must be pinned to five rounds or the rifles must be retrofitted with five-shot magazines, while New Zealand’s arm code states that an A class center fire, self-loading rifle must have no more than seven rounds in the magazine (this only applies to guns on an a-cat licence, those on an e-cat have no magazine limit). Where higher capacity magazines are legally permitted, there are a number of secondary market vendors that sell higher capacity magazines of up to 30 rounds (or more). These secondary market magazines may be installed by first removing the fixed OEM magazine (a process that involves the removal of the trigger group assembly with a pin punch, screwdriver, bullet-tip, or similar device). However, although the 7.62x39mm round is generally compared to the American Winchester .30-30, many states have laws against hunting rifles with magazines of more than five rounds. Magazine plugs limiting the magazine to five rounds must be used for hunting in these states.