The Humble yet Increasingly Collectible SKS Rifle: A History

08/22/19 6:30 AM | by

The Humble yet Increasingly Collectible SKS Rifle: A History

Russian SKS-45 rifle on display

With its origin in WWII and Cold War production history, the SKS can be a thing of beauty. (Photo: Guns.com)

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A common question posed is, “Who made the SKS?” The answer to that question is curious and contains some unexpected twists and turns. When it comes to Soviet small arms used in World War II, the quick and common answers are typically 7.62x54R-caliber rifles like the iconic Mosin-Nagant M91/30 and SVT-40, alongside the ever-present PPSh-41 and PPS-43 submachine guns chambered in pistol-caliber 7.62x25mm. This is understandable as wartime figures say that the Motherland was able to pony up a staggering 18 million of those weapons alone during the conflict. However other arguably man-portable weapons also appeared in the hands of Stalin’s “frontoviks” to include the PTRS-41 anti-tank gun.

PTRS_rifle_at_Great_Patriotic_War_museum_in_Smolensk Vitaly V. Kuzmin

This thing. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wiki Commons)

The outsized elephant gun sprang from the mind of one Sergei Simonov and the rifle’s designation, in typical Russian fashion, includes his name (Protivo Tankovoye Ruzh’yo Simonova= Simonov’s Anti-Tank Gun) in its title. The downright chunky five-shot semi-automatic was chambered in 14.5x114mm — a round a good bit larger than John Browning’s vaunted .50-caliber BMG. Weighing in at 46-pounds, the PTRS-41 was used to snipe at German tanks and vehicles on the Eastern Front during WWII and has been kept in low-key service around the globe ever since then for use as an anti-material rifle, predating the invention of the Barrett M82 by nearly 50 years.

Why all this talk of anti-tank guns? Well, when the Soviet military moved to adopt the 7.62x39mm M43 round in 1943 and sought carbine designs to use the forward-thinking new intermediate cartridge, Simonov stepped forward with what was essentially a down-sized PTRS-41 chambered for the new flavor. The resulting 8.5-pound semi-automatic carbine he submitted used a wood stock, like the previous Mosin and SVT-series rifles, but was fed via a top-loaded 10-round magazine that could be topped off rapidly using stripper clips.

Trialed in combat in 1944 by Ivans who no doubt were unaware they were beta-testers, the handy carbine, with its reliable gas piston action, was a success and it was adopted in 1945 becoming known as the Samozaryadnyi Karabin Simonova or Self-loading Carbine Simonov: the SKS-45.

Russian SKS

A Soviet-made SKS-45 series rifle up for grabs in the Guns.com Vault with its standard folding short knife-style bayonet and distinctive dark wood stock. (Photo: Guns.com)

Put into production while the AK47 was simultaneously being developed and fielded, Soviet SKS rifles were only made for about six years, from 1949 to 1955, at the Tula and Izhevsk factories in what is now Russia. As the AK was more compact, select-fire, and ultimately easier to produce, the SKS soon fell out of favor with Moscow and its line was cut short.

This resulted in the guns and the know-how to manufacture them soon being exported to fellow Communist countries such as Red China, where they were put into production in 1956 as the Type 56 rifle. Rumania soon followed where the SKS became the M56. Yugoslavia got on Team Simonov where it became known as the M59. East Germany, in keeping with their Teutonic traditions, termed their locally made SKSs as the Karabiner-S. Other countries to make the gun, who later got the secret recipe from China, included North Korea and Albania.

Norinco SKS on display

A Chinese Norinco SKS available in the Guns.com Vault, sans bayonet which was often removed during the 1994 to 2004 federal “assault weapon” ban to make them compliant. Note the “orange” wood stock. (Photo: Guns.com)

Norinco SKS Bayonet with gun ban tag

These Chinese-made 12.5-inch spike-style bayonets were often removed from the rifles and sold during the ban as curios, with the caveat that they could not be re-installed on SKS’s as they would instantly become assault-y. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

Yugo SKS

A Yugoslav-made Zastava-produced M59/66 SKS clone up for grabs in the Guns.com Vault. These guns are easily identified by their buttplate, Russian-style bayonet, and distinctive muzzle device and corresponding ladder sight made for launching rifle grenades. Later versions of this rifle included a flip-up forward night sight as well. (Photo: Guns.com)

Coming to America

Like the AK47, the SKS remained something of a mystery in the West for an extended period. The CIA reported on the gun’s existence in 1955 while the first real-live versions were only captured in 1956 by French troops during the Suez Crisis operating in Egypt.

SKS CIA 1955

The CIA’s first impression of the SKS, in 1955. (Photo: CIA)

By the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s, the SKS became increasingly familiar to U.S. troops who often encountered the then-second-tier infantry rifle in large numbers, given by Moscow and Beijing to North Vietnam freely as military aid.

SKS Vietnam NARA photos

Left: “A Viet Cong soldier crouches in a bunker with an SKS rifle, 1968.” Photographed by SPC4 Dennis J. Kurpuis. U.S. Army. Photograph in the National Archives. Right: “Captain Edward F. Riley, 9th Marine Regiment, examines one of over 600 North Vietnamese Army SKS rifles captured by men of his company during Operation Dewey Canyon, 1969.” USMC Photo.

Due to their semi-auto nature, GI-captured SKS rifles from Southeast Asia became a popular war trophy for returning American Vietnam Vets returning home and were the first such rifles to come into the U.S. By the early 1980s, Chinese-made examples produced for the commercial market began to be imported to the U.S. through companies like Navy Arms, Century, K-Sports, Poly Tech, KBI and B-West. This trickle turned into a flood and the days of the “$99” SKS were born about the same time that New Coke and MTV hit the scene. At the time Simonov, who lived until 1986, likely found that curious.

This golden era of the SKS ended when Chinese rifle exports were halted, only to be replaced by a silver era that followed the Cold War in which Russian and Yugo-made guns were brought in by the crate.

The easy availability of these guns led to several wholly Red, White and Blue modifications to the SKS which included aftermarket SVD-style stocks, often cranky extended magazines, and other enhancements. It could be argued that the SKS and its availability at every gun show, pawnshop, and LGS in the 1980s and 90s gave rise to companies like TAPCO.

A TAPCO display at SHOT Show– still offering aftermarket SKS furniture today. (Chris Eger/Guns.com)

Yugo SKS SG Works stock

This SKS in the Guns.com Vault came to us with a bullpup stock kit from SG Works, bipod and extended mag. (Photo: Guns.com)

Sadly, the vast boatloads of surplus SKS rifles headed to the U.S. have slowed to a trickle, which has combined with SKSs of both Russian and Chinese origin now being forbidden from import, to turn the once common 7.62x39mm semi-auto into more of a collectible than a hard-serving camp rifle or “truck gun.”

These days, if you can grab one for a good price, it’s likely to be a worth wild investment as the days of the $99 SKS are likely never to return.

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