By Luis Vakdes
The SKS Carbine — or in its native tongue, the Самозарядный карабин системы Симонова – is pronounced Samozaryadny Karabin sistemy Simonova. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s commonly translated into English as the self-loading carbine of (the) Simonov system.
The SKS is a long-established, if historically somewhat forgotten rifle that has served and continues to serve to this day across the globe in a number of ways. Once the darling of the prepper community and a fan favorite of the budget-conscious shooter, it has now been relegated to the collector corner for the most part in the United States.
Designed in the later stages of WWII and the immediate postwar period. the SKS carbine went into Soviet production starting in 1949 at the Tula Armory and in at the Izhevsk Mechanical Plant in 1953 with production officially ending in 1955 after all the kinks of the Kalashnikov pattern rifles has been worked out.
That’s what the majority of shooters think of the SKS carbine. That is was an evolutionary dead end and had a limited service life in the early part of the Cold War. Most think it was stockpiled away as the AK expanded in use, then surplussed when the Iron Curtain fell.
That wasn’t really the case and today we’re going to dive deep into the history of the SKS carbine and where it has served.
First and foremost, the SKS was produced by the following nations: the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the Socialist Republic of Romania, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and last but not least, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (later becoming the Russian Federation).
Eight countries produced them with a total production run of 15 million+ that is still, to this day, being added to. Yes, the SKS Carbine is still in production.
Birthed from the mind of gifted Soviet firearms designer Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov (1894-1986). Born in Imperial Russia, Simonov studied and worked under the tutelage of famed Russian arms designers like Vladimir Grigoryevich Fyodorov during WWI. Designer of the first possible assault rifle; the famed Fedorov Avtomat. And later after the Bolshevik Revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, under Fedor Tokarev‘s guidance. Designer of the TT-33 service pistol.
Simonov designed the AVS-36; a full size, fully automatic service rifle chambered in 7.62x54mmR. Limited production of the rifle happened and they saw limited service in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol during the Soviet-Japanese Border Clashes, the Soviet Invasion of Finland, and WWII. A more successful design was the PTRS-41, a bruiser of an anti-tank rifle chambered in 14.5x114mm. It is from these two previous designs that lead to the development of the SKS Carbine.
1949 Tula Production
The rifle is simple yet classically exquisite of and an example old world machining and thought. A semiautomatic rifle running off a short stroke gas piston, tilting bolt design and chambered in the 7.62x39mm. The SKS Carbine is a hoot to shoot and with an non-detachable 10rd magazine. It was equal to its contemporaries like the M1 Garand, FN-49, Automatgevär m/42, Gewehr 41, MAS-44/49, and the Hakim Rifle. The birth of the modern combat rifle was still in its teething stages and the general mindset, though time wise very limited was a semi-automatic replacement of the then world standard full power, five to ten shot bolt action infantry rifle with a semi-automatic capable rifle of similar length, chambering, and general layout.
The SKS differed from that with the use of a smaller and less powerful cartridge. We today think of the 7.62x39mm as a nice capable round, but when it was introduced. The world viewed it more as a weaker cartridge designed primarily for spraying from the hip and not for a rifle that is to be used as a replacement to the full power service bolt action. A lot of military leaders were still tied to the mindset of the lone infantryman taking a 1,000 yard shot at the enemy. The Soviets, through their experiences on the Eastern Front saw otherwise. They knew the name of the game was controlled burst fire at enemies that are usually under 300 yards away. The SKS, while not a full auto rifle. Did allow for aimed controlled fire and the ability to have a quick return to sight picture due to lower recoil.
The Soviet Union used the SKS as their mainline rifle until the AK-47 could get the kinks worked out and then from there the SKS went into two different directions within the USSR. A lot of rear echelon units and paramilitary units scattered across the Eurasian continent used them either for primary duty or kept them as war reserve. The other path the SKS took was Soviet Foreign Aid.
After WWII, the United States instituted the Marshall Plan. A massive loan and aid package that the US used to rebuild Europe after the war. The USSR and their newly minted Eastern Bloc states like Poland, Romania, Hungary, etc rejected the foreign aid. The USSR under the direction of Stalin instead pushed the Molotov Plan onto Eastern Europe. The Soviet’s deal was that it imposed conditions and made beneficiary countries reliant on Soviet aid and turned once thoroughly independent nations into satellite client states through a system of bilateral trade agreements which of course benefited the USSR and also formed Comecon, a supranational economic alliance of socialist countries. When the United States, Canada, and Western Europe formed NATO, to counter the building military threat of the Soviets. The USSR and the Eastern Bloc formed the Warsaw Pact. And that is where the SKS really came to shine.
Part of that economic aid that the USSR gave out was of course guns. At first, the USSR handed out older arms like the Mosin-Nagant (which we’ll do an article on that to) and PPSh-41 SMG. But as time was marching forward and the Red Army was being better equipped, the Soviets learned of a developing problem. If the Hiterlite Pig Dogs of the West were going to invade the peaceful communally united socialist nations of the East, the Red Army of course would ride in to the rescue. But they’d need additional supplies and if the Red Army is armed with guns chambered in 7.62x39mm (both the AK and SKS), then guns like the Mosin-Nagant in 7.62x54r and the stockpiles of ammunition wouldn’t work.
So by that time, the mid 1950s to be exact. The USSR started to assist their fraternal socialist brothers with the more advanced SKS but kept the AK for themselves. The AK-47 was after all a State Secret and was not publicly unveiled to the world until the Soviets came in and crushed, err, assisted the Hungarians in 1956 to repulse anti-socialist ideas. The USSR was afraid that if they gave out the tech specs for the AKs or just AKs themselves to their satellite client states. That those countries would either then give it to the West or use them against the USSR directly. But the SKS by this point was viewed as a safe alternative. It was modern-ish and still slightly dumb downed but still capable when compared to other rifles of the era.
Chinese made SKS field stripped,
So the Soviets handed them out like candy! So let’s see some of the variants and where they’ve served.
Union of Soviet Socialist Republicans / Russian Federation
Of course we’re going to tackle the USSR first. In 1943, the Main Artillery Directorate of the Red Army put out a draft proposal for a new semi-automatic rifle. Specifically stating “the 7.62 mm self-loading and automatic carbine must be the main weapon of all types of forces in the Red Army”. Nikolai Vasilyevich Rukavishnikov submitted his design, the SKR. Also submitted for the trials was two designs from the Degryaryev Design Bureau. The KB-P-290 and the KB-P-330.
SKR, KB-P-290, and KB-P-330 trials rifles
The SKR was fed by a enbloc clip similar to the M1 Garand while the KB-P-290 used a fixed 10rd magazines and the KB-P-330 used a detachable 20rd or 25rd magazine. Siminov submitted his design of course, the SKS.
Simonov’s Prototypes for the trials.
The SKS Carbine won the trials and he also had a head start since he was working on his design since 1941 while the competitors had to play catch up. The SKR was the closet to beating the SKS, but it didn’t do as well in the reliability portion of the trials.
Red Army Soldier with 1949 pattern SKS.
The SKS was a smoother, more reliable, and better designed rifle. So with that done, the SKS went into production and the USSR started to issue them out while at the same time designing the AK-47.
154th Independent Preobrazhenskiy Commandant Regiment with SKS Carbines.
As stated, general front line issue of the SKS did not last long in the USSR. With the adoption of the AK pattern and its general modernization throughout its life. The SKS was relegated to rear echelon work like training, reserve war stock, etc. But one of the few front line duties that the SKS did during the Cold War in the USSR was honor guard details. The SKS is a better rifle for such service. The AK is just too blocky and doesn’t have the slim layout that the maneuvers of such a duty require. The SKS shines, especially when the bayonets are extended and polished.
Red Army Honor Guard during inspection.
Other than that, the SKS was overshadowed by the AK in every level of service. Even to this day, they are commercially being produced.
German Democratic Republic
GDR National Volksarmee on parade with SKS Carbines.
The East Germans adopted the SKS as the Karabiner-S and made their own in limited numbers. Theirs slightly differed from the Soviet pattern. The big difference was the sling setup and lack of cleaning rod. The sling setup was very similar to the older Wehrmacht pattern from the days of the Masuer bolt actions.
East German SKS
The East Germans put both their own made and Soviet made SKS Carbines to work. Numerous units within the NVA and GDR as a whole were armed with them.
Erection of the Berlin Wall. GDR borderguards armed with SKS and members of a Combat Groups of the Working Class armed with Mauser at the border of the Berlin sector. – August 14, 1961
At first they were for front line service as seen above, but as the Soviets started to change their policy towards giving away AKs, the SKS Carbines were slowly withdrawn from front line service. But unlike the Soviets, they kept them in rear echelon service much longer and also handed them out as foreign aid too.
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Yugoslav People’s Army with SKS M59/66.
Yugoslavia was an odd ball of the communist community. Founded in 1945, Yugoslavia split off from the USSR dominated Eastern Bloc and went their own way in 1948. Yet Yugoslavia and the USSR were still communist and became trade partners. In the 1950s, Yugoslavia purchased the rights to make SKS Carbines. And from 1959 to 1989 they made SKS Carbines.
Their first model was called the M59 and it was pretty much a one to one copy of the Soviet pattern. But in 1966, they completely changed the design of the rifle. They added a 22mm rifle grenade launder and the front sight has a fold-up ladder sight for use in grenade sighting. When the grenade ladder sight is raised, the gas system is automatically shut off and the action must be manually cycled since the rifle grenades must be fired with a special blank cartridge.
Yugoslavian PAP M59/66A1
Additionally, the Yugoslavians did one further refinement and added flip up phosphorus night sights. The rifle saw a long length of service and was also additionally sold overseas to numerous nations in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Serbian Chetnik armed with SKS during the Yugoslav Wars.
People’s Republic of China
The People’s Republic of China got into the SKS starting in the early 1950s. Back then, Chairman Mao and the PRC were an ally of Stalin lead USSR. As a sign of friendship, the USSR assisted China to modernize its armed forces. The USSR helped with the PRC’s nuclear program and also helped with setting up modern arms production. The SKS was part of the package.
Chinese Type 56 Rifle
The first batch of Chinese SKS Carbines were actually made with Soviet supplied receivers and parts. They were one to one copies of the standardized Soviet pattern. They used the blade bayonet, had the typical lightening cuts in the bolt, etc. But then the Sino-Soviet split occurred and the USSR and the PRC started to become Socialist rivals instead of friends. With that, the PRC went on its own and took off wildly with the SKS, which they called the Type 56 Rifle. They replaced the blade bayonet with a spike bayonet and later worked the design into the Type 63 Rifle. Which had was a full-auto rifle with some AK bits thrown in like the bolt.
Chinese Type 63 Rifle field stripped.
Why you ask? Because at the same time they adopted the SKS Carbine, the PRC also adopted the AK-47 and called it the Type 56 Carbine. They had both side by side in general service. But the PRC was a bit different than the USSR and Eastern Bloc when it came to its armed forces. There was the main army, the People’s Liberation Army and then numerous militias, factory units, security units, etc. Their propaganda from the period really covers it.
Under Chairman Mao, the idea was more of a large countrywide peasant’s army conducting guerrilla warfare against a foreign invader (like the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split). The Type 63 replaced the Type 56 Rifle as a front line service rifle and saw general service along side the Type 56 Carbine during the Sino-Vietnamese War.
Type 63 used during NBC training by the PLA.
Type 63 carried during PRC invasion of Vietnam.
SKS carried during Sino-Vietnamese War.
The Chinese, being those industrious authoritarians that they are; exported the SKS around the globe. They shipped them to Egypt, Vietnam (before their war), Albania, Latin America, Canada, and even the United States of America. In fact, the most common SKS found here in the USA is a Chinese made one. In the 1980s they took millions of them and either shortened them up to be sold as “paratrooper models” or left them stock. They were sold by the bushel.
Original 1980s Navy Arms advertisement.
Original Norinco SKS advertisement
They also modified a number of them to work with AK pattern magazines. They brought in two versions common;y known as the Model D and Model M. The Model D was more of a traditional military pattern and the Model M was simply a de-fanged SKS thrown in a wooden thumbhole stock.
Yup, those Chinese Communists sure liked to make money off guns they originally made to fight off the Imperial Pig Dogs of Western Capitalist States. But the SKS is still in service to this day in the PRC.
Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Navy Honor Guard.
Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force Honor Guard
People’s Liberation Army and Navy Honor Guard.
People’s Socialist Republic of Albania
Albanian “July 10 Rifle”
Made from 1967 to 1978 with a break in production between 1972 to 1975, the Albanian SKS was made at the UM GRAMSH factory located in Gramsh. Named the “July 10 Rifle”, Albania did so to honor the anniversary of the centralization of the Albanian National Liberation Army in 1942 to fend off fascist Italy. Made with support from the People’s Republic of China due to the Sino-Soviet split and Albania leaving the Warsaw Pact. Albania’s rifle is more primitive in design, harking back to the prototype designs that Siminov submitted during the trials. The Albanian model has a longer stock and handguard on the gas tube and a AK style charging handle. Additionally the magazine is shaped differently and the buttstock has two compartments with two corresponding holes in the buttplate for cleaning implements instead of the single cleaning kit pocket. They saw service in the Albanian Army during the Cold War and then during the overthrow of Enver Hoxha’s rule, the armories were looted and they have been seen in Yugoslavia during their wars when they broke apart.
Albanian Army with SKS.
The SKS Carbine of course saw action in Vietnam. The USSR, PRC, and Warsaw Pact poured millions of them into the conflict and a number of them went back home with US and Allied Forces.
Australian Soldiers in Vietnam with captured Chinese Type 56.
Vietcong with SKS in combat.
Vietcong with SKS Carbine.
Vietcong Weapons Caches uncovered by US Forces in South Vietnam.
US Soldier with captured SKS in 1969.
US Soldier with a captured SKS Carbine as a war trophy.
Around the Globe
Since it was produced in such large numbers and handed out like candy by the USSR, the Warsaw Pact, Yugoslavia, and the People’s Republic of China. Here is a quick look around the globe.
Afghan Mujaheddin and a Syrian Rebel. 30 years of difference yet the same rifle.
Chinese Type 63 during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
Bangladeshi soldier with SKS and Rifle Grenades.
SKS Rifles in South East Asia.
Bangladeshi Soldier with a SKS on a checkpoint.
Polish Soldier with a captured Yugp M59/66 with US Soldier in Yugoslavia.
Malian Soldiers with SKS Rifle.
War in Ukraine
With the current ongoing conflict in the Ukraine between pro Russian separatist forces and Ukrainian forces. The SKS has been dusted off and put into service. Here we have Pro-Russian Separatist fighters with SKS Carbines.
Here we see the SKS being used by Separatists Forces to parade captured Ukrainian soldiers and sympathizers.
For me, the SKS is not a rifle to be tinkered with. Yes, you can drop them in the aftermarket stocks and try to turn them into an AR-15 or AK-47. But the juice just ins’t worth the squeeze unless you live in a place like Canada where ARs and AKs are heavily restricted. They are rifles of a bygone era. An age of wood and blued steel. When iron sights and bayonets ruled the land. The only personal modification I do favor is the now discontinued Tapco 20rd magazine.
They make the rifle so much more fun. Having twenty rounds on tap is damn mighty useful and you can leave the rest of the rifle the same. It is a non-permanent mod and you can return the rifle back to original configuration within minutes. I personally use them and they make reloading quicker to. Not as AK quick, but quicker.
Some of the other accessories out there for the SKS Carbine that are are worth i, like Tech-Sight’s replacement rear sight really make the rifle better.
The best thing is that both of these aren’t permanent modifications. So if you;re like me, you can return your SKS to its original military configuration.