The SKS (Samozaryadnyj Karabin sistemy Simonova) has been around since 1943 and it is still around today, although it has been upstaged by the AK47 (and AK74 to an extent). What this article is not about the history of the SKS; that can be read at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SKS, or of any the variants of the SKS (Chinese Type 56; Yugoslavian PAP; Romanian SKS; Albanian SKS; East German SKS; (North) Vietnamese SKS; North Korean SKS), or of any of the specifics related to any one SKS.
When you are considering buying a military (or civilian) surplus firearm, there are a few things to consider prior to purchase. Collectors of these firearms might be concerned that all serial numbers match or if the firearm has been modified in any form or fashion and lean more to the authenticity of the firearm. For most of us, it is more to the fact that the firearm shoots, or more to the point, how safe the firearm is to shoot.
I have two SKS carbines and have documented some of the journey with these two historical firearms (I include a list of SKS-related posts at the end of the article). While the SKS carbine has somewhat fallen out of favor to the AK47 rifle and its variants, and even to the 91/30 Mosin Nagant rifle and its variants, the SKS; nonetheless, is not lacking in character.
While the SKS cannot be found for $99 or less, as they were some time ago, the cost of the SKS has not risen that much – depending on the origin and condition of the rifle. When I purchased the two that I have, each cost less than 1000 rounds of Tula ammo at today’s prices. They were purchased more as C&R rifles, but they are excellent shooters. It did not take much work to get them as excellent shooters, but there was some work to be done. The purpose of this article is not to dissuade you from purchasing an SKS, but to provide some points of what to look for should you be interested in owning one. The SKS, after all, can still be found in local gun shops and at gun shows around the country (in free states, anyway) and they are worth taking a look at. An educated consumer is a wise consumer, and I hope to make you wiser than I was when I purchased my SKS carbines, which the after effects of doing so provided me with an education on the SKS. The information that I am about to place on your shooting doormat applies to any SKS regardless of origin or manufacturer.
The first thing that needs to be realized is that an SKS is not a new firearm. The SKS has been in existence since 1943, adopted by the Russian military in 1949, and phased out by the AK-47 shortly afterward. My two Norinco SKS carbines are “Type 56” with one being manufactured in 1965 and the other in 1967. One has blonde wood (a commercial version) while the other has a traditional “Red Army Standard Red” wood finish. Regardless, both had “mechanical” issues and these issues are what I am going to address and go beyond cosmetic differences.
The safety lever of the SKS is on the right side of the trigger guard. The firearm should not fire when the safety lever is in the forward and up position.
To make yourself appear as an educated consumer, first drop the box magazine by pulling back on the magazine release lever; the magazine will fall free from the rifle but hand freely on the magazine’s front mount.
Operate the bolt ensure that the firearm is not loaded and also to cock the firearm. Then, push the box magazine upward and secure it in place.
Push the safety lever forward and up. The trigger should be locked into place and the hammer should not release to strike the firing pin. Pull the safety lever down and back, pull the trigger, and the hammer should fall thus striking the firing pin.
Don’t judge the trigger too harshly; the trigger pull is heavy, is a military-grade trigger, and as such has not had a happy childhood. Triggers can be worked on to improve them. However, there is one quick check to determine if the trigger is “negative,” “neutral,” or “positive.”
I’ll let Tom Prince aka Kivaari from http://www.kivaari.com/index.html explain this part to you.
SKS trigger groups have an excellent design thanks to Mr. Simonov. The problem lies with their hasty assembly which precludes extracting the potential from the design. This becomes even more important when you realize that the “safety” merely blocks the trigger lever and does not secure either the hammer or the sear. Their safety and performance can be greatly improved with reduced pull, reduced creep, smoothness, repeatability, and clear 2 stage operation.
With the breech clear, cycle the bolt to cock the hammer, remove the rear cover, remove the recoil spring, and squeeze the trigger to observe the hammer’s movement PRIOR to let off as the hammer slides on the surface of the sear:
- If the hammer moves forward, then the hammer/sear is said to have negative engagement.
- If the hammer remains motionless, then the hammer/sear is said to have neutral engagement.
- If the hammer moves rearward, then the hammer/sear is said to have positive engagement.
“Positive engagement” is the preferred and safer condition. This is because the hammer will tend to want to remain on its full cock notch until overcome by the sear. This becomes more imperative if the creep has been minimized correctly as the hammer’s travel distance over the sear to let off, is markedly less.
Neutral and negative conditions are less safe than the positive condition but to say that neutral and negative conditions are dangerously unsafe is an overstatement IF THEY HAVE SUBSTANTIAL CREEP as a safety cushion.
On the other hand, a neutral or negative condition is dangerous if the creep has been reduced or the standard configuration has minimal creep. Prudence dictates seeking the positive condition if at all possible and if there is any doubt have a competent gunsmith inspect the rifle.
Another method to check for a “negative” trigger is to simply bounce the stock on the floor lightly (you may want to ask permission before you do this lest the sales person think you are trying to damage their goods). If the hammer falls, it is possible that the SKS has a negative trigger, and if you consider the SKS that you are considering still a worthwhile value, then you should plan on having a trigger job done to make the rifle as safe as possible.
With the exception of the Type 84 (known as an SKK), the SKS was equipped with a ten-round “drop-box” magazine. I tend to stay way from any SKS that has been modified to accept an aftermarket SKS/AK magazine. While there are adapter kits available, most “conversions” have been proven mostly unreliable. Stick with the original “Drop-box” magazine. If you want a higher round count of 7.62x39mm ammunition, then purchase an AK-47 or a variant thereof.
With the standard “Drop-box” magazine devoid of cartridges but locked into place, pull the operating handle to the rear and ensure that the bolt locks back. Press the magazine follower, while firmly holding the bolt handle, to ensure that the bolt does not release when the follower is pressed. Caution! Do not pull the operating handle; simply hold it in place to prevent “M1 Thumb” in case the bolt catch of the magazine is faulty and the bolt slams forward. The bolt should not release when you simply press the magazine follower on an unloaded magazine down.
I need to expound on this a bit. The BHO piece that stops the forward progression of the bolt on an empty magazine lies in a channel. The magazine follower pushes the BHO upward within a channel under the spring tension of the magazine follower spring as cartridges are removed from the magazine. On an empty magazine the BHO catches the bolt on its “chambering” cycle, prior to stripping a cartridge from the magazine, and the bolt is held in place due to the tension of the recoil spring. When the magazine is loaded, the follower moves downward and spring tension is lost on the BHO from the follower; however, the bolt is still held in place. When the bolt is pulled rearward slightly, the BHO drops down into its channel, is released from the bolt, contacts the (now) lowered follower, and the bolt is forced forward into battery due to the pressure of the recoil spring.
Note: The BHO can also be checked when the SKS is field stripped and the bolt is removed.
Swing the magazine open. Stick your finger up inside the back of the mag well and feel for the bolt-hold-open tab. Press up on it with your finger.
- Does the BHO “tab” slide freely up and down?
- Does it engage the bolt?
- Is the bolt-hold-open tab complete or has it been broken or worn off so it can’t catch the bolt?
- Does the magazine follower press against the tab when the magazine is empty?
If everything checks out here, return the bolt to the “locked open” position, because now its time to inspect the bolt face.
The face of the bolt should be flat and should not exhibit “peening affects” around the firing pin opening. Sometimes, this “peening effect” is also called the “volcano effect” where the firing pin hole appears to protrude outward like the mouth of a volcano. Also, check to ensure that the firing pin is not protruding into the face of the bolt. “Slamfires” have been noted when these conditions exist.
If there is presence of the “volcano effect” you must ask yourself if you are willing to either correct the situation yourself, or pass the repair onto a competent and qualified gun smith. I would choose the latter because there are other things to consider and a good SKS mechanic can get the machine running in tip-top shape.
As you can see in the accompanying image, the firing pin is protruding from the firing pin hole, although the bolt face is upward. Also, there is some minor “volcano effect” of the firing pin hole itself. Both conditions can be corrected, however. The firing pin can be replaced with a spring-loaded version and the face of the bolt can be homed flat with a proper honing stone.
Also, a gun smith can “chamfer” the firing pin hole opening ever so slightly to alleviate any further “volcano effect.”
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). – Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SKS
The chances are high that the firing pin in the SKS that you considering has a free-floating firing pin.
Raise the muzzle of the rifle upward; the firing pin should fall back into the firing pin channel and away from the face of the bolt. Lower the muzzle of the rifle, the firing pin should slightly protrude from the firing pin hole. There is one other way to determine if the firing pin is stuck or otherwise not moving freely, and this means field stripping the rifle to the bolt carrier level.
If you do know how to field strip the SKS, ask for permission to do so before proceeding and provide the reason for wanting to do so. In most cases, the sales person will allow you to field strip the rifle if you seem to know what you are doing. Hint: do some research on field stripping beforehand. There are plenty of videos available on YouTube for you to watch regarding how to field strip the SKS rifle.
If you do not know how to field strip the rifle, ask the sales person to field strip the rifle for you. They may, or may not know, how to field strip the SKS. Unfortunately, there is only one what for sure to determine the operation characteristic of the firing pin, and that is by shaking the bolt and listening for the audible sound of the firing pin moving back and forth in the firing pin channel. But, that may not always be the case. It is possible that a previous owner had a spring-loaded firing pin installed, or installed by the owner himself. The base of the firing pin can be pushed forward from the rear of the bolt. If spring tension is felt when doing so, the firing pin has a return spring that prevent the firing pin from protruding from the face of the bolt until struck by the hammer.
NORMAL WEAR AND TEAR:
If you have been fortunate enough to view the inner workings of the SKS, also inspect for normal wear and tear. Chances are that the previous owner was not as “maintenance conscious” as you are, or possibly as not educated as you now are on the SKS.
The SKS carbine has been around for quite some time and was (and still is probably) a popular field-duty piece for deer hunting, other field sports, or simply residing in the trunk of a car or bed of a pickem-up-truck for long periods of time without maintenance being performed on them. They also could have been shot hard and not put up wet. The SKS was, at one time, very cheap to own and lots of them were owned by, well, very cheap people who did not value them as much as their .30-30 rifle (or carbine); they were “beaters” and not meant to be prized possessions.
Look for signs of “not so normal” wear, especially for peening or scarring. One area to be especially concerned with is the rear of the frame where the bolt is likely to strike against if the recoil spring is weak; which leads us to the recoil spring itself.
THE RECOIL SPRING AND THE BATTERED PARENT:
The bolt carrier (the child) is most likely to batter the frame (the parent) when the recoil spring is weak. The amount of damage, in the form of peening, depends on how weak the recoil spring is and how long the weak recoil spring has been in operation. Again, we are talking about extremely frugal (to be politically correct) people owning an inexpensive firearm that can be mistreated like a red-headed step-child that is made to eat separately from the rest of the family. The longer the weak recoil spring has been in operation, the more severe the battering can become.
Rule number two, with rule number one being the firing pin inspection, is to replace the recoil spring on the SKS with a new one as soon as possible even after the owner has stated that he replaced the recoil spring just yesterday. Recoil springs are inexpensive and keeping a rifle running properly is well worth the investment of a recoil spring. If you are looking at a SKS in a gun shop, it is about 100% guaranteed that the gun shop has not fully inspected the rifle; the bolt was cycled and the trigger pulled to see if the darn thing would actually (might) fire. The gun shop sales personnel are not expecting an educated person like you to ask educated questions that they don’t know the answer to and actually tend to view questions as an affront to their intelligence. Rather than asking the sales person if the recoil spring has been replaced, simply assume that it has not and plan to add that to your list of things to do should you decide to purchase the firearm.
I left the barrel for last just because I could.
The barrel, obviously, should be inspected for perfect shininess and sharp and distinct rifling. Alright, the barrel may not be so shiny because the previous owner (if there ever was one) neglected to clean the barrel after he shot it in 1988. The gun shop may have received the SKS with one or more SKS carbines and cleaning Cosmoline from the rifle is not part of the sale. Again, I refer to a source of knowledge:
In most variants (Yugoslav models being the most notable exception), the barrel is chrome-lined for increased wear and heat tolerance from sustained fire and to resist corrosion from chlorate-primed corrosive ammunition, as well as to facilitate cleaning. Chrome bore lining is common in military rifles. – Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SKSAC
Chances are that the SKS that you are considering has a chrome-lined barrel and it would be nice to see it. Usually a small flashlight is enough to view the barrel from the chamber end with the bolt locked rearward. But, if you really want to try the seller’s patience, ask if it is alright to run a bore-snake through the bore (you did remember to bring one – along with a bore inspection light? Remember that you are looking at a used, and maybe much used surplus rifle?)
The SKS may not have the appeal of the AK-47 or the magazine capacity in stock form. In fact, the capacity of the SKS is less than the Ruger Mini-30. Without the bayonet and cleaning rod, and with standard furniture, the SKS may seem more like your daddy’s hunting piece (in fact it could have been, or even your gran’ pappy’s deer gun).
Cartridge performance is very close to the .30-30 and with soft-point or hollow-point ammunition, the SKS can be very effective. The carbine itself proved to be very effective in battle (for example, Viet Nam), although its use in such has been overshadowed by the AK, but the SKS is still in use in some areas today. I certainly would do not dissuade someone from buying one if one can be found in good condition at a good price. I have seen them listed anywhere from $350 to over $1000 depending on the collectable factors with somewhere around $350 being a suitable price for a Norinco these days.
I know of one fellow that has an SKS and two box magazines for it; a plugged five-rounder for hunting and a 10-round magazine for “social” work and changing out magazines is not difficult.
I hope that I have provided some things to look for if you are considering an SKS. Of course, there are more things like fit-n-finish and such, but if you are consideration a general-purpose carbine that is utterly reliable, a collector’s item, or a conversion project, the SKS is worthy of consideration.
THE ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY, LAST WORD:
The last thing that is not in the list of things to check, but is something is to consider to use in the SKS, is an H-Buffer in the receiver of your SKS to increase the longevity of your SKS (not that they have not been around for some time). The H-Buffer…
- Eliminates bolt carrier to receiver cover contact
- Protects the receiver from the impact of the bolt carrier
- Great for scopes
- Mounts in actual receiver and not the cover
I have provided a link to Blackjack Buffers, LLC as a good source for SKS recoil buffers.
Finally, the SKS is an easy firearm to shoot with a soft recoil. The LOP is short, but a slip-on recoil pad can help in that department if help is needed; I find that one helps me immensely due to my long reach and a short stock.
RESOURCES AND REFERENCES:
- SKS Saga – Recoil Springs: http://guntoters.com/index.php/topic,3736.msg21081.html#msg21081
- The SKS Saga – The Final Chapter: http://guntoters.com/index.php/topic,4670.msg26029.html#msg26029
- SKS Saga – Range Results: http://guntoters.com/index.php?topic=3582.msg20387#msg20387
- The SKS Saga Continues: http://guntoters.com/index.php/topic,3579.msg20380.html#msg20380
- SKS – The Final Chapter Part II – Completed – For Real!: http://guntoters.com/index.php/topic,4838.msg26859.html#msg26859
- SKS Saga – Recoil Buffer: http://guntoters.com/index.php/topic,3710.msg20921.html#msg20921
- SKS Saga – Replacement Trigger Group: http://guntoters.com/index.php/topic,3662.msg20724.html#msg20724
- Article from M1911A1: Sighting-In the SKS: http://guntoters.com/index.php/topic,3714.msg20940.html#msg20940
- Bolt and Firing Pin Work (highly recommended): http://www.murraysguns.com/sksown.htm
- Trigger work (highly recommended): http://www.kivaari.com/
- Wolff SKS Recoil Springs: https://www.gunsprings.com/index.cfm?page=items&cID=2&mID=112
- BJB SKS Recoil Buffer: http://www.blackjackbuffers.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=181